We're back in Noumea after an all too brief sojourn in Vanuatu (Van-WAH-tu), a group of islands a little Northeast of New Caledonia. We didn't have time to sail there and sail to New Cal (as Finn calls it) and make it to Brisbane in time, so we took the short cut by plane. On the flight we had a reminder that we were entering a malaria zone as the stewardess walked up and down the aisle, spraying us for mosquitos. We had hesitated to go to Vanuatu as it is a malaria zone, but we have heard it is more an issue in the rainy season and does not seem to be a current outbreak.
We arrived in Port Vila late on Sunday night, checked in to the Vanuatu Holiday Hotel within walking distance of the downtown. The room was very Spartan, yet clean, with functioning toilet and showers. The kids thought they were in the lap of luxury - despite the 5 dead cockroaches on the floor and under the beds. We congratulated ourselves on our fine selection of hotel since the roaches were dead and not scurrying around the place without care.
We spent a couple days exploring the city, shopping at the farmer's market, playing in the park on the swings, investigating our options for Day 2. We settled on an all day van trip around the island of Efate (Eh-FAR-tey), some traditional dancing, fire walking, sand drawing and snorkeling at a couple beach spots. For lunch we stopped at a restaurant along a rural beach road, a small band (including baby goat) serenaded us while we ate.
On the third day we got up at 4:30am and headed to the airport to fly to tiny Tanna island, home of Mt Yasur (Yah-ZUR), the "world's most accessible volcano." Lucky for us this volcano is on Tanna where the safety rules are a bit more lax. Back in the US, officials would probably stop us miles before the actual volcano and force us view the activity from far away. That was our experience in Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii anyway. On Tanna, we stayed at the Tanna Evergreen Resort. We had the family unit, a small plywood house complete with raised concrete flooring, a stinky fridge stocked with frozen meat, a piano and piles of church literature stored in the rafters. It was actually a lovely place and the kids wanted to stay indefinitely.
At 3pm on Wednesday afternoon, our local guide Jack, picked us up in his 4WD truck and we headed out to the volcano. We had been warned that the road was bumpy - teeth rattling was how I'd describe it. After 2 hours of driving partially on paved roadway, and mostly through dirt track in the bush, we arrived at the base of Mt Yasur. The sun was just setting as we hiked up to the rim of the crater. It was moonlike, with gray stand and black lava rock scattered about. Before we saw the eruptions, we heard them. Loud booms, bangs and spurts would come out of nowhere and then we'd look up to see smoke billowing from the mouth of the crater. Once the sun set and darkness fell, we could see that the billowing smoke actually contained bits of molten lava as well. We had quite a light show that night as we sat on a log by the edge of the crater. Jack offered to take us higher up the ridge so we could see down into the crater's mouth - not such a good idea with the kids - but Eric took the challenge and off they went into the darkness, hiking up a somewhat marked trail. Jack and Eric were on the ridge when the largest of eruptions happened, sending a hunk of burning lava up and over their heads!
Not much can top that kind of experience, except a visit to a Kastom (custom, traditional) village on Tanna where the people work very hard to live according to their ancient traditions rather than getting caught up in the modern ideas of schooling, western medicine, jobs for money, etc. For a small fee and with another local guide, we were invited to see how they live. The women showed us how they cook Laplap, a staple in their diet. Laplap is made by grinding banana and tapioca into a mush, then spreading that on leaves, which is then wrapped in a banana leaf and grilled on an open fire. The result is quite good though it may have given me and Eric both a bit of a stomach bug. The men showed us how they start fire by rubbing two pieces of wood together and how they roll their own tobacco. Finn and Sophie joined the kids and climbed up an ancient banyan tree. Sophie came down once the ladder ended, Finn followed the lead of the boys and crawled off the ladder and up the banyan roots for the last 10-20 feet and made it all the way up to the tree house (see the pictures!) This made a big impression on the kids. The visit ended in song and dance. Even the littlest of the boys was in the middle of the dance circle doing his best to keep up. It made me consider how song and dance are such an important part of everyday celebrating in these islands. Back home in the US, we often focus on perfection and precision in order to prepare ourselves to dance or sing for others, leaving the less talented out of the mix altogether. What a shame.
As always, the visit included a chance to look over their traditional handicrafts for purchase. One of the items was a bow and arrow set that a boy Finn's age had made. He showed Finn how to shoot the arrow and that was that - we now have a bow and arrow to stow somewhere on the boat!
The only real drawback with Vanuatu was the potential for malaria, so we bought medicine at the clinic in Port Vila and we have treatment on board should something arise. We did take precautions with bug repellant, long sleeves and pants, and mosquito coils at night so I think we are relatively in the clear, but just in case, we are prepared should something arise.
After surviving accommodations, bumpy rides to volcanoes, watching our child climb 40 ft up into a banyan tree, lathering up with mosquito repellant every day, we thought we were home free the morning we went to the airport to check in for our return flight to Noumea. Not so fast!
The gate agent would not issue our boarding cards because we had no tickets beyond Noumea. He wanted us to prove that we had a way out of the country once we were allowed back in. We didn't think to bring our boat registration or other immigration papers with us. We just assumed that if we originated in New Caledonia and bought a round trip ticket we'd have no problem flying back. In retrospect, we should have worried a little more about this because Eric and I both had to carry a letter from our ship's captain last year when we flew into one place to meet the boat and then flew out of another country once we'd made the passage. This agent was determined not to let us into New Caledonia until we could prove that we would be leaving. Eventually, he referred us to his supervisor and the race with the clock was on - just 1 ½ hours to prove that we could leave Noumea. We thought about calling the Noumea harbor master who could verify that our boat was in their harbor - but they didn't open until 8am and our flight was leaving at 6:30am. Then we thought we could show him our crew list, but we had forgotten our power cord for the laptop we brought and by the time Eric booted it up it was out of battery. We asked if showing him our blog site would work - sure, he said, but he didn't have internet at his terminal so we'd have to go to the café, buy an internet card and log on to one of two (very ancient) machines at a kiosk. We bought the card, tried to log on, but we couldn't get a connection. At that point we were getting desperate, so I asked the supervisor if anyone at all in the airport would possibly have an internet connection. He felt my pain so he took me back into their offices, behind the security door and the luggage checking, and logged on to an office computer. Almost there....but not quite, turns out the internet connection for the entire airport was down. We were almost at the point where we'd have to put up thousands of dollars to buy refundable tickets from Noumea to Seattle, until Eric unearthed one of our boat cards we had made to give people we meet our contact info and blogsite address. The supervisor made a Xerox of the front and back of the card for his files. This little card showing our boat name and the names of each of us seemed to do the trick and suddenly we were back at the gate receiving our boarding passes. Yikes! So, let this be a warning to any cruisers who plan to fly mid-journey....keep your boat registration papers, crew list and first born child with you at all times.
We hear from our weather router that Thursday Oct 14th may be our day to head out. Crossing our fingers and looking forward to reaching Brisbane at last.
10/01/2010, Noumea, New Caledonia
Bon jour mes amis! Nous sommes arrive en Nouvelle Caledonie. I think that's how one says it. Anyway, we are thoroughly enchanted with this country. From the minute we pulled into the visitor's dock at Port Moselle, we were warmly received. Of course, this is almost France, and as Steve Martin astutely recognized 30 years ago...they have a different word for everything. Despite the language barrier, everyone we've met has been very kind and helpful. Most people speak a little English, and contrary to France, most people will suffer our very broken French and answer us in French until it is clear that we haven't understood a word and then they'll answer again in English. Not so the real France.
Even the officials here are easy going. For example, we weren't quite in time to clear in with customs before they closed their offices for the night, but the marina gave us the bathroom/shower key and said we could get off the boat and use the facilities. This would have been unheard of in Samoa, Tonga and Fiji where you couldn't set foot on the dock until all the officials had stamped their paperwork on your kitchen table. The next morning, Eric was allowed to leave the boat and bring his paperwork up to the harbormaster's office. The harbor staff relayed the papers to Customs on our behalf and said if we didn't hear back in a short while we should just consider ourselves checked in. Wow.
Yesterday we had lunch at a little café. Eric and I didn't see beer listed on the menu, but we asked if they had "Number 1," the local beer and the waitress said, "Sure." The beer came in paper cups and showed up on our tab as 7-up. I guess that is how the proprietor gets around needing a liquor license. No fuss, no lengthy explanations; he just figured out a work-around. Curiously, the only people who have seemed somewhat clueless work in the Tourist Information Office. Once we asked about the hours for the municipal pool, and we were told "in the morning until the afternoon."
When I asked again for more specific hours, the man answered cheerfully, "Early in the morning until late in the afternoon." We've been to the pool twice already and we just make sure that we show up a while after sunrise and leave before we get hungry for dinner and it's all worked out just fine. For my Seattle friends - we could only be so lucky as to have another outdoor pool like this one at home: 50 meters, separate pool for small kids, arena seating for swim meets, accessible to all, inexpensive entry fee, right on the bus line. But I digress....
Amongst the cruising community, New Caledonia is reputed to be the expensive place to stay, second only to Tahiti. What we've found is that the prices do approach prices back home ($7-10 a person for a midrange café lunch), but this place has an infrastructure and that costs money to maintain. Need to use a restroom? They have one nearby. It has toilet paper, the flusher works and the room is clean. Need to buy a marine part? They have a store. Want to fly to Vanuatu? They have a travel agency. In fact, on Wednesday we took the kids to see "Le Dernier Maitre de l'Air" (Avatar, the Last Airbender) at the cinema. We've officially re-entered the consumer-based, global economy.
Tomorrow we'll visit the New Caledonia Museum where we are to see Melanesian artifacts and learn about the Kanak people who are indigenous to these islands. I would say this is the only sad part of the visit, that so much of the original Melanesian lifestyle and the people themselves have been over- shadowed by French culture.
After the prudishness of Samoa, Tonga and Fiji, it is refreshing to walk down the dock and see boat captains tending their boats in nothing more than a pair of (threadbare) underwear. Ladies here wear high heels and fashion belts, and they smoke cigarettes. Public-display-of-affection is clearly no longer taboo, at least in the city center. And ironically, Eric was unable to swim in the Municipal Pool in his modest swim trunks. Instead, they require "le speedo." As befits the hospitality of this place, the lifeguard first offered to loan Eric one of his "le speedos" and when Eric politely declined the offer, the life guard said he could go ahead and swim anyway, but to please come back next time with "le speedo."
We head to Vanuatu on Sunday, taking an airborne vessel instead of our usual water craft. We all look forward to making such a fast passage to another country and to sleeping a couple of nights in a hotel. We will spend 3 days on the island of Efate in their capital city, Port Vila. Then we'll fly to an outer island called Tanna, home to Mt. Yasur a highly active volcano. We've hired a guide to take us up the mountain at night to view the eruption up close. We'll be back in Noumea on Friday Oct 8th ready to begin final preparations for our last passage of the journey.
I've seen a couple signs recently that caught my eye:
1) In Fiji on the Lautoka wharf "Your safety is your responsibility" (whom does that leave to sue?)
2) Near the handicapped parking spaces in Noumea " If you take my parking space, please take my handicap as well" ( a little in your face, but perhaps effective)
3) On the women's bathroom/shower area door here at the Port Moselle habor "This room is strictly for use by women only. Those couples wishing to shower together, please use the Men's."
4) On a Chinese restaurant here in Noumea "Restauration Chinoise" (not quite French, but not quite English either)
Havannah was smooth and absolutely beautiful. Our only adverse condition was a slight bit of fog which limited our ability to see the different colors of water (very helpful when traversing reefs because the different colors indicate depths, brown being a very bad color to see in front of the boat.) I am sure the pass can be incredible under the right conditions; at one point we actually saw 8.9 kts of GPS speed when we were only going 5.0 kts through the water. That was at the end of the flood when the current is lightest.
We wound our way 40 miles through islets and reefs before finally turning around the last point and into Port Moselle, Noumea. Sophie popped her head out from under the dodger and exclaimed, "Finally, some sky scrapers again!" We look forward to exploring this "Paris of the Pacific."
New Caledonia is within our sights! It is 6:30am and we have less than two hours before we reach the Canal du Havannah or Havannah Passage, a thorny route for those heading to Noumea from the NE, yet nevertheless it is the main ship channel and the most efficient way through New Caledonia's main barrier reef.
Our passage so far has been extraordinary as in atypical. We've seen it all, from the first day out of Fiji sailing in winds that rated 7 on the Beaufort Scale, to the wing-on-wing business I described a few days ago, to motoring for the last 36 hours and the dead calm we have now. As I write, the wind is less than 4 kts, the sea is so calm there is barely a swell and the clouds are reflected in the water. Haven't seen that before and it couldn't come at a better time as we begin our transit through Havannah Passage. If we were traditionalists we would be bobbing up and down within sight of shore but going nowhere until the wind changed. Lucky for us we are "limited exposurists" in that we focus on making the voyage in the most efficient manner, limiting our exposure to weather and other conditions, reaching our destination without delay if possible.
As we learned in our research for this landfall, the Havannah Passage can produce "violent eddies" during the tidal change. According to Jimmy Cornell (a voyager's guru), it should be negotiated on a flood tide. According to the official cruising guide to New Caledonia, it should only be attempted at slack water (between the tides). Wasn't that when there were supposed to be "violent eddies?" It has also been called a ship's graveyard. When the wind is blowing counter to ebb, overfalls (breaking waves) are present and currents can reach up to 4 kts (our boat only does 5.5kts under power.) What excitement awaits us at the end of our 6 day passage! Eric tells me not to worry because the Sailing Directions are probably written, or at least edited by, lawyers. They have to cover all the scenarios for the shipping companies.
After 700 miles at sea through all kinds of conditions, we've managed landfall for 8:30am at the tail end of the flood. Thanks to Eric's excel spreadsheet that gives him various arrival times for our possible travel speeds; he can really dial it in. (If he could only control the weather...) The sea is as flat as I've ever seen it and the wind is almost nothing. I am hopeful our transit through the actual reef passage and the subsequent winding through reefs and islets on the last 40 miles into Noumea are equally as uneventful.
Aaahhh, "Night Watch." The kids are nestled in their beds, the dishes are put away and the boat is quiet except for the sound of water rushing along her sides and the occasional knocking sound of an errant wave wacking the hull. The auto-pilot is squeaking as usual, but at least it isn't broken as Eric fixed it again this afternoon. It is funny how we become fixated on a random point in the open ocean: in just 15 nautical miles we get to make a 20 degree turn. At that point we still have 196 miles to go, but in the scheme of a roughly 700 mile trip, this little turn is nothing short of a significant milestone. What excitement!
We have had a very smooth passage so far, departing Fiji aside, we have had no weather to speak of and shouldn't before we are nestled safely in the harbor. We sailed dead downwind for 36 hours straight, "wing on wing." This phrase describes how the main sail is let out on one side of the boat, held in position by tension between the mainsheet and a preventer (so it doesn't gybe) and the headsail is poled out on the opposite side. Think butterfly wings or a spatchcocked chicken. It is often a fussy point of sail, you don't want either sail to get backwinded, but with a steady enough wind (we had 12-17 kts) and calm enough seas (9-12 foot swells but 10-12 seconds apart) it can be quite comfortable. I must give Eric full credit for suggesting that was how we'd keep to our course line and I did protest because it takes a while to set it all up right, but that has been the ticket to staying on track.
I've been a little more relaxed on this passage - relatively speaking - and we are moving along nicely toward our goal. Because this was going to be a bit longer passage than we've had for a while (6 days), Eric agreed to my commissioning a voyage forecast (approx $45) from Bob McDavitt the official "Weather Ambassador" for New Zealand. Bob is also the South Pacific sailor's weather guru and sends out a weekly synopsis to the fleet. Sometimes he talks about weather like Alan Greenspan talks about the economy, but his voyage forecast has been quite accessible and helpful. It gives me great comfort to hear from a weather forecaster that we should have no significant weather issues on the passage. Eric was reluctant (we have so much free weather info at our disposal already), but I asked him to consider it a gift, say. a 13th wedding anniversary gift, and that way he'd be getting off rather inexpensively. Who wants a voyage forecast for their anniversary? The lady who got the new toilet for her birthday! Tonight we pass within 16 miles of Aneityum, or Anatom, the southern most island in the country of Vanuatu (van-WAH-tu). We won't sail into Vanuatu because the checkin port is a few islands up and quite a bit further North than we have time for, but I can see it on the radar now and it is so tantalizingly close. Instead, we may fly end up flying to Vanuatu from Noumea. Seems a shame to be so close and just miss it.
We have left Fiji far behind and are now more than halfway to Noumea, New Caledonia. I blogged a while back that Fiji was becoming my favorite place. That was premature - Savu Savu is a lovely port and I could eat Indian food every day of my life, but the rest of the country gave me the third-world blues by the time we were checking out and heading to sea. It's the little things that add up. For example, I went shopping twice to provision for this passage. The first time I had a full cart and by the time I was up next in line the power went out so the check out machines didn't work. Some people just parked themselves to wait it out. I didn't have the patience to sit and sweat in a store while my perishables began to perish before I even paid for them. The second time I went to provision I had a cart full again and when I got to the front of the line, the computer system shut down. That time I was determined to leave with the goods I needed. I spotted a lady working behind the liquor counter, a caged-in box with a little window very similar to liquor store checkouts in Chicago. She apparently worked off a different system so her checkout machine still functioned. One by one I passed my items, a full week's worth of groceries, through the little window so she could scan them and hand them back to me. That incident by itself could be a funny story, but add it up with the 50 other things that happened and it starts to get anyone down.
Eric wrote a bit about how we had to check out from Lautoka, 20 some miles NE of Musket Cove. Musket Cove was just a couple miles from the passage we'd eventually be taking through the reef as we left, but according to the immigration rules, we had to travel to Lautoka first and travel an extra 40 miles back and forth, just to check out. Then, once we checked out, we had to leave immediately; no going back to Musket Cove to spend the night and prepare for our passage. Anchoring in front of the Lautoka wharf was a messy affair. There are two busy factories at work 24 hours a day, one makes molasses from the sugar cane harvest and the other makes wood chips. Combine a burnt sugar smell with a very fine black soot that falls on the boat when the wind shifts a certain way and you really want to move out of there. "Thanks for visiting Fiji, please come again soon."
However, as I consider these annoyances while on night watch, I realize why customs and immigration in a small island country can get persnickety. As we left Fiji, the winds were howling (30 plus kts) and the waves were in a lather. By the time night fell we turned on the radar and noticed two other boats near us, the freighter Maersk Fukuoka and a smaller sailing vessel single-handed by a Swede Eric had met in customs. We heard the Fukuoka hailing Lautoka port control on the VHF, they were requesting their compulsory pilot boat so they could head into port. I hailed the sailing vessel to say hi and commiserate about the conditions and to ask where he was headed. He answered that eventually he'd see us in Noumea, but he was going to first stop off at Aneityum, Vanuatu for a couple days. He wasn't going to sail up to Port Vila to check-in officially. Another boat we met in Fiji planned to stop in the Ile des Pins of New Caledonia without checking in, as they lacked visas. That got me thinking about small island nations welcoming hundreds of boats to their shores year after year. Some visitors seem to ignore the rules and have little respect for sovereignty. After a while, one can begin to appreciate how the rules evolve. It only takes one person to make it a pain for everyone else.
The wind and seas settled after the first night. We now have lighter winds of 12-15 kt and fairly flat seas. We have been sailing wing on wing most of the time. This is the first leg where the seas have been calm enough to do that for a substantial amount of time. The ride is pretty smooth, though slower than we anticipated. It may take us an extra day to Noumea but that is a small price for the comfort.