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.

Half Way to Vanuatu

The last 24 hours have been very slow indeed. I haven’t totted up our daily run yet (I do that every day at mid-day) but I suspect it will be somewhere around the 50-mile mark, and not all of them towards our intended destination.

The wind has been fitful, with squalls of 30 knots and then lulls of nothing, which makes for a tiring time. We have only a little sail set so that we are OK in the squalls but that does leave us wallowing the rest of the time. The wind has also backed so that it is coming directly from where we want to go. Rather than putting a lot of energy into beating up-wind we are simply waiting for it to back further (which it’s due to do any time now) and then we’ll be able to tack and make for Vanuatu.

As of now, 0900 on Monday July 9th (UTC+12) we are almost exactly half way. Our position is 26 22.7S 171 19.7E. If the wind does what the forecasts say it will
we should be looking forward to a relatively fast and comfortable second half of the passage.

In other news we are pleased to once again have access to fresh fish. It’s something we didn’t know we would miss until we were no longer to get it easily in New Zealand, and which we had become accustomed to eating frequently in The Islands. We caught a smallish Mahi Mahi two days ago and have been enjoying that. I’ll put the lines out again as we approach Vanuatu over the New Hebrides Trench and with luck we’ll get something else. With a lot of luck it’ll be a Yellowfin Tuna 🙂

We get asked a lot of questions about provisions. “How do you provision?” Or “How long can you stay at sea?” Well, the truth is that provisioning for us is not that much more difficult than anyone else’s weekly grocery shop. We have a small fridge so we can’t buy large quantities of stuff that needs to be refrigerated and we don’t have the option of nipping down to the corner shop for another loaf of bread, but in all other respects it’s pretty similar.

The answer to the second question is a little more complex. We tend to stock up on non-perishable goods whenever we encounter them being sold at a good price. We left Panama with about thirty bottles of rum. We left Marquesas overflowing with fruit. We’ve left New Zealand full of canned goods and good-quality pasta and rice that we trust won’t go weevilly as fast as the stuff bought in the islands. At any one time we probably have about three months supply of food on board and enough water at the beginning of a passage for three weeks with no rationing beyond our normal conservational practices. We could catch rain water and we could fire up the water maker while on passage if we needed to. We fish periodically and it doesn’t usually take too long to catch something. One fish will last us for between 3 and 10 meals depending on it’s size. The answer, therefore, is that given the right set of circumstances (availability of rain and fish) we could, in theory, stay at sea indefinitely from a supplies perspective. Staying sane out here is the real challenge. Fortunately we seem to be quite good at helping one another with that.