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Shipwrecks on the Vatoa reef

Avinesh Gopal
Monday, June 16, 2014

IT is a reef that is regarded dangerous by seafarers.

Since time immemorial, the Vatoa reef in the Lau Group has wrecked some foreign-owned ships.

The ships were on their way to Fiji with either cargo or coming here to take beche-de-mer — a product that was being traded in the early years.

While the ships were wrecked after being stranded on the reef for some time, the crew members and some passengers on the vessels were able to reach safety.

Four shipwrecks, which are said to have occurred between 1825 and 1973, reportedly exist on the reef, which several websites have termed as dangerous.

One particular wreck is of the Norwegian cargo ship, the Ragna Ringdal which was travelling from the US to Australia when it ran aground on the reef.

Today, we go down memory lane and take a look back at the incident involving the Norwegian ship and how its crew members were rescued.

SHE was a Norwegian cargo ship built in 1956.

The vessel weighed 9159 tonnes and its length was 143.2 metres while the width was 19 metres.

It left US in November 1962 and was heading to Sydney in Australia with a cargo of timber and other items.

On Friday, November 30, 1962, The Fiji Times reported on the front page that the Ragna Ringdal had run aground on Vatoa Island reef in the Lau Group.

The ship had hit the reef on the southeast side of Vatoa on Wednesday night (November 28, 1962), it was reported.

But according to the, the ship was wrecked on the reef on November 27 that year while on her way to Sydney.

On November 30, 1962, we also reported that the Tofua, which was on its way from Suva to Nukualofa in Tonga, was standing by the Ragna Ringdal to provide any assistance it could.

It was reported that timber from the ship was floating around the reef and it appeared that the ship's forward hatch was open and the timber had been unloaded to lighten the ship.

"The Ragna Ringdal is the second largest ship to go on a reef near Vatoa. In 1942 the American cargo ship Thomas A Edison, which was carrying $7,000,000 worth of supplies for the United States Forces in Fiji struck Vatoa reef about three miles south-southwest of Vatoa.

"A detachment of members of the Fiji Labour Corps of the Fiji Defence Force managed to salvage about $3,000,000 worth of the cargo," we had reported.

On the front page of December 1, 1962, we reported that the Ragna Ringdal was leaking at several places in the hull.

The Suva Harbour Master then, Captain E L James had said the ship's stern, which appeared to be in deeper water than the bow, was gradually sinking.

He had also said there was talk of the crew leaving the ship and going to Vatoa Island.

On December 3, 1962, we reported that the Royal New Zealand Air Force flew two women from the stranded Norwegian ship to Suva.

It was also reported that the ship was well down in the water with a list of 15 to 20 degrees to port and the seas were breaking over the port stern.

The ship was said to have been abandoned at 1pm the previous day and the crew were standing by.

Elizabeth Goebner, who was flown to Suva by the RNZAF, said then that they were watching a cinema show at about 8:30pm on Wednesday (November 28) when suddenly the ship started shaking.

"Everybody got up and then there was a violent jar and we all dashed out on deck. We could see the surf line but we didn't know what we had hit until afterwards," she had said.

"We were on the ship for what seemed a long time after that and we had three nights on board but they were not comfortable nights as the ship shuddered every time the waves hit her.

"Some of the crew went ashore on Friday but we decided we didn't want to leave and we stayed where we were. On Saturday it was decided that we should go ashore."

Ms Goebner also said they stayed in a Fijian house and found how wonderful the Fijians were.

On the other hand, Dorothy Baily of California in the US said then that she was not frightened but was filled with sadness at the thought of a fine ship breaking up.

Apart from stories on the Ragna Ringdal incident then, we also carried photographs of the ship on Vatoa reef and of Ms Goebner and Ms Baily having a haircut in Suva.

On December 5, 1962, we carried photographs of the ship's crew who had been rescued from the ship which was still stuck on the "dangerous" reef.

It was also confirmed by a salvage expert then that the ship was a total write-off and no attempt would be made to pull it off the reef as she was too far gone. He estimated damage then at one million pounds.

The master of the ship Captain Andresen was quoted saying that he did not know how the ship ran aground, saying "if I'd known I would have avoided the accident". Aslak Solbjorg, who was a crew member on the ship, posted on that there was some rain when the ship ran aground.

"I remember some of the crew were watching a movie when the ship stopped on the reef," he posted on the website on October 15, 2011.

"We tried to get the ship off by dumping cargo but in vain. We could not see much in the dark night. A passenger vessel from New Zealand tried to help, in vain.

"The chief asked me to go with him to the pump room midship to have a look at the situation there. When I came down there, I saw the bottom was pressed upwards by something so there was damage.

"When daylight came, we could see the island and people standing near the ship. They stood on the reef. In the sea there was some of the cargo, timber, that we had dumped during the night.

"We understood then that the whole ship stood planted on the reef. We left the ship by a lifeboat to the reef and then we walked ashore to the island."

Mr Solbjorg posted on the website that he and other crew members had some fine days on Vatoa Island, saying "lovely people, doing what they could to help us".

He wrote that he has good memories of the island and the gift he got from the villagers was hanging on the wall of his house.

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