12/03/2008, The Russel Islands
It would be a long day sail from our first Russel anchorage to the Western Province. A little over 70 miles. When we woke up it was raining. So that settled it, we were going to spend another day in the Russels (what torture :-). The Russels are lovely and quiet.
These islands were once a large copra production facility for Lever Brothers, the Australian soap dynamo. It seems some of this still goes on but it is not as colonial as it was. Folks here still paddle around and fish from dugout canoes but I think the era of western influence has changed the place some. No one comes to visit you, which can be a nice break if you just want to relax in peace and quiet. Everyone is still friendly though and they always wave back if you wave at them.
Once the sun cleared the sky up we dropped the mooring and plotted a tour through the lagoons of the northern Russel group to an hopeful anchorage in Pirisala Bay. The Russels are very deep and finding an anchorage is tricky. This is increased by the light and variable nature of the wind this time of year. You can try dropping your anchor on a small shelf in 20 feet of water, hanging back into deep water, but there are some problems with this. If you drag, which is more likely when you anchor on a steep decline, you will simply float off into the deep water, which hopefully is big enough to give you time to wake up before bumping into the opposite shore. Second, squalls are a nightly occurrence here. You can count on at least one a night influencing you, if not hitting you, this time of year. That means wind strength and direction change. Usually only +/- 50 degrees or so, but could be more. The gradient winds are also so weak that land breezes at night can take control of things. I have seen no 20 foot platforms in the Russels that would allow a yacht to swing on shore without going aground.
If you had a Gemini or something with an 18 inch draft you could get onto some of the banks and anchor safely, which would be nice. We draw 4.5 feet and need 10 feet to be comfortable in an anchorage (unless it is all sand, then we'll go down to 6 at low springs). Our plan was to check out the area between the two charted WWII wrecks in Pirisala Bay, one of the northwestern most bays in the Russels. This would give us a 9 nm head start for our run to the Western Province and it also looked very protected on the chart. Our mooring stay was nice but a chop did come around the island over night with a little sidewise roll. We were going for totally flat tonight.
The motor through the islands with 0-5 knots of wind was very pretty. The northern islands have lots of little deep water tracks leading through an array of islets, mangroves, sandy beaches and reefy banks. We were making way at noon so the different water colors really came out. It had turned into a lovely blue sky day, as it usually does here.
We saw a number of wonderful little spots where you could anchor but most were good for only trade wind conditions with 180 degrees of safe swinging. There is one island we passed that is shaped like a crescent and there is a reef across the entire front of the crescent. Inside is a shallow lagoon. If there were only a break in that reef!
We saw many western style buildings as we trolled through the islands. One little settlement at the end of a coconut tree filled island had a substantial set of jetties, making it look a good place to load copra. Leaving this peninsula to port we made our way through a narrows and then turned down toward Pirisala Bay. Hideko spotted the first wreck on the chart but the second appeared to have been replaced by a small clump of mangroves. We came in the clear channel which bends into the bay from the east. The north part of the bay has a reef and bank across it with a channel through to another exit. An island surrounds the bay to the south, east and west.
We tracked along the bank looking for good spots to hook up. Every thing looked to be problematic if the wind came south. We did find an area where the bank juts out a bit, creating a 30-50 area where you could anchor with a good 270 degrees safe swinging angle. If you could hold with short scope maybe even 360.
We kept moving around the bank and then ran through the channel leading to the big exit bay to the north. We looked in the big bay for spots as well but it is totally open to the north and any swell from that direction would come right in. Our primary purpose for running the channel was to lay down a safe track line so that we can leave with poor light early in the morning. As we crossed back in we found the deepest water closer to the western shore and got through with nothing less than 35 feet of water.
The best spot we had found turned out to be the little finger jutting out from the coral and sand bank. We took a couple trys to get set properly but ended up with a solid hold in about 30 feet with 150 of scope out. This is just over 4:1 for us (we have 5 feet of freeboard) and seemed a good compromise between: holding, a chance to catch if we drag deeper, and the short scope desired if the wind goes wrong.
Once settled Hideko made her wonderful Churasco Steak sandwiches and we enjoyed the views of the lovely little bay. After lunch we inflated the Clear Blue Hawaii Kayak and went to explore the wrecks. The mangrove bush was actually growing around one of the wrecks and had almost completely hidden it. In close, you could still see the remains of whatever it was, rusting slowly in the bright sun. Wrecks are always so intriguing to me. What was it's story, how did it come to this end? The other wreck is on a sandy point at the other end of the bank. On the way there we heard crazy noises coming from the deserted island that hosts the point. Our best guess is that the noises were birds. There was a wide array of very curious calls going on from the darkness of the trees.
After a nice bit of exploration we retired to the big boat and set about cleaning things up and getting ready for our sixty some mile crossing in the morning.
|The Solomon Islands||
12/02/2008, The Russel Islands
We were up fairly early this morning. After running around to give away our internet cards that still had a day or two on them, we brought the dink up and dropped the mooring. We had never expected to be in Honiara a week and a day. We were hoping to leave with parts for our genset and PNG visas but we were leaving with neither. Last week was Thanksgiving in the US so we lost contact with our parts people on Tuesday and haven't heard from them since. The PNG visa saga is too sad to recount (see yesterdays blog).
None the less we were happy to be off to the islands again, where peace and tranquility rule. It was so peaceful we had to motor the entire way.
We have the weather in Honiara down to a science, at least for this time of year. In the morning it is a bright blue sky day. Cumulus clouds grow atop the high islands and by the afternoon there are thunder heads over the Floridas and the interior of Gudalcanal. Then as the sun sets the thunderstorms head southwest across the channel from the Floridas. These inevitably make landfall north of Honiara and south of Honiara, leaving the anchorage with a dead calm in the hot sultry early evening (and sometimes a nasty chop from the distant squall, perhaps a little rain) and then a cool starry breeze through the middle of the night and into the next morning. If you are not riding a squall you have no wind in this neck of the woods. Maybe a little land breeze at night, but not much.
We motor sailed most of the way along Guadalcanal. As we reached the northwest point we got the jib out and the few knots of real wind combined with the motorized wind got us up to 8 plus knots for a bit. We could see the black clouds building over the north end of the big island as we left it behind.
You can easily make out the Russels from the west end of Guadalcanal. Our destination was a mooring on the south side of Karumolun Island. The mooring is owned by a nice guy named Mike and came recommended by Hank, the only sailing charter skipper in the country. Who are we to turn down advice like that? Hank arranged for us to use the mooring and caught us on the cell phone as we made our way to let us know it would be alright.
This will be our first time in the Russels but from looking over the charts and cruising notes of others, the area seems fairly deep all around. There are lots of lovely places to tuck in here but, it seems, few with less than 100 feet of water. We came in on the mooring at about 3PM and tied up. The tie up was a bit of a charade because the mooring has very small loops on it and we have 5 feet of freeboard. We could hook it but it was a real trick getting a line through the loop and back up to the bow. I almost took a swim a couple times.
Swimming here would be great but you have to keep an eye peeled for the salt water crocodiles. This is the first time we have had such a concern since Panama. We settled on just relaxing aboard for the rest of the afternoon.
The little island is very lovely and the mooring is in 100 feet of water just off a little sandy beach lined with trees. You can see straight into the water where all of the reefy rocks climb up the steep slope to the shore. Melanisians paddle around the area in their dugout canoes here and there and there is a small town on a larger island south of here.
On the way in, Angelica II hailed us. They were on the hook off of Telin island, which was our original plan. They said it was a nice and very protected spot.
As night fell we had a fair battle with flies in the still air on the bow. Hideko's new full screen system on the boat, combined with her bug electrocution racket that Cindy from Kelp Fiction II gave us, quickly dispatched all of the varmints inside.
Over night we had several thunderstorms pass to the northeast of us. Electrical storms are my least favorite weather feature. We were close enough to one for the wind to get up to 17 knots. This is not that much but I feel that we may have been taxing this mooring a bit with our size under the conditions. Tomorrow we will move up closer to the western province in the Russels and then make the jump the next day to spare the mooring two nights of our girth.
Hideko made some great enchiladas and we are now settling in for an Enterprise double feature...
|The Solomon Islands||
Monday and our last day in Honiara. It has been an interesting experience being here, but we are very ready to leave. Our final high priority task to handle in the city was to pick up our Papau New Guinea visas from the PNG High Commission. It couldn't be that easy could it? We did have a little positive karma built up from our visit Friday when they said the visas would be ready, but then weren't. Not enough karma though, apparently.
When we arrived at the PNG HC, Hideko was presented her passport with the visa stamp in it (which must have taken 5 minutes to do when they finally decided to stamp it). I was out of luck. You see the only fully blank page in my passport was the back page. The PNG officials would not stamp the back page. No way, no how. Totally unacceptable to stamp the back page. This combined with the fact that so many countries flip all the way to a blank page to put their 1/4 page stamp on your passport (outside the lines), and the fact that US passports have ridiculously few pages to start with (compared to British, Australian, NZ, Japanese, ...), meant no blank pages except the back one.
The Solomons guy stamped his visa right on top of some other stamp. I liked his style. The PNG people had spoken though. The chip was firmly on the should and no solution other than a fresh page to stamp in the middle of the book would do. So we were off to the consulate to get some consoling.
The US consulate here is great. It is small but right on the way to the customs office in the middle of town. It is the cleanest, tidiest place in all of Honiara, that I have seen anyway. Anne, a wonderful woman from Malaita, is the Consular's Assistant and the only person I've ever seen in the place. Anne made a plea for us with the PNG folks but we all new it was a very outside shot. Nothing doing. So the only thing left to do was to pack my passport up and send it to Port Moresby where the actual US embassy is.
The plan is that the passport will go to the US embassy in PNG, get new pages, then come all the way back here to the Solomons to get the PNG stamp (go figure), then Anne will send it to the forestry representative in Gizo so that I can pick it up. This is a fairly complicated plan. Complicated and developing island nations in political turmoil often don't mix well. Particularly concerning given I have no passport until the plan completes successfully. I went for it though, which tells you how much we trust Anne.
The bright side of this escapade is that the Lime Lounge is between the US Consulate and the main road. We had not stopped in there yet and it was perhaps the last of the eateries in Honiara that we had wanted to try. We were glad we did. They had great thick milk shakes (if there's British influence make sure to order a "Thick" milkshake or you'll get a nasty watery chocolate milk when you order a milk shake) good sandwiches, lots of fresh cookies and cakes, good coffee and espresso and WIFI access all in an air conditioned room. Don't plug your laptop into the power outlets though, this is Tabu, they don't want you camping out on a single latte for 5 hours. After our visit I would rate this place as #1 in Honiara for Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner. If you need to spend all day on the laptop you'll have to go back to the Kitano Mendana hotel where the NGOs seem to be holding court.
Three cruising yachts came in over the last 24 hours. Polaris arrived yesterday, while Kleiner Bar and Whistle arrived today. It was nice to see our friends on Polaris and Kleiner Bar again and good to meet Whistler.
We took an afternoon trip to the Panatia Center (sp?) about 5 minutes east of town on the way to the airport. The grocery store here is the best in the area we have found, but also the most expensive. We stocked up nicely and caught a cab back to the Yacht Club.
I have been filling our 5 gal diesel jug and dumping it in the tanks every now and again to keep up with the battery charging. We are waiting to do a big fill up until we get to Gizo, where I hear they have a proper yacht friendly fuel dock. Hopefully it survived the tsunami last year. So after a final diesel jug run, Hideko and I retired to Swingin' on a Star and got the boat ready to go.
The Lonely Planet guide has an interesting way of describing Honiara. It doesn't make it sound like a wonderful place and takes an even handed view of the shortfalls the town has to overcome. They do, however, say the place can grow on you. While I'm not sure Honiara has grown on us, many of the wonderful people we have met have.
|The Solomon Islands||
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||
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||
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||
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||