Queen Sālote’s song broadcast to mark anniversary of shipwreck and heroic survival efforts by Tongan passengers and crew

On the evening of November 26, 1962, the Kava Tonga group went to the royal palace in Nuku’alofa and sang a new song for Her Majesty Queen Sālote.

Teiapa’a Bloomfield, Soakai Pulu and Vaiangina Unga stand ready to board the rescue dinghy / Minerva Reef, Olaf Ruhen

A few days before Her Majesty had met the survivors of the wreck of the Tuaikaepau, who had survived for three  months stranded on a reef in the middle of the Pacific ocean.

On November 26 she gave the words of a new song about the Minerva shipwreck to the musicians Ve’ehala and Malukava who set them to music. It was named after the Tuaikaepau (Slow But Sure.)

That evening she heard the song for the first time. The song begins:

Look in the days of the calendar

Fourth of the seventh, sixty-two

The voyagers pulled up anchor

At the harbour of Nuku’alofa

The compass set the direction

Fishing lines cast at Maka-o-‘Oa

The destination was chartered

Heading straight for Aotearoa

Ah, but the ways of the world

How unknown is our journey . . . .

Ve’etutu Pahulu, Saia Peni, Sipa Fine, Fine Feuiaki and Soakai Pulu converse with the rescuers.

On Friday radio stations in Tonga played the song again to mark the 58th anniversary of the wreck of the Tuaikaepau on the Minerva Reef on July 7, 1962.

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Listeners in Tonga said the song showed off the Queen’s musical and poetic talent. They said it had great depth and cultural distinction.

In early July 1962 the Tuaikaepau left Tonga on its way to New Zealand.

Launched in 1903, she was a 20 tonne sailing ship captained by David Fifita.

Finau Laione, Saia Peni, Talo Fifita and Teiapa’a Bloomfield inside the rescue aircraft / Minerva Reef, Olaf Ruhen

Other crew included carpenter Tevita Uaisēlē, engineer Fine Feuiaki, mate Ve’etūtū Pāhulu, deckhand Sione Lousī and the captain’s two sons, Sāteki Fifita and Talo Fifita, both deckhands.

The ship’s passengers were widower Fatai Efiafi, copra planter Vaiangina Unga, carpenter  Viliame Fa’onuku, taxi driver Teiapa’a Bloomfield, boxer/coach Soakai Pulu and boxers  Fetaiaki Pulu, Sione Sikimeti, Sipa Fine Sēkona, Finau Laione Sēkona  and Saia Peni.

According to Australian author Olaf Ruhen’s book Minerva Reef, they found they did not have the correct chart, but the captain decided they could make it anyway.

Finau Laione, Saia Peni, Talo Fifita and Teiapa’a Bloomfield inside the rescue aircraft / Minerva Reef, Olaf Ruhen

The Tuaikaepau stopped briefly at ‘ Ata, south of Tongatapu, before heading for New Zealand.

On July 7 the ship hit the southern Minerva Reef.

The passengers and crew survived by clinging to the hull  and when the next day dawned they spotted the hull of a Japanese fishing vessel, the Nishemi Maru.

This proved to be the key to their survival.

By great good fortune they found a dry box of matches in the Japanese ship and were able to build a still to make fresh water.

There was abundant seafood so they were well fed on fish, shellfish and lobsters.

However, by the end of August they decided the only chance of rescue was to build a small boat and head for Fiji. They made an outrigger canoe from the wreck of Tuaikaepau using tools found in the hull of the Japanese boat.

Leaving the other survivors behind, the canoe – carrying the captain and two other survivors – reached Kadavu, the fourth largest of the Fijian islands, after a week at sea. The canoe overturned just as they reached Kadavu and the captain’s son drowned.

Finally, in mid-October an RNZAF Sunderland flying boat from Laucala Bay dropped supplies to them. On October 16 the same Sunderland landed in the lagoon and rescued the 10 survivors and one body.

The Tongans were taken to Suva’s Colonial War Memorial Hospital, where one was found to be suffering from tuberculosis.

Captain Fifita’s surviving son Talo Fifita died in 2013.

Film

Now a Utah-based film maker, Semisi Taumoepeau, has tracked down some of the last survivors, engineer Fine Feuiaki and boxer Sipa Fine Sekona, to make a film about the shipwreck.

According to a report from Tagata Pasifika, Taumoepeau said the film, Slow but Sure: The Story of the Tuaikaepau, would be released when film festivals were re-opened.

He said the film was meant to honour the men aboard the Tuaikaepau and serve as a lasting tribute to their ordeal.

American yacht

The Tongan patrol boat Neiafu is on station at the Minerva reef where an American is expected to arrive tomorrow.

The yacht, Sailing Zatara, has already been denied entry to Tongan waters because of the border closures brought about by the Covid-1p pandemic.

The Minerva reef, known as Teleki Tonga and Teleki Tokelau, is regarded as Tongan territory.

It is understood the yacht sailed from Florida to New Zealand in February.

Tuaikaepau: Kava Tonga I 

(This English translation of the song appears on Songs & Poems of Queen Sālote)

Look in the days of the calendar 

Fourth of the seventh, sixty-two

The voyagers pulled up anchor

At the harbour of Nuku’alofa

The compass set the direction

Fishing lines cast at Maka-o-’Oa

The destination was chartered 

Heading straight for Aotearoa 

Ah, but the ways of the world 

How unknown is our journey

Minerva Reef, do reveal

Your detaining of the moon’s rays

Deceiving the festive voyagers

Stripping off their flower girdles 

While you feigned loyalty

To the sun’s fishing boat 

Pillowing her in your arm 

Then covering her with the slashing waves

But little does the newcomer know, little the 

      stranger

The mountain in the Tongan heart

Let the difficulties go 

No description will suffice 

The suffering, the troubles

Hope strewn with doubt

Three months of watching the horizon

Not a glimpse of a spark

One match maintained 

To apprehend the light

The applause echoes to the world

It was a victor unsurpassed

The wind roared, the tempest fell

Like Noah, they built a boat

Using only faith, our treasure

Cross erected, the boat moved against the current

Running aground at the island of Kadavu

My deference to Suva, and oh, dear Vuna Wharf

The S.O.S. of the poor men

Laucala Bay, when will I forget

Your salvaging fleet so heart-rending

Returning the lost

Chorus:

Son of Tonga, so pursue your goal

Head for the shining star

Son of Tonga, hold fast your heart

Fix your mind on the swift prow

Son of Tonga, raise high your Flag 

Steer true to the motto of the land

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