Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Man Who Refused to Die: Teehu Makimare's 2000 Mile Drift in an Open Boat Across the South Seas by Barry Wynne

Winslow Homer : The Gulf stream 1899, Metroplolitan Museum of Art
What or who directed me towards this book, I cannot recall. Fact is that I finished the 158 pages of this read in only a few hours during a long weekend.

The story recounts the terrible ordeal of seven inhabitants of the Cook archipelago who get lost at sea during a crossing between two neighbouring islands. Their boat, a tiny sloop, not longer than 16 foot, with a huge sail, is barely seaworthy on the open Ocean. That they, or at least some of them, manage to survive a drift of 2000 miles shows that the Ocean has kept its clement side, It is the lack of food and especially drinking water that kills the sailors slowly.

Written in 1966, I suspect the writer, Barry Wynne, to be a misionary or a preacher man of some kind. Much emphasis is laid upon the religiousness of the poor wretches. They are Seven Day Adventists who keep their sanity by praying continuously, give grace and implore God at each moment they find themselves in a dire situation. That is to say all the time.

At certain moments, their luck seems to be directed by Jehovah himself; like when a whole colony of squids wash aboard with a rogue wave. I wondered for a moment if it was a Polynesian version of Saint Brendan, I was reading.

While the survival is truely  miraculous, the book has obviously been written as a religious pamphlet or a Sunday School morality play.

Awkwardly enough the writer regrets that these fishermen have become too civilised and have lost the navigating skills of their forefathers. Lost, during the "civilizing" work of the different Christian factions, I would think.

Still, the few pages describing the capsizing of their craft in the middle of the ocean and their herculean effort to right it again are of a nail-biting intensity and a disturbing realism.

When the poor blokes finally wash upon a desert beach, genuine living dead crawling towards the shade of the first palmtrees, you must be heartless if you won't get a lump in your throat.


  1. WHY such tragic loss of life by experienced sailors on the small cutter Tearoha sailing between Manihiki and Rakahanga in 1964? They were seeking much needed provisions from Rakahanga when the Captain Enoka failed to follow the right course home. Enoka stubbornly refused to heed the persistent advice of the crew. Wynne writes, "Teehu watched the other boats set course for Manihiki and immediately observed that they were all taking a far more easterly direction. He decided to speak to speak to Enoka again: "There, Enoka, I told you the others are sailing much closer to the wind. They are right, we are wrong, let us change course and follow them or we will be blown to the lee of Manihiki and have trouble getting in." Enoka Dean flared in retailiation, "I am the captain of the boat. We were second into harbour on the outward journey: I know what I am doing. Get on with your job!" (page 39) With hind site Teehu was right and Enoka wrong and Enoka and three more of the crew lost their lives as a result. How shall we apply the obvious lesson in leadership from this story that ignoring the crews' wisdom will too often lead to disaster?
    The decision of the Resident Agent to return early leaving the islanders to fend for themselves in the storm had a major impact on the tragedy. The Agent had the only motor boat on the island. He took responsibility for the voyage by going to Rakahanga with the boats and if he had waited for the islanders to finish loading their boats with food and helped them in the journey back is it likely that no boats would have been lost. Surely his derelict of leadership the very reason for this tragedy.

    The final mistake was the decision of the Tearoha to not jettison their heavy cargo of food as the other three small cutters had done. Throwing the precious food into the sea made the boats lighter and easier to sail closer to the wind. Enoka and crew wanted to save the food for family and friends in Manihiki including me. Did this act of generosity doom the sailors to their tragic ending?
    James Matkin (working on the island at the time).

  2. Dear Mr. Matkin, thanks for your comment. I understand that you lost four friends on that fateful day in 1964.
    Teehu was deservedly lauded as a hero.