Cruising Fraser Island

On November 28, we left Bundaberg, stowed the dock lines, and started making way for Fraser Island. Lying just off the coast and over 120 kilometers north to south, Fraser Island is the largest sand island in the world and the only place where one can find rain forest growing on sand.

We cruised south in the sandy straits between Fraser Island and the mainland. Though the island blocks ocean swell, there is plenty of room for winds from the north or south to sweep through as well as a southerly current that can make for tricky navigation. But compared to ocean passage making, day sails through the sandy straits felt like we were on easy street the whole way.

We kept an easy rhythm—hopping south along the island’s anchorages in the morning, getting off the boat and exploring the island in the afternoon. The anchorages were sandy, making for excellent holding without any mud to clean off the anchor chain. The coastline was mostly flat and lined with mangroves, with a few areas of dramatic sand bluffs that made an excellent canvas for sunset watercolors. Our easy schedule gave us the chance to scope out some amazing birds, lizards, dingoes, and spiders in the process.

Bundaberg

Our time in Bundaberg was largely functional. We were ten days in the marina, working through our list of end of season boat projects: repairing the brightwork and adding fresh coats of varnish, polishing the stainless, cleaning rust stains from the hull, oiling the teak down below.

Bundy is deep in Queensland’s sugar can country, and the marina was surrounded by a vast expanse of grassy flatlands, punctuated by the occasional marshy river basin or eucalyptus grove. We’re just south of the tropics, so the days were hot with the occasional afternoon squall. The marina was an isolated place. We could go for a 20 minute walk to the nearby village, which was a bend in the road along the shore with a few homes, a grocery store, a bakery, a porcelain doll gallery, and a drive through liquor store. We took the marina-sponsored shuttle into Bundaberg proper on Sunday morning, a 30 minute drive, and feasted our senses on fresh peaches, heirloom tomatoes, and lots of the little candy colored parakeets for sale.

Despite appearing monotonous, the grasslands surrounding the marina were an avian treasure trove. We saw rainbow lorikeets, pictured above, flocking in all the flowering trees. We spotted our first pelicans since leaving North America and large pink parrots foraging for seeds in the grass. We saw a pair of black headed ibis—a bird that has the legs of a stork, the body of large white egret, and the bald black head of a vulture with a slender beak that curved for nearly a foot in front of its face. Our favorite was the rainbow beecatcher, a small, cardinal shaped bird that darted around like an orange, green, and blue firecracker. And we saw kangaroos galore, hopping through the fields and relaxing in the shade.

We let Thanksgiving go by without much fanfare—no other Americans around, no way a turkey would fit in our oven, a little bummed to be so far away from home for yet another round of festivities. But, there is nothing quite so uplifting as practicing gratitude: I was so happy to celebrate from afar my family reuniting in California for Thanksgiving and my aunt’s birthday. On Saturday, our new nephew, Enzo, arrived with an uncomplicated delivery and grows more precious with every photo I see. I’m so grateful to my Mom, Dad, and Amit, the new father, for sending so many photos! Most of all I’m thankful for my partner in adventure, Dominic, and to have the privilege of exploring so much beauty on land and at sea.

Chesterfield Reef

Cruisers in the tropics of the South Pacific have to make a critical decision as cyclone season approaches in November: find an anchorage that qualifies as a hurricane hole for the season? Head south to New Zealand? Follow the sunset west to Australia? 

Dominic and I had been in Vanuatu, swimming in waterfalls, swinging from banyan trees into freshwater springs, eating freshly caught lobster and mahimahi everyday, and wishing away the realities of the calendar, when we were forced to address this question as the days in October 2016 dwindled.

Having spent the previous summer in New Zealand and not in the mood to gamble with cyclones, we started planning a 1,000 nautical mile passage from Luganville, Vanuatu to Bundaberg, Australia.

We had been monitoring the weather for a month but didn't see any good windows that would allow us to comfortably sail the full distance in one hop. Friends that had made the passage a few weeks earlier told us about a little-known sliver of paradise called Chesterfield Reef that lies just beyond the half way point of our intended trajectory through the Coral Sea.

We started researching, finding that if Chesterfield is defined by anything, its isolation: 560 nautical miles southwest of Luganville, 440 nautical miles northeast from Bundaburg, the reef hovers 470 nautical miles northwest of Noumea, New Caledonia, from where it has been governed as a French territory since 1876. 

Remote, yes, but a perfect stopover for us. And when we saw our friend's photos of turtles on the beach and seabirds flocking around their dinghy, we were really sold. So when November 1 rolled around, we started filling the larder, de-molding our lifejackets, and making ready for a passage to Chesterfield Reef.

Checking out of Vanuatu brought the usual throng of emotions: the sadness of saying goodbye, the thrill of new adventure, the fish-in-the-tummy anxiety of whatever unknowns the ocean held hidden in her waves.

On November 8, 2016, we raised the main, unfurled the jib, and enjoyed the first breeze we had felt in the cockpit for weeks as we set a westerly course from Luganville. Outside the lee of the island, a brisk 17 knot wind blew in behind us, and the seas swelled to 1.5 meters.

The sunset brought a star-studded night with winds that fluked and dipped to 10 knots, causing early morning sail furling and engine starting. But by morning they steadied, and we were sailing under a full mainsail and jib.

After 48 hours, we rounded New Caledonia's northern reefs; once in her lee, the seas were pancake flat. We had a magnificent day of sailing, the wind blowing for 12 hours longer than the forecasts called for, but we fired up the engine that night after the winds died and expected to motor the rest of the way.

We had an inkling a hundred miles out of Chesterfield Reef that we would be in for a lot of birds—three red footed boobies roosted overnight on our bow, one slept on our spreaders turning our dodger, deck, and mainsail into a modernist masterpiece of black and white smears. 

One of the boobies we later spotted on shore:

As we approached the pass into Chesterfield, we started to see four-foot brown sea snakes float by our starboard side. We had a bite on our trolling line. Reeling in the catch, we noticed a gray reef shark trailing the boat. The shark made a lazy dive, disappearing into the sapphire, and our catch was gone.

After four and half days underway, we arrived at Chesterfield Reef. The reef is shaped like a bent fishhook, with a large opening facing the east, so navigating the entrance was straightforward. The lagoon is mostly free of coral heads and navigational hazards.

The reef, as seen on our charts and Google Earth:

There are 11 motus surrounding the lagoon that form a bight along the southern end creating an anchorage protected from southerly trades. We noticed that bommies became more frequent as we approached the reef's perimeter, so I went to the bow to keep a close lookout as Dominic navigated Helios into the anchorage. In reality, this is one of the easiest anchorages we've entered in our previous 13,000 nautical miles.

The view as we approached the anchorage:

By 1230 on a sunny Saturday, November 12, our anchor was dropped, the champagne popped, and we were moments away from swimming in the glassy turquoise water surrounding the boat. With us were three other cruising yachts, two catamarans out of Australia and Breeze, a 64 foot Moody, out of Sweden.

Scoping the neighborhood from the bow:

Helios and Breeze, as seen from shore:

We quickly realized those calm, clear waters were not as benign as they looked.  Breeze reported seeing a three meter a tiger shark circling her stern after cleaning a fish and tossing the remnants overboard.

But still, I couldn't resist going for a swim after such a hot sail. So while I floated, bobbed, and somersaulted in the water, Dominic wore his snorkel and mask and kept a constant shark watch.

The tiger shark population in Chesterfield is unique and well documented. The reef system provides year-round shelter to an adult male tiger shark and at least three juveniles. A 2014 study recorded adult females passing through the area as part of a three-year migratory pattern around the Coral Sea via Australia and southern New Caledonia.

We tentatively, cautiously, on high shark alert at all times did some underwater exploring of the coral near the anchorage.

Our bravery was beyond rewarded. We spent an hour swimming around a large bommie 100 meters from the boat. The water was diamond clear, and the bommie was swollen with coral, humming with fish of all sizes. Crimson and evergreen sea fans waved in the current. 

Dominic brought his spear gun with him, but it was only to play defense in the unlikely event that we came in contact with aggressive wildlife. Though we usually enjoy fishing, spearing can cause nearby sharks to become curious and assertive, a situation we were hoping to avoid. Plus, areas of Chesterfield are reported to be contaminated with ciguatera, a toxin that gets magnified in the reef food chain and causes nerve damage and muscle pain in humans.

Surrounding the anchorage, there were four continuously exposed motus that provided nesting sites for thousands of birds. Masked boobies sat on eggs and raised their young on the sand; red footed boobies built nests in the bush-like trees; black noddies roosted on low lying shrubs, raising their young in the shade below; two juvenile frigate birds haunted the skies, resting on whatever branches they could find.

A juvenile frigate bird circling the motu:

An adult human circling the motu:

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The birds have been integral in forming what little exists of Chesterfield's landscape. The islets are built of coarse, coral sand, sand stone, and abundant layers of guano.

A booby tending her eggs:

A booby and her just-hatched babe:

A pair of masked boobies and their adolescent chick:

Similar to the sanctuary Chesterfield Reef provides for tiger sharks, the nesting sites on land provide one of the last pristine habitats for scientists to study seabird behavior. As of 2010, Chesterfield and her neighbor, Bellona, housed upwards of 300 mating pairs of masked boobies, 4,000 pairs of brown boobies, 7,000 pairs of red footed boobies, 1,800 pairs of frigate birds, and 30,000 pairs of black noddies.

A noddy and her chick:

On our third day at the reef, the winds backed to the northerly quarter, kicking up chop in the lagoon. We were in for a bumpy night no matter our location, so we moved to the western side of the reef to explore a second anchorage and be nearer to the southwesterly pass for our exit the following day.

We dove the reef system between Helios and shore, finding more thriving coral and schools of emperor fish. The excitement came when a four-foot turtle emerged out of the blue, swimming directly at us. He was inquisitive and friendly, coming within a few feet of us and circling back to check us out three times. It was spectacular to encounter wildlife so untouched by humans that their response to us was curiosity instead of fear.

Our favorite turtle photo:

But not all the creatures in the lagoon were so lucky—we spotted two illegal fishing boats while we were in Chesterfield, a large 'mother ship' that lingered outside the reef and a smaller satellite ship that worked inside the lagoon. We saw the the vessel inside the lagoon up close, and the crew appeared to be diving for sea cucumber and using nets to hoist their catch out of the water.

Chesterfield Reef and her surrounding waters are part of New Caledonia's Exclusive Economic Zone, meaning foreign vessels without permission are forbidden from fishing in the region. Similarly, New Caledonia has recently designated the waters within her EEZ as a natural park, limiting domestic fishing and hoping to eventually extend protection as far as Australia's aquatic preserve to the west. 

Nevertheless, it isn't uncommon to find illegal fishing boats from the north working in the area. Within the Coral Sea in recent years, vessels from Vietnam, China, Taiwan, and Papua New Guinea have been caught harvesting large amounts of sea cucumbers, tuna, shark, and smaller quantities of turtle meat and reef fish.

The dwindling tuna and shark populations are well documented and of grave concern to governments and environmental groups working in the South Pacific.

Australia, New Zealand, New Caledonia, Fiji, and Tonga have joined forces to patrol waters between their EEZ's and enforce measures limiting net and long line trolling enacted by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission.

Nevertheless, in the last five years the Secretariat of the Pacific Community has recorded as many as 320 illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing vessels within the greater South Pacific Ocean in a one-month period.

There are few things more tragic than watching a habitat as critical and unique as Chesterfield being destroyed, especially as the area has already suffered at the hands of human economics.

As we sat at anchor in Chesterfield, one of the more beautiful, remote places on earth, we were dismayed to see such destructive activity going on around us. We wanted to put an end to it as quickly as possible.

Breeze attempted radio contact, but didn't hear any response. We passed the satellite vessel as we crossed the lagoon, taking as many close-up photographs as we could to document what we were seeing. We emailed those photographs to the New Caledonian Navy.

The vessel of ill repute:

A naval officer responded quickly, sending follow up photos and asking detailed questions about the vessels identifying marks. The Navy discouraged any direct confrontation between cruisers and the vessel as the potential for violence could escalate.

It was frustrating to have to sit back and watch the fishing take place—imagine being at a playground and watching one child bully another and being able to do nothing—but the quick and serious response from the Navy was satisfying.

We left Chesterfield on the morning of Tuesday, November 15, with squally skies and light southwesterly wind forecasted to back to the southeast by sunset.

On our second day underway, the winds built to 20 knots with two meter seas. We found a northwesterly setting current that gave us an extra two to three knots over ground toward Bundaberg. To offset the angle the water was moving, we had to turn the boat upwind and crab sideways toward our destination.

Upon arrival, we reported the illegal fishing activity and shared photographs with the Australian customs officers. They were interested in documenting the situation, but didn't seem at all surprised to hear about it.

ps. In real time, we're in Australia enjoying a fantastic day sail from Bundaberg to Frasier Island. We were so inspired and intrigued by Chesterfied Reef we wanted to learn more about what we experienced and get a chance to share more photos.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Australia!

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We were underway for three days between Chesterfield Reef and Bundaberg, a small town on the northeastern coast of Australia. We motored out of the reef's southern pass into light westerly winds that continued into the afternoon, and then 17 knots of wind blew in behind us bringing glorious conditions for our first evening underway. 

On our second day, the winds built to over 20 knots, and the swell picked up to two meters. Based on the forecasts, we had predicted we would be beam reaching through these conditions, which wouldn't have been too uncomfortable. In reality, we found a northwesterly setting current that was more frenemey than friendly: we gained an extra two to three knots through the water pushing us toward Bundaberg, but to offset the angle the water was moving, we had to turn the boat upwind and crab sideways toward our destination.

We were grateful to be making record Helios speeds—our speed over ground pushed 9.8 knots at one point, and we had a 176 nautical mile day!—but we were not excited about about the super bumpy upwind conditions the current brought with it.

After two days of living in a salt soaked world, we were pretty ecstatic to make landfall. So ecstatic that we broke our cardinal rule of never entering a new anchorage at night. At 0200 on November 17th, under a bright waning gibbous moon, we entered Bundaberg's excellently charted and brightly lit channel, anchored just outside of the marina, and enjoyed six hours of uninterrupted sleep.

By 1000 we had maneuvered into our slip. By 1500 we had been cleared by customs and quarantine to get off the boat and stretch our legs.

Our first sighting not more than 10 minutes after getting off the boat? Kangaroos on the grassy field just beyond the marina. Welcome to Australia!

 

Big Water Waterfall

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 [A belated post! I put this together while we were still in Vanuatu...but then we lost service before I could share.]

Our last stop on Maewo was Big Water, a waterfall on northwestern edge of the island. We didn't get to stay as long as we'd like as the anchorage is untenable, but just getting to hike through this natural water park was a treat. 

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The largest cascade was a 15 minute walk from where we docked the dinghy at the mouth of the river. It was incredible to see how the locals were making use of the water. They had just finished building a shrimp farm, large pools irrigated with hollowed bamboo, and were expecting their first shipment the day after we were there.  

A shrimp pool on the making:

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Above the shrimp pools was a seemingly infinite sequence of terraced gardens. Papaya was abundant, but the most successful crop seemed to be water taro, thriving in the partially flooded platforms. 

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Our favorite swimming hole near the falls:

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The main cascade: 

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One of our young guides led the way over the top of the falls:

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Maewo was going through a dry spell while we were there (we had five perfectly sunny days while staying on the Island of Water) so the flow in falls was low, but the way the water tumbled white over the boulders and fell into the pool below was still magnificent.

 

Underwater at Chesterfield Reef

We tentatively, cautiously, on high shark alert at all times (our neighbors in the anchorage reported two visits from a three meter tiger shark) did some exploring underwater at Chesterfield Reef.

Our bravery was beyond rewarded. In the northern anchorage, we spent an hour swimming around a large bommy 100 meters from the boat. The water was diamond clear and the bommy was swollen with coral and humming with fish of all sizes. Crimson and evergreen sea fans waved in the current.

Yesterday, we moved across the lagoon, anchoring behind a motu near the southern pass. We dove the reef system between Helios and shore, finding more thriving coral and schools of emperor fish. The best part was when a four foot turtle emerged out of the blue, swimming directly at us. He was inquisitive and friendly, coming within a few feet of us and circling back to check us out three different times. It is spectacular to encounter wildlife so untouched by humans that their response to us is curiosity instead of fear.

But not all the creatures in the lagoon are so lucky—we spotted two illegal fishing boats (we think out of China, but we spotted and cleaned up some fresh food wrappers from Vietnam on the beach) while we were in the lagoon; the vessel we saw closely was fishing with nets and had crew partially submerged in the water. We’re guessing they were capturing and finning sharks. We took photos and alerted the government in New Caledonia, who in turn have alerted their navy. So tragic to see a paradise such as this being destroyed!

Boobies and Babes

We had an inkling a hundred miles out of Chesterfield Reef that we would be in for a lot of birds—three red footed boobies roosted overnight on our bow, one slept on our spreaders turning our dodger, deck, and mainsail into a modernist masterpiece of black and white smears.

Around our current anchorage, four motus are continuously exposed, although the sandbars between them vanish at high tide. Masked boobies sit on eggs and raise their young on the sand; red footed boobies build rookeries in the bush-like trees; black noddies roost on low lying shrubs, raising their young in the shade below; two juvenile frigate birds haunt the skies, resting on whatever branches they can find.

The masked boobies, pictured above, have been my favorite. The young are completely exposed on the sand, using only their parent’s belly for shade. Such a lifestyle makes them super vulnerable to predators, but there are no mammals here (except us), so they’re thriving. There are bald, sticky, just hatched boobies, toddlers stretching their wings for the first time, teenagers still covered in goofy downy fluff, all eager to pose for photos.

We’ve taken a few hundred and can’t wait to share once we get to Australia and have some more data to play with. Float plan as of now is to depart tomorrow, Tuesday our time, and make landfall in Bundaberg on Friday.

Chesterfield Reef

Yesterday, after four and a half days underway, we arrived at Chesterfield Reef. Chesterfield, a string of motus hovering just over half way between Vanuatu and Australia, is a marine reserve controlled by New Caledonia.

Our passage was an easy one, 50 hours of downwind sailing in calm seas followed by 50 hours of motoring, but we are ecstatic to have the opportunity to get a few full nights of sleep at anchor as we wait for the winds to fill in and make the last push into Australia. So, by 1230 on Saturday, the anchor was dropped, the champagne popped (always need to celebrate a safe passage!), and it we were moments away from swimming in the glassy turquoise water surrounding the boat.

We hopped in as quickly as we could as the heat was blistering, literally—bubbles forming in the varnish on the toe rails, the deck burning bare feet. I floated, bobbed, and somersaulted in the water; Dominic wore his snorkel and mask and kept a constant shark watch. We’ve heard a few stories about tiger sharks cruising through the anchorage and saw a four foot grey shark circle a few feet from our stern.

We went ashore as the sun started to set to enjoy beverages with our neighboring boats, two Aussie catamarans and a 65 foot monohull, and marvel at the wildlife. Chesterfield is a mecca of breeding birds. We had a leisurely breakfast this morning, relaxing, doing yoga and a few light weight boat chores. This afternoon we’ll do some very cautious snorkeling and exploring on the islets before watching the full moon rise.

A Most Excellent Sail and a Most Terrible Election

On the morning of November 7, according to calendars in the US, Dominic and I raised the main, unfurled the jib, and set sail for Australia. As is the usual paradox of emotions upon departure, we were sad to leave Vanuatu—we didn’t get a chance to visit her northern islands—but happy to be underway. Departing Santo at 9 am, we enjoyed the first breeze we’d felt in the cockpit after weeks of tropical heat, the seas were calm, and the sun was shining.

We, like most, were eagerly awaiting the election. Even with our desultory connectivity, we have been overwhelmed with campaign coverage. The headlines we were seeing before leaving Luganville were making us look forward with optimism—early voting was looking blue according to my self selected new feeds, Latin Americans were rocking the vote hard in Nevada, three generations of Bush women came out in support of Hilary, and Vox reported whispers of an Obama Supreme Court nomination. I was giddy.

Outside the lee of the island, the sailing was equally gleeful. We found a strong 17 knot breeze behind us and seas that started with a 1.5 meter swell and calmed from there. We were a little tired, had a slight loss of appetite, but were feeling great overall.

On our second day, November 8, I started reaching out to my family to get election updates via the sat phone. I spoke with my sister early on. Trump already had 15 electoral college votes to Clinton's four. I could hear a little panic in her voice, but she made every effort to be reassuring. “It’s too soon! It’s too soon! Don’t be upset! It’s too soon!” she kept saying. “It’s only Republican states that have been counted to so far! It’s too soon!”

So Dominic and I waited patiently, reading novels and marveling at some of the best sailing conditions ever, for six more hours before calling my dad.

“I hate to be the one to tell you this,” he said. “Trump needs 270 votes to win, he has 240 to to Clinton’s 214.”

“It’s too soon! It’s too soon! Don’t be upset! It’s too soon!” I said. “There’s still time!” I reassured myself, assuming there was no way California had yet been counted. I didn't have the internet, who knew how many electoral college votes California had this year. And Washington! Didn’t Washington usually go blue?

“It would take a miracle for Hillary to win,” he said. "Enjoy the sailing.”

We did. The sun was setting. The weather was sweet. I nursed a ginger beer and Dominic a Victoria Bitter. We played chess in the cockpit. It was quiet and peaceful, a peachy watercolor sky. I took a hot shower.

I called my sister. She didn’t pick up. I texted my dad.

Me: Dare I ask? Dad: It’s over. God help us.

Commence a downward spiral into the deepest despair. Dominic shook his head, slowly with downcast eyes (which is generally as negative and sad as he gets). I ranted—about the results of investing so little in education as nation, the shame I feel for my country, the battle against despotism and the free election of our own hateful tyrant, that Americans are so anti-woman they would elect someone who is completely unqualified and terrible and rapey.

I went to bed and didn’t sleep, got up at midnight for a star studded night shift of flukey wind, early morning sail furling and engine starting. Dominic woke at 3:30 to find me in a state of weeping exhaustion. I woke up again at 8 am, totally grumpy at the existence of the sun, so rudely beaming light in my eyes.

Over our morning quiche in the cockpit, Dominic and I realized we had both completely and independently come to the conclusion that my dad and sister were playing some sort of sick practical joke on us. No way would we elect a president endorsed by the KKK who—what’s the quote?—“grabs women by the pussy.” No fucking way.

Yes fucking way.

I emailed my girlfriend Maggie for confirmation. She replied: "We. Are. In. Shock. Like, as a social media nation, my Facebook and Twitter feeds are literally sadder and more shocked than when Michael Jackson died. It's like the a comet took out the last remaining Beatles...AND all puppies at once.”

Woe unto us. Woe unto the US!

Ok, ok. Deep breaths. Our 48 hours of excellent wind, despite the flukey morning, had magically turned into 60. We had made it west of New Caledonia and her northern reefs; the seas were pancake flat. We started listing all the things we should be grateful for. So beautiful in the middle of the ocean. So many birds. So much miracle wind.

“Maybe we at least now have a Congress controlled by the Democrats who will prevent Trump from doing too much damage,” I said, adding to our list.

Wrong, wrong again! Dimitri reports via email today that Trump remains the president-elect despite Clinton winning the popular vote (may you die a swift death, electoral college!), Republicans won majorities in both houses of Congress, and my (un)fair nation has fallen into an age of endarkenment.

So many of my hopes and dreams for the US went overboard as this most disastrous news unfurled for us like a band aid being ripped off hair by hair, a dagger slowly twisted. Fewer military weapons discharging in schools? A few more steps toward health care for all? Too much to ask?

Or maybe just a president who has some amount of experience in public policy—like was a former senator, or a secretary of state—and isn't a misogynistic white supremacist. Too much to ask.

I finally got ahold of my mom today, who, after ranting in her own right, reminded me that all we can do is be beacon of light in our communities and continue working toward the greater good. She’s right, regardless of who sits in the oval office. But there are other enticing options, too—like a buying forwarding flights from SFO to Canada when the time comes, or rerouting our lives to New Zealand entirely. To be determined...

Santo

After Maewo, we made a pitstop at Ambae, spending two nights in Lolowai, an anchorage on the island’s northern edge. We were hoping to hike to the volcanic lakes on the island, but were disappointed to find it would require a very expensive ride to the village at the start of the hike and an overnight stay in that village the night before. So, we cheered ourselves with long paddle board cruises around Lolowai and the adjacent bay, and continued on to Santo.

Santo is the largest island in Vanuatu, and houses Luganville, the second largest city in the country, on its southern edge. Our friends on Ambler gave us a tip about a great anchorage in the southwestern corner of the island that is more protected than the anchorage in Luganville and an easy taxi ride from town.

Palikulo Bay turned out to be an excellent spot to hang out as we got ready for our passage to Australia. There were no winds in the forecast for a week, so we took our time provisioning, doing chores, and exploring the shipwrecks in the bay. The bay was sandy, so the underwater visibility wasn’t ideal, but the bommies in Palikulo were the healthiest coral formations we’ve seen in Vanuatu. As summer approached the days were getting long and hot, so I spent three long afternoons swimming in the water and enjoying some of our last days of easy snorkeling off the transom.

From there we cruised inside the reef up to Oyster Bay. The main attraction was the Blue Hole, a swimming hole three kilometers up the river from the anchorage. Cruising the river was gorgeous, we explored by dinghy and by paddle board (which was awesome because paddling is silent and all the birds come out to play).

The best part about the Blue Hole though was the enormous banyan tree from which hangs a killer rope swing. Dominic and I took turns climbing up the ladder and launching ourselves off the rope swing, soaring 100 feet over the Blue Hole, and dropping 20 feet into the fresh water. It was thrilling and insanely fun. Dominic had excellent technique and had clearly been practicing his Tarzan calls. My experience, on the other hand, was more along the lines of shrieking and holding on for dear life, resulting in some very sore shoulders the next day.

I was expecting our time in Santo to be all work and no play, but it turned out to be one of the more calm, carefree stops of our time in Vanuatu. Another highlight about the northern island in Vanuatu is that the people we met, since Malekula, really, have been very outgoing and friendly. We gave a local and his cousin visiting from New Caledonia (you can see him in the red kayak in the photo) a tow up the river, and he confirmed that the people in Vanuatu’s northern islands are known to be much more friendly than the people in the southern islands.

We enjoyed a few nice meals in the restaurant at the Oyster Bay resort and then cruised down to Luganville proper to prepare for our passage in earnest. Two days of refueling, buying groceries, prepping food, and cleaning the boat later, we were underway for our last passage of the season.

Maewo Underwater

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Maewo had the most extensive underwater delights we've found in Vanuatu. The southwestern end of the bay boasts a large bommy and a point that juts out into the pass between Maewo and her western neighbor Ambae. 

There is fantastic wildlife along the bommy and the point—spotted eagle rays, clown triggerfish, a small school of bumphead parrot fish (which are insane, each the size of a humpheaded wrass), large schools of snapper and sweetlips, and even a few small tuna. 

Dominic's favorite part was the spearfishing; my favorite part was the coral and sea fan studded ravines that lead into perfect mermaid grottos carved out of the island. 

The area also had me longing for scuba gear. The shallow areas were mostly exposed boulders, but down around 60 feet the coral started looking very healthy.

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To the Batcave

Directions to Maewo's Batcave:

First, find Barry. This is easiest done by finding Dyson, an eight or nine year old who hangs out at the waterfall, a day in advance and having him relay your plans to Barry. Meet at the waterfall at 7:30 am. Scramble up the rocks to the left of the waterfall. Pass through Barry’s village and one of Vanuatu’s largest pig pens on your right. Continue up the ridge, enjoying views of the bay as you go. Trek vertically as Barry occasionally chats on his cellphone and hacks through the jungle with his machete for the next two hours. Swing from vines, drink coconuts, and learn to crack long grasses against tree stumps to yield a satisfying whipping sound that terrifies the dog that has joined you on your quest.

Arrive at the cave. Pass through stalactites while trying not to slip and join the collection of human bones at the floor of the cave. Enter the main cavern; notice that the ground turns into soft guano, bats stream out of tight clusters, 20 or 30 at a time, and egg-filled swallows nests line the walls. Continue progressing until you reach the second cavern. Enjoy the skylight, imagining the waterfall created in the rain, stare into the black abyss of the shaft that extends downward towards the earth’s center. Toss a stone, counting the five, ten seconds until it hits bottom. Listen to the bats whirring beyond eyesight as drops of condensation drip on your shoulders.

Hang out for an hour, feel awed at the mysteries that exist beneath your feet, and reverse course. Enjoy the ease of a quick 45 minute descent with the walking stick Barry cuts for you. Swim in the waterfall where you began. Eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in the shade. Return to boat. Nap.

Photo: Barry and I hanging out in the cave below the skylight, looking into the abyss.

Sparkling Water

One our favorite parts of the anchorage at Maewo was the waterfall that cascades from a natural spring on the ridge and falls into a landscaped swimming hole we could see from Helios. The pool is filled with fish that loved to eat coconut and nibble on swimmers, and there is a hidden cavern in the far corner behind the falling water. While we were there, there was no charge to swim and the Sparkling Water beach bar wasn’t open, but there was always a friendly face nearby to help arrange a hike to the caves or keep us company while we picnicked in the shade.

Maewo

Leaving Loltong, we cruised north across a narrow channel and dropped the hook in Asanvari, a cove on the southwestern tip of Maewo. Known as the ‘Island of Water’ and a cruiser favorite, we were excited to get to Maewo as it marked the most northerly island we are planning to visit in Vanuatu.

We shared the anchorage with Ambler, a home-made ferro-cement schooner with beautifully varnished wooden spars. We spent some time with Tom and Jan, the couple onboard. They left the west coast of the US and went cruising for a few years in the 1980s. They planned to stop in Guam and provision on the way home and ended up staying and working for 15 or so years. From there, they took their time circumnavigating and are now passing through Vanuatu on their way back to Guam. They’re an interesting duo to hang out with, and Ambler is very picturesque—the magic ingredient for anchorage neighbors!

We spent four or five days in Asanvari, hiking to caves, swimming in waterfalls, and diving the most interesting reef we’ve found in Vanuatu. More details on those adventures to come!

Notes from Mom

If you’ve been reading the blog since the start of the sailing season, you know that last June my parents joined us for a three week cruise around western Fiji. Here, my mom shares her notes about life on the boat, a daughter living at sea, and getting the most out of 40 years of marriage...

For our first purchase as a married couple, my husband Charles and I bought a Columbia 26 sailboat. We then spent every possible day for more than 30 years sailing San Francisco Bay. We have been day sailors, chartering occasionally in the Virgin Islands, Florida Keys and Mexico. We eventually moved up to a Formosa 41, continuing to enjoy San Francisco Bay. Going to the South Pacific to spend three weeks sailing around Fiji with Corinne and Dominic was a grand adventure to celebrate our 40th anniversary and Charles’ retirement. The breathtaking beauty of Fiji was impressive, sky, land and sea. We snorkeled daily, relaxed, read, ate wonderful food and watched Downton Abbey.

A few thoughts from a mother’s perspective on Helios:

  1. Oh my! It’s the trip of a lifetime and three weeks of paradise for me—it’s their life!!

  2. Loneliness:  My concerns about isolation in this sailing life have been alleviated. Corinne and Dominic have an active social life - there are quite a few boats sailing the same waters - all subject to the same wind and weather conditions, so anchoring near a familiar boat is fairly common and gives opportunities for human interaction.

  3. Technology:  Computer technology and weather tracking are priceless tools in avoiding bad conditions. We checked the weather every morning before setting out - or staying in!  New cameras make a photographic record possible, breakthroughs in recreational gear and clothing make life easier and more fun. And let’s here it for sat phones and the internet making communication with those at home possible!

  4. Organization: Corinne and Dominic have amazed me with their color coded spreadsheets regarding storage. Boats have some strange nooks and crannies in which to put gear and food! Corinne even had food organized and stored, each package intended for a week’s worth of food. The snorkeling gear was all kept together and everything was kept in its proper place. 

  5. Provisioning/Meal Planning: Obtaining provisions whenever on land is an adventure and a requirement. Meals are planned around what is available, how to make supplies last and when to use them up. Nothing is wasted because the fresh provisions are hard to come by and there is limited storage and refrigeration. Corinne makes bread dough in large batches, using it for everything from rolls, pizza dough, pita bread and more. For someone who showed little interest in home economics, she has mastered it!

  6. Minimalism: Living on a 40 foot sailboat means paring belongings down to the bare essentials- I never thought I’d see Corinne down to a mere three pairs of shoes. She has challenged me to minimize my existence. Ha!

  7. Safety: People often ask how I feel about my “baby” living on a sail boat with all the risks of a life at sea. My pat response is that life is risky - getting into a car is risky… It was gratifying to see though that no expense has been spared in equipping Helios with safety equipment. From the weather tracking computer programs to harnesses and a grab bag and much more. Hallelujah!

  8. What do they do all day? Corinne and Dominic are two of the most goal oriented people I know - how do they cope with all this “free time”? Well the activities of daily life shopping, cooking, cleaning etc. are much more challenging and time consuming. That plus snorkeling, hiking, and enjoying the amazing surroundings does make for a satisfying life.

  9. Compatibility - Wow! Needless to say living in such a confined space, and being constant companions requires the couple be happy together.  Corinne and Dominic still seem to enjoy each others company after nearly two years of this sailing life! Dominic is a loving, caring captain always concerned about Corinne’s safety and happiness - What more could a mother ask for?

It’s impossible, I think, for anyone to be be married for 40 years and raise three children without at some point wondering whether or not all the craziness is worth it. This breathtaking vacation, shared with my spouse, on a boat with my daughter and son-in-law, was the kind of experience that made me know, yes, it has all been worth it.

Loltong Bay

We spent a few nights in the calm, protected anchorage of Loltong Bay at the northwestern end of Pentecost. It was a relief to have a calm boat for two nights in a row! There is a small reef at the northern end of the anchorage that made for a good snorkel (not much coral, but a lot of fish and giant clams). There were turtles around, and we got lucky with a dugong sighting as we rowed the dinghy between boat and shore.

On shore there is a small yacht club in the making. Mathew, the chief’s youngest brother, is the proprietor. He cruised out to the boat to introduce himself and gave us a lengthy tour of his village. We saw the nakamal, the community center that functions as town meeting hall, kava bar, lost and found, and the sanctuary (“This is where you should come if someone is trying to kill you,” he told us).

The village was lovely, thatched structures perched along the coast line, some built atop coral outcrops with elaborately carved entry ways. He showed us the Anglican church and the Catholic church, the best views of the bay, and hurled branches into tree tops to bring delicious ripe mangos raining down for a snack.

I feel like I say this with every new island we visit—but this was the most fecund island we’ve visited yet, with incredible biodiversity. The variety of flowers in bloom, the number of fruits heavy on the branch and plump for the picking, was like nothing we’ve seen. Maybe this has to do with the fact that we’re getting closer and closer to Papua New Guinea, the source of a lot of the plants and animals that made their way across the seas to flourish in the South Pacific islands. Either way, it makes for a feast of the senses.

Mathew turned out to be an interesting character. Many years ago, while living and working in Port Vila, he fell in love with a girl from France and traveled to Paris to visit her. He seemed to have traveled throughout France, from Brittany to Marseilles, and was so inspired by the elegance of French cuisine that he decided to return to his home village and serve South Pacific food with the same panache.

With such a preamble, we couldn’t turn down a meal at the yacht club cafe. For lunch the following day, he and his wife served us ten courses of Loltong’s finest—papaya and tuna salad dressed in coconut oil, smoked papaya with shaved coconut, pumpkin topped with island cabbage in coconut milk, taro stuffed with fish, fresh fruit salad, and, the crowning jewel, udu omelettes.

Udu

We first heard of Udu from an anthropologist we met while walking through the village with Mathew. Little did we know, but our stopover in Loltong Bay coincided with the yearly rising of the Pacific coral sea worm, or udu as they’re called in Vanuatu.

We’re not clear on the exact phenomena that bring the worms out of hiding, but it has to do with a waning moon shining on a night of two high tides at the start rainy season. According to BBC’s documentary series South Pacific (I highly recommend—we just started it and its like Benedict Cumberbatch narrating an amazing documentary of our adventures), the udu send the reproductive end of their bodies to the surface of the water to spawn.

That evening, during happy hour on Helios, we began to smell an increased fishiness in the air. After dark, Dominic turned on the spreader lights and took the above photo of worm parts between two and fifty centimeters in length writhing at the surface, coiling and unfurling themselves like the DNA bits they were swapping.

The udu harvest is a big deal in the village. The villagers spread out around the bay and use bonfires, flaming palm fronds, and flashlights to attract the worms and then catch them in nets. Mathew described udu as the food of chiefs. In Loltong at least, the udu are all given to the chief who dines heartily himself, shares the meal with his favorites, and then saves the rest for later or trades them as valuable commodities between villages.

So we were…honored…to find udu mixed with bell peppers and swaddled in eggs on our plate in the cafe. We’re not ones to turn down a little sea worm these days, so udu we did.

They were savory, the consistency of a slightly chewy shellfish. Dominic thought it seemed like a regular omelette, and wishes he could have tried them raw. I imagine they don't taste so different from the escargot or frog’s legs Mathew might have enjoyed while dining in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower.

Pentecost

Once we stocked the icebox with mahi, we spent the next few days cruising up the western coast of Pentecost. Pentecost is a finger shaped island, its longest axis running north-south between Maewo and Ambrym. The island was lush, covered in bright jungle greens despite it being the end of the dry season.

The tricky part about Pentecost is that there aren’t many good anchorages. We arrived and spent one rolley night in Home Bay. Home Bay had expansive views, rich foliage along the coast and a cascade of rolling hills in the background. The main attraction in the area is land diving, a prototype of bungee jumping that utilizes only natural materials for the jumping platform and the jumping rope. Most, including ni Van we chatted with elsewhere on the island, consider the practice to be pretty insane, but it promises a good yam harvest and, more recently, a bountiful flow of tourists to southern Pentecost. But land diving only happens in the fall when the vines are most supple (late April through early July), so we decided to make our way north as quickly as we could.

Not wanting to miss the delights of the island entirely, we made a quick afternoon stopover at Waterfall Bay. The area was aptly named as the waterfall, close enough to the village to be seen from the anchorage, was fantastic and had perfect swimming pools formed in the rocks below. We decided to take advantage of the seemingly private surroundings and indulge in a little skinny dipping. We enjoyed an Eden-like existence for about ten minutes before noticing a few peeping Tom’s rustling the branches above us. Then we were joined by five or so dudes checking out the waterfall on their lunch break. Everyone had a good laugh, and we took a turn stumbling upon some nude bathers ourselves as we walked back down to the village.

As we expected, when we got back to the shore Helios was hobby horsing big time in the exposed waters. We upped anchor after a quick lunch and made it to protected and comfortable Loltong Bay before sundown.

Bull Mahi

Our fishing mojo returned as we cruised in the waters around Malekula. We hooked a 1.35 meter bull mahi in between squalls as we sailed from Gaspard Bay to Banam Bay. It was an exciting catch—we were in 1-1.5 meters of choppy, confused seas as Dominic reefed the sails and reeled in the catch. I stood by with the gaff, hooking him through the chin so Dominic could subdue the fish over the side of the boat and hoist him into the cockpit.

We caught a second mahi in calmer conditions. We were sailing eastward between Malekula and Pentecost, in the lee of Ambrym’s twin volcanoes, when the reel started chirping. I reefed the main as Dominic reeled in a smaller 1 meter mahi. I gaffed her through the gills, and Dominic hauled her into cockpit to be cleaned.

Nearly two years underway, we’ve got our fishing routine down to a choreographed pas de deux between captain and crew. The timing couldn’t be better to start catching some fresh food; we’re nearly three weeks out of Port Vila and our last grocery store, and the fresh food supply in the icebox has been getting increasingly sparse. But we’re well stocked on salsa and beans, and my tortilla making skills are in full bloom. Fish tacos for days!