Sunday, July 31, 2016

Noumea to Baie St Vincent
17/7/16 – 28/7/16
(Blog readers please note - by left clicking on  photos you will see them full size and a photo gallery below. The same applies for previous blog posts..see blog archives below.)

Viewed from space or viewed from Google Earth, New Caledonia’s encircling lagoon, its emerald cloak, is one of the most stunning features on earth. With a 1600 km barrier reef, only second in size to Australia’s, it encloses a 24,000 square km lagoon, a marine treasure encircling Grand Terre, and stretching from the Isle des Pins (Isle of Pines) in the south east to beyond the Beleep Islands in the north-west to form the largest lagoon system on earth. When we arrived here we began to appreciate that we had found a marine playground, the dimensions of which we had scarcely appreciated. From our brief foray out of Noumea (see last blog) we decided that we needed see a good deal more of Noumea’s incredible nautical environment before setting sights on Vanuatu, which lies well away to the north-east.

The great lagoon of Noumea extends north-west from Noumea with openings such as Passe Dumbea, Passe de Uitoe and Passe St Vincent providing gaps in the Grand Recife (the barrier reef) to allow passage for smaller and larger ships alike. Dotted along the Grand Recife are rusting remains of a number of wrecks that one way or another have fetched up on the reef, and remain there to this day, providing a salutatory message to all who ply these waters to not be fooled by their intrinsic beauty, for dangers are lurking, all about. Beyond Passe St Vincent and Baie St Vincent the Recife heads coast-wards, and the lagoon narrows considerably before, on the charts, disappearing into a narrow finger of shoals and reefs that are largely unsurveyed. Those exploring Noumea’s west coast are obliged to exit the lagoon at Passe St Vincent and head seawards along the outside of the reef before taking a pass further north to once again access the shelter of the lagoon. Because the lagoon to the north is not as highly regarded, we set the northern boundary of this excursion as some stunning anchorages in Baie St Vincent, and with this in mind we exited Noumea’s Passe Petite and made to the north-west.
Example of the great Predict Wind weather forecast models

Winds in Noumea are dominated by the trade winds blowing from the south-east, and for most cruisers, when they push in with a vengeance it is a good time to be in port. When they blow moderately, cruisers can get about or make passage by as they say “working the trades” Typically the winds are softer in the morning before rising in the afternoon; so for those “working into them” it is good to leave early and be tucked in to an appropriate anchorage when they whistle in later in the day. In Noumea weather reports are thorough and valuable, but they come in French! Happily, Cookie is proving a dab hand with the Predict Wind models and her sleuthing of conditions in New Caledonia’s south-west indicated that after a couple of days of modest trades, a period of calmer days should follow, so with this in mind, we planned to use the sou-easters to push us up to Baie St Vincent, before heading south again into lighter airs.

Our first anchorage was little more than a necessary stopover at Baie Maa, and whilst we were glad to be making passage again, our good friends the Maa Remoras were there again, aggregating under our hull and exploding in a flurry of activity when morsels were dropped over the side. In reality we’d have swapped a couple of remoras for a dugong, as try as we did, a sighting of one of these ponderous sea-grazers still eluded us.
Anchorages and waypoints for exploring Baie de St Vincent

One of the problems in using the Rocket Guide to Anchorages in New Caledonia is that in the region out of Noumea there are so many options, that selecting the best places presented a pleasant challenge for us on Calista; although we settled on destinations based on their qualities, the things we like to do whilst cruising and ultimately what the wind was forecast to do. Heading north then from Baie Maa, we were intrigued by a isthmus anchorage at Ile T’Ndu where we could access this feature at low tide and at the same spot take a look at a new canal-style development that was now open and now selling, a day’s sail north of Noumea. By early afternoon though the tell-tale signs of a rising sou-easter sent us scooting north from Ile T’Ndu in search of an anchorage with good holding and SE protection, and by using our electronic guide we  sheltered in perfect comfort at Presquille de Uitoe, tucked away in the corner of Baie St Vincent. We could have withstood a gale in Presquille de Uitoe, but as we sat snugly in this anchorage overnight in a fulsome and gathering moon the gentle illumination all about made us reflect on what a difference even a sliver of moon would have made to our long black nights getting here across the Coral Sea.

T'Ndu anchorage and marina housing development

So far the winds had kept us from places where we might have access to some in and under water activities, and with this in our thoughts we sought out possible anchorages to the north where in the anchoring / information portal of the guide a ‘snorkeller” was shown, indicating a spot where we might finally get wet, and look for Nemo. One such spot was Ile Mboa, a few miles off the mainland, but on arrival there the sou-easter was like a thumb across a wet canvas, and it had stirred up the anchorage, making it possible but not welcoming to anchor.  Our high hopes for a location for aquatic pursuits between reef and shore now fell on Ile Ducos (Canal Ducos), but when we got there, water visibility was compromised by a milky current issuing from onshore and we had to reconcile ourselves to heading for the SE tolerant Baie des Moustiques, where, apart from not living up to its name, we could at least get ashore for a walk along the coast, on an island that presented a visage of surprising dryness. Our coastal “hopping” had been worth doing, and ever interesting, but with the winds softening we were certain that beyond Passe St Vincent we would find the brochure perfect places that we knew were there for the finding in the great lagoon.
Anchorage near Canal Ducos

Baie des Moustiques

From Baie des Moustiques, we passed through but discarded Canal Ducos, and considered Isle Tenia, just in from the outer reef, but settled instead on Isle Isie some 15 miles to the north-west, where two recognised anchorages were located and we hoped that at least one would provide adequate shelter in the lingering trades. The easterly anchorage on Isle Isie was too exposed to the afternoon winds, but on the nor-western side, protected by projecting reefs the location was like Goldilocks’ porridge, just right, at last! Just a short duck ride away, alongside the outer edge of the reef, we found the brochure; immense coral heads, “bommies”, staghorn corals in brilliant purples, green and blue, and soft corals like velvet fans of lavender, smoke grey, and ivory and more fish than we could possibly count and more colours than an Indian festival. Wow! That night, with a full moon approaching, we slept easily, with the trades blunted by Isle Isie and its girdle of reefs, looking forward to a long walk ashore in the early morn when the full tide gave access to the beach that surrounded two-thirds of the island.
Ile Isie

Ashore our beach walks have met our joint love of exploring new places, our desire to include some exercise whenever we can, and by the need to pay heed to a behavioural trait of Cookie’s for which I believe there is no cure available through science. She is an unabashed, indefatigable, and irretrievably committed shellaholic. When she discovered that the shelled Naitilus lives in numbers in New Caledonia’s great lagoon where it is recognised as a national emblem, and what is more, their shells often wash ashore in remote places, the search was on, and no bloodhound on a fresh scent, could strain at the leash like Cookie on a deserted beach, on a remote tropical island, on the search for calcareous booty. Thus our early walk, at an intemperate hour, was dominated by her forging ahead, often with a shriek and a pounce, like an owl swooping on a mouse, only for her to recoil in dismay as the unearthed treasure turned out to be damaged and incomplete, and the search was resumed again. Time and again promising “finds” proved to be fool’s gold, but we trudged on nonetheless. In a glorious environment such as this though, the absence of complete Nautili, was but small change considering the riches all about us. By morning’s end we could have opened our own website, specialising in Nautilus spare parts, in a pastime where four quarters definitely do not make a whole.

Excellent anchorage information from our Rocket Guide for Ile Tenia
One of the things that attracted us to “our next island”, Ile Tenia, some dozen or so miles to the south was that it nestled in a hook in the outer reef, the Grand Recif, just alongside Passe St Vincent, making it a tropical isle just an ocean’s roar from the Coral Sea. The approach to Ile Tenia takes a keelboat just abeam of a lengthy spit, that viewed from above must appear like an azure finger in an emerald sea. When we arrived there and set our anchor, we walked around our decks, not able to comprehend the beauty of this truly remarkable place. Yes, we were anchored not far from the ribbon of surf crashing and roaring on the outer reef, but that was not what held our attention. It was the water itself, clear, aquamarine, stunningly alluring from every aspect, and instantly pleasing to the eye. With keen vision you could count the links in our anchor chain, all the way to the pick. Wow, again!

After loading our duck with more toys than a child’s Christmas - we needed to take everything imaginable given the distance to shore - we made for Isle Tenia, to find that we were not the only souls to be attracted to Tenia’s considerable charms, and that given its relative proximity to “mainland” hamlets, it was a popular local destination for New Caledonians in runabouts. Recognising this, the NC authorities have responded to Tenia’s popularity and its invaluable ecology by putting in a handful of sturdily built picnic settings, shelters and the like to cater for the needs of visitors. Mini try-pot fires are also there to be used and to reduce foraging in the undergrowth, netting bags of sawn wood are provided, just to complete the picture. After seeing all of this and selecting a spot for our encampment, we found ourselves under a sturdily constructed wooden beach shelter, ocean view across the extensive reefs to the Passe itself, and, wait for this, our own beach lounges, the ones with the adjustable backrests, for our personal and private deployment. Viola! Viva la France! Muraroa is partially forgiven. For those who read these lines and believe that in some small way we are hard-driven adventurers, we can now come clean and confess, that at Tenia, what with all of the things to explore in the sea, and the softness and comforts of a lounge-lizard life available ashore, we succumbed to this enchanted isle and without requiring a plebiscite, voted to stay for a couple of days. If all of life’s great decisions were as simple as this!

Visions of Ile Tenia
Tenia looked gorgeous and her beauty was more than skin deep, for it extended under the water as well. To have days of coral snorkelling, beach walks – we only added to our Nautilli spare parts drawer and no more – and lounging under the shelters contemplating our novels, was just about as good as it gets. There were only two disconcerting aspects to note. One was the erosion on the Recife-facing shoreline which had come from a relatively recent storm, likely to have been the horrid event that we experienced at Coffs Harbor, which extended its destructive influence across the Coral Sea, and confined a cruise liner to the harbor in Noumea until it abated. Yes, lie under a shelter gazing at a lagoon we might, but allow ourselves to have a warm and calm day blur our respect for the capricious nature of the sea we should not. The other consideration was just observable, across the lagoon to the north. Calista. She was reduced to a bobbing dot on the horizon, like we were seeing her through inverted binoculars, and come the afternoon sea breeze and the swell of the fuller tide leaping the Recife; we would have to give thought to abandoning this nautical nirvana, to seek a sounder anchorage overnight.

If in the land of the internet you “just ask Gookle”, then in the lagoon abeam of Passe St Vincent, and you are looking for an anchorage, just ask the Rocket Guide. Sure enough, just an hour’s unfurled headsail away was the delightful cusped anchorage at Ile Puen, just offshore from a farm and farm-stay, and perfect for overnighting in a afternoon sou-easter. What is more, with a nearby reef and beach fully exposed at the low end of the tide, and the blessing of the manager to go and explore, there was the prospect of finding a shelled object of flotsam perfection as an added incentive for our stroll. Again though, the walk was great, and we marvelled at the immense Osprey nest in a forked tree just along the beach, but alas, in regard to Nautilli, complete treasures remained somewhere else to be found.  

Sheltered Ile Puen anchorage

Next morning in light airs we retraced our steps to the lovely Tenia and along the way were passed by a New Zealand family in their sleek yacht Zinabar, who photographed us as they cruised past. With it being a weekend, and the weather perfect, we thought that Tania would be a popular destination for locals and this proved to be true; although there was plenty of space, plenty of lounge chairs and plenty of water to go around. Whilst on land there was plenty of life, underwater it was as colourful as a pageant and in Cookie’s daily diary she described it thus….”I’d just got in and a sea snake glided past! The coral and fish were beautiful, ,with some great coral gardens…found some larger Nemos, saw a white tipped reef shark and heaps of fish. I swam with a huge school of big black fish – Ringtailed Surgeon Fish – colourful parrot fish and found more Nemos, this time tomato anemone fish. A great snorkel”. It was hard to resist another lap of the island, so we strolled around, and with three extensive snorkels, periods of indolence in the tropical shade, and the ever present vistas of forest, beach, lagoon and Recief to delight, we felt it time to use the last of the day, and the unusually gentle afternoon airs to make south to one of two seaward anchorages, again courtesy of the Rocket Guide and its detailed waypoints, for approaching and anchoring, at Ille Nduke. Besides, too much of a good thing might become not enough of a good thing and we might never leave the seductive Ile Tenia.

Another day in Paradise

On a voyage like this we have many unforgettable moments, and all about there is a smorgasboard for the senses, the hues of sunset, seeing raptors, up close and personal, the tickle of a hermit crab that you have placed in your hand, more images than you can store on your hard drive, and a shared Bordeaux with French Camembert as you debrief on the day. This moment though, one that I had been yearning for, came with the last of our “Noumea bread” disappearing into one of Cookie’s famous cheese and tomato jaffles atop our ship’s stove. Deep in a store locker lay a box of Lauke’s most excellent grained bread mix, and Cookie announced, to rapturous cheers, that she would rise early, as it were, and bake an offering in the ship’s oven. Where there is a knead as they say, and all of this would transpire whilst I remained a loafer, as it were, in the boudoir. In the end I was galvanised by my olfactory at the alluring aromas wafting from Cookie’s Patisserie and had a selection of potted conserves, honeys from Kangaroo Island and Tasmania, and the ship’s breadknife at the ready when the piece de resistance emerged golden, glowing and succulent for official photographing (see below!) and our joint delectation. And so there we were, nid-nodding in a tropical anchorage, filtered coffee at the ready – actually mine was green tea with jasmine – taking in all about us from the comfort of our cockpit, whilst we gave thanks to the farmers of South Australia, Lauke’s the wonderful millers, Cookie’s skills in the galley and to life in general. Sadly, the on-board diet police drew a line at my extending two ample slices into three, saying something quite unfair and illogical about needing to save some for later.

Cookie's Patisserie

We had programmed a leisurely burble down the lagoon to Ile M’bo some 15 miles away, where more underwater exploration lay awaiting, and this was a very good thing, as Tim our autopilot did much of the thinking and piloting, whilst your scribe, being lately sated, lay like a beached narwhal in the cockpit. Such is life in Nouvelle Caledonie, and we find that we are adjusting to it. As we arrived in the anchorage at Ille Uere, Noumea was in sight away to the south, and given that the day was a pearler, many locals had headed this way too, and there were vessels of many flavours lying languid on a slumbering sea, with their occupants committed to hedonism, with fine foods, and fine wines adorning their cockpits whilst others swam, snorkelled, laid under shelters ashore or draped themselves over foredecks, tanning their lithe bodies in the winter sun. For us, given that we had settled at anchor a little distance from the coral, and that the water looked as though it had leapt from a post card, we slid over the side, and after some earnest strokes found ourselves over some attractive coral gardens where a highlight was a banded sea snake, totally immersed in whatever sea snakes do amongst the deep recesses of the formations, before re-emerging to smile sweetly for the camera. Ile M’Bo, tick.

Another great snorkel at Ile M'Bo
Banded Sea Snake

Knowing that a mass exodus from the Isles out from Noumea would gather momentum in the late afternoon, we headed south for an overnight stop at Ile Uere, a fine anchorage, just out from Noumea, hoping that with the stellar weather continuing we could manufacture a visit to the famous Amedee Island and lighthouse out by the Grand Recif, which lords over Passes de Boulari, the triple set of passes into the lagoon via Passe du Nord, Passe Central and Passe du Sud. Ille Uere is a wonderfully protected anchorage which is really a bay within a bay, just out from the southern suburbs of Noumea, but this time with the wind at the lower end of the Beaufort scale, its qualities as a haven in strong weather would not be tested. We hoped, too, that given our arrival at Amedee was a Monday, not a Sunday, we might find it free on recreational craft, and apart from those arriving via the Mary-D tourist excursions out of Noumea, the island could be as free of human clutter as it was ever going to be.

Ile Ueure

Amedee Island, is an understandably “must see” destination for Noumea tourists and the large and sleek Mary-D vessels do a healthy trade. For terrestrial visitors without their own water transport, as we have, the day package to Amadee, complete with its cringe-worthy elements such as “cultural dances”, featuring local lasses wearing half coconut bras (try finding one of these in a local market!), is a fine option, especially as a glass bottom boat ride can be had on the island allowing anyone to be wowed by its underwater delights. Really, Amedee is a Mary-D island which is “open for business” only when the tourist boat is there, and when we arrived, the Mary-D was clearly not there. Ashore we rustled up the caretaker, who bore a passing resemblance to Johnny Depp, aka Captain J Sparrow, who informed us that, no the boat was not coming until tomorrow, nothing was open, including, in our heart of hearts, the famous lighthouse, but in the meantime we could snorkel, stroll around the island, and he was prepared to turn a blind eye to our use of  the beach-side furniture, which for non -  Mary-D clients would normally cost us 1000CPF (about $A14) for the pleasure. At that point we would sit on the beach.

Amazing Amedee

So not all was lost: we had this remarkable isle to ourselves, we had undisturbed snorkelling, and given the rare calmness of the weather we could overnight at Amedee, with a full moon rising, to enjoy the spectacle of the great light sending forth its rhythmic beams, whilst we lay comfortably attached to one of the island’s outer moorings. Later in the afternoon, post-snorkelling and lounge reclining, courtesy of Mary-D we embarked on a pre-sunset stroll to find one, then two and in all five banded sea-snakes slithering around the precinct. We commented that it would be easy for us to slide off a beach lounge and step right on one of these creatures. Then, as if on cue, a serpent emerged casually from nearby cover and made its way, untroubled by our presence, under the very lounges we had been occupying. When ashore at Amedee, the message is clear, watch your step!

On sunset we were joined in the anchorage by an Australian yacht, Skylark 2, who in the morning assembled their crew of three on the foredeck whereupon a bugle was produced, and to a creditably played rendition of Les Marseilles the French tri-color was lowered and the Australian flag raised aloft. We saluted, and then applauded, and they slid past calling out…. “we are bound for Brisbane!” We wished them “fair winds” and watched as they went, out through Passe du Nord, and into the Coral Sea.

Amedee Lighthouse

The next day, the hordes arrived, although by effecting a landing ashore out of official gaze, we side-stepped the Mary-D hoopla and by timing our approach to the lighthouse, to align with the cultural activities and the glass boat rides, we gave our 300CPF tickets to J Depp and climbed the 250 odd steps to the parapet. The Amedee Lighthouse is a doyen of its breed, commissioned by Napoleon the third in 1862 in the grand style of the Eiffel Tower, with its ballerina-slender waistline and its elegant staircase, it came to New Caledonia as the ultimate cast iron Lego challenge, to be assembled in situ, rising some 167 feet above Amedee. Unlike in Australia where “safety rules” stifle almost everything aloft, we ascended to the parapet with no official, or bunting to hinder our progress. In Noumea we saw a saying in an arty shop that said something like “it is not about the number of breaths you take in life, but rather the moments that take your breath away”. Well, the view from the top of the Amedee lighthouse, on this picture perfect day, took our breath away. It was superlative and stunning, provided you did not look over the edge and down! We hope that the pictures, below, can do it justice. Viva la Amedee!!

Enjoying the amazing panoramic view from the top of Amedee

It was hard to leave the eyrie of Amedee for ground level but eventually we did, making a visit to, yes, the Mary D, souvenir shop once we had gathered our “ground legs”. Cookie strolled over to the t-shirt section where amongst the garish and dreadful offerings there were a couple of styles that did credit to this glorious place. Soon she was at my arm whispering….“in the drawer of small t-shirts over there they have put a rubber snake!” Thinking that if this was an establishment ruse designed to test reactions of the visitors in loud shirts, I thought a re-assessment of management might be in order, so I went to see the “serpent” for myself, where as I looked in, the creature moved….it was REAL! Yes a sea-snake in the small t-shirt drawer, would you believe! Because we were the only ones in the shop, and we were clearly not about to expire at the sight of our serpentine friend, the delightful lady in the shop held the bemused creature aloft, we took the picture that you see below and, swearing a joint pact of secrecy about what we had found in the smalls drawer, found a more appropriate home for our banded friend (sea snakes are venomous, but not aggressive and cases of bites occurring are rare).

Free snake with your T Shirt!

Amedee Island, which is a conservation zone, is well known for its turtle population, and on our last snorkel, getting up close and personal with these encrusted and inoffensive creatures was easy to do. Some turtles came complete with ‘hangers-on”; remoras that thumbed a lift to wherever the turtle was heading, whilst for us, gliding over and around the” bombies” and coral gardens was a treat that we do not tire of. With our duck tethered nearby to board when we were feeling chill, we swam to it and boarded just as a substantial reef shark glided underneath. The pity was that Cookie missed the finned visitor, as it might have prompted a record for duck re-entry that would stand for a while. Back on board, as we prepared to leave, we speculated about what would happen to the raft of remoras that had taken up residence on our keel. Cookie’s droll observation was that “they are getting attached to us you know”. Indeed.

They looked quite attached to one another!

All that remained was for us to release from our mooring, unfurl a full headsail, and paying heed to a couple of nearby reefs, make our way across the lagoon for Noumea, or more correctly, Ile Uere, where snugged in and with plenty of chain deployed, we could plan our return to Port Moselle, because although we were far from scouring the shorelines for discarded morsels, we were in fact running out of some lines of produce. To be out of capsicums and eggplants – which we were - is an annoyance; to be out of cheese and wine – which we were not – meant that life could continue. The weather was holding though, and via Predict Wind we found that the next day saw breezes tending to the north-east around Noumea, just perfect for us to anchor off the “nightlife coast” of Baie de Citron, go ashore for a long swim and maybe treat ourselves to a meal at one of the cosmopolitan cafés in the evening. In fact, after an easy trundle out of Ile Uere, this is exactly what we did, blending in with the beachside tourists by day, and in the eve, attending a relaxed, open air pasta and pizza eatery, with a musical ensemble that created a pleasing and soporific ambience that softened us a little for the bill to come.

Baie de Citron

By now, apart from a need to re-supply, Cookie’s notepad was brimming with a raft of required tasks, most of which needed for us to be in port to complete. First of these was to re-fuel at Port Moselle, and in the morning we came alongside the fuel wharf, taking on board our first fuel since Scarborough. Across the harbor and abeam of Noumea we noted with fondness, the unmistakeable lines of Pacific Pearl, and we reflected for a while on the incredible experiences that had occurred for us since our trip here on that very ship, just 12 months earlier. Voyaging on Pacific Pearl left us deep in thought about the idea of sailing Calista to these waters and left us asking the key question…”could we really do that?” (see Blog 1 March 2016)

Refuelling with Pacific Pearl  in the background

When we arrived at Noumea on 7/7/16, our thoughts were to make a brief exploration of local waters before setting sail for Vanuatu. Now with the experiences that we have had in the great lagoon of Noumea, we are admittedly in a quandary. We would dearly love to visit the Loyalty Islands, a part of New Caledonia, but this would require a longish trip out there and another back because, although the geography would be perfect to head for Vanuatu from there, we would have to return to Noumea to “clear out” of the country. Also, we have yet to explore the marine delights to the south of New Caledonia, down to and including the Ile des Pins - the Isle of Pines. With all of this in our thoughts and Vanuatu still lying on our radar, far away to the north-east, we have planned to re-supply, attend to a few things, catch up with some good souls and pencil in a departure for the south of Nouvelle Caledonie, in the fair weather predicted for the following week. Our foray into the great lagoon of New Caledonia has exceeded all of our expectations, and has left us thinking that if there are cruising yachts enjoying better surrounds than we are then we would like to know where these places lie. Next week though, providing all goes well, we hope to see the Ile des Pins take form off the bow of Calista. We can hardly wait.

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