04 December 2008 | The Western Province
The one direction we didn't want to swing last night was north. Of course we woke up this morning facing due south. The depth alarm hadn't gone off so that was good but I could see the bottom a little too clearly for comfort at 5AM, just before sun rise. After a quick boat check we started up the auxiliaries and spun the boat back around the right way (keel over deep water). There was almost no wind but I think a small amount of land breeze was coming from the big islands in the center of the Russels.
After raising the anchor we followed our track line out the pass to the west and exited the big bay. The islands on the north side of the Russels reminded us of Tonga a little bit. They come straight up out of the sea, covered in greenery, with the exception of the concave bit in the tidal zone which has been eaten away over the years. It was very quiet at this hour and we did not see any canoes about.
On the way out of the bay we put the main up, protocol only. There was no wind. In fact my 7 day spot forecasts have not turned up one 3 hour period with two digit wind speeds since we arrived in the Solomons. This time of year you simply have to motor if you are not in the middle of a squall. There are a fair amount of squalls about but it is hard to catch them, and even so you need to be on the right side to avoid opposing wind. We had the jib up most of the way and it added a half knot or so when the wind got up to 6 knots apparent on the beam.
From our staging grounds in the Russels it was a good 70 miles to our selected anchorage on Nggatokae. Hank from Aurora suggested a spot right off the large village of Penjuku. The other option was to enter the Marovo Lagoon at the Mbili pass entrance and anchor inside. The Marovo anchorage is reported to produce heavy carving soliciting, we like to help out the communities by purchasing crafts but we don't like to be mobbed after a long day at sea. The lagoon, while the subject of top quality marketing, is also in a bit of a decline. Logging has put a lot of silt in the lagoon and it is not clear water these days. This has chocked out a lot of the coral, degrading the snorkeling. The edges are also mangrove swamps which harbor crocodiles rather than white sand beaches. I shouldn't paint too bleak a picture, many love their exploration of the Marovo Lagoon (and we may return to visit the Uepi Resort in the north of the lagoon to go diving), but the general situation caused us to select the more direct route to Gizo.
It was a long but nice motor sail to the Western Province. Nggatokae is the first big island you reach. It looks like an old volcano, which it is, now covered in greenery. As we ran along the south side of the island we saw many lovely palm lined beaches with interesting rock and coral formations. This stretch of coast only revealed one house and one boat at mooring. This can be deceiving though, as huge villages can blend in just behind the coastal foliage.
Around the north side of the eastern point is a place called the Wilderness Lodge, with two beach bungalows. It was a Lonely Planet pick and I can imagine it must be lovely given the setting.
Some squalls were coming off the mountain as we came up the leeward side of the island. While there is almost no wind, it seems that the northeasterly trades from the northern hemisphere do guide the weather. The wind came up and around and finally settled on the nose, so we took the opportunity to lower the main. As you head north along the back side of Nggatokae the islets that fringe the larger Vangunu island to the west form a big bay. From this bay you enter a narrow pass between to islets to enter a leg of the Marovo lagoon that lies in front of the village of Penjuku.
The charts in the area are vague at best. Around the pass and beyond into the lagoon there are no soundings. Zip. So you might run aground, you might not. But it does show water, that's always good. Hank had recommended this spot so we figured it had to be tenable.
As we approached the pass between the steep little islets we lined up well outside on our track to see if we were being set one way or another. It was a neap tide but we were probably close to max flood if the tide tables are right. Nothing like being ushered onto the reef by a good current.
As we approached there was no discernible current though. The water was a bit murky and hard to read and it was late in the day. The sun was behind us though and we moved into the pass with some way on as the sounder read 80 feet. Then it quickly came up to 20. We were favoring the north side of the east/west pass, where the chart showed decent water color (no soundings though). The south side showed a reef that dries at low water on the chart. The bottom kept coming up and I stopped the boat at 10 feet. Hideko could see the bottom now and prodded me to continue on track. After a scary few minutes of creeping and crawling we made it in. Shortly there after we were back in 80 foot water.
The chart shows a big reef in the center of the large lagoon area to our port so we just took a line straight in to the village and parked in the absolute middle of the lagoon with the hook in 60 feet of water. This kept us as far from the mosquitoes and flys as possible. We didn't have the anchor set before canoes began to congregate to say hello.
We were of course the only yacht in the anchorage, and thus the center of attention out on the water. Perhaps ten canoes came to visit, which is not too many considering the village has a population of about 1,000. Some wanted to sell carvings but we told everyone we would come to the village at 9-10 the next morning to buy/trade carvings. Some of our visitors spoke English and we had an interesting chat about the village and where we came from. I did glean that the deep part of the pass was the opposite of what the chart showed. No one tried to come aboard thankfully but one adult did inform us that some bad seed kids from the village have stolen small things from yachts in the past (masks and fins and the like). We made it clear that we had a dog who didn't like unannounced visitors and that if we had a problem we would leave immediately, and also radio the three boats behind us regarding the situation. This seemed to be well taken.
After a nice time with the locals we told them we were tired and needed to shut down for the night. The oldest lady of the group said ok see you tomorrow and told the others to let us rest. This caused about half of the visitors to depart but several didn't budge. It must be such a big event for them to get visitors from the outside. Many have never left the village and those that have have maybe been as far as Gizo, the province capital.
A couple of motor boats came by later offering vegetables and carvings. We gave them all a consistent message which was well received. Everyone was very nice and it is always intriguing to see and talk with folks who are totally self sufficient.
It had been a long day but as we settled in, the night shift stopped by to say hello. I went to the transom to see who was flashing a light about and it was a canoe with four guys in it going out hunting on the reef at night. They were selling lobster on spec. I should have told them to come by in the morning so we could take a look, but they wanted an order. Two lobster please. Off they went into the night with a flash light and a spear gun.
Our day had gone from boring to, perhaps, a little too busy. The opportunity to interact with these people is now though, I say to myself, don't let it go by. When you're home in the western world someday, sitting in your study, it would be a shame to wish you had done things on your round the world adventure that you could have but didn't.