Mixmaster Blong Jesus
25 September 2011 | Port Vila, Efate, Vanuatu
We decided to leave New Caledonia and sail on to Vanuatu. One can eat only so much cheese, baguettes and pate before exploding. Our clothes still fit us, so we escaped just in time. I received the new autopilot shortly after arriving in Noumea and the installation went well and was pretty straight forward; other than a snapped hydraulic fitting on the new pump. As Dad has said, "One-turn too many." It's the worst feeling giving that last little "snugging turn", knowing that the job is then finally complete, then to suddenly hear that snap of a broken fitting, while the wrench suddenly gives way and the fingers holding said wrench are smashed onto the sharpest edge in the vicinity. There is nothing to do but just sit there in silence, shaking my head, trying to withstand the urge to hit myself on the forehead, with that same damn wrench, for snapping a little fitting. What the hell was I thinking, tightening a tiny fitting so much?
After cleaning hydraulic fluid off myself, the walls, the ceiling, and everything else within a 10-foot radius, I was able to find a hydraulic shop, which had the replacement fitting I needed, and within a day or so, we were ready to calibrate and try out our new autopilot. The only problem was that the new autopilot wouldn't enter the so-called "calibration mode". I read over the manual and it stated that this would be required only if prompted and I wasn't prompted, so I "assumed" - the worst word ever spoken in the English language - that it wasn't required. Well, long story short, after 8 hours into our passage to Vanuatu, [TRL: just to clarify, we were only 8 hours FROM Noumea] the autopilot started acting up. I wasn't sure what the problem was, because it seemed fine at the dock. I had had several emails back and forth with Raymarine ensuring that I had ordered all of the parts necessary, so I was a little confused, but figured it would work out. Suffice to say, after about 24 hours we were hand steering [TRL: See Footnote 1] towards Vanuatu. Tara thought maybe we should have turned around when we first started getting some early warning, but I am the eternal optimist and figured it was a minor thing. I had it all wired up right and therefore we could fix it on the fly. [TRL: sure! if you have all the right bits and pieces] I just needed to speak to technical support to sort things out. We have a satellite phone on board and I started calling Raymarine tech support. After being cut off twice, then being told to leave a message after being on hold for the maximum 20 minutes twice, and then calling back twice in order to reach someone in person, so as not to put into the automated queue line, [TRL: total cost about US$100] I was put in contact with a guy, who told me that I should have the special "next generation" cable between the new units, in order to calibrate the system properly. I would love to have had a picture of my face at that moment, or at least a blood-pressure reading. Duh! Well, looks like we are hand steering! I was not popular for the next little while.
But things always get better. We finally arrived at the southern island of Anatom in Vanuatu. We had great seas and wind, and in the end the hand steering wasn't that bad. The officials in Anatom were super friendly and we were able to check into the country there and just kick back and relax. The islands are all relatively close in the Vanuatu group and the next island to the north from Anatom is the island of Tanna, with the highlight being the furious, fuming Mount Yasur - the world's most accessible volcano. We sailed into Resolution Bay and dropped anchor in the middle of numerous traditional outriggers. There were a dozen or so locals, all working together with nets, in order to catch the daily fish for the village. It was pretty amazing to watch them work so efficiently together. After a while, several of the outriggers came up and introduced themselves and we had a nice time getting to know them. The national language is quite funny. It's called Bislama and it is relatively easy to learn. They only use the present tense and past and future is expressed as before or after. It's pretty uncomplicated, but hilarious and very descriptive. The spelling is based on how English words sound to the natives. For example, beer is called "bia" and school is "skul". The word "blong" indicates possession, so "my name is Gary" becomes "nem blong mi Gary", and helicopter is "mixmaster blong Jesus". I love learning a little of all the languages as we travel. Some places we learn more than others, but it's always fun to learn even a few words.
We met many new cruisers in the bay and were pleased one day to be invited by the local ladies from the village to a traditional lunch with some other couples. It was a great day and eating the traditional "lap lap", served on a bed of banana leaves as plates was great. We enjoyed all the trading of fruits and vegetables that went on while in the anchorage. We would give someone a coke and in turn would get a basket full of fruits and vegetables from one of their garden plots. Then maybe give a few fish hooks...more fruits and vegetables, maybe some fish. One day, a man and his young son paddled out and asked if Tara could bake his daughter a birthday cake. It was already almost four in the afternoon so Tara wasn't sure if she could pull it together in time but she managed to find some old instant muffin mix that had been on board since Panama, and was able to turn it into a cake that was ready by five. I delivered it to shore and was met by the father and accompanied this time by his daughter. Her face lit up when she saw the cake. It was so nice to make such a difference on her special day. The next day, the father rowed out and gave us a huge basket full of fruits and vegetables. It's the local currency!
After a few days of exploring, hiking and relaxing with the locals, we made arrangements to find someone with a truck who could drive us, along with Peter and Eveline from "SV Renegade", up to the volcano. It was a beautiful, clear day and the drive was an adventure in itself. As we walked up towards the crater from the base of the volcano, we could hear Mt. Yasur rumbling in the distance. The level of activity within Yasur fluctuates between dangerous to relatively calm, but when it's hot, it's hot. Along the path to the crater rim we would pass by whiffs of sulphuric steam escaping from the earth surface. We were standing on something pretty powerful. Eventually, we made it up to the rim and were looking down into the dark central crater, where two vents took turns spitting rockets of red-molten lava and smoke up into the air. The ground would shake and then there would be a huge bang followed by more fiery magma shooting up into the night sky. This just kept happening over and over again and when you start getting used to it, there's another huge bang and then lightning flashes in the crater and magma splashes up into the air again. To think that this has been happening, day after day for thousands of years, was pretty cool. I took a lot of video and photos. Sometimes a photo doesn't do things justice, so hopefully this video will give it a bit more reality. Enjoy!
The roads on Tanna are little more than wide goat paths that would at times challenge even a goat. As we were driving along the road to the volcano I could hear grinding, like the steel on steel of brakes, or lack thereof. I asked our driver Thomas, if he had checked his brakes lately. With a slightly embarrassed grin, he held up a box of brake pads. He knew they were shot, but because no one had the tools or skills to change them in the village, he just carried on. In order to fix them, they had to drive across the island to the guy who was the island mechanic. The sound was really bad and the thought of driving across the island to a mechanic, on a road similar to this with no brakes, was a pretty frightening thought. He asked if I knew how to change brake pads. I told I did and it was no problem to do it. We had been planning on leaving the next day, but we were happy to postpone our departure for one more day in order to help him out. The next morning I loaded up all the tools I would need into the dinghy and headed into shore. As I walked into the village, my new friend Thomas greeted me. All smiles. He was very eager to help but in the end he could only watch and perhaps learn. As I worked, the villagers started to arrive, then sit down and watch. Sitting around me as I worked, they would ask questions about me and I would ask things about them. It became a very social event for the village as we were getting to know each other, and in the end, I had an amphitheatre of about 30 villagers sitting around me, all laughing and watching me work. It must have been quite fun for them. I know it was for me. After I was done, I was once again paid with the currency of the natives - lots and lots of fruits and vegetables.
Tanna was a great stop. Now onto the island of Efate and the main town of Port Vila where I can receive a parts shipment and repair the autopilot.
Footnote 1 - Hand Steering:
Imagine driving your car at 5 miles per hour (8 kms/hour) and your destination is over 150 miles (240 km) away. That's 30 hours of continuous driving; you are not allowed to stop and take a break. The road you are driving on is not maintained and would be better served if it just didn't exist at all. The only saving grace is that it is mostly straight; however, there are no real landmarks let alone neat painted lines, so you are steering with a compass. It's dark and you have no headlights. If you're lucky it's not cloudy or raining. If it is, you're wet. The wind gusts every 5 minutes or so and when it does, you have to struggle with the car's wheel to keep it on the road. When another car passes you, which, like the waves of the sea, happens once every 2-3 seconds, it rams into your backside sending you flying into the ditch. With a flurry of the steering wheel, you get the car back on the road and going straight again. Somehow you and the other car continue on your way as if nothing has happened. Unfortunately you don't have a rear-view mirror and no matter how many times you try and anticipate the impact, you cannot tell the difference between being hit by a semi-truck or a smart car. You do this alone for three hours at a time, all the while keeping a lookout for those red and green lights you've been told are best avoided. Just when you're thinking it would be better to get out than continue on, which you don't really have a choice about anyway, your companion appears to take over and a neat little dance over the center console ensues (you're still going 5 miles per hour down that bumpy road). Repeat this process, night and day, until your destination is reached.