By Tom Wolff
“That doesn’t look right,” I say to Shaya. I’m looking out toward the river’s entrance. A small yacht keels violently from side-to-side in the turbulent brown water. Large waves smash into the end of North Wall, sending spray high into the air. The river is expelling floodwaters from rain that has lashed its catchment for months now. The tide’s also going out. The yacht’s diesel motor is no match for the torrent of water flowing into the ocean. Unease circles my stomach. The yacht is now being pounded into the southern breakwall. Where are the crew? Are they still on there?
“Call triple-zero,” I say, reaching for my phone but finding empty pockets.
“I don’t have mine either,’ says Shaya.
“Fuck. Okay.” I ask a stranger nearby. “Excuse me? Has someone called triple-zero?”
“Yep. They’re on their way,” the lady responds with a worried look on her face.
On the beach tucked inside the breakwall, I see a man wading backwards in waist-deep water. He’s pulling a lifeless figure from the water. He reaches dry sand and drops the body. Three bystanders appear on the beach. I’m sprinting before my feet hit the sand. Okay, stay calm. I pass a young boy sitting in a lifejacket staring vacantly out to sea. He hugs his knees to his chest. Not far away an elderly man lies motionless on the sand with the biggest belly I’ve ever seen. Seawater. Bloating. Shit. The guy who hauled him in finishes the first round of chest compressions. “We need to roll him,” I say, kneeling down without introducing myself. His skin is cold and clammy. I reach for his hip and together we roll him on his side. Seawater gushes out onto the sand.
The man’s name, I’d learn later that night, was Peter Warner, a legendary skipper and adventurer. He was a three-time Sydney-to-Hobart winner and a man with over 70 years’ experience sailing on the open ocean all over the world. But he’d become famous in recent years as the sailor who in 1966 had rescued six Tongan teenagers stranded on a remote island in the Pacific. The story of the boys’ survival and their rescue had become the stuff of legend. Only a few months earlier I’d listened to author Rutger Bremen on ABC Radio recount the story, which had become known as “the real-life Lord of the Flies.”
The six Tongan teenagers – Sione, Stephen, Kolo, David, Luke and Mano – were students at a Catholic boarding school in the Tongan capital of Nuku’alofa. Unhappy there, the boys – aged between 13 and 16 – hatched an ambitious plan to escape by boat to Fiji or even New Zealand.
One evening in June 1965 the boys “borrowed” a 24-foot sailing boat from Nuku’alofa harbour and set sail with minimal supplies – two sacks of bananas, a few coconuts and a small gas burner were all they thought necessary for the voyage. As Mano later recounted, the boys found themselves in the middle of a storm on the very first night. Before long the sail was torn to shreds and the rudder of their boat had snapped. The boys then drifted without food or water – attempting to catch fish and collect rainwater in hollowed-out coconut shells.
After eight days a miracle occurred. Well, sort of. The horizon revealed a lump which turned out to be the remote, uninhabited island of ‘Ata. The Tongan teens hadn’t arrived on a postcard-like deserted island lined with coconut trees that sway in the breeze and white sandy beaches. ‘Ata is a giant volcanic rock protruding from the middle of the Pacific Ocean – think stark, sharp ridgelines jutting straight out of the sea. A quick search on a map, however, shows how lucky they really were to find it. ‘Ata lies over 150 kilometres southwest of Nuku’alofa and appears as a tiny speck of land in the immense seascape of the South Pacific. Miss it and your next stop is New Zealand – almost 2000 kilometres further south.
Peter Warner was born in Melbourne in 1931 to Arthur and Ethel Warner. By the time he came into the world his father had already built a large manufacturing and media empire, making him one of Australia’s wealthiest men at the time. Arthur’s son lived in the shadow of his father’s expectation and would, eventually, continue the family legacy. But in his teens Peter appeared disinterested at the prospect and at just 17 ran away from home to join a ship’s crew. Returning a year later he was forced into study before high-tailing it out of his father’s grasp again – mostly sailing on Swedish and Norwegian ships in the Atlantic. He quickly gained experience on the high seas.
Warner won the Sydney-to-Hobart yacht race in the early ‘60s before purchasing a fleet of crayfish boats which he operated in Tasmania. His fishing exploits slowly drew him eastwards and further into the Pacific. It was this series of events that led him to be setting traps a few miles off the remote island of ‘Ata in September of 1966.
On the day of the rescue, the story goes that Warner’s curiosity was initially piqued by patches of burnt vegetation he saw through his binoculars. “I thought, that’s strange that a fire should start in the tropics on an uninhabited island,” Peter told an earlier interview. “So, we decided to investigate further.” They headed in for a closer look. As the boat approached the island Peter noticed some figures heading down a cliff and into the sea, where they started swimming toward the boat. Unsure of their motives he asked his crew to load the rifles and to be “prepared for anything.” Stephen was the first to reach side of the boat and in perfect English explained their situation. “I am one of six castaways. We think we have been here for one-and-a-half years.”
Peter was initially suspicious of their story but thought better of it and dropped the boarding ladder to let the naked teenagers aboard, describing them as “looking completely wild.” After further explanation Warner was still in disbelief and asked them to write their names down on a piece of paper. He then made a radio call to the operator in Nuku’alofa and asked them to call Saint Andrews College – the school the boys had attended. Twenty minutes later a tearful operator came back on the radio and told him it was true. The boys had been given up for dead and funerals had already been held.
The teens’ survival on the island was attributed in part to some good fortune. A century earlier ‘Ata was home to around 350 people before a British slave trader kidnapped half the population of the island in 1863. The Tongan King at the time then relocated the rest of the population from ‘Ata to another island where they could be protected. After surviving for the initial months on raw fish, seabirds and their eggs, the boys stumbled upon the ruins of an abandoned village. It was located high up in a crater on the inner part of the island that was difficult to access. It proved to be a lifesaver. In the village the boys found a machete, domesticated taro plants and a flock of chickens that had survived for generations and continued to live on the island. Kolo even managed to fashion a guitar from some driftwood and six wires he salvaged from the wreckage of their boat.
On his return to Tonga with the boys, Peter Warner was welcomed as a hero and offered a reward from the King. His sole request from King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV was to reverse an earlier decision to deny Peter fishing rights around the Tongan archipelago. When Peter’s request was granted, he moved his family to Tonga where they lived for 30 years. All six of the rescued boys were hired as crew members on his fishing boats and Warner became especially close with Mano Totau. The two men eventually relocated to Australia – Mano to Brisbane and Peter to a banana farm in Tullera, in Northern NSW. They continued to sail in Warner’s boat – often heading out to sea via the Richmond River to sail up and down the east coast.
Even at 90, Peter Warner had no intention of slowing down. I have no doubt he understood the conditions on the Ballina bar that morning in April earlier this year. But maybe that’s how his story was meant to play out – with the sea reclaiming one of its own. Sailing was Peter Warner’s first love. It came to be his last, too.