Category Archives: 2012 Western Pacific Region

As a crew of three, infant as new member, Atea embarked on a extended cruise northwards from New Zealand to the equator.

We traveled through Vanuatu, the Solomon Island, the Lousiades in PNG – the following blog posts refer to these adventures.

Riding the EAC

They say a ship should never leave harbor on a Friday. It brings bad luck. I’m not sure who decided this was so, or why, but in seafaring ways you never tempt ill fortune.

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Day 1: Saturday, 13 October

  • Departing Mackay Marina
  • Miles to Sydney: 950
  • Conditions: Wind SE 15 knots

0200 We decided to leave Mackay on a sunny Saturday afternoon after checking the weather gribs and discovering it was going to be a shit few days at sea. Strong southeasterly headwinds are expected for the first two days, but a high is expected to roll in behind it. We are determined to get to Sydney as soon as possible, so we are just going to go for it. We’ll take the headwinds to start, given it will afford us to hook into the back of this pending high and hopefully manage some smooth sailing. The winds should turn to the north as soon as we get out of the trade wind zone.

We had help from some of the rally boats to slip lines and wave us off to sea. John and I realized this was one of the few send-offs we’ve had with bodies left ashore waiving a farewell. It was a touching goodbye. We are not sure when we will see our shipmates again – people who’ve become family through the past six months. They provided support when we needed it and companionship when we wanted it; the friendships forged at sea are often short but sweet. We will miss these ocean allies.

Day 2: Sunday, 14 October

  •  At sea, heading south to Sydney
  • 1200 22°09’S, 150°38’E
  • Miles to Sydney: 840
  • Conditions: Wind SE 10 knots, 110 miles covered in the past 24 hours

0900 We motored throughout the night, partly due to headwinds and partly due to the labyrinth of shoals, islands and sand spits that are scattered inside the Cumberland Islands, south of Mackay. The weather is pleasant and the seas slight despite the constant headwinds. All are happy onboard and we are settling into our routines.

1100 We’ve adopted a three-hour watch routine, which we’ve both agreed strikes a good balance between enough sleep to make it through the next shift and not too long as to become clock watchers. Braca has learned to sleep through the night, which will make the evenings easier on us all. John is dawn watchman and as B tends to rise at the crack ‘o dawn, “baby-sitter” is added to his list of normal seafaring duties. The boys will keep good company. Chaos, I am sure – I’ve no doubt I will be rising to a cabin and cockpit in all sorts of disarray.

Braca will not be allowed on deck while at sea, and we’ve baby-proofed the cockpit so we have safe conditions onboard. Now the only matter is to keep us all entertained for an expected seven to ten days it should us to get down to Sydney.

Day 3: Monday, 15 October

  • At sea: 1200 23°15’S, 152°01.5’E
  • Miles to Sydney: 725
  • Conditions: Wind SE 10 knots, 115 miles covered in the past 24 hours

1600 We’ve been beating down the Capricorn Channel all day. This is the large southern entrance to the Great Barrier Reef and conditions remain quite reasonable despite the less than ideal light headwinds. We continue to motor, and the drone of the engine is starting to invade our dreams… Braca more than any of us, I am sure, as we’ve set his cot up on the pilot berth which is directly adjacent to the engine room. Turning the engine off would mean a much longer passage, so we are choosing the lesser of two evils. We would like to try and get as far south as quickly as possible as to take advantage of the back of the next high, which we are hoping will provide much-craved for northerlies. Atea is not able to carve her way to windward like a racing yacht. She is great on a reach or off the wind, but needs a little help in current conditions. Hence, we are resorting to what is often known as “the Iron Topsail.”

Day 4: Tuesday, 16 October

  • At sea: 1200 24°20’S, 153°11’E
  • Miles to Sydney: 629
  • Conditions: Wind SE 15 knots, 96 miles covered in the past 24 hours

0200 There are big merchant ships out here, line by line of light passing our little ship in the night. All dark but for a white light punctuated with a dot of red or green to indicate direction. As passages often mean not a sight of human existence for days on end, it is fun to have the repeat of silent passenger slip by us in the night.

0800 John dipped the fuel tank this morning, fetching a reading of 650 litres. Atea carries 850 litres of diesel at full tank, which under normal conditions should be enough for eight to ten days of continuous running. We should have enough fuel to motor all the way to Sydney if we have to, though we hope it doesn’t come to that. Too noisy, too wearing on the nerves and too damn expensive!

1300 Argh! We’ve had slow progress over the past 24-hours and are only just off Lady Elliot Island. Beautiful sight, however; the island is off our starboard side and a pretty to behold. The wind has increased and we bash into it as we continue to make ground to the southeast, directly into the wind. Slow progress. We tried motoring directly into it and we’ve also tried tacking, but neither is ideal and I wish there was another option. We considered tucking into Lady Musgrave to wait for better weather, but we’ve word that good friends are in Sydney this weekend and we are trying to make way to reach them by Sunday. Appropriate, as our guest is Braca’s godmother, Glenda, and partner Johnny. Besides, if we waited for the wind to change this time of year we could be waiting for weeks, and we can’t afford that. Onward we press, engine drumming a repetitive beat into our heads.

We are not alone out here, however. We are accompanied by humpback today, confirming earlier sightings of large sprays of water in the distance. This afternoon we had a spectacular sight of a whale repeatedly breeching, only a half mile away.

Day 5: Wednesday, 17 October

  • At sea: 1200 27°08’S, 153°36’E
  • Miles to Sydney: 469
  • Conditions: Wind E 15 knots, 160 miles covered in the past 24 hours

1000  I am not sure who coined the term, “miles and miles of Bloody Africa,” but they could easily have been talking about Australia. This coastline seems to stretch on and on without end, mile after bloody forever mile. Jet travel reduces one’s appreciation of distance, but travel by yacht and you certainly notice distance, and Australia offers plenty of that.

1400 Today is Braca’s first birthday! We’ve decided that his first birthday is as much a celebration for the parents and have been feasting on treats all day long. What a star he’s been! We received emails from both his maternal and paternal grandparents wishing him a merry one and raising a toast. I see that the excuse of claiming B’s first birthday as reason for one’s own self indulgence extends a generation! While we were opening a bottle of wine to celebrate, so were his grandparents.

1800 We are off Fraser Island. Long stretch of sandy shore. It is a beautiful evening with calm, clear sky and a rich blood-red sunset over the sand dunes that are just a few miles away. Atea is finally pointed due south and we are no longer hard on the wind. Still motoring, though – I wonder if we will ever get the sound of the engine drone out of our head and the vibrations out of our bones. Poor little Braca, so patient. It is no wonder he is waking so early….

Day 6: Thursday, 18 October

  • At sea: 1200 29°20’S, 153°37’E
  • Miles to Sydney: 330
  • Conditions: Wind NE 15 knots, 139 miles covered in the past 24 hours

1000 As forecast, the winds have backed to the northeast and we are finally sailing without the engine helping us along. The northerly winds mean that both Lucy Lister (our hard working diesel) and ourselves are getting a rest day. At long last!

2000 This evening we can see the glow of lights at Surfers Paradise. It really feels like we are making progress now and we have covered 1/3 of the distance. We seem to have found the Eastern Australian Current, giving us a healthy 1-2 knots of current boosting us southwards – “Grab shell dude. Here comes the ride!”

We are not the only one’s out here riding the EAC. We continue to have Humpback sightings along the way, providing us with a unique escort south.

2100 Braca is tucked in bed, our sleeping beauty. Routine has settled into a comfortable pace, and I’ve really enjoyed this past week at sea. I expected a hard dash to windward in heavy swells, strong winds, and poor weather. I expected to be holding Braca in arms all day to protect him from crashing about the boat. We’ve received very little of that. As such, we’ve been able to allow him his freedom to crawl, climb, and roam on his own. Toys are brought out and strewn throughout the saloon, jumbled in the cockpit. He enjoys standing at the companionway and holding onto the washboards, throwing random objects down the stairway. He has adopted a habit of stashing all variety of object in the bin, and we’ve adopted the unpleasant task of sorting the rubbish for hidden treasures before discarding it. This search is often quite cursory and so many an object has gone missing.

Day 7: Friday, 19 October

  • At sea: 1200 31°00’S, 153°01’E
  • Miles to Sydney: 193
  • Conditions: Wind S 25 knots, 137 miles covered in the past 24 hours

1100 Today we passed Cape Bryon, the easternmost point of Australia. Our luck with agreeable weather seems to have ended as today we’ve run into strong headwinds again. We are reefed down to just the staysail with two reefs in the main, and the day is grey and the seas hostile. Atea is a strong boat and seaworthy in these conditions, but we have to take extra care with Braca to keep him warm and safe. Mr. B seems perky though; I love how he is so indifferent to the bouncing of the boat and wants to play regardless of weather conditions. He seems not to notice the motion and he has none of the adult concepts of risk and fear that might cause upset when you consider the windy, wet and rough world outside.

We continue to be thrilled by plenty of Humpback sightings around us; today one sounded and showed his tail not 100 yards from the boat. We’ve also seen other whales breeching out of the water with a great crash of spray, thankfully these more rowdy displays at a distance. One doesn’t want to be too close to many tonnes of whale frolicking and leaping out of the sea.

2300 The wind has eased and the night is calm and placid. There is a lightening storm off to our port side in the distance, and we hope that it doesn’t make its way towards us. Two nights ago we had a new moon, and new moons mean dark nights. This allows us to see twinkling lights in the ocean rather than in the sky; the phosphorescence are out in force tonight, making each wave shimmer. That with the rise of a crescent moon has made this evening particularly beautiful.

Day 8: Saturday, 20 October

  • At sea, final stretch into Sydney Harbour
  • 1200 33°20’S, 153°00’E
  • Miles to Sydney: 63
  • Conditions: Wind E 20 knots, 130 miles covered in the past 24 hours

1000 It is a stunning day today, not as predicted. We’ve been hustling along at 8 knots with the engine on, but winds have been building and we were able to cut her and roll along in 18 – 20 knot winds off the starboard bow. Gribs have predicted the winds to turn late morning to south/south easterlies, rising to 25 knots. It is late morning now and very pleasant with SW15 knot. The angle could be better, but the sea state is calm, the sun shining, and winds moderate.  Right now we have 51 miles t go and at our current speed we are projected to arrive in Sydney Harbour at 8:30PM

While both John and I have spent weeks at sea before, it has always been on the open ocean – surrounded by the endless ocean. We left Mackay a week ago and have been traveling along Australia’s east coast ever since; her shore stretching alongside us as we trek south, sporadic lights dotting the coast at night reminding us of her presence.

Prior passages also bore the impression of isolation, of being the sole breath in a vast landscape. In comparison, this passage has brought us ships. It has brought us breeching whales. It feels as if we’ve been driving down a busy thoroughfare, in constant surveillance for other vessels traveling along our path.

I’ve enjoyed the company and the sense of solidarity: Pack travel. Shadow shipmates. Silent partners. All of us with our own itinerary, individual accountabilities, personal objectives. But I feel intimate when passing each other at night, each of us in our own secluded space doing the same thing: watching the night, monitoring our instruments, observing the weather and scrutinizing our progress in it. I’ve enjoyed the companionship, perceived as it might be, and the change of scene.

I’d better start getting used to it, an indication of the shift we are all about to make from the sleepy cruising lifestyle to the bustle of a rushing, busy city. I’m prepared. Bring it on. I’ll miss this blue ocean and the wide-open space, but change is a good thing and in my back pocket is the knowledge that our departure from blue water will be short lived. A summer ashore and then we cast lines again for a new adventure, turning Atea back out to sea.

2000 Well, the southerly change arrived as predicted and as often happens, the last 50 miles are proving to be the hardest!  We had to reef right down for a while, and are now bouncing along making slow progress to windward along the coast with the lights of Sydney visible and tantalizingly close, but there is another few hours of night passage before we can get into shelter.  Frustrating since if the wind had changed just a few hours later we’d be happily at anchor in calm waters celebrating, instead of still crashing into waves and wind straining to reach our goal.  Just a few more hours now.  Patience.

One Hour into Day 8: Sunday, 21 October

  • Final Destination: Sydney Harbour – we set anchor on Australian shores at 1:30AM
  • Miles to Sydney: Zero
  • Conditions: Shimmering lights of the city and the glow of Sydney Opera House in view; calm in the protection of the harbor and Kia buzzing with enthusiasm for this next stint of Adventure Ashore.  

We slipped into the welcome shelter of Port Jackson at 1:30AM. Tomorrow we will happily embrace the new city, but tonight is time for the bliss of a quiet boat, a flat anchorage and, finally, rest from the noise and vibration of a hard working diesel engine. Peace surrounds us, and at the moment it feels all of Australia is out there waiting for us to explore and enjoy.

Atea has logged close to 6,000 miles over the last 6 months. This has been a very good season for us. We have had some fantastic adventures and got time in three splendid countries, all of which we knew relatively little about before hitting their shores. Atea has performed very well and has had no major mechanical issues, and she is proving to be an excellent little ship for blue water cruising. The main engine, electrics, sails, AIS, watermaker, hull maintenance are all in good order and last year’s refit seems to have been money well spent. More expenses are coming up since both of our GPS screens are virtually unreadable, we’ve had two water pumps fail, the genoa roller furler is having issues and various other items are on the list that will need repair. But alas, it isn’t a boat if you aren’t bleeding money. At least we are gaining wealth in the lifestyle she has afforded us. As they say, “owning a boat is like standing in a cold shower naked, ripping up $100 bills.” But they never tell you just how much fun that cold shower can be!

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Seeing Green

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Prior to our 1,500 mile passage from PNG to Australia, I hit up a storm in the galley to prepare for the trip. While many find the exercise therapeutic, I find the work true to the term, “slaving in the galley.” I like to cook, don’t take me wrong. There is nothing like the earthy smell of garlic and onion sautéd over melting butter, the floral hint of rosemary and thyme filling the air around you, the kick of cayenne and red chilies pricking your nose. But herein lay my problem: I hadn’t seen sight or smell of these culinary building blocks for many, many months. In fact, in our six-month stint in the tropics we’d occasion to purchase rudimentary essentials in very few places along the way. Three towns held their promises of selection and variety (Port Vila and Luganville in Vanuatu, Honiara in the Solomons), but we’d hit these grub stops early in the trip. We also had a weevil epidemicon board that stripped us of many of our dried stores, leaving a larger hole in our supplies than planned for. Thus, when it came to cooking meals for the passage there was no mouth-watering aroma spilling out from our galley.

While we had very little opportunity to provision at stores along the way, the locals did lend a hand in keeping us fed. While we never lacked opportunity here, we did lack variety. You could cross anything green off your list, unless limes fulfilled this dietary requirement. Keen on yams? Not a problem. Starch was easy to come by; in fact, is seems local diet is comprised of exclusively fish and root. Two of my favourites were on ready supply, and but I quickly tired of pawpaw [papaya] in the morning. Every morning. And if you thought you could never get your fill of bananas, let me assure you – you definitely can.

And so, we wasted little ink and paper when filling out our list. As goes, this is all you can expect when filling up that shopping basket:

Grocery List:

  • Coconuts
  • Pawpaw
  • Banana
  • Lime
  • Yam

You like it? … You got it. But don’t dare dream of adding anything else to that shopping list!

Of course, seafood was on plentiful supply and lobster was a popular “meat of trade.” Our freezer was filled with a selection of eye fillet, scotch fillet and sirloin which made a great accompaniment to this saltwater delicacy. Rumor had it that I was purported to be a vegetarian, which made us laugh given the excessive number of nights we had “surf and turf.” After rationing meat earlier in the trip, we had excessive quantities remaining due to the shortened cruise and we didn’t want any of it to be confiscated by Australian quarantine. Unfortunately, neither steak nor lobster are convenient meals to cook at sea, and therefore I was a bit limited on culinary options. As such, we ate beans.

I prepared two weeks worth of ready-made meals out of the dried kidney beans we had onboard. Bean a la Pasta, Bean a la Chile, Refried Bean a la Mexicana, Bean a la Just for the Hell of Being Bean, Sopa Bean, Bean a la Boring Bean, Bean a la Going Mental Bean. Bean a la Bleck Going to be Sick Never Going to Eat Another Bean, Bean.

With a dozen coconuts and every concoction of bean you could think of, we set to sea. Heading south, we didn’t know if the trip was going to take us four days (a quick sprint to Mackay) or two weeks (in for the long haul to Sydney); it would depend on the conditions when we got out there.

While the cruising season was not yet closing, John and I decided that time was of essence in getting down to Sydney. Our intention is to try and find work in Australia over the summer and restock our travel kitty, and we deemed Sydney the best city to try and do so. Given we are quickly heading into the holidays, the sooner we are get there the better are our chances of landing something before the Christmas shut-down begins.

It took me two days out before I starting feeling beans oozing through every inch of my body, seeping out my pores. I could have taken knock-down seas, 40-mile headwinds, back-to-back squalls and a pirate attack, but I simply could not handle one more meal of bean a la anything. Before mutiny, we agreed that we’d head into Mackay, our nearest port of entry and treat ourselves to a white fluffy coffee and a meal of Not Beans.

We pulled into Mackay marina after four and a half days of open-ocean sailing across the Coral Sea. Our first 24-hours had Atea and crew bouncing through some of the biggest swell either of us have come across, rocking up out of one trough to slide off its peak and crash into the wall of the next wave. John was sick from the haphazard motion, I was exhausted from taking care of two men and a vessel, and Braca, nonplussed by the seas, carried on in his usual manner. After an initial hard run, the seas calmed and the weather settled and we slid our way south in what is termed, “champagne weather.”

Sailing into Mackay, we pulled up to the custom’s dock and not five minutes later heard my name called out from a neighbouring dock. Low and behold, friends of ours from New Zealand were on a work dock fixing up their own yacht after a rough sail north from Sydney a few days earlier. Such pleasant surprise! After clearing customs and agriculture, we raced ashore for our first cappuccino in many moons. I won’t belabor our disappointment in a receiving a shit coffee – perhaps too much hype – but the first item on our wish list was satisfied. Next: A hop to town to hit up the local grocer.

Now let me tell you, there is nothing so Purely Spectacular as a green grocer after months denied these succulent beauties: Red apples that shimmer in their wax coating, grapes that drip their vine juices to the touch, oranges that gleam their vibrant orange colour, just to reinforce the beauty of their name. Grapefruit. Kiwifruit. Starfruit. For that matter, fruit by any name was thrown in the cart in reckless abandon – the randomness was bliss in itself. Carrots. Cucumber. Cabbage. Broccoli and cauliflower. Avocado and artichoke. Spinach. Rocket. Mescaline. We were seeing green around each corner. Fresh, beautiful, succulent, glimmering green plucked straight from the heavens and delivered to our greedy palm.

We spent $200 in the fruit and veggie isle, never making it to past those fresh stalls to fill our cart with any of the other necessities – practicality could come later. We were depleted in items down every isle in the store but we couldn’t see past our immediate craving to put order in our spree. For the moment, we were like kids in a candy store with mum’s bill-lined wallet. I know we made a spectacle, as no ‘normal’ shopper was so gleeful when picking an apple out of the pallet. But hell, dampening our enthusiasm would have been near impossible, and who would’ve wanted to anyway?!

We recouped in Mackay, running on three café lattes a day, filling ourselves on an exclusive diet of fruit and vegetables, and catching up with old friends. On day three we decided it was time to press on. After tossing all the beans in the bin and boasting a galley full of green, we press on southbound for Sydney.

 

 

 

 

Powder Monkey Turns One

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Braca Tai and his saltwart mates recently celebrated his first birthday. A few days in advance of his actual birthday date, 17th October, we decided it was prudent to toast his first year with the people who’d been there for a significant part of B’s life and who have watched him go through so many first stages.

Braca started his sailing career at five and a half months and completed his first ocean passage by his six month birthday. At a year, he has covered 6,000 nautical miles and visited six countries.

Braca’s travel mates have watched him learn to crawl, stand and take his first steps. He walks with a sailor’s gait and has learned to obey the rule of one hand for yourself and one for the ship. He has developed a keen interest in outboards, tillers, gear levers, winches and lines. Not the typical objects in a toddler’s toy kit, but useful ones for an aquatic life.

Spoon fed salt and sea water, play toys rope ends and winch handles, Braca is following in the footsteps of his forefathers and look to be continuing the long line of Daubeny mariners.

Tri-lights and Traffic Jams

The English translation for the Guinean word “budi” is “never,” or at least it should be. “Never” would be a perfectly suitable translation for our most beloved isle, Budibudi. As in:

Come to Never-Neverland, where a magical fantasyland awaits you.

Finding Budibudi on the charts is one matter, and getting there another. A small isolated atoll on the north-eastern outskirts of PNG, Budibudi is 140 miles south of Solomons and 50 miles from its closest neighbour. Because if its remote locale, Budibudi has very little contact with the outside world. No travelers visit, no supply boats drop monthly wares, there are no inter-island trading route established. The people that inhabit these islands are completely self-sufficient. While we were there a young 14-year old woman delivered her baby girl. Supported by her female relatives, she waded into the ocean for a water delivery – exactly as her mother had done it, as her grandmother had done it, and each generation before her. Relying on their own capabilities and skills, they survive outside of external support. This was evidenced in all sort of manner. It was notable in a myriad of wounds that the children bore that would have sent any Western child to hospital; it was evidenced in the skinny limbed, round bellied children that ran underfoot. If there was any significant incidence, the sick or maimed would have to travel a full day by sailing canoe to Brooker Island, 50 miles west, to seek aid.

Anything that could not be grown on the island had to be brought in by sailau, an eight-meter long sailing canoe with two or three men onboard who would bring in supplies for the village. That sized boat doesn’t allow for much stowage space when considering the amount of supplies needed and the number of people being supported. A day downwind means three to four upwind to return home; as such, a “trip to town” was no mere leisurely saunter. With no weather reports or updated forecasts, once out you were in for whatever nature decided to deliver. We were struck by the purity of it. This is one of the few locations in the world where the traditional art of Polynesian navigation is still in use. Just like their forefathers, these brave sailors use the stars, the angle of the swell, the flight pattern of the birdlife, and other natural means to find their way out and back. We may romanticize the notion, however it does hold its hazards. While we were there the chief’s brother was hit mid-passage by strong winds and rough seas, was blown off course, and sought refuge at a nearby islet. With no communications the community was unaware of their status and deeply concerned for their welfare. We discussed a rescue mission amongst us, but where would you start with four yachts and a seemingly limitless ocean? Fortunately the seamen were adept sailors and turned up two days later – exhausted but safe. It was a powerful example of what this community faces and how they struggled to get the things we so easily take for granted.

So it was easy to see how, when our four yachts pulled into the atoll (S/V Oceans Dream, Atea, Al Fresco and Haku II), we were first and foremost seen as provision boats, vessels filled with their brand of booty: pen and paper for school, blankets for the elders, clothes for their infants, newspaper for their tobacco, line and fishhook for the fishing, sugar, grain and flour for their staples. While we set a barter system to slow the number of visitors, “trading” became a relatively loose term. We were inundated by canoe throughout the day – barter didn’t seem to stymie the flood of visitors.

There seemed little rhyme to the items traded for: One yam for a workbook and a handful of pens, two coconuts for fishing line and an array of hooks… whatever it may be that particular individual was looking for. On popular request was “wool,” it took us awhile to understand that they were after needle and thread. They’d get their requested item, and then some. Little packages left the boat with each visitor.

They were also adept at maximizing the opportunity for trade. We would get the minimal goods offered, or items broken up into individual ownership. You might trade for coconuts and get two. If you wanted more coconuts, you’d have to start new negotiations. If there were several items on offer, one pawpaw would be the niece’s, a handful of limes would be her auntie’s, a hand of banana’s would be the mother and a sole coconut would be the son’s, and we would have to trade for each item individually. While it might not be the most efficient means of barter, everyone would leave with a bit of something.

Of all the gifting, my favourite was not items swapped in trade but clothes given to the shivering naked babes that were paraded out to the boats. “My baby wanted to meet your baby,” was a common announcement. Very endearing, however I am positive the true motive was to hit up our stock of infant clothing. Neither parent nor sibling was hesitant to toss an infant in the bottom of the canoe for the paddle out to visit the yachts, at times in wet, rough conditions. I’d pull the soaked tot up onboard, dry and clothe them before sending them back ashore looking snug in one of Braca’s outfits. I probably set an expectation that any naked child would leave Atea with a new set of clothes, but it was a great way to engage with the locals and my way of contributing.

Where they got infant clothes, we got coconuts. There were always plenty of this island staple for trade, and they quickly found out just how wild we were on them. Braca developed a fiendish attachment to the sweet water and would gulp the contents of a coconut down with fervor. “Mother’s milk” quickly became second best. It was here that I also collected a stock of Nautilus shells, having previously refused to barter for shells to discourage poaching. These precious shells were commonly used as bailers in dugout [not exploited for tourists], and given the lack of a sustainable market [no tourism] we bent our rule.

At length, we finally learned that each knock on the hull meant business, and so to get some peace we’d either feign sleep or pretend to be ensconced in a major boat project. Braca was always a good alibi and the locals must have thought we kept a very bizarre sleep schedule, as he was often our excuse from engaging in a trade exchange; “So sorry, we are just in the middle of getting Braca to bed.” Again. But that wasn’t the norm. Usually one or the other of us would bolt up on hearing a knock or a demure “Hallo?” as the trading was always a good social occasion. The locals were of the most patient visitors we’d gotten anywhere during the season. One slight knock and then they’d hang on to the toe rail and wait. Much more pleasant than the repeated rapping that we’d received in other anchorages. A gentle hello, then they’d hold on to your ship quietly waiting rather than poking their faces into windows as others had done. It was all very civilized, especially considering there was often strong winds and rough seas that were dousing their canoes as they waited. Regardless of convenience, we came to enjoy their guest appearances.

And so our daily routine was filled with these “house calls” and digging through our treasure trove for the object of their desire. Trading was clearly modus operandi, and trade we did. We were quickly depleted of our stock; deservedly so when you considered how rare the opportunity to replenish goods was in Budibudi. Our stock of rice, flour, sugar, matches, material, fishhooks, magazines, children’s books and clothes of all description dwindled down at fast pace. We collectively donated medicines and petrol to the village, basics that they desperately needed. Since Atea was ending her six-month cruise we could afford to be generous with our supplies, and so we gave them everything we could. We were the only visitors they’d had that season, and would likely be the last for the year. If they were able to resupply from us, we were more than happy to assist. It was a small price to pay for being allowed time in their Wonderland.

During our stay we were invited to join a potluck lunch at the chief’s house, included in Sunday church and asked to participate in PNG Independence Day ceremonies. While all special events, nothing beat the spectacular jubilation we received by the locals on their introduction to a new sport: Kite surfing. I’ve never been a top athlete. I’ve never been the one to run through the ribbon at the finish line, never stepped up on the top tier to receive a gold medallion, never heard the rush of the crowd chanting my name. But the crowd in Budibudi gave me a sense of what that would feel like. When John and I came ashore with our kiting gear, it was like we’d just stepped out as victors to accept our Olympic medal. I’m not sure where everyone came from as there would only be a scattering of children on the shore as we made our way to the beach, but as soon as it was known that we were heading in with our kites the people would come running – men, women, children – buzzing with excitement to be spectators for the show.

It was the first time that anyone had seen kite or board, or a body flying across the water harnessed to the wind and the reception we received was exceptional. John kitted up and I helped launch the kite, and a roar was heard when the kite took to the air. I turned to an elder man next to me and said, “That’s only the first part!” As John strapped the board on his feet and took off on the water in a rush, the cheers were deafening. Kids were jumping up and down and adults were pumping their fists into the air, and a few even charged out into the water after John in their excitement. John raced off, and the crowd buzzed. When he turned, however, and made a speedy return to shore the people had no idea what was to happen next. They scattered in a frenzied panic and bolted into the bush. In an instant I went from being lost in a screaming, jumping, hysterical crowd to being complete abandoned, standing on shore alone in total quiet. It was surreal. As John turned again and headed back out they returned, and their excitement with them. What a moment – it was such a spectacular feeling. It must be akin to what an athlete experiences when the crowd chants your name, all eyes riveted on you as you race towards a victorious win.

John and I spent our afternoons taking turns kiting, and the locals who weren’t mesmerized by the sport spent their time huddled around Braca. Finally at the end of our cruise, we had found our ideal kiting spot: A safe beach, great kiting conditions, an exuberant crowd and an infinite number of baby sitters. After his warm up, John would pull out some of his rudimentary tricks; jumps, rolls, and carving turns close to the beach. Whereas back home these maneuvers would have been nothing worth comment, in Budibudi they were a sensation.

I also got my moment of fame, with screeches and squeals from the crowd as I got my kite up into the sky and board cutting through the water. Never mind I only made it a short way before smacking my face into the surf; I had a supportive audience and felt the joy of their spontaneous and enthusiastic encouragement. As I raced down the lagoon, John would chase after me in our dinghy as the safety boat to save me from being swept out to sea. I’d gotten the competence of getting up and out during our time in Budibudi, but never did get the hang getting myself back again. Never mind a slight error, the locals didn’t cast the least bit of disapproval. They would beam at me on my return to the beach never paying mind to my slight incompetence. Bless them for their encouragement, their enthusiasm, and their support.

We’d been so well received by the villagers that by the time of our departure we felt a strong connection to the community. It was a hard place to say goodbye to, and one of the islands where we could have anchored Atea and stayed for the season. It has so much of offer: natural beauty, safe anchorage, good conditions for a kiting enthusiast, dolphin’s bounding in the bay, excellent fishing, friendly and sociable locals, and there is so much more left to discover. On our last day we heard of a sunken “pirate” ship nearby, another temptation, but alas our time had come and we were due to reconnect with the rest of the rally further south.

Who knows if we will ever get the chance to get back towards these water, but if we do I just might set up a residential address.

From Budibudi we endured a wet and bouncy trip south against the ever-increasing trade winds and rejoined the ICA fleet in Panapompom Lagoon. John and I thought we were continuing to veer off the beaten path to penetrate deeper into never-neverland. We imagined Papuan islands where anchor hadn’t sat on her shores since the escapades of Captain Cook. Little did we know that the small lagoon we were heading for on the southeastern corner of PNG was “Club Med” for the Australian cruiser. The crime that plagues much of the PNG mainland is non-existent in these isles, making it a safe and easily accessible cruising ground. A small logistic glitch, however, keeps the Louisades from becoming the Caribbean of the South Pacific: There is no custom’s clearance for visiting yachts, so to get access boats must either clearing in at Port Moresby, 150 miles downwind and rife with crime, or remain in the region illegally. Thus, safe from lawlessness and geographically accessible, the logistical complications of visiting this region leave it void of the traveling masses that would otherwise plague her shores. There is an annual pilgrimage that brings canvas to her shores, however, commonly referred to as the Louisades Rally. It was amongst this group that we converged on the Louisades, making this tiny outer island group chockablock with thirty rally boats where normally there are none.

The Louisade Rally is a six-week rally that leaves Australia from Mackay, Australia, in early October and leads its coteries through in a fun-filled, all frills, parade through the Louisade archipelago. Daily activities are planned which are akin to the gaudy activities and cultural tours of an all-inclusive resort. When John and I decided that we would treat this last stint a holiday, we didn’t envision being ensconced in drinking games with a crowd of beer-bellied Aussies. Fortunately, the Louisades Rally travels in a pack so if you don’t want the congestion of a mast lined bay, you need only to avoid the planned route and you’ve the pickings of idyllic isles – this is where you found Atea for the majority of her stay in PNG.

We couldn’t refuse a few of the activities on the LR’s agenda, and so on occasion we gathered up with the rat pack and joined in on the fun. One of the events that was particularly entertaining was the sailau races. This annual regatta brings sailing canoes from all over the region to compete for a grand prize, sharing the day with the yachties by including us in a fun sail. In turn, the rally boats reciprocated by taking the locals out in their yachts and the two-day event concluded with a feast ashore and awards ceremony.

While it didn’t feel like we were “off the beaten path,” in truth the area is void of yachts the remainder of the year – leaving us one of about thirty boats to travel through the Louisades that season. The lagoon is a collection of a dozen stunning islands. Some of the islands were low-lying islets that fringed with palm trees and white sandy shores, others were mountainous and covered with deep jungle with steep banks that dropped into the ocean below. One in particular stood out for its dramatic vista, with sheer limestone cliffs jutting out of the water which stood tall like granite skyscrapers. Here we trekked inland to a vast limestone cave that was draped in large stalagmites and stalactites to swim in the fresh water below, and traveled to a nearby sister island to hike the interior to see “skull caves.” These caves were ancient burial grounds where our guide’s forbearers rested, skulls tucked into crevices and bones propped along cave walls.

While all the islands we visited in PNG were beautiful and unique in their own, our first and our last anchorage were the most memorable. We’d decided on Bramblehaven as our point of departure because of a selling write up in the cruising guide: “Punawan island is stunning – the epitome of a tropical vision – a low island with a brilliant white beach around most of its shores. Sheoaks and coconut palms are plenty, white sand, plenty of greenery, thatched huts, corals, fish with the addition of a good anchorage and total seclusion. Plenty of bird life with kingfishers, egrets, and birds of prey. Turtles lay eggs on the shores.” We envisioned this island group on the edge of the lagoon to hold our “slice of paradise.” Whilst the name might suggest a quaint English hamlet, Bramblehaven was a truly perfect example of the best a tropical island can be. As pilot whales guided Atea toward our final tropical oasis, we felt their company a good omen and a poignant farewell. Bramblehaven was all that it promised and more. Beaches so white they made your eyes water, the sea so clear you could admire the coral twenty meters below the surface, shades of blue so entrancing you thought you’d found your heaven on earth.

While there were no residents living on the islands, locals did use it as a base to cultivate coconuts and to fish. While we were there a sailau with four men came in and stayed through the duration of our visit. They were there to hunt shark, after only the fin for sale to the Japanese market. While they caught no shark during their stay, they did manage to capture a fledgling Pacific Eagle from its nest with the intention of sale at the local market. Unable to fly, the young bird hopped around their campsite for a few days, and unable to eat as it had yet to learn how to fend for itself. On the morning of their departure the bird was hoisted into the sailau. As the men prepared for departure the fledgling hopped up onto the mast and, figuring it’d made it that far, opened wings wide and flapped skyward. I didn’t know of the escapee’s success until later, but noted a lot of bird chatter that morning. Heading ashore in the afternoon, I sighted said bird tucked back up in the nest with mother and father standing by – much to our delight.

We spent our remaining days here in a state of zen, getting our fill of the luxuries of the tropics: swimming in clear waters, lazing in the warm sun, relaxing in the cool shade. When we pulled anchor we knew it was the close of a fantastic season, one that had provided all we had hoped for, and so, so much more. While we were carrying on to new territory, Australia would be a reintegration into a life we knew well, filled with café lattes, traffic jams and news flashes on current crime reports. As we watch Bramblehaven, PNG, and the South Pacific fade into the distance, I felt rich with all the incredible experiences we’d gone through over the past six months. Where ever we were off to, it was sure to be good. Where we’d been had been exceptional. It had filled all my fantasies about cruising in the tropics, and each little adventure we’d been through I will hold close to heart always.

 

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A Movie Medley: The Adventures of Tin Tin and his Motley Crew

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Movies are common popular references and here I’ll use a few to illustrate our past three weeks in the Western Province, Solomon Islands. Tin Tin, Crocodile Dundee, Tomb Raider and Raiders of the Lost Ark – recent events for us could have easily been scenes cut from action films on which so many of our childhood fantasies are based. We’ve accumulated many exceptional moments in our recent travels that leave us buzzing as we sail south from our last Solomon island into new territory where new thrills, no doubt, await. It is hard to imagine a continued stream of such highs, however, and we depart from a whirlwind of spectacular cinematic moments – we’ll share just a few.

From Into the Red we headed ‘Into the Unknown,’ choosing to leave the fleet in Vomovomo Lagoon where the promised “Jewel of the Solomons” fell flat into a murky lagoon and bland cruising grounds. Because of intense logging, many of the idyllic lagoons that once offered crystal clear waters, stunning reef and abundant fish life are now brown with muddy overflow and scarred hillsides. Crocodiles which once inhabited inland lakes have lost their natural habitat; where islets and lagoons were previously free from their threat, croc’s have now become permanent residents in the saltwater shallows.

We found little to keep us in this once reputed wonderland, and decided to hunt for jewels in less traveled grounds. Choiseul was an island group north of New Georgia where we decided to spend the remainder of our time before being due back in Gizo for clearance. We left the most of the rally yachts loitering around this tepid scene and set off for an adventure. And that – day by day – is exactly what we found.

The Adventures of Tin Tin on His Majestic Ship.

After provisioning in Noro, a dirty port town with little on offer but a ragged seaside market and a few street side shops, we made it to Paradise Bay on the north of New Georgia. We anchored deep within the bay and spent the event chattering with the villagers as they came out in segregated rushes. Starting with tight-lipped stern-eyed men who challenged our comfort factor and had us questioning our safety, we were next visited by a convoy of women in dugout canoes offering fruit and vegetables and the curious eye. Braca put on a charming performance and his warm reception eased our earlier trepidation. We were inundated in our third wave of visitors by children on a dozen miniature canoes, all clamoring to touch B’s little white toes and wiggly fingers. Engaging with them with the silliness reserved for children, we soon had them screeching and laughing along with us as we bantered gibberish back and forth. All fun and games until an elder in a dugout canoe threw out one curt word in passing and they all scattered like flies, leaving us to enjoy the silence only brought in deep bush and calm waters. The birds were varied and prolific, and we listened to their calls as we settled in for the night.

In Tin Tin’s next adventure, his little ship sped north through squally weather to an isolated island off Choiseul’s southern coast. We stern tied to a tiny crescent beach and planned to spend our next days snorkeling the sharply shelving reef on either side of the cove. Through the clear water we could see monster fan corals, the promise of underwater riches to explore. However, the weather was to deal us another hand, and soon after we settled in a northerly squall struck upon us and turned our protected cove into a lee shore. Because of the tight anchorage and the reef hugging our port and starboard side, we felt it unsafe to stay and struggled to pull up anchor in the pelting rain. We tried lifting from all angles but the anchor wouldn’t budge as the winds pushed our boat sideways, straining our holding lines. Stuck fast, we had to hold tight for the night hoping that conditions wouldn’t worsen and bring us in contact with the coral just yards off our sides. Fortunately the weather settled and in the morning John dove to check out the situation where he found the anchor wedged deep under a boulder 100 feet deep. We decided to scoot for a new anchorage after he dug it loose and freed us from our trap, leaving the beckoning fans as we waved our farewell.

Tin Tin Teams Up with Indiana Jones to Explore the Remote North Coast.

Picture Indiana Jones and his cohorts clinging on with tight grip as they are dashed down swift rapids amongst deep jungle bush. Forward to another leg in our journey, as we take Atea north through a narrow channel that cuts through the eastern end of Choiseul. This is the Ngosele Passage, a liquid trail that starts in the south with large open bays lined with tiny village settlements, quaint houses built on stilts over the waters edge, and winds into a narrow slip as the banks steepen towards the deserted north coast. As the passage narrows it becomes more akin to a thin winding river fifty yards across with steep valley walls that rise sharply on either side. Atea passes through thickly forested river banks as the current sweeps us north, past rocks and whirlpools, shoals with overhanging vines and tree trunks that lean out across the water to arrest our passage. As our little Tin Tin holds onto the rail, giggling at the various noises of the jungle, one can imagine Indiana Jones laconically waving his hat at the astonished locals who gape at an ocean going yacht penetrating this deep inland. “No other yachts have been here all year!” they say, and Indiana responds, “We are on our way to find treasure.”

We as we pop through the passage into the open water at the north entrance, we expected to find a well-reputed fishing lodge, generously called a “resort” though any such accommodation in these parts would question the liberal use of the term. We’d discussed timing our travels to hit the lodge for our two-year anniversary so that we could splash out for a meal ashore to honour the special occasion, however we declined to rush through for this indulgence. A good call that’d been, as it turns out there isn’t as much as a viable hut standing in the indicated location. The aggressive vines had reclaimed their turf and swallowed up a dilapidated shack and rusted shed that’d once been boldly claimed a tourist haven. We laughed at our non-existent luxury resort and carried on to find our veiled treasure.

Tin Tin and Indiana Kick Up Heels in Treasured Isles.

Cut to Treasure Island: A remote cove with very shallow water, secure and protected from the sea. Even our film heroes would have put their adventures on hold to relax on these shores, a magical spot in the remote recesses of the world. The waters were clear, the beach deserted and the weather idyllic. The birdlife was abundant and their calls melodic as they chirped and chattered above us, but other than their company we enjoyed solitude and the serenity around us.

We had one isolated incident when our reverie was disturbed by a passing canoe, three locals paddling past us on their way to fishing grounds. I’m sure Atea was as surprising a sight to them as they were to us. They slowly paddled over and pulled alongside Atea. I usually greet visiting locals with warm welcome, but these three were a tough crowd as they approached us with stern faces. Their leader was the spitting image of a scowling Mr. T, and we had no “social barometer” to gauge whether ‘The A Team’ was friendly or not. It was a moment when you realize how exposed you are in a cruising yacht, a beacon of affluence and a coffer of prize goods. As Mr. T and his two cohorts held onto our lifelines and scanned the boat, none offered comment or smile while John and I tried to stir up pleasant conversation. They lingered in silent observation and our discomfort grew, knowing that we were powerless in an altercation in our remote and isolated anchorage. One flick of his powerful wrist, and Mr. T would crush our bones in a mighty grip. I bounced my child above my head, forcing Braca into fits of giggles to placate any familial sensibilities in the men. They finally left us, as silently as they’d come, and we breathed an audible sigh of relief at our departing guests.

Crocodile Dundee Takes on Local Wildlife: A Croc Twisting in Dundee’s Grip.

Skipping ahead and returning to the big screen, our movie medley continues with Mick Dundee stepping in to play the lead role. We took Atea to an outlying island, looking for another prime dive spot. The island we landed, Ondolou, looked to provide just that. Another uninhabited anchorage with white sands crowned by reef at each end of the beach. Stern tied in the middle of the bay, we settled Braca in for his afternoon nap and rushed off to explore the underwater amusement park. The life under our hull was prolific, and soon we were diving and dancing with a swirling mass of reef fish, clumped together into a bait ball of silvery scales and fins. I pulled alongside John who was calmly pointing at something just to the left of us. John hadn’t registered the background and had directed me to a little black fish that swam in the foreground. I froze as my eyes registered on a dark green form ten feet away; clearly we’d not been the only ones enjoying the fish life. Resting on the seabed was an eight-foot crocodile, who turned his head at us in interest. We froze, and he began a slow ascent in front of us. As our brains registered the threat, we slowly began to back-paddle as he came to the surface and eyed up his unwelcome guests. To make it to the safety, we retreated to the beach, walked along to where Atea’s stern was tucked into the beach and swam like hell to her boarding ladder. Once safely on her deck with our butts still intact, our adrenalin kicked in and we were buzzing with the excitement of the amazing encounter. We spent the remainder of the afternoon with a chilled glass of wine in one hand and binoculars in the other. We’d clearly intruded on the crocodile’s territory. He returned to his perch on the reef after a slow meander out around the bay, presumably satisfied that his claim to the reef was not going to be challenged. He kept rising to the surface every 15 minutes or so to fix us with a beady eye and confirm that we had not changed the script. As Mick Dundee’s stunt doubles, I think we did justice in confronting the colossal croc. We can’t claim that we tucked him under armpit and had him flopping in the shallows in pain and panic, but we did look him in the eye, kept our cool and – like the professionals that we are – got the fu&% out of there!!

And that ended our underwater exploration in what was intended to be near-total submersion in our island oasis. We’d thought that we would be swimming and snorkeling morning, noon and night, but our resident crocodile won the turf war. We made quick dashes to shore and kept our toes well clear of deep water and an eye to the waters surface for any predators of the sea. It was far from the relaxing afternoons we’d anticipated; however, we did get a once-in-a-lifetime encounter and were lucky to escape unscathed.

Finding Nemo: A National Geographic Moment.

We’d early set sights on a small nature reserve in the northwest corner of the Solomon Islands, a small island group located in the Manning Straight between Choiseul and Isobel. We’d dropped the idea early on as it was too far away. From Choiseul, it was to the east and not the direction you want to be heading in trade winds (which flow east to west), but a lucky break in the weather allowed us to scribble it back onto our itinerary. The easterly winds that would have normally made it difficult for a yacht to reach dropped off for a day and we jumped at the small window of opportunity.

Here, we hand over the narration from Hollywood action film to the more sober BBC wildlife teams or “The National Geographic Channel” – for what we found in Arnarvon Islands was straight out of a TV wildlife documentary.  The rangers were thrilled to get visitors and immediately took us snorkeling and, as you’d expect, the fish life was prolific and the corals were piled high on the sea floor. We nearly fell on a white tip reef shark as we made our entrance and were soon enveloped in a shoal of reef fish, darkening out the light above our heads. One of the rangers did baby duty in the boat as another snorkeled alongside us, stepping on live coral to clear his goggles… not the most conscientious in regard to protecting the reef! Afterward we were taken to one of the outer islets to hunt megapode eggs, stopping for a little “turtle rodeo” along the way… again, not the most conscientious as the little tin boat roared after sea turtle caught in our line of sight. I was intent on finding these rare eggs as it was a fellow cruisers focused purpose to find these golden beauties for a mega-megapode omelet. As her 40th birthday was around the corner, I wanted to present her with these as a gift. We succeeded, and as fertilized eggs they were near hatchlings. Dramatically, she cracked her three eggs into a mixer and three feathered bundles spilled out into the bowl. Not quite the surprise I’d intended.

Our biggest thrill in Arnarvon came after dark. At eight o’clock we met the rangers ashore and went patrolling the shoreline on the opposite coast for Hawksbill turtle’s nests, looking for those ripe to hatch. One was declared ready. We dug down with our bare hands and soon found the sand alive with baby turtles, wriggling and finning upwards towards the light and the sound of the surf. A hundred of the cutest little critters scrambled out over our hands and feet as we guided them to the sea. Tin Tin shrieked with excitement as the first of the brave little guys reached the sea, as Squirt and 92 of his brave brothers wriggled out into the surf and towards the EAC. What a moment it was! Perhaps not full of movie drama, but certainly nature at its finest.

Stars in their Eyes: John Takes a Dramatic Turn on Center Stage. 

As playtime in the Solomons was nearing a close, we were running short of time and there were a number of attractions that we wanted to see in the greater Gizo area. In addition, we were due for clearance soon and needed to reconnect with the rest of the rally. It was hard for us to turn our ship southbound and leave these treasured isles, but we finally set sail one late afternoon to rejoin the group.

Immediately after an overnight passage that brought us into Gizo’s outskirts, John and I hit a wreck dive onto a 300-foot sunken Japanese freighter, the Toio Maru, sitting off the beach in 30 meters of water. She was spectacular, with great gouges in her bowels spilling small tanks and sake bottles; we ducked into her dark holds to explore her gifts. Our holding in the bay was not a secure one, so after the dive we pulled up anchor and sailed around the corner to reconnect with our friends on Al Fresco.

The following morning we went for a snorkel in some outer islets and ran into a mass of dolphin on the way. It was beautiful; we were in the most stunning setting watching 50 or so dolphins cavort in the waters around us, pods in every direction. I kept jumping in the water but couldn’t get close enough for an underwater encounter. They seemed to be in hunting mode. As a bait ball glittered in the sunlight, the dolphins would dive deep under the dingy and blow rings of bubbles that would pop the surface around us.

Nearby lay Kennedy Island, so named after a young naval lieutenant (who later became President of the United States) who was shipwrecked during WWII and washed ashore on its beaches. While JFK made the islet famous, the tiny slip of land is now renowned as a superb dive site. We’d planned to dive its outer wall while Braca’s adoptive cruising granny, G.G., watched him. We botched our outing by forgetting weights and dive computer so with a grumble we lopped off the dingy with mask and snorkel; we soon forgot our disappointment. White and black tip reef shark patrolled the wall, surveying the overpopulation of reef fish with a stern eye. The islet upheld its reputation.

Our Solomon escapades had come to a close. The majority of the rally was tucked up in Gizo town getting their supplies replenished and their yachts ready for the passage to PNG and it was time for us to rejoin them. We pulled into Gizo harbor early on a Friday morning, the last of the yachts to arrive. I left John on Atea to manage fueling and boat preparations while I went ashore to assess the provisioning situation and see what stores we’d be able to replenish. There was quite a ‘wish list,’ however I quickly realized that we’d be restocking only the basics. I reconnected with John and Braca in the afternoon for the 3:00 ICA briefing and found John in a sorry state. He was pale and sweating profusely so we got him seated, blaming his condition on the afternoon heat. Midway through the briefing John vomited, lost all remaining colour and keeled over with a great crash to the floor. After he regained consciousness and a nurse cum sailor ran his vitals, we decided to seek out the hospital. The analysis was heat exhaustion and dehydration after a very hot and busy few days. The hospital kept him on a drip and under surveillance overnight. Realizing that we needed to escape the heat and get some rest and relaxation, we stopped all departure activities and reserved the day for pampering. We splashed out on a full breakfast at the Gizo Hotel, spent the afternoon at the hotel pool and treated ourselves to a dual body massage while the staff disappeared with Braca to let us enjoy child-free serenity.

Tomb Raider: Lara Croft Opens the Leafy Tombs of Long Lost Wrecks.

The following day the fleet departed Gizo for a 250-mile passage southwest to the Louisades in Papua New Guinea, but we remained behind: We had one more adventure left for us in the Solomons before departure. Technically illegal, it was a bit of a risk as we’d already cleared customs out of the Solomons. The risk seemed low, however, given the remote location and the fact that the next two island groups we were targeting are rarely visited. In fact, we were the first boats this year (we were sailing in tandem with another two cruising yachts, Al Fresco and Haku II).

We set sail for the Shortland Islands, a group of islands northwest of Gizo and just a shot off Bouganville, PNG. The context for their appeal dates back to 1943 when the Japanese and the US were battling it out over the Solomon Islands during WWII. The Japanese had secured a majority of the Solomons when the US troops came in from the east and slowly gained territory. The first island we visited, Bailai, had been a Japanese stronghold. Picture the most idyllic tropical island with white sands, palm lined beaches and dense jungle. The island is about a mile long and half a mile wide, and uninhabited. By report, it holds the most concentrated collection of WWII aircraft anywhere in the world.

Dropping anchor and immediately going ashore, we hiked along the beach into the bush, sighting wreckage in the bush off the beach along the way. We headed inland to a small airfield that stretches along the middle of the island. The airfield is still used today, albeit infrequently, to bring in locals who live in islands off its shores. We walked a kilometer down to the end of the runway then split off into the deep jungle, separating to cover more territory in search of the reputed planes left behind when the Japanese fled. At first I thought it would be a bush whack for a bunch of twisted metal. But we hit gold. At first we found two smaller planes buried in vines, both John and I coming across them from different directions. We then regrouped with Al Fresco and found a line of planes covered in bush where once they sat in their bays behind the airfield – bomb craters scattered throughout as indicators of the US airstrike. Coming up on them as they materialized in the deep bush was a surreal experience. We felt like we were caught up a scene from Tomb Raider, two less-glamorous “Lara Crofts” seeking out hidden artifacts in long forgotten crypts, although I don’t think she ever had a baby strapped to her back.

After Bailai we sailed 30 miles south to Mono in the Treasury Islands. This was a small observation site for the Japanese on the outskirts of the Solomons. It was also the site where seven American soldiers washed ashore from downed planes and were protected from the Japanese by friendly locals. At first a truce was struck by the local chief to keep tensions down and the soldiers safe, but as Japanese forces were pushed back from the Solomons eastern isles several hundred Japanese descended on the small island creating tensions and animosity increased. The risk heightened for the Americans as the population of Japanese grew, but they escaped in the night to safe hiding. The Japanese were finally forced out of Mono by NZ troops and an American base was put up until the end of the Japanese threat. There are many US fighter planes that were left behind when the forces pulled out. Although we found Vipers and Avengers left to rust in the bush, it was less of an amazing experience for us in Mono as we were taken into the bush by a village elder, diminishing our sense of exploration and discovery.  However, it was incredible to see the relics all the same. The islands gave us a somber reminder of the actuality of the war, and we met two old men in the village who were boys during the Japanese occupation and retold their experiences. The village especially welcomes New Zealanders since it was NZ troops who liberated the Treasury Islands, and there is a small memorial to those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

The three of us have played our varied roles in The Adventures of Tiny Tin and his Motley Crew. We’ve seen so much in the past three weeks that it seems a year’s worth of experiences consolidated into brief moment in time. Our travels can’t continue to provide the varied highs we’ve been privy to. Perhaps that is a good thing… you don’t run nose to nose with a crocodile twice to survive the encounter intact. Nor does your craft repeatedly anchor yards from a reef through a gale without finally falling to its demise. We enter Papua New Guinea wondering who’s written our next script and what theme lies ahead of us. Hopefully no more action films – we are ready to put our feet up in the hammock for our last month of the 2012 cruising season and listen to some other adventurer tell their tales. For us, our new mantra is “holiday… here we come!”

Into the Red

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The word on the street is that there are several island groups that are deemed unsafe to visit. They say, “Steer clear of the Floridas, you’ll get boarded by aggressive machete-wielding locals and loose your tonsils;” “Don’t think of going to the Russells, your dingy and outboard will be nicked along with the panties drying on the safety rail;” “Malita is definitely in the Red Zone…. Pirates Galore… the kind that’ll empty you of all your worldly possessions, abduct your wife and enslave your first-born!” Just like a child prohibited from wandering into a deserted farmhouse or warned against touching a live wire on an electric fence, we followed temptation into that so-called god-forsaken red zone… the comments were all just too suggestive to oblige. As two curious children venturing into forbidden territory, we drew an X on the chart for the Floridas, pulled out the dividers and marked a route.

In 1999 the Solomons Islands had an ethnic war that nearly crashed the civil infrastructure and challenged the country’s statehood. Ethnic tensions are still evident today, and the conflict is clear in some of the feedback given to us from village elders whose words of caution may be racially based. We also received feedback from other cruisers reports of trouble in some areas. Recently a yacht was hit by a few locals in the Floridas capital city, Tulaghi, and everything on deck was ransacked as the owners sheltered behind a locked companionway waiting for daybreak to arrive. Another in the list of aggravated incidences we’ve heard about en route.

Our experience here isn’t to prove that all words of caution need to be dismissed when traveling; it is prudent to listen to local advice and take account of the experiences of fellow travelers. But it is often a hard balance between taking heed of other’s misfortunes, and not overreacting by making an all-encompassing Truth out of an isolated experience. Nonetheless, it is a reminder to always be aware, always use common sense, and always travel with a protection plan.

Our protection plan was a relatively simple one. Minimize time spent in major towns, as port cities often hold the highest crime statistics. If this could not be avoided, minimize visible ‘attractants’ as bling tends to invite the wayward eye.  Travel in convoy and abide by the proverbial “protection in numbers.” Problem was there was only one hand in the air when we did a call out for company. So, curious to see what all the hub-hub was about, we buddied up with S.V. Al Fresco and headed north from the capital city of Honiara into the Floridas.

Rather than factions, warlords, angry chiefs and resentful locals, we were greeted by hospitable, welcoming villagers excited to see a boat in waters rarely visited. Rather than machetes wielded in front of our jugulars, we had coconuts and limes thrust under our noses by wide-smiling children in small wooden canoes. “Hostile” was a far stretch from anything we encountered.We did take precautions in stowing nickables from the deck and tying down loose odds and ends, but that is nothing more than standard prudence in travel. While we took what precautions we could, minimizing the opportunists, we never felt threatened or at risk in any of the anchorages. In fact, the Floridas and the Russells are highlights of our trip to date – they provided exactly what we were looking for when we set out on this trip: Crystal azure waters, pristine corals filled with multicoloured reef fish, uninhabited stretches of shoreline fringed by palm trees and white stand beaches, abundant fishing grounds and the occasional thrill of a passing reef shark and lurking crocodile, or the frolic of dolphin off our bow.  All in all, total bliss in our private heaven.

We have now cleared through both groups and can reflect on the time we spent there – limbs attached, heads clear and hearts filled. What we were hoping to find, we found. Now, the challenge is to put the last month into words.

In the Floridas we found both inhabited coastal villages and isolated islands. One of the villages stood out for its local hospitality, where the chief’s wife greeted us by dugout to steer us towards safe anchorage. We received gifts of fruit and vegetables on arrival, the kids on Al Fresco were given bow and arrow (infants withstanding), adults received gifts of shell and beaded necklaces, and the locals collectively adopted Braca (henceforth known as “sunny boy”). The bay featured a beached cruise ship, and all the associated fittings that remained of the collateral damage spread throughout the village: bathtubs next to chicken coops, toilets and sinks left idle in garden patches, lifejacket racks in front of door stoops, and a mounted stags head incongruously sitting in the corner of a kitchen shack. Unfortunately, they also got a 15-year oil leak to go with it which spreads across the bay at high tide, and not a cent in compensation from the German insurance company. I guess they thought the porcelain god was payment enough. We were also treated to a communal dinner. We brought in our contribution in tin pots; they served theirs in plates weaved from palm leaves and coconuts adorned with hibiscus flowers. We dined and danced; the boys made pot shots with bow and arrow, the girls gyrated within a hula-hoop I brought ashore and the kids played tag into the night. Our short stay did nothing to minimize the general feeling of community we felt during our time there.

From inhabited bays we hit isolated shores, one in particular that epitomized my idea of a tranquil oasis. Here Atea anchored over white sand with deep blue sea on one hand, deserted island on the other.Other than a few passing locals on their way to fish, we were left on our own to enjoy tranquil mornings on the beach and lazy afternoons in the shade.When Braca took his nap we would shoot out for a dive on the reef, playing on fan-filled drop offs and discovering reef shark, turtles and a large eagle ray. In the evenings we’d sit on deck for our sundowner and enjoy the peace and calm, realizing we were exactly where we imagined being when we thought of the cruising lifestyle.

Of the anchorages that were in range of villages, we were consistently greeted with warmth and welcome. Children paddled out in canoes to splash about the boats, offering fruit and shells either as gift or as trade. We were invited into villages and enjoyed easy conversation with the locals. Braca was often the center of local affections and often whisked away from our arms and out of sight, occasionally spotted as a spot of blinding white in a sea of black faces.

 

As for the sailing, we navigated Atea through some stunning locations; one of the more complex routes was through a narrow channel that ran between two of the westernmost islands.  We had to navigate through a weaving passage and around tight shoals, and although deep, easily visible, and a common route it was like winding a shopping trolley through a store in the middle of a major restock.

The Russells provided the next stepping-stone in our journey, a group of islands west of the Floridas. We will forever remember two of the anchorages in this group not just for the exceptional quality of underwater scenery (I’ve never seen anywhere so prolific), but also for the risks we took placing Atea in harms way to visit these spots.

At the first island, Lolgoghalan, we dropped our anchor in the only possible holding (and that is stretching the term ‘holding’) onto a small dime-sized sand patch in the reef, steeply shelving. Our anchor managed to cling to its spot just long enough for us to snorkel the pristine reef before it slipped from its meager perch and swung into the deep, left hanging below Atea by the chain. We’d decided to take turns and leave one person onboard Atea for safety, and fortunately we did so otherwise we’d have been swimming after her in a quick moving tide. While a bold move (other boats had come through but all aborted), the experience was well worth it. What we saw underwater made this site our most fantastic dive to date: huge boulders blanketed in hard and soft corals, gullies and swim-throughs creating a maze to dive and dodge through, providing home and shelter to thousands of fish of all shape, size and colour. When they say “its like swimming in an aquarium,” they’ve no idea… I’ve yet to see any tank so chockablock with fish life: small, medium, large. Fish attract shark, of which we were also in company – curious, bold, and inquisitive. John’s description of the site was “A biblical experience, full of so many reef fish and delicate corals in the shallows, shelving to the darker blue of deep waters and teeming with larger fish. If it had been a film, every frame would have been filled with new wonders.” What we saw was grand because of the islands isolation; the island was the first of an outer eastern chain of islands in the Russells and uninhabited. Because there was no viable long-term anchorage it was also in pristine condition, unaffected by human interference, and the natural environment was left to thrive and grow.

The second island, Kormoran, was similar in that it was an uninhabited island surrounded by untouched reef. The only difference was that this time we were determined to find safe anchorage. We wanted into the lagoon, and we wanted to stay. Working with our buddy boat, we used the dinghies to look for a gap in the reef. There were a number of breaks in the reef wall, but it was difficult to find clearance. After searching up and down the reef, we finally found a gap that looked penetrable. Just. Given Atea was the larger of the two yachts, we were the first to approach. With John steering at the wheel, me guiding from the bowsprit and a dinghy leading ahead, we drove Atea towards a gap that was less than two meters wide and had less than half a meter below the keel. The tension was high as we slowly approached from deep water towards the reef wall, turned, centered up on the narrow slot of sand and gently eased our way into the lagoon. Hearts thumping and breaths held, we slid Atea through with reef only inches away from her hull on either side. Al Fresco followed through with equal trepidation and with equal success.

The reward was well worth the risk – we’d found another island oasis unspoiled by human habitation and stayed four nights. There was a private white sand beach arching along the coast, shaded by palms stretching over the water. John and I picked up a morning routine of taking Braca to the beach at first light for playtime at the waters edge. Our lazy afternoons were punctuated with spectacular dives on the outer reef wall, as prolific as the last island.  Evenings were spent with sundowners on the beach and the afternoon’s catch on the grill. Our island oasis was well inhabited by nature, with rich birdlife, an abundance of fish and reef shark (we counted eight Black Tip on an early evening dive), the occasional turtle, a stray dugong and a resident crocodile.

The Red Zone didn’t prove to be so red at all, unless red from the envy of other cruisers who to didn’t enter the “forbidden territory.” We did hear just recently that three boats spent a night rafted up together with crew on watch throughout the night due to an uncomfortable exchange with a local, so there is obviously reason for caution in these areas. We were fortunate however, and found nothing but friendly locals, exceptional diving, unspoiled reef, prolific marine life and idyllic islands. Having departed the Red Zone, we set course for the Western Province – the reputed “jewel in the crown” of Solomon Island cruising. It will be hard to match the serenity of the locations and the thrill of the find from our recent escapades, but we are up for the challenge.

Draw Card

When John and I began planning the 2012 cruising season we had a number of potential routes to choose from. Limitless would be much to far a claim, but that’s the general sense of the opportunities out there. We’d discovered that the ICA (Island Cruising Association) was planning a ten-month rally and of the list of countries included there was one in particular that stood out with enticing allure: The Solomon Islands. The archipelago is made up of 900 tropical islands, of which 350 are inhabited, and covers a large geographic footprint of about 1500 kilometers from the westernmost island group to the easternmost group. The Solomons are out of the standard cruising path and only a handful of cruising yachts travel through the region in a given year. We’ve been asked to sign ‘guest logs’ kept in some of the villages in more popular anchorages and there has never been more of a half dozen boats in the book in a season. Some of the places we’ve been we are a true novelty as the first boat to anchor there in years, if ever. Before us lay the promise of a rich and diverse region to explore with visual appeal both above and below the waters surface. After considering our options, we decided that the Solomons was our draw card and we placed our bet on the ICA Western Pacific Rally to take us there.

Our initial decision was to stay with the rally through to the Solomons, disconnect from the fleet in Gizo and make our way through the Northern Territory, Australia into Indonesia, ending the season in Singapore. Now that we are out here, however, that pace seems faster than we’d like. We have waivered between taking a faster route through to Singapore, where we planned on working for a year, or slowing down the pace and ending this season in Sydney.

The Sydney option would shorten our employment period by half and would result in a year extension of our cruising to cover the Great Barrier Reef and Indonesia in 2013. There are pros and cons to both sides, however we’ve finally agreed that a more leisurely pace is preferable and we accept the commitment of an extension to the cruising lifestyle. My theory is that you rarely travel the same place twice, and I want to make the most of it while we are out here. So far, the rewards of the cruising lifestyle are well worth the sacrifices.

One comment on the Solomons is that it has been the one destination en-route that has brought the most words of caution, the threats being both natural and human-induced. It is ranked HIGH THREAT for the incidence of malaria, but we’ve mossie-proofed the boat and put Braca on anti-malarial tablets so I feel confident we have taken all necessary precautions. Ironically, we have encountered very few mosquitoes but if they are out there, we’re prepared.

The other area of high alert is threat from hostile locals but it seems this may be focused in a few specific regions. Information available is conflicting, and it is hard to decipher what is a real threat from what was a one-time occurrence, or what may be the bias of one tribal group against another. We’ve had stories of unauthorized boarding of a yacht with machete-wielding aggressors, pirates who toss a fishing line out to foul the propeller, islands with hostile locals demanding payment for anchorage, and petty theft. Some of the definite ‘no go’ areas in some reports are stunning ‘not-to-be missed’ spots in others; it is hard to know fact from rumour. So far, we can only confirm opportunistic theft or the occasional demanding drunk.

As for Atea and crew, we’ve amassed a wealth of unique encounters in the three weeks since we’ve been here and have been wonderfully well received during our short stay. Our first port of call after Vanuatu was Vanicolo Island – not the image of a tropical paradise with its mangrove lined shores sheltering crocodiles in its shallows. The welcome of the locals in their dugout canoes was a treat, however, greeting us on entry and initiating us to the custom of trade in the Solomon Islands. Want a papaya? That’ll be one used tee shirt please. A hand of banana? Perhaps a spare tee shirt, please? A coconut? You don’t happen to have a tee shirt, please? Tee shirts of any size and any variety are valuable currency and can be swapped regardless of the item under consideration. We’ve exchanged a mixed assortment of fruit for a man’s shirt, and the very next seller had one egg on offer for the same fare. Needless to say, John’s wardrobe has been quickly reduced to a few favourites in a matter of days.

That said, shirts are not the only trade item (albeit the most common). All sorts of minor western goods are requested. Some of those we’ve been asked for include: batteries, fish hooks, sugar, rice, pens, boys shorts, toys, earrings, magazines, solar chargers (yes, in exchange for two pawpaw), swim goggles, packet of instant noodles, matches, pocket knife, DVDs… and the list goes on. We’ve traded a bra and woman’s top (thanks Mandy) for lobster; books and children’s swimwear for all variety of fruit (thanks Glenda); and children’s writing material and books for ‘feather money’ and tapestry (thanks Emma). I’ve come to enjoy this form of barter; the locals make their request and John and I delve into Atea’s lockers and stores to see what we can spare.

And when all else fails, money is still valid currency, although often second best. The price asked is often as incongruous as the items offered in trade, and the seller suggests a price with very little understanding of current market value. My favourite was a simple shell necklace on offer for US$200. I told the seller that his asking price was extraordinarily high, but then who is to judge the going price of art?

Speaking of incongruous affairs, our customs and immigration provided a little drama on entry into the Solomons. As a part of the ICA fleet, clearance had been arranged for us by flying the customs and immigration officials down to Lata so that we could clear in and travel through the southern islands rather than following standard procedure of a straight shot to Honiara, the capital, 300 miles west. A great plan, but thwarted when the officials continued postponing their arrival by plane due to poor weather.

The weather rolled over us during this period, squall after squall of torrential rain cleaning our decks but darkening our moods. We waited in a beautiful anchorage for word that things were proceeding . Each morning we were told, “maybe the plane will land tomorrow.” While on stand by, we nicked ashore for evening social hour, explored the bays and wandered along the beaches, visited the town and socialized with the locals. We were told that we were free to go ashore while awaiting the officials… or was that just our collective assumption?

A festival, or sing sing, had also been arranged for us, so while we waited for the officials to make their grand appearance we proceeded with the scheduled event and went ashore for a spectacular celebration – complete with officious introductions, church song and prayer, and the most fantastic tribal dancing we’ve seen to date. The day ended with an enormous feast and contented, gorged bellies. Braca made his usual impact, and I by association had some fabulous encounters with the women and children of the village. As we settled back in onboard Atea that evening we watched as myriad of dugouts scattered off in all directions, families returning to their villages confidently balanced on precarious wooden dugouts with tots tucked under toe. An epic day.

An epic day followed by a difficult committee of government officials who, finally, made the morning flight. Knowing that we were still awaiting clearance, the local representatives neglected to inform us that the festival was not sanctioned without the completion of proper clearance… We’d not cleared through customs, so we were not allowed to disembark from our yachts until processed. After contentious blasphemous bellowing and threat of heavy fine, we were finally cleared into the country – a week after arrival. Welcome Solomon Islands, you’ve already proven to be an interesting place to travel!

Onward we went – from the southern tip we made our way west up the island chain. Tomorrow we will be in Honiara (the “big” city) to replenish our stores and get a change from the village life we’ve been getting accustomed to.

We’ve generally fallen into the practice of sailing by night, our preference with an infant onboard as it is easier to manage Braca’s safety, and increases our own comfort. By night he dozes quietly in his cot with an occasional request for a quick nighttime feed, leaving John and I alone on our respective watches to enjoy a little time to ourselves. By day it is an entirely different affair with one eye to the horizon and one hand on the helm, and the other eye on a very industrious tot with all other body parts trying to keep him in place. An additional benefit of night passage is that it allows us to make progress in bigger bounds and arrive with morning light for reef entrances, leaving us with longer periods of time within an anchorage. Moving by day means less time to play ashore or to relax at anchor, so Atea is becoming a ship of the night.

Highlights of our experiences have been, by far, the local encounters. There are a number of moments that capture this endearing exchange. One that has repeated itself in every anchorage has been the exuberance of the children, their curiosity, and their willingness to interact. I am not used to our boat being swarmed by bodies, but here no sooner does the anchor go down and you are surrounded by children – hanging on a rich array of floating objects, clinging onto the anchor chain, peering through windows, smiling with wide grins. On occasion we’ve offered up our paddleboards for play, with much excitement, and on rarer occasion we’ve even offered to race them in their canoes. We’ve yet to come close as a contender. One afternoon we spent ashore listening to children play a musical instrument constructed of PVC drainpipes, another guided by a collection of children on tour through their village and another to an inland lake. We’ve been escorted to spirit houses that held the skulls and bones of ancient chiefs on beautifully constructed platforms. We’ve sat through discussions with chiefs listening to personal histories and folklore. We’ve had continuous offers of fruit and vegetable, an on occasion fish and lobster, brought out to the boat every day so its been long since we’ve seen the inside of a store to replenish our food. The problem is, however, lack of selection. The items on offer repeat themselves, and our fresh stores have been reduced to pawpaw, banana, coconut, and yam. While the delivery service is superb, we are desperate for a grocery store selection.

Every Solomon smile reveals red stained teeth and gums, chewing beetle nut a favourite pastime for men, women and children alike. I asked for and was given a demonstration by a cluster of women in one of the markets, amid a cacophony of laughter at my curiosity and growing crowd of onlookers. Beetle nut apparently gives a high akin to cocaine, and involves three ingredients to produce the effect. A green nut is torn apart by the teeth to extract a large white nut inside which is chewed to a mush. A fruit resembling a green bean is then broken into a small piece that is licked to wet the end. This is then dipped in a white powder and added to the nut being chewed. The combined reaction turns the white cud into a frothy red that is chewed, spat, and process repeated by continuing to add the white powder and fruit to the mix. The white powder is a lye which is made by collecting dead coral, burning it down to a coal, then pounding this down to produce the white powder – an extremely potent agent that often leads to mouth cancer and early tooth decay.

We are now three weeks into our allocated time in the Solomon Islands. Placing this country as the draw card in planning our cruising route has been well worth it, a quality destination full of the off-beat and the unique. We have just over five weeks remaining before we depart from these treasured isles, and we look forward to the lagoons that lay ahead of us, some say the ‘pearl of the Solomons.’ Our next stint should see us under the water to explore some of the famous under water wrecks that lay in the shallows within Iron Bottom Sounds. We shall keep you posted!