Efate, Lelepa and Nguna – a small taste of Vanuatu

It’s hard to believe that we’ve been in Vanuatu for almost a month already. We’ve crammed in so much that time has simply disappeared as though swallowed by a black hole. It’s entirely possible that we’ve done and seen more of this country in the last month than we did in Marquesas over 6 months. I won’t write about it all in this post, I’ve got to leave something for Alex to write about after all, but here’s a small taste of our Vanuatuan adventures so far.

Efate

The tiring sail up to Vanuatu from New Zealand was well worth the effort, particularly because I knew my parents were waiting for me at the other end. They currently live in Thailand where my mum works as a teacher and my Dad is enjoying his retirement. They spent a good portion of the school summer holidays visiting Australia and decided to take the opportunity to fly from there to Vanuatu to visit us. It’s a long way for them to come and we’re honoured they decided to make the trip, particularly as my Dad hates flying with a deep passion! Moreover, he likes to feed his fear by watching documentaries about plane crashes in the weeks leading up to a flight. I have absolutely no idea how my Mum managed to convince him to, firstly, move to Thailand in the first place; and secondly, to spend the summer holidays globe trotting to distant corners of the planet to see his one and only daughter. Despite his impending doom he came along anyway. He must really love me! 🙂 All jokes aside, I think they both had a lot of fun and we thoroughly enjoyed spending time with them. Even though I don’t see my parents as often since I started this voyage, the time we do spend together is of better quality and I appreciate it all the more because of that.

We spent many an afternoon and evening chilling out on Bob. The last time my Mum was on board was in a very rolly anchorage in Galapagos and she got quite ill. This time the anchorage was much more sheltered so it was much nicer for her.

This is the first time my Dad has seen Bob and it was great to be able to show him our home and way of life. He seemed to enjoy the experience and learning more about it.

We made the most of the good trade winds and took them for a day sail, which is a first for both of them I believe. They both took turns on helm which of course made mine and Alex’s job much easier.

We took advantage of the nice beach, snorkelling and paddle boarding offered by the resort where my parents were staying.

We had a lot of fun at the blue lagoon. It’s a pool of brackish water near the coast which is a beautiful vibrant blue colour, perhaps because of the mineral composition in the water.

 

We took a trip to The Summit gardens to see the famous view and enjoy the ornamental flora. We were disappointed to find the place was closed to the public due to damage from a Cyclone back in 2015. All was not lost however! After speaking to one of the local gardeners (a wonderful guy named Thompson) we ended up having our own private tour through the gardens with a very experienced and knowledgable local. This secret gem was definitely one of my highlights of Efate, here are some of the photos:

Lelepa

We bid my parents a heartfelt goodbye before heading to some of the smaller islands just north of Efate. First stop, Lelepa. Lelepa is part of an area with significant historical relevance. It was in a cave on this island where a famous chief died some 400 years ago. He was famous for bringing peace to the region after a long period of suffering and conflict. An entire island just west of Lelepa was dedicated as his burial site and around 40 of his friends and family were killed and buried with him. Whether they volunteered for this or not remains a mystery, but it is a sign of great respect for the paramount chief to be honoured with this type of ceremony and resting place.

This is a bat cave in the north of Lelepa. It may not be the death place of the famous chief but I’m sure there have been dead bodies in here at some point in the past. Bats were everywhere and unlike the U.K., you don’t need a special licence to go and see them. Whether or not the bats were happy about the disturbance we caused is another matter.

We had also heard there was a resident dugong mother and her pup hanging around in the waters just a short walk from the anchorage. We set off with snorkel fins in hand at the hope of seeing this unusual creature. We split up our search efforts and amazingly, I was the lucky one who came across the dugongs first. I say I ‘came across’ them but really they found me. I was swimming with them for a whole 10 minutes before the others arrived and quickly scared them away. At least they got a glimpse even if it was only for a few seconds. The snorkelling in this area is truly fantastic! We also saw turtles, a sting ray, a multitude of other fish and I even managed to get some good footage of an octopus, who surprisingly didn’t seem bothered about hiding himself away in the rocks.

This is the beautiful anchorage in Lelepa. It may look hazardous from anchoring perspective, but at least the coral heads are easy to see!

Nguna

We then set sail a little further north to an island called Nguna. This island is home to a large inactive volcano and we chose to anchor Bob outside a small village at the foot of its cone. This was our first proper exposure to rural Vanuatuan culture – where you must visit the village chief and offer him gifts in return for his permission to anchor outside the village. As soon as the anchor dropped we headed to shore armed with a large bag of children’s clothes and ladies underwear (which we’d acquired from a charity shop in New Zealand) as we’d heard they were sought after in these islands. The locals seemed very grateful and the chief spent many hours that day speaking and drinking kava with us and showing us round his village. This was a huge privilege for us as we’d unwittingly arrived on on their Independence Day and many villages from all over the island were gathered here for the celebrations. The chief had a very busy day and yet he took the time to proudly show us his home, the local school, church and all the food and drink stalls set up for the Independence Day celebrations. We were even invited to watch the local football tournament. My dad would have loved it! We we’re also given lots of interesting food by the locals, many of which I have no idea how to eat and some of which I’ve never seen before in my life. It’s always fun to try the local cuisine.

This is Alex with the chief in the village nursery.

This is probably the most spectacular backdrop for a football match I have ever seen with the extinct volcano towering over the pitch.

This is a coco pod. I was aware that you can grind the seeds to make coco powder but the locals use them in a different way. They open the pod and suck the white flesh from the seeds and discard them afterwards. They taste beautifully sweet, like sherbert. We decided to keep the seeds and have a go at making our own coco powder. Watch this space.

This is the aptly named ‘snake bean’. Some beans are even more curly and look even more snake-like than this one. You remove the inside pith and scrape off the outer white skin. What’s left is something that is a little bit like bell pepper – a mild sweet flavoured food that you can fry or boil.

We got to see a lot of Efate with my parents and it was amazing to spend time with them. When it comes to visiting the country itself, it’s the rural lifestyle and unique landscapes that really appeal to Alex and I and in that sense, the best is yet to come…

The Slog to Marquesas

Well,  the Tuamotus aren’t happening at the moment. The trade winds have shut down and we spent three weeks waiting for a weather window to leave the Gambier Islands. We’re heading directly for the Marquesas Islands now, hoping to get there by November 6th in time for Charlene’s arrival.

There are 833 miles as the turtle swims between the Gambier Islands and the Marquesas Islands. In an average 24-hour period with half-decent winds Bob covers 120 miles. On a good day that figure might go up to 135, and on a bad one it might be as low as 90. Pessimistically I estimated that this passage would take us 8 days and secretly hoped that we might get there in 7. The weather forecast when we left was perfect – 12 to 15 knot winds on the beam all the way. Today is day 10, and we still have 200 miles to go. Our average daily run has been 78 miles, and never in the right direction.

The forecast upon departure was correct for one day. Then the wind died and we bobbed aboard Bob. For three days. Then the breeze shifted to the North and increased in strength. It built to 18 knots and came from exactly the direction that we wanted to go in. And it stayed that way for 4 days. We went West, we went North-East, we fought and clawed for each and every mile against the wind, tacking back and forth and have, under the circumstances, made reasonable progress. Today was supposed to be the big break. The forecast yesterday told us to expect reduced winds overnight followed by a rapid shift to the East and building to 8 to 10 knots – perfect. Unfortunately things haven’t panned out that way. The wind did indeed die last night and we spent yet another night Bobbing, but today has been the most frustrating day of them all. South West, 12 knots. Nothing. North, 8 knots. Nothing. East (yay!) 13 knots. Nothing. Rain, big wind shifts. Currently we have 6 knots of wind……….. from the NNW, exactly the direction of the Marquesas Islands. The forecast for tomorrow is for no wind. And the next day. And the day after that.

You can probably detect a hint of frustration in my writing. That would be a gross understatement. Sarah has been amazing at putting up with my grumpiness, exasperation and despair. This morning I very unfairly snapped a snarky comment at her, and yet inexplicably she continues to put up with me! Mind you, I suppose she doesn’t have many prospects at the moment when it comes to getting away………………… maybe the ‘tolerance’ is all a façade. Or maybe I actually control the weather and have thought up this plan as a cunning ploy to trap her here for eternity! Har har har har.

I think I’ve been at sea for too long. I’m exhausted from night after night of not being able to sleep for more than an hour at a time, at the most, before something needs to be done. I’m disheartened to think of all the wear that has been sustained by the sails from banging back and forth in the light airs as the boat rolls with the swells. Most of all, I’m just tired of putting in all this effort and being thwarted at every turn, as though Neptune himself has chosen to torment us for his mild amusement.

There’s a line of squalls ahead of us and it’s moving in the same direction we are –NNW  toward the Marquesas Islands. It stretches from horizon to horizon, East to West, in one big dark band of menacing clouds, with intermittent towers of grey-black cumulo-nimbus expunging plumes of rain from beneath them. I thought that maybe if we could catch up to the squall line and punch our way through we might find our much-sought-after Easterlies on the other side, so we’re motoring with the mainsail up but it’s just getting further and further from us. Maybe it’s for the best – I’ve just seen two water spouts form and then dissipate again without quite reaching the surface. There’s a new clicking noise coming from the engine and the oil seems thinner than usual. The level in the sump isn’t going down as it usually does either. I think there’s diesel in the oil.

It’s going to be another long night.

Good News Bad News

Precursory disclaimer: None of the bad news is overly tragic or terminal!

Bad news: The freezer has broken. It broke about four days ago and is quite an inconvenience because at the time it was absolutely crammed full of frozen food – mainly meat – along with some vegetables that we had chopped up with the intention of eating them once the fresh stuff had run out or gone bad. So much for that plan!

Good news: We’ve eaten like kings for the last 4 days. Chicken in a tomato sauce, deep-fried chicken wings and now a huge, tasty beef stew. Furthermore, Sarah has somehow managed to magic space in what was the fridge and we have turned the temperature right down. It’s successfully keeping frozen stuff frozen. We have not yet had to throw much out at all.

Bad news:  The last three days have been pretty tough. The weather forecast predicted max. winds of 19 knots but we’ve been in a solid force 6 (about 25 knots), and last night a force 7 for a while (about 30 knots) with largish seas and a lot of general unpleasantness. Most of the waves were taken on the quarter and have been OK, but every now and then a large one would come in from the side and slam into the topsides. One such specimen crashed onto the deck and forced it’s way underneath the dodger (a piece of canvas which forms a protective cover over the forward part of the cockpit and ostensibly shelters us from wind and waves), tore the bottom edge off its mounts and then proceeded to pour down into the cabin through the main hatch. Everything on the navigation table got soaked. The fridge-come-freezer got soaked. All my tools got soaked. The charts got soaked. In fact, everything in the after starboard section of the boat got soaked. So, we cleaned/mopped up, hung various things up to dry and decided that from then on the hatch would remain closed. It did. All day in fact, and no more waves even came close to crashing up underneath the dodger and into the hatch again. Until I was sitting on deck rinsing off my tools and had the hatch open for no more than 10 seconds as I was about to go back down below. CRASH! It happened all over again. Now, we scurry in and out in a decidedly furtive manner.

Good news: By some stroke of extraordinary luck, none of the dwindling supply of expensive electronic stuff was on the chart table at the time of either of the wave incidents. This really is a stroke of extraordinary luck since one of the laptops is used primarily for navigation and spends 90% of it’s time in that very locale. Sarah’s iphone has already been the victim of some poor judgement on my part when I tried to take us in through the surf onto a beach in San Cristobal and ended up flipping the dinghy over. My ipod now has a smashed screen from when I dropped a jar of pickled cockles on it. We haven’t got a whole lot left, and what we do have we’d quite like to keep working!

Good news: The forecast is for the wind to drop. It is dropping.

Bad news: It has dropped out very quickly, leaving us with no wind and a large, confused, lumpy sea rolling us about all over the place, causing the genoa to bang horribly as it empties and fills repeatedly with wind with every roll. Ah well, the sea can’t be too far behind. It has already come down a lot since last night.

Bad news: We had a bit of a mini-drama last night. I awoke to the unpleasant sensation of being hurled over sideways, followed by a crash of water from the side and a jet of saltiness coming in through the hatch. The movement was not as it should be. A glance up through the hatch onto the deck revealed why – the wind vane was not standing upright as it should be, but rather hanging precariously at a below-horizontal angle while the moving parts at the top attempted to wrench it free and cast it off into the sea. I really do wish people would make expensive things well. We’re very, very happy with our new wind vane on the whole – it performs better than any other wind vane I have ever had experience with – but this is now the second incidence of a bit of it not being quite as strong as we think it should be. The first incident was when the bolt supporting the rudder sheared through. The only thing that prevented us from losing the rudder on that occasion was that, after my experience in the North Atlantic with the Fleming wind vane, I had attached a safety cord to this one tying it onto the boat. This time (last night) it was the mechanism for securing the wind vane itself into its bracket. A plastic hand-screw contains at its centre a bronze threaded section. It kept coming loose so I’d screwed it down as tight as I could. The bronze part had simply pulled itself out of the centre of the plastic part, making the whole thing ineffective.

Good news: The designers had at least thought to design a slight lip into the wind vane fitting so that it is still captive with this screw slacked off. Sarah took the helm for half an hour while I removed the fitting, hammered the bronze bit back into place, drilled and tapped through both the plastic and bronze bits and installed two bolts to keep them lined up. In my view, something like this should have been done at the factory by the manufacturers. It wouldn’t have taken much extra machining. Unfortunately I stripped the threads putting it all back together again, but it’s on strongly now. I’ll deal with how to get it off again when the time comes!

More good news: As of about 2200 last night we are half way there! 1380 miles from Santa Cruz and 1380 miles to Pitcairn. It feels like we should be further along, but it’s wonderful now to be getting closer to somewhere rather than consistently further and further away.

As of 1030 this morning (1730 UTC), June 24th, our position is 15 degrees 53 minutes South, 108 degrees 59 minutes West.

Pitcairn Bound! (We Hope)

As I write this we are at position 04 degrees 04 minutes S, 092 degrees 05 minutes west, sailing SSW at approximately 5.5 knots. We’ve slowed down a bit and come off the wind a touch because the wind and seas built last night to the point that Bob was launching off the tops of waves and slamming down hard on the other side. We took 2 reefs into the mainsail and perhaps 1/3 of our large (140%) genoa is unfurled. In conjunction with bearing off the wind a touch (now about 55 degrees apparent) things are much more comfortable.

We are bound vaguely for a point about 20 degrees South, 120 degrees West at which point we will exit the wonderful belt of trade winds and, for the last week of our voyage, pick our way through the variable winds toward our destination of Pitcairn Island, which is located at about 25 degrees South, 130 degrees West. This is our plan, but, in common with the vast majority of plans that rely on the magnanimity of the weather gods, it is subject to change. There’s a very real possibility (50% I’d say) that we will find things a bit nasty as we go further and further South and decide to bail out to one of the other island groups that are more to leeward. The winds should be fine for the most part – 10 to 20 knots are the norm at the moment in the trade wind belt – but there could be much more wind (and potentially head-winds) once we enter that region of variable winds closer to Pitcairn. Furthermore, the dominant swells even as far North as we are currently are approaching us from the South West and do not promise to change in the near future. These swells are generated in the far South, in the Great Southern Ocean by powerful storms – some of the worst storms in the world in fact. At the moment they make for a bit of slamming, but the further South we go (and the closer to their source) the larger they will become, and we may well find it very hard work indeed to continue crashing into them. We shall see!

Assuming we make it to Pitcairn (and I sincerely hope we do!) we will have the pleasure of the company of some of the best people on the planet. The island has a population of about 50, which is an increase over that of 2003 when I last visited. I think then it was about 40. I’m very much looking forward to seeing the lovely couple once again who hosted me at their house back in 2003 and I sincerely hope that some of the things I’ve brought along with me can be useful to the islanders. In 2003 the sorts of things that made good gifts were machetes, cake mix, chocolate and so on. Also liquor. We have all of these on board, but I wonder if they are sought-after commodities any longer. In 2003 the island received two supply ships per year. Now, I suspect this number has risen considerably. I would hate to turn up and impose myself upon their hospitality without having anything to offer in return.

At any rate we have at least 3 weeks before we’ll need to worry about that. At the moment all of my focus is internal to our little world – this small hole in the water made of plastic which we call our home and which is slowly but surely trundling through the miles into one of the most remote places on the planet. There are almost 3000 miles to cover (less the 250 that we’ve done in the last 2 days). That’s about the same as a crossing of the entire Atlantic Ocean in terms of distance, but in all other respects it is vastly different. For a start, we are sailing away from ‘civilisation’ rather than from one civilisation to another. Pitcairn Island (and indeed, all of the island groups ‘nearby’) offers very little in the way of yacht services. In fact, there isn’t even a real anchorage. The closest boat yard that I know of is in Tahiti, some 1200 miles from Pitcairn and 3500 miles from our current location. It is therefore of paramount importance that if we wish Bob to take care of us then we must be particularly diligent in taking care of her.

Update at 1415: as the seas continued to rise we were back to jumping off them. We’re turned off the wind about 20 degrees so as to be going a little more with the wind rather than with it, and it’s much more comfortable.

We’ve been surprised by the amount of wildlife even out here in the middle of nowhere. Flying fish abounded this morning, a number of birds have come to say hello and I even spotted a shark this morning lazily meandering back and forth in the characteristic way that they do. He didn’t seem too interested in us and didn’t hang around for more than 10 seconds or so but it was a pretty cool sight nonetheless.

The shark reminded me of a time when we were sailing down to the Caribbean and encountered the worst weather I have ever seen. The feeling one gets when one is in the middle of such a tempest is difficult to describe, but I would say that awe plays a large part in it. There is something very majestic about a violent sea. So there I was staring out over the mountains of blue and white water, and with every swell Bob was being jettisoned up 30 feet to the crest of a wave before falling down on the other side. At the highest peaks it was possible to see a great distance. Each time felt like a different frame of a surrealistic film, since every glimpse out over the crests was slightly different than the last. In contrast, between these glimpses from on-high the world was contracted into the tiny space between one wave and the next, where seemingly-vertical walls of water hemmed us in on all sides. We were all very tired and our brains weren’t really functioning as they should have been, but nevertheless I remember clearly one such wall that rose up right next to the boat, and within this wall was a huge billfish – a marlin I think. That moment lasted quite a while, and I got the distinct feeling that the marlin was just as surprised to me as I was to see it, for ours eyes were on the same level no more than 20 feet apart and from what I could tell we were both staring at one another as if to say “what on earth are you doing here? Don’t you have somewhere better to be than this?”

As for now, I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be.

Cartagena

Bob is in Cartagena! I have to say, we were not immediately impressed. After a long night of large waves, Cartagena emerged out of the hazy gloom at 8am, February 17th. First the water turned a muddy brown colour and then the distinctive silhouettes of sky scrapers materialised. Not what we were expecting!

The approach to Cartagena was rough but not too-much-so. The wind was moderate – about 20 to 25 knots with gusts up to 30 or 35. Waves were about 3.5 meters (10 feet) on average but not steep enough to be too much of a problem………… with one exception. At about 4am we were down below and heard the ominous sound of a wave larger than any we had thus far encountered breaking and bearing down on us. When it hit, it did so with a resounding crash and Bob was heeled over abruptly 60 or 70 degrees. Stuff went flying everywhere. Isabelle was sleeping at the time and had the unfortunate experience of having the entire contents of the book shelf deposited onto her bunk on top of her. Pots and pans in the galley cupboards could be heard crashing into the cabinet doors, and somehow the portable generator (which had been wedged in very tightly among a load of other stuff) ended up upside-down and leaking petrol onto the fridge. No real harm done though – we righted the generator, wedged it in again, put the books back and added an extra piece of string to keep them in place should we experience another such wave. Fortunately, we didn’t.

There was a strong current against us – 2 to 3 knots I’d say. Even with Bob well powered-up we were only making 4 knots ‘SOG’ (speed over ground). A large number of ships were using this current to their advantage as they steamed North on their way, presumably, from the Panama Canal. These typically approached from ahead of us doing 16 to 20 knots, sometimes more. Added to our 4, that meant a very rapid closing speed and little time to make them aware of our presence and adjust course to avoid us. To compound the issue, visibility was down to 4 or 5 miles at best. It was a busy night. The closest call came not from a ship but from a fellow sailing vessel. Like us, they didn’t have an AIS transponder which meant they could only be detected visually (since we don’t have radar). The poor visibility (if anyone knows the reason for this I’d love to hear it – I’m guessing it is dust in the atmosphere from the desert to the East of us?) meant that i didn’t spot his tri-colour navigation light until he was about 2 miles from us and it was apparent fairly quickly that it was going to be a close call as his compass bearing from us was unwavering. I estimated his position and tried raising him on the radio twice but received no response. He passed about 100 yards astern of us on a course perpendicular to ours, and presumably remains oblivious to this day how near he came to meeting us on very close terms indeed!

Having arrived in Cartagena Isabelle and I anchored Bob in 4 fathoms, made everthing ship-shape and went ashore. Sarah was waiting on the dock. Needless to say that made me very, very happy indeed.

Cartagena is not as it first appeared. The old town, from the little we have seen of it so far, is beautiful. The prices are very, very reasonable, the seafood is fantastic and the bread is possibly the best I have ever had (sorry France, Colombia has it!). I had the ‘opportunity’ to walk through some less-touristy areas today when I got lost on my way back from the immigration office and that was quite educational. Tomorrow I think we’ll head to the old town again; I’d like to visit the ‘Museum of the Spanish Inquisition’ and then I suspect Sarah will drag me to a beach that is supposed to be incredible. I’ve been grossly spoiled by Bermudian beaches and don’t therefore have much time for them in other places as they are invariably inferiour. I suppose I could probably endure it if forced.

Isabelle is still on board with us so we are currently three. She’s itching to get back to the Eastern Caribbean. Unfortunately, doing so by sailboat is tricky at the moment on account of the strength of the trade winds so she may have to get on one of those unnatural metal flying things. It’s been really wonderful having her on board – she’s saved me from myself on many occasions, has been fantastic company and always eager to help with everything. Sarah and I will set sail from here soon – perhaps Tuesday next week – and stop in the San Blas Islands briefly before heading in to Colon, Panama, to arrange our canal transit. We’re hoping we can arrange a transit date and then double back to San Blas for a week or so to wait for our slot there instead of staying in Colon. I’ve been to Colon before, briefly, in 2002 with the Picton Castle. By all accounts it is a very appropriately-named city – the arse of the world, and I have no desire to stay there any longer than is absolutely necessary to arrange the transit.

View looking Astern about 2 days out from St. Martin. Sailing under genoa alone. The red thing is the wind vane, which performed absolutely superbly throughout - better than any other model i have ever had experience with.

View looking Astern about 2 days out from St. Martin. Sailing under genoa alone. The red thing is the wind vane, which performed absolutely superbly throughout – better than any other model i have ever had experience with.

Our first view of Cartagena..........

Our first view of Cartagena……….