Thursday, July 26, 2012

Papua New Guinea (2012)

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. 

As forecasted, winds for the first five days of the passage were ESE 12-18, and we sailed dead downwind with only a poled-out genoa.  It was a rolly ride, but overall, a pleasant five days of sailing.  Andrew had some fishing success, catching a yellow fin tuna and a dogtooth tuna with very little effort.  Both fish were hooked within minutes of dropping the line in the water, using the cedar plugs he made.  Di had a less positive encounter with a fish, as one night, a flying fish flew into the cockpit and hit her in the neck.  We’ve read that the flying fish are attracted to light and will often leap towards it.  This does not bode well for us using headlamps to read during our night watches. 

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.

Bagaman Island

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. 

Panasia Island

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.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Vanuatu (2012)

We arrived in Vanuatu on May 25th after our 935 mile passage north from New Zealand.  The country was formerly known as New Hebrides, until 1980 when they won their independence from both the British and French.  The archipelago, made up of 82 islands, stretches north to south over 800 miles. There are around 220,000 people occupying the islands, most of Melanesian descent. 

We arrived at the southernmost island of Anatom, and anchored in the protected bay on the south side where the largest village of Anelcauhat is located.  Anelcauhat just recently became a port of entry in 2011, which was very convenient being the first island from the south.  After the anchor was set, we rowed to shore to clear in with customs and immigration. 
We had a couple of stops to make in the village.   The first was the bank in order to exchange US dollars to Vatu, the official currency of Vanuatu.  The second was the building that housed the customs and immigration office so we could complete our clearance paperwork and pay our fees.  In the village there was a row of small structures just off the beach, including a school, store, bank, the customs and immigration office and some houses.  There were no signs on anything, so it was hard to tell which was which.  It took us several inquiries before we found the right place, and we felt like we were walking around in someone’s back yard.  After we cleared in, we rowed back out to the boat, had some dinner and were in bed by 6 pm, tired after a long passage. 

The next day, feeling refreshed again, we decided to do a bit of exploring.  There is an estimated 1,250 people living on the entire island spread around the coast in small villages.  Like most of Vanuatu, people live in rural isolated villages.  There are no roads, just trails leading along the coast from one village to the next.  There is no electricity on the island, although the bank and customs office had solar panels to run a few basic appliances.  The people still live in small huts with thatched roofs, and eat primarily what grows in their gardens or fruit trees and from catching fish.  They still use dugout canoes with outriggers to get around.  Some were rigged with sails made from tarps and other fabric scraps.

Anelcauhat Bay and village
We enjoyed walking around and stretching our legs after eight days at sea.  We visited a few villages and found the people to be very friendly.  In addition to the local dialect of the island, Aneityum, most of the islanders spoke at least some English.  We also stopped by the local store.  They didn’t have much in stock, except a few canned items and sodas. They did, however, bake bread most days, which was nice to have.  They even had some labeled “bread with meat”, which we decided to try.  It turned out to be baked with some sort of greens and fish with lots of bones still in it.  We only had a couple bites of that and did not return for seconds.
It had been about six months since we had done any swimming, and we were excited to get back into the water.  There was a pass between Anatom and a small neighboring island about a quarter mile from the boat.  We rowed out on a couple of afternoons with our snorkel gear and dropped the dinghy anchor in about 30 feet of water.  The water was exceptionally clear, and we had a good time exploring the coral heads that were teeming with fish.  We also saw a couple of large sea turtles.  We spent a total of five days on the island before we decided to move along.  The weather looked good for a day sail to the next island north.

Anatom Island
There are several active volcanoes in Vanuatu, including a few underwater.  Our next stop on the way north was the island of Tanna, which we visited in order to see one of those volcanoes at Mount Yasur.  Tanna is about 50 miles north, which we could cover during daylight hours if we left Anatom at first light.  The winds were SE 15 as we sailed out of Anelcauhat Bay, but they lightened about 10 miles out, prompting us to put up our small gennaker.  By the time we approached Tanna, the winds had built to SE 20-25 knots.  It’s not fun wrestling that light air sail down in strong winds, especially with a ten foot swell.  Fortunately we managed to get it on board just before a squall hit with winds reaching 30 knots near the entrance to Port Resolution.  We anchored in the shallow waters of the protected bay with seven other boats just before the sun went down. 
The next morning, we rowed to shore to organize our trip to the volcano.  We met one of the locals, Stanley, who said he would arrange transport for us and to meet back at 3 pm.  This gave us plenty of time to wander around the village, where we found a small store selling produce and a few craft items.  It was a treat to have bananas and papayas on board again.  Then we made our way across to the windward side of the island.  They had a nice white sand beach, and we spent a couple hours walking around and watching the big breakers coming in, glad we weren’t out there. 

Port Resolution on Tanna Island
We spent the rest of the afternoon walking around the villages and then met Stanley back on the main road.  We found the other cruisers in the anchorage had the same idea.  There were 17 of us, so we split up into two groups and piled into the back of the pickup trucks for the very bumpy half hour ride up to the volcano. 
Mount Yasur is an active volcano that has been erupting nearly continuously for over 800 years, although it can usually be approached safely. It is one of the most accessible live volcanoes in the world.  You can walk right up to the rim and peer down into its fiery belly.  Standing close to the edge of the crater can be a bit frightening, however, as it erupts several times an hour.  When it does, loud explosions from inside the crater shake the ground and lave shoots high into the air. Three people have been killed over the years because they wandered to lower areas, and were hit by pieces of lava.  Despite this, there are no safety talks or warnings.  Our driver just drove up and parked, while we jumped out and headed up to the rim. 

There were a couple of view points, and we first went up to the south end, which seems to be a bit higher.  Unfortunately we were a little downwind and the gasses were blowing in our direction, which burned the eyes and smelled really bad.  We moved to the other lookout that was more up wind and sat up there for a couple hours.  The idea is to go up before sunset and stay for several hours until after dark.  The darker it is, the better you can see the hot lava shooting up into the sky when it erupts.  It was quite an experience, although at times it felt a little unsafe.  When it erupted, lava would often shoot way over our head, and some of it would land high up on the crater on the leeward side.  We kept our fingers crossed that we didn’t get a sudden wind shift. 

Mount Yasur
About an hour after sunset, we headed back down to the truck with our flashlights and woke up our driver.  It was another bumpy ride back to the boat with a beautiful full moon overhead.  Our plan was to stay for only two nights to see the volcano and walk around the island a little.  The wind was forecast to shift to the east, which meant that the swell would enter the anchorage in the following days, and we wanted to leave before it got too rolly. 
We left while it was still blowing from the SE, giving us a nice downwind run north to Efate.  We covered the 140 miles north to Port Vila in about 23 hours, and picked up a mooring ball, tucked between the waterfront and the small Iririki Island.  Efate is the most populous island in Vanuatu (approx. 50,000 people) and the third largest.  Most inhabitants live in Port Vila, which is the national capital.

We found the city to be a bit too touristy and crowded, but they had modern conveniences like wifi, grocery stores and fresh water, which we were excited to see.  We were especially looking forward to doing some shopping for fresh food, and frequented the central market where people were selling fruits and vegetables.  Most of the vendors were women from the outer villages that would come in with their produce and stay for a week at a time.  Many of them slept on the floor under their tables.  You could stop by anytime, day or night, and buy some produce.  We stocked up on pineapples, huge avocados, papayas, bananas, and eggplant. 
There were also small food stands where women would cook, and they usually had a table and a few chairs outside.  You could buy a huge plate of food with rice, vegetables and fish or beef with curry for 400 vatu ($4 USD).  We ate several meals here, and they were quite good.

Port Vila market
On our way into the bay, we were happy to see our friend Kevin on Tuatara in the anchorage.  He was there with his new crewmember, Joan, a backpacker from Spain that he picked up in New Zealand.  We hung out with them a bit while we were in Port Vila and even spent one evening visiting a nakamal, local kava house. 
Vanuatu has the highest density of languages per capita of any nation in the world.  With 113 indigenous languages, it comes out to an average of 2,000 people per language.  Walking around Port Vila, we mostly heard the national language, Bislama.   This is a pidgin language, now a creole in urban areas, which essentially combines a Melanesian grammar with a mostly English vocabulary.  We thought we would be able to understand it, but it was spoken quite fast, and we never really got used to it.  For example, you would say “tankyu” (thank you) or “yu oraet” (how are you).

After about a week, we decided it was probably time to be moving on, but we checked the weather and it looked like a low pressure system was going to move through in a few days.  This meant that high winds from the west (trade winds usually blow from the southeast) would be coming.  We didn’t want to sail against the strong winds, so we decided to hang out for another week.  Unfortunately, it also meant the swell would be entering the usually protected harbor in Port Vila.
As predicted, the westerly wind blew hard for a few days and large swells did enter harbor.  We were tucked up behind the small island of Iririki, so we didn’t get any of the big waves, but it was rolly for a few days.   It was also difficult getting to shore in our little dinghy, and we were usually pretty wet by the time we tied up.  The local boats that were usually moored along the waterfront moved out to the moorings as well, and it got a bit crowded out there. It was a good thing they did though, as the swell was breaking on the waterfront wall near the market, dousing the normally dry walkway and vendor stalls. 

big waves in Port Vila
We kept busy preparing Saviah for our next passage, stocked up on provisions, and checked out with customs and immigration.  It also gave us a chance to take care of some final paperwork we needed to do in advance for Bali.  After a few days of westerly winds, it turned around again, and we needed to get going.  We only spent three weeks in Vanuatu and didn’t see any of the northern islands at all, but we have a lot of distance to cover this year.  So, we left on June 16th and headed northwest toward the Torres Strait.