October 30, 2011

Vanuatu Images

Next stop Australia. Normally I'd go back through the past few posts and add these images in--but internet is too slow and we're too busy getting ready...
the wrecked boat we found

Maia playing with village kids

underwater dugong




typical village

October 28, 2011

The Way to Santos

Vanuatu is mysterious. Port Vila is charming and modern-the prettiest city in the South Pacific. But when you sail out of the harbour you sail back 100 years. Maybe more. Only the ubiquitous slogan t-shirts, worn by children and men, truly indicate the century.

It's challenging here: The weather, the currents, the uncharted reefs, the people. When they paddle up in their canoes everyone is unfailingly friendly-but within a few words it's easy to see that there is more than simple language differences between us. There is a gulf that can't just be explained by the fact we come from a world they can barely imagine. It's more that even though we're here--visiting villages, asking questions, sharing laughs-we still can't quite imagine who they are.

Kalima, Gideon, Kal and Morres paddled up this afternoon in their dugout canoes.
Dugouts--each man makes his own, and his own paddle.
Kal's wife had sent him to ask if we had icing sugar. Their only daughter is turning one and she wants to make a cake. We invited them aboard for snacks and juice (we keep a stash of things for these moments).

Today's visitors came from the tiny village of Uri and spoke excellent English as well as Bislama and their own language. Whenever I ask people what the name of their village language is they can't tell me. They can speak the words and let me hear the cadences, and they tell me the geographic area it's spoken in-in this case the villages around Port Stanley… But the languages themselves don't have names.

With each language comes different customs and traditions-when I asked if their villages did custom dances the four men began to laugh, sputter really, "No. No we don't do that. Our traditions are different." The differences mean that the clan-based groups don't inter-marry. How can you marry someone who believes in one type of magic when you believe in another? Malakula, which is 2023 sq km and is relatively sparsely populated, has 28 language groups-28 different sets of beliefs.

Kal talked about village life-about how the children go to the main village for school when they are five and that how while it is only a few miles away their dugout canoes cannot make the trip daily. So the kids are gone for months at a time. I asked about where they got their fresh water, pointing out the hose that drains from our cockpit awning into a handy jerry jug. Kal told me they get a big bamboo trunk, split it in half, remove the insides and use it as a gutter for their huts, into their jerry jugs. And he told us about the community gardens, which based on tradition are either very near or very far from the village.

They asked about boat design, how to fix things, and about our life-incredulous that we have a heater aboard, fascinated by the idea of travel.

We've done more trading in Vanuatu than we have in other places-an old towel for a stem of bananas, fishing line and small old hooks for fish and tomatoes. We've also been given yams, pumpkin and pawpaw. But we still have food and trade goods we need to get rid of before Australia and so our visitors scored more gifts than simply icing sugar. They asked for magazines and string but were awed by the food and the t-shirts, notebooks and crayons for their kids. They invited us to the village for a feast of laplap tomorrow-eager to reciprocate.
We wish we could stay-but we need to be in Santos tomorrow. Our weather window is approaching and we need to sail on.

Vanuatu will stay a mystery-but really, it's that sense of barely knowing a place that makes me want to travel. There is so much left undiscovered, so much to dream about.

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October 26, 2011

Maskelyne Islands

There were fewer dugong this morning. Perhaps the chief and his village really did sing them to us. In any event magic seemed to be on our side this morning when I noticed a familiar appearing canoe across the channel. Ev headed over and though my canoe turned out to be a speed boat he found the small village where the chief and his friends lived.

It turned out the chief had been called to a meeting and we could reschedule our dance, or we could have a partial refund. We took the refund, because despite wanting to think the best of these folks they really didn't act in the most honest way. They seemed suitably saddened though when Evan let them know we'd be telling other cruisers about our sketchy experience.

We decided to try to end our time in the Maskelynes on a good note though and with settled weather here (and a weather window to Oz still several days away) we headed to Lutes.

Lutes is perhaps what people imagine of a South Seas village. The thatched homes ring the beach and as we approached a crowd gathered on the beach. Little girls held bouquets of flowers out to us and we were introduced around. Then we were taken to the chief-who asked what we'd like to do in the pretty village. We told him we wanted to meet a Turtle Singer-I wanted to confirm the experience we had in Gaspard.

Tasso is very old, nearly blind and was happy to tell us about singing for turtles. Children and young men gathered around him, the littlest ones draped over him, as he answered our questions: he doesn't know why they sing for turtles they just always have, the song means thank-you for the turtle we won't be eating pig, catching a turtle marks the transition from boy to man, but now, with conservation laws, they have a limited 3-day hunt and feast each year and the village is allowed 12 turtles, other than that they just sing to the turtles for tourists.

We sat with Tasso for a while after he sang the same song chief Jean had sung for us and the 'magic' he described matched our experience exactly. Then the children led us up and down the village paths until everyone had met us.

Now we're on the boat-dugouts stop by to say hello and children are laughing on shore. Soon the stars will come out and all will be blackness except for the cooking fires in the huts on shore.

Maskelyne Islands - Navigation Notes

First off, the currents in the channels and outside the barrier reefs to the S and E of the island groups are quite strong, even in the open ocean. The currents we saw were in the maximum range of 3 knots with obvious upwellings from bottom structures. No big deal between the islands as you just go faster or slower if the current is against you, but offshore from the reefs, if the current is opposing the prevailing SE wind and swell you can get very steep washing machine effect seas.

Coming from Epi Island to the south, we planned to anchor on the S side of Uliveo Island, behind it's reef - but the seas were so chaotic we couldn't see the clear path. So we bailed, quickly entering new waypoints in the GPS in the rough seas, and headed up the East side of the group to enter the channel between Sakoa I. and the big island of Malakula.

We then proceeded to enter Gaspard Bay, avoiding the shoal patch in the middle. We anchored behind the shoal, in about 45' of water, mud bottom, good holding. No swell, though the strong SE wind still penetrated partly into the bay.

Important note: our "Tusker Cruising Guide to Vanuatu" electronic guidebook had very strangely mirror imaged the aerial photo and chartlet for Gaspard Bay along the N/S axis. The chart is also on its side so north is on the left. I couldn't figure it out when looking at the bay until I looked at the compass rose. So the shoal in the middle of the bay, which is somewhat offset to one side, was on the other side of bay compared to the aerial map/chart! It was also overcast which made it hard to see the shoal very well.

Our next destination was the village of Lutes, on the SW corner of Uliveo. The Tusker GPS waypoints and aerial photos were very helpful as you pass through two tight reef spots just before the village. The anchorage is a mud bottom, about 50' deep. We sat sideways to the small amount of refracted swell that comes through but it wasn't bothersome. If there was a big (say >2m SE) swell running it might get more uncomfortable. In a S swell it might not be pleasant at all.

Try to travel at low tide - it's much easier to see all the reefs. Really be cautious in overcast conditions. The island's fringing reefs stick out a long way sometimes. Staying mid channel between the islands as you follow all the Tusker GPS waypoints will be the safest way to travel during overcast. During good light we could easily see the reefs and cut corners on the GPS routes.

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Vanuatu Magic

Evan heard it first-the unmistakable huff of a marine mammal. We headed outside and discovered we were surrounded by dugongs. Floating like big brown seals just under the surface they would raise a nostril to the surface and breathe. Every so often one would dive and we'd watch the shape as it turned to shadow then disappeared.

"We sang them to you," chief Jean Soso of Tonomial village told us later in the morning when we found ourselves in his canoe. "It's part of our magic. We sing the fish to the reefs and the turtles to our canoes." Chief Jean thought that as visitors we might like to see the dugong so he told us the villagers had sang them to us last night.

Apparently there is a village here. So many of the Vanuatu villages are tucked into the bush that often the only way you know they're there is when you see smoke. Or when a canoe shows up and offers you a kastum dance.

Jean, Sam and David were on their way to fish when they stopped by very early this morning to suggest we might like to see a dance in their village. We explained we were headed to Lutes village to learn about turtle singing. Jean then explained that turtle singing was his villages' tradition and we should learn with him--and it would be cheaper. And while it may have been a line we were happy with the idea of not having to make another attempt get to Lutes.

So we climbed into their canoe and Jean explained that turtle singing is an old magic-he was taught by his grandfather, who was taught by his. And because it is magic there are strict rules to be followed-in the days when they hunted turtles wives could not talk to their departing husbands and once they were on the water all was silent. The canoeists would paddle to a start point where there would light fires and begin to slap the water and sing.

The song sounded very much like 'turt, turt…tortuga" with some added rhythmic whistling and complicated sounding words. Sam poled us through the shadows while Jean held the palm frond fire and David steered. The three sang in unison and in harmony-calling the turtles.

When the last fire burned out David exploded out of the boat and into the water-if they were still catching turtles this is how it would be done Jean told us. David explained us he was a champion-catching 35 turtles. David told us how hard the turtles would fight-that it would take four or five men to hold one big turtle. Then they would drum out the story of the capture on the side of the canoe-so that the village knew how the hunt had gone. Back when they caught turtles, before their numbers diminished and they began protecting them.

"But where are the turtles?" Maia asked as she scanned the water. Jean said they would come to us tonight-that the magic is delayed and they wanted the turtles to know it isn't a trick. They don't want the turtles to come to the canoes where they could be caught and held by people who might abuse the magic he said, "It was sad hunting turtles. They couldn't talk." Now, he says they are like the dugongs, they call them just to practice their magic. Just to see them.

It's all magic here, Jean told us later as he visited on our boat and shared banana bread with jam, "We use magic to heal illness, to change the weather, to find a wife..." He offered to teach us more magic-to calm the wind and get us safely to Australia. He'd teach us when we came to the village for the Kastum Dance in the afternoon.

So we paid for the turtle calling and paid in advance for the dance-then the chief, his canoe, and our money disappeared.
Like magic.
We've not been ripped off before and while the loss wasn't huge, it was annoying. It was foolish of us to give money in advance-especially when we didn't even know where the village was. We'll head to Lutes this morning to report the scheme-the area has been trying to bring tourists and this just gives it a bad name.

If you come to the area enjoy the dugongs in Gaspard Bay-but carry on to the Maskelynes with your money.

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October 24, 2011

Windy With Turtles and a Chance of Dugongs

We've been hunkered down in Epi for the past day waiting for squally weather to pass. The sail here was excellent--the kind of downwind ride (past live volcanoes and grass-hut villages) that cruising sailors dream of. When we arrived we strolled through the village, greeting and being greeted by the locals, then we set up an excellent dinner at the local guest house, Paradise Bungalows. Over dinner (and under the eerie glow of Ambrym's volcanos) we learned that the dugongs we hoped to see had moved their prime residence across the bay--to Lamen Island which is on the downwind side of some fierce winds so we decided we'd have to make do with turtles. Lots of turtles. Huge turtles--the biggest being in the 1 m range.

Turtles seem to be everywhere in Lamen bay and every time one of us looked out from the boat we'd see a few. Initially we'd all traipse out on deck and watch the ungainly looking creatures drift around on the surface--stretching their necks to gulp air in the choppy seas before diving. After a while they just got a brief glance. Who can imagine getting tired of giant sea turtles?

Being hunkered down is making me a bit anxious because we've slowed our progress. The first of the boats we've been traveling with are beginning to close on Australia and another group (including Connect 4) plan to leave tomorrow. I've been waking up--filled with doubt, thinking maybe we should be getting ready to leave rather than eking the last days out of the season on our own. At our current rate we'll be watching for weather for our own departure sometime around the 29th. Which also means we may well be at sea for the most-important-holiday of the year. Which I've also been waking at 3am to worry about.

For a stress-free life (and seriously, how much more low key can it get: remote village, sea turtles, fascinating local people) the fact I'm feeling guilty about missing trick-or-treating and worrying about whether we are a week or so behind the main crowd seems a bit silly. But I find that every so often out here my stress kind of builds to a peak--most of it is about the uncertainty. Is this life fair to Maia? (The harm caused by missing trick-or-treating aside--she seems remarkably happy out here). Are our choices (especially when we diverge from the pack) the right ones? (Happily when we listened to the morning net this morning we discovered there are several boats on the same schedule we are (not to mention a few more that are further behind.) Have we seen the right things? Gone to the right places? Should we have stuck with our buddy boats and just gone to Tanna?

This is an uncertain life. The only way to know we've done it right is in hindsight. But I guess that is true of any life.

The sail today started nicely and built to raucous. The currents at the southern end of Malakula have been whipped up by the days of reinforced trades. We abandoned our first attempt to get through the reef and into the Maskeleyne Islands when white-knuckle terror (and the fact it was impossible to distinguish between reef and washing machine seas) made us turn off. There is no room for error out here.

Pounding into seas--which came from everywhere and rose to sharp breaking points--away from the island we wanted, looking for another entrance through the reef made me wish I was a) in a peaceful harbour having a drink b) at home reading a book about adventure in the bath or c) with another boat, so I could at least call on the radio and commiserate.

Actually it mostly made me wish I were the sort of person who didn't become afraid. I wished my clenched fists and dry mouth knew what my head does--that there is no real danger, just discomfort. No, I wish I was the sort who thought this stuff was exciting, who relished these moments on the edge: Who thought skirting a reef in steep seas, strong currents, gusty winds and fading light was heaps of fun.

The third reef break was manageable. And now we're tucked into a deep, calm bay. We're not in the village we were trying for--a kastum, small namba village that still lives the way it did when Cook came across these islands. We're a few kilometers away in an unpopulated bay. But as we anchored a dugong surfaced near the boat. And in retrospect--the afternoon was okay really.

Tomorrow we'll try for the village--where we plan to go on a dugout canoe tour. Perhaps, like the dugong we'll relish it more when it's harder earned.

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October 21, 2011

Peril at Cook Reef

We're at anchor at the base of 4 inactive volcanoes. They rise steeply and greenly from the coral strewn water and when the wind rushes between them the roar and howl echoes around their cliffs. In the stronger gusts the whole boat thrums while we rock in the wind waves. Yet it seems peaceful here. Which makes you realize that when you come *this* close to tossing your boat up on a reef, anything less than tragedy is tranquil.

The reinforced trades are still blowing and are predicted to stay. This made us realize we could either use up our days in the relative tameness of Port Havannah or we could hurtle ourselves into the maelstrom (where conditions are even more windwardly and windy than yesterday) and see what I've been dreaming about.

I hate going to windward. And windward in huge seas and 25+ knots is decidedly unfun. But we headed out-each of us cowering in our corners and we endured a better, faster passage than we expected. Who knew our staysail would work so well? Not us.
Because we don't go upwind.

As we closed on Emae, we realized that the poor charts and cruising guides for this area had us approaching the island from too far down wind and far too close to the leeward side of Cook Reef-an ancient volcano that went through its atoll stage and is now simply great for diving and killing boats. We also discovered the area has some ripping evil currents which were rapidly hurtling us reef-ward. (For those of you not following sailor-talk-we were going through a channel between Emae and Cook Reef-the wind was coming from Emae and blowing us toward the reef.)

This seemed to be a good moment to add a little engine to the situation but when Evan went to fire it up the ignition switch shattered.

I don't know what spare parts you carry-but this isn't one we have in our tool box. It's not even one we've heard of breaking before. So as Ev coped with the engine-I kept easing us upwind-trying to gage if the next big sea would push us too close to the reef and watching to see if we could clear the edge of it and get into safe water.

Tacking was out-in these winds and these seas we tack like a catamaran-a slow, indecisive process that would also be hampered by the fact we weren't using a mainsail. Falling off and turning back was a marginal option. Using our outboard (our in-harbour manoeuvring engine) was the last ditch plan-but in the big seas it would be repeatedly dunked and pulled out of the water.

I was trying to decide whether or not to pull up the leeward daggerboard (it looked like we could mostly clear the reef) when Evan sorted out the engine issue and was able to jump it with some assistance. We revved it to redline and turned away from the frothing seas and toward the volcanoes.

Where we anchored. The wind moans and the seas are lively. And it's one of the most peaceful anchorages I've ever been in.

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The Road Less Travelled

"Right or left?" We asked Maia when we hit the second intersection along a dirt track.
"Left," she told us, "it looks less used."

Yesterday we dropped our anchor in Matapu Bay in Efate's Port Havannah. We had planned to leave this quite anchorage this morning and head north--sailing past volcanoes and reefs. But the promise of 25 knots and steep seas on the beam kept us anchored.

Anyway-we had a mystery to solve. During WWII the US warships assembled here before the battle of the Coral Sea. They took on water from something called the 'American Pool' which according to our cruising notes is located somewhere on shore, and inland from it are the ruins of a US base.

Our first dingy stop was an old coral pier with a wrecked cruising boat nearby--but inland of the pier was only dense jungle. Our next stop was a beach beside a deep creek-the American Pool? From there we followed a rough track up over the main road and further into the jungle-where big cement foundations seemed to indicate the base's location.

With the mystery, and a bit of history, seemingly sorted out we kept wandering up the track, occasionally stopping and choosing whether to go left or right when we hit an intersection. As we walked through waist high grass the jungle thickened blocking out the light, the birds grew noisy, and Banyon trees bigger than buildings punctuated the green, here and there the landscape opened up and small garden plots let us know why the track existed.

We contemplated turning back at the last intersection (this is really an excessive description for the point where two dirt trails meet…) but the sound of chickens kept us delving deeper. And finally after passing several goats and a cow we met two women, Martha and Rebecca who were collecting coconuts for their pigs. We tried out our fledgling Bislama on them and they led us further into Canaan, their village of a church and five thatched houses. We were shown around, introduced to all the pigs, and met everyone in the village. Then each lady gave us something from her garden-Maia earmarked the pumpkin for a certain upcoming holiday. Then Elsie (Rebecca's daughter) and a couple of the kids walked us down another road-showing us the creek where they bathe and get their water, the mountains and an extinct volcano in the distance, and the various types of plants they grow before leading us back to our boat.

Along the way Maia and the kids giggled and played and Elsie told me a little about her life: simple and quiet and better than being in Vila, where you need money to get by. Her main language is Monono and when her little daughter turns five she'll head to the main Monono village and live with her grandparents so she can learn her own language.

There are a dozen more anchorages like this in Port Havannah. But this is the only one we'll see before we hurry north toward Santos. Because in a country of 83 islands (and some 120 languages) there are there are enough stops in Vanuatu to keep us busy for months.

Vanuatu is the country least cruised in the South Pacific. Boats arrive here either eager to get home (if they're Australian)-or out of time (if they're everyone else). But we've decided that despite the lateness of the season we're going to head off to the islands least travelled for a few days more.

Because today it made all the difference.

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October 18, 2011

A new sail

The flapping was the clue.  A dark overnight passage from the island of Tahiti to Ra'iatea was the precipitating event.  As we rounded the reef past Moorea, the wind rose in strength faster than we realized.  And the flapping was the sound of our aged mainsail with a 12' tear in it, from one side to the other.  We were fortunate that we found a decent sail repair loft in Ra'iatea, near the Moorings base.  But after we got the patched up sail back, and looked up along the trailing edge (the leech to you sailors out there), we found evidence that this sail was really on its last legs.  It was 25 years old after all, and it had carried us thousands of miles – and we really planned to replace it in Australia. Honest.
The new sail - note we don't have a "#1 reef". We just go right to #2, or #3 if it's really hairy.
Clearly it was time for a new sail, and hopefully before the sometimes windy passage to Australia.  We had met Dave Benjamin of Island Planet Sails a year previous in La Cruz, Mexico.  He was running his mail order sail business from his boat, often sitting with his laptop for hours in the cruiser's lounge. We met a few people who had ordered sails from Dave and were very happy with them. So I emailed him a 1 page list of requirements for a new sail and he got back to me immediately.  I have to say I was rather shocked when a lot of my “wish list” items were standard with his sails.  For example:

-        I wanted s.s. slides at the headboard and reef points. Dave says 'I had assumed all s.s. - they never wear out in the sun like nylon'
-        I wanted a particular style of seam stitching. Dave: that's our standard, but we use Goretex thread. Sailmakers NEVER want to use Goretex thread because (a) it's a bit more costly (b) it's slippery so it's harder to sew with (c) and it doesn't rot in the sun, so the sail doesn't need to go back to the sailmaker for repairs!
-        I forgot to ask for the little triangular reinforcements at the ends of the seams. They were included anyways.  Lots of sailmakers don't bother
-        Tapered battens – no extra charge
-        better full batten hardware – original quote didn't go up
-        Shipping to Fiji – included in the price. And I didn't realize it and was going to be happy to pay the quoted price for the sail and whatever extra the shipping was going to cost me. (Dave you can ignore that bit dude)

I could go on and on but you get the idea.  I've never worked with a sailmaker who was so happy to discuss why we want to do this and would you like that. I think we each had about 20 emails back and forth over details before it was all settled.  I'm a picky sail buyer.

The final price: with better full batten hardware than he had originally quoted us, with shipping to Fiji included, and all those little extras that mean the sail will last longer – was less than his first price.  You have to love that sort of service.  There are a few little details to fix that weren't quite right but Dave is already there for us, and we will sort those out when we get to Oz when we are closer to a sail loft again.

Our last passage from Fiji to Vanuatu we finally got to hoist it and sail with it.  Before we had been motoring around Fiji's islands in little or no wind. With a very slight adjustment to the upper batten tension the sail sets very nicely and is of course more powerful than the old one. I found myself reefing about 2 knots of wind sooner, because the boat was just that much more powered up.  So great job Dave, and thank you very much. (No, Dave didn't give me a special price for this blog post. But do check out www.islandplanetsails.com for your next sail purchase)

p.s. To other sailors crossing the Pacific. Make sure your sails are in good shape before the crossing.  Proper sailmakers are non-existent, and sail repair lofts are not that great (found them in Tahiti, Ra'iatea, Vavau group Tonga, and maybe in Denarau, Fiji).  Shipping the sail and clearing through customs in Fiji was almost painless. Cost me about $60 including the ride back from the airport with the customs officer to make sure it got put on the boat.

Vanuatu Impressions

the story of the yam-in sand
It is hard not to be intrigued by a country where men wrap their penises in a ribbon. Seriously—if I knew nothing else about Vanuatu—that alone might have been enough to get me here.

But I did know a bit more—I knew that because of the hundreds of languages spoken across the scattering of islands that the common language here is Bislama—a form of Pidgin that is way more fun to learn than French. And I knew there were volcanoes and waterfalls and amazing diving. And I knew about the dugongs and the megapodes—birds that lay their eggs in hot volcanic sand and then leave the eggs and chicks to fend for themselves.

But even knowing all of this I still had no idea what to expect. I had no idea that Port Villa is easily the prettiest, and most surprisingly, most modern feeling city in the South Pacific. I had no idea that the people, who seem really shy and reserved after Fiji, would be so sweet. I had no idea I would once again fall head over heals for a country (they grow coffee here!!)—and we’ve barely started.

 Port Vila is an easy city to hang out in—there’s lots to do and learn (we spent the morning at the excellent cultural centre), great shopping (yesterday we spent the day exploring the two markets (omg—raspberries!!), the grocery stores and the duty free shops), and a gorgeous landscape.

  The highlight of our stay here was our visit to Mele Cascades—pretty much the loveliest waterfalls I’ve ever seen. You start your visit by hiking through gardens—then the trail winds up through the cascades themselves. At the top you are rewarded by dozens of swimming holes—each linked to the next by a short series of falls.
Maia making her way into a cave behind the falls
 Maia called it the best water park ever.
Evan and I found the massage falls—which, when you sit under them provide a thundering shoulder rub.
the 'trail'
 Our plan is to head out tomorrow for the outer islands. Thanks to a lovely connection we made with a local couple (who served us a truly memorable dinner) we have introductions to several villages which we’ll stop in at as we make our way up to Santos.
dinner with Brenda and Bill
 If the rest of Vanuatu even comes close to our first few days—it’ll be amazing.
I'll let you know what the wrappers are like...

October 16, 2011

Landfall Vanuatu

I love making landfall. No matter how bad a voyage might be (and this last one wasn't bad, just blah…) landfall is magic. Pulling into a harbour at first light is dream-like. Before the shore makes itself distinct, and the resort hotels start to pop out of the mist, I get this sense of being the first explorer. If we're early enough the only other people on the water are native fishermen-casting nets from dugouts, or women fishing in the shallows.

It's only when the sun rises higher that we jump forward a century and realize we are not the first. But somehow, by then, it doesn't matter.

But now we are quarantined and confined to the boat until tomorrow. This doesn't happen to people who fly in to these countries. It's a throw-back to another era-one that I think we belong to-despite the jet skis and helicopters in the harbour. Not sure if we can risk sneaking ashore today but it is the rugby semis (it is always called THE rugby btw...) and the All Blacks are playing OZ--last time we saw the was in Aitutaki and since then I've had a refresher and can almost follow the game. And we have an intro to meet local people. And it's awfully pretty here.
So many reasons to go ashore...
Despite the hotels.

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October 15, 2011

Vanuatu--here we come

When we made landfall in the Marquesas it felt like we had come so far--but one quick look at the chart showed us that as far as the Pacific went--we were just beginning. Now there is just over 1000 miles left to get to Australia. A number that a year ago would have seemed rather huge--but from the perspective of today... Not so big.

In my memories the Pacific (already! memories!) is a story in three parts. There are the passages themselves: which, depending on the situation, are long dull hours of sleepiness and relaxation punctuated by funny family moments and interrupted by the effort it takes to function in an always-moving universe. There are moments of fear--but those fade. The memories that stick are not the effort, or the terror, but the peace. Then there is the part of the trip spent in the company of friends--cruisers and guests--all of us visitors to a strange land. Together we get to interpret and make sense of it all, but often it seems easier to stay in our world at the fringes. The part that most of us imagine and is hardest to experience are the moments where we leave the fringes and become (for a moment) part of the places we visit.

All of it though is part of the same journey.

17 50 South
170 37 East
140 miles to Port Vila

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October 13, 2011

Underway to Vanuatu

We pulled out of Fiji yesterday around midday and cleared the final reef an hour or so before sunset. Overnight the wind rose from really light to perfect. We're making 7 knots in gentle one meter seas just aft of the beam, 15 knots of wind and lightly overcast skies. Blissful. And it's forecast to remain this way for the entire 500+ mile voyage.

Passages always seem like a time for introspection and taking stock. And this passage—the one that puts us within striking range of the finish line--seems especially meaningful. Over the next few months we'll be moored in Australia—trying to decide what and where next. Earning money. Getting re-united with Charlie the cat. Catching up on a world that seems to whirl-by without you when you busy doing other things. There is so much to think about and so much to plan.

But there is also a remarkable island nation between us and then. And I don't want to short change myself by jumping too many steps ahead. So I'll be pulling out the guidebooks and the travel stories and reading up on big and little nambas and I'll push Australia away for just a little longer.

Position:
17 51 South
175 51 E
443 miles to Port Vila

* If you're interested in my day job I have a profile of a Tahitian Ukulele maker in October's Islands magazine.

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October 11, 2011

Thanks


 There was a moment last week, when Lewa slipped a salusalu around my neck then led us to the lovo feast, that I looked around and suddenly saw myself as a character in one of those cruising books I first started reading as a teenager. Those books always had a photo section, and somewhere amongst the pictures there was always a fuzzy, black and white image of the smiling author at a South Seas feast. I never realized it, but somewhere inside me I’ve been hoping for that feast all along.

Even cruising can get mundane—there is the day-to-day stuff that everyone, everywhere has to do, then there’s this boatload of other stresses that never crops up in most people’s lives (seriously—when was the last time you had to fend off your neighbour’s house when it dragged into you during a sudden wind shift? Like we had to last night…). But then something happens that reminds me that despite the fact this is sometimes hard (really hard…)—it’s all worth it.

We’ve just celebrated Thanksgiving. Actually, it was thanks to Maia that we celebrated Thanksgiving. Somehow, despite the fact it’s one of my favourite holidays I’ve managed to forget it until the very last minute for two out of the past three years. I think when you don’t have seasonal cues and the buzz of excitement building around you—it’s easy to mess up the timing on these things.

But thanks to a terrible weather system (which means we didn’t leave for Vanuatu as planned, but did manage to fill our tanks with rainwater…) we found ourselves near grocery stores. Within a few hours we had dinner guests arranged, decorations up and a menu planned. With those out of the way we were able to focus on the other part of Thanksgiving—the things we are grateful for.

The list is endless really: We are blessed with a supporting cast of family, and new and old friends who offer us help when needed, ears and hugs as required, chocolate when they can, and who seem to keep showing up on our boat even as we sail further away. And we have each other—I think I started cruising as a way to fulfill my own dreams, but as we’ve worked together and learned more about what makes each of us tick, I’ve discovered the true adventure is when we work to discover our shared goals.

And I’m grateful that Ev and I have employers who don’t seem to find our odd lifestyle and ever changing time zones a barrier to employment. And I’m thankful that Maia is thriving both as a nomad and as a boat schooler. And I’m grateful for a fast, comfortable boat that is easy to repair. And so much more…
 But this Thanksgiving my thoughts keep coming back to that lovo feast—and to the welcoming warmth we discovered in Gunu Village. And I realize that this year—as I sail across an ocean and to places I’ve been fantasizing about since I was small child—I’m grateful to those who went first, and to all those authors and sailors who inspired me to dream.
Happy Thanksgiving.

October 8, 2011

Goodbye Gunu

 “Mum, you won’t believe how many kids dad has in the dinghy.”
Maia and I were putting the final touches on tidying the boat and putting out freshly made muffins and the last of our juice and fruit for our approaching guests. Evan had just dropped off another filled-to-overflowing dinghy load at Connect 4 and now our load of guests was approaching.

Dressed for play—and everyone much the same size and with the same haircuts--I found myself unsure just which children we had aboard. Maia seemed to know who everyone was though and happily took on the role of hostess—touring them through the boat and then offering up a morning snack.

We got them back to the beach in time to head to school and then we settled in for a visit with Lewa and her sister Vesi (who Maia loves). Lewa confirmed our understanding—the fundraiser for the school is so the kids can all attend for free. Typically parents have to pay for tuition, supplies and the uniforms. But in Gunu village the villagers decided to raise money together so that any child can attend elementary school and the kids from the other villages are even given a hot lunch.
Connect 4 getting guests--Gunu Village in the background
 She explained it didn’t stay that simple in secondary school. In Secondary school the kids take exams—if they do well, then they can go to boarding school on the mainland. But it’s expensive and it means for each 14 week term they don’t see their families (the boat to and from Latoka is very expensive). Both Lewa and her brother Kelevi (pronounced Caleb) had the grades to go, but Kelevi missed his family too much to stay on the mainland.

Post Secondary school is an even more complex dream—but Lewa is approaching the end of her IT course. And when the school announces her program is back in session (the Post Secondary School buildings are so overused that programs have to take turns using the facilities) she’ll head back to Latoka. Her dream is to get a good job so that she can get as many children from her family through school as possible.

It seems like a huge burden for the ever-smiling 21-year-old and it made us wish we could have done more than just offer good wishes and a few things for the elementary school as we prepared to say goodbye.

On our final walk through the village I was amazed by what a big place in my heart had been given over to it in such a very few days. We said goodbye at the school—dropping off pictures we had printed and some blackboard chalk for Anna—the long-suffering teacher. And Maia was surrounded with hugging children.

Then we stopped in at Lewa’s house and tried not to cry as I put Tahitian pearls around her and Vesi’s necks. I knew everything else we gave them went to others who needed them more and I wanted these lovely girls to have something a bit special—just for themselves.

And then we said goodbye at Bill and Lucy’s house. They scoured their home for more to give us and we tried to steer them away from gifts and to goodbyes. But it seems in the Fijian culture the two are entwined.
And we sailed on.

October 7, 2011

Village Life

Lucy giving Evan a necklace
 Each time we go ashore in Gunu village we are given a gift: shells, jewellery, a woven basket, flowers, a meal. We hadn’t expected this. In other more well-trodden villages in Fiji there is a friendly spirit but also a hunger for our dollars—the women pull out handicrafts that are often clearly made by some other set of hands, claim them as their own, and then seem to resent our lack of interest in the trinkets.

In Gunu I am overwhelmed as Bill and Lucy empty things out of a hand-made basket and press the basket into our hands. When we visit Lewa and her family the bags of shells they give us are some of their best—shells that would have fetched much needed money from the tourist boat.
wearing our gifts of flowers
 No matter what we bring to shore—and we’ve brought bags of clothes, fabric, food, and school supplies—our offerings can not touch this gentle generosity. They are giving what they have. We give spares—things we bought for the purpose of trading, or things we no longer use. It’s hard to imagine giving the last of what you have, as our hosts seem so willing to do.
Peceli uncovering the lovo

A lovo is a special meal in Fiji that is used for weddings, birthdays, fundraisers and other special gatherings. Our lovo will be one of the highlights of this trip. When we arrived and saw the men digging at the earthen oven and the women and children gathered around we realized this was not a simple meal—but a feast. They pulled bundles of chicken and cassava, white yam and stuffed pumpkin from the steaming pit. Then Lewa and her sister Vesi put salusalus (leis) around our necks and visited with us as still more village women set up the feast area.
Seated at our feast--Maia and Chelse are probably grateful they're not picky eaters


The villagers followed us into a sparsely furnished house and we were seated on the mat around a long, laden tablecloth. Explaining the food--the fish caught by that uncle, the breadfruit cooked by that aunt, the pulusami made by that sister--the women who made the meal scolded us into filling our plates. As we ate we complimented the amazing cooks, talked and joked, and ate some more. Then we realized from the growing crowd that this was a true feast—we pulled back from our seats of honour and the men and children took our places for their meal. And then at last the women.
Lewa and the ladies who cooked

We settled around the room drinking tea (perhaps from the tea bags I brought) while Maia, Chelsea and Nick ran wild outside with the friends they had made over the past few days. Evan and I were sitting near Nelson, the Methodist minister. From him we learned there are four religions in this village of 360—a fact that became amusing when Maia and Chelsea returned with Awake magazines from the competition. Nelson rolled his eyes a bit, then laughed. But we know from Bill and Lucy (who were once chased out of the village for their beliefs) that small village politics are not always simple.

Some of the children asked if they could see the boat so it was decided that in the morning before school we’d pick them up at the beach and bring them to the boats for a visit.

And then we said our goodnights.

October 6, 2011

Straddling Worlds

 When you take eight visitors and add them to a grade three class of excitable kids, chaos is the best term to describe the outcome. But it was a joyful chaos; one that came complete with smiles and hugs, and loads of giggles.
 The school at Gunu village is probably typical for isoalted areas in Fiji. With a handful of teachers, a small library and few resources it has an ambitious plan: to educate the children of these remote villages for free so they can successfully straddle the growing gap between village life and a rapidly changing world.

Even our visit is a sign of this change—not that long ago (think the era of Brook Shields and the Blue Lagoon—which was filmed on a nearby island) the very occasional visitor to this village needed government permission and needed to carry adequate supplies of food so they didn’t overwhelm the villagers. These days they get several yachts each year and a small tourist boat stops in three times a month for a traditional village visit—complete with a lovo prepared by the men (using the tourist boat’s own food), entertainment and a handicraft market. They even have cell coverage, which works when it’s not raining.

That said this is still a subsistence-based traditional village. From the moment we land the dinghy we are hosted. We are walked to where ever we wish to go and are honoured guests where ever we stop. It’s truly a strange to be treated this way as we discovered when we showed up at school and threw the entire building into chaos. The children surrounded us and peppered us with questions.
Lewa's home
 Because English is taught in the schools we were able to share a big pile of books—many were ones Maia used in school last year and several that she grew out of this year. On our walk back through the village we discovered that if you stop and visit when a Fijian family is getting ready to eat or drink you become family—and are expected to eat and drink with them: Which is how we found ourselves having lunch with the chief and his family. Actually, we ate and they watched.
Lunch at the chief's home: Bill and Lucy and their four daughters are amazing hosts
 
 Tonight we return to shore for our lovo. Our gracious host is a lovely young woman named Lewa—she lives in a simple hut with her mother Vinny, father Peceli and four siblings. They don’t have running water, electricity or even windows and doors. But she’s taking a post secondary course in Nadi—in IT. And the next time she’s able to get online we’ll become facebook friends.

October 5, 2011

Hanging with Cannibals

Maia with our kava for sevusevu

We’re sailing through the Yasawas—a dazzling group of 20 or so islands that stretch away from the civilization of Fiji’s two big islands and offer up great diving, villages without electricity (or roads, or cars, or stores, or banks), a few old backpacker resorts, and a few newer high-end resorts (I guess word got out…)

Actually we’re threading our way through the poorly charted reef-strewn waters of the Yasawas--admiring welcoming looking coves (that would be awesome if there was a way in) and imagining what it must have been like for Captain Bligh when he sailed through these waters with 18 men in a 7 metre open boat after the mutiny in 1789. He must have looked hopefully at those same lush coves--where there was sure to be water and fresh food—then despaired when two war canoes filled with cannibals gave him the chase of his life.

Bligh almost ended up in a cooking pot, although it’s hard to imagine it now. Fiji is easily the friendliest place we’ve been and yesterday when we anchored off of Gunu Village we were treated to even more Fijian hospitality.
Rajieli, Chelsea, Maia and Marica
Gunu is one of eight villages on Naviti Island. There are about 300 people in the village and there is an elementary school for about 100 kids (the school serves three villages.)
We quickly learned the school is the heart and pride of the village. And after giving a (very quick) sevusevu where we asked for permission to visit and were made part of the village we were led to the school by Marica and Rajieli—two adorable girls who are in the 3rd and 5th grade. Along the way we were greeted, and thanked, by everyone—our visit and our interest confirmed their quiet pride: this was a good village.
 
On the path to the school we stopped a few times and learned how the house mats were woven and shown what a home was like. Then the girls toured us through their classrooms where we saw cobbled together desks, very few books or resources, but enthusiastic signs of learning. They invited us back for school the next day. On our return to the boat we stopped in again to see the progress of the mat—then the family asked us if they could prepare us a lovo (a meal cooked in an earthen oven). They explained there was a school fundraiser coming up and anything we donated for the meal would help the school.
So we’ve decided our exploring is done and our final days in the Yasawas and Fiji will be here in ‘our’ village. We’ll do what we can for ‘our’ school and we’ll have dinner with ‘our’ family.
Maia and the lovely Lewa
There’s a lesson here isn’t there? Not the one that Bligh learned, that you must flee to survive. But more the idea that unless cannibals are actively chasing you, pretty much everywhere we travel comes with the potential joy and responsibility of becoming our home.
If only for a day.

Pay it Forward

In my dream goats are surrounding our boat. The bleating made me wonder if they would disturb our neighbours so, coming awake only gradually, I popped my head out our hatch to see what they wanted.

Awake now, and squinting into the rising sun, I discover we’re in a tranquil bay—looking across reef strewn shallows toward an uninhabited island. But then the goats went off again and I realized it was inhabited—that the offspring of goats first brought by the explorers were running wild on the island, munching their way through the native plants and waking their sleepy visitors early in the morning.

A visitor with a headache.

Not long after dropping our anchor off of Nanuya Balavu and Drawqu islands we decided to swim ashore and check out Manta Ray Bay—a small eco-resort on Nanuya. After visiting, and deciding it would be the perfect place to have dinner (and get a break from cooking) we headed down the beach across the frothy sand and onto slick volcanic stone—where I slipped and cracked my head.

The rest is a blur of feeling sleepy, and not being permitted to sleep, and the annoyance that comes when someone roughly pokes you awake to shine a light in your eyes and take your blood pressure every time you drift into a peaceful dream. Happily Steve on Connect 4 has had medical training and between him and Evan they decided we didn’t need to test our medical evacuation insurance. And within a couple of days I was feeling like myself.
helping Karinya recover their anchor
So often we’re reminded that while we are on our own out here—it really is the network of other cruisers, friends and family at home, and supportive locals that makes this lifestyle work. Cruising is an endless game of Pay it Forward. A game that means when our inverter died in the midst of shaping our new dagger board (it has since resurrected itself) we had offers of help and a generator on our deck within hours. When Karinya lost their anchor overboard (a link broke in the chain!) within minutes Evan was there with scuba gear. And when Connect 4’s dinghy engine threatens to die—we’re there alongside to be sure they get in.

It also works in the fun stuff. Having a compressor means the whole Connect 4 family has been diving with us—the kids having their first ever chance to try and Cheryl getting down for her second and third times. It also means we share our skills—I’ve paid my wonderful sushi making lesson (courtesy of Meri on Hotspur) forward a couple of times. While my new jewellery making skills and several recipes in my recipe box that came from our buddy boating group are making their own appearances.

The goats, it seems, are satisfied with having woken me and are moving on. My headache is easing with the thought of the day ahead: snorkelling, finally having that meal at Manta Ray resort, and spending time with friends.
This is a good way to live. Goats, head bangs and all.
*we continue to have slow internet but will try for pictures soon

October 2, 2011

Fireworks on the Beach


"The water is blue again!" Maia called from the bow, "Have you ever seen anything so beautiful?"
There wasn't much wind, but we raised our new main anyway, just to gaze at the crisp white fabric. Then I pointed out two reefs I saw, and Evan admired the little islands. We all grinned at each other. Somehow after doing this for two years we're still giddy with joy when we get underway.
our lovely new Island Planet sail

 Threading our way through reefs we passed the islet where Tom Hanks was Castaway. Then we went a little further-arriving at isolated and pristine Vanua Levu-a stunningly gorgeous anchorage made up of three small rocky islets with stretches of empty beach and that's surrounded by reefs. On the way in we strayed from the channel and grazed the edge of one reef, and although the coral was 30' below I could make out the detail on the fan coral.
 When Steve from Connect 4 had called us earlier to make plans where to meet he let us know this might be a great place to have a bonfire on the beach-if we could get through the reef that surrounds the island. As we set our anchor and went for a swim-they looked for a beach landing-working their way down the sort of white sand beach that occupies winter daydreams until they found a calm place we could get our dinghys ashore.
Our surf landing was textbook and soon the snacks were out, the wine was open and the bonfire roaring. The kids wandered deep into the island-playing Robinson Crusoe or, given the family connection, Alexander Selkirk. When it was dark it was time for fireworks.
We lit them with sparklers and backed off as they boomed and whistled into the sky, adding more stars to an already starry night. And adding a hint of celebration to a day that was steeped in gratitude.
Can you believe it? We're in Fiji, man.
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