Passage to New Caledonia

June 30, 2004

Noumea, New Caledonia

2004 Route Map

Map of approach to Noumea

Dear friends and family:

When I last wrote, I think I said that we had a lot of rain and overcast in Vanuatu, and we thought maybe we were under the South Pacific convergence zone. Maybe going south would allow us to escape it? The phrase that now comes to mind is this: Out of the frying pan but into the fire!

The weather maps looked pretty good. It looked like southeast winds all the way, shifting to northerly winds as we approached New Caledonia. There was a minor low predicted to go 500 miles south of New Caledonia.


Above:  Our last anchorage in Vanuatu -- Mele Island near Port Vila

Below:  On the second day of the passage (before the storm), Craig caught a beautiful mahi-mahi (now in steaks in the freezer).

Of course the way it developed was that as we approached Havannah Pass (the entrance to New Caledonia’s reef), the low was taking a path much further to the north, and much closer to us. It was still not a significant low, with winds predicted to be 25 to 30 knots. (We frequently experience winds of this strength without significant problems.) Our latest information was that the winds would shift to southwest (not a good direction) at about 11:00 a.m. Since we expected to be through the pass by 9:00 a.m., it still seemed to be fine.

We still had the winds behind us when we made the turn toward Havannah pass. Within about 30 minutes, though, the winds increased to 40 knots and quickly backed around to southwest -- right in our faces. As we checked in with Des on Russell Radio he told us "you must be right alongside the low…" Swells increased to about 12 feet, and our speed (now under power with the engine at high RPMs) decreased to about 1.5 knots. We had confused seas and very limited visibility in heavy rain; conditions were right up there in the top five list of worst weather we’ve dealt with. We were simply unable to power through the pass, due to the wind, not the current. (Our instruments recorded the highest wind speed of 47 knots.)

We were about five miles from the coast of New Caledonia, but couldn’t see anything through the driving rain. If you looked into the direction of the wind, it was like having your face scoured with a sandblaster. Craig went below to look at the charts and see if there were any other options. He found a small bay about 15 miles up the coast: Baie de Yate. (Yacht Bay?) One cruising guide said it was a popular anchorage for people waiting to go north to the Loyalty Islands. The bay is where the Yate River emerges from the mountains. Further upstream, the chart shows a large reservoir (the water supply for Noumea) and Yate dam. Craig called Noumea on the radio, and they confirmed that it was a good anchorage, and that we wouldn’t be in trouble with customs for diverting in these conditions, as long as we didn’t go ashore.


As we set a course for Baie de Yate, the land began to emerge. The mountainous country, through the mists and driving rain certainly does look like Scotland, so it’s easy to see why Captain Cook named it "New Caledonia." If you look too closely, though the trees are wrong: palm trees, interspersed with tall spiky trees which appear to be a variant of Norfolk Island pine.

We anchored in the middle of the stream entering the bay, just downstream of the coast road bridge. We couldn't find any mud, and our anchor dragged through a lot of what sounded like small gravel or coral bits until it fetched up hard on something. (We were hoping it wasn't an old engine block or cable!)

Below:  the north shore of Yate Bay (photo taken the next day after the storm)

So there we were, in the river with a 1 knot current and winds gusting down the river valley at 15-25. We set the GPS to do an anchor watch all night, so naturally we had no problems. But at 8:30 pm we were just about startled out of our skins by the blast of a huge horn, repeated 3 or 4 times. I mean, it sounded like the Queen Mary was coming through. Seeing no boat or other human activity, I wondered if it wasn't the local tsunami warning, or maybe the signal that the dam upstream had broken. The horn sounded again, but nothing happened. There was a small cabin cruiser anchored near shore, and although we wondered if it was the source, it seems unlikely. But it was the loudest horn we have ever heard, like the Monterey foghorn being nearby. Weird! Craig’s best guess is that it was a water release warning, but only a test. We still don’t know for sure, but at least there wasn’t any wall of water coming out of the mountains.



Below:  Preparing to up anchor at Yate Bay, the morning after the storm. The next morning the rain had stopped, there was a lovely sunrise, and we wound our way out of the bay, through the reef, and back down the coast to Havannah Pass. We entered uneventfully, and then continued on the 40 mile course inside the reef to Noumea. There are many small islands and reefs and it surprisingly reminds us of our home cruising grounds in Puget Sound and British Columbia.
We’ve just arrived, so I can’t tell you much about Noumea, except that it seems to be very French, very nice people. The Port Captain came down to meet us personally and hand us the customs and immigration documents, and the health inspector was waiting for us as we tied up. She stuck her head down in our refrigerator, and took all our fruits, vegetables, eggs and honey. It was after 5:00 p.m., so that was our last official business of the day. Now (the next morning) we are awaiting customs and immigration, so we can officially go ashore and see what’s here.

Best wishes to all our friends and family!

Craig & Barbara Johnston

S/V Sequoia


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