Tonga, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Australia
For those of you that don’t have time to read much more, here is the executive summary. We sailed from NZ in May, stopping in Minerva Reef, met friends in Tonga, made a quick stop in Fiji, spent 2.5 months in Vanuatu, a month in New Caledonia and arrived in Australia the first week of December. With the exception of a good friend that died saving his boat in a storm, we had a very good season.
Watch Commander Update
The watch keeping device formerly known as blinky. Demand was good and we sold out of our first production run before we could deliver any to the US. We ordered more printed circuit boards in NZ , got a big shipment of parts from the US and from NZ sources and built a bunch more in March and April. At the end of April, Emerald Marine Products in Seattle – makers of the Alert2 overboard system – licensed our product and took over all marketing and manufacturing. We shipped a bunch of our inventory to them and Gail was glad to have our forward cabin back. Website is still the same – www.SailSafely.com.
Opua, New Zealand
While rushing to get the boat ready to depart and getting our inventory, designs, etc. for blinky shipped to Seattle, we managed to give a US ham radio exam (we are Volunteer Examiners) in Opua. We had more than 20 people that got their ham license or upgraded.
Departure from New Zealand and the trip to Minerva reef was easy. What a change from last year.
Minerva is a circular reef about 2 miles in diameter with only one pass and a deep, comfortable and safe lagoon with few bommies. It lies 750nm from NZ and 250 from Tonga. This was our second time stopping here. The reef itself is about 100 yards wide. At low tide we walked to the outer edge and looked for holes in the top of the reef near the surf line. Many of these were full of lobsters. Yum Yum. We had lobster dinners 3 times in Minerva and brought a bunch of lobster tails to friends that were meeting us in Tonga.
We’d been to Tonga a couple of times already and were only going back to meet friends that were chartering a Moorings boat there. It was an easy 400nm sail from Minerva to Neiafu, the port of entry for Vava’u, the northern island group of Tonga. Our friends flew in a couple of days later for 12 days. Geoff, Sue and Don were on a Moorings charter boat and one friend – now lovingly referred to as the guest from hell – stayed with us. We didn’t feel we should use his name so let’s just call him Tom.
On the first day, the charter boat headed to anchorage 7. (Moorings numbered all the anchorages a few years back and most of the locals use the numbers instead of their ancient, traditional names.) We took a small detour and went fishing. Five minutes after we ducked out the entrance we hooked up a large Mahi Mahi (dolphin fish or dorado). It was the largest fish Tom ever landed. We told him that fishing was always like that and headed back in with almost 5’ of fish hanging from the rigging.
The rest of the 12 days was just as much fun. Lobster dinners, a trip to Mariners cave and Swallows cave, a traditional feast on the beach and a dive in terrible visibility on deep wreck. We did a number of dives with the dive shop and some off of Sea Witch. One dive was particularly exciting as we moved gear and people over a reef and through a reef break so we could dive on the outside.
Of particular value to us was all the anchoring and navigation lessons Tom gave us. Don’t know how we managed to sail 40,000nm without you Tom. Thanks. <grin> We did have a couple of spots where we had to work our way through the coral. We did perfect a technique for dealing with all the input. I went up in the rigging with a headset radio. Gail was driving and had the other headset. We sent Tom to the bow (where we really couldn’t hear him.) Worked out great. <grin> Seriously, though, we did have a great time with you Tom and you are welcome back. We missed you after you left. Except for all the lessons, he was actually a good guest.
Death of a Friend
On the day before our friends flew out, a nasty low was predicted to come through the area. All the boats streamed into Neiafu harbor looking for some protection. It rained and blew hard that night and the next day. After many delays, the planes started flying and our friends got out safely.
The next morning on the radio net we got the news that our good friend Roland on Feisty Lady had died when the storm hit the Ha’apai Group. The wind had swung quickly through 180 degrees and picked up to 50 knots. Feisty Lady dragged two anchors and went up on the coral. Roland took out a third anchor and managed to pull Feisty off the coral. He went back to retrieve the other two anchors but was unable to. He managed to get back to the boat and then his heart gave out and he passed away. Even though most of the other boats in the anchorage were having troubles with their anchors, almost everyone in the anchorage had lent a hand. The Tongan navy took Roland to Tonga’tapu, the capital of Tonga and Kris, with help from Aden (Exotic Escort) and Frenzy II followed.
We sailed down to Tonga’tapu and spent two weeks with Frenzy and Yankee helping Kris get things squared away. It was a scene straight out of Casablanca when we all managed to get Roland on a plane to Hawaii. Kris followed a week later and Roland was buried in Arlington. We’ll miss you Roland.
We made an easy passage to Fiji and only stopped there for food, fuel and to catch up with Heartsong and Tatanka. Another easy 4 day passage and we were in Vanuatu on August 4.
Formerly the New Hebrides, Vanuatu used to be ruled by the French and the British (at the same time) and both the British and French influence are apparent in many areas. Port Vila is the main port of entry and is a clean and modern small town. Ice cream, American-style hamburgers, good grocery stores and some repair parts.
After filling our stomachs and enjoying a bit of civilization, we switched into repair mode. We often found diesel fule in the bilge and had suspected a leak in our fuel tank. The tank is below the floor and not easily accessible so we contorted ourselves into strange positions and used mirrors to inspect the tank. NO LEAK. So, we went to the fuel dock and filled up. That night when it was very quiet, we heard a dripping into the bilge. The tank was leaking but not from the bottom. The leak was on the side up under a bunch of cabinetry. We borrowed some nasty/dangerous tools that look like they belong on the front of some robot in a sci-fi flick and cut away some of the bulkheads to give us access. A little fiberglassing and we think the leak is fixed.
Outside of the two main population centers, Vanuatu is still very primitive. Most of the people live in grass/leaf-covered huts, paddle log canoes and don’t have electricity. The ni-vanuatans (those born in Vanuatu) speak their local village language and Bislama, a pidgin English. Bislama was created to provide a way for all the ni-vats to speak with each other. Prior to this, none of the villages could communicate because the language in each village is different, even between villages on the same island.
The ni-vats were very friendly and really enjoyed having the yachties arounds. They would paddle around us with their canoes and look but rarely got pushy or approached the boat without an invitation.
Our first stop was Epi Island where they have a dugong that often swims in the bay. We searched but missed him. We stopped at the end of the season but still no luck. Maybe next time.
We stopped at Ambrym, walked through some of the villages and did some diving. Lots of large pelagic fish and we discovered an old anchor embedded in the coral. One of the ni-vats that showed us around the island came out to the boat to watch a video. We did it on deck and ended up being the drive-in theater with a bunch of canoes hanging onto the boat.
Next was Pentecost island where they invented bungee jumping (they call it land diving). Each year, using tree limbs and vines, they build towers up to 80’ tall and perform a ritual to bring a bountiful harvest. Men and boys jump from the top of these towers with a vine attached to their ankles. We were too late in the season to attend the ceremony but we did have a chance to visit the towers. On the way there, we met one of the national land diving champions. We’re not sure how you “win” but we figure that being alive is one factor. When asked if we could take a picture of him and the tower, he ran into the bush, put on a nambas and posed for us. A nambas is a penis-sheath with a thin belt around the waist to hold it up. Yes, that is all they wear when wearing a nambas.
Loltong was another interesting stop. Good coral (most of Vanuatu has good coral) and a nice dive right outside the anchorage. The major attraction to this village is Phillip’s restaurant. The “restaurant” is a grass hut with about 10 chairs. You let them know the day before that you would like dinner. Two choices: native fare or native fare with suckling pig. We chose the pig which we got to meet the next morning. They prepared the pig over a fire on a large tree limb that they turn. Dinner was around 4:30 pm which we all thought was a bit early. After we got the dinghies over the reef and met the whole village, it was starting to get dark. That’s when we discovered there were no lights in the grass hut. Back to the boat for flashlights and lanterns. Before dinner the local kindergarten kids performed some songs and then the string band (a big thing left over from American influence during WW II) played. Then, the food. The pig arrived on a platter with four legs up in the air and the head hanging off the end of the platter. Phillip handed us a dull knife and started to leave. I tried to explain to him that our pork/ham comes in cans or packages back home but he kept thinking I was joking with him. Wally made a valiant effort to carve as the whole village looked on (they had surrounded the hut to watch the string band and us). Well, the food was so so but the evening was great.
We visited many other villages with similar experiences. Asanvari had a wonderful waterfall and treated us to native dancing before another “feast” of local fare and then Kava drinking. Kava is their local form of “social drink” and is prepared by grinding up Kava root. We can’t begin to describe how bad this stuff tastes but the ni-vats love it. A ni-vat food that we tried in a few villages is Lap Lap, basically boiled manioc with a bunch chicken parts (we think) in some sort of broth. While we all, the cruisers, had fun, most of us agreed we were “lap lap’d out” and didn’t want to try it at any more villages.
As we got further away from the main population center things got more primitive and the locals even friendlier. They sang welcome songs, traded with us for rice, t-shirts, sugar, fish hooks, batteries and brought us vegetables, fruits lobsters and carvings. We tried to help wherever we could by sharpening knives, fixing the rare outboard motor, and sometimes providing transportation. We were headed to Luganville (the other city in Vanuatu) 50 nm from Asanvari. The chief asked if we could give a ride to a husband, wife and baby; they needed to get to the hospital. No problem. In Waterfall bay, we set many new records on Sea Witch. We gave 45 ni-vats a ride 7nm up the coast to attend a festival. Sea Witch wallowed but everyone had a good time.
Lobsters were often available on the reefs. Sometimes we traded for them. Other times we went out with locals or on our own and collected them. One night Fred (Kyrnos) and I went out. Once we found the lobsters, I held the bag and Fred kept tossing them in.
Luganville is the other city in Vanuatu. During WW II, more than 50,000 American soldiers were stationed there with bombers, fighters and ships. There is a lot of WW II history in Vanuatu and the Solomons. The SS Calvin Coolidge sunk after hitting a friendly mine. It was driven onto the beach so everyone could get off. It eventually slid deeper (120’ to 240’) and is the worlds “most intact” wreck to dive on. We did 5 dives on her between 120’ and 180’ including one night dive that is hard to describe. It is done completely without lights; the glow of the lantern fish (like underwater fireflies) helps you find your way inside the ship. Perhaps the best way to describe it is otherworldly.
After 2.5 months in Vanuatu it was time to move on. We got clearance to stop in Tanna, a volcanic island not often visited by cruising boats. We hiked to the active volcano and walked around the rim. We could see the molten lava glowing and smoke coming out. With our friends on Kyrnos, we stopped for one night in Aniwa to do a couple of dives and were the first cruising boats to visit in more than a year.
Vanuatu was truly a trip back in time. Beautiful people, places and experiences.
New Caledonia is a French, very civilized and very friendly. Noumea, its only port of entry, is the big city. Malls, supermarkets, traffic, lots of good food and easy access to repair parts. Chocolate croissants for breakfast every morning. And, Chez Mc for a taste of America.
We spent a couple of weeks a Gadji in the Isle of Pines with many friends on 6-8 other boats. Diving, diving, and more diving. Wake boarding, lots of kids boats, pot lucks, surprise parties and a “pirate attack” for Charlie’s (Bonheur) birthday. A drive around the island exploring caves and seeing the sights. It was a wonderful couple of weeks but not enough time to really see all of New Caledonia.
The passage to Australia was easy with only one significant problem. We shredded a spinnaker, put up a second one and ripped the connection off the top of the mast. Fortunately, we have a backup halyard and were able to get another spinnaker up. All of this occurred in one hour.
Australia is beautiful and the people are very friendly. Sea Witch is safe in Mooloolaba at a nice dock. We’ve bought a car and plan to tour OZ when we get back from our trip to LA.
Overall, this was a great season. We ended up too busy to keep up with our email and we’re sorry that many of you didn’t hear from us. We hope to do better next year…Merry Christmas & Happy New Year....jpc & gail
Jeff & Gail