By the time Sunday night came, it looked as though our plan to do some visiting around the villages needed to be revised. The sooner we headed for home, the better for all concerned.
But there was a problem--the westerly wind that usually comes in September was two weeks early. Our plan was to be in and out before the dreaded westerly arrived and we now faced a dilemma, mainly due to the food shortage. We needed to be on our way, despite the treacherous sea.
The village elders came with serious warnings about the westerly's effect on the sea. They declared that there wasn't a Ulawan who would venture out in the sea at this time of year. We decided to have a season of prayer to plead our cause and ask the Lord to make the wind die down. Many earnest prayers ascended that night.
Newton's opinion was that our faith would be tested out on the sea, as the wind hadn't died down by morning. The canoe looked good as it sat ready for action on the beach. But the sea still looked awful. Newton and I both looked at Henry and following prayer, Henry nodded his head. Yes! He was willing to face the onslaught.
Half an hour after leaving the beach, we were only a stone's throw away as we battled the worst sea I had ever experienced. Newton was clinging to the front cover with wide eyes, as though he expected the next wave to be our last. I sat clinging to the sides of the esky as the canoe banged and bashed its way over crashing waves. I could still see the group of frightened islanders as they watched from the beach, waiting for us to be swallowed by the churning sea.
Henry sat bolt upright with his face bathed in salt water. He held
the steering arm in one hand and furiously bailed out water with the other. I tried to help with the bailing but was forced to hold on with both hands as we rocked and rolled. Suddenly, I was overcome with seasickness.
I had weathered rough seas, stormy seas and huge swells without a touch of squeamishness but somehow, this terrifying ordeal was another story. The enormity of the situation struck home. I slid down to the floor of the canoe, where I sat in a pool of sloshing soup consisting of salt water, petrol and second-hand food. Very soon, I got to the point where I didn't care if the canoe sank into the deep green depths.
As we struggled on, the bilge increased to an alarming height. Henry wondered where it was coming from as his frantic bailing made little difference. The steering arm of the auxiliary motor had made a hole in the side of the canoe as big as a fist as it bounced about with the bucking of the canoe. Thinking quickly, Newton removed his T-shirt, rolled it into a wad and stuffed it into the hole.
My condition was getting serious as we were only two hours out from Ulawa and it was still another two hours before we came under the lea of South Malaita. We soon needed to replenish the petrol tank that fed the motor but how we would manage such a tricky manoeuvre in this sea was beyond imagination. We would have to pray that the tank lasted the distance.
We were travelling at half our normal speed as Henry worked his way through the contrary waves. It was a great blessing to have a reliable motor but it was drinking at a faster rate than normal due to battling a fierce head wind that was driving swell straight at us.
At times, I was close to losing consciousness as I rolled from side to side, trying to focus on the horizon. I eventually fell asleep and didn't come to until the motor stopped. We were a few yards from a sandy beach at the southern end of Malaita.
As soon as we had refuelled, we sped up the coast of Malaita and into a large bay. It was wonderful to be speeding over calm water. We were heading for an Adventist clinic where we planned to spend the night.
The nurse and her pastor husband came running when they heardour approach. I had to be carried to the little bush-material home next to the clinic. The nurse's husband took me to their bath house, where he bathed me in warm water.
After some tasty, warm soup, I collapsed onto a clinic bed and slept the sleep of the just.
On many occasions, the three of us shared our astonishment at how the Lord preserved our lives when we should have been swamped out in the ocean. Then there was the way the petrol lasted until we could fuel up in quiet waters. I am often reminded of the kind hospitality of the two faithful workers and their lovely family who cared for us with such compassion.
The Ulawa adventure has remained in my memory as though it happened yesterday. It was one of those experiences that strengthens one's faith in the Lord's promises. But maybe I can be forgiven if I still shudder when I contemplate how close we were to joining the many canoe travellers who never reach their destinations.
The Lord says, "I will rescue those who love me. I will protect those who trust in my name. When they call on me, I will answer; I will be with them in trouble. I will rescue and honour them." Psalms 91:14, 15. Errol Wright is a retired pastor and missionary who lives on the north coast of New South Wales. He is author of Bill's Bush Adventures.