Wow, it was a busy day. We got up at about 7AM to prepare for our dive on the President Coolidge (the star attraction here). Hideko decided to sit out so Margaret and I met up with the Alan Powers shop folks at the Beachfront resort. The Beachfront is nice but there is no dock there so we beached the dink and walked our gear across the lawn to the dive way. There is probably a better place to meet up with the shop but we were new so we took their suggestion (a convoluted conversation went on that I was not a party to involving laundry and other Beachfront Resort services).
Surprisingly the dive shop is a drive and dive outfit. Both of the big ticket dives here, the Coolidge and Million dollar point are shore dives. So not only do the shops with property on the coast at these sites not need boats but they actually spend time developing their shore site. We arrived at the entry area after a short stop at Alan's house (which doubles as a dive shop) to gear up. The entry area is like a park. The Powers crew has planted a beautiful array of plants along the road and the prep area is totally shaded with beautiful trees and has nice benches all around. The truck just backs in with the gear and you set up at your leisure.
The entry area is even more amazing. The sandy ramp that descends ever so gradually into the water actually has break waters on both side. It is the easiest entry I have ever seen. There are hand holds along the way in case you have a preferred depth for putting your fins on. At the end of the ramp in overhead water there is a wall with lines going off to different parts of the Coolidge. They all descend (or ascend when you are coming back up them) very gradually. No one rushes here, it is all pretty much serious divers only, and they only do one tank in the morning and one in the afternoon.
The Coolidge is monstrous. It is so big I had no real concept of what I was looking at when down on it. The vis was not as good as I had expected, maxing out at perhaps 50 feet. Never the less there are loads of fish (the naughty boys feed them regularly) and many are rather large. We saw some big trevally, grouper and snapper that any fisherman would be overjoyed to haul in. The wreck is austere and massive. The experienced folks we dove with suggested 10 dives to get a good feel for the wreck. I would have to agree. We saw glass port holes, gas masks and many places where you can penetrate the wreck. The engine room seems to be a popular spot.
We went for an easy one dive intro given our limited time. All dives on the Coolidge are deep. Our beginner dive went down to 130 feet. Many divers were on doubles and put in over a half an hour in deco stops. I would have loved to stay for more.
On the way up, particularly due to the long deco stops some folks have to make, Alan has created a coral garden near his wall. The divers at the shop transplant anemones (with their clown fish intact), flower pot corals and every other type of reef dweller you can imagine. The stop areas have hand holds, are clearly stepped at different depths and are surrounded by a wonderfully diverse transplanted reef. I'm not sure what I think about the transplanting process and its impact on the donor reef but it certainly was entertaining to explore during our stop. Margaret even located a large octopus who was sneaking through the coral changing colors abruptly to match all the while.
I would recommend Alan Powers diving. I think they are a well trained and very safe group with good equipment.
While Margaret and I were having fun, Hideko grabbed 10 gallons of gas for the dink in jerry jugs, got the laundry going with the Beachfront resort and lined up various other items on our get out of Dodge quick list. I love my wife! It was a scramble but we actually managed to clear out and get our duty free fuel permit before everything shut down for lunch at noon. We were trying to use up the last of our cash and actually ran out when it came to paying the harbor fees (7,800vt or about $75 USD). The ATM in town actually decided to give us cash though so all was well.
Back at the big boat we called in to the Pacific Gas folks and arranged a fuel delivery to Simpson Quay (one east of the customs quay). They only sell fuel in 200 liter drums. We needed a bit more than 500 but I settled for 400. Duty free it was about $4 USD a gallon, not too bad for these parts. As we waited for the truck on the quay things started to cloud up.
I was getting concerned as things darkened. Particularly because last night after setting the anchor we ran across the bay to the Aore Resort. We enjoyed a nice Melanesian buffet and then the wind began to pick up. I was getting ready to get the girls together to run off to the big boat and then it hit. A nasty whipping squall with lots of rain. We waited out the worst of it and then dashed back. Swingin' on a Star had definitely been swingin', she was a good 150 feet from where we left her but after a quick plot I determined that the Rocna hadn't moved an inch. I love that thing.
Anyway, the last thing I wanted to do was sit on a big concrete fishing quay while wind and waves bash my plastic boat to and fro. The fuel guy finally arrived after a prodding phone call. He pumps from the can on the truck while you fill. I ran everything through our baja filter and we were ready to go by about 4 PM.
We left the quay to pick up a mooring across the bay at the Aore Resort hoping to see our new friends on Polaris. The resort has 8 moorings and it makes for an easy out. When we came by last night in the dinghy we didn't see any. When I inquired they said the high tide hid them. Hmmm, they need to higher a more experienced mooring installation crew. It would be pretty dangerous to motor through a mooring field in the evening looking for solace with all of the moorings submerged at prop level. When we arrive tonight the tide was maybe +3.5 feet and they were still visible.
Hideko and Margaret picked up a mooring and immediately took off in the dink to grab the laundry. Polaris is near by but the crew seems to be out and about. We meet Polaris last night and immediately hit it off. Not only are they the first yacht we've seen in a few days, they are the only yacht we've ever met heading to the Solomons. They mentioned that a few of their friends were there now. They are German and there's a good German cruisers net that provides hook ups and weather with the controller now in Honiara (capital of the Solomon Islands).
Polaris is staying another day or two in Santo so we'll be leaving them tomorrow but we look forward to seeing them again down the road. They are avid divers with a compressor on board also, so we will no doubt be sharing some wonderful dives up north.
The Aore Resort is a nice little spot isolated from the rest of Luganville across the channel. The Resort has about 8 moorings which go for 1,200 vt a night (about $11 USD). They supposedly monitor VHF 68. They have potable water for yacht jerry jubs free of charge and sell direct yacht tank fills for 1,000 vt per hour. They also have a laundry service for 2,000 vt a load, machine drying is an extra 500 vt per load. You can use the dive showers to rinse off for free or pay 500 vt for a hot shower where soap is legal. The resort runs a ferry to Luganville which yachts can jump for 250 vt if there's room.
We're of to the Aore for dinner and then to bed early. We leave before 5AM tomorrow for Gaua (aka Santa Maria). It is the beginning of our forced march to the Honiara. It is 80nm to Gaua and another 80 to Tegua, where we will spend the second night out. After that we will make a 280nm overnight to Port Mary, San Cristobal in the Solomons. Then we have three easy 60nm day sails to Honiara on Guadal Canal. We're excited to see our next bit of this incredible forgotten part of the world.
A funky cross swell woke me up at around 4AM. It really wasn't that bad but I think I was sleeping light in preparation for an early start. The swell was a mix from both sides of the island coming in at right angles so we were going to get a little roll no matter what. The sun was due in an hour and the moon was still going strong so I started to get the boat ready. Hideko and Margaret came up to help and we had the anchor up before 5AM.
Craig's Cove is an easy out, just head anywhere with west in it. Once in deep water we set the main. It wasn't hard because the wind was coming from wherever we pointed the boat. The sea was glass. It seems the areas we're transiting are destined for troughs or ridges (neither with any wind) for the next few days. Hopefully there'll be some wind in the squeeze between the two. It was a nice blue sky day though, if a bit hazy in the morning. The sunrise over the smoking volcanoes of Ambrym was spectacular.
Hideko made some great smoothies with the papayas the folks in Ambrym gave us. Much reading was done. It was a hot humid, no air movement midday motor up to Santo. We couldn't see the island all morning even though it has the 4 highest peaks in Vanuatu. As we got closer we began to make out a monstrous cloud bank over the island. It made the approach fairly ominous. We had rolled up the jib to keep it from flapping about and in the face of the conditions ahead we reefed the main down as a precaution.
Coming in the clouds broke up and we didn't even see any rain (which would have been welcome!). The approach to Santo is as easy as you make it. If you come in the main channel heading west (more or less) it is very straight forward in the day. There are several recommendations for anchorage available. We selected the one popular with the Port Vila yachts in the know to the west of the river. You have to be careful on the approach to this are as the patch built up by the out flowing river to the west of the mouth is large and shallow. The water is also standard river, opaque brown so reading things is difficult at best.
There was a local yacht anchored bow and stern right off of the little sandy point lined with casuarinas. I assumed this was the best spot (the local yachts always get the best spots). We prodded around with the bow to the east of the yacht, south of a little tree growing in the middle of the water and west of a mangled object that is either the small above water remains of a wreck, or a south cardinal mark. The bottom here went from 30 feet to 6 in no time. I backed out of the area and we tried the other side of the yacht.
The only other boat in the anchorage was a fishing/transport sort of thing. He at least was on a single bow anchor. We split the difference between the yacht and the fishing boat, biasing toward the fishing boat who would swing like us. The anchor went down in about 40 feet and we backed down with 200 feet of chain to about 30 feet. I wasn't comfortable putting out any more because we were very close to the area I imagined shoaled up. We tested all around the boat with the lead line and everything looked to have more than 20 feet (the length of the line). I could see little kids playing knee high in the water and it looked the same color as the water around the boat. So I think I might check the swinging area port and starboard a bit with the dink!
So we are here in Luganville Vanuatu! The big American base for the Solomon Islands offensive in WWII. We are excited to explore the town tomorrow and we also hop to dive on the USS Coolidge (a troop ship that was formerly an ocean liner, sunk in the bay by friendly mines). We will also try to fuel up and clear out tomorrow. A tall order. From here we hop islands north for two days and then do a two day passage to the Solomon Islands, Port Mary in San Cristobal. From there it is a three day set of hops to Honiara on Guadal Canal where Margaret will fly home.
It is late in the season and we are generally the only cruising yacht in the anchorages now. Hopefully we'll catch up with some kindred spirits in Honiara or Gizo. We are not happy that we are still at 15 south in mid November but the long range forecasts are still good and we only have a week to go before we're in Honiara. A couple days after that we'll be north of 8S.
In the mean time we're smelling the roses and loving Vanuatu!
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.