12/13/2008, The Western Province
We finally made it to Gizo. Back in French Polynesia when we decided to head on west rather than trying to stay for a year or two, Gizo was our big waypoint. We couldn't go to NZ like the main pack because of Roq (NZ is dog hostile), and Australia was out for the same reason. If you're going to head North you either go through he Solomons to PNG, Micronesia and points beyond, or you go up to the Marshalls and across to Micronesia and on.
A few yacht blogs and some cruising guide info had made Gizo sound like a nice place for cruisers during cyclone season. Gizo has never had a cyclone, though they get strong winds sometimes as the cyclones pass to the south or east. The town has enough infrastructure to take care of your needs, fresh market, banks, yacht club (PT109 which is basically a bar), The Gizo Hotel with nice restaurant, two lovely resorts (Fatboys and Sanbis), post, airport, customs and immigration, places to eat, grocery stores, hardware stores and the lot.
Gizo is the town and it is located on the island Ghizo. Ghizo and the other islands in the area are all enclosed in a single barrier reef. This makes anchoring anywhere in the area reasonable and the Gizo harbor is particularly well protected. You have a fair amount of fetch from the north and east but there is an island to the northeast (an important direction to have covered, and the southeast through northwest is covered by Ghizo island. You could always hop around if need be because you can find cover from any direction inside the lagoon.
Getting here was interesting. We decided to back track out of Vonavona lagoon rather than coning our way through. It was a bright sunny day, but a bit too sunny perhaps. Hideko would have been roasted alive on the bow. It also might have taken too long seeing as how we would have to creep and crawl through the intricate and shallow bits. It is a long lagoon.
We said bye to Joe on Lola island by VHF as we left. He told us that Noro generally did not supply fuel on weekends and he had called them for us but got no answer. That was enough for us to nail shut the Noro fueling idea (even though it was so flat calm today it would have been a good day to dock there). So we headed back out Munda bar.
As we crossed the bar we ran into Angelica II, the Dutch boat we had seen in Honiara and the Russels. They were Munda bound (a nicer town than Noro from what we hear) so we said hi and told them we'd catch up in Gizo.
There was no wind and the sea was like glass with a long low swell. The Vonavona lagoon and fringing islands were beautiful as they passed to starboard on our way west. We went north through Furgeson channel to make an entrance into the Gizo lagoon at Kennedy Island. This is the island JFK swam to after PT109 went down in WWII. The pass here is deep and easy.
Once inside we went up the coast of the island of Mbambanga. To the east we saw Fatboys and to the west we saw Sanbis. Both resorts looked lovely and we will certainly return for a visit to each.
There are several reefs and shoals inside the lagoon but most are marked and the marks are in decent repair, and on station so far as we have seen. The lagoon is about 100 feet deep in most places.
We came up the channel south of airport island (the island with the airstrip) and entered Gizo harbor. It is an interesting town. It is a mix of shanty and full posh Solomons structures. Perhaps the tsunami a year and a half ago has something to do with this, but I think in general this is just how things develop in towns in the Solomons.
We found only one other yacht in harbor, to our surprise. It was Nueva Vida, some folks we had met in Honiara a couple weeks ago. We anchored in 45 feet a little ways out from the inner anchorage where the NV was sitting. There are a couple of moorings in the area and you are likely to swing all over the place here with the random wind directions so better to have more room.
It was a long hot day. We enjoyed the lovely scenery of the trip and a couple of dolphin visits to boot. The entire crew (particularly Roq) was ready to shut down once the hook was settled. So we did.
|The Solomon Islands||
12/12/2008, The Western Province
It seems that when you are out at sea, particularly when there's no wind, the 22:00-00:00 shift is often a tough one. The temperature change from shutting off the heat lamp in the sky seems to build before 10PM and mellow after midnight. In the middle we've had some of our bigger squalls. This held true last night.
At about 10PM Hideko and I both woke up with the wind really going. Having not seen anything over 10 knots for some time this was a curiosity. I went outside to check on things and it was really whipping. I turned on the instruments to discover that we were in a 30 knot squall. I later revised this to near gale, as squalls rarely last more than a half hour. This sucker planted itself on us for two hours.
It got fairly choppy in the lagoon. The wind was coming from the NE and there's quite a bit of fetch in that direction. There are shoals in the way but they don't really take the bite out of a wind chop. The big boat was fine but Shooting Star was tied up out back and getting a good bouncing.
The Rocna (our anchor) didn't budge an inch the whole time. I brought the Raymarine Smart Controller to bed at around 11PM and the GPS fix was a photograph. We were glad we anchored a ways out. Less bugs, more breeze and comfort room when the wind can come from any quarter. Our stern was facing the Lola beach and I could see their boat on the inshore moorings getting quite a tussle. One actually ended up on the beach, with no real harm done though.
I was expecting to see some disturbed weather after reading the Australian forecast. Keeping up on the best weather sources is a chore when you're circumnavigating. Every new country usually requires a new set of weather sources. The patterns and prevailing conditions also change with your location, not to mention the season. Understanding all of this is pretty important to safety at anchor as well as route planning.
We are now, unfortunately, out of the tender care of the good 'ol boys in the USA. The Hawaii team stops coverage at 160E down here. My current weather request looks like this:
The spot just gives us 7 days of wind, waves and pressure for our position (or where we plan to sail). The gfs request gives us a GRIB file with three days of info over a large area. The new ViewFax (free download on the SailMail site) shows Pressure (like a synoptic chart), Wind barbs, Wave heights with colors and Rain fall with shading. It is almost as nice as UGRIB (UGRIB doesn't work over HF radio though). The met.10ne report is the Australian tropical forecast for this area (MET10 Northeast). They identified the weak low and trough as well as its movement over us in the evening. If I could only have one file this would be the one at present.
In the morning we decided to see what was happening in Noro. It was a fun trip through the lagoon and up the Diamond Narrows. The lagoon is more or less clear of hazards when you're in a dinghy. You can pretty much go where ever there's water, with some caution. The Diamond narrows is a skinny but deep stretch of sea that snakes between New Georgia and Arundel Island. It reminds me of an old river backwater in the southern USA. Coming out on the north side of the narrows the water got choppy. The Noro bay is open to the north and the wind was still blowing in the low teens after last nights LO passage.
Noro is not a pretty town. And that is being kind. We tied the dink up near the market, which seems the only real place to do so, the shoreline is coral rock and such. The market looked interesting but there are a lot of guys and boys standing around with nothing to do but chew beetle nut. Idle hands as they say.
We made a trip to the bank to stock up on local currency to fund a diesel run later. The ATM was out of cash but we did get our Vanuatu money changed finally. It took perhaps more time than changing $50 US was worth but it was one thing off the list. Hideko and I took turns checking on the dink.
We have a lot of safety stuff on the boat that we just can't lock up. I need to put a lock on the bow locker but we still have no way to secure the paddles and other stuff. We've been fortunate to cruise in areas where you don't have to worry about that kind of thing too much. I beleive you need to be more careful in the Solomons. If you are in town, beware, things will disappear if they are not protected. I have to say, with some surprise, that the Yacht Club in Honiara did see to the security of yacht dinghies quite effectively. I am still surprised that we never had a problem there.
As I came out of the bank Hideko was down the road and looking concerned. She had just run off two, shall we say, punks looking about our dinghy. I walked up to them and asked what they were looking for. They smiled nervously and scampered off. Young boys here are the major problem.
Hideko stayed with the dink while I bought a few cards for our cell phone and then we were off. We later discovered the guy had sold me pay phone minutes not cell phone minutes. Buyer beware, when someone doesn't understand you here the answer is always yes.
Our next stop was over at the commercial quay to check out the diesel situation. Diesel is expensive everywhere but it has come down a lot here in the past month. Current prices were 13 SOL per liter. Given the nasty looking quay and the chop coming in we decided we fuel up in Gizo, a little more expensive at 15 SOL per liter, but cheaper than gel coat repair.
I didn't like Noro but we did enjoy the trip through the narrows and back. Once home at the big boat we arranged to have dinner at the Lola Island resort. Joe had just returned from Gizo and it is always interesting to chat with guys like him (originally from Seattle and now 25 years in the Solomons with three kids).
In the afternoon we made our pilgrimage to the Skull Island. It is one island over from Lola. We had to stop at a village at the big island next door to pick up the elder who owns the Skull Island. It was 25 Solomon per person to visit. Matohite, not sure of the spelling here, was probably 70 something but he jumped right into our dink like a spring chicken.
We cut across the crescent lagoon of his home island to the opposite tip where a small round island sites just off shore. The chop was still running so after letting the crew off I tied our dink's stern line to an overhanging tree while Hideko tied the bow line to a palm on shore. This kept the dink off the rocky coastline.
The island was a coral heap with some sand in the middle and trees and foliage everywhere. A short path took us to the shrine.
Wow. It was amazing to see this piece of living history. It had survived the ravages of many years and one world war. The shrine is a wooden A frame structure placed upon a large mound of coral. All around the mound are skulls of warriors, shell money and customary head chopping axes, all in advanced stages of decay. Matohite opened the shrine for us to display the sacred resting place of the skulls of the chiefs. We were told one was the dreaded Ingava.
To one side there are three head stone like structures chiseled from local stone. These, it was said, were shrines to the gods that would ensure successful fishing. There was also a cement box with no lid in the area. Hideko asked Matohite what the significance of the box was. He said, "that's mine".
In the brush on the way out we saw the grave sites of Matohite's father and brother. Both cement boxes with lids and crucifixes above them. An odd contrast to the skull mound a mere 5 meters away. After soaking up the history of the place a bit more, we returned to the village and thanked Matohite for generously sharing his heritage and sacred place with us.
On the way back to the resort we ran out of fuel. No problem because we always keep a 5 liter emergency jug in the dink. It highlighted how much running around we had done today though. The round trip to Noro alone was probably a good 10 miles.
We wrapped up our day, and last night in the anchorage, at the Lola Island resort for drinks and dinner. It was nice to finally have a good talk with Joe. He is an interesting guy, hailing from the Seattle area and having a lot of fishing experience. If you love fishing, any kind, fly, trawl, spear, deep sea, reef, whatever, you would go bonkers at this place.
After a lovely evening we said a fond farewell to our hosts Lisa and Joe. Back at the big boat it was a perfect sleeping night.
|The Solomon Islands||
12/11/2008, The Western Province
It was another mellow day aboard Swingin' on a Star. We headed out in the morning to go visit Noro by dinghy. This is supposedly the cheapest place in the area to get diesel due to the fish cannery there and frequent ships calling. We got to the resort to check on some laundry we had dropped off but after a short walk around couldn't locate anyone. Some kids were playing on the beach and the gardeners were hard at work but AJ had left for Gizo and neither Joe nor Lisa were anywhere to be found. It must be nice to run a small resort!
When we got back to the dock a rain shower had closed in. It was dumping in no time so we stayed under the palm leaf roofed picnic area at the resort until the rain stopped. Meanwhile some Solomon Police showed up in a high performance RIB. The got in just before the rain heated up. When things cleared they took a bunch of photos and split.
We moved back to the big boat in the break as well and then another shower came through. The afternoon cleared and became beautiful and sunny, producing many amps of solar and a cool breeze. We had missed our window though, so Noro will have to wait until tomorrow. Perhaps the day after that we will head on to Gizo.
I'm not leaving until I get to visit Skull island though! The Ni-Vanuatu (people of Vanuatu) seem pretty proud of the fact that they have consumed more humans than any other nationality. The last documented case of cannibalism in Vanuatu was only 30 years ago. The Solomon Islanders, on the other hand, pride themselves on their head hunting. In the day, they claim to be the most feared head hunters in the world. In fact the dreaded Ingava lived just miles from here in his coral fortress with quite a collection of noggins.
One of the Marovo lagoon locals told me that the other islands feared their people. Any time they wanted some new heads they would just shoot over to Isabel or Choiseul in their war canoes with the ominous nguzunguzus (faces perched on severed heads) on the prow and crush the meek folk of the other islands.
I don't know how much of this is fact but I do know that there are skull shrines and caves all around here where the industrious top loppers stashed the goods. Chief's heads were particularly prized and ended up in venerated positions within the shrines. The island next to Lola has one such shrine. We hope to visit tomorrow but we have to figure out who to pay the "kastom" fee to (entry fee charged by the landowner).
|The Solomon Islands||
12/10/2008, The Western Province
Hideko and I decided to stay here at the Lola Island resort for a few days. We discovered that the resort is actually called Zipolo Habu Resort. The island is Lola island, so named by Lisa's British grandfather who bought it years back. Everyone just calls the resort Lola Resort and they answer to such on the VHF.
There are no guests at the resort at the moment so things are even more laid back than usual. This is saying something. We stopped by in the afternoon after doing some chores on the boat to see about getting lunch. Lisa was busy working on some resort business but AJ was at the bar and got us some drinks. A few hours later Lisa came by and made us some cheese burgers. This is the pace here.
I got some reading done in the cool of the electric fan lounge and Hideko got some laundry done (by the resort staff) while sleeping in a hammock by the water. The staff watch movies at night in the little out door area near the bar. We were going to bring in a movie to show but as it started to get dark some clouds moved in and the rain came. We were sorry to miss our first invite to movie night (and perhaps the last since I think a batch of guests are arriving tomorrow) but we had a nice night of Star Trek on the big boat instead.
|The Solomon Islands||
12/09/2008, The Western Province
As you can see from our Lat and Long we've traveled far today. About two miles as the crow flies. It was about three times that in slow going reefy lagoon miles.
After a lazy morning we decided to make for the Lola resort. We were excited to see the place as it rated high in the recent Lonely Planet guide and is reported to have a great anchorage. Almost anywhere in Vonavona would be a great anchorage, as long as you can find 360 swinging room. The marl bottom (limestone mud) holds like Superglue.
At 11AM we headed out with the sun high and behind us. The water here is a deep green from all of the limestone and marl. It is nice to look at but doesn't help you read the bottom until it is pretty shallow. We only need 5 feet to float in and you can generally see 20 feet or less in sand/marl and perhaps a bit less if the bottom is hard coral. Unfortunately a 4 foot coral head can look like deep water from a ways off, so you have to really stare hard and go slow.
It would be easy to toss caution out the window and speed up, but if you smack something hard in the Solomons, especially in our boat, you are going to be in trouble. The next place I know of with first world services and the ability to haul us is Singapore.
It was a +2 extended high tide (lagoon tides are sometimes irregular due to swell inflow and today the high lasted a good three hours) as we departed. It didn't really matter though as the official charts (and our electronic ones which are based on them) have no soundings anywhere in here. At least the little islets are placed correctly for the most part.
We began creeping our way west around the south side of the big shoal across from the island we had anchored off of. As we approached Mundahite it looked like the passage to the south was blocked by a shoal going across between it and the small island (Talisondo) to the south. So we headed up north of the island and followed the deep water along the mainland.
A squall was moving in up ahead and bringing clouds across the sun. Combine that with the fact that we were moving away from where we though the resort was (this based on a finger point from yesterday at dusk along with the comment, "over there behind that island"). We decided to drop the hook and wait for the sun to come back.
We had been hailing the resort on VHF 68, their working frequency, but small resorts in this kind of place aren't always on the radio 24/7. As we waited for the direct sunlight to return the resort hailed us! We had talked to Joe, one of the owners, yesterday evening and he had asked Lisa, his wife, to give us a call.
She informed us that we were going the wrong way (this had become fairly evident), and that she would send a guide. It is a good thing too. The guide came out in an open boat with a young guy driving and waved us to follow him. Our guide was like King Minos, the lord of the labyrinth. There are so many little islands and shoals/coral heads about, finding this place without way points, a track, or even a lat/long for the resort, would have been pretty close to impossible.
We followed our guide back to the pass between the two islands that we didn't think we could get through and then went through. The trick is to hug the south island (8 17.35, 157 10.69) where there is a patch at least 15 feet deep. This is the skinniest water on the whole route. You then pass the resort for about a mile and a half, then loop down through some more islets to the south and come back to the resort.
Lola has a map with way points that they can email them to you if you let them know in advance.
We were happy to arrive in the Lola anchorage. It is huge, clear, 30 feet deep, great holding in marl, well protected and beautiful. We also have seen the smallest number of insects here (we did anchor out a ways) and no one pesters you at the boat in Vonavona. I also feel that you would have a lower chance of things disappearing off of the boat with the folks at the resort looking out for you.
Our wonderful kayak had been our transport for the past few anchorages. It was great because we didn't have to launch and stow the big dink, we got some exercise paddling out of the deal and it was better suited for going up some of the rivers and such. We had been stowing it on the bow rather than putting it away wet everyday, only to reinflate it. Sadly the black bottom (who puts a black bottom on an inflatable kayak for the tropics?) caused some excessive air expansion yesterday and a seam broke putting a hole in the bottom. Hopefully we can fix it at some point but we are now ex-kayak.
After settling the big boat in we decided to drop the dink and clean the things up a bit. After a good deck scrubbing we headed to the resort to check things out and have dinner. Tosca and Chris, who we had met yesterday, were there and so was Lisa, the owner/chef, as well as AJ the bar tender. The resort has six good sized bungalows made in the traditional way. They are really fantastic, not often you get the chance to stay in a luxury leaf hut. All of the floors are raised wooden slats. The beaches on the island are actually sand beaches (much of the coastline in the Western Province is more mangrovey). It is a complete getaway.
We had a few beers and a great dinner, chatting with Chris, Lisa and AJ. The area house houses the kitchen, office, bar and sitting area where meals are served and general relaxing is done. After a lovely evening we walked back out to the perfect little dock where our dinghy was tied up and motored back to the big boat. We had a nice breeze and perfect sleeping conditions. This is a highly recommended spot for yachts.
|The Solomon Islands||
12/08/2008, The Western Province
So I downloaded the weather last night to pull our once a day sail mail forecast. As expected, no wind. In fact the GRIBs show the wind on the north of the Solomons coming light NW (moonsoon wind from Asia) and the south side of the Solomons coming light SE (south pac trades). This is ominous as the convergence along with the lift from the big volcanic islands could make for some interesting convection. Nothing like a free light show I guess.
Just in case you don't believe my "no wind" crys, here's a spot forecast for an average December day in the Solomons:
Date Wind Press Waves (sp/dir/dur)
12-08 00:00 1.9 280 1008.8 0.6 51 10.6
12-08 03:00 2.8 245 1007.1 0.6 50 10.8
12-08 06:00 3.2 220 1006.1 0.7 50 10.9
12-08 09:00 3.2 194 1007.3 0.7 50 11.1
12-08 12:00 1.5 169 1008.6 0.7 49 11.2
12-08 15:00 0.2 248 1006.9 0.7 49 11.3
12-08 18:00 1.1 245 1006.5 0.7 48 11.4
12-08 21:00 1.0 173 1008.6 0.8 47 11.5
The bottom line is that you have to be ready to swing 360 and you have to be set with scope that can handle a swing with wind in the fairly strong zone if you get a squall at night. That said, even if the squall adds 20 knots, the wind will not likely get much over 25 knots.
The cruiser motto is, "no matter what the weather, have fun". We try to live by this. Many of the days are blue sky lovely here and even the overcast days have many nice patches. A break from the sun can be welcome regardless. We have also found it to be nice and cool in the evenings, making for good sleeping.
My plan to relax and read in Viru sort of blew up in my face. When we got there is was very peaceful and we only had a couple visitors. If you could put a closed for business sign out I would rate Viru as one of the best anchorages we've visited. It reminded me of a sleepy Louisiana bayou with the little shacks on the water, the air of crocodiles sliding through the shallows and foliage to the tide line. Unfortunatly you can not put out a closed sign.
Today we left with the sunrise. As we trawled back out the channel Hideko noticed the WWII Japanese gun up on the cliff just above the transit markers. Don't know how we missed it coming in! I am impressed by the thorough nav aids in Viru (unusual and unexpected).
It was a very red sunrise, and the saying held true. We motor sailed up the coast of New Georgia in a deepening gloom which finally developed into some serious thunder storms off the port bow. I don't usually change our routing for squalls but thunderstorms are another story. Especially when we're planning to cross a 15 foot bar and thread a reefy lagoon with third world quality charts and nav aids.
After planning some nice ditch harbors, we ended up making our turn to starboard before the black clouds could close on us. The good thing about no wind is that the systems don't move too fast or far. The still ocean also revealed another whale, ho humm, another whale (kidding of course!), they seem like a daily sighting here in the Solomons! We also saw a huge Leatherback Turtle as we passed in front of Tetepara, which is a sanctuary for turtles among other critters.
It was actually a nice motor sail (except for the motor part) up the Blanche Channel. The volcanic peaks of Rendova and the towering 1700 plus meter high Kolombangara looked wicked in the overcast.
As we approached Munda, the largest town on New Georgia, we failed to locate the charted transit markers that line you up to cross the bar into the lagoon. The bar supposedly has a max depth of 15 feet and there was a good half meter swell running dead onshore. The swell was breaking to the right of our chart plotter track line as it should have on a reef there. The radar lined up with the electronic chart, so in the absence of the transit we decided to continue over the bar at about 1.5 knots.
Hideko was on the bow and I was glued to the sounder. The bottom goes from deep to 30 feet instantly and then quickly climbs to 14. This was with close to 2 feet in our favor tide wise. Scary. The bar is wide too, so you get plenty of suspense at the low speed, with the swell lifting and lowering you all the while.
Once inside things go to 80-120 feet for the most part. We headed up toward Diamond Narrows, a skinny channel that leads between New Georgia and Kohinggo island to the north side of the group. The channel is marked nicely, far better than the chart shows, and not matching the old route on the chart I might add. The greens are taken to the port when arriving from the south side and the reds to starboard. I felt at home... everything else here is red left returning of course.
After making a jag just before the narrow bit we broke off to port for Vonavona Lagoon. We found a nice spot behind the first islet on the left and parked before any of the overcast tried to coalesce and eliminate the visibility we did have. The lagoon is lovely. We plan to stay here a bit and then hit Noro, the fish cannery town on the other end of the Diamond Narrows, to fuel up. Shipping comes and goes often in Noro so the diesel is cheaper than at Gizo, so we are told.
As we relaxed at anchor a small sport fisher came by with an American looking guy aboard with a local captain. It was Chris from the Natural History Museum in New York and Tosca the boat skipper. We couldn't believe it, a New Yorker in this lagoon. He couldn't believe it, a Las Vegas registered yacht in this lagoon. We had a nice chat and he recommended Lola resort a couple islands over. We had already eaten dinner but will head over there tomorrow to see what is happening.
|The Solomon Islands||
12/07/2008, The Western Province
I love the vibe of Viru Harbor. There are two villages here, on on each side of the harbor mouth. Many dwellings are built right on the water. It reminds me of a Louisiana backwater.
I was so pleased that the villagers here seemed less interested in the new (only) yacht in the harbor than at Penjuku. This illusion ended with a knock on the hull at 6AM. Somehow I lost the battle of wills with Hideko and ended up going outside to see what was happening.
It was two little girls in a canoe. What are you going to do? Tell them to scram it is too early. No chance. As it turned out they had some lovely spring onions they wanted to trade. I asked them what they wanted to trade for. They said books (meaning blank paper school books). I gave them each a set of school books, some pencils and a bag of candy. It was a good trade.
But the trades didn't stop. Our last visitors came at 6PM and we didn't have more than 15 or 20 minutes without someone paddling about the transom. Mostly kids with vegetables, which we made deals with, one and all. We now have a fantastic selection of fresh fruit and veggies. We acquired some surprising things too, like a wonderful ruby red grapefruit and some other things we can't identify.
We did get hit up buy the carvers here. We had to firmly inform them that we were no longer in the market for carvings. I did give them some school pads for their kids. Some guys offered fish but we were full up there too. For the most part everyone was respectful and I only had to shoo two kids and one over grown kid (20 maybe?) off of the transom. I find that making a clear line as to what is ok and what is not (namely getting on our boat) is important and well received if handled properly.
One thing I found surprising was that some of the adults seemed to have a beef with Australians. I don't know what kind of ridiculous propaganda the imbezeling leadership here is sending around (two of the last four prime ministers are in jail for fraud) but the Australians are the only thing keeping this place from melting down. The tribal leaders seem to have more ego than compassion for their subjects. The elected officials (at least last several go rounds) seek to line their pockets as quickly as they can prior to getting kicked out of office.
Let it be known that the Australians have come here at the invitation of the government to get things under control, at substantial risk to their own health and safety. They have done so, and in short order. Australia also provides more aid to the Solomons than any other country.
At the other end of the spectrum the locals love the USA. We came in and fought in WWII and left a lot of packs of cigarette and bottles of Coke a Cola in our wake. One guy told me that the USA has lots of money and always wins the war. I asked if that was why he though we were great. Of course, he said. Hmmm.
|The Solomon Islands||