Tanna to Port Vila

Anchored in Port Resolution on the lovely island of Tanna, a week passed us by in no time. On Monday 11 June, we got ourselves underway and made a short hop to the island of Aniwa, situated about 20 short miles to the Northeast. Just to clarify, short miles are downwind and long miles are to windward.

We couldn’t find much information about Aniwa in our cruising or travel guides, other than it is known for it’s orange groves and has a large, beautiful lagoon. The charting of the island is poor, so we decided to do a bit of scouting to see if we could enter the lagoon or find some other suitable anchorage. I surveyed the pass into the lagoon with the dinghy while Cate stood off the island with Moonshadow. While a very shallow draft yacht or catamaran could get in at high tide, the 3-foot soundings scared us off, so we anchored in the lee of the island in a sand patch a mile or so south. As advertised, the lagoon was spectacular, the waters showing variegated hues of blue and the surrounding sand beaches were wide and white, lined with coconut palms.

The water around our anchorage was crystal clear and the snorkeling excellent. A young man named Reuben, who paddled out to visit us in his traditional pirogue, a Vanuatu style dugout canoe, visited us. The Ni-Vanuatu people are shy but friendly, and very curious about the yachties, especially in the more remote areas.

The evening was quite nice and calm, till about 0230 when the gentle trade winds whipped up to about 20 knots and began clocking to the south and west. By 0530, we had our back to the island, a.k.a. a lee shore, and decided it was time for a change of venue. As we prepared to get underway, Reuben returned with his T-shirt bundled up, holding at least two kilos of Aniwa Island oranges. He had paddled out, fighting wind and waves, at first light, just to give us his gift, expecting nothing in return.

While most of the Tanna Rally fleet heading northward were stopping in Dillon Bay on the island of Erromango, we felt that it’s open roadstead, facing to the West, would not be a particularly safe and comfortable place to stop. We looked at the chart, and took a flyer on a large and open bay on the opposite side of the island called Polenia Bay. In a few hours we were in the lee of Erromango and sailing up the dramatic east coast of this large, lush and mountainous island. Leaving the two spectacular volcanic peaks of Traitor’s head to our port side, we turned west and headed into what looked to be the most protected corner of the bay, a bit of reef with a small village adjacent called Potnarvin.

Potnarvin is on the East side of the island, facing into the prevailing trade winds, so would see very few cruisers. We later found out that we were the first yachties to put an anchor down in their bay for about a year.

Potnarvin is a friendly, tidy and relatively prosperous village of about five hundred people. They are cut off from the rest of Erromango since one of the bridges on the connecting road was washed out. They see an island trading ship with provisions once every three or four months and a weekly visit from a small seaplane, which collects lobster for restaurant clients in Port Vila. Two small stores offering little more than a few canned goods, rice and flashlight batteries supply the village. The villagers grow the rest in remote plots they call “gardens.” There is no electricity, telephone service, or running water. Their only regular link to civilization is one short wave radio powered by a small solar panel.

Shortly after our arrival, a man named Joe, the village chief, paddled out in his pirogue to pay us a visit. He and a few of the village boys came aboard for a look around. They were fascinated by Moonshadow and particularly curious about the TV and video. We showed them about a half an hour of Endless Summer, the surfing film, which they found wildly entertaining. The day after we saw one guy out trying to surf his pirogue.

I accepted Chief Joe’s invitation to join him and a few of the village men that evening for a lobster hunt. The nearby reef was very beautiful and pristine, and very alive with a plethora of reef fish, coral, and, of course, a few white tipped reef sharks just to keep things interesting.

A short dinghy ride from the boat, I dropped in the water at the edge of the reef. There was plenty of lobster to be seen and had. In a half hour, I had snatched up a couple of nice bugs for our pot that night. Chief Joe and his friends had gotten three, which they offered to give us. We declined, as two or three lobster on the Port Vila market would pay for a year’s schooling for one of the village children.

The following morning, we went ashore for a walk. Every time we landed the dink, there was a large, friendly and curious welcoming committee to greet us. Some other younger kids had never seen a white person, and looked at us with intense curiosity, sometimes bordering on fear. In parts of Vanuatu, they believe in black magic, voodoo, evil spirits and that sort of thing.

Chief Joe assigned a young villager named Remy to be our guide. Remy was friendly, curious, well educated and reasonably articulate. He showed us around the village, took us to a small waterfall, and then walked for about three miles with us to the next village up the coast, and back. A few other village boys followed along out of curiosity. He introduced us to various people and told us a bit about life in his village. Like many young Ni-Vanuatu men, he was quite interested in soccer. Potnarvin has a nice, level, grass field, just inland from the beach. They keep the grass cut with their machetes. Occasionally, the teams travel to other islands to play in inter-island matches.

We enjoyed our time in Potnarvin so much that we decided to stay an extra day. The wind was still blowing strong from the southwest, so we were safe there for a while. We enjoyed some more snorkeling on the reef, more visits by the villagers and another productive lobster hunt that night. One very large white-tipped reef shark seemed to be lurking very close to me the second night. It is always more difficult hunting when you have one eye hunting and one eye watching a large, hungry and potentially dangerous shark.

Many of the villagers in outlying islands do not have access to or cannot afford prescription eyeglasses. We carried some old donated pairs up from Sydney and gave some to the villagers. They tried them on, right on the beach and swapped and passed them around till they found a pair that best suited them. We even found a handsome looking pair that helped myopic Chief Joe to see a bit better.

Joe thanked us by bringing us a large yam. In the States, we are accustomed to yams that are more or less the size of an average potato. Not in Vanuatu. The whopper that Chief Joe gave us weighed in at about 10 kilos! We were searching for every yam recipe we could find so we can figure out what to do with the massive root.

These villagers were very honest as well as trusting. On the day we left, one villager named Harry gave me his bank passbook, a signed withdrawal slip, and asked me to get some cash for him and give it to the seaplane man to carry from Port Vila to Erromango. No worries!

It was time to get to the “big smoke,” Port Vila, to provision up for three months cruising in the northern Vanuatu islands. The sou’wester was still blowing fresh, so we had a rollicking good 80-odd mile sail up to the main island of Efate, leaving Potnarvin just after first light, and arriving in Vila harbor in time for happy hour.

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