Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Port Vila to Noumea
(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

Returning to Port Vila after our amazing voyage to Vanuatu’s northern islands was not the anticlimax that one would suppose. For one, in their own time, Paul and Juan, Patrick and Murielle and Patrick and Edith had all gathered in Vila as well, and in no time we were drawn to Happy Hour at the Waterfront Bar where we compared notes on our experiences, discussed plans beyond Vila and simply enjoyed the conviviality of disparate souls who had enjoyed that unique fellowship that comes with chance meetings in faraway places. We agreed to reconvene at Spice the Indian Restaurant on the hill overlooking Vila the following evening, although it has to be said that coordinating essentially independent souls about their intentions, preferred time, transport to the eatery, and who might join or be deleted from the touring party was somewhat like herding cats, and caused us more than a pinch of merriment. Eventually an assemblage formed outside Yachting World, and after varying expressions re the mode of conveyance to the eatery, a “Brexit majority” favoured an uphill stroll, so walk we did.  We had such a fine time at Spice, that on our way down the hill following this grand repast, we realised that no-one had taken a photograph of the occasion for posterity.

Back in familiar territory on a mooring at  Port Vila

We had returned to Vila to re-provision, plan our next passage at sea, and because, after a stellar period of benign weather, less friendly conditions were on the way, with the potential of stronger winds, rain and storms. In the meantime though, we just enjoyed being back in Vila, Vanuatu’s National Capital, which is in many respects a big, friendly town that nestles in and around a magnificent harbor. With it being school holidays in Australia, there were more “big island” visitors than normal, and when P&O’s liners, Pacific Pearl and Pacific Eden called in on successive days, we took the opportunity, between showers, to head to the Cruise Liner wharf and take a closer look at Pacific Eden the 2015 addition to the P&O fleet. The boffins at P&O are not likely to be consumers of this blog, but if they were, they would be relieved to know that Pacific Eden passed the toughest test of all, Cookie’s Liner Rating, the CLR index, where the Eden was voted “shippy”, with agreeable lines and presentation, and not “like a sponge cake” or cruelly, “like a sheep carrier”, which is her sharp assessment of others of their genre.

Pacific Eden

There is something about Port Vila that makes it a comfortable place to be, where the watch holds no sway and the calendar is an adornment with pictures that hangs on a wall. One can easily wile away hours strolling about, in the markets or heading for a cafĂ© where the faces are as friendly as the coffee – or thickshakes! – is good.  Even getting about in Vila is a breeze as yes, there are Taxis with meters for those who crave formality, but it is far easier to spot a van with the numberplate starting with “B”, hail it, and for 150 vatu (85 Vatu to the $AU) each the driver will take you anywhere in town. There are no buses in Vila, but nearly every second vehicle seems to be a “B” van, and sometimes the island music on board is worth the admission in itself. We really enjoy our “getting around” in Vila and have found “B” travel to be a great part of the experience.

Paying for our coffee thickshake at Jill's cafe

The "B" Van transport

Having placed ourselves in the hands of John and his nephew Stuart of Island Tours for our Tanna / Volcano experience, we found ourselves dropping in to their relaxed office on our strolls into or out from town, and saw Stuart at the Waterfront Bar where he is a congenial and popular employee. Before departing for our “northern odyssey” John told us that he had family links to the Loltong and Asanvari areas of Maewo and Pentecost, and we thought little more of this, but now we found that many of the good folk that we had met, including Columbus the floating baker, were well known to John who has played a considerable role in developing tourism that area, and especially on Pentecost. Then Stuart let us know that his sister operated a small shop in Loltong, and we realised that while we were there we had met her, bought a couple of items from her but never imagined any connection to Stuart. John was quick to remind us, wisely, that “…it is a very small world!” Indeed.

The intractable weather that had remained wonderfully at arm’s length whilst we were “in the islands”, and had been forecast for some days, now arrived in full and sullen regalia as a tart reminder that benign weather like we have had should not be taken for granted in this part of the world. Storms gathered all about; giving the anchorage in Vila a curtain of black, and when the rain fell, it was unrelenting and confined us to on board activities. Unfortunately for Paul and Juan, their plans for an overnight trip to Tanna to see Old Yasur coincided with the arrival of the foul weather and their travel company, noting the storms and strong winds could be a significant safety problem, delayed the trip twice, before offering a full refund. At the same time we were searching in earnest for a window of weather to take us from Vila past Tanna to Lifou in the Loyalty Islands, and on to Noumea, and we too were keen to see this system rumble its way off toward the Solomons or Fiji, before we put to sea.

Not going anywhere just yet!

Then, with the wind, rain, lightning and thunder having cleared, conditions between Vanuatu and New Caledonia improved and we were able to target a period of lighter, but sailable conditions for the 60 odd hours that we estimated that it would take us to get back to Noumea from Port Vila. Having now set a time to go, we knew that our practical beings needed to override our feelings because although we really had to go, we didn’t want to go, and could have remained happily in Vila for ages. As Bridgette the new owner of Spice, put it…”I’ve only been here since May, and Vila really grows on you”.

Suddenly, with a date set for our departure, and the weather holding, there were lots of things to do before departing Port Vila, apart from saying farewell to our nautical friends who we had met by chance but had gotten to know well over the last few weeks. Some fine Duty Free shopping is available in Port Vila and we planned to use our imminent departure, and armed with our official “clearance papers”, to re-stock (I almost typed re-Scotch!) the ship’s cellar with selected extracts from Scotland, that we had sleuthed in our forays into town.

Farewell & thankyou to Lemaira at Yachting World

Only an avowed optimist would assume that completing the departure formalities in a casual country such as Vanuatu could be achieved without a hitch, and sure enough, having headed to Customs, we were re-directed to the Port Authority for clearance, which meant finding a separate port precinct office, where the Authority revealed that they needed a 7000 Vatu payment (about $A 82) to clear us to leave town. We had requested advice from Immigration about the cost of “clearing out”, but they neglected to say anything about the Port fee, and now, on the far end of town, and with most of our remaining Vatu converted back to Australian Dollars, we were well short of meeting this bill. Luckily, the Port Authority Manager took pity on our situation and offered to drive us back into town in a VPA Vehicle to an ATM, so that we could withdraw some money, meet our Port dues, clear with Customs, and head across town to Immigration in a “B” van, where we got our passports stamped and the vessel SV Calista was officially cleared to leave Vanuatu waters.

At last, our clearance papers!

Returning to Noumea from Vanuatu was a 300 plus mile, two night passage, heading nearly due south from Port Vila, between Lifou and Mare in the Loyalty Islands, before heading to Havannah Passage or more correctly, Canal de la Havannah, at the southern end of Grand Terre, New Caledonia’s main island, which needed to be approached with care, at the change of tide, to avoid the strong currents that challenge shipping in this area. Weather conditions were forecast to be agreeably light at the outset, before a friendly sou-easter might see us sail on under wind vane, to beyond Lifou, on approach to Havannah Passage.

Some sail repairs before departure

We rose early to slip our mooring in Port Vila, and Paul and Juan came out into their cockpit to wave us on our way, which was nice of them given that we could not know when, or if, we would see each other again. In no time we had negotiated our way out of the harbor and the aroma of ship’s jaffles issued from below, as the lighthouse on Pango Point hove into view away to port. Soon the unmistakeable lift of the SE swell told us we were at sea, and as the uplands of Efate were gradually deflated by distance, we left Vanuatu astern. We had saved the garlands of flowers that had been placed around our necks back at the Yacht Club dinner in Loltong, and now we dropped them over the side, and watched with a tinge of sadness, as they slowly dropped astern, until we could see them no more.

Reluctant departure for Noumea

Readers of this blog will be aware of the fabulous experiences that we have had in Vanuatu, but as Efate slipped away, we wondered what the future might bring for this wonderful island nation. The pace of change has been rapid in recent years, and we wondered how much might change in the next few years, and whether we have been lucky to see Vanuatu as we have done. Yes, the impact of modern technology such as mobile phones can be seen everywhere, and we hope that the current structures of village life can survive the pressures that this will mean, especially for the young. On the hill above the town of Port Vila, the Chinese have built and “gifted” an imposing, but rarely filled Conference Centre to the people of Vanuatu, and the two dominant Telcos in the country, we have been assured, are Chinese controlled. For those of us who sail here there may be changes as well. The charming Oyster Island anchorage on Petersen Bay, Espiritu Santo may not be accessible in the future as the Oyster Island Resort has been sold to Chinese interests and a short bridge from Santo to the island may make cruising to this wonderful place a thing of the past. A little further north at the unsurpassed Lannoc Bay and Champagne beach, we have been told that “foreign interests” are pressuring locals to sell these priceless places, and what that might mean there is anyone’s guess. Our memories of going ashore in Lannoc Bay, and strolling amongst the doe-eyed bovines on our way to Champagne Beach might be a far cry from the scene there into the future. Champagne Beach might be considered too beautiful to be left to the people of Vanuatu, and money may rule the waves. We tried not to have these things intrude into our thoughts as Efate became indistinct astern, the sou-easter built to sailable strength, and we set up “Kev” our wind vane to sail us on into the night.

Another amazing sunset at sea

The seas north of the Loyalty Islands seemed curiously upset and the lumpy conditions did not ease until we were just short of Lifou. We had timed our passage to hopefully coincide with the tide in Havannah Passage, but as the sea grew smoother we were struck by a contrary north-setting current that in places reduced our progress by as much as two knots. There are times, we will admit, that the rigours of night passages at sea are trying, but on this occasion, with a fulsome moon shining its merry beams from above, the gentle lift of the swells, and the eager motion of our ship as she ploughed on through the night was a sight to behold and it was a delight to be on watch. As we drew abeam of Lifou on our second night at sea, there was the wink of the light on Cap de Pins, the island’s most easterly point, and we ghosted by on a fading breeze, with our navigation lights blending with the moon’s wash of electric white. Not a soul ashore, we suspect, saw us pass by and head on to the south.

Another amazing sunrise!

As we passed between Lifou and Grand Terre the predicted light sou-easter collapsed entirely and under motor and mainsail we headed for the Goro Lighthouse that marks the start of Havannah Passage. We wad timed our approach to coincide with the first sector of the rising tide, but out from the pass the remnant swirls of the outgoing tide were enough to make the sea boil and for us to be slewed in the current. Those who have encountered contrary strong wind and tide conditions on the entrance to Havannah Pass are not likely to forget the experience. On the reef, abeam of the entrance lay the wrecks of two substantial vessels as a reminder to all mariners to treat Havannah Pass with respect.

Blogging in the calm conditions enroute to Havannah Pass
A very friendly Havannah Pass!

Our original plan was to push on in the afternoon through nearby Canal Woodin, or Woodin Passage to an anchorage just shy of Noumea, but with the afternoon getting on and the clear skies being replaced with darkened drapes above and the threat of rain, we resolved to make for Anse du Pilote, on Ile Ouen, a protected anchorage in Canal Woodin, that looked to be a fine place to spend the night. As we entered Anse du Pilote the hills of Ille Ouen and the uplands in the Canal were attractive in form and yet blighted by the scarring of mining and erosion that dominates much of southern Grand Terre. Palm fringed Anse du Pilote looked picture perfect on our approach to anchor, and yet it proved to be disconcerting in one respect, as Cookie called depths below us, and we edged closer and closer to the shore. This anchorage was very deep! When we dropped anchor we were in 40’ of water, and seemed to be but a stone’s throw from the beach, a circumstance that we would rarely experience, at home. Anse du Pilote proved to be a tranquil and sheltered place, immensely pleasing to the eye, and by night having the flash of the port hand marker in Canal Woodin, perched atop an adjoining headland and the loom of the lights of Noumea illuminating the sky to the north. Our agreeable passage from Port Vila over the preceding days had taken us 56.5 hours and we had covered 307 miles of the south-west Pacific. Already Port Vila seemed thrice that away.

Anse du Pilote anchorage with scarred hills in the background

Port Moselle the clear-in port in Noumea is especially busy at this time of year and there was no guarantee that we could get a berth, in spite of an email request chain that Cookie had started back in Port Vila. Their message to “call us in the morning when you are close” saw us up early, again, and making our way out of Canal Woodin whilst the sun was still feeling its way on the eastern horizon. Canal Woodin is a busy shipping channel, and the previous night a couple of very fast ferries, bound for the Isle of Pines or the Loyalties had entertained us with their swift passing by us. In the open water, these ferries skim over the water at a breakneck 35knots! With Canal Woodin just astern we noted ahead a far bigger vessel, the liner Carnival Spirit, also making for Canal Woodin and on to the Isle of Pines. We were a little relieved not to have to contend with this behemoth in the confines of Canal Woodin.

The sheep carrier Carnival Spirit heading down Canal Woodin

As we approached Noumea a radio communication with Port Moselle confirmed that yes we could have a berth, from 2pm that afternoon, and hopefully we could achieve the Bio-Security part of the Quarantine arrival procedures, later the same day. As a vessel entering port from overseas, we were required to be flying the yellow quarantine flag, the French flag and the flag of our home country. There are set protocols surrounding these adornments.

With a few hours to spend, we were considering our options when our VHF radio crackled into life. It was Cran and Ann McLean on Lettin Go, the impressive 52’ Chamberlain Cat. We had last seen Cran and Ann at The Boatworks in the Coomera River off the Gold Coast, when we had limped in for repairs in June, following our challenging time in Coffs Harbor. Cran and Ann, who were headed overseas, had kindly made Lettin Go available to us as temporary and salubrious lodgings, whilst Calista was at the boat hospital. We had first met this fine couple on Kangaroo Island in early 2010, and had joined them on the way up the East Coast on their way back to Brisbane to complete a meritorious circumnavigation of Australia. We had agreed to re connect if we could in New Caledonia, and here they were, anchored in Baie de Citron, off our starboard bow, just minutes away. Soon we were alongside calling out our greetings, only to find that, just in front of them was Marcel on Diddys, and that Cran, knowing of Marcel’s connection to us, had met with him and invited him on board for a meal. Now with everyone heading in to the harbor, Cran and Ann invited us all on board for a nautical get together over dinner.

A wonderful evening on board Lettin' Go

With our yellow flag down, we headed to Lettin Go, where a wonderful evening unfolded and in excellent company the hours passed quickly. We scarcely noticed that for the previous few nights sleep had been at a premium. Cran and Ann were planning to spend a couple of weeks in New Caledonia before making passage for New Zealand, and Marcel, like ourselves was seeking an appropriate weather window for the voyage back to Brisbane. For the moment, it appeared as though the weather patterns were not kindly and some days might have to be spent in Noumea and in the nearby lagoon, waiting for things to settle. This was hardly an imposition.

Secure at Port Moselle Marina

Having returned to Noumea it is worth recording that according to Cookie’s trusted Diary and Ship’s Log, 68 days have passed from our departure from this fine port to our return and in this time we have covered 1259 nautical miles, and have visited 23 different anchorages on SV Calista.  It was a good a time as any to reflect on the unforgettable time that we had enjoyed in the islands of Vanuatu, and of the wonderful people we had met along the way. It was true after all: you may voyage to Vanuatu for the places to see, but you will never forget the people.