Sunday, December 15, 2013

Conclusion of 2013 Cruising Season

Anne breathing with her gills

Island school boys

Island school girls

Island airport

Little Rascal's Buckwheat?

Young weaver

Mahi Mahi for dinner

Our local guide

Asanvari Bay, Maewo Island

Our new country and its official seal

Another treat

Cape Brett hike, Whangamumu, NZ
As we write this, “Blue Rodeo” rests safely in her berth at the Town Basin Marina in Whangarei, New Zealand, about 100 miles north for Auckland.  Since leaving there last May, we sailed nearly 4,000 miles and visited the countries of Fiji, Vanuatu and New Caledonia.  When the sailing season began, we had good intentions to make frequent blog postings and keep our family and friends up to date with our travels.  Alas, we fell short of that goal and apologize if we’ve given any of you cause to worry that we’d been lost at sea or eaten by cannibals.  Some blame can be assigned to limited internet access in places we visited, especially Vanuatu.  The bulk however, falls on us for not having the discipline to make time for creatively describing our experiences and sorting through the hundreds of photos we’ve taken along the way.  Mark’s hopes of making some progress in his attempt at learning to play the guitar also suffered for the same reason.  Our cruising life often seems like we’re whirring around in the cogs of a perceptual motion machine with only rare moments of down time.  We admit that some cruising couples appear to have better figured-out how to pace themselves and, as the saying goes, “take time to smell the roses”.  In some ways, we admire them for that.  We however, seem to be driven harder by our quest for more adventures and our desire to see and do it all.  We are realistic enough to know that there simply is never enough time for everything, even though that rarely slows us down.  Knowing that life is short and that time seems to accelerate as we age, we intend to make the very best of this wonderful cruising experience while we can.  So, excuses aside, here’s a recap of what we been up to since our last blog posting.

As the memories of the incredibly beautiful beaches, jungle forests and undersea reefs that we’ve explored slowly begin to fade, those of some of the unique and interesting people we’ve met seem forever etched in our minds.  One such person was Ruben, chief of a small village on the island of Lelepa off the west coast of Efate, Vanuatu.  We, in company with our good friends Jon and Heather from the yacht “Evergreen” and Jan Bart and Monique from “Victory”, anchored in a lovely, small, coral-fringed bay there and found an amazing SCUBA dive spot nearby.  The spot featured great visibility, interesting topography, colorful soft corals and a few large, friendly fish.  Our three night stay at Lelepa was made special by our getting to know Ruben and his wife Nary.  They proved to be charming people and welcoming hosts.  They paddled to “Blue Rodeo” one morning, in their leaky dugout canoe, offering fruit and sea shells.  We invited them aboard and reciprocated with cookies and beverages.  Ruben impressed us with his fitness, his knowledge of the outside world and his excellent command of the English language.  This all seemed to make sense after he spoke with pride of his military service with multi-national forces from Australia and New Zealand.  We could only imagine what his return to relatively primitive island life would have been like after time abroad in the military.  When we exchanged heart-felt good byes, we promised to return someday for another visit with these warm and genuine people. 

With a forecast for poor weather associated with a fast- moving, low pressure system heading our way, we sailed a short distance to the Havannah Harbor, a large bay that offered more protection from strong winds and rough seas.  The plan worked well and during breaks in the stormy weather we had the unique opportunity to visit a splendid 165’ sailing yacht anchored nearby.  It was owned by a Dutch gentleman who had fallen on hard financial times. The yacht, which was now for sale, had been anchored there for about a year, under the care of a young local man named NIxon who was the son of a chief from the island of Maewo.  The man asked us for a dinghy ride to the yacht one day and invited us aboard for a tour.  The once magnificent yacht was showing its age and, although still in good shape, was seriously in need of refurbishment.  Apparently, finances were such that the owner couldn’t even afford to fuel it as it sat waiting for a buyer to come along.  It was certainly sad to see.

We continued our exploration of the islands of Vanuatu by sailing north to Cook’s Reef for an afternoon snorkel and on to the island of Emae.  From there, another day sail took us to the island of Tongoa where we would again find an incredible dive site on the north wall of an offshore reef.  While enroute to Tongoa, Jon from “Evergreen” caught a sizable fish and, after anchoring near the first village we spotted, went ashore to share some of it with the locals and ask permission of the chief to SCUBA dive in the area.  Soon, he had quite a crowd around him with the fish bits being happily accepted.  A representative of the chief informed Jon that our group was welcome to walk the island and dive on its reefs.  As a bit of background information, unlike in Fiji where a formal presentation of Kava root is made and a Sevusevu ceremony is performed upon first visiting an island, the chiefs of Vanuatu, who traditionally own both the land and nearby reefs, ask only that their permission be granted before visitors partake in activities in their domain.  Occasionally, a small fee for diving in the area (normally about $5 per person) is requested with the money going to help out the villagers.  A few days later, after diving a reef about 2 miles from the village, we had gone ashore for a hike and to seek out a famous wood carver.  We were, as usual, greeted by a number of friendly and helpful locals but, upon returning to our beached dinghies, encountered another group, including a chief who was unhappy that we’d dived on HIS reef without HIS permission.  This created a sense of confusion among us in knowing who really had authority over the areas we visited.  It seems that any cluster of three or four homes in an area might have someone considered to be a “chief”.  The reality is often that unless we asked specifically who the big chief was, and over what area he had authority, we were destined to step on someone’s toes and create somewhat of an uncomfortable incident. Well, such is the norm when interacting with other cultures.  Unintentional faux paus are inevitably made.  At least in the modern, post-missionary world, these inappropriate gaffs rarely result in the outsiders being boiled in a pot and eaten.

North of Tongoa Island, overnight stops were made at Revolieu and Lamen Bays on the island of Epi.  Both places provided enjoyable snorkeling and walking ashore but fell a bit short of the experiences we had at Tongoa.  Our desire to see and do it all kept us moving on to Awai Bay on the southeast end of sizeable Malekula Island.  This protected, shallow bay, out of sight of any villages, offered good snorkeling and, just out side its barrier reef, another excellent SCUBA dive location.  Shortly after anchoring there, we were visited by several locals in their dug out canoes.  One claimed to be the brother of a chief and, since his brother was away, extended permission for us to dive and explore the area.  This would later prove to be a misrepresentation creating a little friction with the real chief.  The other, a man named Tom, was quick and assertive in his insistence that we re-anchor at his village on Maskelyne Island about 4 miles away where he, for a fee, could guide us to the best dive spot, take us to see dugongs (the South Pacific version of manatees) and arrange for a traditional dance presentation.  Even though we were quite content to stay where we were, we, along with Jon and Heather, succumbed to his charms.  This proved to be a mistake and led to the most uncomfortable and disillusioning experience of our two months in Vanuatu.  Tom, was a likable guy who had lived for a while in the capital city of Port Vila.  He spoke English well and mentioned that he had a son in college there.  It was clear that Tom understood  better than most that tourists and visiting cruisers were “cash cows” and willing to pay to get a glimpse at HIS world.  What we found difficult to accept is that, instead of interacting with him and his villagers in a normal and natural way, everything seemed to be artificially arranged for us and we were expected to pay for it.  The search for the dugongs was a bust, even though we saw a few from a distance.  The water visibility in the bay where they were was poor which prevented us from swimming in their company and left us worrying more about what sharks might be lurking nearby.  His excellent dive site was just mediocre and the dance presentation, that we had no choice but to attend and pay for, was pretty sad.  Four dancers and a drummer, clad only in their traditional, “small Namba”, woven waist bands and penis sheaths, unenthusiastically did two dances which basically consisted of some foot stomping and waving of sticks.  After that, Mark and Jon were encouraged to participate, painted with mud and offered penis sheaths.  The guys willingly went along with it but opted to stay in their board shorts joking that the “small Namba” sheaths were inadequate for their more ample physical attributes.  The girls had fun though, watching the boys dance with the locals and shot both video and still photos to commemorate the event.  Anne couldn’t help but zoom-in on one of the dancers anatomical parts for the benefit of her girlfriends that had yet to have the experience.  We certainly had a few laughs about it later but agreed that the whole thing seemed contrived and less than authentic.  Later, on Tom and his chief’s insistence, we dinghied ashore for what was supposed to be a welcoming, kava drinking ceremony on our behalf.  In reality, a bunch of the village low lifes were sitting around a five gallon paint bucket full of kava provided by a gent that runs a kava bar of sorts on the island and we were expected to buy, not only a cup or two for ourselves, but a “round for the boys”.  It’s clear we were being taken advantage of.  If fact, we kept remembering Tom’s comment when we invited him aboard “Blue Rodeo” and he asked where we were from.  After telling him we were from the USA, he remarked, “ah...a very rich country”, implying that for us, money was never a worry.  This prompted us to joke with Jon and Heather that we needed to tell people that we were from some other country.  So, the Republic of Jabooblia was invented and Mark went so far as to draw and color the official seal of the country complete with its mottos, “Small but Perky” and “Not quite USA...not quite Canada”. 

Feeling a bit disturbed by our encounter with Tom at Maskelyne Island, we set sail the very next day for a few small islands further north up the east coast of Malekula.  Our memories of the uncomfortable experience were soon all but erased by our interaction with the genuinely friendly and forthright people we encountered at tiny Norsup Island.  Not only was the scenery there beautiful as can be, but the people quickly warmed our hearts while engaging us in curious, friendly conversation.  After giving one man, who seemed to have almost nothing, one of our fishing hand lines, Anne was so very touched when he returned the next morning with a beautiful, box conch shell for her.  She had given her gift expecting nothing in return.  His gift was so special in that it restored our faith in the genuine goodness of most people and their willingness to give as well as take. 

Wala Island was another memorable stop.  Jon had, once again, caught a good-sized fish while sailing between the islands and, after the hard work of cleaning and filleting it, kindly gave us enough for several delicious meals.  After socking-away a big chunk for themselves, he generously offered the rest of the fish to some of the local villagers that paddled out to our boats anchored just off shore.  Later, we took some of it ashore as a gift to the chief which immediately made our group of four very popular.  The village at Wala seemed more “upscale” than most that we’d visited so far in Vanuatu. The homes were better built, many constructed from cinder block and picnic areas with covered tables and benches lined the well-manicured shoreline.  There was even a modern floating dock providing easy access to the shore.  We were informed that a cruise ship stops there on a regular basis so the guests can have a traditional, unspoiled, cultural experience.  Alas, it was clearly evident that, although the village probably benefitted from the influx of tourist dollars, their traditional way of living was forever changed.  After a nice morning SCUBA dive off the island’s northeast reef, Mark and Jon went ashore to help out a villager who had approached us during our walk-about the day before.  His large, fiberglass, water catchment tank had sprung a leak and he asked if we could help with a repair.  Armed with fiberglass cloth, resin, rasps, sandpaper, paint brushes and mixing containers, the guys set out to tackle the job.  Their efforts drew a sizable crowd of spectators with a few also asking for help with their solar panels and storage batteries.  As some of the modern conveniences that we take for granted, like electricity for example, begin to reach these islanders, they are often faced with problems that they have neither the education or resources to solve.  As boaters, we know that the life expectancy of anything electrical in the marine environment can be very limited without proper care.  On the islands, we have seen expensive, gasoline-powered generators turned to rusty pieces of junk by the salt air and piles of 12 volt storage batteries rendered useless by abuse.  As is usually the case, education is the key and we can only hope that the efforts made by international organizations to provide better schooling for the children will improve their health, comfort and living conditions in the years to come.

Our next stop, Asanvari Bay on the Island of Maewo remains memorable for several reasons.  Not only were the surroundings “picture perfect” but the people so very friendly as well.  A few, with connections to the outside world had returned to their beautiful island and invested a great amount of time and effort in constructing a thatched-roof, open-air “yacht club” where visiting cruisers could congregate ashore for a social hour or bar-b-que.  One gentleman had landscaped a gorgeous piece of land at the base of a waterfall that emptied into the anchorage and constructed an outdoor bar for visitors.  Perhaps they are operating under the assumption that, “if you build it, they will come”.  Sadly, aside from our friends on “Evergreen”,  we were the only visitors and couldn’t help but feel that their ideas and improvements may never be appreciated.  In fact, we had been surprised that, while in Vanuatu, we had seen very few other cruisers.  Was this the norm or was it just different this season?  While some may feel that Vanuatu has less to offer than Tonga, Fiji or New Caledonia, we truly enjoyed our experiences there and look forward to returning next season. 

After an overnight at the island of Ambae for some snorkeling, it was on to the large island of Espiritu Santo and the town of Luganville.  It was there that the US military had a huge installation during WWII to defend the Solomon Islands just a few hundred miles to the north.  During the war, facilities, roads and airfields were built and hundreds of war ships often filled the harbors.  While there, we took time to snorkel on “Million Dollar Point” where, after the war, the US had dumped tons of materials and construction equipment into the sea when the government of Vanuatu declined to buy it for pennies on the dollar.  Although interesting, it was really just a pile of junk and not as inviting as the pristine reefs that we’d become accustomed to seeing.  Just a short distance along the coast from the point lies the wreck of the USS Calvin Cooledge, a 700+ foot cruise liner that was converted for troop transport and sank after hitting a friendly mine.  Local operators guide divers on the wreck and, due to the potential dangers, the authorities forbid anyone from diving there without using their services.  For that reason, we signed-up with of one of the most established dive operations in town and, along with Jon and Heather, did a SCUBA dive on the wreck.  Unfortunately, after having high expectations, we were rather disappointed due to limited visibility and our dive master’s unwillingness to appreciate our experience and skill levels.  Despite a pre-dive discussion about how all of us had been diving for years with hundreds of unsupervised dives in challenging conditions, he was unwilling to stray from his usual routine and had us heading for the surface with more than half of our air supplies remaining.  Even though we’d been as deep a 115’ for a short period of time, we were all operating well within our decompression safety margins and, in fact, wanted to linger even longer in the shallows to do more site seeing and allow even greater time to dissipate dissolved nitrogen in our bodies’ tissues and blood streams.  As we neared the end of the dive, our dive master actually exited the water before us and stomped-off, apparently upset that we chosen to enjoy a few more minutes in 12 feet of water studying some tiny, interesting creatures.  Afterwards, we all agreed how much more we enjoy discovering places on our own and the challenge that comes from seeing and doing things that few other divers get to do. 

Our stay in the Espiritu Santo area was rounded-out with numerous trips by dinghy to the town’s shops, markets and gas stations.  Ratua Island resort was also visited where we welcomed the opportunity to walk the island and enjoy a beer at the resort’s bar furnished with interesting, 200 year old furniture and carvings from the island of Bali.

With the cruising season about to end and the tropical cyclone season just beginning, our thoughts began to focus on our return to New Zealand for the southern hemisphere summer.  Sailing from the islands back to New Zealand usually involves days of close-hauled (windward) sailing and the likelihood of encountering a low pressure weather system with strong winds and high seas.  We decided that, even though we’d have little time to see much of the country this season, we’d first sail the 450 miles to New Caledonia to hopefully give us a better sailing angle and shorter passage to New Zealand.  All worked as planned but the passage to New Cal proved nastier and more uncomfortable than we’d expected.  Fairly strong winds and occasional periods of no wind and lumpy seas conspired to make the passage less than perfect.  Fortunately, after 3 days, we entered New Caledonia’s barrier reef and found comfortable sailing to an overnight anchorage at Baie de Prony and, the next morning, on to the town of Noumea.  While spending a week there waiting for a good weather window for the 900 mile passage to New Zealand, we enjoyed the pleasures of well-stocked grocery stores, fast internet and the company of cruising friends also preparing for passages.  Before long, it was time to go for it.  Final stowing of provisions and gear was done, “Blue Rodeo’s” fuel tanks were topped-off and pre-passage meals were prepared and frozen.  At that point, there was nothing left to do but guide our boat back out through a pass in the barrier reef and point the bow to the south.

 Unlike last year when we beat for days into gale force winds and broke out one of our dodger’s clear plastic windows from wave impact, there is very little to say about our passage to New Zealand.  During the 6 day, 8 hour trip, we sailed upwind almost the entire way finding conditions bumpy and uncomfortable but tolerable.  Anne suffered from her usual bouts of sea sickness and we both agreed that there are a lot of things we’d rather be doing than crossing oceans in a small sail boat.  Fortunately, the trip ended on a high note with perfect, beam reaching conditions down the east coast of New Zealand’s north island with “Blue Rodeo” knifing along in flat water at over 9 knots. Also fortunately, our memories (Mark’s at least) of the mid-passage discomfort pass quickly and, after a few days back on land, we (Mark at least) seem willing to do it all over again.

Arriving back in Opua, in the beautiful Bay of Islands, seemed a bit like a homecoming and when, a week later, we sailed back to our summer home in the marina in Whangarei, the familiarity of it all seemed ever so satisfying.  The uncertainly of adventure and pushing beyond the limits of what is known to us can be quite exciting and fulfilling but, we must admit that, the peace of mind and sense of relief that comes from coming home, wherever for a while that may be, is a great feeling indeed.