Sailing for a new beginning

Joe Macdougall will leave next Wednesday for a remote island in PNG with his granddaughter Kaitie Dunn.
Joe Macdougall will leave next Wednesday for a remote island in PNG with his granddaughter Kaitie Dunn. Alistair Brightman

THERE'S a curiosity to retired Hervey Bay fisherman Joe Macdougall, it's there in his story.

It's whispered in the long winding thread that links 200 people on a remote Papua New Guinean island to his soul.

It's in his appearance, a product of his time spent working on wharfs and trawlers: messy white hair, stubble, weathered skin, coarse hands and the clothes of a worker, plain, worn and constantly carrying dirt in their fibres.

He looks like the type of fisherman who swears at seagulls and boot bottles as he stumbles along the rock wall at the Urangan Marina. But that's not Joe.

The curious part of his story is if you follow the thread deeper you'll discover there's more to him than that.

He has an angel's heart. And if Joe Macdougall's exterior is rougher than a carpenter's boot then inside he's softer than a toothless toddler's lunch.

When he speaks it's in a voice quiet like the wind, his words carry compassion, and his deep blue eyes are there to reassure.

In 2010 Joe walked onto the beach at Gigila, a remote Papua New Guinean island about 500km south-east of Port Moresby, and his whole world shifted.

He remembers soft white sand and warming sunshine - and the smiling faces of 200 locals standing on the shore to greet him, the song of the birds, a gentle lapping of the water.

Boys on one of the basic canoes people on the island use for transport.
Boys on one of the basic canoes people on the island use for transport.

He travelled as part of a group of four boats and 12 crew members. They were on a mission to build the island's first school.

The trip had been co-ordinated by Bundaberg couple Paul and Chris Taylor, who had had visited to the island a few years earlier.

They had seen its people living in hatched-huts; seen them living in a world few would imagine could still exist today.

Mr Taylor says if Africa's third world then Gigila would be fifth - there are no medicines or doctors or nurses, nothing to aid the fight against malaria; there is no employment or electricity, no running water. Nothing.

"Chris and I had come through there in 2008," Mr Taylor explains.

"The kids and people had sores all over themselves because animals were getting into what was the school hut at night and spreading fleas and bugs.

"The sores were turning into huge tropical ulcers. We came back and started fund raising...we wanted to build a school."

Such is the value of education in the province that parents ferry children from surrounding islands to Gigila in small basic canoes, leave them with a bag of yams, and come back to get them in a week or two.

The island only has a permanent population of about 200 but when the school sits that population swells to almost 300.

Those children may not have a place to sleep but thanks to a dozen Australians they have a place to learn.

The value of that school isn't lost on Joe, either. Building it changed the old fisherman; it laid the foundations for a transition that happened inside his heart.

A group of youngsters has a lesson in the old classroom.
A group of youngsters has a lesson in the old classroom.

When you ask him why he's going back he responds coyly and plays his journey down.

"It's just something to interest me in retirement I guess," he says.

"I don't know. I just think if I can be a bit of use to someone, well, that's what I will do."

To get to Gigila Joe has bought a really special yacht; a piece of ocean royalty is what she is, shaped like a bullet, 36ft, the name Jisuma emblazoned on her side.

In bygone years when hungry for adventure she would compete in Sydney to Hobart's as part of the Sandringham Yacht Club stable in Port Phillip Bay, Victoria - one of the state's premier racing organisations.

Another memory that bellows from her bowel is the nickname she was given on the circuits.

"They used to call her the 'Consumer' in her racing days, such was the amount of piss sank on her," the old fisherman says with a laugh.

The former queen of the southern seas will taste salt again on Wednesday for the first time in years.

You can picture it now: a sky coloured with pinks and oranges; a spattering of cloud on the horizon; a day of pure magic to welcome this vessel and her old sailor back to the fold. You can imagine Mother Nature might even break out in song to celebrate the occasion.

That magic will surely continue north, through customs, and onto Gigila, where Joe begins to sow a new thread in his story.

For the school built in 2010 he has a solar panel system with batteries, lighting, blackboards, and a 16inch television to show educational DVD's.

Joe says DVD's are lighter than books, encyclopaedia's weigh a tonne, and the lights will come in handy on the school veranda.

"The lights will hopefully be a bonus to the local people, who will then be able to sit there and do crafts or socialise of an evening, and they could take the sick people there so they can be looked after," he says.

He has a box of DVD's too, hundreds of them. There are educational ones, titles like the Lion King, old classics, and even musical offerings with artists that play jazz.

Joe can imagine the children dancing to the tune of someone like Otis Reading. I can imagine him dancing along with them.

Also stored away in the bowels of Jisuma are another 30 solar lights to be distributed to each household - he even has garden lights for people living alone. These will be the first lights the island's people have ever had.

But that's not the biggest dream the old fisherman is chasing - the one keeping him awake at night is the opportunity to set up a permanent help line.

"What I want to do is organise a Gigila Island post office box at Bwagawoia, on Misima Island about 50kms away," he says.

"It may prove a communication break though if it can be done."

What future chapters in Joe's story will read like remains unknown, he may not even return to Australia, but one thing is certain.

When he sails off into the sunset on Wednesday and Mother Nature sings her song, she will be singing for two old friends: Joe and Jisuma.


>> To read more lifestyle stories

Topics:  charity education hervey bay lifestyle papua new guinea

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