Mangaian vaka Rangimatoru with some crew members. SUPPLIED/21040112
Almost 30 years ago, a Mangaian vaka set sail for Rarotonga with no electronic or navigational aids, no captain and no escort vessel. The vaka was ‘missing’ for two days and a night and mounting concerns for the crew’s safety sparked an air and sea search. Here the vaka’s navigator, the late Ma’ara Peraua, and crew member Maire Kareroa record their memories of the voyage, while extracts from Rod Dixon’s 1992 diary describe reactions on the ground in Mangaia.
On September 17, 1992, a meeting of
navigators of vaka attending the 6th Pacific Arts Festival took
place at Opoa, near the marae of Taputapuatea, Ra’iatea. There were four
navigators from Hawai'i, seven from the Cook Islands, including the Mangaian
navigator Ma’ara Peraua, and one from New Zealand.
leader was Nainoa Thompson from the Hawai’ian vaka Hokule’a and Mau Piailug,
the Micronesian master navigator. The navigators discussed their individual sailing
plans for the festival, then set sail on board Hokule’a for Mauke and Aitutaki.
From there, Hokule’a crew members flew to each of the southern Cook Islands to
meet and train their vaka crews.
Kareroa – In
September, 1992, Mangaia was visited by Chad Baybayan, navigator of the
Hokule’a and another crew member. They taught us sailing techniques, in
particular tacking into the wind, steering, balancing the vaka and positioning
crew members in different weather and shifting the mainsail and jib. This was a
one-day workshop to be followed by practical sailing. But on the first sailing
day, there was no wind so we postponed the practical sessions until the weekend.
Over six hours on Saturday we practiced tacking, using the rudder, and staying
with the wind as well as sailing into it. We sailed against the wind from the
harbour to the post office channel and then into the wind as far as Atuakoro. I
was surprised how fast the vaka tacked into the wind. In fact, we had to restrain
it from going too fast. Nga Ataaere and I were asked to work the rudder and
keep the vaka in the direction set by our navigator Ma’ara Peraua.
Hokule’a team returned to Rarotonga on Monday. Through the remainder of
September, we continued with trials, learning more of the skills of sailing our
October, the cargo vessel Marthalina called at Mangaia en route from
Ngaputoru. The organisers of the vaka festival told us to follow the boat to
Rarotonga. There was a big kaikai and send off. Food and water had been loaded
on the vaka, together with life jackets, harnesses, first aid kits, flares etc.
But for some reason we didn’t leave. We were told later that the chief
administration officer Pa Pokino and the captain Uria Mautairi had decided we
should wait a few more days for the police escort boat Te Kukupa.
Thursday 15 October, 1992 – (Diary) Late this morning, the double-hulled canoe
Rangimatoru A’ua’u left Mangaia for Rarotonga minus her captain and one of the
crew. Those on board were Ma’ara Peraua (navigator), Daniel Daniel, Teokotai
Rima, Kirianu Atariki, Terita’iti Terita’iti, Ngamata Areai’iti, Ngatamaroa Tai
Ata’aere, Pautiare Moeara and Maire Kareroa.
crew had been waiting several frustrating days for official permission to
travel to the Vaka Pageant on Rarotonga.
captain Uria Mautairi, who almost single-handedly built the vaka, had been
instructed by officials in Rarotonga to await the arrival of the escort vessel,
Te Kukupa, due tomorrow.
not yet clear if the vaka went out on a training run and was unable to put
back, or whether the crew, tired of waiting, simply took off. Opinion in Oneroa
this morning, favours the latter.
Pekepo, the crew-member left behind, flew to Rarotonga this afternoon. He tells me he thinks Rangimatoru followed
the coast as far as the airport to catch the prevailing wind. The barge
operator Willie Tuara, says the canoe is capable of cruising at 6 knots. He
gives the crew a day and night to reach Rarotonga depending on the weather.
Currently the sea remains calm.
is that all the crew have life jackets. A handheld walkie-talkie was supposed
to accompany the vessel, but lies broken in the Government radio office. A
radar reflector has been fitted to the mast. Stores on board include a carton
of beef and a carton of tinned fish together with drinking water, cigarettes,
fact, we’d forgotten the cigarettes, so one of the crew Ngamata Areai’iti went back
to the shop to buy some. He said it wouldn’t take him long. At the same time,
the barge operator Willie Tuara was urging us to get going. As we slipped out
of the channel, we saw Ngamata running back along the sea wall, with his cigarettes
in a plastic bag. At the end of the wall he jumped but missed the vaka. His Bluff boots filled with water and he was dragged
under, but his arm held up the Rothmans like Excalibur. One of the boys put out
a paddle and pulled him in. Keeping the vaka close to the reef we headed east, hoping
to pick up Tino, our missing crew-member. By the time we reached the airport, it
was clear he hadn’t spotted us, so we headed out to sea.
Ma’ara Peraua (navigator) –We steered the vaka
towards Ivirua and I plotted a route for Rarotonga. Sailing past Ivirua, we reached
the Motuanea headland– then headed for Rarotonga following the route I’d marked
out on the map.
4pm the vaka began to pick up speed with a light breeze. We pulled up the ve’ao
(jib sail) to gain more speed. Around 6pm., we were almost 30 miles off Mangaia.
the day, I used the sun for navigation, keeping it to the left side of the
vaka. After sunset we navigated by ocean swells, wind and stars.
9pm, it began to rain with a strong wind blowing. The waves got bigger and bigger.
The vaka was now sailing at great speed. We let the ve’ao down but it didn’t
slow her. At times, it seemed the mast was almost touching the waves. The crew
asked me to lower the sails. At first I refused, but by 11pm., with the weather
deteriorating, I agreed.
The waves and the wind were coming from all directions. It seemed to me the
boat was out of control. To make things worse, a small leak had sprung in the
hull. The squally weather continued through the night. It was too dark to see
what waves were coming at us. That made it hard for Nga and I to steer. After
some time Ma’ara was able to get the boat under control. During the night we
thought we heard the Kukupa and sent up two emergency flares.
Peraua (navigator) -
By my reckoning, we were still close to the route set down on my map. The moon
was ahead of us. For a while the vaka travelled southwards but when the sky
cleared we could see Tekopio (Scorpio), and I corrected our course.
Mangaia – Friday, 16 October,
1992 – (Diary) This morning the winds have risen slightly, but the sea
remains calm to the horizon. I’ve been listening to the radio but there’s no
news of the vaka.
the Friday morning market, a crowd gathers in the garden outside the government
radio office, eating plates of food and listening to radio messages from Te
Kukupa. News and opinion circulating around the garden include – “there are
only eight life jackets on the vaka but nine crew”; “there is no radio contact.
To make things worse, the crew attached only a small galvanised pipe to the
mast as a ‘radar reflector”; and “not to worry, the crew has tinned beef,
tinned fish, water and coconuts – enough to last a week.”
Ma’ara Perua (navigator) – I was pleased with the
direction I’d set for the vaka but I couldn’t work out the speed we’d travelled
overnight. At 7am, I told the crew I thought we still had as much as 80 miles
to go. We had entered a ‘zone of error’ of some 20 miles with no sight of land
in any direction. If we crossed it successfully, we’d be safe. If we were out
by just one degree, we’d miss Rarotonga by 100 miles.
Friday 16 October, 1992
– (Diary) Te Kukupa arrived offshore but she didn’t stay long. The Mayor spoke
to the captain by radio, briefing him on the equipment carried by the vaka and
the capabilities of the crew. The patrol
boat returned to Rarotonga, arriving in the evening, with still no sign of the
Rarotonga are reported to be engaged in the search, although the regular
Mangaia flight arrives just a few minutes late. One flight carries a BBC crew
filming the documentary “Nomads of the Wind.” No news yet of Mangaia’s nomads
but people are still up-beat with jokes about “the Mutiny” circulating. By
tomorrow morning, after a second night at sea, the mood may change.
MaireKareroa – The boys
were getting anxious and a bit angry. Some were complaining that we hadn’t left
Mangaia in the proper way, that they hadn’t seen their families or said goodbye
to their children. Some were beginning
to lose hope of ever seeing home again. In the morning, Ma’ara asked us to look
for signs of land reflected in the clouds. I asked him “If we miss Rarotonga
what’s the next land?” He told me Niue. I asked him if he could find our way
back to Mangaia? He said yes, but we’d have to wait until nightfall and follow
Peraua (navigator) –
At around 1pm, we began to see seaweed, coconuts and driftwood floating around
the vaka but the low cloud and rain meant it was impossible to see anything
– We heard a plane fly overhead, so we threw orange dye into the water from our
emergency kit. But it was too misty and overcast for anyone to see.
Mangaia, Friday evening 16 October, 1992 – (Diary) On tonight’s
‘Te Rongo Veka’ (the TV news carried via radio to the outer islands), there is
no mention of the missing vaka until a short Maori language segment at the end
of the bulletin. Rarotonga is full of foreign press covering the visit of
Prince Edward and the 6th Festival of Pacific Arts. News of the
‘missing’ vaka comes as a footnote to a report on the imminent safe arrival of
all the other outer islands vaka. In a brief interview, the Prime Minister Sir
Geoffrey Henry speaks of his confidence that all the canoes will arrive safely,
using the English expression “no news is good news.”
there is the usual Friday night dance at Mangaia Lodge. No one is monitoring
the government radio, despite earlier urgent talk of a ‘round-the-clock’ watch.
No prayer services or vigil for the ‘missing’ crew. After 36 hours there is no
obvious sense of urgency. Nor, it seems, in the media. No-one wants to cast a shadow
over the festival.
Peraua (navigator) –
Around 4pm, Friday afternoon, the weather cleared. Finally, we could see land,
20 – 30 miles off. We hoisted our sails and headed straight for the eastern
side of Rarotonga. At 8pm, we reached the motu at Muri, then travelled past
Titikaveka as far as Raemaru.
– One of the boys had been to the Atiu-Tahiti games and thought we’d reached
Tahiti. I asked one of the Boys Brigade crew-members to use his torch to signal
S.O.S. which he did, but not in a very helpful way. I also suggested to Kirianu
(Atariki) that he use his flippers and mask to jump into the water and take a
rope to shore, but he wouldn’t. One of the boys raised an orange plastic flag
to indicate distress. A plane flew overhead. Someone said ‘that’s Air Tahiti’.
When a small boat came out, we asked “What island is this?”
Mangaia 7.50am Saturday 17 October, 1992 –
Cook Islands radio announces that the Mangaian vaka has been found off Arorangi
and is under tow by Te Kukupa to Avatiu. This message comes from Superintendent
Goldie of Maritime Surveillance Services. On Mangaia, the crew are no longer ‘Mangaia
neneva’ but “Ocean warriors”. A story goes around that, before they left, the
crew sent the Prime Minister a telegram asking him to have beer and cars
waiting for them at the wharf.
The Prime Minister is
indeed at Avatiu wharf, together with a squad of Police who take navigator Ma’ara
Peraua away for questioning. The mood in Rarotonga has been nervous and a little
angry, with the government threatening to charge the vaka crew for the search
the crew has agreed among themselves to take the blame collectively. In
mitigation, Ora Harry, the Air Raro agent, argues that it wasn’t the crew that got
lost, it was Te Kukupa.
That evening, the Mangaian crew join VIPs in the stands
at the National Stadium for the official opening of the Festival of Pacific
Arts. The theme of the PM’s address is “Make your stand, have faith in yourself
and do it.”
Rangimatoru’s journey was an example of “having faith and doing it”, or just an
“accident” or a “very serious legal matter” has yet to be decided.
few days later, the Cook Islands News reports “No Vaka Charges.” According to Superintendent Goldie, “the
police were satisfied that there had been no political motivation nor any
arguments involved with the canoe’s premature departure … the crew had gone out for a final run and had
found out they could not head back because of strong winds. As the elements
were in their favour, they decided to keep going” (Cook Islands News, 24
coordinator of the vaka pageant Ota Joseph tells Te Rongo Veka that he supports
the crew 50/50. “50 per cent in favour
because they’d sailed in the manner of ancient navigators. 50 per cent against
because they’d broken the agreement all navigators had made to travel with
adequate safety backup.”
Festival visitor observes the vaka crew had been “irritated by the pressure put
on them by Rarotonga to do things in a way considered appropriate by
sailing” he wrote, “can represent a failure to observe regulations or a refusal
to observe regulations ... The second is more possible and fun for everyone
except the government (who would have to react to the challenge) and the crew
(who would have to pay a large bill for the search procedures).”
the end, there would be no official recriminations. The unescorted Mangaian
vaka had, after all, single-handedly validated the Festival’s theme –
traditional Pacific Voyaging.
A’ua’u and her crew have now passed into Mangaian legend.
- On 23 January 2021, the ta’unga tarai of the vaka Rangimatoru, Uria Mautairi,
pava of Veitatei, passed away. This story is dedicated to his memory.