July 05, 2014

Get aboard Vanuatu sailing legend


David Ellis

WHEN they take to the 23m ketch Coongoola for a day of aquatic frivolity out of Port Vila in Vanuatu, it's a fair bet that not all aboard quite realise in what great footsteps of Australia's maritime history they are following.

Nor that was it not for her now-owner, Vila businessman Owen Drew, this grand Lady of the Sea could have been lost forever, robbing both Australia and Vanuatu of an extraordinarily irreplaceable legacy.

For while Coongoola today takes her daily load of fun-seekers out for a look at an environmentally-important turtle hatchery on one island, and then to a private beach for sun, fun, swimming, snorkelling and barbecuing on another – with the odd drink or three along the way – sixty years ago she was involved in more business-like activities.

Because back then Toowoomba businessman, G.H. (Bert) Griffiths had had Coongoola built to take himself with a professional crew, his family and samples of his Southern Cross Foundry's windmills, diesel engines and water pumps to South Africa to crack growing markets there.

And later over 15-months from 1952 into 1954 they all sailed on Coongoola once more, this time for an amazing round-world business-cum leisure trip, so joining just a handful of other Aussies who'd made similar such circumnavigations of the globe at that time, and writing Coongoola further into Australian history.

Then even further on, in the 1960s under new owners, Coongoola became the Radio Relay ship for several Sydney-Hobart yacht races, sailing amid the fleet to pass yacht's positions back to race headquarters in a time before high-tech communications, and to go to the rescue of those in trouble – cementing her even more into Australia's maritime history and folklore.

The British Government later bought Coongoola to ferry field staff around it's-then British Solomon Islands Protectorate, before replacing and virtually abandoning her in the early 1970s without a skerrick of thought to her extraordinary history. That's when Owen Drew found her in forlorn condition, her grand masts cut off so she could be loaded to the hilt as a motorised trading vessel, and with an amazing 27 coats of paints slapped one on top of the other over almost as many years.

With his love of boats and knowing Coongoola's heritage, Drew – who at that time ran dive and fishing charters in the Solomon's – bought the tragic hulk, painstakingly removed the 27 coats of paint, got hold of new masts, replaced rotting planks, and swung her into his dive and fishing charters.

He also contracted to assist with Coongoola in a 4,800km survey of the Solomon Islands' Economic Zone, before sailing off to the newly-independent Vanuatu (previously the New Hebrides,) which had invited him to train locals there in internationally marketing their country's copra, cocoa and kava crops.

When that contract ended he stayed on, developing various business interests, but with his heart firmly within the sturdy mahogany, spotted gum and ironbark hull of Coongoola.

Today, day-trippers are collected by mini-bus from their Port Vila hotels and taken the 40-minutes to Coongoola's anchorage in Havannah Harbour where the American fleet was assembled for 1942's Battle of the Coral Sea.

From there Coongoola sails first to Drew's Tranquility Island Resort on Moso Island, a somewhat Robinson Crusoe eco-getaway offering island-style accommodation with Western facilities, professional Padi dives and courses, snorkelling, canoeing, kayaking and beach- and bush-walking for those staying there, and to show Coongoola's day-guests it's breed-and-release hatchery that's helping rebuild endangered hawksbill turtle numbers.

Then it's over to another island and Coongoola's exclusive Hapi Tok Beach – so-named after the beach in the movie South Pacific, based on James A Michener's Tales of the South Pacific which he wrote after Pacific War service in Vanuatu with the Marines.

Here there's swimming, snorkelling in electric-blue waters over rainbow-ed coral reefs, laying-back in sun or shade, indulging a grand beach barbecue of steaks, island-style sweet-potato curry and salads… and with an ice-box at hand throughout the day with beer and soft-drinks payable via an honesty-box.

And finally before leaving Hapi Tok Beach, feeding thousands of now-tame fish that daily turn-up on cue for lunchtime's left-overs…

The whole highly-memorable day including transfers, land and water activities, snorkelling equipment and lunch, costs approximately AU$120pp at current exchange rates. Details from travel agents or www.southpacdivecruise.com.vu



[] UNDER sail on historic Havannah Harbour, Vanuatu – where the Americans
   massed their fleet for 1942's Battle of the Coral Sea.

[] SNORKELLING over rainbow-ed coral reefs off Hapi Tok Beach.

[] OR just lazing back in sun or shade.

[] LUNCH is on: a bountiful beach barbecue is included in the day's outing – with
   thousands of tame fish turning up for lunchtime's left-overs.

[] COONGOOLA's owner, Owen Drew still finds time to escape from the office for
   an occasional "drive" and to meet guests.

[] AS Radio Relay ship for the Sydney-Hobart Yacht Race in the 1960s.

(Photos: Or lazing back in sun or shade – Vanuatu Tourism Office; all other images South Pacific Cruise & Dive)




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