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.
seems like yesterday that this period in my life took place, how time
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
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.
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.
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
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.
understand why they had pieces of wood about 1 foot long nailed at
intervals along one edge.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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).
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!
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.
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.
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
“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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.