Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum

Saturday October 26, 2019 Written by Published in Weekend
Captain Andy Thomson with Suwarrow hermit Tom Neale. 19102568 Captain Andy Thomson with Suwarrow hermit Tom Neale. 19102568

There are few things better than a rollicking sea yarn. And as Anneka Brown discovers, the story of Captain Andy Thompson rolls with the best of them.

 

Mention the name Tiare Taporo especially to Cook Islanders from the northern group islands, you are bound to attract a couple of frowns.

The name has been synonymous lately with the Pacific Schooners ship that was bought to service the outer islands.

But after several years of smooth sailing, the interisland vessel hit the rough seas, failing to deliver on its services including returning Pa Enua teams to their islands after celebrations for the country’s 50th anniversary of self-governance in 2015.

The government reportedly paid $200,000 but the ship was delayed and alternative transport had to be arranged.

The ship which was left rusting at the Avatiu harbour for most of last year and now, is reportedly in dry dock in Pago Pago, American Samoa.

But this story is not about Pacific Schooners’ beleaguered tramp steamer Tiare Taporo. It is about the original Tiare Taporo and her famous captain Andy Thomson …

Andy Thompson had made his way as a young boy serving in square-rigged ships in the Atlantic trade before sailing around America as a quartermaster on ships on the great lakes.

He was just 15 years old when he first landed on Rarotonga’s shore.

In 1908 Thomson began working on boats owned by AB Donald Ltd, of Auckland. Thomson would regularly sail past Raro on his way back from Tahiti, and he just liked the way it looked from the sea.

When his parents passed away he never went back to New York – he was out in the sea and, in 1912, he decided to come and make Raro his home.

Once he was in Raro, he felt the warmth of the people, he fell in love with Rarotonga.

Just a year later in 1913, Alexander B Donald commissioned the construction of a kauri-wood schooner in Auckland. It was 27.3 metres long on the deck, with a beam of 7.1 metres and a draft of 2.9 metres.

The build cost was £3000. In those days, says Donald’s great-grandson James Donald, it was common to have financial partners in many separate ventures because the full cost could not be afforded.

James Donald, who shared the ship’s history with Cook Islands News, says there was much debate on the name of the ship.

His great-grandfather had started his island shipping business in Tahiti by trading in fresh limes. He had a contract to supply the Royal Navy with limes for anti-scurvy purposes and had bought every lime he could lay his hands on.

“As a result, his nickname from then on in Tahiti was Taporo Tane, the Lime Man,” says James Donald. “So the name of the ship was chosen. He stormed into his office in Auckland shouting, ‘Tiare Taporo, flower of the lime’. And the rest is history.”

The Tiare Taporo was based in the Cook Islands from 1919 to 1949, and then intermittently until 1986.

During her days in the Cook Islands, Captain Andy Thomson had some memorable adventures with Tiare Taporo, says Donald.

In 1949 Andy Thomson took command of Tiare Taporo, and sailed her to Auckland for an overhaul.

Under Captain Andy’s command, Tiare Taporo returned to the Cook Islands where AB Donald Ltd replaced her with a wooden motor ship the Charlotte Donald.

Meanwhile, Tiare Taporo took a labour gang to the phosphate island of Makatea and from there sailed to Papeete, where she was handed over once again Alexander Donald’s business over there, Etablissements Donald Tahiti Ltd.

Thomson, meanwhile stayed in the Charlotte Donald in the Cook Islands and after a voyage to the Marquesas for copra, he again sighted his old boat Tiare in Papeete.

"The Tiare looked well, all dolled and painted up,” he wrote. “They always keep the vessels at Papeete in tip-top order. I don't believe you'll see such nicely kept ships in any place in the world as you do in Papeete, Tahiti.”

In 1960, Tiare Taporo was returned to Cook Islands and to the command of Captain Andy.

The Tiare Taporo had many captains but later had an unfortunate ending.

“It was the practice when working cargo at the outer islands to heave to off the reef, because they could never anchor because of the water depth.

“I think the only islands in the Cooks where it is possible for a ship of the Tiare's size to enter the lagoon are Raro itself, Penrhyn and Suwarrow,” says James.

“Anyway, they had been working cargo all day and then at six, when night fell, they sailed away from the island until midnight when they would turn around and sail the reciprocal course back and the theory was that at 6am they would be back where they started.”

The flaw in this plan was that sometimes, a current would speed up the return trip.

About 3am, Andy woke feeling uneasy. He went up on deck and they were sailing well although there was no moon – so very limited visibility.

"I'm not happy, I want to alter course 90 degrees,” he told his crew.

The people on watch asked why. “We're doing well,” they said.

Andy retorted: "Don't argue – just do it!"

And as they came about they saw the breakers in front of them.

“It was a very close call indeed,” says Donald, “but a situation where pure instinct took over and saved the day. No GPS of course back then!”

In 1964, the company was sold to a Tongan trader – but by then Tiare Taporo was in a bad way, having lost her main mast some time earlier and the hull succumbing to the ravages of time.

James Donald remembers when he was a young man, just 21. It was our years after the sale of Tiare Taporo, and he sailed with Captain Andy on the company’s replacement trading vessel Akatere.

It was a 14-day voyage from Auckland to Rarotonga and Andy Thompson, by this point retired, was also a passenger.

Captain Andy taught Donald the art of celestial navigation during that two-week passage.

“Andy was believed to have a bottle of rum in his cabin which adjoined mine on the after deck,” Donald recalls. “He swore that he was not drinking but someone put a pencil mark on the label which proved that he indeed had been drinking, but by a very small amount – and why not?

He had had an unblemished record in the South Pacific for those days, never losing a ship nor anyone overboard.”

The retired Andy Thompson was travelling as a passenger back to his home in Rarotonga.

“For me, it was a voyage that was memorable and which I have never forgotten – 51 years ago. I still have Andy's notes concerning my amateurish attempts at celestial navigation,” says Donald.

“These days with GPS we are totally spoiled with navigation. If GPS ever failed or was degraded in times of international tensions, there would be many lost so-called ‘sailors’. Let's hope that never happens because the results would be catastrophic.”

After that, Jim Donald says he used to visit the retired Captain Andy and his wife at their little house in Rarotonga, just about every Sunday afternoon.

“The ritual was that Andy would produce an unopened bottle of whisky and open it and throw away the cork! At my then age – and even now – I was and would be somewhat horrified.

“But I soon got used to Andy and his ways. His stories were phenomenal and to my eternal regret I never recorded them. I only remember one or two. I still have his navigation notes from when he taught me how to navigate with a sextant.”

Captain Andy died in 1975 aged 90. Captain Andy’s Beach Bar & Grill at The Rarotongan Beach Resort is named in his honour. His final resting place lies across the road beside his original home, which the Resort has now restored as a heritage building.

 

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