17 Nov

On 13th July 2020, a 23-foot boat departed in calm seas from Wuvulu, bound for Wewak, with 6 adults aboard. When the boat didn’t arrive that evening, as was expected, an alert was raised. MAF was contacted the next day and asked for help to search for the boat and pilots Wilfred Knigge and Andy Symmonds got involved in the search. This is the story and personal reflections of how it all played out, written by pilot Wilfred Knigge.

It’s Tuesday afternoon and I’ve landed at Mount Hagen. Andy, a colleague pilot from Wewak, tells me something is going on around a missing boat near the East Sepik capital. We quickly walk to the operations manager’s office for some clarity. There are hardly any details. All we know is that a boat went from Wuvulu Island to Wewak but failed to arrive there at the agreed time.

The previous day, Monday, I’d been on Wuvulu. I’d loaded the maximum number of people and cargo but couldn’t take two passengers because they would have exceeded the maximum take-off weight.

The two had found that a bit annoying, of course, but luckily a boat was leaving later that day. They could travel that way.

I realised that the two passengers I left behind were on the missing boat. They weren’t strictly my passengers, but it felt like they were. In fact, I felt very involved, partly because of my role in it.

We quickly left Hagen. The clouds were getting darker and as we sat course, Hagen town had already been swallowed by the rain. Fortunately the Sepik, where we were heading, was only slightly cloudy with a lot of blue sky. We left the bad weather behind and flew into some beautiful weather.

That evening we were told the search would continue tomorrow. There was still no concrete information, but we knew where the boat departed from and where it was going. The plan was to leave early in the morning, but not as early as in the dark. We called the company that provides fuel at the airport and asked if they could be there extra early. Everyone went the extra mile to ensure a good outcome of the search. My day off was going in the trash, but at that point I didn’t mind. That’s why we are here: to help.

The quest

Andy has experience in flying patrol and search operations. That’s a huge asset to MAF PNG. And Wewak is the best place to have him stationed, the only base we have on the sea.

On Wednesday morning we came up with a plan and gathered as much data from as many sources as possible: wind and ocean currents; time of disappearance; how long had they been drifting. We tried to calculate and reason everything. But at the same time we found that we were not equipped or enough experienced for this kind of mission.

It was my first time and Andy did have experience but with different resources and different circumstances. He told me that there are much more data on wind and currents available in Europe.

We took off from Wewak and began the search almost immediately. We all put on life jackets because we planned to fly up to 200 km from the coast. Initially we planned to fly at 600 meters, but clouds made it impossible to search well, so we dropped to 300 meters.

After almost six hours of flying on reduced power for maximum flight time, we landed at Wewak again. Unfortunately, with no result. It was unclear if the search would resume the next day, so we prepared as much as we could, just in case.

In the evening it became clear that we would resume searching the next day. We now had two extra men as observers. One of them left on a boat from a neighboring island on the same day as the missing boat. He had a good idea of the wind and currents at the time and, together with him, we decided on a new plan of which area to search.

We took off again early Thursday morning and did the same as the day before: life jackets on, low over the water, flying a pattern for six hours in a row and continuously looking out in the hope of finding the missing boat.

Unfortunately, not found this day either. I was frustrated and disappointed. We should have been able to find them. Was the lack of data a bigger problem than estimated? It was disappointing, but there was nothing we could do.

That evening it was decided, the search had been canceled. The boat had been missing for more than 80 hours and the search area expanded every hour. The weather models were contradictory, one indicated an easterly flow and another a westerly flow.

Where should we look then?

In my head

Over the following days the search haunted my mind. Every time I saw the sea, I thought of them. I wanted to go out to sea again, search further. But it would have been just foolish to continue. The boat may have drifted more than 300 km from its original location. Impossible!

It became clear to me that this action was affecting me more than I cared to admit. I didn’t say too much about it and my wife Harriëtte didn’t pick up the sporadic signals either.

I was tired from the many flying hours and needed rest. I did nothing all Saturday, but the thoughts remained.

The relief

On Sunday we had a joint service with other mission organisations on the hill overlooking the sea near Wewak. I stood outside on the hill looking at the sea, looking for a white boat bobbing around. They must be somewhere.

It was clear to me now that I had to process this and talk about it. I know we did everything we could, but it felt like failure. We didn’t find them.

At the end of the church service, I look out over the water again. I spot a white boat bobbing up and down. For a moment I thought, ’What if…?’ but it’s impossible. There were many other boats around and no one was heading for this boat. It must have been someone fishing.

Several people heard the story and Harriëtte shares it with someone. We went home.

Half an hour later the phone rings. It’s the person Harriette spoke to. He has a guard from Wuvulu at his compound who knew about the missing boat. The guard said a call had come from Jayapura just that morning. The missing boat washed up there and all the occupants were alive.

They had drifted at sea for almost six days, without paddles, sails and without means of communication.

What a huge relief. No more worries; no more asking if we could have done better.

Joy and gratitude. And next time, we’ll find them!