Passage to Vanuatu

On a mooring buoy, Port Vila Harbor, Vanuatu June 16, 2004

Dear friends and family:

We just celebrated our 36th (!!) anniversary in this lovely port city of friendly people, warm clear water, and great food. In a light mist, we dinghied along the waterfront to The Rossi Restaurant, which appears to be one of the most elegant in Port Vila, and there had champagne, lobster, coconut crab, crème caramel and coconut pie. Wow! Extremely rich, but really good. The waiters at the restaurant were oh so friendly, and everyone seems to be astonished that we sailed here from America.

Above:  Barbara at the Waterfront Bar & Grill in Port Vila.

When I last wrote, I think we had experienced some very bad anchoring situations in Fiji, and we arrived in Musket Cove (on Malolo Lailai Island) prepared for a few days of "resort life". Unfortunately the weather wasn’t very cooperative, and we had quite a bit of rain and strong winds. The Fiji weather service seems to issue the same weather report every day: "The strong wind warning for Fiji waters remains in force…"

Musket Cove is the rare resort that caters to yachties. There is a book exchange, internet café, dive shop, big grocery store, laundry – anything you could want before setting off for the next remote anchorage. They have an island bar, with cheap drinks and barbecues set up for you to grill your own entrée. The resort proper has a nice restaurant and big swimming pool which is available to the yachties. Everyone at the resort is exceedingly friendly – I think it is in the nature of Fijians, and the resort management obviously encourages the friendliness. The staff take the time to smile, introduce themselves, ask your name, and answer any questions you may have about the resort, about Fiji, or about themselves.

Gail (Craig’s cousin) was with us for the first few days in Musket Cove, before she set off on an excursion to Suva and thence home to California. With Gail we enjoyed the resort’s pig roast (complete with local vegetables – tapioca, pumpkin, taro leaves, sweet potato) and a dance performance which followed.

Above: Gail departing from Musket Cove on the Malolo Cat.

We found a couple of spots for snorkeling, and saw an incredible kaleidoscope of colorful fish and corals. In one spot, close to the resort, the little fish who live among the anemones (think Nemo) were very aggressive – they are obviously being fed by resort guests who are brought out by the boatload. At another spot, more remote from the anchorage, we were closely accompanied around the reef by schools of zebra fish. When I say "closely," I mean they were about six inches in front of our face masks. I’m not sure if they were expecting to be fed, but I felt a bit claustrophobic to have them so close.

We seem to have left behind most of the yachts we cruised with in 2003. We are on somewhat of a fast track, having committed to (and paid for!) having Sequoia shipped home from Brisbane, Australia at the end of July. Many of our friends from last season are spending this entire season in Tonga, Fiji or Vanuatu, and then returning to New Zealand for the next cyclone season. In a way we wish we had time to do that as well, but we need to get back and resume our lives on land. I particularly miss making music with orchestras and chamber groups, and that just is not a possibility in the cruising life style.

The one boat from last season that we did meet at Musket Cove was Mi Gitana. We had met Michelle and Joe last year in the Marquesas and we traveled mostly in parallel throughout the season. They spent the cyclone season in a "graveyard berth" at Vuda Point, Fiji. (A graveyard berth is a trench in the ground, dug out by a backhoe. The boat is lowered into the trench and cushioned with tires. This is supposedly a very cyclone-proof way of storing a boat during the cyclone season). Unfortunately the promised security at Vuda Point was inadequate – Mi Gitana was broken into three times by thieves and party givers.


Left:  Sailboats in graveyard berths at Vuda Point.

We renewed acquaintance with Mi Gitana, and met some new friends at Musket Cove as well. We’ve now left most or all of them behind, with our passage to Vanuatu. But there are new interesting people here. It’s one of the joys and rewards of cruising – there are always new and interesting people at each anchorage. Generally they are people we never would have met at home, with differing interests and perspectives on life. We have pot-lucks, trade books and conversations, and expand our perspectives on the world. At home, we had our usual best friends and our usual favorite pursuits, and it was sometimes hard to make time and space for new friends and new perspectives. Here there is always room, because we left our last best friends behind in the last anchorage or the one before that.

It’s always difficult to leave a comfortable anchorage, but we must push on. The weather – strong winds and rain – kept us somewhat pinned down in Musket Cove. Every evening, around 4:00 p.m. we download the latest weather reports, and look hopefully for some sign that the next passage won’t be too rough. Once we selected a tentative departure date for Vanuatu, we had to get our last minute supplies, prepare passage food, and check out with the Fiji customs service. Customs is located in Lautoka, so we traveled on the Malolo Cat, a passenger ferry that goes from Musket Cove to Denerau on Viti Levu several times a day.

Once there, we engaged Abel, a Fijian taxi driver, to take us to our various destinations – big box grocery stores, the customs and immigration service, the public market, and finally back to Denerau to catch the ferry. Abel told us that he was from a small village in the highlands of Fiji, but he moved to Nadi to get a secondary education for his three girls. Two are now in college, and he lamented the high fees he has to pay. (I think this was – at least in part – justification for the relatively high fee he charged us for the day’s taxi driving.)

Right: the day's haul of groceries, plus a large woven pandanus floor mat -- all awaiting passage back to Musket Cove on the Malolo Cat.

After we got back to Musket Cove, we had a look at the weather forecast, and the weather didn’t look favorable for a start the next day. So we spent another day enjoying the amenities of the resort, and prepared a bit more food for the passage.

2004 Route Map

On Thursday morning, June 10th, we made the decision to go. The passage to Vanuatu is 520 miles -- something more than 3 days (assuming we make 150 miles per day). There is always a question whether to try to start in the early morning and arrive in the late afternoon (meaning three nights on passage) – or instead to start in the afternoon, have four nights on passage, and arrive in the morning. We elected to do the latter, particularly since leaving Fiji involved threading our way through narrow winding passages between coral reefs. It’s important to have good visibility, hopefully with the sun high and at your back, in order to see – and miss – all those reefs. As it turns out, there was no sun, but the reef markers were where they were supposed to be, and we made it out of the Fiji reefs without incident.

There’s no beating about the bush – it was a rough passage. It was the longest that we have done with just the two of us. With a watch schedule of three hours on, and three hours off, sleep deprivation becomes an issue for both of us. Also, the apparently good weather forecasts we were looking at in Fiji did not disclose a stationary front which formed just along our planned route.

At night, the wind always seems to increase, so at dusk we usually put three reefs in the main and use only a reefed portion of the genoa or staysail. Squalls often come up at night, so we’re constantly consulting the radar to see if the next line of squalls can be avoided. In some squalls the wind increases substantially, and there is sometimes thunder and lightning. On Friday night we got ourselves into a zone of substantial squalls and lightning. The lightning didn’t have any associated thunder, which seemed surprising, and it didn’t have bolts coming down to the water. It was just blindingly bright flashes in the clouds, and you wished you hadn’t been looking that direction when it happened. At the worst, the flashes were coming about three times a minute. We put all the small electronics in the oven (to protect them in case of a direct strike on the boat), and hoped for the best. In the relatively flat ocean (not counting the 10 foot swells) we are the tallest thing around, so if lightning is looking for a path down, we’re it. Fortunately this particular lightning never struck us.

Before the lightning storm, but especially afterwards, came buckets of rain. We got out our Pacific Northwest foul weather gear, and did our best to stay dry, but it was a constant battle. In theory, you can avoid squalls, by watching the radar and taking evasive action. Now the radar was showing that we were always in the middle of a squall, and there was no escaping it. It seemed to match our direction and speed, no matter what we did. We finally figured out that we were in an area of widespread rain and that the radar couldn’t penetrate more than four miles through the rain, so it always looked like we were in the center of an eight-mile-wide squall.
On Sunday, as we got close to Vanuatu, it became apparent that we were going too fast, and we were going to arrive in the harbor at about 1:00 a.m. We were having a beautiful sail, on a beam reach – going about 6 knots in a ten knot breeze, in lovely sunny weather. Nevertheless, we started shortening sail in order to slow down. At dusk, the wind increased, and even with three reefs in the main and part of the staysail, we were still going 6 knots. We dropped the main altogether. Still 5 knots. We rolled in the staysail altogether (we now have no sails up at all). Still 4 knots. We took down the awning – finally 3.5 knots, which we figured was slow enough to delay our arrival until about 10:00 a.m. Unfortunately there was still a current of nearly a knot, pushing us toward Vanuatu. So we heaved to, which theoretically slows the boat nearly to a stop. But with the drift of the current, it ended up being more like a zig-zag course – five miles this way, and then five miles that way. The swells were still big, so the rolling motion was quite uncomfortable. When I tried to sleep, it sounded like every nut and bolt, every spare part, every jar of jam, every can of tuna, in short, every item in all the cabinets and lockers was trying to escape and/or break itself open. Or to put it another way, it sounded like an entire hardware store had been dumped into some kind of cosmic blender.  
So when we arrived in Port Vila, Vanuatu, we slept most of the day. This looks to be a very interesting place, with lots to see and do. We’ve been to the public market, and picked up our first pamplemousses of the year. (We haven’t seen these huge, yummy, sweet grapefruit since French Polynesia – July, 2003 – so we didn’t hesitate to acquire a few…)
We hope to get to one or more of the outer islands, to see some of the traditional cultures. Vanuatu appears to be much less westernized than the other islands we have visited. Many of the natives are not Christian, but follow "kastom," the religion and ways of their ancestors. Apparently the early missionaries didn’t do so well here – they got eaten! It tended to discourage the next wave of missionaries, and had the effect of preserving some of the old cultures.

Best wishes to all our friends and family –

Craig & Barbara Johnston

S/V Sequoia


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