Monthly Archives: October 2016

In the wake of McHale’s Navy

After days of deliberation and navel gazing we gave up, eased and then slipped our lines, losing the last of our grip on Port Vila, Vanuatu. Next stop Noumea, New Caledonia. Or maybe Lifou, with its sheltering Baie Du Santal. Yes that might be nice if we need to divert. See how this works? This shouldn’t be a particularly tough passage. Short frequency choppy waves are always expected but the GRIB files show a small but significant backing of the prevailing SSE trade winds to the East. These are the winds that bedevil sailing back down under. If we get pushed too far west the backing trades will help us make New Caledonia. I guess one could call this a predicted developing window. The only other problem might be squeezing past Tiga, Ile Dudune, Vauvillier, Oua, and Leliogat Islands all strewn about in our path between Mare and Lifou, but the catch is we’ll probably have to do it in the dark.

Gulf Harbour Radio promised a very sporty day and it delivered a particularly nasty sea state, but with good wind pressure, which was critical because we had to pinch up into the wind, something gentlemen are not supposed to do. Marce was not pleased with this state of affairs. The following day the breeze failed us and we began to motor-sail. From that point on the wind would come and go according to the rhyme and reason of the sea, with no heed given to computer files, little animated arrows, or seemingly anything else. We dodged around the Islets between Mare and Lifou in the middle of a dark and moonless night but the arrival math told us that we were so late that we would be way too early to transit the famous Havannah Pass into New Caledonia’s lagoon. The only thing for it was to drastically slow Escape Velocity down. Something tells me that I should have payed more attention to word problems in grade school. And here I thought we were already in slow motion. With the Volvo ticking over a patient beat, and the jib up for appearance sake, ships came and went in the night keeping a respectful distance, as we shuffled toward New Caledonia.

Havannah Pass was beautiful, but a non event. At least it was accomplished in the daylight. With forty miles left to go we cast about for a rest stop and found one in a southern bay called Baie de Prony hanging off a beautiful small island called Ile Casy which was just big enough to fend off the nasty chop that followed us into the bay. We still had a 30 mile slog up the coast to Noumea where we could check in to New Caledonia, so it was early to bed and early to rise for Yours Truly and crew.
It was the kind of morning that can make you stay another day. Birds chirping, sun just waking after a brief shower, calm transparent water with large colorful fish swimming around the boat looking up at you while we looked down into their world. Life is good. 

Lines slipped, we motored out of Baie de Prony into that nasty chop again which was soon forgotten where the flood at Pointe Noukouma squirts through the narrows at three plus knots. This left us with just two. It took a while to get past. This place has the rowdiest lagoon in a 25 knot blow that I’ve ever experienced. You never saw two more relieved sailors than when we squeezed through Petite Passe into Port Moselle, only to find out over the VHF radio that the marina had no room at the visitor docks for us. That’s when long time Escapee, Wayne on Journey called and gave us the skinny on anchoring in the bay, sending us over to a mooring field that I wouldn’t have even stuck my nose into without encouragement. Still it was windy and boats were packed in nuts-to-butts. As the stress level rose aboard EV I noticed a guy in a dinghy motioning for us to follow him…so I did. Turns out after following a tortuous, circuitous route through the mooring field he found an unused mooring ball and he helped us tie up. I’m sure that his French was excellent but his English was nonexistent. His gestures seemed to indicate that we should ask permission to stay on the mooring from the young woman in the pretty little green boat a couple of balls over. We turned and he was gone in a cloud of spray. 

So…greetings from the land of McHales Navy. Be sure and hide the silver, Ensign Parker.


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The view from the back porch

On passage from Vanuatu to New Caledonia

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Colorful countdown

Our time in Vanuatu is coming to an end and we understand now why many of our cruiser friends spend an entire season in this surprising country, and some return again and again. We have given it short shrift and wish we had time to visit more than just the most southerly islands, but we’ve been captivated by the people, the language, the art and culture. Our first impression when we arrived was that the Ni-Vanuatu people are more reserved than the exuberant, outgoing Fijians, and while that’s certainly true, they are no less friendly and generous, patient and kind. We had many warm and enlightening conversations with local folks in the course of our daily wanderings and learned something about their lives, the challenges they face at home and as a country, and their hopes for the future. We’re grateful for these personal contacts and we think Mark Twain said it best:

…nothing so liberalizes a man and expands the kindly instincts that nature put in him as travel and contact with many kinds of people.

– Letter to San Francisco Alta California, dated May 18th, 1867; published June 23, 1867

On the day before we checked out of the country we walked through Port Vila one last time and made a last trip to the vibrant market. We’ll miss this place for sure. 

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Some things just seem to go together.

Edgar hummed softly, almost to himself. Edgar did everything softly, with a quiet, dignified self assurance that belied his barefoot, tee shirt and short trousers presence. Early on a sunny morning with just two other people in the tiny but well respected Vanuatu National Museum, Marce and I eagerly rushed from amazing mask collections to twelve foot tall wooden drums, intricately detailed pottery urns, head to toe grass costumes with long pointy snouts, but Edgar, Edgar was the man. He’d said to take a look around and while there were no cruise ships in the harbor and he hadn’t planned on a demonstration he might show us a few things.   

A wooden frame, one meter square, containing a light layer of sand lay on the floor in front of him and he softly began to give a small talk about…well I had no idea because at first I couldn’t understand a word he said. 

Marce looked as if she understood everything so I determined to concentrate more intensely. Slowly words I recognized began to rise up out of Edgar’s gentle lilt. He knelt and began to slowly trace intricate patterns in the sand, never lifting his finger, never stopping, quietly, constantly relating an ancient story which seemed in sync with the ellipses, loops, and circles.


Just when it seemed he’d drawn himself into a corner and there was nowhere to go he’d swoop around with a graceful figure and continue. Turns out that it’s not really sand drawing, it’s a form of writing. It’s how they write the story down. Breathtaking. 

When it was time for another story he held the frame by the sides and with a well practiced flick of his wrists, the sand jumped and the whole story disappeared like a huge Etch-A-Sketch. Edgar did three stories, the first was an incredibly intricate design, the second revealed a turtle just before he Etch-A-Sketched the frame and the last became a multi masted sailboat, in honor of how we arrived here in Vanuatu.

Next he picked up a long wooden flute and played a slow haunting melody while circling around the wooden story frame.

He played the Vanuatu national anthem on a gamelan kind of instrument. 

I guess you could say that Edgar is a kind of Renaissance Man, all of which makes it hard to imagine his ancestors of not very long ago “eating the man.” Yes, there are still Vanuatuans alive today who have eaten humans but I guess like Hannibal Lector says, it’s not bad when paired with fava beans and a nice Chianti.


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A formal welcome

The day we arrived in Port Vila we spent a few hours tidying up, as you do after a passage, then followed the other cruisers into the nearby bar for happy hour. We probably should have made a beeline to customs where we needed to complete our entry paperwork and pay a fee, but tomorrow’s always another day and the beer ashore was cold and cheap. The next day, it turns out, was Constitution Day and a national holiday. Great! we said, and how is it celebrated? We got the lowdown from various locals at the bar and made plans to get up extra early the next morning. 

We were following the stream of Ni-Vanuatu towards the central market by 7:45 and stationed ourselves on the forward edge of spectators. Beyond our position were men in uniform who tacitly made it clear we’d gone far enough. Shortly after 8:00 the military band marched down the street playing a rousing 19th century style number that had Jack commenting the you can always tell when the English have been around. The French, too, I said. The band was followed by a color guard who stopped directly in front of the government office building, while the band marched to the end of the block, did a fancy inside-out turnaround maneuver, and finished off in formation right in front of us. The band and the color guard showed their stuff for another upbeat number, then they all stood at ease as the uniformed guards kept their eyes trained down the street in front of us. We were obviously waiting for something, but what?

Just when we were about to ask what was happening, a woman crossed the street with printed programs and we did our best to decipher the Bislama, with the help of our fellow spectators. We learned we were waiting for the arrival of the prime minister and the president — they’ve got both! — and they arrived in due time in heavily guarded black SUVs.

After a musical fanfare and military salute for each dignitary the president inspected the honor guard and the band, then took his place on the dais with the other bigwigs for the singing of “Hae God, Yu God Blong Mifala” or “O God Our Help in Ages Past.” This was followed by the reading of the preamble of the constitution, which includes a passage about “cherishing our ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity.” Gotta love that it’s baked right in. 

The president spoke for about 15 minutes during which I tried my best to get the gist, but managed only to understand a few words here and there but did come to recognize some verbal patterns in this very interesting creole. 

The ceremony concluded with the traditional kava drinking, then more salutes by the band and the honor guard, followed by refreshments, to which the spectating public were invited. 

We had a date for breakfast with friends so we decided to forego the chocolate cake and kava, but I did take the opportunity to get a photo with two of the Supreme Court justices, who graciously obliged. 

On our way to breakfast we passed the second parade of the day, this one celebrating International Teachers Day, complete with a village chief or two. 

I’d say we had quite the welcome to Port Vila, and Jack topped it off with a high five from his favorite tennis player. 

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The boneyard of Iririki Island

Lacking chicken bones to decipher the coming weather, we were reduced to trusting the hundreds of tiny animated arrows representing wind and current on a GRIB file from NOAA. We found it strangely tough to leave beautiful Port Resolution Bay even though every moment spent at anchor meant more and more black volcanic grit would have to be hosed off with our salt water wash down pump in an attempt to clean off the decks, solar panels, and truth be told, everything else including us. 

Gambol got off at first light but our friends on Pacha decided to stay another day. The passage to Port Vila on the island of Efate is an overnighter so about the only mistake you can make is to arrive in the dark. Light spotty winds and currents that haven’t read the sailing directions can really complicate the timing issue. What I’m trying to say, dear Escapees, is that it was a sail, and a motor-sail kinda day.

Why is it that lately, if the conditions are beautiful, I get a feeling of foreboding like we’re going to pay for this later? We passed Gambol by noon and continued to sail slowly in a dying breeze. We watched the orange orb of the sun drop below the horizon. Mostly motoring now, we were fighting a two knot counter current that was supposed to be aiding us instead of impeding us and Sweet Jesus it was dark. Erromango Island was supposed to be out there somewhere off to our port side where a tiny pinpoint of light could be seen, and Gambol was, well, I had no clue. Profound darkness. Navigation to Port Vila looked pretty straight forward but the only thing on my worry list was something my chart called “tuff rk (9)” which was right on our course line. We had to clear Veluruwa Pt. by Cooks Bay, and an inconvenient islet that was marked “91 MT.” We ran the pros and cons of whether to duck inside of “91 MT” or stay the course outside and around and decided to cut the corner. I’m not normally a cut the corner kind of guy especially around these reefy waters but progress was slow and getting slower as the sun went down and the arrival math was getting ugly. Do we really want to motor for the next 18 hours? 

That’s when a call came from out of the black ether. It was for Doug on Gambol. Kindred Spirit could see us struggling up the coast on his AIS set. He suggested stopping at Polennia Bay for the night to wait for better wind tomorrow and he would guide us in. Beats butting our heads into this damn current all night and probably arriving in Port Vila in the dark and out of fuel. First I had to find Gambol. I asked him to flash his masthead light. Turns out that single point of light on shore was, in reality Gambol hugging the shore. We slowly followed the VHF directions from Kindred Spirit looking to anchor between two prominent reefs but there was a small complication of a Polish yacht in the anchorage not displaying any lights. Kindred Spirit flashed a light in that direction so we could avoid them, and we tiptoed toward land, eventually dropping the hook blindly in what Kindred Spirit said was a good spot. 

First light in the morning revealed that our courage ran out two hundred meters off a beautiful seaside village. With one third of the passage to Port Vila in the can we had a leisurely breakfast and planned a mid-day departure. 

Once again timing our arrival in Port Vila was complicated by the potential of fluky winds and adverse current but we found the breeze to be a little stronger and yesterday’s nasty current was not a factor so we had a pleasant overnight sail into Port Vila and picked up a mooring ball by mid morning. 

I still find it disconcerting to enter a harbor and see a dozen wrecked boats of all descriptions beached in an expensive tangled pile on shore. This particular mess on Iririki Island was courtesy of last year’s cyclone Pam. Other than this bone yard it was all very civilized and bustling, as a capital city should be.



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Fire and brimstone

At the appointed hour we four gathered at the yacht club for the truck ride up the mountain. The driver invited the two women to ride in the cab, while Jack and Maurice made themselves comfortable on sofa cushions in the back. Along the road we picked up a few people on their way back home up the steep and rutted track, including this beautiful woman and her child, who wasn’t quite sure what to make of the white-haired Maurice. 

At the base of the volcano we were welcomed by park attendants and joined a couple of dozen tourists from the various resorts and pensions on the island. Local villagers performed a welcome dance and two women greeted us each with a floral protection amulet. 

The group then performed the custom dance, a version of which we’d seen on Mystery Island on Aneityum, but whereas the dance on Aneityum was performed for the cruise ship passengers, this one was more insular, performed for each other. It was interesting to see the difference in focus, but as dancers stamped and whirled we became more aware of the mountain rumbling ominously behind us. 

As almost always happens here in the South Pacific, kava is offered to the village chief by way of asking permission to visit their land, and for this Jack was chosen to present the kava. We suspect this was because of his superior age but we’d rather think it’s his natural good looks and quiet assurance that made him stand out. 

With the kava presented and accepted, we were now allowed to make the final ascent to the rim of the volcano. The attendants divided us into groups of 6-8 by language and gave us a safety talk, then led us up the steep and rocky path to the top. 

We were unprepared for how cold it was up there and glad we’d brought jackets. Soon the rumbling intensified and as the sun sank lower in the sky we were treated to a spectacular fireworks display that exceeded our expectations. Finally, after years of getting close but not close enough to volcanos in Sicily and the Caribbean I got to experience the demon that lurks just beneath the surface. And I want more. 


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Just like Polamalu

Like Steeler Footballer Troy Polamalu sliding between the gap of two big lumbering offensive tackles to put the big hit on some aspiring quarterback, we’ve had a rare north west wind push an unusual nasty rolly Pacific swell, shooting the gap between Mystery Island and Aneityum’s anchorage at Anelghowhat to put the hurt on us. A quick glance at a chart would convince anyone that this ought to be a very quiet anchorage. However the dead pig has most assuredly drifted past the boat. There’s not much wind but we gotta go, so we’ll be giving the temporary exhaust repair and our dwindling fuel supply a shakedown cruise. It’s not much of a float plan. Even someone as mathematically challenged such as Yours Truly can wrap his brain around this one. Some fifty-odd miles at five knots should put us into Port Resolution, Tanna Island, in about ten hours. We left in company with Pacha and crew, Amelia and Maurice, retired French Tahitian restauranteurs, only to watch their big sloop power over the horizon. 

On our approach to Tanna we could clearly make out the column of smoke belching from Mount Yasur. Yikes, this thing’s for real. It turns out Port Resolution is a beautiful harbor and why would you expect anything less from Captain Cook who named the bay after his own trusty ship?


In the morning crews from all four yachts in the harbor turned out swabbing the black gritty fallout from Mt. Yasur off their decks. The stuff was everywhere and after two hours of cleaning I found that I could turn around and do it all again. But we’re on a mission. High on Marce’s bucket list is peering down into an active fire-belching volcano. Yeah, I know, but you gotta love the passion.

We climbed the steep path up the cliff to the Port Resolution Yacht Club overlooking the bay with the Pachas and made arrangements for a volcano date with Stanley, then wandered through Ireupuow, a beautiful, authentic and vibrant Vanuatu village. Beautiful people. 

When you find yourself in Port Resolution, try Chez Leah’s place. Tasty, but Leah’s relaxed serving pace left us little time to prepare for the big show as we rushed back to our boats past several dugout fishing pirogues. You know, it’s one thing to see an old dugout pirogue in a museum but quite another to see old and newly carved pirogues out fishing and being used every day for transport. There are no aluminum jonboats in this bay. 

In the meantime, Marce began to vibrate in anticipation.

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