Caught in a Whirlwind (Dec 29-31)

The last week has been something of a twister of experiences for me, and I hardly know where to start. We arrived in Honiara on the 30th after a day at sea working our way in towards the islands. This was a huge moment for me, I’d always wanted to come to the Solomon Islands since I was a small kid and earned my diving certification in 1999. So I was really looking to this shore leave, more than usual. All of my plans that I had for this island, and I had no idea at this point that I wouldn’t get to do any of them. This time.

The coolest part of our stay was as soon as we got done clearing customs and immigration on the boat Roxy and I loaded our equipment and bugout bags into the helicopter, fired it up and got ready to depart. I made a quick call to Honiara tower to let them know I was about to relocate in the harbor. We had tied off to another Dong Won boat while we were waiting for the freezer ship to show up in the next day or two, so I only had one real option for my takeoff, that is – pick up, into a nice hover and get high enough to pedal turn out over the bow and depart that way.

Our sister ship didn’t have a helicopter on top so the crew all formed up on the railing to watch the helicopter depart, our crew on the Caribe however were soused to it they didn’t pay us any attention. I then flew low over the harbor, and past several other ships waiting for one thing or another, making my way toward our hangar on the shore; it was ideal waterfront property. When I got there one of the ground crew came out to marshall me into the lot, guiding me forward and then directing me down onto my skids. Landing on non-moving dry land that is flat and level was a sensation that might as well have been new to me. The firmness of the asphalt was very comforting.

As soon as I was on the ground and shut down the action began. They’d been waiting for a long time to get this helicopter back to one of the hangars and they had work to do. Ron Barr, head-honcho of maintenance at the Honiara base debriefed me for 20 minutes or so on a problem I had had a few days earlier and then I was set free into the company building. I was greeted by three other pilots who had been watching the landing when I came in. They were all here waiting for boats, not only waiting for boats but waiting for boats to go train on. Some had been here only a few days, and the others had been here for a couple weeks

First to say anything to me was a bloke from New Zealand who recognized me instantly from my facebook activity in the helicopter pilots group and the tuna pilot group. Then there was a fellow from Spain and another pilot from El Salvador. I swear, El Salvador is the number one provider of pilots to Tropic Helicopters. I’m starting to think I’m the only American here.

About this time is when the other helicopter in the harbor, which had arrived on a different companies boat, flew in for a landing. Another El Salvadorian pilot clambered out and the maintenance team got to work right away on his helicopter.

It was an interesting experience, these guys had as much flight time as I did, give or take, but by a stroke of timing and luck I had been straight into the field and given a boat and a helicopter, and they had been in waiting on the island. They had tons of questions, and I answered them the best I could, reminding them that I’d only been at sea for two months. Of the five pilots there only two of us had boats, and they hung on every word of advice and tip they could get.

They had good questions too, about approach angles and wind and waves and maintenance. I look forward to running into them in some of the other ports once they get ships of their own.

The base certainly left you wanting for more, the internet didn’t work other than showing up on the wifi screen of your device you would have better chance of reaching home with a message by tying a note to the leg of a bird, killing the bird, putting it in a bottle and then putting that bottle into the ocean without a cap on. The one thing the crew on these ships long for the most when they reach dry land is the ability to reconnect with their families and loved ones – so internet that shows up but doesn’t work is a huge disappointment.

The facility was clean enough, transients slept in a group bunk room with five beds, two couches and two floor mattresses for full occupancy. The transient bathroom was filthy and reminded me of a bar bathroom in Tarawa almost. Where things got nicer was in the staff area for the people living there, they had nice clean bathrooms and carpets outside their rooms. A TV and common area was attached to the dining room and kitchen. The kitchen wasn’t stocked with anything, but they do provide three meals a day, so in theory you wouldn’t need to leave for anything, except water; because there isn’t any there unless you want to suck down the Honiara tap water.

The internet in the office was fast and made browsing the web very convenient – on the off chance that someone from Tropic proper is reading this, the internet in the office should be the internet the crews get when they connect to the wifi. The only reason I know this was because of the twister that forms up tomorrow, so I’ll get to that. But short version here in this paragraph – I needed internet access for admin work, not browsing. I still used it for facebook, between emails.

There wasn’t much for us at the hangar, the mechanics were already engrossed in their work, the blades were off of both the newly arrived helicopters and they had been carted into the hangar for work. So we took one of the trucks (best perk of the place) and headed out to buy some water, beer, sim cards and data load for our phones, and kill an afternoon.

We wound up hitting a place called the Monarch Bar, very cool ocean side patio bar that has a happy hour deal of six beers and a pizza for a cheap price. We ate hearty and drank our beers and then went to a few other places. Captains Bar, Cowboy Grill, and then the King…something…hotel. Every where empty and dead so we made our way back to the hangar and spent the rest of the night bitter about the internet, sharing laugh and stories from the boats, and getting to know each other’s history and where they came from professionally.

Day 2: DEC 31:

The plan I had was to go to the Guadalcanal WWII Memorial in the morning, and then we were having a BBQ at the hangar for NYE before going out. On the first of January I was planning on going for a scuba trip, and then the rest of the stay in Honiara was up in the air. Like I mentioned earlier, none of my plans happened. The company BBQ and NYE did, but my plans did not.

After some breakfast of toast and peanut butter I went up to the office to ask if I could borrow a truck. When the door opened the lady in charge of the HR at the base seemed to be expecting me. She asked me if I had received an email yet from the main base. The confused look on my face probably was what tipped her off to the fact that I had not received an email (in fact my phone wasn’t getting emails so the bad wifi had kept me from checking with my laptop).

She handed me some printed documents, an airline ticket to Brisbane and then the Nadi in my name. I was confused even more. It would seem I had been transferred from the Caribe and I had not idea about it. I was leaving first thing in the morning the next day and then I would overnight in Brisbane before continuing on to meet the Shilla Harvester in Suva. Suva, where my journey had begun back two months ago.

This meant, of course, that as I was totally settled in and comfortable on the Caribe finally I would have to go back to the boat right now and move out entirely. “Ok, well that sucks.” I thought to myself, loathing the idea of trying to find a boat to take me to and from the ship, flashing back to the horror of trying to go to the Caribe in Tarawa that one time I thought going back to the boat would be a quick matter of dropping off groceries and then coming back to shore. It turned into a nearly 5 hour wait on the boat after an hour and a half wait on shore. I didn’t even get the boat on shore, I begged a ride from a Chinese crew headed back out to their boat.

So one of the guys who worked at the hangar and I climbed into a truck and started out on the trip. Sure enough, it took us 2 hours to get a boat to the Caribe, and even though we told them to wait – they didn’t. 20 minutes later I was totally packed out , recovered my passport from the XO, and we called on the radio for the transfer boat to come back. Another hour and a half went by before the boat made it to us. If my helicopter hadn’t had all the blades off of it and the engine missing I would have just flown out to pick up my stuff and that would have been much easier.

All of my stuff was back at the hangar now, and I took to the task of dividing my payload into two checked bags that would make it under the weight limit for bags and sorting and organizing. I forgot my nice sandals on the Caribe, and I forgot my bar of soap in the shower. Good thing I have backups of both. I sure as hell wasn’t going to wait 4 more hours to get sandals and soap.

With all that done, I settled in for some more internet on my phone using my sim card and waited for the night to get started. It was, after all, New Years Eve.

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