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Memories of the Ragna Ringdal

Avinesh Gopal
Monday, June 23, 2014

FOUR shipwrecks are said to have occurred on this particular reef between 1825 and 1973.

The ships were on their way to Fiji with either cargo or to take beche-de-mer or while on transit to other countries.

One particular wreck on the Vatoa Reef in the Lau Group is of the Norwegian cargo vessel, the Ragna Ringdal which ran aground on November 28, 1962.

The reef is regarded as "dangerous" by seafarers and even some websites have also termed it as such, considering the shipwrecks that have happened there.

Although ships weighing thousands of tonnes were wrecked on the reef, there are no reports of any casualties from the incidents.

Last week, The Fiji Times took a look back at the incident involving the Norwegian vessel and how its crew members and some passengers were rescued and even how some of them were looked after on Vatoa Island.

Today, we talk to someone who was ordered to be the boarding officer on the Ragna Ringdal and secure whatever cargo that remained on board.

HE was enjoying the first week of his annual leave when his senior officers told him to return to work.

It was late November 1962 and the two senior officers did not give him any reason why he should report back to work.

Considering that it was Colonial government rule then, Isoa Koroivuki, now 78 years old, said no one questioned the orders of their senior officers.

Mr Koroivuki reported to work and his boss, the head of the HM Customs & Excise department who then apologised for recalling him to work from annual leave.

"He entrusted me with the duty to go to Vatoa Island in Lau as a Norwegian freighter had run aground on the reef. It was the Ragna Ringdal," he said.

"The ship was filled with one million tonnes of Canadian timber bound for Sydney in Australia and I was told by my boss to guard the ship and its cargo.

"Actually my role was the boarding officer representing HM Customs and Excise under the Wreck and Salvage Ordinance at that time.

"I arrived at Vatoa the next day and inspected the ship from a distance. I had heard that the ship's radar went off suddenly and as a result, the ship went on the reef," said Mr Koroivuki.

On November 30, 1962, The Fiji Times reported on the front page that the ship had run aground on Vatoa Reef and timber from it was floating around the reef in the Lau Group.

Mr Koroivuki said he got into a lifeboat and went to Vatoa Island, where men, women and children had packed the beach.

On behalf of his department and the government, he presented a sevusevu to the village headman then began discussions regarding the wrecked ship.

"The islanders accepted the terms and conditions and one notable thing was for them to assist the government and the Customs representative, which was me, to watch over the grounded vessel.

"The policeman who went with me and I boarded the grounded ship and found that almost half of it was under water. The cargo was mainly Oregon timber, first grade.

"Also, there were 3000 cartons of Canadian salmon and some pianos. I called an urgent meeting with the village headman and requested the villagers to work with me.

"I told the villagers not to touch the ship's cargo, in particular the cartons of salmon. I also told them that whatever cargo they save, they will get half of the proceeds from the sale of such items."

Mr Koroivuki said the villagers swam with him to the reef the next morning (Monday) and they got on to the ship and managed to break the chains securing timber in mid-ship.

He said "mountainous" waves washed whatever they could from the ship into the sea, adding the crew had been rescued before he arrived at the site.

"We went back on the ship on Tuesday and by then, a lot of timber had been washed ashore on Vatoa Island.

"It was Friday when some villagers allegedly broke into a corrugated iron and wooden building containing several cartons of salmon which we had salvaged from the wrecked ship.

"I brought work to a stop and the islanders became very hostile but I managed to diffuse the situation through dialogue.

"Finally, the village headman then came to me and said there were 60 cartons of VAT 69 whiskey in his home. The cartons were taken from the Ragna Ringdal."

Mr Koroivuki said he put three cartons aside and sealed the rest. He gave one carton to the chief of Vatoa, one carton to the village headman and kept one for himself.

"As a Customs officer, I could do that. I gave my carton to the village youths and that sort of diffused the tension that was there.

"But when the carton finished, they wanted some more and there was tension again."

He said the timber that broke loose from the ship floated to Vatoa, some places in Lau and even Kadavu. He said at that time, he knew that people at Matuku in Lau received most of the Canadian timber.

"When I was still at Vatoa, the villagers had already erected two buildings from the timber that had been washed ashore on the beach."

Mr Koroivuki said it was discovered later that most of the timber had floated to the southern parts of Kadavu, which still has houses built from Canadian Oregon timber like at other places.

He visited most of the places and took photographs of the Canadian timber stacked in the village grounds and some houses built from it.

After spending five months on Vatoa Island and nearby islands, Mr Koroivuki returned to Suva with some electrical items and other things that he had salvaged from the ship.

"I joined the Customs Department in April 1958 as an assistant Customs examiner and I was earning 300 pounds a year when I went to Vatoa Island.

"But when I returned to Suva, my boss told me that I will be promoted and that my pay would increase to 500 pounds a year.

"He had sent documents to the finance department to approve the pay rise, which I got at the end of the year."

Mr Koroivuki said the 300 pounds per annum he was earning before being assigned duties regarding the Ragna Ringdal was through special increments because of his work in seizing contraband goods.

In June 1964, he was promoted to the post of cadet officer at the prisons department, where he experienced things that still linger in his mind and make him emotional to this day.

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