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Fiji Time: 2:11 AM on Thursday 24 July

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Good memories die hard

Avinesh Gopal
Monday, June 30, 2014

IT is a reef that is known for shipwrecks.

Four ships are said to have run aground on the reef between 1825 and 1973 but there are no reports of any casualties.

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

Considering the shipwrecks that have happened there, the Vatoa Reef in the Lau Group is regarded as "dangerous" by seafarers.

One particular wreck on the reef is that of the Norwegian cargo vessel Ragna Ringdal, which ran aground on November 28, 1962.

For the past two weeks, The Fiji Times took a look back at the incident and how its crew members were looked after by villagers on Vatoa Island.

We also spoke to a Customs officer then who was assigned to guard the ship's cargo. His story last week also united him with some of his former workmates.

Today, we bring you the story of a Norwegian man who was a crew member on the Ragna Ringdal when it ran aground on the reef.

THE incident always lingers on his mind.

And so does the memories of people on Vatoa Island in the Lau Group, who looked after him and his colleagues when they were in trouble.

He cannot forget his time on the island and something the villagers gave him in 1962 still hangs on the wall of his house in Norway.

Aslak Solbjorg was a youngster and crew member of the Ragna Ringdal when the ship left the US with cargo destined for Australia.

The weather was not good and it was a dark night when the ship ran aground on the Vatoa Reef on November 28, 1962.

Mr Solbjorg told The Fiji Times from Norway via electronic mail that although the incident happened long ago, it was still in his mind.

"I can't forget the good memories of people on the island," he said.

"From the island, we went by a small vessel to Suva and by plane to Hong Kong for one night stopover. From there, it was to Norway via Sweden the next day.

"I remember entering the plane in Hong Kong and it was about 40 degrees Celsius and when I left the plane in Oslo, Norway it was cold, minus 25 degrees Celsius, and I was dressed in a T-shirt, shorts and slippers.

"My uncle living in Oslo was waiting for me there. He had not seen me for many years so he had to call me up to see me," said Mr Solbjorg.

In a post on the Matavuvale Network, he wrote that some crew members were watching a movie when the ship stopped on the reef.

"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 but in vain," he wrote on www.matavuvale.com.

"The chief asked me to go with him down to the pump room mid-ship 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 left the ship by a lifeboat to the reef and then we walked ashore to the island."

Mr Solbjorg wrote that he remembers having some fine days on the island and always thinks of his time there, saying "lovely people, doing what they could to help us".

He wrote that he had heard the ship broke into pieces and sunk.

"I don't know of anybody who may have been back to Vatoa. When we came back to Norway, we said goodbye."

Mr Solbjorg wrote that some crew members of the Ragna Ringdal were hired on a new ship and they kept on sailing. He also sailed for two years after the incident.

"Sometimes I have been thinking about a trip to the island. I have good memories and on the wall I have the gift I got when we left there," he wrote on the website.

The Ragna Ringdal was built in 1956 and she weighed 9159 tonnes and measured 143.2 metres in length.

On November 30, 1962, we reported that the ship had run aground on the reef and the Tofua, which was on its way from Suva to Nukualofa in Tonga was standing by 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 dollars worth of supplies for the United States Forces in Fiji struck Vatoa reef about three miles south-southwest of Vatoa," we had reported then.

On December 5, 1962, we carried photographs of the ship's crew after they had reached Suva from the island.

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.

Damage was estimated at one million pounds then.

The ship's master, Captain Andresen said then that he did not know how the ship ran aground, adding "if I'd known I would have avoided the accident".

Last week, we reported on a Customs officer who was entrusted the duty by his boss to secure the cargo that was on board the ship.

Isoa Koroivuki, 78, spoke of how he and Vatoa villagers salvaged cartons of canned Canadian salmon from the ship.

Mr Koroivuki also revealed how he sealed cartons of whiskey from the ship that were in the village headman's house. He also spoke of how he diffused tension by giving villagers a carton of whiskey.

While timber from the ship had floated to nearby islands, Mr Koroivuki was able to secure whatever cargo that remained on the ship and that which villagers had already taken out.

His good work made his boss give him a pay rise of 200 pounds.

He was also promoted to serve as a cadet officer at the prisons department.

Mr Koroivuki's story last week resulted in some of his former Customs workmates calling up The Fiji Times to enquire about his contact.

He later said he was glad to talk to his former workmates after several years, and thanked this newspaper for making it possible.

The memories of his almost five months stay on Vatoa Island are still alive in him but more so are the emotional moments of working in the prison — some things that bring tears in his eyes.


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