Mystery of Pole who built a raft of twigs – then set sail for Australia in a cyclone

‘Asylum seeker’ washes up in mangrove swamp after trying to cross from Papua New Guinea
  • @kathymarksoz

His story raises more questions than it answers, but one thing seems certain: the man who sailed from Papua New Guinea to northern Australia on a raft of twigs and sticks – braving a cyclone and waters infested with crocodiles and sharks – is fortunate to be alive.

This courageous – or foolhardy, depending on your point of view – individual is believed to be Polish, and in his twenties. His name is reportedly Vazlavand. It is not clear what he was doing in Papua New Guinea, Australia’s northern neighbour. And his motive for crossing the treacherous Torres Strait? That is not yet clear, either, although – possibly – he was hoping to claim asylum.

Mr Vazlavand – we might as well call him that – washed ashore on Saibai Island, one of many pinpricks of land in the narrow, shallow strait. The island is only a few miles from Papua New Guinea but is in Australia’s territorial waters.

Alerted by Saibai residents, who spotted him on Thursday, Australian authorities dispatched a helicopter and customs ship. However, neither could find him, and it was local police who eventually discovered him, exhausted, in a mangrove swamp.

Although he had travelled only about five miles, conditions for sailing a home-made raft held together with string were not ideal, to say the least. The monsoon season is in full swing in northern Australia, and Cyclone Oswald had recently passed overhead. Our Pole (if he really is Polish) had to contend with five-foot swells and gusts of wind of up to 40 knots. “It’s the first time I’ve heard of someone trying to cross the Torres Strait in the middle of a cyclone,” Jo Meehan, a spokeswoman for the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, told Agence France-Presse.

She added, somewhat understatedly: “It’s not something we’d recommend. Navigation in the area is quite challenging for normal vessels. It’s quite treacherous with reefs and rocks, and he did it in high winds and high seas. He’s very lucky to have made it.”

Australian immigration authorities are waiting to interview Mr Vazlavand, who has been transferred to a detention centre on Thursday Island, the main hub of the Torres Strait. He is receiving medical checks before being questioned about the trip, but he appears to be in good health. He had no possessions with him.

The man reportedly set off from Sigabadura village in Papua New Guinea, ignoring locals who tried to talk him out of attempting the crossing. Ms Meehan said he left at 3am on Thursday and was found at about 2pm. “I am genuinely surprised that he got there,” she told Australia’s ABC radio. “This is certainly a first for me.”

However, Mr Vazlavand is not the first person to survive the Torres Strait in an unusual vessel. In 2009 two Burmese men were found floating in the choppy waters in a giant icebox. They had been aboard a Thai fishing boat which sank, and had been adrift for 20 days, they claimed. The pair were eventually granted asylum.