A New Ocean

Two days ago we left the Pacific behind us and entered the Arafura Sea, which leads into the Indian Ocean a few hundred miles further West. The Pacific has been very special for me in particular as it was the lure of that huge, wild ocean that provided the impetus for this whole voyage. We have seen some incredible places, met some amazing people and been treated to countless exceptional experiences over the last couple of years. Polynesian and Melanesian culture is underpinned by the attributes of generosity and friendliness. The languages of the people are diverse but all share common themes such that the sounds of the words, which seemed so alien and unpronounceable to us at first, became perfectly natural. The diet has shifted bit by bit but has remained stapled around the same basic home-grown or self-caught ingredients. We have become accustomed to a diet of fish and coconuts and can now count ‘snake bean’, breadfruit, coco pods and giant (head-sized!) grapefruit among our favourite foods. Now, however, we are leaving all that behind. We don’t really know what to expect when we reach our next port but we are anticipating a huge cultural shift along with a change in ideals, diet, language and the general way in which people go about their lives. One thing is already clear, and that is that we are moving from a place of practicality to a place considerably more chaotic.

We don’t actually know where we are going yet because the Indonesian pre-clearance formalities are so complicated and illogical that they are proving impossible to complete. Ostensibly one may register their yacht online, enter all the required details and receive clearance in advance. In reality the online registration system doesn’t work (and has not worked for at least a month), the information requested is often impossible to provide and there actually isn’t any official legislation or set of procedures that can be followed and which will be accepted at the port of entry. It all depends on who you get when you arrive and whether they are having a good day. We do know that there are no official fees for entering but that we will be expected to haggle over the size of the ‘gift’ to be presented to the immigration and customs officials. This modus operandi is something that I have experienced a little of in my travels but am certainly not familiar or comfortable with. We have been forced to hire an agent to help us smooth things over but we haven’t heard from him in nearly a week despite daily emails from me and have no idea whether we will actually be allowed to enter. We gave up in the end and set sail from Papua New Guinea because the weather forecast was favourable but looking to deteriorate if we left it any longer.

Fortunately we have options. It seems that Timor Leste (formerly East Timor) is capitalising on the impossibility of entering Indonesia by making their entry procedures as simple as possible. Apparently it’s a nice place too, now that the bloody civil war which ended with it’s independence from Indonesia in 2002 is over. So, if we can’t get in to Indonesia we can go there instead, or at least be a little further along while we keep working on the Indonesians.

I had been quite nervous about transiting the Torres Straits – the area of shallow sea strewn with reefs, islands and strong, unpredictable currents that separates Australia from West Papua and the Pacific from the Indian Ocean – but in fact it was nowhere near as bad as what I was anticipating. The winds were kind to us, shipping was exceptionally light and even the infamous Australian border force were polite and un-hindering to our plans. We even managed to anchor overnight and get some rest without being told-off, which I’d heard might be a problem.

We had a bit of a hiccough when one of the seams on the genoa blew out (rotten stitching – the sail came with the boat and is probably twenty years old) just as darkness was falling two nights ago. Rather than switch out the sail at night we ran under main alone and then I spent most of yesterday sewing it back up again. I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before another seam goes but for now the sail is up and we’re moving……….. kind of. Our average speed is 2.8 knots and the sail is banging back and forth as Bob rolls with the swells in her characteristically sharp, violent manner. It’s the reason we’re using this rotten old blown-out sail in the first place. We’re following the example of the grain ships. They would switch out their full suite of sails four times on their voyage to Australia and back – old rotten ones for the tropical trade winds, where the sun would beat down on them day after day and weeks could be spent doing what we’re doing now, and bright, new, strong sails for the higher latitudes, where you needed to be able to rely on your gear in the hurricane-strength winds of the Southern Ocean. With crews of perhaps fifteen, thirty or so sails and some of those sails weighing well over a ton it was a gruelling task that took several weeks to complete. A day spent sewing Bob’s old genoa is peanuts by comparison, and I even had a pod of dolphins up at the bow to keep me company for a while.

Position as of 0830 (UTC + 10), Wednesday September 5th is 09 51’S 138 54’E.

Bird Warfare, Rogue Waves and Port Moresby

Our visitor the following night was not a Booby this time but a petrel, which is much smaller and less intimidating than a Booby. Thus, I was able to adopt a new tactic with this one. It insisted on perching on the outboard engine, with its bum pointed inwards into the cockpit. Scaring it away was to no avail. It would circle the boat a few times and then return to exactly the same spot, in exactly the same orientation. But I’d noticed that it is possible, at night, to get very close to these birds indeed without them spooking and flying away. So close, in fact, that I was able to simply reach out, pick the thing up and re-locate it to what I thought was a mutually-acceptable perch. I put it on the port solar panels, which were raised out to the sides at the time and provided, I thought, a nice, firm, flat, large perching platform that would also be very easy to clean. Alas, it all went well until the first large wave rolled us over and the bird slid right off the side and then flew away just before it plopped into the water. When it returned, it did so to it’s engine perch. Take two. This time I chose a spot on the port quarter where the occasional boarding seas would wash away the nastiness. The bird, however, didn’t like that spot, and flew away only to return to……… the engine perch. I gave up and went to bed. Round two – birds.

Here’s one of the rare considerate ones. This Booby sat perched on our bow pulpit looking regal for most of the night. It can poo all it likes there because the waves washing over the foredeck deal with it.

 

In other news, we experienced my first proper rogue wave. Those of you with good memories might remember something called ‘wave superimposition theory’ from your schooling days. Basically, if you have, say, two waves, when they meet they will interact with one another to produce a single wave that is a mixture of the two. If a trough meets another trough then the resulting trough will be as deep as the two combined. If a crest meets a crest then the resulting crest will produce a wave that it as high as the two combined. And if a crest meets a trough then they cancel each other out and you get nothing. This can produce, on occasion, some quite uncomfortable, unpredictable, steep, large waves. What is known as a ‘rogue’ wave, however, is a much more rare occurrence. It is a matter of subjective opinion, but basically a rogue wave is a wave that is MUCH bigger and usually from a different direction than would normally be expected in the conditions that one is experiencing. I’ve had a few big waves that stand out in my history at sea, but none quite so roguish as the one that we had the other night. It was fairly calm and Bob was jogging along nicely. No big rolls, no lurching or pitching. You could perhaps have left a mug of something on the chart table and it would have stayed there. Suddenly, there was the sound of rushing water and a huge impact on the port side. Bob was thrown right over about 60 degrees. All the books on the shelf on the port side fell onto Sarah (who was sleeping peacefully in her bunk). A tray of eggs launched itself off the galley countertop and landed half way across the cabin. Afterwards………. nothing. Back to being pretty calm.

On the morning of August 15th we arrived in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, and have been anchored at the Royal Papua Yacht Club since then. It’s a really lovely place with superb facilities and two large supermarkets just a few minutes walk away. The city of Port Moresby is, as I’ve mentioned previously, not a safe place but it still has a lot to offer and is not too unsafe during the daytime, if you go in a group. Four of us (us and two new cruiser friends) went to a dance competition yesterday. Paul got his phone nicked out of his pocket and I’m 100% certain that if I hadn’t been walking around with my backpack on my front and a hand on the zippers at all times it would have been emptied in short order, but we never felt personally threatened and every single person we have (knowingly) met has been wonderfully friendly and nice. Sarah traded a shell head-dress with a local lady, and I had my own cultural experience when I tried betel nut – the local drug of choice (perfectly legal!).

 

These dancers all came from the island province of Manus, to the north of the main island:

Below is a photo of Sarah with the lady whose headdress she made the mistake of complimenting. It’s not the first time this has happened! In our culture if you express admiration for an item of clothing that another person is wearing it is received as a personal compliment and a congenial sentiment. In Polynesian and Melanesian culture, however, they take it one step further; their natural response is to offer that item as a gift. This lady immediately whipped off her headdress and tied it around Sarah’s head. Sarah responded by making a gift of her earrings. Last time it was her hat. Who knows what it’ll be next time!

You’ll notice that the lady above has a reddish tinge to her mouth? That’s a common feature among Papua New Guineans and it’s caused by the habitual chewing of Betel nut. It’s illegal in some places because it causes cancer of the mouth. It also appears to rot the teeth. People here chew it constantly. I thought I’d give it a go, so I bought a nut for one Kina (about 35 cents) and the lady showed me what to do with it. It tasted horrible, made me very light-headed and slightly ill. I should perhaps have tried half of a nut, or a quarter, rather than shoving the whole thing in! It turns deep red and releases the active ingredient when mixed with an acid. Mine is only orange because I am a wuss and couldn’t handle anything like the potency that the locals barely seem to notice:

Across the Coral Sea Part Two

Day 9 and all is well on Bob. It’s been long enough now that the days have rolled together, and I had to go and have a look at the ship’s log to figure out how many days we’d been at sea. Most of those days recently have been grey and drizzly, but we’re happy with that because the alternative wouldn’t have been much fun at all. Our decision to stay well South appears to have paid off – just 100 miles to our North yesterday was an area of intense thunder storms with light winds that had organised themselves into a well-defined cyclonic motion. The Coral Sea, where we are now, is the birthplace of South Pacific cyclones. We’re here at the wrong time of year (or the right time of year depending on how you look at it!) and the sea temperatures are too low for cyclone development but if that hadn’t been the case we might have just witnessed the formation of one of those infamous beasts.

In other news we finally struck gold on the fishing front a few days ago. Having caught nothing in quite some time (except a barracuda in Vanuatu which we put back due to the risk of Ciguatera poisoning) we got a Mahi Mahi and a yellowfin tuna three days ago. The freezer is full (thank you Jonathan Baxter and Roger Beach for the freezer!) and we have been enjoying tuna sashimi, fish steaks and fish stew for our meals. I think we will both struggle when we return to the ‘developed’ world and fish and coconuts become exorbitantly expensive.

It is 0845 on Sunday morning, August 19th (UTC+11). Our position is 13 41’S, 151 37’E. That puts us 370 miles from our destination. We have turned to head there directly now and are rolling along under a reefed mainsail almost directly down-wind. We’re looking provisionally at a Wednesday afternoon arrival in Port Moresby, which suits us very well as it will allow us to clear customs on the same day with a bit of luck, without having to pay any extra fees for a weekend arrival. As I send this off I will be downloading a weather forecast, which I generally do every two days. At one stage the computer models were predicting 30-knot winds and we were anticipating a rough ride into Port Moresby. The one I got two days ago showed a much more moderate 22 knots, which is a good amount of wind when one is sailing with it. Fingers crossed that this one will show something similar.

There is a fair bit of bird life out here, which I suppose is to be expected given our proximity to various land masses. Three times on this voyage a bird has chosen Bob as it’s roosting spot for the night, which Sarah thinks is wonderful and I will tolerate so long as it’s not in the cockpit. Last night we had a particularly stubborn Booby that wouldn’t go away, move forward or even turn around so that it’s bum was pointing outwards. Despite my every effort to make it understand that it was not welcome – including prodding it firmly with bits of wood – I came on deck this morning to find that our starboard secondary cockpit winch had received what looked like a poorly-administered coat of white paint. Of course, I was the one to clean it up. If ever there was a case for carrying guns on board this would be it! A large portion of my day today will be devoted to devising a plan of defence for this evening. Electrified lifelines? A trip wire attached to a butane torch? Perhaps a potato cannon with some sort of bird homing system?……….. That reminds me of a wonderful story about pigeons in the Second World War: Apparently they constructed and tested prototypes for early guided bombs using pigeons. A pigeon was strapped into the front of a bomb behind a Perspex nose cone. It would try to home in on a target and the bomb would detect which way the pigeon wanted to fly and adjust the aero foils to turn in that direction. It was a great success (for the guidance, not for the pigeon) but was eventually scrapped because of the shortage of pigeons that would home to the desired targets. Apologies, I digress! I shall mull over the problem of Booby poo today. I suspect, though, that the weapon of choice will once again be a wet cloth.

Across the Coral Sea

It is 10am on Wednesday August 15th (UTC+11) and we are into our 5th day at sea en-route from Luganville, Vanuatu to Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. Our position is 15 00 S, 158 57 E. Bob is bowling along down-wind at about 6.5 knots under half of a genoa in a force 6, rising to the swells, occasionally corkscrewing at the crest and then sliding down into the trough. It’s not an uncomfortable motion under the circumstances. I am down below writing this and Sarah is on deck reading. The sun has shown itself this morning so we’ve raised our solar panels out like wings in an effort to capture as much power as possible while it lasts. Yesterday was grey and squally. Who knows what tomorrow will bring.

Anyone who cares to plot our position will notice that we are taking somewhat of a circuitous route to our destination. The reason for this is that in a few days the South Pacific Convergence Zone is forecast to move South into this area and that will bring with it very light winds, squalls and thunderstorms, none of which I’m a fan of. We’re staying well to the South in the hope that we can skirt around the bottom of it before gybing and heading North for our destination. This tactic adds about 120 miles, or one day, to our passage but if it works it will have been worth it.

Our destination itself, Port Moresby, is not so much a destination as a stopover. Although Papua New Guinea is by all accounts an incredible place that offers some amazing cruising and the opportunity to meet some truly isolated and unique people we, alas, won’t see any of it. Port Moresby is probably the least-desirable place on our itinerary. It’s main claim to fame is it’s violent crime rate, which is very high and still rising. I’m expecting it to be similar to Colon, in Panama (where several people I know have been mugged and the first thing we saw when we ventured beyond the boat club was a man pooing in the middle of the street), only worse. However, it is excellently located as a staging point for a transit through the Torres Straits, which run across the top of Australia and connect the Pacific and Indian Oceans. There is also a yacht club in Port Moresby – the Royal Papuan Yacht Club – which is supposedly a lovely place, and secure and safe as well. Certainly the lady with whom I have been in contact with via email has been wonderfully friendly and helpful. We’ll make straight for the yacht club, anchor inside the boundary of their sea wall and then rest and run errands for a few days before checking out and making for Indonesia. One day we will return and explore the other areas of Papua New Guinea, but not this time.

Walking through the Pages of the National Geographic

Well, I think we can safely say that Vanuatu has been one of our favourite destinations so far. It really is like walking through the pages of a National Geographic Magazine. My only regret is that we must move on so quickly. A month has flown by and we now find ourselves with very little time to make the many thousands of miles that we must make in order to cross the Indian Ocean before the Cyclone Season there gets into full swing.

Following on from where Sarah left off, we sailed North overnight to the island of Ambrym. We’d heard about this island from two sources. The first was Thomson, the gardener who so kindly gave us a guided tour of the ‘closed’ gardens on Efate. He told us that his grandfather had moved to Efate from Ambrym when his village was threatened by a particularly violent volcanic eruption. The second was when we met Philip at the Volcano Centre in Port Vila. He showed us some amazing photographs of a boiling lake of lava on Ambrym. It seemed to us that this might be one of those occasions on which we might have the opportunity to see something truly spectacular – something that people specifically travel half way around the world just to see – on a spur of the moment just because we happened to be in the vicinity. We were not disappointed.

Philip had given us a phone number for a guy called Joses, who is a volcano guide.

“Hello! We would like to climb your volcano please and see a boiling pit of lava. Tomorrow if possible”, I said (or words to that effect).

“Sure! Bring some food, some water and some sleeping bags”, said Joses.

We turned up at an appointed place at the appointed hour the next day thus equipped, not knowing quite what to expect. What followed was an arduous but exceptionally rewarding experience. It started with a 10km hike through a dry riverbed and then a rainforest path up to an elevation of about 750m. Here there was a makeshift camp already constructed in the local style, with a couple of palm-leaf shelters and an open fire for cooking. We dumped most of our stuff and then set out to visit one of the volcanoes, making the most of the fair weather because you never know when it’s going to go foul on you when you are at the top of a mountain. From the camp we climbed a dune of black sand, and when we reached the top we found ourselves facing one of the most incredible landscapes I have ever seen – miles and miles of ash plane. The ground was dead flat, black sand covered in fibres of naturally-produced fibreglass that is regularly ejected from the volcano. In the distance were fumaroles – small vents billowing volcanic gases – and the cones and craters themselves. The wind was a moderate 17 knots that day from the East, but up there there was a fresh breeze and the craters billowed out dense clouds of smoke that would blot out the sun one second and let it through the next, such that racing bands of shadow galloped across the landscape and off into the distance. It was eerie and surreal. We hiked for another 6 kilometres and up another 250m to reach the crater of Mount Marum, across the ash plane, through the shadow of Mount Benbow and then up the cone of Marum itself until we stood on the edge of a precipice and looked directly down 400m to a lake of boiling lava. It was bubbling away quite merrily, throwing huge gouts of liquid rock out onto the surrounding rock face. The thing that really impressed upon me however was the sound. It sounded just like the ocean beating against a rocky shore. Who’d have thought the rock itself could make that sound?

 

Much of the hike to the camp was through forest such as this. Joses and his fellow guides cut these paths several years ago with machetes. It must have been a long, hard job. I wonder who found the route in the first place……..

 

One of the local guys serving as a porter. These guys hike up to the camp and back down again in one day. Barefoot.

 

The ash plain.

 

More ash plain, this time with a backdrop of craters angrily billowing smoke

 

The smoke would collect in dense clouds that seemed not to readily diffuse. This one was nearly stationary. We came prepared!

 

One of many stunning volcanic landscapes.

 

Our reward for all that walking!

 

Sarah was happy to sit perched right in the edge. Meanwhile I crawled up to it and peered over the edge much more cautiously.

 

This is me standing near the edge of the crater, posing as requested by the master camerawoman.

 

And a short video of the boiling lava lake:

 

We slept that night in one of the shelters since we had no tent. Sarah laid out her yoga mat and slept in the sleeping bag while I cocooned myself in a blanket. I don’t remember what I dreamed of but it was probably something fiery.

 

Our accommodation. As we entered to go to bed our torch light revealed a cockroach that quickly scuttled beneath my blanket and a rather large spider perched where Sarah’s head was going to be. For a wildlife enthusiast she didn’t show much enthusiasm for the wildlife! Paul and Monique, you may recognise the blanket. Thanks for that!

 

The next morning we had hoped to visit Mount Benbow but the weather had turned overnight and an ascent was no longer advised by Joses. We had been very lucky just to be able to visit Mount Marum. One of the other guys there had travelled all the way from France to visit the volcanoes. He had visited twice before and had stayed up on the mountain on each occasion for over a week. In all that time he had never seen the lava lake at Mount Marum, and we just toddled up there for one night and took it for granted. These volcanoes are not to be trifled-with. People have died while viewing the volcano on the island of Tanna, and at the moment Luganville is overcrowded with the population of one of the Northern islands which has been officially evacuated by the government as a temporary state of emergency due to volcanic activity.

By the time we got back down we had hiked about 36km in 36 hours, which is the most that either of us have ever managed. My right knee was giving me a bit of grief (I must be getting old!) but it was a small price to pay for that experience.

After a good night’s sleep we left Ambrym the following afternoon and made the short hop to Banam Bay, Malekula. This was a destination that I specifically wanted to visit because my mother visited here about 8 years ago and I wanted to visit the same place that she had been, and meet some of the same people. Another friend had given me the name of a family that lived there and asked me to pass on their regards, so I had some kind of starting point by which to introduce myself and, I hoped, form some kind of relationship.

Well, we certainly didn’t need to try very hard to make friends! From the moment we arrived we barely had a moment to ourselves. Locally-made dugout canoes nestled astern of Bob for the best part of each day, their occupants sitting in Bob’s cockpit drinking coffee while we all exchanged ideas and tried to explain our vastly different ways of life to one another. I’m not sure that either party fully understood what the other was getting at but it didn’t matter – we enriched one another’s lives in a very profound way I think. The people of Vanuatu have an incredible amount to teach us as we run around going about our western lives. Vanuatu has apparently been voted the happiest place on Earth for a couple of years running. It is certainly the happiest country I have ever visited, and it is also one of the poorest. The villagers have very little in the way of possessions. A few items of clothing, a few cooking utensils and a machete. Everything else they make themselves – their canoes by digging out a ‘white tree’, their houses by weaving bamboo for the walls and palm leaves for the roof. They cook over an open fire. They bathe in the sea. They have little, yet they are rich. They own their own houses, which is more than most people in so-called developed countries can say. They need never worry about going hungry – food can be found in abundance, produced by the land. We human animals need only three things to sustain life – food, water and shelter. All of these things are provided free of charge by the environment to the people of Vanuatu. Anything else is a bonus. We have forgotten this in our culture. We get hung up on the most trivial, meaningless and unnecessary problems that we create for ourselves. They are not really problems at all. My grandmother used to say “if it’s not life-threatening it’s not worth worrying about”. The people of Vanuatu are testament to the truth of that statement. They don’t always realise it of course. They see us as rich because we have more money and access to more stuff, but when I pointed out to a new Vanuatuan friend that I had no land – that my boat was only a glorified version of his house and much less sustainable – when I explained that some people in our countries really struggle to feed themselves, and that a minority of people actually own anything meaningful at all (not their own houses, not a source of food, nor a source of water) this man who lives simply in a palm-leaf hut on an island here in Vanuatu actually expressed pity for people in the developed world. And the really shocking thing is that I think perhaps he’s right to pity our way of life. After all, he is one of the happiest people on the planet so he must be doing something right!

 

Here I am ferrying Colin, Estelle and some kids out to Bob in the dinghy.

 

While we gave vast quantities of things to the villagers – things like antibiotic cream, books, fishing equipment and other sundry items that they can use – by far the most rewarding opportunities  were when I was able to actually do something to help them, not just give something. One of their canoes had developed a crack and was more or less unusable in that condition. Here I am putting a fibreglass repair over the crack:

It’s quite a spectacle as a lot of modern materials and processes are completely alien to them. I doubt any of them had ever seen someone working with fibreglass before.

 

A typical rural Vanuatu village.

 

Here is Sarah with the Saitol family, whom my mother has met and who I had a kind-of introduction to through a mutual friend. They invited us over to their house for dinner on our final night in Malekula.

 

Here’s a picture that we really like. Contrary to how it looks these are not members of a child militia, but two very smiley village kids who chose just this moment to wipe the smiles temporarily off their faces. A four-year-old clutching a large knife is not an unusual sight. They learn to use them from a young age as the tool of choice. As the boy gets bigger so does the knife!

 

Our time in Banam Bay was far too short but we are being forced to move on. We left yesterday morninge at 0200 and arrived here in Luganville – the principal town in Northern Vanuatu – at 1730 on the same day. We started provisioning for the 10-day passage to Papua New Guinea today and figuring out what else we need to do to prepare for that passage. I’m also looking ahead to the Torres Straits, which will probably be one of the more tricky navigational sections of our voyage. 200 miles of shallow, narrow channels through reefs in the company of large quantities of shipping traffic. There are also some wicked tides to content with, with tidal streams running up to 8 knots in addition to currents produced by the heaping effect of winds and the fact that the entire Pacific Ocean is trying to squeeze through a narrow gap into the Gulf of Carpentaria and the Indian Ocean, where the sea level is lower. It’s going to be a tiring next few months, with not a whole lot of time for sightseeing unfortunately.