Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Interview with the Captain - Pacific Ocean Crossing Part III

"It’s slow. I love the slowness of the travel. I love the anticipation of arrival as you slowly draw closer to your destination."

The 9 day passage from the Solomon Islands to the Queensland Coast was a mix of dead calm, squally storms, choppy seas and then, finally the trades came and we were on the milk run home. It was time for a different way to relay the story of our passage. So here is an insight into Captain Hugh's mind, the man that keeps the engine humming, the main sail reefed and everything down below under control when the seas are up and turning my gills green.

Captain Hugh

K: So Captain Hugh, tomorrow we are due to cross our sailing path, completing the South East Asia and West Pacific loop, where we were some 16 months ago. What are your thoughts on being a captain then and now, how have you changed?

H: My first response is, has it really been 16 months? It feels like a lifetime since we last left Cairns last time. There has been some amazing up and downs hasn’t there?

K: Indeed there has.

H: It is interesting to come back to the same point with a completely different perspective on the lifestyle that we were embarking on then. I feel much more relaxed and at home in our sailing and I really only get to enjoy it more as time goes on. At the same time, I am very happy to be coming back to the familiar.

K: So after everything we have experienced, where would you like to return to on a sailing boat?

H: I think that we did not give the Pacific enough of a red-hot go. I guess part of that was that we knew we may be able come back there one day. The Solomon Islands was just a really interesting cultural experience compared to some of the places we went in Asia. I think it is just the beginning of a very large expanse of water with very interesting cultures and interesting terrain to cover.

K: You feel like it has opened your eyes to endless possibilities?

H: Without putting too many words in my mouth, I would say that that is certainly the case.

K: And where would you never like to return to in a sailing boat?

H: Ah, well, the Arafura Sea for one, the Malacca Strait for two, and I would say the doldrums in general.

K: How did that wear on you as a Captain?

H: Well, the doldrums, otherwise known as the ITCZ or the Intertropical Convergence Zone, are basically one big shitstorm.

K: A sailing quagmire.

H: [laughs] A sailing quagmire of light winds and thunderstorms and variable pulling in and taking out of sail and putting them back in again in rapid succession. And it is just not really necessary.

K: Sailing can be more fun than that.

H: It can. Like this weather now.

K: It is really quite beautiful.

As Hugh gazes out across the port deck to look toward the horizon unobstructed to see crystal clear water where the sky meets it at the horizon. It is hard to see the difference between the two because the of the richness in each of the blues blend to become one.

K: So what is the highlight for you for travelling by a boat? As compared to other means?

H: It’s slow. I love the slowness of the travel. I love the anticipation of arrival as you slowly draw closer to your destination. I love the feeling of connection to the past. And the natural nature of your locomotion.

K: Connected with nature?

H: Indeed.

K: So what have you learned from taking a trip like this?

H: I have learnt that life is wonderful, you have to grab it by both hands to see what is out there. That your fear about the future and uncertainty should be thrown aside if you are ever to experience what is out here.

K: We are about to make the once hazardous crossing through the Australian Great Barrier Reef. What are your thoughts about the sailors and explorers of yesteryear?

Hugh takes a breath and a glint shines in his eyes and he takes himself to another time, one where engines did not exist and when sailing relied entirely on the weather and boats would sometimes bob around in the doldrums for weeks on end waiting for a puff of wind to drive them through. Certainly the navigators were using all their senses like smell, changes in wind patterns and ocean colours to identify when they were drawing closer to land as there were no maps to speak of.

H: I am very glad that you asked that question, the explorers were, in a word, sublime. We are about to pass through the reef in a place called the Grafton Passage, and it is only 100nm south of the famous Endeavour Reef where Captain Cook ran the boat aground while trying to navigate this set of reefs. Looking at the map today it is hard to imagine any of the sailors made it up this coast. And it just goes to show the exceptional ability of the sailors of these times to be able to navigate such a large section of reef and the willingness to continue on even though it seems as though they were going down a dead end that would never release them. It was a very dangerous journey that Captain Cook made up the east coast and an amazing feat of the leadership of his men to keep them motivated through that passage. I cannot imagine how I would keep 200 feisty, strong, and sometimes reticent men under control, when you yourself did not really know what was around the corner or how long it would be before bringing them home.

K: Trying experience no doubt.

H: Yeah. I only have one reticent lady aboard to keep under control. And that’s enough for me.

K: Control?

H: Well control is the wrong word.

K: Hmm.

K: Well, we are about to come home to Australia and have travelled some 7000nm, in what will end up being a 20 month expedition, starting and ending in our home town of Sydney. What do you think of the trip that was dreamt up over a bottle of wine and a book about someone else’s world cruising voyage over 2 years ago.

H: I think it is the best idea you ever had.

K: Surely it was not my idea, you supplanted it.

H: I had nothing to do with it, I was dragged along.

K: Against your will and better judgement.

K: So I guess you are saying that it was worth it.

H: It was certainly worth it.

K: Giving most of your worldly possessions up and your grip on reality in Sydney?

H: Who needs any of that?

K: The final question is, we have learned that it is pretty unusual for people our age to embark on a trip like this. Any comments for any budding young cruisers out there?

H: Do it! Just do it. It may seem really scary. I know that careers and all these things that people are attached to in the so called ‘real world’ are a heavy burden to throw off sometimes and it can feel like you may be disadvantaging yourself, but honestly even though I do not have a job just yet, I have no qualms about finding work again and if anything it has brought me back far more motivated than I could have been by staying in Sydney. Yeah, just do it.


Thursday, 16 October 2014

Solomons Serenity

Our time in Solomons was short, mostly due to the extra time that we had spent in other places throughout the year and our keen desire to be south of the southern hemisphere cyclone belt before November. So we picked a short route through the western Solomon Islands group, stopping in at Kolombangara, New Georgia and Vona Vona Lagoon. What a treat we were in for!

We did the short 5nm totter around from Gizo to Fatboys Resort and dropped anchor just next to a lively coral filled bay. We took the dingy trip around the point to the resort bungalow bar, constructed of palm tree timbers with palm leaf roofing, located on stilts atop a coral plateau where sharks circle for dinner as the lights extend their glow onto the encircling reef. That is a lesson in good dingy alighting right there! The resort for us was sublime, a restaurant meal in a gorgeous location and we treated ourselves to a bottle of overpriced Australian wine. We could almost smell Australia from here, there were subtle hints of our arrival in the southern hemisphere wherever we turned. After our sumptuous dinner of fresh snapper and crayfish and over-enjoyment of the wine, we made the bouncy and somewhat hairy ride back to the boat, carefully picking our way around the extending coral reef in the strong southerly gale that had whipped up while we were imbibing. A little wet and somewhat salty, we made it back to collapse for bed.

A few days in the picture perfect reef and we decided to move on to Ringgi Cove. We did not really know what to expect here, but after dropping anchor inside the bay which ringed by dense jungle with two small family houses just in sight through the thick green walls, we got a visit from some gorgeous local girls who gave us a bunch of flowers. What a treat! We gave them some school books and pencils. The following day we were visited by some more canoe going locals and we traded sugar, flour, tea, milk powder, soap and kids clothes for a veritable feast of fresh vegetables. This was very exciting as our fresh food stores had been pitiful for over 2 weeks. We spoke to one of the families who told us that they work for the KFPL logging company which does rotational logging on the mountains beyond. 

Some more kids visited us in their canoe and we decided to tow
them home, much hilarity ensued!

There was no village here and only one of the boats that we saw had an outboard, the locals get around in hand paddled canoes and live in small family houses. We took the dingy on a long journey around the south of the island where we were taken by some local boys to see Japanese WWII anti-aircraft gun emplacements. It was a fascinating experience to have to machete our way through the dense jungle growth and clamber over tree roots and soggy mud holes to see these enormous gun emplacements that must have been hauled in by a vehicle (hence a road would have to have been built first) to bring the guns inland. The guns were dug in, such that the gunner would have been sitting in a mud pit, swatting mozzies and trying to spot aircraft overhead while up to 2m of rain fell on them throughout the year, I did not envy their circumstances. 

Our next destination was the grimy fish cannery town of Noro, which was also the main port for all of the Solomons for international shipping. We intended to only be here for as short a time as possible to do the formalities of checking out before heading south. The day was miserable, it was humid with little breeze and it was raining. This would not have been such a problem if we did not have to use good spotting to make our way into the tricky anchorage at Noro. It lay behind a coral bar where a shallow (3m deep) and narrow (6m wide) entry had been blasted to allow passage to a sandy bottomed cove. Up on the bow I could see the reef entry ahead, but as we drew nearer, the cloud cover came in and all I could see was a shiny surface. We balked at this anchorage and trudged on to find another spot. Two more attempts at anchoring and the visibility was not improving, the whole enormous channel was ringed by dense coral walls that extended out and gave way to depths greater than 40m which is no good for our anchoring. After skirting a reef, we finally found a spot for our anchor at the far southern end of the bay and Hugh went on the long dingy trip ashore to see the officials and check out while I played the role of boat cat. Shortly after he left the mother of all rain storms hit and I was busily collecting rainwater in our tanks when I saw what looked like a dolphin fin off the bow. Always loving a dolphin show, I went up to have a look to see to my surprise not one but two manta rays swimming close to the surface to scoop up their plankton fill! What a sight. I stood there in the pouring rain, like no self respecting boat cat should, for about an hour watching them glide around the boat, and as they turned and delicately flicked the edge of their wing at the surface. It was absolutely magnificent to see these rare creatures lapping up their micro-prey. They were also interested in our boat as it must have been right in the middle of their tidal plankton sushi train and they did laps around checking it out.

Our manta visitor
I managed to get some quick footage while the rain paused for a moment. Then shortly afterwards Hugh came zooming back in the dingy from town. I quickly gestured at him to come in and we grabbed our snorkels and jumped in for a swim with them while they continued their gorge fest. It was amazing; they were completely disinterested in us being there, and we did not get in the way of them. We could see the green plankton cloud pluming out close to the surface which the mantas would swim through with their mouths wide open scooping up a belly full before turning back for another lot. They were completely fine with us swimming around them too. In the end, we saw about 5 manta rays getting about. Guess we lucked in with the best manta restaurant! Amazing. It was so amazing that when we happened to stay there for one more day due to bad weather, we joined them for another afternoon. Our very own manta swim tank!

It was hard to top such an intimate date with the manta rays, but we pushed on southward to stop in at Vona Vona lagoon and the Zipolo Habu Resort at Lola Island. Thankfully the lagoon is absolutely breathtaking, because the arduous reef dodging that we needed to do to get in there was like delicately tip-toeing through a live mine field while blindfolded, and I needed a stiff drink after that!

The wait was slow for a weather window for our final Pacific Ocean leg to Queensland. The weather was inclement at anchor, but better than being in the Solomon Sea copping 40kts of wind and the sea that would be whipped up. For an adventure we decided to take the dingy for the 6nm trip to Munda, which was not our brightest of ideas. The trip looked easy enough on the map, but it turned out to be a hairy ride across some shallow reefs and being exposed to the trade wind swell that risked swamping us and sweeping us out to sea. But we made it, bought some beautiful timber carvings from the local carvers and said goodbye to our final Solomons town. 

The carving work is one of of the few ways that many locals make some cash money, as they mostly trade food or just live off the food they grow to survive, living a subsistence lifestyle. The many types of wood including kerosene wood, king and queen ebony, pandanus timber and coconuts make for a wide variety of colours, textures and weight in the many different works produced. There are many very skilled carvers in this part of the Solomons and we loved talking to them and seeing how they do their work with limited tools.

It certainly felt like we had not finished our trip in the Solomons and it is definitely a place for a return visit. After one false start we were off, commencing the final 800nm crossing to Australia...where it all began 18 months ago.


Monday, 6 October 2014

Yslas de Salomon

Our first few days of convalescence in Geva Harbour were blissful. The word 'harbour' is generous by western terms as there was not a dock, pier, mooring or boat in sight. Its definition as a harbour comes from the historical use of the word as a natural habour, a place to hide a boat from weather or sea conditions.

While some locals were fishing from hand paddled canoes along the river banks, we were left to our own devices with a myriad of unfamiliar bird calls, crocodiles slinking below the surface where the water mingled with mangroves, and the wide array of sea life that darted about the coral suffused bay. The mangrove forest ringing crystal clear waters exposing the coral seascape below was a completely unique experience for us. The clear water adjacent mangroves was a stark contrast to those in Asia and Australia as it is usually the muddy meeting point of salt and fresh water. The coral diversity was something to behold, with fan structures and table tops strewn amongst large bommies. The fish life included large angel fish, anemones and countless other iridescent fish darting from place to place. The parrot fish were always relaxing while munching away on coral (so loud you could hear them crunching). 

Geva Harbour

Hugh had a go at trying to catch some crabs for dinner. As he lowered the trap complete with a dead fish head as bait, a ghostly white shark circled with keen interest. No sooner was the trap laid than the shark nipped away looking for an early dinner. Alas neither Hugh nor the shark got any free dinner out of that episode.

One day a local man named Reggie was going around the cove in his boat looking for some students who had gone out in canoes and stopped by. We had a chat with him and invited him aboard as it hammered down with rain and learned a lot about the Solomons from his perspective. He told us about the Seventh Day Adventist School where he is a teacher and how he takes his fibreglass boat with 15 hp engine on the 2.5 hour, 30nm one-way trip to Gizo when they need extra supplies. We were starting to get an appreciation for how far the islanders would travel in their boats for small items like sugar, flour or kids clothing.

The Solomon Islands was first introduced to the western world as Yslas de Salomon by the Spanish in the 1560s, though archeologists estimate that local tribes had been habiting here some 30,000 years ago. The British took the island group by 1900, naming it the British Solomon Islands Protectorate to take advantage of the businesses of copra and palm oil export. WWII saw bitter and heavy fighting in Guadalcanal between the US and Japan. The allied victory in the Solomons saw the US set up the new capital of the Solomons in Honiara next to the Henderson Airforce Base on Guadalcanal, relocated from Auki on Malaita. Self-rule was finally introduced in 1974, though the Australian presence cannot be missed in the government advisors nor the aid work and mining activities on the islands. The Bougainville civil war of 1989-2002 significantly impacted the Solomon Islands (being the closest neighbour to those lands), because the blockade of Bougainville by PNG meant that the Solomons became not only a refugee destination but also a medical aid point. This saw the flood of people travelling east out of Bougainville and hiding or resettling in the Solomons western province.

On Solomons ground this time, in 1999 ethnic tensions in the capital Honiara saw fighting erupt between Malaitan people and Guadalcanal people over Honiara land rights, a result of a British decision to relocate some Malaitans to provide workers in the new Solomons capital some 60 years earlier. A coup gripped the Solomons forcing the closure of the Henderson International Airport and stopping the flow of basic supplies out of the capital to the outer islands. Not until the Australian led Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) arrived in 2002 did some semblance of normalcy return. The local tourism operators lament the coup and the resultant practical collapse of international tourism which crippled the industry and the local economy, the effects of which we can still see today some 12 years after calm was restored. But that is probably due to the still somewhat unhinged national government which is marred with corruption and nepotism accusations. Honiara having a reputation as one of the most dangerous places in the world is also problematic as it is the only international airport and funnel for tourists entering the country.

An obvious feature of the Solomons is the role of Christianity (largely Seventh Day Adventist), brought to the local villagers by missionaries in the 1800s. They adhere to religious taboos such as not eating shellfish (resulting in an abundance for us, yum!) and respecting the Sabbath from Friday afternoon for 24 hours.

After our break at Geva, we made way south to Gizo, the second largest town in the country. The town has a ramshackle feeling to it, largely owing to the very slow recovery of the built form after a 2007 tsunami devastated the region. It looks as though a stiff breeze would blow over the collection of corrugated iron roofed buildings. The town is small, consisting of one main road which is partially paved, and runs parallel to the water. The street is dotted with small stores selling food (small packets of flour, sugar, milk powder and salt - decanted from large bags), clothing and small electronics and finally an ANZ bank ready to supply us with some Solomon dollars (for the handy fee of A$10 per withdrawal, ouch!). The market is set up on the waterfront with standing height horizontal 'tables' where the locals place their wares complete with price tags.

The market is the focal point for the town, stretching alongside the waterfront

The town gives off a wild west vibe, for me that was largely to do with the muddy and dusty street combined with the consistent chewing and spitting of betel nut (a nut that when chewed gives not only a permanent red stain to the teeth, but also a quick burst of euphoria akin to tobacco, and the requirement to spit bright red stain as the waste byproduct) all over the street, walls and depressingly, even dogs. I could not help but wonder why people do not carry around spittoons like when chewing tobacco was popular. You do not see many cowboys in Gizo, but the RAMSI police force with their handguns on their hips stick out like nobody's business in their blue and whites, the most formal looking people in town. It was as an aside while we were asking Reggie about the likelihood of crocodiles in Geva when he said that after the coup of the early 2000s, the government had required that all guns be handed in. As such the locals had no guns with which to manage the crocodile population, so we should be careful! It turns out that the RAMSI officers are the only people in the country permitted to carry a gun, not even the local police force are to have them.

We managed to find the customs building (above a small mixed business store and tucked away at the back) to pay the high boat fee for visiting before trotting down the road in zig zags to the immigration and quarantine buildings (many visits required to each in different order depending on which stamp was needed or which receipt for which payment needed to be shown). With the formalities ticked off, we sat down to enjoy some local fried fish and sweet potato chips, washed down with a cold SolBrew beer. It is hard to explain the euphoric feeling of sitting down to eat food cooked by someone else after a month of being the full time cook, terra firma at last!


radio email processed by SailMail
for information see: http://www.sailmail.com

Friday, 3 October 2014

Final Push East - Pacific Ocean Crossing Part II

Still glowing from the magical break we had had at Kapingamarangi Atoll we launched into our next challenge, the final 700nm to the Solomon Islands western province. We sailed east initially, aiming to get more easting before we got stuck in the south-east trade winds that blow up the northern coast of Solomon and Bougainville Islands.

We were located at around 1 degree north of the equator and as such there was not much wind and it was hot. My was it hot. It was also still enough for us to jump in and have a cool off swim into water that was so clear and such an intense blue it did not give away the depth of the water that our charts stated were 4000m. But nothing could shelter us from the squalls, as the sun slowly dipped below the horizon we sailed into darkness as thunderstorms raged off each quarter of the boat. The storms would bring intense short rain downpours proceeded by 20kt wind blasts and 100 degree wind shifts. At dawn light would glimmer on the eastern horizon and become a searing globe by 8am and leave dim markers on the western horizon by 7pm. Dramatic cloud formations would tower into the stratosphere, leaving a sense of foreboding about the night ahead full of squally rains and strong wind bursts.

Squalls, bringing wind shifts and strong gusts along with torrents of rain

We were trawling a line but not until we angled south and passed through the choppy Bougainville Strait did we pick up a mackerel for dinner. Slowly making our way through the 8 or so coconuts we were given in Kapinga punctuated our mornings, enjoying a fresh coconut drink and nibbling away at the delicious flesh inside. On Day 5 we gulped down our last supper of fresh food, some pumpkin and a straggly looking carrot in a curry. We managed to catch a few buckets of rainwater, so I washed a load of clothes and towels to pass the time, which was dominated by extremely tedious sailing. Other highlights included being absorbed in watching the skillful seabirds that would glide low over the choppy swell to gain speed with minimal resistance and in the evening when they would dip low into the waves to snag a fish for dinner.

The shifting winds moving every 20 minutes or so made for extremely tiresome sailing. We rigged all the sheets and launched the spinnaker only for the wind to puff out and a squall to gather off port, shifting the wind. We dropped the spinnaker. The wind would blast at 25 kts for 10 minutes then puff out and we would be left suffering the swell generated by the storm gone passed. Finally we crossed the equator (passing a customary drink of rum to King Neptune on our way through) which boosted our hopes for favourable wind to take the final push south.

The last two days of passage wore us out with strong winds, big choppy seas and storms that would not let up. We hove to for 6 hours to try and let it pass. Pass it did as the 35kt winds slowly moved off to the west. This trip had really worked our patience and we were tired and snapping at each other. Probably a result of doing two long passages back-to-back with only a 3 day respite in the middle. As if King Neptune knew, to brighten our spirits we were gifted with a dolphin escort into the Solomon waters. Such a beautiful and welcome sight.

As we made our way to the north of Vella Lavella Island, we negotiated the tricky reef entry into Geva Harbour, slowly creeping our way over a shallow coral bar. But as we dropped anchor on the edge of the mangrove ringed cove, all we could hear was silence, interjected with a myriad of bird calls and the rustle of palm trees. Night was not far behind and lightning illuminated the sky as it flashed over the mountains in the distance.

Another Pacific Ocean stint, 700nm completed in 7 days. We were exhausted and very pleased to be in such a tranquil river to sleep off our long eastward passage - 19 sea-days and 2000nm from Palau. Welcome to the Solomon Islands!



radio email processed by SailMail
for information see: http://www.sailmail.com