22 October 2011 | Port Bundaberg Marina, Queensland, Australia
It's hard to believe the cruising season is over again. We left Vanuatu and decided to sail to Australia to once again get out of the South Pacific for the cyclone season. Although we are technically in the South Pacific still, we are south enough that the likelihood of a cyclone is supposed to be low. We were originally going to sail from Vanuatu to the Solomon Islands and then up into SE Asia this season, but decided that we would like to spend some time traveling around Australia instead. As we did when we were in New Zealand, we are going to buy a vehicle and take our time enjoying Australia. It is nice to be somewhat land based again.
The sail from Vanuatu was a little spirited at times. We had winds as high as 35 knots and 4-5 metre seas. Pursuit is a great blue water sailboat, so the big winds and seas were not really an issue. It just made for some exciting sailing. All told though, it was our fastest passage yet. [TRL: We averaged 150 miles per day for all 7 days. Our highest 24 hour run was 163 miles. Thank you favorable current!]
Vanuatu was really great. We met a lot of really nice people and had a lot of fun. After we left Tanna, we sailed up through most of the islands. We didn't sail to Pentecost Island because the season for the land diving was over, so there really wasn't much sense going there. It's too bad, because I really wanted to see the land diving. Naghol is a kind of primitive bungee jumping, involving men and boys leaping from a great height, with only a vine tied around their ankle. Young males are encouraged to jump before they can walk and they learn by jumping from rocks into the ocean, or off small towers. Boys can only take part in the naghol after circumcision, which occurs when they are seven or eight. After their first jump, the boy's mother throws a baby blanket into the air, signaling her son's childhood is over. Pentecost Island is where AJ Hackett, the New Zealand entrepreneur, got the idea to introduce bungee jumping to the world.
Each April, when the first yam crop is ready for harvest, the people in the south of the island begin building enormous towers from lianas, branches, vines and tree trunks. After about five weeks, when the tower is 20-30 metres high, local males very carefully select a vine. Its size is of utmost importance. A vine just 10cm too long could mean death or serious injury. In April and May, when the vines are strong and elastic, the men make many jumps. As they near the ground, the jumpers curl their heads under themselves and let their shoulders impact with the earth. Their belief is this will make the ground fertile for the following year. Sometimes it doesn't work out though. Queen Elizabeth II visited Pentecost in 1974 and witnessed a land diving ceremony, during which one unfortunate islander died because the jump was performed too early in the year, when the vines were much less elastic than usual.
Eventually we made our way up to the island of Espirtu Santo, or just Santo, and anchored in the historic Segond Channel. I was very anxious to do some diving in the area, as there are many world famous dive locations there. Segond Channel was the Allies' base for their war efforts against the Japanese advance during World War II. For three years, up until September 1945, more than half a million military personnel, mainly Americans, were stationed here waiting their turn to head into battle in the Pacific. At times there were as many as 100 ships moored off the main town of Luganville. There were more than 40 cinemas, four military hospitals, five airfields, a naval repair centre, a torpedo boat base, jetties and market gardens constructed at the time. Quonset huts were erected for use as offices, stores, workshops and servicemen's accommodation. As we walked around the town we saw many old rusty Quonset huts and it was pretty amazing to think back to what must have been.
The first dive site I wanted to see was Million Dollar Point. Once the fighting in World War II was over and the Americans were to return home, there was the problem of all the surplus war equipment. The USA offered local planters and the French/British Condominium government the chance to buy the equipment and supplies, but the buyers stalled, hoping perhaps, to get it all for nothing. Their plan backfired though, because the Americans dumped the lot into the sea. Everything from bulldozers, aero engines, trucks and jeeps to crates of Coca-cola and canned food went into the sea at what is now Million Dollar Point. We used our snorkel gear instead of diving it, as most of it is very shallow and a local dive operator suggested it would be better to snorkel it. It was pretty awesome to swim over all the old, coral encrusted equipment, but I felt so sad at the same time. It all seemed it so was so incredibly wasteful. It's a shame that they didn't leave it for the impoverished Vanuatu people whom I'm sure would have appreciated it. [TRL: and probably still would be used today!]
On the morning of 26th October 1942, the USS President Coolidge, a luxury liner built after WWI and refitted for military service in WWII, attempted to enter Segond Channel. During her refit for service, she had been reconstructed to carry 5,000 troops and on 26 October, she was at capacity. Information about safe entry into the harbor had been omitted from the Coolidge's sailing orders (she was a Merchant Marine vessel and important details such as placement of mines wasn't part of information communicated to non-military vessels) and upon her approach to Santo that morning, the captain of the USS President Coolidge, fearing Japanese submarines and unaware of the mine fields, attempted to enter the harbor through the largest and most obvious channel. Shortly after entering the channel, the Coolidge hit two "friendly" American mines. One mine struck the ship at the engine room and moments later, a second mine hit her near the stern. The captain, knowing that he was going to loose the ship, ran her aground and ordered troops to abandon ship. Not believing the ship would sink, troops were told to leave all of their belongings behind under the impression that they would conduct salvage operations over the next few days. Over the course of the next 90 minutes, 4,998 men got safely off and to shore before she listed too heavily on her side, sank, and slid down the slope into the channel. All but two of the crew managed to reach shore safely. She now rests on her port side with her bow at a depth of 20 meters and her stern at 70 meters. It is now one of the world's most famous and accessible wreck dives.
I decided to dive with the local tour operator "Allan Power Dive Tours". Since 1969, Allan Power, an underwater photographer who visited Santo on a salvage trip, has remained to become the "caretaker" of the ship. Together with his dive team, he has accepted the unofficial maintenance of the ship. He bought the land immediately in front of the dive site so that we could just walk off the shore and start the dive. He has spent a lot of time and effort in making the area beautiful. His USS President Coolidge site is marked by a couple of sea walls, an offshore coral rock platform, and a landscaped path with wide steps leading to a small beach, all of which Allan and his employees have built. I really enjoyed talking with him in between dives. I decided to do two dives, as one was just not enough. You could dive it twenty times and still barely scratch the surface. Allan has done over 27,000 dives. That's no mistake; 27,000! I could see how one could dive it again and again. There is so much to see. On the second dive we entered the cargo hold. It was incredible to see jeeps and bulldozers, among many others pieces of equipment still in the cargo hold just as they were almost seventy years ago. It was pretty awesome!
We have really enjoyed this year of cruising and are looking forward to spending time in Australia, doing some projects on Pursuit and maybe traveling back to Canada and the U.S. to visit in the New Year. I am not sure how much blogging I will be doing for the next while, but if we should do some inland travel that is interesting enough, I will write something about it. Otherwise we are just going to be living the quiet life till next season.