In the last article from Memories of a Circumnavigation Hugh and Heather continued to explore French Polynesia and shared how they were diverted by a coup on their way to ‘paradise’. Lets continue to follow the adventures of Argonauta I, from when they began their journey in 1997 in the Caribbean, until the completion of the circumnavigation in 2006, when they crossed their 1997 outbound Caribbean track.
We were now part of the first Port2Port Yacht Rally from Vanuatu to Bundaberg, Australia. We liked the idea of another rally as it meant more camaraderie as well as simplified departure and arrival formalities. We were cruising in company with British friends on Only Blue and decided that we could not leave these fascinating Vanuatan Islands without doing some significant exploration. Together with our buddy boat, we had decided to sail north as far as Luganville, on the Island of Espiritu Santo, before departing for Australia. Rally departure could be from anywhere in Vanuatu between October 9‑12. Timing was designed to reach Australia before cyclone season. An en route stop at Chesterfield Reef or Bamton Reef, both to the north of New Caledonia, were options.
Yes, Cyclone Season was approaching. One of our objectives was never to be caught by a cyclone, typhoon or hurricane, which meant that before the onset of the season we would either depart the area or secure the yacht. Cyclone season in the South Pacific nominally begins November 1 and lasts until April 30. The main region of vulnerability is east of 160° East longitude. Port Vila, Vanuatu is roughly 168 degrees East and the Australian east coast is about 152 degrees East. Thus it was our priority to transit this area well before November 1.
As time was running short, we cancelled plans to visit New Caledonia. October 2, 2000, we departed our wonderful oasis of Port Vila to sail north some 90 NM. We anchored in Lamen Bay at Epi Island. The bay was notable for a friendly dugong, which welcomed vessels as they anchored. Bislama is the national language in Vanuatu, although French and English are common. Bislama was manageable for us as most words are derived from English. Indeed it is a pidgin form of English.
Continuing north, it was Malekula Island where we had our best cultural experience. Anthropologists agree that Vanuatu’s last recorded incident of cannibalism was as recent as 1969, and that it took place on the island of Malekulu. Ashore we met Chief Saitol. Yachties had reported that the village was always keen to perform a “Kastom Dance” for a small fee. The chief said come back in two hours. We agreed to contribute Vatu 1500 (US$10) per head to the village fund. We were just two yachts. The villagers were of the “small namba” group, which refers to the type/size of the only male item of dress worn for the dance. We did not fear becoming dinner!
We were escorted to the performance area by a chief from an adjoining village, who guided us through the pre-dance greeting protocol, which included an intimidating spear thrust challenge and some words of welcome. Chief Saitol, now in “kastom dress” played drums along with two other elders. About 20 young men and youths performed the dances. Namba clad, the dancers stomped about with great vigour and enthusiasm. Ankle rattles and body paint added to the spectacle.
After the men completed their dances, we were escorted to a different area, where about 20 ladies of the village performed a number of dances. They wore calf length grass skirts, no tops. Some danced with a child at the hip. After the dances, we were invited to greet all the ladies individually. Many were keen to talk, so we had several interesting exchanges. Next we rejoined Chief Saitol and his dancers. We shook hands again and then to our surprise, we were invited to say a few words about ourselves. So we each gave a short talk. All evinced great interest in our remarks! Then it was Lap Lap time. This was a large dish of chicken and taro, which we were invited to share. The male dancers swooped in to finish it off after we had partaken of a token amount. We signed the village guest book, which reflected many visits by yachts. We were told that apart from yachties, few foreign visitors reach this area of Vanuatu.
With an overnight stop at tiny Wala Island, we made the island of Espiritu Santo in good time. Aore Island Resort, across Second Channel from Luganville, offered moorings, ferry service and a pool for Heather, so we spent three nights at this very convenient location. We checked out with Customs/Immigration and then visited Million Dollar Point, a vast dump site of World War Two war materiel. The rusting junk was exposed by a low tide, so we did not bother to snorkel the area. The story behind this spot is interesting. Essentially, the US Military was unable to sell this vast array of equipment, so it was simply dumped. Locals had valuable pickings for a few years.
On October 12, in company with Only Blue, we hoisted anchor and set out for Australia. The passage distance was 1033 NM. Conditions were mild and the forecast suggested moderately good weather for the trip. We hoped to be no longer than eight days on passage. We routed north of New Caledonia and Chesterfield Reef to skirt north of Bampton Reef before turning southwest to Bundaberg. Leaving the Great Barrier Reef to the north, we slotted south of Lady Elliot Island and north of Fraser Island to reach mainland Australia.
Halfway to Australia
October 15 at sunset found us approaching the halfway point to Bundaberg. Luganville was 436 NM behind us, with 597 NM to go. We were 125 NM east of Bamton Reef and expected to pass this dangerous area by late next afternoon. Day one wind was SSE 10/12 K sometimes light. Our buddy boat, Only Blue, motored to augment speed and maintained a minimum of 5K. The first night we sailed as slowly as 3K. Day two we began to motor as our objective was to reduce exposure to possible deteriorating weather. Day three, there was no wind, so we motored all day, maintaining about 5K boat speed. With the current, this gave us about 6K over the bottom. Day three, we hot refueled underway, transferring 14 US Gallons to the main tank. As our refueling point is on the transom, I don a harness and carefully pour the fuel via our Baja filter into the tank. We covered 4 NM during the process. Still no wind, so we motored the next 24 hours and hot refueled again, adding three jerry jugs or 18 US Gallons to the main tank. We had insufficient fuel to make Bundaberg so we hoped for wind and would wait for it if necessary. The obvious place to await wind was at a well-used anchorage at Chesterfield Reef. Other yachts were much lower on fuel than us and had already been forced to wallow along at 2 to 3 K. However, a high pressure area coming off Tasmania indicated that wind might come soon.
It did! Following a period of heavy squalls, steady wind developed mid-morning October 16. Over the next 12 hours, it built to 25 gusting 30K from the SSE. Inevitably, more than we needed! We sailed with a double reefed main, stay sail, with genoa furled. As we turned south bound out of the tropics, our course was close to the wind: 205 degrees magnetic, which meant the ride was both rough and wet. We were averaging about 5.7K. We could have gone faster of course, but the stress on both crew and boat would have been excessive. Good news: the repaired Cape Horn Vane steering worked perfectly, although I nervously inspected it, searching for early signs of failure. There were none. ETA Bundaberg was early Friday morning October 20. It could have been before first light, but Bundaberg is a sugar shipping port so a night arrival was feasible.
October 17, mid-afternoon, we had a closer than comfortable encounter with Bampton Reef. I had decided to cut in reasonably close to the reef to minimize route distance. In other words, cut the corner. I plotted a waypoint at 19.06S/158.15E marked on the Google Earth print, below which avoided the northeastern edge of the reef by about five miles. As we neared the waypoint, we could see a reef backed by a lagoon on the bow less than a mile away! Indeed, if we had not altered heading, we would have run up on it. I had planned this as a daylight segment of the passage, but what if we had arrived at night? Disturbing! I had failed to consider a possible disparity between chart plotter data and reality. Lesson: corner cutting can be hazardous!
Next morning, we fulfilled a pre-arrival requirement to contact Australian Customs. By radio/phone patch, we passed our position and ETA to Bundaberg. The official sounded very accommodating and affable, so we hoped for no “third degree” experience upon arrival! Later in the morning, a Customs plane overflew us and upon request, we passed on the usual details. As an island continent, understandably, Australia does not allow anything to be brought in that might contaminate agriculturally. Thus we were eating our way through Fiji/Vanuatu bought meats and veggies. Rough conditions reduced consumption, so we expected to have food items for confiscation. We could have “deep sixed” the stuff, but then it could have washed ashore and OZ might have been changed forever! Weather was expected to remain stable for the remainder of the passage, with winds slowly reducing and backing. Soon we were south of Capricorn. We looked forward to completing our Trans Pacific Passage and to spending some considerable time in Australia.
We arrived at Bundaberg, Australia about 0730 hours local time, Friday, October 20, 2000. On our final day at sea, weather was perfect: wind ESE 10/15K; sky clear. We could have arrived sooner, but rather than making landfall after dark, we reduced sail for the final 60NM and ghosted through the night so as to reach Bundaberg early morning. This worked well and we gained the clearly marked Burnett River entrance by 0700 hours. With Marina staff on duty, we were able to go directly to the Customs Dock. Customs were fair and reasonable. Quarantine Inspectors relieved us of several prohibited items: for example, honey, brown rice and some mouldy fruit/veg from the bottom of the fridge. What was taken away though was returned in spades by the welcoming committee, which provided a large food hamper including fresh Bundaberg grown strawberries and tomatoes. Now on the dock at a full facility marina, the Port2Port 2000 Rally reception was overwhelming!
Heather sent an e-mail:
Spinner Crabs and Pavlova! Bundy Rum and South Australian Chardonnay! Real milk! Plenty of machines at the laundromat! Showers to die for! Am I a City Girl at heart? We “dressed” the boats for Sunday celebrations. Our Canada bunting and patriotic umbrella came a close second to the best dressed boat, Only Blue. To my amazement, the weekend brought a parade of locals, gazing up reverently at Das Boot and muttering about fantasies. “Sorry about the puddle of drool, Mate”, said one. It’s the first time we’ve felt like “celebrities”! Now I sally forth to find a bathtub, buy underwear and eat a kangaroo.
After a month or so in Bundaberg, we sailed further south to the yachting center of Mooloolaba, where we secured Argonauta I for cyclone season. Lawrie’s Marina on one of the many canal locations became our home for the next six months. There we bought an older car and prepared to tour Australia.
Next season we headed north to Townsville and later we sailed over the “top end” to Darwin.