"The Canoe"
Jim Martin

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RAF Gan May 1961 - May 1962

I came across the RAF Gan website by accident while looking for other information about the  Maldives.

I was even more surprised to find a passage about myself in Ken Halls memories. Kens’ account of the canoe building is a little inaccurate, so I thought I would give you the facts straight from the horses mouth.

 It only seems like yesterday that this period in my life took place, how time flies.

The building of the canoe, or to be more exact canoes, because there were two constructed, was a bit like an escape story from a POW camp. As in those days materials had to be “acquired” from whatever source was available.

Long before the concept of the canoe had materialised, I had been given permission to use any wood that had been dumped in the NAAFI. Compound. (This was situated next to the bakery) This was used to make little extra bits of furniture like headboards  for the beds in our rather stark four man rooms. Using the tall lockers I made extra storage space by boxing in the space created when two of these were placed close to each other. Next came pelmets for the bare mesh covered windows, and  curtains which came from my mother in Singapore.

One day I noticed a fish tank sitting outside the transit mess facing the football pitch. After about a week of non activity the aforementioned fish tank found its way to block 58. The reason for the abandoned tank was soon apparent. The end glass panel was cracked from corner to corner rendering the tank incapable of retaining water. A visit to the AMWD workshop with the required measurements and the requisite quantity of cigarettes soon produced replacement glass and sufficient putty to complete the repair. An air pump from my “Singapore supplier”, several visit to the beach armed with suitable containers, and we had our own marine aquarium. It was now beginning to look like home from home and in fact the CO. enquired, on his next inspection when he could move in.

After some persuasion, by my superiors, the tank was returned to its rightful owners in the transit mess for the benefit of those en-route to destinations further a field.

Now to the canoes. I had never been in a canoe in my life, mainly because I couldn’t swim. A non swimmer and a canoe is not a realistic combination. This was rectified within three weeks of arriving on the island. I borrowed a face mask so that I could look at the fish while wading in the shallow water. I soon found myself bobbing in the water and from there it  only took a few hours before I was actually swimming. One of the lads in the block had a one man canoe .I was asked if I would like to try it out. The considerable crowd that gathered to watch my first attempt should have alerted me to what was to come. This craft was almost wide enough to sit in, but almost impossible to keep upright, however much the same as riding a bike, once mastered you never forget the secret. I enjoyed the freedom on the water so I decided to build my own larger and more stable version.

For a venture to succeed, things have to be planned in advance. By this time I had enlisted the help of George Wood who arrived about August 1961. A two man canoe has to be about 16 or 17 feet long. To acquire strips of wood that length for the lateral ribs would be quite difficult

It had become my custom to run round the island in the late afternoon when it was a little cooler. While passing the aircraft dispersal area, I noticed numerous lengths of wood about 18 feet long and 4 inches wide by about ¾ inch thick.

I didn’t understand why they had pieces of wood about 1 foot long nailed at intervals along one edge.

George and I soon knocked these pieces of wood off about five of these planks, which, with the assistance of our friends at the AMWD,  were soon transformed into strips 18feet long by 1inch by ¾ inch.

It wasn’t till the next hockey match, which was played on the dispersal area, that the purpose for these  planks became obvious. A considerable length of the barrier to prevent the ball escaping the playing area was missing!

Next came the cross members. About this time, some of the huts from the old “Costains” camp, (They were the main contractors who built the camp) were being dismantled and reassembled as offices on the main camp. The plywood partitions in these huts were about 8 feet by 4 feet. These would be ideal for cutting out the shapes for  the cross sections, and the centres could be cut away to allow a space for our legs to pass through. I approached the site and made enquiries to the Maldivian labourer as to the availability of these boards.

The enquiry went something like this. Me, pointing to the boards . Plenty having?   Plenty having!  You wanting?    Me wanting!  How many you wanting?   Four wanting!  (pause)  You come back 12 o’ clock, Pakistani man go lunch, you having.

It didn’t take long to create the skeletons using copper nails “gifted” by the marine craft section, and we were ready for the outer skin. This was at present resting in the form of a tarpaulin, in the NAAFI compound, which happened to be across the road from the new cinema. (no more sitting outside watching the film go out of focus as the wind blew the screen).

The plan was to go to the cinema, and visit the compound en-route. Under the cover of darkness, the tarpaulin was thrown over the rear fence and collected when the film was over. It was obvious from the weight that the tarpaulin was soaking. Early next morning we spread the tarpaulin out on the ground behind block 58 to dry. On returning from work in the afternoon I was astounded to discover that someone had had the audacity to steal a section from one of the corners!























We were soon ready for the finishing touches. The rudder was fitted and connected to the control bar using 100 lb. fishing line and the compartment behind the rear paddler was waterproofed to store things like cameras, food etc. The final touch was to paint the covering. A visit to the Fire section soon yielded a tin of each of their favourite colours. Red and White. To distinguish between the two craft, the top of one was white and the top of the other red, the bottoms being the reverse. The canoes had to be registered with the police who, I think, were Ceylonese. Each canoe was given a number, and a description in a log . I don’t think the chap  taking the details saw the humour in my reply. When asked the colour of the respective canoes. I answered, red and white, and the other is white and  red.

George and I spent many hours in these canoes. On one expedition we set off for Hithadhoo,(that’s how they spell it on the Addu Atoll website) the transmitter station, which was about five miles or so across the lagoon. Half way across we were caught in a squall . It was obvious that our chances in the canoe were not very good, so we headed for the nearest island, although all the  islands except Gan and our destination were out of bounds. Safe on shore we were soon surrounded by dozens of local children who were fascinated by this strange craft. It didn’t take them long to get afloat, with about three in each compartment and several more on the topside. The inevitable happened and over it went. George and I were not unduly concerned as most of the children can swim before they can walk. It soon became obvious that one small boy could not swim and was in some difficulty. We got him out and after a bit of pumping and squeezing he was up and running again.  The weather soon improved and we continued on our trip.

Some days later we were summonsed to appear in front of the CO. After explaining why we had been out of bounds. He informed us that the Head man Mr Affaf DeeDee (excuse the spelling) had been in contact with him, regarding the incident with the child, and as a result, George and I could go as we pleased. 

The “Headman”, owned a speedboat, which he loved to drive as fast as possible in the lagoon. Unfortunately the outboard engines were too powerful for the size of the boat, and it was always in danger of flipping over backwards. To compensate for this he had to have one of his men sit in the pulpit, a small railing at the bow, with his legs either side of the bow, to weigh it down.

We didn’t abuse this privilege. Any time we went fishing there was always live bait, shells or bananas given to us. We were also treated to a real curry aboard the “Bugalo” a larger sailing ship, which brought supplies from Male the capital. This was mainly rice, flour, and sugar, and was packed in 1 cwt. Sacks. These were lowered into a Dhoni and rowed ashore.

The average Maldivian is only about  5 feet tall and it took two of them to carry the sacks to the store ashore. On one of our trips George and I decided to help carry these sacks to the store. We were both quite fit. George had been a farm worker before joining the RAF. When we finished we all cleaned up by  having  a swim and general splash about.  We relaxed on the shore drinking green coconut milk, which is surprisingly refreshing. One of the men, who I would describe as the local ”Jack the lad” sat down beside me. After a few minutes, he turned to me and said, “You wanting woman”? Thinking I would string him along, I asked, “Which woman”? “ This woman“, he said, pointing to a young girl, who had been sitting close by. She could only have been about 15 with big brown eyes and a set of perfect white teeth. In spite of the confines of the very tight traditional native dress she was wearing, it was obvious that she had a body that most women would kill for. I told this chap, “Me wife having”, to which he replied, “You RAF man Gan, wife England, no jigyjig no F_ _ _ _ing good. While I could not argue with his logic, now was the time for us to take our leave of this group of very ”friendly” natives!

Fraternising with the local women was taboo, and the main reason for all but the “RAF” islands being out of bounds.  

On another occasion, we were gliding along through the crystal clear water, some distance from shore. It was possible to see down through 20 to 30 feet and watch the multitudes of different coloured fish. I was enjoying the view ahead when George, very quietly, informed me that we had company. As I have mentioned before, the canoe was about 18 ft. long, but, swimming below us was something that was at least as big .Time once again for a visit to the nearest island.

Modifications were made to one of our fleet. Paddling a canoe across a lagoon in temperatures hovering around 100+ degrees F. is hard work. Drop keels were fitted to either side of the canoe, and two masts fitted. One was situated directly in front of the lead crewman, the second behind the aft crew man. These had booms attached. The sails for these and a foresail, were fashioned from a pair of sheets  that vanished from the laundry! The fore mast and boom, prohibited  the lead member from paddling, but this was now only required when negotiating the shallow water into the lagoon. After that mother nature took over.

In 1969, I was posted to Singapore. When we landed at Gan, it was in the morning, so I decided to look up my old room boy, mentioned by Ken Hall.

I got halfway across the football pitch towards block 58, when Mussah Ibrahem, to give him his full name, appeared from the central area of the block. I waved, he stopped, and after a few moments he started running towards me arms in the air, shouting Mr. Jim, Mr. Jim. We spent some time together recalling times gone by.

How the memories return. There are many more stories I could relate. A year on Gan was not an experience one looked forward to, especially if like me you were leaving behind a wife and a young child. I suppose that year was what you made it.

 If I hadn’t been  “recycling” materials, and enjoying the new creations, I could have been like many others who only saw their workplace, their bedspace, and the NAAFI bar. 

Formerly V4253368  J/T  Martin J R R.  CCS.   RAF Gan  May 1961- May 1962

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