Rally to Tanna, Vanuatu

Early Sunday Morning, we sailed out of Noumea and stopped in the spacious and well-protected Baie du Prony. Prony is situated just inside the barrier reef from Havannah Pass, the main shipping route into New Caledonia’s huge lagoon from the East.

We sailed out at first light on Monday morning and began a very fast, wet and rolly close reach to the island of Tanna, near the south end of the Vanuatu chain. The passage was a bit uncomfortable, but we arrived in Port Resolution, on Tanna Island, more than 200 miles northeast on the rhumb line, in less than 27 hours.

The local Sea Gods must not have received their ’01 copy of the West Marine catalog, so they decided to help themselves to some items that were not-so-firmly attached to Moonshadow. Large seas managed to reach up under our dinghy, stowed securely upside down on the foredeck, and snatch one of our oars from its Velcro straps inside the aluminum bottom inflatable. They also pinched my boat hook attached in clips to the pushpit. Then the Electric Gods had a go with the forepeak bilge pump wiring. The automatic switch wire and the high water alarm wire connections both failed on the passage. The result was that we arrived in Tanna with a half ton of salt-water ballast at the pointy end. Not exactly ideal for fast sailing or dry gear stored up front. At least we now have a really clean anchor chain!

Tanna is not an official port of entry into Vanuatu. Because it is situated more than 100 miles to windward (south-southeast) of Port Vila, the southernmost port of entry, it sees fewer visiting yachts than the islands to the north. Because we entered the Island Cruising Association rally and paid a few extra vatu (the local currency), Customs, Immigration and Quarantine were specially organized and flown in to handle the formalities for the group of 15 yachts arriving from NewCal and New Zealand.

The final approach heading into the lagoon at Port Resolution was almost DDW (dead down wind) with 25 to 30 knots of breeze and 10 to 15 foot breaking seas. We noticed a slight elevation in our pulse rates as we prepared to negotiate the pass. Charting of the area is inaccurate, so we relied upon the help, guidance and some good GPS waypoints of some of those brave souls who had gone in before us. We made it in through the reef pass with no drama and once in calmer waters doused our mainsail. It was nice not to hear wind whistling through the rigging, water cascading down the foredeck, and to have our hook down in a calm anchorage once again.

Port Resolution is one of those idyllic little anchorages that you might see in on a postcard or in a travel magazine. To our north, there was lush vegetation right down to the cliffs that dropped into the lagoon. In the background were striking volcanic mountain peaks. Puffs of steam rose from the hot springs in the hillside. The locals use the hot water for washing and cooking. To the west was a black volcanic sand beach neatly lined with coconut palms. To the south, there were more cliffs and traditional homes fabricated of palm leaves and corrugated tin dotting the landscape above.

Brian and Joan Hepburn of the Island Cruising Association had organized a fun and interesting week for the rally participants in Tanna. It was a nice change for us to have someone else be “fun chairman” and to just be able to show up for the activities.

The villagers of Port Resolution made us feel quite welcome to their slice of paradise. The first event was a welcome ceremony consisting of songs, dancing and a speech by the son of the village chief. The village children, many of whom had never seen a white person, always seemed to be looking at us with keen curiosity. I could only imagine them thinking “who are these weird people with light skin who have come here on big canoes, wearing funny looking clothes and talking differently?”

The official welcome was followed by “market day.” Some of the ladies of the village brought fresh fruits, vegetables, coconuts and even a coconut crab for sale or barter. Others brought exotic seashells, carvings and baskets they had hand woven from the palm fronds and dried leaf fibers from the pandanus plant. As usual in these markets, many of the produce items were not recognizable to some of us non-islanders. Prices were reasonable considering the closest “real market” was more than 100 miles and two islands away, and every sale was greatly appreciated.

After a tough morning of shopping, the local boys challenged the yachties to a game of football (soccer). There were lots of laughs, a few abrasions, many sore muscles and even a goal or two. We did manage to outscore them by one goal, but then realized that these guys were their “C” team, mostly half our size and a quarter our ages. The “A” team guys came out after our game for a little practice and it was clear that had we played them, they would have kicked our transoms.

That afternoon the villagers served up a “feast” of local specialties at the Port Resolution “Yacht Club.” The yacht club is typical of architecture and décor of many South Pacific “yacht clubs.” Over a concrete slab floor (formerly a church) was constructed a lovely hut of wood poles covered with palm leaves. Over the top of the roof was an assortment of tarps and old sails to keep out the rain. Hanging from the rafters is an assortment of old yacht club burgees, flags, banners and battle flags. There is a very old, semi-operational fridge that serves semi-cold Tusker beers, the local brew, for 350 vatu, about US $2.50.

Upon entry to the yacht club, we were handed plates fashioned from palm fronds and banana leaves. This “organic china” left nothing to wash afterwards but your hands unless one opted to bring utensils with which to eat. There was a buffet of curried chicken, local fish, roast piglet, rice, cauliflower, cabbage, potatoes, yams, tarot roots, kumara and a few other unrecognizable concoctions. Everything we chose to eat was quite good, particularly when washed down with a cool Tusker beer or some New Zealand sauvignon blanc (BYO).

Late the following afternoon, we all jumped into the back of a 4-wheel drive pickup for a ride up to nearby Mt. Yasur. We jerked and bounced, wiped dust from our eyes and ducked under low hanging branches for about an hour before the landscape changed from jungle to moonscape. Mt. Yasur is one of Vanuatu’s many active volcanoes. It has been erupting more or less constantly for years. The pickup dropped us just off just shy of the rim, so we scrambled up the hillside of loose black sand and pumice stones that had been spat out by the volcano.

We walked along the rim as the sun set and could look right down into three cinder cones, one of which was quite active. Several times a minute the earth would rumble and then bits of molten lava, smoke and ash would spew from this open wound in the crust of the earth. As the light grew dimmer, the red from the lava bits would glow brighter and appear more dramatic. Some pieces that had been shot from the hole hundreds of feet below us were launched into the air well above our heads. We were quite happy that the volcano was only “moderately” active and the wind was to our backs that evening, as our guides didn’t provide helmets or flak jackets as part of the tour package.

The next day, the cruisers had the opportunity demonstrate their sporting and creative skills. In the morning were competitions in archery, petonque/boulles (similar to bocce ball) and boulles played with coconuts. Afterwards we had the opportunity to lodge (tongue in cheek) protests against other participants in the rally and read poetry and short stories we had made up using all the yacht names in the fleet. Some people had obviously spent many hours of creative time on this (during the passage) and there were plenty of laughs.

The week was capped off with the prize giving ceremony, which was to be attended in some sort of costume starting with the letter “S.” We dug out our old cow costumes and went as “Sir and Lady Loin.” Other costumes ranged from Siamese twins to a guy dressed as a solar panel.

First prize for the rally was two bottles of rum. One was to be poured into a bucket of fruit punch for all to share. The other was to be given to the last place boat, which was to be poured into another bucket of fruit punch for all to share. A potluck dinner and more prize giving for all the other week’s events followed happy hour. The village kids judged the costumes and we, the “MooCrew,” won first place.

I think that after the last evening the village children were pretty much convinced that the white people are very weird.

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