After only three weeks in Vanuatu, it was time for us to keep moving. We left Port Vila on June 16th with what looked to be a good weather window and headed towards the Torres Strait. As we sailed out of Port Vila, we saw a police boat go by, and heard them on the VHF discussing boarding a boat and taking passengers off. They went by us and about half an hour later we saw who they were boarding - a submarine.
By day six we started to see more squalls, quite a few with lightning. We were in an area in the Coral Sea which is a convergence zone and prone to squalls. They started off short lived, and were usually over in less than an hour. By the evening on the seventh day, however, we found ourselves in the middle of a thunderstorm, with winds all over the board as far as speed and direction. The thunder was loud and ominous, and we watched as lightning bolts lit up the sky all around us, several of them quite close to the boat. We later learned that a Swedish boat was hit by lightning earlier, very near where we were and it fried all of their electronics. After seven hours, we were finally out of the storm, and the lightning flashes grew more distant. We breathed a sigh of relief to have made it through without any issues.
When we left Vanuatu, we had contemplated making a stop in Papua New Guinea. We spoke to a French couple in Port Vila about our trip, and they recommended visiting the Louisiade Archipelago. We didn’t have paper charts for the area, but we downloaded quite a bit of information from them before we left, including waypoints for entering the reef passes and a few guidebooks. We did have electronic charts on our chart plotter and on our laptop through MaxSea. We had traveled 1,000 miles since leaving Vanuatu and still had another 700 to Thursday Island in the Torres Strait. We decided that a brief stop to rest in Papua New Guinea would be nice.
Papua New Guinea is one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world, and there are reportedly 841 different languages spoken. The majority of the population lives in traditional societies and practices subsistence-based agriculture. Many of the tribes still have very little contact with the outside world.
Our plan was to stop only at the Louisiade Archipelago. This is a string of 80 small coral islands and 10 larger volcanic islands stretching out over 100 miles. They are located southeast of the main island of New Guinea, and therefore, the first islands we came to after heading northwest from Vanuatu. Since we were only coming in for a few days, and going to a port of entry involved a major detour over 100 miles away, we decided not to check into the country.
There is a fringing reef surrounding these islands, and as we neared the pass in the late afternoon, we knew we wouldn’t make it into the anchorage by nightfall. So, we spent our eighth night hove to outside of the lagoon. The next morning, we sailed in and covered the 20 miles to the island of Pana Numara. As we approached the anchorage, a Swedish boat, Roxy, was also making its way into the bay. Once we were both anchored, they came over to say hello and invited us over for coffee later aboard their 50 foot Hans Christian. They had not seen another boat in the area for three weeks. It was still early in the season, and the locals told us we were the first boats they’ve seen this year.
We caught up on sleep that night, and the next morning we had an endless stream of locals visiting us. The first thing we noticed about the local people was their teeth, which were stained dark red. It took us a while, but we eventually asked what was making their teeth red. It turns out they chew something called buai (boo – eye) which is a mild stimulant. It comes from chewing the seed of the betel nut, along with mustard (daka), which is the end of a bean like pepper. They first dip the mustard into lime powder (kambang) and bite off the end. When they chew it with the betel nut seed, the three ingredients mix, causing a chemical reaction which turns red. When they chew it and spit, it looks like they are spitting out blood.
Most of the day, people from the island paddled out in their dugout canoes, looking to make a trade. Word that we were there traveled fast, and sailing canoes came from other islands to trade with us as well. As there aren’t any supply ships that come out to the smaller islands, trading with the dim dims (white people) is their only opportunity to get certain things without traveling long distances. We got lots of wood carvings, shell necklaces, and fruits and vegetables. In exchange, we traded T-shirts, rope, chisels, sandpaper, pasta, sugar, rice, batteries, fish hooks and line, paint, soap, shampoo, flashlight and a hat.
We enjoyed meeting the people, who were very friendly and happy just to stay and chat even if a trade did not work out. Many of the islanders brought their children in the canoes with them, asking for lollies. We didn’t have lollies, but we did have crayons and paper which we handed out instead. They were very polite and thanked us for the crayons, but some were obviously disappointed that we didn’t have any candy.
|Pana Numara Island|
After a few nights at Pana Numara, we moved to Bagaman Island, about five miles away. It rained hard for a day and half, so we were able to fill up our water tanks. The rain did not stop the traders, though. We still had an endless stream of visits, and we would all sit in the cockpit under the awning waiting out the heavier downpours.
Between trading and visiting with the locals, we stayed busy working on some minor repairs, as well as getting familiar with Indian Ocean weather and reading guidebooks for destinations we plan to visit. On our fourth day, the sun finally came out, and we made it to shore for the first time since leaving Vanuatu 13 days prior. We landed the dinghy on the beach, and spent the afternoon walking around the village and hiking up the hill to check out the view. The trail was very muddy due to all the rain, but the views from above were really nice. It was interesting to see the huts where people lived. They obviously get a bit of rain here as they were all built up on sticks a few feet above the ground.
|ashore on Bagaman Island|
We were keeping a close eye on the weather, too, as the plan was to be underway again soon. Unfortunately, a tropical disturbance was forecast to form just north of us, and we wanted to see what came of that. There was also still an active trough spanning the Coral Sea, and we didn’t want to take our chances with more lightning storms. Although it was fairly nice inside the protected anchorages, there was the potential for some rough weather in the Coral Sea for the next couple days. We decided to wait a few more days to see if things settled, but move to a different anchorage. Ulf on Roxy had told us about a nice anchorage off the island of Panasia, about 23 miles away. We headed over while the sun was out, as we needed good light to enter the lagoon.
The wind was blowing S 18-20, and we had a nice sail over. As we neared the entrance, we became concerned about the exact location of the pass, as all we had were our electronic charts, and a few sentences in a guidebook to follow. In these remote places, neither paper nor electronic charts are usually very accurate anyway. At low tide, the swell would have broken on the reef, making the pass easy to identify. Since we came in at high tide, the pass was difficult to see, although there were two large rocks visible that lined up with rocks on our charts on either side of the pass. We made a very slow approach, and the depth plummeted to below 10 feet. A few seconds later Saviah bumped the reef, and we threw it into reverse full throttle. This was clearly not the pass.
After checking the bilge for water and thankfully finding none, we made our way a bit further north, and the darker water of the pass became obvious. Very tentatively, we motored through and steered around the coral heads inside the lagoon. Panasia is a long narrow island, with steep cliffs along most of the northern coast and a short stretch of white sand beach with a small village near the middle. We dropped the anchor in 40 feet of water about 100 yards off the cliffs and soaked in the stunning scenery. This is definitely one of the most beautiful places we have been yet.
As we dropped the anchor, a young boy rowed over in a canoe. We asked him if we could come to shore and walk around, and he said it was no problem. He hung out chatting with us for a while before he worked up the nerve to ask if we had any lollies. Shortly after he left, the people on the island boarded a large sailing canoe and rowed by us, waving and shouting “hello” and then continued on heading away from the island. An hour later, we rowed to shore and found the village completely deserted – we had the whole island and lagoon to ourselves.
The next day, we rowed ashore and spent some time walking around. We found a trail that led up the rocky valley and followed it up for a while. There were terraces all along the way up with fruit trees planted. Mostly there were bananas and po po’s, which is what they call papaya here. There were some great views on the way up, and you could see the fringing reef and many of the islands out in the distance.
|more of Panasia Island|
Back at Saviah, we went for a swim to dive on the hull and inspect the damage from hitting the reef. Luckily, we had been going very slowly, and the only evidence of the bump was a few spots where the reef had rubbed off on the bottom. We also dove on the anchor, and found that it was caught on some short pieces of coral that were spread around the mostly sand bottom. We pulled in most of the chain and tied our fenders at intervals before letting it out again, to keep it floating above the coral.
The next morning, Di was up as usual at 5 am listening to the Rag of the Air, an SSB net that gives weather forecasts for the SW Pacific. The tropical disturbance was still in the forecast to develop very near us, so we pulled some more GRIB files and took a look. The forecast showed 25-30 knots from the SW, SE, and E over the next 24 hours, which was concerning. We hoisted the dinghy on board in case the anchorage became untenable and we needed to head out to sea.
During this time, we had exchanged a few emails via our satellite phone with Dave and Patricia from sailing vessel, Chameleon, in New Zealand. They are quite involved in the Rag of the Air net we listen to, and Dave provides the weather synopsis every day. They were very helpful and provided us with some weather information specific to our area since we were near the developing low, which confirmed our decision to stay put a little longer.
It rained all morning, and we had some gusty winds from several directions. It was a little unnerving to have our back to the cliffs at times, but our anchor seemed to be holding. Several times our chain caught on coral again, so we would pull it up and reposition the fenders.
The next day we breathed a sigh of relief as the low was no longer rotating, and had merged with the trough in the Coral Sea. Unfortunately, this meant it was still not a good time to leave unless we wanted to encounter more thunderstorms. We kept busy with various boat projects and reading but we were really ready to go. We felt guilty for wanting to leave such a beautiful place, but we were starting to get behind schedule, and it seemed like the weather wasn’t improving.
Later that afternoon, the sailing canoe that left shortly after we arrived came back into the pass and up onto the beach at the village. A couple of kids rowed out in a small canoe and introduced themselves and then later, John, the father of the kids came out. He invited us to come over to the village. We rowed out the following day and met his family, traded a few things for some bananas and then spent some more time walking around. He gave us two kinds of bananas, one for cooking and the other for eating raw. Later, some other boys came out with more po po’s, coconuts, yams and pumpkins. They grow a couple of different types of pumpkins on the island, and the ones they gave us, could be cooked and the whole thing eaten, including the skins. They were quite good.
|John & family on Panasia Island|
John told us that nobody lives on this side of the island year round. They live on another island called Brooker about eight miles away. There are not enough fruit trees on their island, so they have planted banana and papaya trees on terraces above the small village on Panasia. They sail over periodically in their large sailing canoe to pick bananas and other produce from their gardens and usually stay for a few days.
The next day, three French boats came into the anchorage, and several other sailing canoes came in from other islands as well. They wanted to trade, but we were really running out of stuff to trade with. Fortunately, we had a large spool of fishing line. We traded fishing line for more produce and lobster until we had more than we needed.
|sailing canoe in lagoon at Panasia Island|
We continued to check the weather, which still looked lousy. If we left the next day, conditions would be decent for a day or two, but then a big high pressure system in the Tasman Sea was bringing trade wind surge to the tropics and high winds were forecast again on our route with lots of convection (squalls and thunderstorms). Our short stop had now turned into 11 days, and we were really starting to get frustrated. We also weren’t technically supposed to be in the country without clearing in with customs and immigration. We did have a two day window of decent weather. We took a look at the limited information we had on Papua New Guinea and decided that there was a good anchorage about 170 miles west on the main island of New Guinea. If we left early in the morning, we could make it by the following evening and then hole up there for a day. We would check the weather along the way and keep going if it improved. If not, at least we would be a little closer to the Torres Strait when it did improve.
Since it was 170 miles to Fife Bay, we set out from Panasia at first light. Once the anchor was up, we motored by the beach to wave farewell to John and his family. Several of them rowed out in their canoes to say farewell, and someone on shore blew the conch shell as we motored away. We hoisted the sails after leaving the lagoon and headed west. We had a really nice sail for the first 24 hours and then the wind lightened. We put up as much sail as we could, and just barely made it into Fife Bay before sunset. As well pulled into the bay it became obvious that our MaxSea software and our GPS charts were off, and we were losing daylight quickly. There were a couple of small submerged reefs on the electronic charts in our path, but we couldn’t figure out exactly where they were, since none of the islands were exactly where they were shown. Fortunately several locals where out fishing in their canoes, and they were nice enough to guide us into the anchorage. We dropped the anchor in about 50 feet, just as the sun was going down. What a relief.
|sunset in Fife Bay|
We got a good night sleep and the next morning we awoke refreshed to clear skies and more visitors. A woman named Clara and her daughter, Olive, come out to the boat. As they approached we could see lots of fruit and were worried that they wanted to trade. We were really running out of extra things to trade. Fortunately, they were just giving them to us and didn’t want anything in return. We ended up with 10 coconuts and some limes. We kept saying we didn’t need that much, but she wouldn’t hear it. Later her aunt and uncle and their two young sons rowed up and gave us some oranges and starfruit. Before we knew it, all six of them were on board chatting with us in the cockpit.
|friendly locals in Fife Bay|
The next morning we checked the weather again. The high pressure system had moved east, and normal trade wind conditions finally returned to the Coral Sea. We were looking forward to being underway again. Our couple day stop in Papua New Guinea turned into 14 days. We are a bit behind schedule, but waiting for the right weather is part of cruising. We definitely don’t regret stopping though. We enjoyed our stay on the beautiful islands, especially spending time with the local people. We left Fife Bay on July 9th, bound for the Torres Strait.