11/15/2008, Ambrym Island
We got a pretty early start today and were underway leaving Epi by 6:30AM. We motored out of the lee of Epi and then shut down the diesel for the 40 some mile sail to Ambrym. Ambrym is the fabled capital of Magic in Vanuatu and also home to seven volcanos (two underwater).
It was a very overcast day but not as bad as yesterday. We didn't have to dodge any squalls and we actually had some good patches of blue sky mixed in. I wasn't feeling super so I let the girls run the boat and took a nap. I'm sure they were happy to be rid of me and they did a great job of making short order of our trip.
We found ourselves coming into Craig's Cove a little after noon. Craig's Cove is a small village of 200 people near the commercial center of Ambrym. The folks in Craig's Cove speak their own language and Bislama (pidgin English), as do all in Vanuatu. There are many local languages and the folks here have come to use Bislama, their very interesting version of English (barely or unintelligible to us), as the communications conduit between them. In addition to these, each child will learn French or English depending on which church sponsors their village school. If it is the French Catholics, the village will be catholic and the kids will learn French as their 3rd language. If it is the English Anglicans, the village will be Anglican and the kids will learn English as their 3rd language. This is perhaps a bit of a simplification but fairly accurate. Many folks learn some English and French regardless.
When we entered the cove we carefully traced the 30 foot contour to get a look at things. The South Pacific Anchorages guide suggests poor holding off of the quay (there really isn't a quay just some rocks that look like one). Well I can tell you after swimming there that any holding you get there is a gift from above because the entire area is lava rock, coral and the like. A thin layer of black sand exists here and there but I wouldn't try to anchor in the south end of the bay unless you stay in deeper water. Unfortunately this is where you will find the best protection from the swell if it is running.
Our chart identified a coral bottom in the south part of the cove and suggested a sand bottom toward the north. The 20-50 foot ledge is wider here as well. We anchored in about 30 feet and put out 200 feet of chain to lay back into 40-50 of water. Oddly we setup facing to the north, as the island has a pretty big affect on the breeze. The wind has been light but mostly East to Southeast. Here in Craig's Cove we saw North at noon, Southeast in the late afternoon, and Northeast at sunset. At 7PM we are experiencing a nice gentle East breeze. The holding is good and we set first try. It is a lovely anchorage and the folks in the villages near by, the French of Craig's Cove and the English kids around the point, are all super friendly and very polite.
Once we were settled we had a mind to drop the dink and find the lake just inland from our location. I was thinking we could dinghy up the river to it. As we got ready to get an expedition mounted, Francis from Craig's Cove stopped by in a dug out canoe. Francis Maguekon, the local Ambrym Tour Operator (Phone: 5460762) is a wonderful guide and speaks much better English than our French. He did humor us though. We agreed to meet at the beach on Craig's Cove at 2PM.
We arrived on the beach at 2:30 (hey it's Vanuatu!) and Francis jumped in the dink. It was a bumpy 20 minute ride north around several points to the beach near the lake. I had been mistaken about the lake having a river that lead to the sea. As it turns out the lake was originally the site of the hospital for the English settlers who were raising coconut among other things here at the turn of the 19th century. Unfortunately for them one of the volcanos erupted in 1903 and wiped the area out. Shortly thereafter the basin created where the hospital had been filled in with fresh water. If you snorkel there you can still see the concrete elements of the old hospital.
The surf coming on to the beach was not too bad but the beach is very steep. Our dink is heavy and it takes a huge effort to tow it up an incline like that. We hit the sand and immediately set about getting the dink up the hill. We got pooped once in the process but the battery box protected the battery well and I pulled the drain plug to let the ocean go back to where it belonged. After quite a bit of effort we got the dink up the beach enough for a 30 minute hike into the jungle. The tide was rising but the range is only 5 feet spring.
After tying Shooting Star up to a palm tree we began hiking back into the primeval world. These islands show no lights at night time, only cooking fires. Cell phones are found in every village and some VHFs but I guess they must charge them with solar panels or something. The hike was an awesome but short trek back into the bush of Ambrym. We saw several of the huge coconut crabs (not the land crabs you see in Polynesia) hiding in their holes along the way. The foliage was think and so were the mosquitos. I kept seeing two or three feasting on poor Francis. I wanted to smack them but I didn't think he would appreciate that. Francis took the mosquitos in stride and claimed they didn't have lots of mosquitos in the village and that Malaria wasn't a big problem for them. Hideko had dosed us up with sunscreen mixed with 80% deet. Talk about gnarly stuff, the mosquitos didn't come near me. I am now a true believer in high concentration deet. I watched a hoard of the little vermin slurping on Francis and carefully checked myself over and didn't find a one.
The lake is an interesting site but don't expect to be awed. It is not huge but it does give you a wonderful panorama of the valley and the hills/volcanos beyond. It is worth the trip just to do the hike and be there. It was also the only real excursion we could do in an afternoon. The volcano trips sound fantastic but they take either an entire day or two days with a camp out on the ash cone (which sounded like a blast).
After a text book surf launch (thanks to the girls) we shot back to the cove. We dropped Francis off ashore and he invited us to see pictures of the volcano. He brought us into the village and everyone was very friendly. They gave us a couple Papayas and a very strange cucumber which smelled of watermelon and was the largest cucumber relative we had ever seen (Hideko cooked it in soy sauce and it was very tasty). It was sad to see trash all over the outlying parts of the village. These people are totally self sufficient but when plastics and coke cans come in from the outside they just don't know what to do with them. They didn't make these objects and don't have the means (or the training) to dispose of them correctly. I was tempted to tell Francis that the plastic on the ground would stay there for 7 generations and could kill wildlife of various types that may try to ingest it.
In the village Francis took us to a nice little pandana and wood hut that he serves lunch in when he has tour groups visiting. He showed us some carvings he had made which were very nice. The photos he had showed the heavily costumed Rom dancers, famous in Vanuatu and native to Ambrym. He also showed us the massive wood drums which are carved in the form of two meter tall tikis. We had a great time and thanked Francis heartily. The tour cost us 1,000 vt ($10) and a 1,000 vt fee to the land owner of the lake. We're glad we had the tour guide, it is the only way to go even if we had been able to find the place ourselves (which in retrospect I'm certain we wouldn't have).
Back at the boat there were three outrigger kayaks full of kids hanging about from the English speaking village around the point by the airport. The kids here are very curious about visitors. They are gregarious but shy at the same time. They answer all of your questions with a cheerful "yes". I sang them "Swingin' on a Star" on the uke and then they started to loosen up. Margaret and I went swimming as they paddled around and laughed. The water here is amazing. It is so warm (84F) and clear, particularly so due to the black sand.
We waved goodbye to the kids as they set off before the sun set. The dinghy came back on deck and we enjoyed a lovely Hideko dinner before bedding down in anticipation of an early trip to Espiritu Santo.
11/14/2008, Epi Island
We were up before 5AM this morning and heading out of the harbor shortly thereafter. It was a grey morning with dense overcast and little wind. We had greatly enjoyed our stay in Port Vila but we need to move north for Cyclone season and we have 9 degrees to go.
We motored out of Port Vila and into the larger Mele Bay where we set sail. The sails weren't doing much but we set them anyway. There is a race marked on the charts at the north end of the entrance to Mele Bay but today is was quite calm.
Once out in the ocean the wind climbed up to 10 knots and we began to actually sail. We missed a few squalls in the area but they gave us lifts ranging from 15 to 20 knots. Are speed over ground ran anywhere from 4.5 knots to 9.2 knots. It was a nice sail but I always prefer settled weather.
We passed a couple of local transports traveling between Epi (we assume) and Port Vila. It was nice to see the panorama of islands to the north of Efate as we passed into the lee of Epi. Hat Island (which looks like a hat) was particularly remarkable.
As we came up onto Epi Margaret informed us that the underwater volcanoes were on the other side of the island (good news). Vanuatu sits on the Pacific Ring of fire and there are several active volcanoes in the chain.
A school of Spinner Dolphins came out to entertain us as we sailed north. This pack was particularly energetic, jumping and splashing as they went.
Our selected anchorage on Epi sat at the end of a pleasant 70 nm day. We can into the large bay of Revolieu carefully as there was little swell and lots of overcast which makes for a reef hiding formula if ever there was one. Every once in a while we would see a break to the south of us. The bottom comes up slowly and the holding was fantastic in 25 feet of what I presume must be sand.
We wrapped up the day marveling at the lovely island and exchanging animal calls with the playful kids on shore. No dinghy in the water here though, we will be at it again tomorrow, moving north to the volcanic island of Ambrym.
11/13/2008, Port Vila
After a few days of testing our new batteries we decided to off load the old ones. Manusia from Vanglobe Industry agreed to try to find them a home, since they were still useful in some capacity. After dropping off the old batteries and topping up all 42 cells of the new ones we went in to Nambawan Cafe for breakfast and our last Internet. I really love that place.
Once we had all of our business in town wrapped up headed back to the big boat. As we arrived a guy from a fuel tanker that had come in last night came by. He told us we needed to move so that he could clear the entrance to the channel. I was surprised he was going to go into the inner harbor under the power lines. It was not a huge tanker but certainly fair sized.
We were planning to be off anyway so we departed for Hideaway Island and the underwater post office. Vanuatu runs the only underwater post office in the world, so they say. It was originally maned by a dive several hours a day but now there is just a box. They pick up from the box a few times a week. They, of course, sell waterproof post cards also, which are the only thing you can really put in the box if you want the card to make it home.
Once out in Mele Bay conditions were not pleasant. It was overcast and a west wind was blowing in. This made the bay choppy and the anchorage didn't look great. We also had no vis to read the bottom with. After a little tour of the area we went back to Vila.
We had been anchored outside of the inner anchorage in front of Nambawan Cafe. This is a great spot but it does get choppy in a west wind. We decided to go inside, under the power lines and take a Yachting World mooring for the night. Yachting World assured me that the lines are 30 meters high. We came under with the usual trepidation, and very slowly, but had lots of room (we are about 21-22 meters). I was surprised coming through the markers into the inner bay when I saw 15 feet, and that at high tide on a +4 foot day. Guess that was why the tanker waited until 4PM.
We had a nice last meal out at the Waterfront Restaurant, paid our Yachting World tab and called it a night. Tomorrow we head north for the Solomons.
I ran out to customs early this morning to get our cruising clearance between here and Luganville, Espirito Santo. It was not long before I was heading back to the boat with a sealed envelope for the eyes of Luganville customs only. Wonder what it says?
I picked the girls up at the boat and we went ashore for our scheduled Island Tour with Island Holiday Tours run by Mima Tari. Mima is a lovable lady who greets you in the common flower dress of the ladies of Vanuatu. She has many tours to offer but they have one that is custom designed to give you as much exposure to Efate in one day as is possible. That was the one we tried.
Our tour guide was Eddie and we had a fantastic time. We circumnavigated the island. Along the way we visited several villages, tried various foods (including a shell of Kava), paddled up a river, got faux attacked by warriors, watched custom (traditional) dances, swam in three beautiful bays and soaked up a lot of culture. Eddie was a wealth of knowledge and gave us a great introduction to the NiVanuatu people. It was one of the best island tours we have done since we left Florida (and that's saying something).
We wrapped up the day at Nambawan Cafe for internet and dinner. The pizza at #1 is great and we had a tasty steak sandwich as well. They show movies projected onto a big screen hung up by the quay on Wednesday and Sunday. Tonight we saw 1408, which was scary.
As we got off of the tour bus Margaret discovered that Big Blue, the dive shop next to the #1 cafe, was doing a night dive. That was that. Off she went and she saw a Nautilus (i can't believe it!) a lion fish, a puffer fish and a turtle. Nice night dive!
11/10/2008, Port Vila
We have been monitoring the batteries closely since Fiji. The house bank consists of 6 x 115ah AC Delco S2000 sealed flooded lead acid no maintenance batteries. We have a seventh as our starter battery. I love the sealed-no maintenance bit. They have nice little hydrometers that you can inspect visually and have been good batteries so far. Unfortunatly they have lost enough capacity over the past three years that we are having to charge them too often now to keep them up.
I began detailed inspection of the batteries to determine whether we should live with the lower capacity or start looking for a new set. I realized that these batteries are 115ah rated at 100 hours. Most batteries are rated at a 5 or 20 hour discharge rate. A 115 ah battery at a 100 hour rate (it fully discharges 115ah in 100 hours) is probably only going to rate 95 ah at a 20 hour discharge rate.
I was skeptical as to whether we would find anything in Vanuatu or the Solomons. After that it only gets worse for us until Guam or Singapore (PNG, Pohnpei, Truk...). As I looked around town I ran across Van Global, an alternative energy shop. I was shocked. They had 12 high end Tojan Deep cycles. They were the exact right size to fit my battery box and they were rated at 115 amp hours C20.
I was shocked a second time when they told me the price was 38,000 each (about $380 USD). I spent the entire day trying to get customs to let me buy them duty free. The Duty with Vat is about 35%. They would but only if I ordered them and had them shipped in. I tried seeing if I could order them and just take the ones in stock. No would be the concise answer.
Back at Van Global I was torn. Pay a mint for good batteries now (perhaps my only opportunity for some time) or limp along with the exiting S2000s (which should have probably lasted another 3 years had we not had charging problems early in the boat's life). Shipping batteries (which weight about 70 pounds each) is not cheap. I certainly would not have chosen batteries that need maintenance given a selection. I try to do as much cruising and as little maintenance as possible while still keeping the boat in top order. Like Mic says, You can't always get what you want...
After vacillating back and forth for an hour or so I bought the Trojans. I will report in as we live with them. It took a good four hours to install them. This is largely because we had a lot of clean up work to do on the battery terminals. They weren't heavily corroded but there was a little bit of corrosion on a couple of cables. The big problem was that the connecting cables had some divots and ridges that kept them from lying totally flat against the adjacent conductor. Not good. It took a bit of filing to get a perfectly clean and flat connection. This is a place the factory could improve.
We did the change out at night to avoid issues with he solar charger. I received a manual for the solar charger with the boat but it is in German. I just downloaded an English copy but haven't had time to read it over yet. My task list is long at the moment.
Before I accepted the batteries I checked their state of charge. I took the best seven and all but one were over 12.6 volts. The shop received them less than a month back. You really have to watch batteries on the shelf too long. Very few shops charge them up and keep the electrolyte topped up. It is easy to buy a great battery that has been ruined from sulfation after sitting unattended for 6 months. These were all low on water but none were near plate exposure (a non starter...). It took me about three liters of distilled water and a good hour to get all 42 cells filled up.
I took a break from battery recon mid day with the girls at the French Cafe, Au Peche Mignon. They have great pastries and coffee here. They also made me a great milkshake (hard to find in the tropics).
We took a run around the harbor to check out the boat yard afterwords. The boatyard has a nice gradual slipway but not a lot of space. I'm not sure that they could haul us if we needed to come out but maybe. the place was packed though and not real well staffed (you would need to track someone down to arrange a haul).
While we were there a lot of locals were hanging around the beach. The kids here are real entertainers and did their best to get a laugh out of us. We are really enjoying Vanuatu.
11/09/2008, Port Vila
We took a tour around the harbor in our dinghy today. This is a good way to see the waterfront, and most things you might want to see are on the waterfront. There are two good spots to tie up your dinghy. The best is perhaps the Yachting World dinghy dock at the Waterfront Restaurant at the south end of town. The other is the small dock at the Nambawan Cafe on the north end. The dock at the Cafe is used by the dive shop so you can't tie up there but you can unload or load, and the wall has bollards in the area that are good for tying up.
When the US was here in World War II they had three radar stations, #1, #2 and #3. Now the districts of town are named after them, thus the Nambawan Cafe. The Bislama (Pidgeon English) spoken around here (and variations of in the Solomons and PNG) is really fun to try to translate out. The currency says, " Long God Yumi Stanup". Which more or less translates to, "We will always stand for God", akin to "In God We Trust".
We did the 2 hour Lonely Planet walking tour of the town in the afternoon. We had to make a few modifications. The great breakfast place they identify is no longer in business. Nambawan Cafe is very good though. The Court House had burned down but they are working on rebuilding it. Other than that it was a nice walking introduction to the town.
String bands are big in Vanuatu and Fiji. They consist of a few guys on guitar and uke, a few percussionists (drums, tambourine and maybe bottles tuned with different levels of water) and Bush bass (which is a big wooden box with a broom handle and a string). We saw a couple of good acts around town as it was a music festival week.
We wrapped up the day with dinner at the waterfront. They have a micro brew here in addition to the Vanuatu mass produced Tusker. The micro was nice. Dinner was pretty good too. It is a nice location right on the water and a few yachts and sport fishers tie up to the wall stern to here.
We had a great introduction to Port Vila today.
Our passage from Fiji to Vanuatu wrapped up today. We had planned the 510nm trip as a triple overnight for several reasons.
The first and foremost is that the cyclone season has officially started and we want to be out in the open ocean for the shortest period possible. Three day forecasts are very accurate these days and in early November during a neutral southern oscillation year it is pretty easy to get a week long window free of tropical disturbances. In fact the long range forecasters are suggesting that mid December is the likely first opportunity for a cyclone.
The second reason is that we will arrive on Saturday and the officials are around in the morning from what we had heard but they shut down until Monday thereafter. No fun sitting on the boat for two days when you really want to see the island, and have to move on quickly anyway.
It was a light wind trip. We had a stint or two with the wind coming up to 20 knots but for the most part it was 5 to 15. The majority of the trip was dead down wind. We did a lot of motor sailing to keep pace.
We arrived at around 1PM, a little late. As we came in we hailed Port Vila Radio several times with no response. The cruising guides and sailing directions suggest that Port Vila radio should be called before entering the harbor and that they will dispatch the officials. No such luck.
Next we tried Yachting World. Yachting World rents moorings in the inner bay and they can arrange stern too hook ups at the little wall that runs along the bay near by the Waterfront restaurant. Hideko heard someone on the VHF with them but it seemed they needed a relay (maybe using a hand held?). No one answered when we hailed.
We followed the transit into the harbor and located the quarantine buoy. Sailing directions and cruising guides suggest you anchor here while waiting for quarantine. This also appears to be a primary anchorage as many yachts that are already cleared are anchored about. After anchoring and raising the Q flag we set about dropping the dink so that I could make a run for customs should they fail to show up.
Suzanne from Cheshire stopped by to let us know that things are pretty shut down on the weekend officialdomwise. She is from Olympia Washington, near Margaret's home town of Pacific. There was a large freighter on the dock back in the bay though so I decided to try the main shipping port since usually there's someone official around when big freighters are in port.
After a short trip across the bay I tied the dink up in the shadow of a 300 meter freighter. We were in luck. The customs guy was in the office and he was very friendly and helpful. He cleared the yacht in and gave us permission to go ashore as long as we left everything on the boat until Monday when Quarantine could arrive to inspect things. You couldn't ask for more. On Monday we'll also have to go ashore to clear immigration.
Back at the big boat we packed up our 80% deet and sunscreen and went out to explore the bay and find a nice place to eat. The Waterfront Restaurant has a nice dinghy dock so we tied up there. We set out to find a Japanese restaurant that Hideko had identified but they had moved and when we finally tracked them down they were not open until 6PM. Our plan was to try to get back to the boat before mosquito prime time so we passed on the Japanese. We ended up eating at Le Cafe du Village, a little cafe just down from the Waterfront (the Waterfront also opens at 6PM). The cafe was ok but I wouldn't recommend it.
The Waterfront was happening as we returned to the dink. They were burning mosquito coils all over the place. We'll have to give it a try. As we motored back to the big boat I tried to gauge the height of the power wires over head. These lines run from Port Vila to the little resort island that forms the west side of the inner bay.
The wires are listed in some of our guides as 70 some feet over the water. Our stick is 72 feet off of the water so without some specific local knowledge we're staying on this side of the bay. I think I might like it out here better anyway. As long as the wind doesn't come strong west the out bay is perfect. Still close to things but with more space and breeze.
After the two week crossing from the Galapagos to the Marquesas, no other passages seems long. All the same it is nice to get a good night's sleep at anchor after a few days at sea.