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The Talofa tragedy and the missing crew

Avinesh Gopal
Monday, May 19, 2014

A few hundred lives have been lost in Fiji waters because of shipping disasters. On the night of May 11, 1884, the Syria, which was bringing indentured labourers from India, ran aground on Nasilai Reef off Nausori. The 1010-tonne ship is said to have broken into two after hitting the reef, throwing about 200 survivors in rough seas and claiming 59 lives. But the capsizing of the Kadavulevu in the Koro Sea on March 29, 1964 is reported to be the worst so far as 89 people died. In 1973, the Makogai and the inter-island vessel Uluilakeba got caught in the centre of Cyclone Lottie and capsized near Lau on the same day, jointly claiming about 80 lives. About a decade after the devastation by Cyclone Lottie, the barge Talofa capsized in waters off Yasawa-i-Rara in 1986, claiming eight lives. As part of a flashback into some disasters that have happened in the country, The Fiji Times takes a look today into the Talofa incident. We bring you excerpts from what this newspaper printed in 1986 and also talk to the relatives of some of those who died in the tragedy.

THE weather was not good when the barge left port with cargo bound for Vanua Levu.

With one passenger and seven crew members, the Talofa left Lautoka on April 15, 1986 for Labasa with pine poles, timber, bags of rice and dhal.

According to The Fiji Times, on that day, Cyclone Martin was affecting the country with heavy rain and strong winds.

The barge was seen upside down at Yasawa-i-Rara by villagers in the afternoon of April 16, with no sign of the people on board.

Many people, including the relatives of those on board, only came to know about the incident when this newspaper ran the story in its April 18, 1986 edition.

It was reported then that two government vessels and a Sunflower Airlines aircraft were searching for the eight missing people.

The Talofa was 72 kilometres off course when it was discovered on that Wednesday afternoon, it was reported.

On April 20, 1986, this newspaper reported that a massive search was in progress for the missing crew and passenger of the landing craft.

"I am confident that the seven crew members and one passenger are still alive and drifting in the life raft," the Talofa's owner Fred Caine was reported saying in that day's newspaper.

The life raft was meant for 25 people and there were 25 life jackets, a dinghy and flares on board the Talofa.

It was reported that the vessel hit the northern tip of the reef at Yaro in Yasawa-i-Rara.

On April 22, 1986, this newspaper reported that two American Coast Guard C-130 search and rescue planes would join the search for the missing people.

The missing crew were named as Captain Spencer Osbourne, his cousin Mick Osbourne (bosun), Jack Chambers (engineer), Noa Vuli (mate), Filimoni Sinclair, Kilikiti, Maciu Rogo, and passenger Alifereti Qoro.

Mr Chambers' wife Jane Chambers had told this newspaper then that she knew the eight people on board the vessel were dead.

"They cannot be alive. The boats and planes have looked all over for them but there has been no sign of them," she had said.

On April 24, 1986, this newspaper reported that a search by the two American planes failed to find any trace of the eight people missing in a life raft.

It was reported that the search covered an area to the northwest of the Yasawas, spanning approximately 10,500 square miles.

Talofa's owner Fred Caine also said in that edition the vessel was not overloaded when it capsized, saying records with the Marine Department would support his statement.

On April 25, this newspaper reported that the life raft from Talofa was found under a reef about one kilometre from where the vessel was lying upside down.

Mr Caine was quoted in that edition saying that he believed the vessel capsized sometime between 11:30am and 4:30pm on that Tuesday (April 15).

"I say this because the Talofa must have been travelling at eight knots then and should have crossed the 27 miles separating Viti Levu and Vanua Levu in less than four hours," he had said.

"People in the Yasawas have told me that at that time they were experiencing winds of up to 20 to 25 knots from the southeast accompanied by rough seas.

"I have travelled through that area many times and it can get very cruel out there," Mr Caine had said then.

On April 26, it was reported that the search for the eight missing people had been called off, as a massive sea and air search had proved fruitless.

It was also reported that the vessel had a cargo of 68 concrete lamp posts, 10 tonnes of roofing iron and 10 tonnes of dhal.

The Search and Rescue Centre at the Nadi International Airport had said about 60,000 square miles had been covered by planes and ships but there was no trace of the eight missing men.

However, on April 29, this newspaper reported that a police party on board the government vessel Raiyawa was still searching for the eight missing people in waters off Yasawa.

On May 1, 1986, this newspaper reported that the vessel was towed to Lautoka by the salvage tug Duyfken.

It was reported on May 16 that the seven crew members and one passenger were still missing and they were presumed dead.

On May 17, it was reported that the eight people from the vessel were on Yalewa Kalou, an island that is rumoured to be haunted and the government vessel Cagimaira was heading there.

However, on May 18, the then Director of Marine, Sekove Cama denied that the ship had been sent to the island to search for survivors from the Talofa.

In a report on May 19, the wives of four men on board the vessel appealed for a helicopter to land on the island about 140 kilometres northeast of Lautoka, saying smoke had been sighted there.

Yesterday, Jack Chambers' nephew Charles Chambers told this newspaper that there has been no word until now on what happened to the Talofa and those on board.

"I remember I went to aunty Jane's place when the incident happened and they were yarning that the barge was overloaded," he said.

Mr Chambers, who was about 31 years old when the incident happened, said Jack Chambers was his father's elder brother.

"Nothing has come out of it and we still don't know what really happened that resulted in the Talofa capsizing," he said.

He said his aunt Jane Chambers died a few years ago, still not knowing what had happened to her husband and the other men on board the Talofa.

Compared with other shipping tragedies in Fiji, the Talofa incident may have been a small one for many people but the fact remains that eight lives were lost and their bodies were not found.

NEXT WEEK: Tracing the crew members' families.

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