Sunday, July 27, 2014

Chesterfield Reef

After 6 days in Port Vila, another weather window presented itself, and Ed and I prepared to continue the voyage without Ollie, who had decided to do some more travel in Vanuatu and fly home from there. After our recent unpleasant passage from Fiji, neither Ed nor I were keen about the idea of double-handing for a thousand miles, but no other options appeared.

However, this next passage turned out to be a completely different ball game. We had perfect tradewind sailing along our westward track, with very light sea conditions due to being in the lee of New Caledonia. Southern Cross logged a couple of 150-mile days, and before we knew it, we were approaching the "Grand Passage" between the Pacific and the Coral Sea. Strong upwellings and currents in the pass were revealed by a frenzy of seabirds feasting on vast schools of fish.

Ed's father was sending us nightly weather forecasts from his boat anchored in the Baltic; with a favorable forecast, we planned a stop at the Chesterfield Reef, a vast uninhabited archipelago of tiny cays, administered by New Caledonia. I had tried to get official permission to stop here, but the Maritime Affairs department never replied to my emails, and the French Consul in Port Vila was no help. We decided it was worth the small risk of being fined or booted out.

We had several waypoints (thanks to Evan and Diane on Ceilydh) for approaching and anchoring in the lagoon, but other than that, our Navionics chart was sorely lacking in detail. As we neared the approach waypoint for the lagoon, the wind picked up to a steady 20 knots. It was 1330, meaning we had about 4 hours to get the boat safely anchored, or else face darkness in a poorly-charted area full of reefs! Visibility was good, so I tried to "cut the corner" from the approach waypoint toward the anchorage. But when soundings steadily decreased, and large bommies started appearing, we doubled back to the north, adding another two miles to the distance we had to cover to get to the anchorage. By the time we were back in deep water inside the lagoon, the anchorage was dead to windward, with a short two-foot chop reducing our speed to about 3 knots. The clock was ticking, so we tried tacking with a small bit of jib rolled out and the engine running. Slowly we made our way to the south. I told Ed that if we weren't in sight of the anchorage in another half-hour, we would have to turn and run for the passage through the west side of the reef and back out to sea.

Shortly thereafter, we spotted a ketch to the south. At first I thought she was also motoring toward the anchorage, but when we hailed her on VHF, we learned that Quintessa was anchored in the middle of the lagoon, in over 30 meters of water! Thus reassured that conditions were better ahead of us, we carried on, and reached a nice sand patch in the lee of the eastern string of cays, with an hour of daylight to spare. The Rocna hooked immediately, as usual, and I went below to warm up and get some food. Ed, not one to rely on unfamiliar ground tackle, stayed on anchor watch a while longer, while I tried to convince him of my anchor's dependability.

The next morning, the wind continued to blow a steady 20 knots and higher, ensuring that a trip to shore would be somewhat like getting wet-sanded. We stayed on the boat until mid-afternoon, when we were invited over to Quintessa for a beer. She turned out to be a powerful 65-foot ketch, hailing from Whangarei, NZ; her skipper Allen turned out to be a rather obsessive shell collector. He had been singlehanding among the reefs in the Coral Sea for several weeks, seeking out remote bommies where he would dive alone, at night, in shark-infested waters, in search of Conus lamberti and other rare (and often extremely venomous) molluscs. Talk about commitment!

The next morning, the sky was filled with a glorious and bloody sunrise, and the wind had abated to about 15 knots.

Before we knew what was happening, a pair of humpback whales came right past the boat. If we'd had our wits about us, we could have jumped right in and swam with them. After grabbing our masks and fins, we got into the dinghy and spent the next hour following them along the fringe of the lagoon. Ed caught a brief glimpse of them underwater, but they were swimming too quickly to keep up with.

After giving up our pursuit of the whales, we dinghied ashore, trying not to disturb the nesting boobies, frigatebirds, noddies, and terns.

That afternoon, a third boat, TryBooking (named for its owner's company) anchored nearby. A group of Melbourne sailors were delivering her back home from the Vanuatu race, and they told us there was a good weather window approaching, so we made plans to head out the next morning. Glad we were able to stop here at Chesterfield. It is good to know there are still such places where wild nature can flourish relatively unmolested.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Passage to Vanuatu

The date for continuing our voyage was rather hard to nail down. Vicki has been hoping to find someone to crew in her stead, having decided that she doesn't need any more blue water passages on her resume. I wasn't about to singlehand, and I was reluctant even to doublehand, so we needed to find at least two crew.

We put out a call to experienced sailors among our family and friends, but were only able to get one solid commitment, from a thirty-something Australian whom we had met in April. I was a bit hesitant, knowing that his offshore experience was limited, but the clock was ticking, so we finally phoned Ollie and told him we would leave in a week's time if he was still willing and able to fly over to Fiji. He was, so Vicki booked her own ticket to fly in the other direction and began provisioning the boat for the passage. We took another look at the standing rigging, and made a last-minute decision to replace the cap shrouds, lowers, and the starboard intermediate (having already replaced the port one a month ago).

At this point we had a stroke of good luck - just how good we were yet to learn. Vicki saw a young man with long curly hair disembarking from a newly-arrived yacht with his sea bag flung over his shoulder, thought about it a minute, and realized he might be looking for a new crew position. He had disappeared from view, so she asked everyone if they had seen him, and eventually learned that his name was Edward and that he was taking a shower. She went over toward the men's room, called to him from outside the door. He was a bit surprised to be hailed by a stranger while showering, but he eventually agreed to come by our boat after he had finished.

My first impression of Ed was quite positive - he was good natured, strong, and had sailed most of his life. He had spent the past year or so learning traditional boatbuilding skills in NZ and Australia. He asked a lot of questions about the boat's safety equipment, which indicated a high degree of safety consciousness. We were a bit surprised when he agreed to join the crew after only a 20-minute chat. We told him to sleep on it, but he telephoned the next day to confirm his willingness.

After Ollie arrived, Vicki moved ashore for the last couple of days before her flight, giving me time to bond with my new crew. We sailed out to Musket Cove, visited Cloud Nine, and then returned to Vuda to check out with Customs. The weather dictated another few days' wait, so we caught a truck ride up to Abaca village and spent a couple of days climbing Mt. Batilamu and exploring the nearby jungle.

Finally, our weather window arrived and we sailed out Malolo Pass, getting a close look at the "Restaurants" surf break.

Despite a forecast for quartering SE winds and seas, we found ourselves hard on the wind the first day and night at sea. Ollie learned that the Stugeron he had brought was ineffective at warding off seasickness. By the second night at sea, he was better, but only because we were motoring in a relatively flat sea. The wind picked up again on Day 3, still on the nose from our intended landfall at Anatom Island. Finally I made the decision to crack off for Port Vila, not only to ease Ollie's discomfort, but to minimize the chance of breakage. I didn't want to deduct the cost of any further repairs from the sale price of the boat.

Once again, the winds died during the night, and we found ourselves motoring. So the next morning, we again altered course, hoping to reach Anatom or at least Tanna. But the winds and seas cruelly increased, and we altered couse for the last time, still a day away from landfall at Port Vila. All three of us were mightily disappointed to miss out on the charms of two lesser-visited islands and to have to make landfall at a major port. The only consolation was that for one of the last hours of our downwind sleigh ride, we were accompanied by a minke whale, happily surfing alongside us and at times passing a bit too close under our bow. We had terrific views of the whole body of the whale inside the wave, but it was too wet and rough to capture the experience with our cameras.

Port Vila was a snug harbor, and the Customs and Quarantine crew was friendly and efficient. We were soon sipping Tuskers (local beer) at the Yachting World bar, and deciding how to spend our time in port. All three of us took a van ride over to yet another "Blue Lagoon" on the opposite side of the island.

Ed and Ollie continued their adventure by hitching the rest of the way around the island, while I went back to Port Vila to stew over weather GRIB files and enjoy the the fresh fruits and veggies from the local market. I continued to experience strong disappointment over having missed out on Anatom and Tanna, and didn't really allow myself to enjoy Efate.