Florida group - Changing Times
27 August 2018 | Florida Islands, Central Province, Solomon Islands
Our first stop after leaving Honiara was the Florida group, a few hours pleasant sail to the north that was interrupted by a short-lived, fast moving storm bringing gale force wind. The Florida Islands unfortunately have an infamous reputation amongst the cruising fraternity for theft and robbery and so now very few yachts visit the islands. As recently as last year ago a group of three yachts were boarded at night and valuables stolen. The police from Honiara attended at the local village to investigate and locate the offenders. As you would imagine incidents like this cause huge disruption in such small communities.
As a result we were even more wary than usual when we entered Sandfly Passage to the north of Nggela Sule Island (named after the English Naval Ship not because the place is infested with small biting insects) and looked for somewhere to 'drop the pick'. The depth around the islands was, as ever, a challenge. On a satellite photo the convoluted reefs appear to offer boundless protected anchoring opportunities but the water is so deep right up to the reef's edge (40 to 50 metres) that most of the time it is just not possible. We had heard about a local guy named John and and his wife Lily who have been trying to attract yachts to their area for some time and, in addition to welcoming you to their humble family settlement with green coconuts lavishly decorated with flowers and bamboo straws, they also provided security from their verandah throughout the night, taking shifts to ensure no canoes approach. After we provided everyone there with spectacles we arranged to take Monkey Fist around to the village of Haroro on the other side of the point to conduct a clinic and John and Lilly came with us. In the past this area has been notorious for theft from yachts. So it's complicated keeping your boat in one place but we managed to moor within 20 metres of the village by dropping the anchor in 25 metres on the slope rising up from the deep seabed to the shore and tying the stern to a huge tree on the shoreline, which is where we conducted our clinic (see photo). When the people gathered before the start of the clinic both the chief, John, and I gave the residents (including a number of youths) speeches on why theft from yachts needed to be stamped out as well as the advantages (as we were proving) of having yachts visit their village. Most yachties are very generous, giving school supplies and clothing as well as providing an opportunity to trade for fresh vegetables and fruit.
Back at John's place (Roderick Bay Hideaway) one of the tourist attractions nearby is the wreck of the World Explorer, a smallish cruise liner that was beached here in the early 2000's. John and his mother saw the ship limp into the bay after apparently hitting a reef outside. He tells the story that scuba divers checked out the damage and said there was no hope of staying afloat so they disembarked the passengers and the captain drove the ship at speed into the cove to beach her. John said the captain cried for three days.
Many of the chiefs and other leaders around the Floridas are trying, and from our experience, are succeeding in changing people's view of visiting yachts, welcoming them instead of seeing them as an opportunity for plunder. The last night at Roderick Bay Hideaway John had planned what we know as a 'potluck' and which he had been told was called a 'kiwi party'. Is this true kiwi friends - did you come up with this name first or have you adopted it for some reason?? Anyway, we made a huge pot of yellowfin tuna curry and Lily shared with us fried fish, kumara and cassava presented in kustom woven plates. Most of the 22 residents (mostly kids) managed to get a spoonful of curry and declared it was very tasty. We were given laes and the floral decoration was such that it was like a jungle of flowers.
We intended to make our way up to Santa Isabel Island and then continue north to Ontong Java, 180 miles further off the coast so we headed northwards, stopping a few hours away at the island of Buena Vista. After weaving our way through the narrow passage between Buena Vista and Hanesavo Islands we found a quite spot and dropped the anchor in the modest depth of 25 metres. We were visited by a local man Rueben in his dugout and asked him about the security of our boat and he said "we do not subscribe to that type of behaviour here". He went on to explain that the leaders and church groups pressure the young people to respect visiting yachts which was very encouraging to hear. We later dingied to Tathay, the village a kilometre away, and arranged with Chief Alfred (the paramount chief of the entire island) to conduct a clinic there the following day. He confirmed with us that people in the community wanted to change the reputation of the Floridas and affirmed that their area was safe for visiting yachts. The area is stunning, clear water, tropical jungle, pristine coral and it's not particularly far from Honiara. The birdlife in this area is reminiscent of Australia and includes cockatoos, lorikeets and kingfishers. As we were walking back from the health clinic we stopped under a large shady tree near the beach to watch some men skilfully carving dugout canoes. I asked the chief if they sold the canoes and he said "if we sell the canoes then we won't have any trees to build our own canoes. If we don't have our own canoes then we can't go to the gardens and we can't go out fishing". Wise words indeed.