Gidday from Sydney!
There is no hope for a “White Christmas” for us and Jack Frost won’t be nipping at our sunburnt noses. It is 32 degrees outside (Celsius, that is-or 90 Fahrenheit), and definitely summer “down under.” Although Sydney is not exactly a haven for visiting yachts, we managed to find reasonable berthing, left over from the recent Olympics, a short walk from the Central Business District in neighboring Pyrmont Bay. There are more museums, casinos, restaurants, parks, shops and theaters within a one mile radius than we will ever be able to visit in the next six months.
After a month here, we have settled in, purchased a car, started to find our way around and seen some of the sights. Cate has even landed some contract work as a Business Analyst for an E-Commerce consulting firm. I am catching up on the bottomless list of boat projects and maintenance items that popped up during the last cruising season as well as upgrading some of our onboard systems. Yes, finally, a new computer!!
I know this is a bit out of sequence, but thought I would give you a few of the highlights (and a low-lights) of the last couple months of the most recent cruising season.
Fiji-Viti Levu and the Yasawas
When we last left off, we were in the Great Astrolabe Reef in southern Fiji. After nearly a month of solitude and some of the best diving we had ever experienced, we were running low on rum and fresh veggies, so we headed to the main island of Viti Levu. With a nice fresh breeze just aft of the beam, we made the 100 mile passage from Cape Washington on the Island of Kadavu to Port Denerau in about 12 hours, logging a top speed (while surfing down a large wave in a big puff) of 15 knots with just a full main and small jib. It was a fun and exhilarating sail, particularly after lying “on the hook” for so long. The “Bossanovas,” Rita and David, were anchored there so we enjoyed a few days of catching up and nice meals out in the Nadi/Denarau area. Somehow, David and I got into sort of a Hawaiian shirt competition. For the next month or so, it seemed like we each bought a new one before each social event. I ended up with a locker full of loud shirts, but at an average of about US $10-15 per copy, didn’t exactly break the bank. “Stolen Pig” and “Mambo” shirts got top ratings. The garment industry is large in Fiji and I think we gave it a little boost.
We provisioned up again and headed west across Bligh Water to the Yasawa Island Group. Westernmost in the Fijian chain, the Yasawas are best known for the “Blue Lagoon” of the Brooke Shields movie fame. Bligh Water can best be described a coral maze that you might see in your worst nightmare. It is literally hundreds of square miles of the most-reef fouled waters that I have ever encountered. It can only be safely crossed with local knowledge or with good charts, in good light and in settled conditions. We had good conditions for the first half of the trip and then the weather went south on us. The only thing to do was anchor in a shallow spot near a reef and wait it out, which is exactly what we did. Two days later, the weather came right and we safely finished the trip to Yasawa Island. We spent a few quiet days visiting the villagers, beachcombing and exploring the half under water caves at Sawa-I-Lau Island and enjoyed some snorkeling off the rocky coastline. When the Bossanovas caught up, we sailed to the North end of Yasawa, where we found some of the clearest water and best spearfishing (see photo) on the western side of Fiji. We took about a week to meander throughout the Yasawas, stopping at the Blue Lagoon for a couple of days. We found it a bit commercial and overrated. With regular stops by cruise ships, it becomes crowded with loads of sunburnt, camera clicking tourists in designer beach wear. Not our bag.
We worked our way back to Port Denerau to provision and pick up good friends Cheryl and Jonathan, on vacation from California. Everything was on track until the engine started making funny noises as we left the marina. Ruh-roh! To cut a long story short, we burnt up a connecting rod bearing as a result of some faulty engine work done by Whiting Power Systems in Auckland. To date, they haven’t made us fully whole on the situation, and have been, well in my opinion anyway, real WANKERS! If you are cruising to Auckland and need engine work, I recommend you email me and I will put you on to someone who I know will do a good job and stand behind their work. Cheryl and Jonathan were real troopers through the ordeal.
We decided to make the best of an unfortunate situation and go cruising anyway. We tied the dingy to the stern quarter and used it as a little “tug” to get us in and out of port, and did what one is supposed to do with a sailboat-SAIL! Now Fiji is not the easiest place to sail due to all the reefs and shoals, but we did just fine with not even a close call or tense moment. It was great to have some experienced crew on board, and we all had a good time hanging out around Malolo and Castaway Islands.
One of the highlights was a “Shark Dive” out near the barrier reef. About a hundred divers dropped into the water and assembled at the site. An old Fijian man (we heard that he died a few weeks later of old age) brought down a box of fish carcasses and hand fed a school of circling sharks. He hugged them, petted them, stuffed food into their mouths, grabbed their fins, teased them and still managed to come away with a full inventory of digits and appendages. He had apparently been doing this for many years, and if he could have spoken underwater, would have told us not to try this at home. Wherever there are sharks there are remora, a little fish that attaches to sharks, whales, mantas and other pelagic fish by means of a suction device on the top of it’s head. They eat the “leftovers.” Well, one of these little guys obviously mistook me for a fish and attached itself to my leg (See photo). When I would stop and look, he would try to hide behind me, reattaching himself when I continued to swim. I suppose that I didn’t offer enough left over fish bits to keep his interest, so as I headed for the surface twenty minutes later, he headed for fleshier pastures.
After a fun week, Cheryl and Jonathan headed back to reality.com and instead of participating in Musket Cove Race week and the Musket Cove to Port Vila race as we had planned, we began the unpleasant task of repairing Moonshadow’s engine. After three weeks of endless waiting, long distance phone calls and faxes, more waiting and being lied to and jerked around by Tony Whiting, Cate flew to Auckland to sort things out while I guarded the boat against the coup-ing Fijians. Our yacht insurance broker, Nick Cressey got involved and was a huge help to us in Auckland (and this wasn’t even an insurance issue!). He helped Cate deal with Whiting’s and arranged for an independent engineer to assess the problem. Huge thanks Nick, and if you don’t have yacht insurance or are looking for better, I’ll give you his details. Cate did some snooping around and was able to arrange for another secondhand engine to be airfreighted to Fiji, so that we could get out before the onset of cyclone season. Four days, four greasy hands, four hours of sea trials and countless skinned knuckles and bruises later, Cate and I were under way again.
We made one last shakedown run to Musket Cove, and had a nice farewell dinner to Fiji and all its beautiful people, islands and waters (see photo). A huge thanks goes out to local diesel mechanic Dave Bloxham for all his hard work, support and friendship throughout our ordeal. He and his wife Lynn, Kiwi ex-pats, are wonderful people. If you are in Fiji and need it fixed, Dave is the man. ( his details are in the yacht help book ).
Passage to Vanuatu
The sailing conditions were not ideal and this was the first double-handed overnight passage for Cate and I, but we were pleased to be moving again after accumulating a lot of perspiration, barnacles, mosquito bites, Hawaiian shirts and marina bills in Port Denarau. As soon as we popped out of Wilkes Pass, we had 25 knots of wind, gusting 35 knots and 3-5 meter seas, all from due east. Not great when you want to go due west, but not too bad either. We gybed our way across, making the 600 mile (on the rhumb line) passage in three days flat. Cate saw 17 knots on the GPS, while surfing down a wave in a good puff with just white sails. The trip was lumpy, and we hardly got any sleep for three days, but at least it was safe and quick.
We arrived at Espiritu Santo Island, know as just “Santo” by the locals, around mid day on a Sunday. We picked up a mooring just off the Aore Resort, across the channel from the town of Luganville. The Bossanovas were there to greet us and we all had a nice dinner ashore and a much needed sleep. The next day we breezed through the Customs check-in in Luganville and began to do a bit of exploring.
Luganville was a US military base during WWII. It had a large supply depot, aircraft engine repair facility, hospital and R&R resort for our servicemen in the Pacific Theater. It is the setting for James A. Michener’s book Tales of the South Pacific, which was later made into the movie South Pacific. It was also the home base of Pappy Boyington’s Black Sheep Squadron of Baa Baa Black Sheep TV show fame. There is a lot of history there, and a lot of it is still there to see. This area is strewn with artifacts from WWII. The most famous is the wreck of the President Coolidge.
The Coolidge was one of American President Lines new luxury passenger ships that was commandeered by the US military and converted to a troop carrier. In 1942 she sailed into Luganville without benefit of a last minute dispatch informing her skipper of the route to take to avoid the mines protecting the harbor entrance. She found a “friendly mine” (now that’s an oxymoron) and was holed. The skipper careened her in an attempt to save the ship. Before sliding back into deeper water, rolling onto her port side and sinking, more than 5000 men made an orderly disembarkation from the ship, with only two fatalities. Today, the Coolidge is one of the most famous diveable wrecks in the world and we had the opportunity “drop in” and visit her three times while we were in Luganville. In addition to a lot of well preserved war artifacts, there remains some of the finery of a luxury cruise ship of that era, including some beautiful mosaic tile work and “The Lady,” which is a porcelain bust of a lady and a unicorn.
We also dove on “Million Dollar Point” which is a huge dumping site for the construction equipment sent to Santo to build the military base. When the US left Luganville, they offered the equipment to the French/English condominium government for 8 cents on the dollar. Thinking that the “stupid Yanks” would leave their gear their either way, the then New Hebrides Government declined the offer. The Americans pushed all the equipment into the sea, leaving a rusty junkyard, and interesting dive site off one corner of the island. Neener neener neener.
While in Luganville, we ran into old cruising friends Helen and Jim from Go West. They sailed into Luganville, found their utopia and decided to call it home. Helen and Jim were most gracious in showing us around and suggesting where to go and what do while we were in Santo. They are currently developing a resort on the lovely little Island of Aore, across the channel from Luganville. They have some great plans, and it is a spectacular location. We can’t wait to see it progress!
By far the highlight of our visit to Santo was the “Man Bush Tour.” Now I’m not much for tours, but this one was a real hoot. We were picked up at 0800 by our guide, a New Zealand Maori in a Toyota ute (pickup) with a wooden bench seat added to the bed and plywood sun shade. He gave us a history of the island and drove us through the countryside past many old W.W.II bunkers and other artifacts.
We then went to a “custom” (where the natives live according to the ancient customs) Ni-Vanuatu village. We met the chief and some of the other village people, toured their homes made of grass and sticks, and had a peek at their way of life. These people live almost as they have for thousands of years so a walk through their village was like a walk through history. A real National Geographic moment (see photo).
Next, we were off to a large private cattle ranch. The road, a gross exaggeration of the word, was about as rough as any I had been on. Our guide skillfully negotiated his way into the hills, taking us deep into the jungle. We parked and hiked about a quarter mile to a gaping hole in the ground with a ladder leading to the bottom. At the bottom, there was a spring running through a mud and sandstone cave. We walked upstream a bit until there was no more headroom. There we donned our dive masks and with flashlight in hand, pulled ourselves upstream along an underground line to another chamber about 30 feet further in. A bit scary, especially for those of us who are at all claustrophobic, but quite beautiful once we were in the next room. Our guide said they discovered the cave when they were hunting wild pig one day. A hunting dog fell in the hole so they lowered a guy down with a rope to rescue him. Good dog!
After doing the whole process in reverse, we headed for a small river that cut it’s way through the jungle. Once there, we were given the choice of jumping in from the bridge (40 feet) or the bank (10 feet). Most of us chickens opted for the shorter plunge. We regrouped downstream a bit and began a wild drift for about a mile down the swift jungle river. The native bush, bird life and sculpted river banks were nothing less than spectacular and the ride refreshing and exhilarating. This was sort of a Tarzan moment and even though we were told nothing would harm us, we couldn’t help but keep checking the water for crocodiles and piranha. We popped out where another tributary cascaded into our stream. Amazingly, we could quite easily walk up the cascade without slipping, as the distinct lack of algae growth on the rocks afforded us a grip worthy of Spider Man. We hiked up stream a ways, while our guide pointed out a variety of native plants and their various uses to the custom Ni-Vanuatu people.
With the end of the cruising season closing in on us, it was necessary to get moving. We had a leisurely fifty mile sail from Santo to the eastern tip of Ambe Island, where we anchored in an extinct volcanic cone bordered by a quaint native village that looked like something off the cover of a Martin Denny album.
The following day we had a short sail across the channel to Maewo Island and the gorgeous Asanvari anchorage. We had heard wonderful things about this place from Cindy and Tim on Total Devotion who loved the place so much that they decided to tie the knot, then and there, a month or so earlier curing their visit. It is a beautiful spot and a perfect place for a quiet, romantic wedding. We were only able to spend four days there, but hope to return next season for a longer visit. Chief Nelson welcomed us all to his “Yacht Club,” which was a grass shack with a few benches around the perimeter, a couple of tables, and some old yacht club burgees hanging from the rafters. He arranged a dinner, custom dancing and a kava party for us. Unlike Fijian kava which looks, tastes like and has about as much of a narcotic effect as dirty diswhater, the kava in Vanuatu is “the real thing” (see photo). One “shell” (they serve it up in a coconut shell) and I was buzzing. After the second shell, I was flying at flight level three-five-zero and starting to see in-flight movies.
There were a number of attractions to Asanvari. In addition to being a well protected anchorage with crystal clear water, there was a network of what the Ni-Vanuatu call “roads” (dirt paths) that connected all the quaint, tidy little villages of the area, making for some excellent hiking and sightseeing. There was a huge coral bommie on one side of the anchorage that was an excellent dive and spearfishing venue. We were able to pop a couple of nice fish, one of which we gave to Chief Nelson for his table. One of the villagers had a small bakery and was happy to deliver us fresh bread each morning in his dugout canoe. Our favorite feature was the double pool, cascading stream that went right into the cove. It was a real treat for us to pop over there each morning for a fresh spring water shower under the waterfall after our morning coffee. Special anchorages like Asanvari make us think, yes, this is why we sailed for thousands of miles-to get here, to an unbelievable place like this.
It was now time to head southeast towards Port Vila, our jumping off point to New Caledonia. The good news is that Vanuatu is fairly free of off lying reefs, which makes navigation relatively easy, compared to Fiji. The bad news is that the island chain is situated more or less from northwest to southeast, and the predominant winds are east to southeast trade winds. Its great if you are heading from Port Vila to the northern islands, but can be a real bash if you are doing the opposite, as we were. One must pick the right weather conditions and move with them. The weather was fairly settled, so we headed south to Pentacost Island for an overnight stop. While snorkeling late in the afternoon, we found a nice drop-off with some strong current running by it. There were all kinds of large and potentially yummy fish-coral trout, grouper, sweetlips and walu (Spanish mackerel) to shoot at. I managed to thread a large (30 LB) walu, which somehow managed to escape the barb on the end of my spear. Bugger!! Then a few sharks showed up and the party was over real fast. Pasta for dinner.
The next day we had some light air so pressed on further south to Lamen Bay on the island of Epi. Lamen Bay has a very friendly resident dugong (similar to a manatee or sea cow) that is quite friendly to swimmers but scared to death of outboard motors. We got a few glimpses of her, and while we were swimming over for a closer look, the yachties next to us fired up their outboard (they obviously hadn’t read the cruising guide) and attempted a high speed dinghy approach. We never saw hide nor fin of her again, but enjoyed a nice sunset drink and a great inexpensive meal at the local guest house on shore. A couple of days in Lamen Bay and it was time to head to Vila. Other than getting whacked pretty good by a strong breeze and some real square seas coming around Devil’s Point (I wonder why they call it that?) in to Mele Bay (Port Vila), the trip was relatively easy.
Port Vila is quite hip little enclave with chic cafes and restaurants, boutiques, luxury hotels, casinos, golf courses, inexpensive duty free shopping, a yacht club and some other nice amenities for yachties. Vila has a very strong French influence, evident in the style of clothing, food, architecture as well as the language. The local TV is broadcast mostly in French. It’s difficult to comprehend the diversity in lifestyle in the span of just a few miles. I mean, less than fifty mile away, people are scraping to survive off the land, living in grass huts and wearing grass skirts or penis sheaths. After a week of the easy life and a few more inexpensive Hawaiian shirts in Port Vila, we got a favorable weather window for the trip to New Caledonia. We provisioned up, checked out and took on diesel for the short passage (300 odd miles) to Noumea.
We departed on a Saturday afternoon so we could time our arrival at Havana Pass, the eastern channel through the barrier reef leading to Noumea, in the morning with the sun on our backs. All went well and we were checked into Noumea on the following Monday. We were planning on arriving in Noumea in time for the South Pacifica Festival of the Arts. We made it, but it was quite a disappointment. Having visited nearly half of the countries represented, we had been exposed to a much greater breadth and depth of art than was exhibited. The best part was the closing ceremony, during which each country paraded down the beach boulevard and then took the stage for a few minutes of singing and dancing. When we got tired of standing, we took seats at a nearby beachfront cafe and watched from a distance over a glass of wine. Yea, now that’s better.
We enjoyed Noumea nonetheless, and found that even with it’s similar French influence, it has quite a different character and attitude from Tahiti and the Society Islands. The city of Noumea is much cleaner and more well organized, and the beaches with their seemingly endless boardwalks are attractive and clean. There are two excellent marinas with facilities and a very hospitable yacht club. At latitude 22-1/2 degrees south, Noumea is near the bitter end of the tropics and the weather is noticeably cooler, particularly at night. It was nice to pull covers over us again. Although we had little time to do much exploring before we departed for Sydney. We liked what we saw and wish to return next season.
There were quite a few weather systems running across the Tasman Sea and we listened in while many of our friends on their way to Australia and New Zealand got whacked by rough weather on their passages. We were hypersensitive to the weather for our own passage south. Bob McDavitt predicted an excellent weather window for the 1100 mile passage to Sydney, so we seized the opportunity and made a hasty departure. In hindsight, as usual, he was spot on with his predictions. Thanks Bob!
MaiTai is doing OK. For all of you who have fallen victim to her claws at one time or another, revenge is yours. She has been diagnosed with an allergy to fish. That really sucks if you are a cat living on a yacht! Its Science Diet Chicken flavor for now. Otherwise, she has just completed her fifth season of sailing and has about 25,000 sea miles under her paws.
Holidays Down Under
The holidays here are noticeably different here than in the States. Aside from Christmas falling in summer, which I think is quite a nice concept, it is a lot less commercial. One doesn’t see nearly the same amount of Christmas decorations, vacant lots full of wilting pine trees or massive throngs of power shoppers. Its just not as big of a deal, which is a pleasant change. There are lots of parties, barbies (bar-b-ques), casual get-togethers and people heading off for a day at the beach-all good fun. Kids are out of school and many businesses close for two or three weeks for a summer holiday. We plan to spend two days in each of the Hunter Valley and Hawkesbury River wine regions, sampling and educating ourselves a bit on the local drop. We will return to Sydney and find a vantage point, perhaps our dinghy, for the huge annual New Year’s Eve fireworks display. To quote an Aussie friend, “the fireworks display is the biggest, and they light up the Harbour Bridge like a coat hanger.” After New Years its more contract work for Cate and boat work for me, and we plan to do some cruising to some of the many excellent destinations up and down the New South Wales coastline.