Tired after a squally passage from the Solomon Islands, my partner, Rob Cadmus, and I awoke just after dawn to beating drums and bellowing conch shells. We peered through the hatch of Toyatte, our Westsail 32, to find ourselves surrounded by dozens of sailing canoes, their sails furled in the still morning air. They were preparing to make their grand entrance to the Kenu & Kundu Festival in Alotau, a town on the waterfront of Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea. Delighted with our prime anchoring position, we sipped coffee and traded greetings with the passing paddlers. Many were dressed in warrior attire — grass skirts, feather headdresses, shell armbands. They shouted taunts from boat to boat, hecklers standing on the outriggers blowing conch shells. A lime whizzed past our boat as one warrior began a slingshot crusade against his competitors.
A few hours later, the afternoon breeze kicked up and the canoe races began. There were at least five types of sailing canoes, reflecting the traditions of different islands or regions and the resources locally available for canoe building. The canoes started in heats, and the first boats to sail were the Kukakuka canoes from Rabaraba, a mainland village the next bay over from Milne Bay. The Kukakukas are stout, heavy boats, around 25 feet long with massive outriggers. They are true dugouts, carved from huge trees that grow only on the mainland. Except for the expertly stitched blue and gray sails made of tarpaulin, they were made entirely of natural materials. Even the ropes and stays were made from jungle vines.
The smallest canoes were little more than glorified windsurfers, with boards that close over the top of dugout hulls to keep out the water. These canoes, nonetheless, had sailed many nights along the exposed southern coast of the mainland to reach the festival.
As each class shot off the starting line, young men heaved up sails, climbing halfway up the mast and jumping down to muscle them up. Outriggers flew out of the water and boats screamed across the bay. As one boat pulled off the line, a sailor climbed to the top of the mast, waving to the crowd. Not to be outdone, the crew of Cuz Bro, a Sailau canoe, sent one man up the mast while another scurried up a stay. Both did acrobatics to the cheers of the crowd, while the outrigger lifted ever higher out of the water. As the sailor on top of the mast completed his headstand, the canoe reached the point of no return. The helmsman pulled hard on the steering oar, but it was too late. Cuz Bro went over.
The last to start were the bright red Kula canoes from west Fergusson Island, decorated with elaborately carved splashboards that identify the boats. Kula canoes have long been used to maintain the Kula trading ring, in which red shell necklaces, called bagi, and white shell armbands, called mwali, are swapped among the islands of Milne Bay. Kulas are wide, heavy boats with shallow dugout keels and hulls fashioned from wooden planks. They can be sailed or paddled, but they flew traditional lateen sails woven from pandanus leaves for the festival.
While the races kicked off, dancers ashore stomped and shook all over the festival grounds to the hollow beat of the kundu, a lizard-skin or sharkskin drum shaped like two funnels melded together at the narrow point. Dancers wore grass skirts or tapa cloths, wild headdresses made of feathers and leaves, and shell armbands and necklaces. Many of the women were topless; some wore modest shawls, woven of strings of shells, or banana leaf necklaces. A young boy was lifted on the shoulders of a group of dancers, clad only in a headdress and a couple of leaves. He thrust his spear triumphantly at a sacrificial pig as his bearers lifted him higher.
Elsewhere, mainland dancers did the wallaby. Crouched in a thigh-burning squat, they hopped lightly, mimicking a wallaby coming down to the grass after the rain. Another troupe performed a fish dance, imitating the struggles of the fish and the fisherman, while yet another gave us parrot and crow dances. We woke again the next morning to conch shells and shouting. Two huge black war canoes were heading our way. Easily double the length of our 32-foot sailboat, these were sleek, narrow canoes with no outriggers. Feathers and shells, talismans to bring luck and celebrate victories, dangled from the high, ornately carved prows. Paddled by more than a dozen men chanting and slapping the sides of the canoes in unison with their sharply pointed paddles, they were aiming for us at ramming speed. We were half convinced they were coming for our heads. Neck and neck, the helmsmen reached deep to muscle the vessels into tight turns as the two boats dodged each other and our rudder, barely making the circuit around our boat. Several of the paddlers cracked smiles as we cheered and clambered for cameras.
More paddling races followed, with nearly 10 war canoes in one race. One capsized trying to get on course for the shortest race distance, answering our question as to whether it was difficult to keep these slender boats on track and upright. The Kulas joined the fracas, captained by warrior chiefs, this time without sails. The war canoes chased down the Kulas in a chaotic race that left us head over heels in love with Alotau.
The main events concluded with traditional food exchanges, cementing ancient relationships among villages. Lines of dancers came into the center of the festival grounds twirling clay pots, carrying pigs tied to stretchers, and offering bananas, yams, pineapples, baskets and woven mats to dancers from other villages. In the evening, string bands plucked island tunes as the sun set, and we were pulled into dancing with the musicians so many times we had trouble finishing our beers before they got warm.
We were overwhelmed not only by the action, but also by the hospitality. The people of Milne Bay were quite rightfully proud of their festival, and they went out of their way to make sure we enjoyed it. A spunky elderly lady, with three betel-nut-blackened teeth remaining to her smile and wearing only a grass skirt, proudly told us how she had sailed to the festival on a canoe, cooking over an open fire on the outrigger. She invited us to her village, as did others we met when we asked about canoes, or admired traditional art on display outside the thatched huts constructed as living quarters for festival participants.
We met people from all over the Milne Bay province at the festival, and left eager to visit some of the islands where they lived. Our two-month cruise in Papua New Guinea was off to an unbeatable start. We sailed away from Alotau with our eyes on the horizon, watching for sailing canoes tacking home to the far-flung islands of Milne Bay.
The crew of Toyatte is now back in Alaska, where their voyaging began.