Our family was marooned for five months

Wednesday, June 29, 2011
Our family was marooned on a tiny island for five months
The Barrie family, who were marooned on the island of Mogmog for five months

When a Perth family set out on a two-year round-the-world trip on a catamaran, they didn't count on being shipwrecked on a remote island in the Pacific. Sue Williams recounts their adventures.

Lashed by nine-metre waves and brutal winds in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Jennifer Barrie and her husband, Andrew, fought desperately to keep control of their catamaran as their two young daughters in life jackets clung to the rails.

Realising their lives were at stake, the Perth family jumped into their dinghy and abandoned ship just before it slammed into rusting jetties on a coral reef, its hull tearing apart.

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As they dragged themselves from the boiling surf onto the sands of what looked like an island paradise, they thought the worst of their ordeal was over. They were wrong — it was just beginning.

Mogmog, the tiny island they stumbled across on March 23 last year and on which they would be marooned for the next five months, is part of a remote atoll about 2000km north of Papua New Guinea.

It is undeveloped, isolated and deeply traditional. Just 200 people live there, without phones, running water, or currency. The few houses are dilapidated, possessions are shared and one groaning generator provides all the electricity.

Locals survive on fish, turtles, even wild dogs, which they cook on an open fire. Men wear loincloths and women go topless. To respect their male relatives, women are expected to bend or kneel so their heads remain lower.

In contrast, the Barries sail around the world, run their own business and come from a country in which women can do anything — even become prime minister. A culture clash was almost inevitable.

"I suppose it does sound like a great adventure," Jennifer tells The Weekly in an exclusive interview two days after the family finally arrived back in Western Australia, in June. "But I'd much rather it hadn't happened. I think the whole experience has really affected us."

When their boat crashed, the Barrie family could have returned to Australia. A local barge would have taken them to a nearby island, which is serviced by an airstrip. Yet they were not insured, so they decided to stay and try to repair Windrider, a process Andrew estimated would take six months.

"We'd spent 10 years planning and waiting for this trip, and we weren't prepared to let it go," says Jennifer. "We had no insurance, so we would have lost everything, but more than that, we weren't prepared to give up on our dreams. I think we'd probably make the same decision again."

The chief allowed them to move into one of the only houses on the island, meant for visiting priests. It was dank and dark, with no running water, but plenty of rats.

The girls split their time between exploring the island — they were allowed to roam if they stuck together — and taking lessons over radio from an Australian distance education school. Andrew and Jennifer set about fixing the boat.

On the advice of an American aid worker, Jennifer adopted the local custom of toplessness. "This very much went against the grain for me," she says, but she realised they needed as much community support as possible. Andrew thought it was hilarious."

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At first, the family got on well with the natives, but cracks quickly appeared. Food was scarce and Jennifer found it hard to hold her tongue in the male-dominated society.

More conflict came when Jennifer upset some of the men by admonishing them for killing and eating a dog of which the Australians had become fond.

"One day, I hope I will be able to look fondly back at that time," says Jennifer, choosing her words carefully. "But not yet. I can't do that yet and probably won't be able to for a long time."

Marooned On Mogmog by Jennifer Barrie is published by HarperCollins, $35.

Read more of this story in the July issue of The Australian Women's Weekly.

Your say: How do you think you would cope if you were marooned on a tiny island?

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