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Swingin' on a Star
Ship's log for the circumnavigating Saint Francis 50 catamaran, "Swingin on a Star".
Diving Iron Bottom Sound
11/30/2008, Honiara

Yesterday we met Ali and Aleks, two officials from the Australian High Commission, during our tour of the Guadalcanal battlefields. These wonderful ladies were kind enough to offer to take us diving with them today. Of course we accepted!

We anchored Shooting Star off the beach and tied a stern line to our favorite post at about 8:45 in the morning. Ali and Aleks were already waiting for us. We were supposed to meet at 8:45 and they were there before 8:45. This was very confusing to us, I don't think they have quite settled into the time keeping practices of the location just yet.

We paid 50 sol a tank to rent filled tanks ($8 USD). Aleks gave us a ride to the beach where we had to pay one of the locals a fee to go through his gate to get to the beach parking. We're not sure that it is his land but we are sure that he isn't cleaning up the trash everywhere or ensuring cars aren't broken into. It is sad but you see this in many of the places around Gudalcanal. People want to get paid for nothing. Anything that takes place on someone's land (which includes most things, surprisingly even charity and works of public good) will produce someone claiming to own the land with a demand for compensation. I have heard tales of bridges built for the good of a village (replacing a bridge destroyed by a storm), then torn down by the headman when the aid organization that built the bridge would not pay him "compensation" for building a bridge on his land. Talk about shooting one's self in the big toe.

Never the less the beach, though needing a beach clean up or two, is lovely. The wrecks we were to dive on are Japanese troop transports from WWII. They were being torn to shreds by allied fire and simply tried to crash land on the beach so that as many as possible could swim ashore.

The first wreck is in 30 to 110 feet of water. It is a lovely dive and the water here is amazingly clear and warm. It was the first dive I can recall in sometime where Hideko was actually warm (she was wearing a full 3mm in 88 degree water). We saw some good size eating fish, mmm, lots of schools of little fish and the wreck was heavily encrusted with corals of all sorts. It was also an anemone paradise with lots of clown fish of various types chasing us away from their castles.

For the second dive we moved down the beach a bit. This ship is actually sticking up out of the water a good bit. You could easily enjoy snorkeling this one or scuba down to the 80 foot or so bottom. We did a second dive on the same 80s we used for the first dive. I liked this one a little more than the first dive though Hideko was the opposite. They were both similar with tons of coral, great vis and warm water. This one had a big screw shaped section to the east of the main wreck which apparently was a lion fish hotel. There were tens of them swimming slowly or napping on the wreck. We also saw a wonderful little blue spotted sting ray on the sandy bottom bellow one of the swim throughs at about 50 feet.

The seas were calm and the entry was so easy here, Hideko recons it was the easiest dive she has ever done in her life. It reminded me of Bonaire, diving out of the back of a pickup truck.

After the dives we all went back to Shogun/Casablanca for lunch. This place is a combo general snack type place with Japanese food. For instance, I had pizza and Hideko had sushi. Both acceptable, neither stellar. Not to pricey though and on the way back from the dive site to the west of town. We had a great chat with the entire dive group at lunch. It was intriguing to get the perspective on the political and social situation here from such a connected crew. We had not only Ali and Aleks but also Ray and his wife from the British High Commission and Shawn and his wife from RAMSI.

We retired to the boat after a wonderful day with our new expat friends. You really have to be glad that people like these exist. They come to places like the Solomon Islands to try to help not only their own citizens but the local people and government. They live in places like Honiara at some risk and do their best to make the planet a better place.

We made it back to the boat, and once again were happy to find everything in tact. We shared the sunset with Hank from Aurora and talked boats and fishing as the nightly squall from the Floridas made its way across the channel with the usual fireworks.

The Solomon Islands
The Battlefields of Guadalcanal
11/29/2008, Guadalcanal

I am sitting on the bow of Swingin' on a Star and the sun has just set. It is very dark and straining my touch typing skills. I have WIFI from my laptop to the hotel which is very surprising. Honiara actually looks pretty lit up at night from the anchorage. The starboard engine is making some power while we run the water maker. I can hear fish, some good size, jumping and splashing around the boat. It is a lovely end to a lovely day.

We got up at 7AM ate some Cheerios, took our Malarone and set off for the yacht club. After anchoring Shooting Star (I have become more and more impressed by the little dinghy anchor's holding ability) we walked over to the Hotel to meet with John Innis.

We had the most amazing day. The Battlefield tour John took us on was certainly the most intriguing and deeply historical tour we have ever done in our travels. It is rare to have access to someone with as much knowledge as John has when touring an area where famous battles were fought.

Hideko and I were both impressed as we were guided through the Japanese and US monuments spread out across the hills, beaches and ridges of Guadalcanal. The vistas were fantastic and the weather was fine. You could easily see all the way to Tulagi and the Floridas and imagine the battles there as John described them. As you looked about from the top of some of the hills John would point out where all of the old air strips used to be and were the various companies of soldiers would have approached your position from. His in-depth commentary literally brought the entire area to life.

We did our tour with some interesting folks. All expats in the Solomon Islands are interesting folks at present, you sort of have to be. Most were Ozzies with RAMSI or the High Commission (the equivalent of our embassy). By the end of the day we had made a whole new group of friends.

If you come to The Solomon Islands and don't do John's Battlefield tour, you have really missed something special.

The Solomon Islands
Boat Work and Bow Parties
11/28/2008, Honiara

The morning was cool so we slept in a bit and did a 250 hour service on the starboard engine. We also cleaned the boat up. Things get progressively more untidy each day you're underway.

We also replaced the pre-filters on the water maker and ran it for an hour. The Spectra was down to 5 gallons an hour and 400ppm salinity. Not good. I think it was maybe air in the system rather than the filters. I just replaced the 50 micron (the first one) and cleaned the strainer then ran the pump with the pressure release open to get things flowing and move the bubbles along. Once I closed the pressure release the feed pressure returned to the normal 88PSI or so and the gallons per hour went back up to 12 or so with a salinity under 200ppm. The water around here is hot (88 degrees) and salty which seems to reduce performance a bit.

We came ashore today to complete all of out business and get ready to sail for Gizo. The dream came crashing down when the lady at the PNG office said, "no visa, you come back Monday". Ug. Three more days in Honiara. It wouldn't be so bad if the harbor was really a harbor and the police boat parked on the dock actually had police on it (add to that, police who actually police). In actuality the weather is the big threat, though we have heard cruisers saying boats have been boarded and robbed in the harbor recently. No different from Bora Bora in that way. The big black dog seems to inhibit the boarders.

After hitting the PNG visa office we stopped by the government mapping agency. I had read somewhere that you could get good charts for the Solomons here and that they were inexpensive. If this was ever so, it is no more. The only charts they have are 1980s vintage British Admiralty, some updated to 2002. If you buy a set they make copies for you. These copies are ok but not great and, as far as I know, you are not supposed to copy the BA charts (US charts or ok for copying). I paid 240 Solomon for a couple of Gizo area charts and received no receipt. Hmmm.

Some of the tourist maps are useful for getting around as well. That said there are so many battle monuments and sunk wrecks that have been lost to the annals of time here that no reference can uncover all of the lost history of this place. If you drive through the hills you will see many war memorials but the majority have been stripped by black hearts who sell the metal plaques and even statues for scrap.

There was a little festival going on in the park as we walked back to the hotel. We stopped by to watch the traditional musicians. The band was completely manned by pan pipe players. These bundles of bamboo range in size from small one handed affairs to huge six foot long honkers that require a massive hoot to sound. They also have an upright configuration that the guys beat on with what looks like a long flat rice spoon. This adds a percussion back beat. Pretty cool to see and hear.

We wound up the day ashore at the Kitano Mendana hotel. They closed up the lunch room in the afternoon and cranked the air conditioning which was nice. We got close to completely caught up on out internet stuff.

As the sun set we retired to the big boat with Will and Charlie (a NGO/RAMSI couple) and Hank and Alison (a charter skipper/RAMSI couple) for drinks. We bought a sack of ice at the hotel and had some lovely G&Ts as the sun set over Guadalcanal. Given the season we have had lovely weather here and only one night of anything but calm seas in the roadstead. Pretty wonderful stuff.

The Solomon Islands
The Kitano Mandana Hotel
11/27/2008, Honiara

We have finally developed a functional technique for getting ashore here. We drive over to the dinghy dock and Hideko gets out with any stuff we may have aboard (backpacks and laptops). I hand her the stern line and then motor out and drop the anchor. She pulls the stern over to the dock and I hop out, then we tie the stern line off on a post or pick nick table at the yacht club. This way if the seas get up (and they sure can in here) you're dink is not bashing on the dock. It is also easy to launch as you just pull up the anchor.

Shooting Star is a lug, and tough to drag up the beach but it is still faster to beach her than anchor out. Anchoring keeps the dink cleaner though because there's no getting pooped as you scramble to push her up the beach.

We spent the entire day today at the Mendana Hotel on the internet. It was a nice relaxing day. We can see Swingin on a Star from the restaurant and we can see Shooting Star if we walk out by the pool. So it is a perfect spot to relax.

As we were getting caught up on the blog photo uploads and other business we noticed a guy at the next table who seemed to have set up shop just like we had. It turned out that his name was Will. Will is an NGO here in Honiara doing revitalization work in the Solomons. He had set up a Fair Trade coffee co-op in Laos previously and attended UCLA, Hideko's school's nemesis (USC). We love to meet the people from the countries we visit but it is always nice to meet another American making their way in these crazy parts of the world.

Hideko started up a conversation with a couple of Japanese ladies who were doing charity work in Honiara. They are campaigning again violence directed at women and children. I think the statistics suggest that about half the women in The Solomons are subject to domestic violence. We have seen no such behavior, but that is why they call it domestic.

As the day wore on I noticed a nasty sunset system building in the north. It looked like it was going to bring a chop and some rain so Hideko and I skedaddled. We got back to the big boat in plenty of time but as the evening wore on the chop that came into the anchorage was nasty and short. Boats will go beam on to a swell if there's no wind and the storm passed quickly leaving the swell and no wind.

The roll was bothering us (on a catamaran!). I couldn't concentrate on Star Trek. That did it, I dug out the stern anchor and got in the dinghy to run it out. It made a huge difference. Unfortunately I had it on a very short scope to avoid entanglements with the catamaran moored right behind us who was swinging freely. About half way through the incident the anchor drug and we were back to the beam on chop. At this point it was too dark to mess with resetting the anchor and it was just a squall so the swell didn't last much more than another hour or so to go.

Things did calm down and it turned into a wonderful and cool sleeping night. That said, this anchorage is the worst of any major port I've been in throughout the entire South Pacific. I would not stay here a day more than I had to. If we weren't waiting for PNG visas we'd have left the day we completed the clearance process.

The Solomon Islands
PNG Visas
11/26/2008, Honiara

We've been in third world countries before but the Solomons, or more accurately Honiara and Guadalcanal, really have the vibe you might imagine when thinking about a developing country that is just barely stable. From here we're going to an even more remote and unstable country, Papau New Guinea.

The funny thing is, out in the villages, they have no idea what is going on with the power mongers in the city. You feel a million miles away. Stay out of the heavily populated areas and you will meet wonderful, kind people living a simple life. These are the spots we enjoy.

Before entering PNG we needed to get visas and a cruising permit. This is the first country in all our travels that has required a US national and/or a Japanese national to get a visa in advance. Strange given the country's reputation, you would think they would make it easy for people to visit to encourage the tourism. Perhaps they don't want tourists? I could see how keeping the seeds of materialism out might be beneficial as the country seeks internal stability.

The PNG high commission here is in the tallest building in Honiara, six stories. They are only open from 9-noon for visas. We managed to fill out all of the forms (including a complete itinerary of our travels in their borders), get the two passport photos and 500 Solomon dollars together before they closed. They normally produce the visas in 5 working days but after some pleading the lady at the counter told us to come by on Friday (yeah!).

We also went by the US consulate to check in. The main embassy is in Port Morseby, PNG. The office here is just a consulate but they will check you in as a US national with an itinerary through the Solomons and PNG. Not sure if this actually has any value but it was nice to look over the library in the air conditioned room and see the propaganda we're (USA) putting out there. I wanted to shake the agents had before we left but I couldn't reach her through the bullet proof glass.

We spent the afternoon on the internet trying to turn back on the various credit cards that have shut down for the betterment of our security and updating the blog. The Kitano Mendana hotel is right next to the Yacht Club and has internet and a fair Japanese restaurant. The place is not amazing but it is the best we have seen here in Honiara, a good place to get basic food, good internet and a nice seat with a view of the big boat.

I was surprised to see how trashed the beach in front of the hotel is. Plastic everywhere, glass and an old tire. Make sure to wear shoes if your going to walk through the surf to get around the fence on the way back to the yacht club (just next door).

Back at the big boat we found the sun had blessed us with enough hours to fill the batteries up. That settled it. It was an Enterprise double feature night. Roq, Hideko and I turned in early and enjoyed a cool land breeze as Captain Archer put down the bad guys again.

The Solomon Islands
Margaret Flys Home
11/25/2008, The Solomon Islands

We had a nice sleep even though the anchorage is a bit choppy. Margaret was all packed so we took her to the dinghy dock and loaded everything up to keep it dry. Then I beached the dink and tied it up. I ran over to customs and quarantine to pay my bills. Things were supposed to open at 8AM but it is a busy port and the customs agent was out on a ship so it took me a good 45 minutes to get things paid. We jumped a cab then and headed for Immigration.

Immigration here was a little more hassle. I had to fill out the usual forms but they had a hard time with the crew departing bit. Especially the crew arriving now and leaving now bit. After running across to the cashier building to pay the fees we finally got it worked out that we would get the visa stamps at the airport due to the absence of the right officer at the main immigration office. So we headed off to the airport.

At the airport we got the arrival immigration guy to stamp us without much problem, though I did have to be emphatic about the necessity as he tried to send us back to the main office. On the way out of arrivals (which was otherwise shut down) we were stopped by a RAMSI guy. I was glad to see that they are trying to check up on things abnormal and make a difference here. He was a great Aussie and waved us on our way after our explanation of the circumstances.

We wanted to share lunch with Margaret before she left but the food around town hasn't been too exciting. We tried to go to the Lonely Planet recommended spot, The Rain Forest Cafe (not like the one you're thinking about), but it was closed. We ended up with fish and chips at the airport (yuck).

And then Margaret was gone. Bye Margaret, we'll miss you!!

We ran errands the rest of the day and tried to make sure that we could get out of here as soon as possible. We did meet up with John Inniss, the local WWII expert. We hope to take a WWII history tour with him before we depart. The only thing tying us up is our PNG visas which we need to get here before we leave for Gizo.

The Solomon Islands
11/24/2008, The Solomon Islands

We made it. What a slog this time of year. No wind and lots of squalls all the way. Happily we missed most of the squalls and the motors kept our batteries in top condition while we await our genset parts.

We left Tavanipupu a little late today. It was 5:30 before we got out of the anchorage. This was nice from a light stand point but put us into Honiara late in the day to get formalities finished. We motor sailed up the coast of Guadalcanal very close to the wind. We had the jib out here and there but mostly too close for that. As we reached the western bend in the island I was looking forward to seeing the 30 degree to port wind go to 50 degrees so that we could sail. Unfortunately it just followed the coastline around and it was more motor and main. We got an hour or so of just sailing in but that was about it.

The highlights of the trip were a whale visit and a huge pod of spinner dolphins. The whale was amazing. Hideko spotted him a ways out but we didn't know what it was. Then after a short vanishing act he surfaced just in front of our starboard bow and did a big flourish as he sounded again. We watched him pop up a few more times off the quarter as we motored along.

The dolphin pod was great as well. There had to be twenty of them playing under the bow as we sliced through the still water. All the time it was like being in a sea of spinners, they were farther off the bow, to port and behind us as well.

Coming around the points that put you between the Floridas and Guadalcanal is interesting. The bottom goes from thousands of feet deep to a hundred. There are islets and reefs farther off shore and then a deep passage. We took the inside to save time. never saw less than 100 feet but the depth keeps you on you toes after being used to no bottom while underway.

We arrived at Honiara just around 4PM. We came in through the unlit but marked channel to the yacht basin. Honiara is a roadstead. There is a point (Point Cruz) and on the west side you have yachts and the police boats (which don't seem to stop the yachts from getting robbed), while on the east side you have a big port with huge freighters, tuna boats and local cargo boats. No yacht skipper in his right mind would stop here if it wasn't for customs and immigration. You are totally exposed to the north, in a lee shore setting, and all of the wind this time of year comes from the north (NE, N NW).

Inside the little yacht basin there are fishing boats and a few yachts. Most of the yachts are tied stern to a large wall of concrete slugs. You would not want to drag down on this wall. Frankly you probably wouldn't want to have to tie to it at all. There was a big ship mooring to the right as we came in and after reading up a bit on noonsite, Hideko though we might be able to use it. We picked it up and settled the boat quickly so that I could get customs started. Margaret was flying out at noon tomorrow!

I dropped the dinghy and said bye to the girls and went ashore. As I approached the Yacht Club I was looking for the obligatory dinghy dock. They had a dock but the chop coming straight onto the beach and the short run of the dock made tying a dinghy up there a total no go. So I beached her. The chop was such that a good pooping or two was unavoidable. As soon as the bow was on the sand I tilted up the outboard and wave #2 put a few gallons in the back. That made it even more fun to try to drag the dink up the beach. Fortunately the tide was falling so I got her up as far as the best wave could help me drag her and tied off to a palm tree.

I got some directions from the yacht club folks and after a short walk made it to customs just before closing. The customs folks were great and so were the quarantine folks. No hassles, just a few forms and they let me come back tomorrow to pay the fees since I didn't have any local currency. I had read somewhere that they would want to board the boat. Thank goodness that was a rumor.

At this point it was 4:45 and immigration was long closed. So I walked up to the main street and grabbed some cash out of the Westpac ATM and returned to the yacht club. As I walked I marveled at how much bigger Honiara was than Port Vila. I had imagined the Solomon Islands would be more remote and scaled down on the big city front. Not so. Vila is quaint and charming while Honiara is, well not so quaint and charming. It is a big port and it has a lot of shops and industry that could come in handy though. It seems like everyone here chews bettlenut and some barely have any teeth left. A guy almost spat on me as I walked by his car, though he did apologize.

Back at the yacht club I searched about for the owner of the mooring we were on. The last thing I wanted to contend with is getting kicked off in the middle of the night in this particular roadstead. After a nice chat with some cruisers also heading to Gizo I gave up and set about dragging Shooting Star back down the now significantly longer beach. Just then a guy came up. I thought, cool he's going to help. No, it was the mooring owner. Well at least I wont have to worry about being kicked off now. It was 100 Solomon for the night (8:1 right now so about $12.50 US). I happily paid since the mooring gave us a chance of facing the swell that steadily marches in here.

Back at the boat we settled in and relaxed. We got Margaret to Honiara and a good 20 hours before her plane takes off. It was sad to see her packing, we'll miss Margaret...

The Solomon Islands

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