11/21/2008, The Solomon Islands
What a passage. From the moment we left Tegua (in a large squall) until our arrival we have been dealing with unstable atmosphere. Squalls have literally been all around us the entire trip. Combine that with no reasonable wind most of the time and you have a motor sail not to be envied. Though we have had several near misses and a couple grazers we have neither been hit nor had to divert the whole passage. The exception being the squall we travel a few hours in right out of Tegua.
The hard work trimming and retrimming the boat for little reward and lots of diesel dollars has paid off. We are now at anchor in Port Mary, Santa Ana Island in the Solomons! What an awesome place. We are underway, so the dinghy stays up and we are off first thing tomorrow. It is good to be at 10S and across the Coral Sea, even if it is a little late in the season. We look forward to our three day sails to Honiara, with overnight breaks in what, on paper, sound to be fantastic anchorages.
As we came in the straight between Santa Catalina and Santa Ana a pod of spinner dolphins came to visit, jumping and frolicking all the while.
The entrance to Port Mary was straight forward for us. Partially because a cargo boat from Honiara, the Christie Leigh, had come in just before us. I didn't see him enter but I could see his slick in the water. We motored right over the reef on the Navionics charts with never less than 70 feet of water. That said the actual coastline was a perfect radar match. It would be better the other way around (well charted reefs with an overall chart offset)!
The entrance to Port Mary is actually marked with green and red day markers. The large arcing reef comes way up from the south leaving a gap in the north end of the bay. Once inside it is 70 feet or deeper. I didn't find anything shallower than 60 feet and that was fairly close to the beach. There is a village right on the beach and it didn't seem polite to anchor in too close. Also it is one of those places that looks as if it shoals rapidly and with hard stuff mixed in.
We asked some guys on lighters unloading the Christie Leigh, which floated freely in the bay, if we could anchor for the night and they said, "sure!". The told us where to drop the hook and the Christie Leigh even talked us in on the VHF. The people here are just wonderful, every one waves at you and says hello before you get a chance.
Four young girls swam out to our boat as the sun was setting to chat. They spoke a combination of pigeon and English that was interesting to hear. I was surprised what great swimmers they were. Margaret jumped in with them after a few minutes. They swam about and talked for the better part of an hour.
Hideko began cooking up some Mahi Mahi we had in the freezer as the sun set over the Solomons. I have a feeling we're going to like the Solomons!
|The Solomon Islands||
11/20/2008, Coral Sea
We had a lovely night celebrating Hideko's birthday last night. Hayter Bay in the Torres Group of Vanuatu is definitely a Swingin' on a Star recommended anchorage.
We have been in the SPCZ (or simply a convergence zone if you prefer) for the past couple days. When we got up this morning the atmosphere looked pretty unstable. There was quite a bit of rain on the horizon. The wind was lifting the moisture right up over the Torres islands and creating a mess.
Just as Hideko got the anchor up a squall cam over the hill. We exited the bay using our route, track and radar because it was hard to see much else. It turned into a big system and it took us half the morning to get out of it. The good thing about sailing down wind is that the weather runs with you and it is less likely to get hit by squalls in the area. On the down side if you get in one you can sail inside of it for some time.
Fortunately the wind angle in there was good and we were doing 9-10 knots. Once out we ran under full main, reef one, full jib, no jib, etcetera. We didn't get hit by anything but there was lots of activity in the area making the wind very active. Much of the time we had the jib put away and the main reefed just to keep the rig quiet as we motored in 3 knots of tail wind.
The sea state has been great with a nice little swell on the starboard quarter. I think we are getting as much as a half knot of current helping us out as well.
We are on a mission to reach Port Mary on Santa Ana, just southeast of San Crostobal in the Solomon Islands, by nightfall tomorrow. We're looking good but have to keep up high 7 knots the rest of the way in. If we miss we'll just do another overnight to our second planned anchorage on Uki Ni Masi about 60nm on.
Hideko Says: zzzzzz Margaret Says: It is hard to shop for a new Dry Suit when the temperature hasn't dropped below 90 degrees in days.
182nm to Port Mary
It was another early day. We were out of the anchorage by 5AM and on our way to Tegua in the Torres Group. Once again we wish we could have stayed another day to listen to the water music and drink Kava with the wonderful folks of Lakona Bay. We are happy to be moving north though.
It was a scattered squall day if ever there was one. The sky was just about completely overcast all day and we had squalls all around us most of it. We got hit once and after that the wind went light and variable. We motored for the rest of the day with the jib away and reef one in the main to keep the boom calm in the beam seas. We routed around one big nasty bit which helped our approach angle to the Torres.
We came up along the windward side of the southern islands and then through the pass south of Tegua. We dropped the main and passed between a little islet just offshore on the way in to Hayter Bay. We never saw less than 100 feet of water or so. The Bay is a lovely anchorage with a beautiful beach ashore. This could fool you into thinking that you could anchor in close. Not the case. The bottom is about 70 feet deep and then coral heads pop up everywhere and the bottom comes up fast. Best to anchor near the mouth of the bay in 70 feet.
We were surprised to see another boat here. We had a nice chat with Kleiner Bar (Little Bear), a family of 4 from Brazil. They are heading to the Solomons as well so we will look forward to seeing them again soon.
Margaret dove on the anchor just before sunset. The water is astoundingly clear here. You can see the 70 foot bottom from the deck at 5PM in the afternoon! We just got a little rain but the anchorage is quite nice and would be great in anything but a strong westerly.
We will be sad to leave Vanuatu tomorrow. Too little time, too many cyclones (Vanuatu is second only to New Caledonia in average cyclone landfalls, with 2.5 a year). Tomorrow morning we will be off to the Solomon Islands. We are going from out of the way, to really out of the way, and looking forward to it.
We were up at 4AM this morning and had an easy out of Santo. Our new friends on Polaris were already up and we waved goodbye wishing them fun dives on the Coolidge and a safe passage.
Per the forcast we expected to motor most of the day, and we did. The wind was light but the direction was good, ENE. Unfortunately the swell was hard on the beam, it wasn't big but it was short and obnoxious when the wind was too light to hold the rig in place. We made 6 point something knots most of the morning with the port engine at 1,750 rpms.
It is Hideko's Birthday today!!! Happy Birthday Hideko!!!! Margaret gave Hideko a great massage (she's a licensed therapist) and Hideko immediately took a nap. We are making pasta (Hideko's request) and, of course, Japanese style Strawberry Shortcake for desert.
In the afternoon we hit a little squall that got the wind up into the low 20s, so we shut down the engine and took off at 9 plus knots. I didn't get too wet at the helm and the girls sat on the dry side of the boat (yes this is a measure of intelligence). The squall weakened as we progressed but held out enough all the way to Garua.
We pulled up into Lakona Bay on the west side and were pleasantly surprised to find a wonderful anchorage. The beach is black sand and so is the bottom. The locals tell us there are no rocks in the middle (perhaps some on the side though) and the bottom progresses slowly so you can ease in to whatever depth suits you.
We anchored in 30 feet a ways out to ensure no problems, an easy out in the dark of morning, and good breeze with no insects. The set was immediate and there's plenty of room for several boats. In trade conditions this is a great spot and I can imagine it being even flatter close in.
We were greeted by several kayaks as we settled in. Johnny was the group's spokesman and was very friendly giving us info on the anchorage and inviting us into the village for Kava in the custom house. They also offered to set us up with a water music show for 5,000 vt (about $45 USD). Water music is a thing local to the islands of north Vanuatu. The women perform this in the shallows by clapping and making noises underwater creating a musical performance. It sounds wonderful but sadly we are in late and need to be out early. We'll probably have birthday dinner and cake and hit the hay.
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.