Friday, March 24, 2017

Reef Islands - Solomon Islands

We’ve anchored at a place of which little is written in the few available cruising guides, no recommendations from friends, and virtually no information at all except for the satellite images that showed a plausible anchorage here. The images from space were exactly what brought us here, though. It looked too beautiful to miss.
Reef Islands… the little group of islands surrounded by reefs just north of Santa Cruz is reminiscent of the Tuomotus with the bright turquoise shallow water inside the lagoon. Yet also similar to Fulaga, Fiji where we saw our first mushroom-shaped coral islets capped with shrubs poking up from the sea. I am captivated by the view from the bow as we drop anchor in 20 meters of water. The water is every shade of blue and green imaginable as the depth changes from extremely deep to barely covering the sand near the shore.

s/v Perry with line of kids in canoes
The canoes begin to surround us quickly- all of them full of smiling, curious, naked children wielding paddles. After introductions I hand each child a pumpkin cookie. They are so careful not to bump the boat with the dugout wooden canoes, and can steer skillfully close enough to reach out a hand and politely take the cookie from me with a shy giggle.

Denzel comes out, too, a young man in his twenties in a fiberglass canoe. He kindly offers to guide us through the reefs to a place where we can easily walk ashore. Kids line the beach and the nearby cliffs whooping and waving a warm welcome, and then the crowd follows us up to the center of the village. Many of the adults are seated, their mouths full of the red, juicy spit produced by chewing a betel nut/lime powder concoction that is infamous here. They seem happy to see us, but also unsure of what exactly to do with us. We aren’t the first visitors they’ve had, but they don’t get many!! There is a discussion among the prominent men and we’re not sure exactly what they are trying to decide, although I imagine they are contemplating an anchoring fee or donation request. In the end, they asked if we could donate some school supplies to the kindergarten. No problem!

Everyone is kind, but shy. I meet the teacher of the kindie and Mark asks if we can please see the kindie classroom. It’s walls are layered pandanus leaves, with a row of windows just below the eaves of the roof. The floor is sand, and there is a row of papers hanging up to showcase counting and coloring work. Along one wall leans a large piece of particle board on which the teacher has written with chalk. It is starkly bare, an indication of how remote they are here. The supply ship comes monthly if they’re lucky, but the last one came quite a while ago.

Fixing a sewing machine
Mark promptly offers up help to fix things, and as he walks back to the dinghy, one-by-one people come and ask in hushed tones for help with things - an outboard engine that isn’t working, a sewing machine that needs repair. His project list for the following day quickly fills up.

Everyone is hot and exhausted, so we say goodbye with promises that Mark and Matt will return in the morning with their tools. Elizabeth, Michael, Conrad and Mark are excited to get back to the boats. It happens to be Michael’s ninth birthday, and we have some flan to eat and Xbox to play!! Yes, he requested flan, steak, and Xbox - who is this kid!? I’m prepared, though, as I’d happened to find a flan boxed mix in Port Vila a few months ago and have saved it just for this occasion. It’s not quite like the real thing, but my Argentine flan recipe requires multiple eggs, which are now a precious commodity.

We all gather on Field Trip, fire up the grill, and enjoy a birthday celebration with friends. Michael told me earlier how thankful he was that his friends, Conrad and Mark, are here to make his birthday a ‘real’ party. There have been few kid boats around lately, so the timing could not have been more perfect.

Michael's present from dad
Sarah's creative sign for Michaels b-day - MineCraft!

Taking the kids for a joy ride in dingy!

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Sailing to the Solomons

On paper, this was to be a beautiful sail - winds abeam or just behind the entire way, winds between 12 and 18 knots, and swell of about a meter from behind. BUT… gribs aren’t always accurate and passage planning is never a sure thing. If I’ve learned anything over the past 25,000 miles of sailing, it is this - never set your heart on what weather forecasts or route planners predict. Plan for the worst, and be pleasantly surprised at anything better.

Mark had high hopes to not run a motor the entire 28-hour trip, but within the first few hours, we were bobbing along with flapping sails at less than 2 knots. Where was that 12-18 knots? Motors ran for 8 hours total on and off and the sails went up and down during a squally night.

By 9 a.m. on the first day out, Mark realized that our fishing lines had been tangling for the past 2 hours. They were a twisted, knotted mess! We figured out a detangling strategy and took turns unspinning and re-winding the line on two had reels. It was a tedious task, but doable given the light weather (I couldn’t imagine sitting there examining knots in rough seas! Makes me ill just thinking about it!)

Finally, at about 2 in the afternoon, we got to a knot that was impossible to untwist and untangle. We had to cut and splice the fishing line, but Mark was glad to have saved the amount of line we did after his initial, less hopeful assessment. It kept us all busy and distracted, though. Even provided a few laughs seeing who could think up the best techniques. At one point, Elizabeth was lying face-up on the floor, making one spool orbit the other. Who needs iPads and movies when you’ve got tangled fishing lines to entertain you?

When we were an hour away from the entrance to Nnendo, a strong squall came across us bringing a torrential downpour that forcibly rinsed any saltwater off the decks and revealed a leaky hatch in the salon that would need to be fixed. It also brought a cool breeze that filled the sails and had us broad reaching at 120 degrees and speeding along the flat water at 8 knots. Not all storms are bad news…

There are two entrances to Graciosa Bay - one narrow pass on the southwest side between Mola Island and the mainland, and the wide mouth of the bay on the north side. It’s always a tricky decision to make whether to navigate the pass or take the long way to the easy entrance. Many factors are in play now that we are in a very remote area. Fuel is a precious commodity, especially since winds here at this time of year tend to be light to non-existent. Motoring around to the top would be using fuel unnecessarily, perhaps. On the other hand, tide and current tables aren’t very accurate for this region, and we’ve never been through this southern pass before. Would the current be with us or against us? How strong would it be? Mark looked at the satellite images, and traced a clear path onto the chart plotter, but we’d need good lighting and with these squalls coming through, there are no guarantees of that.

I tend to be the cautious one. I’d take the long way around. If we ran aground in the pass and damaged the boat, there are no marinas or chandleries within hundreds of miles. And certainly no coast guard or emergency rescue services! But Mark thinks in terms of efficiency. Why burn fuel to go around when there’s a clear entrance nearby? Since I was at the helm, Mark said it was my choice. I do not make decisions easily. I put the engines in neutral while my mind plays all the possible scenarios on overdrive. Finally, I decide. It’s not worth the risk - we’ll go all the way to the north. But Mark has already put all the sails away and does not want to bring them out again, which means burning fuel. I turn away from the pass entrance, prepared to take the long way anyway. Mark concedes, and heads to bed for some much-needed rest.
I sit idling, still not confident in my decision. I know what Mark would do. I don’t want to be a wimp about it. Matt breaks my contemplative silence with a call on the VHF.

“We’re going through the pass. These clouds aren’t moving, and it looks good from here.”

“Okay. You go first, and I’ll follow you in!”

What a sheep I am! I turn the wheel back toward the entrance and say a prayer.

“Light is good. Reefs are easily visible and there’s plenty of room. We’ve got 1 knot with us now, “ Matt updates from the pass.

I get Mark up, and tell him we’re going through and I need him on reef watch at the bow. I know my indecision tests his patience, but thankfully he doesn’t complain.

Matt gives another report. “No problem. Just leave the anchored boat to starboard and it’s wide open.”

The clouds loom over the nearby shore, threatening to block the sun, but they never do. We glide between the visible reef walls on either side of us, around the anchored boat, and out into the choppy water where the current meets the calm water of the bay. It sure was nice to have someone go first, though!

I relish the calm waters of the protected bay and the idea of entering yet another new country. What will this season be like? What adventures and challenges will it bring? What will the Solomon Islands teach us?

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Maskelynes, Vanuatu

From Havana, we sailed straight up to the Maskelynes, trying to pass Kerry and Damian on Sel Citron early in the morning to get a head start.  Diana and Graham were already in Lutes and we decided to join the pack once again to explore the clam sanctuary and participate in the Vanuatu Independence Day celebrations.

The entrance to the anchorage was a bit of a nail-biter with one section narrow and quite shallow (3 m) edged by reef.  We used the satellite images to plot a course and also cross-referenced the course with the waypoints given in the guidebooks.  Still, I stood up on the bow, keeping a lookout for hazards below and cringing as the crystal clear water made things look so close to the surface!  Mark carefully monitored the depth sounder over the shallow bit, and we were fine.  The opposite challenge awaited us in the deep, dark waters of the anchorage.  And we took care to put out 5 to 1 scope in the 20+ meters, leaving plenty of swing room between us and the other boats.

Turns out, Sel Citron has beaten us there after all, having left at about the same time from an anchorage at the northern tip of Efate.  Oh well, Mark had fun imagining us passing them and surprising them.

The big news in Lutes, though, was that only 3 weeks prior, a sandspit had risen up suddenly from the shallows.  A new island had been pushed up from below by some sort of tectonic plate movement, and the owners of that portion of the reef were preparing to have a dedication and naming ceremony for this new piece of land.  It was quite the event and somehow we all were invited as the honored guests - the first white men to set foot on the dry sand.  The Ni-Vans sure do love any reason to create a full-on celebration!

Ferry ride to new island.
Mark and Damian set off in the morning to pick up folks on shore who would be joining/facilitating the ceremony.  Joseph rode with us, the actual owner of the new island.  His English was fantastic, and we soon understood why - he works the vineyards every year in Marlborough, NZ for months at a time.  I continue to be impressed by the industrious characters here in Vanuatu.  Later, in Malekula, we’d meet George who worked on a commercial fishing boat and traveled all through Asia and Oceania.  Through his travels, he realized what a rich, unique culture he had here in Vanuatu and decided it was important that they share it with the world.  That’s how he got started in tourism here.

We anchored off the new island, where men were busy setting up a wooden sign adorned with tropical flowers.  It read, “Niel Fat Sunburn Floating Beach” - a mouthful for such a small spit of land, but I’m sure there is significance… well, pretty sure.  Niel is the family name of Joseph, it’s the ‘Fat Sunburn Floating Beach’ part that I’m not too sure about. Maybe in honor of all these fat, sunburned tourists that come to visit them here??  But no cruise ships come this way!  And they can’t be talking about us, can they!?

Island dedication ceremony

Graham the cartographer
A few prayers are said by the pastor, speeches are given, and Graham is the official cartographer - commissioned to walk the perimeter of the island and plot GPS coordinates that will put it on the map.  Oodles of photos are taken, as well as some video of the first outrigger canoe landing on its shore.  Stewart, the tourism rep on the island could be a hollywood producer with his knack for dramatic and poignant images, and he directs the cruisers (necks heavy-laden with ridiculous camera equipment and video cameras) as if we are his full-time film crew.

He keeps mentioning his hopes for how the village can use this island to attract visitors, thinking people will come from far and wide to see a piece of land that rose from the sea.  Geologists, maybe, but I’m not sure the average Joe would deem this an eleventh wonder of the world.  However, based on its location and makeup, it might prove to be a fantastic draw for wind kiters - flat water, sand from which to launch, and steady wind.  I love his enthusiasm and foresight, again, a sign of the industrious spirit here.

The ladies on the beach

It was a carefully orchestrated ceremony, and I felt so honored to be invited to be part of it.  The following day, Mark would come back with two dinghies full of villagers to take some drone footage.  The people had never seen a drone before, and the kids especially went nuts about it - a mixture of awe and uncertainty.  But when the adults saw the finished video on Mark’s laptop in the kava hut later that night, they were hooked.  I think they must have played it 5 or 6 times!  The elderly father shuffled up close to the screen, not believing what he was seeing.  It was so fun to see their reactions!  And of course, they insisted Mark bring it to the Independence Celebrations the next day to film the village.

Village patriarch squinting to view new video
Before leaving, Stewart organized a trip out to the Giant Clam Sanctuary for us.  We paddled in authentic outrigger canoes, and had a chance to snorkel in shallow waters over extravagantly colored clams.  The sanctuary had been set up by a local man, seeing the need to protect these vital sea creatures.  Although Cyclone Pam depleted the population of clams, many are still thriving.

Kids padding outrigger to island
On the day we left, we saw Stewart showing the video footage to a newly anchored yacht as part of the tourism welcome!  And then when we arrived in PKiKort Sandwich a week later, a man stopped Mark and asked if he was the one who had a drone.  Turns out Joseph had told him all about it!!  News on the coconut telegraph travels fast!

Enjoying the new beach

New Island Video - Maskelyne Islands Vanuatu. from Mark Silversetin on Vimeo.

Vanuatu Independence Day Celebration from Mark Silversetin on Vimeo.