Sunday, November 6, 2016

16/10/16 – 10/11/16
(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.)7/10/16 – 14/10/16

Between New Caledonia and the Queensland coast lays a vast 800 nautical mile expanse of ocean, called the Coral Sea. As spring retreats and the southern summer beckons, the systems of weather across this blue wilderness are formed, pushed and pulled by many things: frontal systems from the south, troughs of low pressure that bubble and trouble their way in from the north and the west, the location of the inter-tropical convergence zone, the seedbed of storms, and high pressure systems that bulge up from the Tasman, producing “ridging” of isobars up the Queensland coast, and trade winds that can howl in for days. Sitting on our 36’ yacht in Noumea, seeking a safe weather “window” to head out into the Coral Sea and back to Australia, we peer at weather models, consider predictions and wonder at the fluidity and unpredictability of it all. Just when it appears that a window is emerging, conditions change and what seemed likely to be fine one day becomes horrid the next. It would be folly to leave Noumea when it is fine and run into awful weather out in the Coral Sea or off the Australian coast. We need about a week of stable, predictable weather to embark on our voyage back to Brisbane, and for now we are likely to be as the hapless Mr Micawber in Dickens’ Great Expectations just “waiting for something to turn up”. We might have returned to Noumea and walked directly into a fine pattern of weather, but that is not the case: not yet.

We will wait to avoid the lows off the Brisbane coast!

We were not tied up for long in Noumea when Fred, the single-hander off Serafin strolled by to get an update on our travels and our plans. We had not seen Fred since Banam Bay off Malekula Island in Vanuatu and it was pleasing to see him in good fettle. He was ready to depart for Australia, and agreed that departing in a couple of days was not advisable as the weather off the New South Wales and southern Queensland coast was shortly to turn sour, and with us needing some time to reprovision and attend to a raft of things Fred would have to head off alone. Given that Fred is deep into his third world circumnavigation, it was reassuring to hear him say that he always feels on edge on the eve of a long ocean passage, so for novices like ourselves to feel the same, we were in very good company.

In reality though, we were really looking forward to spending a little time with Cran and Ann off Lettin’ Go who had arrived in Noumea from Brisbane, set to spend a couple of years on the “South Pacific Circuit”, where cruising yachts embark on an annual loop; from summer in New Zealand to avoid the Pacific cyclone season, then up to Tonga and Fiji about April / May, before tracking to New Caledonia / Vanuatu sometime in winter, before returning to New Zealand, late October and into November. A number of world cruisers get captured by this alluring vortex, and find themselves wedded to the delights of the South Pacific, unable to break free to face the rigours of the Indian Ocean, the challenges of the southern tip of Africa, and the very long haul across the Atlantic, back to Europe or across to the Caribbean. Piracy off the horn of Africa has brought considerable change to what was once the “traditional” route of world cruisers, from SE Asia, up the Red Sea into the Mediterranean. Given a choice between storm-tossed oceans and nid-nodding in sun drenched atolls, it is easy to see why many cruisers delay or abandon their original plan to circumnavigate the world. All this means that in “A” row in Port Moselle, the row for visiting yachts, is gathered an array of pedigreed cruising vessels and their well-travelled crews, the likes of which we never see at home. To have our modest 36 footer tethered alongside these steeds of the seas is still something we are getting used to.

Bristol 44

Cookie's favourite...Cabo Rico 38

Getting to meet some of the fine folk off these noble cruisers has added to the pleasure of being here, and their willingness to have us come on board to see how the other half sail has been a feature. Here size does not appear to matter, and we are all equals under the sun, having reached here by a universal charter; under a common sky, across fickle oceans, responding to winds of a fractious nature and covering hundreds of lonely miles under canvas. Putting these egalitarian notions aside though, it needs to be said that Cookie’s adeptness in “wheedling her way” onto these grand cruising vessels, has soared to new heights here in Noumea!

Cran and Ann suggested to us that given that we were at least several days away from departing for Australia, we should join them, plus their long-time friends from home, Neale and Robyn, who had just arrived, for a few days out in the great lagoon. This sounded like a fine idea to us, especially as their first destination out from Noumea was one of our favourites, Amedee Island with its magnificent lighthouse. It is some 13 miles out to Amedee and we timed our departure from Noumea to beat the afternoon sea breeze, that routinely fills in from the SE from late morning, converting what should be a pleasant trundle, to a troublesome bash. Amedee’s facilities, including its tourist shop and the lighthouse are only open when the Mary D tourist boat heads out from Noumea, and on our arrival there to pick up one of the required moorings, it was clear that the Mary D was not coming that day and we’d have the island largely to ourselves. This allowed us to join Cran, Ann, Neale and Robyn for a late afternoon stroll around Amadee, where our recommendation to keep an eye out for banded sea snakes slithering across the paths proved to be well founded. I think we counted a half-dozen of these intriguing reptiles – my descriptor, not Cookie’s – without really looking.

Exploring Amadee again with Ann, Cran, Robyn & Neale

There is something about sheltering in the lee of Amedee at night, watching the probing beam from the lighthouse, as it carves out its golden rotation; giving solace to those out at sea, for those seeking safe passage through Passe du Nord and into the great lagoon. Next morning, on cue, the Mary D arrived and whilst the passengers were involved with cultural and marine activities we took the opportunity to scale the lighthouse, where, from the parapet, the view out across the barrier reef, along the lagoon, and back to Grand Terre was breathtaking. With the sea breeze not yet established, Cran suggested an immediate departure for one of the atolls to the north-west of Noumea, and as we got under way and hoisted sail, it was clear that the sou-easter was about to pipe in and give us a sleigh ride to the north. When it rose to beyond 25 knots, and gusting to over 30, Cran radioed us to say that instead of taking up the flimsy protection afforded by one of the islets, we might be advised to head for the more protected and commodious anchorage in Baie Maa, on the coast of Grand Terre, just to the north of Noumea. Coincidentally, just as Cran called, a cockpit discussion on Calista had reached precisely the same conclusion. For the following three days the heaviness of the afternoon sou-easter saw many boats abandon their hopes of anchoring out in the islands, and eventually 24 yachts were snug in Baie Maa, with room aplenty for a hundred more. We used the mornings to make it ashore to walk and to swim whilst the evenings were given to conviviality and fine living as we re-connected with Ann and Cran and enjoyed the chance to get to know their fine friends, Robyn and Neale.

A brisk sail to Baie Maa
Sheltered anchorage .. Baie Maa

Although we had access to general forecasts, we really needed access to the internet to explore the potential emergence of weather opportunities to depart for Australia, so with the sou-easter a little softer, we headed in the direction of Noumea, whilst Lettin’ Go eventually headed for the islands. We had hoped to return to Port Moselle, but were not surprised to find the “House Full” there, causing us to divert to Baie de Citron where to our great delight we found Patrick and Murielle anchored on Heiracon and Marcel still waiting on Diddys, for his crew to arrive for the return leg to Australia. In Baie de Citron our social whirl continued, with Patrick and Murielle inviting us on board the 52 footer, for “sundowner” drinks that finished at 9.30pm; the time having scooted by like the recent sou-easter. We knew a little of their plans to take an early retirement and head for New Zealand, but were astonished to find that, included in their other plans, was to head to Bolivia, to see their house, designed and built by Murielle’s brother: the house that they had never seen! Bolivia! Indeed. Patrick and Murielle are marine people, by nature and we asked how they were going to cope, so far from the sea, but they had factored this in too and included an indoor pool in the design. The photos of the Bolivian “getaway” had us enthralled. “Why don’t you come and visit us in Bolivia?” Patrick asked us. Bolivia! Indeed. Just sail to Santiago and trek across the Andes. Excuse me signor….which way is Bolivia?

Great night with Murielle, Patrick & Marcel

We returned to Port Moselle Marina, the hub for yachts arriving at and departing from New Caledonia, and we were tied up but a day when Lettin’ Go returned to Port Moselle, to allow Neale and Robyn to catch a flight home and just a few hours later for them to welcome John from Yeppoon, who they had met on an earlier sailing rally to the Louisiade Archipelago, SE of PNG. John is an experienced sailor who when we met, we easily warmed to, who was going to crew with Cran and Ann, on the long haul to New Zealand. As it turned out the briar thicket of nasty weather out in the Tasman Sea and up off the QLD coast to our west, created a corridor south of New Caledonia, which was free of nasties and if Cran and Ann were nimble, they could slide into this zone of acceptability and head without delay for the land of the long white cloud. As Lettin Go eased out of port the next morning, with us there to bid them farewell, we will admit to feeling sorry for Ann, who had precious little time to manage reprovisioning and preparation in her substantial galley, for the days now ahead of them out at sea. The weather window that now presented for them, though, was one that needed to be grasped, and was too good to miss.

Next stop Opua, New Zealand

With no real idea of our time-frame in finding a weather window for Calista, we fell into a routine of morning and evening checks of weather updates, as the metrological gods dithered, time and time again; just as a promising pattern emerged, the next forecast saw our hopes dashed and we were forced to search for something more encouraging, that continued to lay, elusively, just over the horizon. Weather in the Coral Sea has, it seems, more moods than a gaggle of year 9 girls. As days passed we strolled into town, just five minutes away, where the patisserie Le Petite Choux, was a favourite or gathered a grab bag for the beach and caught a 10 0r 11 local bus for the short ride to Baie des Citron where the beautiful, the very beautiful, and the not so beautiful came to soak up the sun. On the lawns abeam of the beach, in mottled shade under the spreading trees, we found the regime of relaxation, slumber, a hearty swim and a mid-afternoon ice cream to be acceptable from every viewpoint. As the afternoon sea breezes gathered pace – and gather pace it does! – we could stroll across the isthmus to the bay called Anse Vata where on the windward shore sailboarders with muscled torsos and dripping with spray performed heroic antics and out to sea their sails gathered aplenty, in every hue, like butterflies in a Venezuelan rainforest.

Anse Vata, the windsurfing & Kiteboarding mecca

Off the short road from Baie des Citron to Anse Vata is found the Aquarium des Lagons, the renowned Noumea Aquarium where the visitor can view, up close and personal the kaleidoscope of living things to be found in the great New Caledonia lagoon, and its nearby rivers and waterways. The exhibits are superb and for both the swimmer and non-swimmer alike, to see the array of fish, corals and other marine notabilia plus the quality identification and information boards that are there in support made the Aquarium a place where an afternoon passed in a trice, equally for us souls who are so often over the side exploring the underwater world, as for those who keep getting wet for the bath. Cookie’s Aquarium favourite was probably the excellent nautilus display, part of the “Reef by Night” section where real, live Nautili squirted their way around, whilst for me the immense Maori Wrasse with its fathomless emerald eyes, and its domed forehead, was impossible to ignore. Going back and forth on the No. 10 or 11 gave us a chance to get out amongst the local folk, with matronly Kanak ladies in their voluminous dresses, teens, plugged in and wired, and lads hiding deep and obscure in hoodies mixed with visiting curiosities like ourselves. Our preferred driver played an upbeat selection of island music over the omnibus sound system, with some of the numbers being so catchy that we were reluctant to alight back at Port Moselle.

Wonderful marine life at the Aquarium

As days passed, and we entered November, we were itchy to get going, despite our determination to go when the timing was right, and not simply because we wanted to go. In the marina “community”, it was common to see couples huddled over ipads and laptops, trying to make sense out of the vagaries of the weather, and in the Port Moselle Office, the ladies on the staff were heard to comment that normally more yachts had “found weather” by this time and the marina pens were starting to empty. We met world circumnavigators Caroline and Paddy from their 46’ Oceanic Kristiane, who, over “sundowners”, their reflections on thirteen years of world cruising had us enraptured; particularly their voyage up the notorious Red Seal where they had been one of the last cruising yachts to be game enough to “dodge the pirates”. They described sailing up the Red Sea at night with no navigation lights to draw attention, in the middle of the shipping channel, with big ships passing to port and starboard; tippy-toeing their way north to Suez. They let us know that they had been in regular touch with Roger “Clouds” Badham, the doyen of ocean passage advisors, who told them to give up on their plans to head to Newcastle, direct, and head for Brisbane instead, but certainly not yet. In deciding to wait a while longer, it seems that our call was in good company.

Paddy & Carolyn's Oceanic 42

We reached the inescapable conclusion that apart from attending to a few things on board – Cookie took to an above-water Calista makeover, including seeing our stainless fittings and stanchions returning to their gleaming best – we concluded that we should simply enjoy our marina and Noumea life, and allow better weather take shape. Then, late one afternoon a tap on our hull confirmed that maybe here, in the scheme of things, was a very good place to be. Peter and Wendy, owners of the South Australian based yacht Pineapple Poll had recently returned from Europe to their home in the Adelaide Hills, and being appalled by the dreadful weather that had sullied winter and continued on into spring, they, on Wendy’s insistence, had sought a week’s respite, somewhere in the sun. By chance they were returning from one of the lagoon islands on their package to Noumea and to Peter’s astonishment, there in the marina, in Noumea (!) was Calista, and doubtless with Cookie and Colin on board. We had last seen Peter and Wendy on far-off Kangaroo Island, and now here was Peter at our side saying…”hey you two, we are just getting back from the islands, and we are going to grab a drink at the bar…would you like to join us?!” We were just as surprised to see them, and keen to discover that they were moving Pineapple Poll from the Cruising Yacht Club of South Australia to our marina, Wirrina, or Marina St Vincent. Noumea was a great place to be was the assessment of our two SA friends. We were looking forward to seeing more of them back in SA, but not for a while yet.

Many bus rides to Baie des Citrons for a swim

News that Lettin Go had made it safely to New Zealand was greeted with acclaim by us here in Noumea, although it had the understandable effect of keening our exploration of the weather models and “waiting for something to turn up”. Some boats gave up in frustration and departed but they are bigger than us by far, have stronger auto-helm capacity, and probably less regard for the weather. One vessel to visit Noumea and then leave again regardless of isobars was the immense Explorer of the Seas, carrying a suburb full of souls - 3,500 to be precise – from Seattle to Sydney for the Australian cruising season. When Explorer disgorged its cruising compliment in Noumea, Grand Terre tilted visibly to port. A couple from Newcastle, off Explorer, strolled past and asked to take a look on board. Dave’s comment to his wife Margie down “below” that “we could get one of these dear” was met with a dead bat and eyes that reflected the merit of 80,000 tons over 8.  

Another to arrive was Bumpy Dog with our perennial sailing companions Paul and Juan on board prior to their flying home to New Zealand, and Paul flying back with a friend to take Bumpy Dog home. We had first met Paul and Juan by chance as we were tied up in approximation here in Port Moselle. We had by pure chance shared many sea miles and many anchorages, both in New Caledonia and in Vanuatu and it was sad to finally bid them farewell. On the upside though, Marcel on Diddys had also returned to Port Moselle; like ourselves and three or four similarly sized yachts with like-minded crews, seeking fair winds between Noumea and Brisbane. A lurking nuisance was a deep low down in the Tasman, a “weather octopus” according to Cookie stretching its evil tentacles far to the north. “We are not going until it goes” was our thinking on Calista. Cookie has her own terminology for meteorological features, referring for example to cold fronts on Australian weather charts as “marching centipedes”, and yes, if you are not careful they can deliver a nasty nip. In the meantime we had Marcel on board for a “curry night” taking advantage of the fresh fromages (vegetables) and boeuf (beef) to be had from the Noumea Market, just a 7-iron away across the marina. Marcel, who admits to being a far better builder than a cook, wanted to be there to take notes on the entire process. This may have placed us under culinary pressure, but in the end, supported by a couple of fine French vintages, we think the evening was a gastronomic success.

Café Calista cooking class

Then, with the full moon approaching, it would appear that the nasties on our passage to Brisbane were finally evaporating, and joined by a couple of other yachts we might be able to depart from Noumea. Maybe our reticence was right, because as we write, the potential for foul weather off of Brisbane that kept us from departing earlier this week has been translated into winds potentially rising to 40 knots over Brisbane and Moreton Bay on the coming weekend. If we had gone we would not have beaten this weather into port. We have everything crossed, because the long passage to Brisbane is equal in length to the passage to New Zealand, and, as ever we will be but a small ship on an immense sea. We have been ever mindful that whilst we have dubbed this amazing adventure “A Voyage to Vanuatu”, it is one thing to get here, but yet another to get all the way home, and safely. There are many sea-miles that lie ahead, starting with over 800 across the Coral Sea to Brisbane.   


No comments:

Post a Comment