Cruising the South Pacific with Tackless II
Tackless II, along with her two captains, Don and Gwen, cruise from Fiji to Australia
Sunday, September 28, 2008
24-25 september 2008 -- A record for T2
We set a record yesterday. Not one, but two passages in 24 hours, and BOTH were good.

With weather forecasts hinting at winds backing into the east and north east -- a direction from which Baie Doking is exposed -- it seemed the prudent thing to move on. The plan was to sail west around the the big beak of a point of Lifou's north end, and then beat southward down the anchorage at the southern end of Baie of Sandal, where most of the boats went last week. about a thirty mile trip altogether. It was a rousing sail, downwind under genny alone to the point, and then a fast beat across baie Sandal.

But upon arrival, the wind was east enough to make the anchorage bouncy, and beauty wise it coudn't hold a candle to Baie Doking. Several of the boats there were planning a night passage down to Havana Pass (the entrance to New Caledonia proper's southern lagoon, so we download the latest weather and decided it was the right window. We'd had lunch, I'd gotten the last update posted and Don had had a snooze. What more did we need out of a stop?

So we upped anchor at 5pm, had a fabulous sail in 10-15 knots at 45 degrees off the bow, making 6-7+ knots well reefed. Biggest complaint is that with the cloud cover and no moon, it was really dark!, We entered Havana pass at 8am right at dead low water (our goal, as outgoing tide kicks up quite a sea against the wind), but even then it was lively enough with the wind and current opposed and waves crashing on the reefs. although this pass is super well lit and marked, I'm not sure I'd want to do it in the dark.

And now we are anchored with Jim and Paul of Avior (of the bicycle trip) in a lovely bay -- Port Boise, a few miles into New Caledonia's southern lagoon, to sit out the forecast rain and northeasterlies. Didn't want to mess about with reefs we couldn't see around lIe du Pins. This is a lovely spot. we may never leave!

Now it's lunch time and nap time! We deserve it!



Thursday, September 25, 2008
19-24 September 2008 – Baie Doking, Lifou Island, Loyalties
We left Ouvea early Friday morning in very light winds, perfect conditions for traveling southeast to Lifou. Evidently, everybody else thought so too, as we had to join a long parade out through the pass even though it was before sun-up. Fortunately, the crowd broke up into three main groups, those heading west to the mainland of Grandterre, those heading to Baie Doueoulou on the south shore of Lifou's Baie Sandal, and few tacking off to the north to Baie Doking on the north coast of Lifou.

We ended up in the latter group after some early indecision. What a good call. We enjoyed an absolutely lovely day of easy (motor) sailing, and the anchorage once we reached it was positively stunning. I won't say there wasn't a moment or two of uncertainty as we approached. Places often look forbidding or unattractive from a distance, and Doking's high cliffs, as the afternoon clouds rolled in, made it not a gentle looking place. Nor was it so easy to find a good spot to get the hook down, as the bay is laced with coral. But after five days, we'd have to say it will remain one of our more memorable spots.

The anchorage was tucked more or less into a corner of high cliffs (les falaises in French, a lovely word.) The cliffs were sculpted into great caves and stalagmites and topped by a village grove of the tall skinny pines we now see are going to be a signature sight in New Caledonia. The landing for the village, in a cove that was no more than a dimple in the cliff face, was really something. Perhaps there was once a dock, or a ladder, or something to make it easy to get ashore. Such is suggested by two last lingering, rusting bits of iron sticking out from the rock face. Whatever it was is no more, and the cement "path" just ends with a three foot drop to the water. This cement "path" is so steep that, having scrambled up from the dinghy, it is all you can do to ascend it the thirty or so feet to the bottom of the steps upright. About where the steps begin there is a big hoisting arm with cable that is positioned to hoist the villagers' tin boats out of the water. There were, in fact, two tinnies tucked to the side, but there was also a third crumpled into a crevasse. The afternoon we arrived, there were quite a few kids playing on the rocks, evidently drawn by the arrival of six yachts. However, during the rest of our stay, it was more likely to be day tourists and visitors to the Doking gite (guest house/campground) on the rocks than locals, and we even saw people swimming and snorkeling from there, although how they got out of the water again is anybody's guess.

We ascended the steps (I forgot to count how many) in several lengths (clearly built at different times by different hands) huffing and puffing to the top the afternoon after our arrival. Officially, appropriate behavior is to present yourself to the chief with a token gift and ask permission to stay and play. We found the chief's "case" ( pronounced 'cas") a massive traditional hut, quite different from the cases we'd seen in Ouvea, but failed to find the chief himself. But we did find a small store (totally unmarked) where we were able to buy fresh French bread, eggs, and other sundries. The proprietress, a older lady named Yvette, offered to bring in some salad, tomatoes and bananas for us the next day.

Which meant, of course, we had to climb back up there again the next day. This time, armed with some intelligence from the other cruisers, we did find the chief back in the compound of his gite/campground. This little 'resort" is perched right at the top of the cliffs and has the most awesome views. Chief George is a fairly young man, or at least one in better shape, than other chiefs we've met. He and his young wife and children live in a relatively westernized house, complete with satellite dish and a raft of toys and tricycles out back. The guest accommodations, however, are fairly traditional, with round huts of thick-walled thatch. To our surprise, the chief spoke fairly good English. Probably because he is such an entrepreneur. In addition to the guest houses, he has a small restaurant, rental cars and rental bicycles.

When our morning visit to Yvette produce tomatoes and bananas but no "salad," and since the weather was utterly cool and gorgeous, we decided on a whim to follow the example of some other cruisers and rent bicycles to pedal over to the larger town of Xepenehe (pronounced Chepenehe), said to be only six kilometers away. Note that "said to be." As you might guess, the chief's bikes, although evidently 27-speed models, were not in the best of repair. I never found more than three speeds on mine, and, as the ride wore on, one of Don's pedals popped off and his seat came loose, while my back wheel became progressively wobbly. It also was most assuredly NOT six kilometers.

But the ride itself, in the company of Jim (Aussie) and Paula (Scottish) of Avior was quite pleasant. The first stretch wove through a lovely forest, before breaking out into open grassland, passing two vanilla farms, before leading….eventually to an intersection giving us the choice of Easo to the right or Xepenehe to the left. By now we were all four of us sore and skeptical, and by the time we creaked into the village proper, things were shutting down for the midday siesta. We pulled into the market driveway with but five minutes to spare and tore through the shelves grabbing foodstuffs willy nilly. Our purchases in our hands and the door looked firmly behind us for TWO HOURS, we made our way down to the seaside park to eat the baguettes and cheese we'd bought. There we found two other cruisers, the Dutch couple Gert and Mies of Kiwi Blue, who were either in better shape or had better bicycles, because after they finished their baguette, they set cheerfully off to tour around for pleasure! The big disappointment, especially for Paula, was that the park was in the shadow of a huge boulangerie (bakery) that not only closed at 1130 like the store did, but wasn't going to open again until three! It was about this time that Paula found the mileage chart on her tourist map which declared the distance between Dokin and Xepenehe to be 17 kilometers, not 6!

We four decided to wait for the market to reopen to replenish all the items we'd scarfed down for lunch. In the meantime, Don managed to have a mash up on his bike when the seat gave an untimely wobble and caught his…er…well, you know…in a pinch. The result was a lovely scrape on his knee and a doozey bruise on his hip. We washed it out as best we could with drinking water (better than Coke Zero) and a major part of our second round of shopping was a package of band-aids. By the time we were done piecing the little band-aids over his scrapes (important to keep the flies off in this part of the world) his knee looked like a patchwork quilt. (Give those band-aids credit, they stayed on all the way home.)

All the way home…by the way, was seriously painful. Parts of my anatomy may never be the same.

The next couple of days passed in a lazy haze of recuperation. Air temps were quite chilly – in the mid 60s in the morning barely climbing to the 70s mid day, accentuated by plenty enough wind for a wind chill factor to come into play, and the water temp was a brisk 75. We did snorkel the gorgeous corals once, but we never pumped up the kayaks, even though we got them out. Instead we got a lot of reading, writing and recuperating done, and visited with our neighbors in the afternoons. Climbing the stairs once a day for bread was exercise enough.

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Thursday, September 18, 2008
13-18 September 2008 – Ouvea
Ouvea, the northernmost atoll in New Caledonia's Loyalty Islands is a gorgeous spot. Uplifted limestone creates a long thin frame of land on the atoll's east side, while two strands of small islets and reefs known as the Pleiades trail away to the west from the northern and southern tips to loosely enclose the lagoon. The ICA fleet is anchored off the southernmost island of the eastern strip, an island called Ile Mouli, along a curving white sand beach with bright turquoise water in the foreground and in the background a pretty red-roofed church poking up through a grove tall conical pines. It is surely one of the most beautiful, most inviting beaches we have seen in years, but, damn!... it's chilly! Brisk winds and temperatures in the low seventies make it sweatshirt and double-blanket weather for these two captains!

On Monday morning the sky dawned a clear blue, and the wind a more moderate 15 knots. Around us was a total of maybe fifty boats, including our fleet plus a group from the CNC Yacht Club in Noumea (who are officially hosting us). The officials of customs, immigration and quarantine flew in mid-morning, and the skippers assembled ashore to do paperwork under thatched palapas. It was the quarantine officials that had everyone shaking in their boots. New Caledonia has regulations against foreign fruit and vegetables, and even to a degree on meat and dairy. Evidently it is always suspenseful waiting to see what they will take away and what they will allow us to keep. Most of us had purchased Vanuatu beef (excellent and cheap) and paid for a special certificate of export that should pass muster with quarantine. But would it? Most of us also had a stash of vacuum-sealed New Zealand cheeses that we weren't entirely sure were legal. Plus, we were supposed to throw out all our fresh food –including garlic and onions -- twenty miles out, but inevitably there were things we forgot. Were we smugglers if we held on to that last head of garlic, a few onions, and that bit of broccoli?

All in all, things went pretty well. The quarantine officer who visited the boats by dinghy took a few things but left us stuff that would reasonably be eaten within the next few meals. Only fruit and vegetables were discussed. There was no mention of meat or cheese. Generally speaking I would say the whole anchorage heaved a hearty sigh of relief when all was said and done. We celebrated that evening with a potluck cocktail party on the beach where the closest things to vegetables were jars of salsa and olives.

The next day, the local village hosted all the cruisers to a midday feast. A huge buffet table was set with dozens of dishes under one of the beachside palapas (don't actually know what they are called here, but it's just a thatch canopy.) There were speeches and gifts by Gilbert, the leader of the CNC group, speeches and gifts by John, the ICA leader, and speeches of acceptance and welcome by the local chief. The gifts, for those curious, were several T-shirts, a bolt of fabric, and a wad of money from each group.

Many of the dishes had been baked in the earth ovens we have seen from the Marquesas, to Easter Island to Samoa, to Tonga, to Fiji, to Vanuatu. However, all those boring starches seemed to perk up here through the addition of some spice! Trust the French to bring flavor to the South Pacific's generally bland cuisine. In addition to the starches there was grilled fish, poisson cru, roast pig and roast goat, plus French bread and about five different slaws and salads. There was even dessert, canned fruit served in coconut crème with a stalk of sugar cane. Generally it was a pretty satisfying repast.

On Wednesday, most of the fleet mustered ashore at 9am for an island tour. Although the Loyalties are part of New Caledonia and therefore of France, the people here are the original indigenous people known as Kanaks. In the Loyalties, the Kanaks live a relatively "custom" lifestyle. Houses are the traditional round huts with tall conical roofs, and the chief's "grand case" is surrounded by a fence made of huge tree trunks. But the French presence is very obvious to outsiders in the paved roads and utility poles carrying electricity into the traditional homes.

Our tour got off to a late start when one of the busses due to transport our large group didn't show. The organizer, a young business woman named Melinda hustled up a few private vehicles to carry the balance (in one cast in plastic chairs in the back of a pickup), but we were running so late, -- especially after the drivers made the mistake of stopping at the local "supermarket" where the cruisers snarfed up snacks like we hadn't seen food in days -- that one of the major stops on the tour – the coconut oil and soap factory – was already closed, much to the disappointment of several of the cruisers. The next stop was the Blue Holes of Hanawa. The first hole was a light blue pool some 100-150' in diameter in the middle of the limestone several hundred feet in from the ocean. The hole was evidently connected to the sea as bread thrown onto its surface attracted some good sized fish. The next stop, another hole, was said to be a turtle sanctuary, but I'm not sure anyone actually saw any turtles. From there we drove to the north end of the island to a visit the handsome Catholic Church in St. Joseph. With its cool blue vaults, stations of the cross and stained glass windows, it made us nostalgic for Mexico (where my sister Jo is currently touring the lovely churches in the Puebla area.)

After the church we tried the soap factory again, but although the workers had promised Melinda to reopen after their lunch, there was no sign of them. So it was on to the vanilla plantation. This was an interesting endeavor by a family where a substantial number of vanilla vines are being trained up racks girdling the trunks of shade trees in a patch of forest. Of course, it is early spring as far as the vanilla plants are concerned so all we saw were the first flowers starting to open. Evidently the flowers here must be hand pollinated, painstaking work, because attempts to interest local bees in doing the job have so far failed. It takes eight months for the pollinated flower to produce a bean, and then the beans must be dried for three months. We were incredulous that so far at least the plantation does not ship any of their vanilla off island, but that tourists buy up most of their product. Keep in mind that most of Ouvea's tourists stay in homestay "gites" (clusters of homestay guest huts) and there is only one "resort"! (We later learned that Ouvea is visited several times a month by a cruise ship, which must help!.) The two ladies in charge of the plantation did have packets of vanilla beans to sell, small jars of ground vanilla, and a larger jar of "vanilla and coconut jam".

The most impressive site on our tour was "Les Falaises de Lekiny" or the Lekiny Cliffs. Where Mouli meets the main island via a small bridge, the lagoon pushes though into a shallow interior lagoon backed by a tall limestone cliffs pocked with caves, undercuts and stalagmites. It was a striking stretch of landscape for an otherwise flat, scrubby island.

To close out the day we stopped for some pictures from the Mouli Bridge and then ran down to the southern end of the island where we stood on the shore of the pass we had entered just days before by boat. I don't know. There was something ultimately ridiculous about sixty pale-skinned yachties disgorging from busses onto a tiny stretch of limestone beach. In fact, I suppose generally, it was an underwhelming tour. A long day in vans and busses running up and down paved roads bordered largely by bush. Melinda says the population of the atoll is around 3,000 (with another three thousand of her people living in Noumea), but there is not much sense of the inhabitants .

Actually, there was one other stop that told us rather more than anything else about Ouvea's Kanak residents. It was an elaborate memorial remembering 19 rebels who were killed by French paratroopers in 1988 after the rebels took some gendarmes hostage as part of a "muscular mobilization campaign" in the Kanak movement for independence. We are told there are several different versions of what happened that day, but clearly the French government was determined to nip in the bud any uprising. For us, it is a reminder that you can't take things on their superficial value. It is easy to think the Kanaks in the Loyalties have a good deal, with a certain degree of autonomy, social support from the French government for education, medical, and infrastructure services, and some kind of stipend that affords them cars and cell phones and imported foods. But I guess a good deal cannot entirely gloss over the fact that the Kanaks have for many decades been treated by the French as second class citizens in their own country.

Not sure exactly what our next plans in New Cal are. A few boats sailed out from Ouvea the evening after the tour. Some are leaving first thing Thursday. Others are talking about Friday. Some plan to sail to Noumea "over the top" of Grand Terre while others plan to head south via the other Loyalties and the famously beautiful Ile de Pins. I guess we'll know what we're doing when we've done it, but I suspect Don plans to spend tomorrow tinkering more on the engine!

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10-14 September 2008 – Taking the Rally to New Cal
This leg of the ICA Rally has exemplified for us the plusses and minuses of traveling with a rally group. Although many of the participating boats have been with the rally on its complete circuit from New Zealand to Tonga to Fiji to Vanuatu, many more signed up for this leg only to take advantage of the special check-in the organizers had arranged to take place in Ouvea, the northernmost of New Caledonia's eastern string of islands known as the Loyalties. . Normally, full check-ins for New Caledonia are available only in Noumea, on the West side of Grand Terre, the main island. Although partial check-in can be done on Lifou Island in the Loyalties, boats then are expected to proceed on to Noumea within one week. This makes spending any time in the Loyalty Islands all but impossible. Because the ICA had arranged to bring the Noumea officials to us, participating boats would be able to take all the time they want to get to Noumea. The result was that the rally group swelled from the twenty coming from Fiji to thirty-five! Thirty five crews make for quite a crowd.

Pre-departure activities in Vanuatu were fairly well organized, particularly the duty-free fueling of so many boats, the customs and immigration formalities, and of course the parties. Right after the first "muster", we had a big group dinner at The Flaming Bull steakhouse. This teetered on the brink of disaster since it took all of three hours for everyone to get served. BUT, the evening was redeemed because every one of the dinners came exactly as ordered and were downright delicious. Two nights later, Tusker Beer, one of the rally's main sponsors, hosted a potluck barbecue at the Vanuatu Yacht Club, providing free beer, which with cruisers always sets the mood. It was a particularly nice evening, because people wore name tags and mingled, so we got to actually meet a lot people who previously had only been names on a list. And then, for the final checkout Friday morning, Tusker also arranged for the best patisserie in Port Vila to cater a variety of fresh French pastries along with divine expresso coffee. Not a bad way of doing things.

All these conveniences of a rally, however, are offset by the fact that a rally must keep a schedule, and THAT violates the cardinal rule of cruising. Our trip from Fiji to Tanna was a happy fluke in that the schedule matched a perfect weather window. The schedule for the short trip from Vila to Ouvea, however, did not.

A Not so Nice Passage

We left at four thirty Friday afternoon, setting sail into light winds and a nice sunset. The first twenty hours were idyllic enough: ten to fourteen knots just forward of the beam, almost no sea, and a moon near full. That's when the word "trough" that I'd heard on the weather report finally penetrated, as a recollection burbled up through my murky mind of a previous lovely full moon night passage in Venezuela that went wrong as a trough rolled over us. Well, sure enough, mid-afternoon on Saturday, things went to hell in a hand basket.

First the wind died away completely. So on comes Perky and we were motoring away in company with another boat in the rally, when -- burp -- the engine died and we were left making no way in no wind while the other boat walked away We were stunned by the engine quitting again, as we were quite sure we had found the root problem when we discovered that the fuel tank vent was blocked. Not only was it clear we hadn't found the whole problem, but it was the first time the engine had quit with any load on! The good news is, Don got it reprimed and restarted in record time, but the suspense of it quitting again weighed heavily on us.

Then, as we passed through the frontal boundary, the wind came in on us in a fury. From zero to 25+ in moments it seemed like, and the seas went from flat to short and steep. Yuck-OH! Fortunately, we'd had a heads-up on the wind, and had put in our second reef early and raised our trusty staysail. We went from a languid six knots boat speed down to barely three, thanks to the wind being hard on the nose and the seas knocking back any momentum The old girl was heeled way over and the seas regularly sluiced the whole boat. Thank goodness for our enclosure. How people in open boats do this is beyond us.

We got a third reef in the main before dark and braced ourselves for a long miserable night. There was a lot of talk -- aboard T2 and on the radio -- of heaving to. Apparently, the anemometers on the Kiwi boats are calibrated differently than ours as there also was a lot of talk about 30, 35, even 40 knot gusts. Ours never claimed more than 25-27, but perhaps it is ours that is out of calibration, because let me say was nasty.

Fortunately a few hours into it things eased just enough that the boat at least started making some way. It was not remotely fun or comfortable, but it was, as we say, doable. For one of the few times ever, my stomach was queasy, probably thanks to the salami sandwiches we'd had for lunch when things were calm. What was I thinking!? There was no interest in dinner, and we took turns sleeping on the leeward side of the cockpit. Along about four am, we sailed out of the rain and cloud into clear skies with stars and a fat old orange moon setting between a lingering cloud strip and the horizon. The wind still was honking a brisk 18-22, but we were between Ouvea and Lifou islands, so the seas were more reasonable and we were moving right a long. At sunrise we set a scrap of headsail and the boat speed jumped from 4.5 to 7+ knots. We turned in through Ouvea's Pass de Coetlogon at about 10am on the 14th , and had the anchor down off the Mouli beach by 10:45. It was time for a hot meal and a long nap.

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6-10 September 2008 – Port Vila
We had a nice week or so in Port Vila before the hoopla for the ICA Rally to Ouvea got underway. With so many friends in the mooring field, life was rather social. We'd do lunches at Jill's American Café, were you can get a mighty fine cheeseburger, ice cream from Le Peche Mignon (also a fine bakery), happy hour at the Waterfront or at the Iriki Resort's fancy lounge, and gourmet dinners at a range of restaurants from Chinese to French. One lovely evening we spent with Tom and Bette Lee of Quantum Leap at the Waterfront Restaurant enjoying truly fine jazz by a local trio while rain drizzled off the thatch roof! It's no wonder cruisers spend so much time in Port Vila.

And that's not even talking about the shopping. Port Vila has four large supermarkets, the best of which is the Au Bonne Marche up the hill from the waterfront. Embedded in the store is a truly fine butcher selling Vanuatu's famous beef, descended from stock imported by finicky French colonizers. Not only is the selection of cuts quite varied, but the price is past reasonable to downright cheap. The market also has aisles of gourmet foodstuffs as well as products more appealing to Western tastes than we saw in Fiji: like a whole section of Old El Paso Mexican items, two or three sections of various sauce and flavoring packets, plus pasta, rice and couscous products, not to mention the canned and pickled choices. Plus, in the frozen section there are all sorts of goodies, including frozen vegetables that are not the ubiquitous peas and carrot mix that is ALL that is sold from Tonga to Fiji.

There is also quite a selection of duty free shopping. Not quite in the league of St. Thomas, but a few women found jewelry, men found cameras, and pretty much everyone stocked up on liquor.

We did have some boat work to attend to: the fuel issues mentioned in the previous update, theplugged galley water faucet, a new furling line for the genoa, some sewing repairs. Plus Don had a watermaker project on another boat, while, with decent internet, I was able to upload some photos to the website.

But mostly Port Vila was a consumptive interlude, which after the remoteness of the out islands and the narrow range of options in Fiji (Indian) was welcome to all.


Tuesday, September 9, 2008
19-23 August 2008 - Rom Festival on Ambrym
I was dismayed when getting ashore to an Internet cafe in Port Vila to see that, for some reason, the post of our visit to Ambrym for the Rom Dance Festival did not appear. I will try to get it placed where it belongs, but I don't think Blogs work that way. At least it is getting posted within the Vanuatu sequence!.........

Thanks to the ruggedness of Ambrym’s terrain and the actions of its volcano, the villages here are said to have clung tighter to the “kastom” lifestyle as well as their mystical beliefs. In particular Ambrym is famous for its ROM dances, mysterious cult dances performed to appease spirits by male dancers wearing elaborate headdresses…(and little else!) In August, the village of Olal at Ambrym’s northeastern-most corner hosts a “Back to Your Roots” ROM dance festival for outsiders as a means of raising money for secondary education and as a way of keeping “kastom’ traditions alive.

Also thanks to the ruggedness of Ambrym, winds gust down the mountainous slope in “wind bullets” that thrust the boats in the anchorage this way and that, while rain showers keep them perpetually misted and lit by rainbows. By the start of the festival on August 20, thirty plus boats had assembled in the anchorage off Nebul village (S16*06’.5; E168*.07’.7), an area protected from the trades by the tip of the island and a curve of reef. Olal, however is several miles further north on the unprotected tip, so at 0830 Wednesday morning the cruisers gathered on the beach, dragging their dinghies above the tide line with the help of muscular villagers, and set out to walk the track in the drizzle. Fortunately for us, we were approached by one of the chiefs who shook our hands and suggested we take a guide, who happened to be one of the men who helped beach the dinghy. Micah, who stuck with us the entire three days of the festival, showed us the sights as we walked, carried one of our collapsible chairs when its sling broke, and steered us to short cuts saving us ten minutes on an otherwise hour-long walk.

The festival took place in a cleared glade in the woods fairly far from Olal village. The dance area was much smaller and more intimate than what we’d seen in Lapo, as well as wilder and more mystical as sun and mist alternately filtered through the trees. Around the edge was bamboo pole seating, and behind the “stage” blending into the trees was an array of slit drums and “tiki-like heads” known here on Ambrym as “atingting.” Through the trees one could just make out a staging area where the dancers prepared themselves while to the right was the nassara, a sacred and decorated building where the ROM members gather and women are tabu. There were also three “concession stands” – booths of palm fronds – in the woods behind the seating where Don was able to indulge in drinking coconuts and fried dough in three or four different forms over the course of the next three days – and some “outhouses” I never did check out.

If there was one thing that made this festival stand out from the others it was the tall and solid person of Chief Norbert (pronounced Nor-bear in the French way), principal of the Olal Secondary School and master of ceremonies for the performances. At the start of things that first day, and before every major presentation, Norbert calmly walked out before the audience, utterly at ease in his Kastom attire of penis wrap and little else, and clearly explained what we were going to see and why it was important in both English and French that we could hear and understand without a megaphone. More than an emcee, Norbert participated in every dance presented, and he did so with more gusto than any of the others. In fact that would be the second thing that really distinguished this festival, the fact that most of the dancers seemed to be having a helluva good time.

The main dance of the first day was a grade-taking ceremony for a chief. What made it unusual was that the area’s high chief, Chief Sekor was repeating the first level grade – that of the sacred fire. Although Chief Sekor is actually a grade seven chief, he had lost respect by violating the tabu of grade one – sharing food. Apparently all these chiefs after grade one must prepare their own food on a separate fire and eat separately from anyone else, including their own families! So, Chief Sekor was repeating the ceremony to get his full status back.

How to describe for you the dances we saw, let alone any one dance?! Well this first dance was distinguished by only being danced by chiefs. There were probably a dozen of them of a wide range in age, all in kastom dress of namba (the penis wrap of woven leaves in perpetual erection) attached to a woven belt, with the rooster tail of leaves firmly attached to the backside above their buttocks. Some wore the coveted boar teeth necklaces and some carried impressive staffs and some had smears of red paint on their faces. The two main elements of all the dances were harmonic chanting by the men, usually in response to a solo lead, and vigorous stamping of bare feet, in various cadences, that vibrated through the ground. Some of the dances danced to the beat of the large slit drums, some to a smaller portable slit drum, and some to no drum at all. Most of the dances are danced with the men in a tight circle, almost a huddle, so that the audience is presented with an array of backsides. Odd at first, it is a powerful statement of communal strength (and bare butts are pretty fascinating given the time and opportunity to study them!). At one point in the doings,
Chief Sekor climbed to a platform some twenty feet up and the dancers took turns throwing coconuts to dislodge him, mostly symbolic, choreographed lobs, but one did catch him on the thigh. And in the end, he did have to kill a pig for the ritual sacrifice to seal the deal. This time it was a little porker…I guess because he was repeating first grade!

The second dance of the day was a woman’s dance. Here the ladies were in full grass skirts and naught else but perhaps a thin garland of leaves around their upper body. Sadly for the men in the audience, these were still not the young and shapely maidens of South Pacific fantasies, but at least they all seemed more at ease with their shift from western dress than the women in Lembinwen did. The women also dance to their own chants, but instead of stamping, their step is a skating slide of bare feet on the dirt that makes a sort of swishing sound, and most leaned on a slim staff, for an effect rather like dancing with a swaying broomstick.

The second day’s main dance was a dance from the yam harvest. A young man, who doesn’t sleep for two days and who gets a special hairdo, wears an awkward pyramid of a headdress symbolizing the yam. (Incidentally, the yam is a pretty major food crop in these parts, and according to Micah the name Ambrym comes from Capt. James Cook’s arrival when he was presented with the traditional welcoming gift of a yam, and the word “ambrym,” which in the local language means “for you.” Nice, don’t you think?) This dance was performed with the dancers facing the audience, and several dancers did solo turns impersonating various creatures like prawns or birds.

After the Yam Dance, one of the chiefs, a man who truly personifies dignity, performed for us on the bamboo flute. WE subsequently bought one of these, and I can barely get out one tone!

The other main event of day two was a meal prepared by all the dancers. The women repaired to one side and lit a fire to cook cassava and make something with greens and coconut milk, while the men lit their own fire on the other side of the grounds and roasted breadfruits in the flames, which they then peeled and then, on great wooden boards, kneaded with a coconut rolling pin until the cooked breadfruit flesh transformed into a soft puffy dough the size of a double giant pizza.
Then they scored the dough into bite-sized diamonds and drizzled it with hot coconut cream, also, of course, produced by hand. The result was surprisingly light and tasty, and most of us went back for seconds and thirds. The women were still peeling the cassavas when Micah spirited us out for an early look at some carvings being offered for sale, so we didn’t get to sample whatever it was they were making.

The carvings were being set up for purview down in the Olal Yacht Club (yes, they have one too.!) The Olal Yacht Club is on a bluff overlooking Selwyn Straight, the channel between the north tip of Ambrym and Pentecost Island. There is tiny “anchorage” down below, but it’s not one you would ever want to put the hook of a cruising sailboat down in. The reinforced tradewinds had rolled in since our arrival two days before, and the straight and anchorage were a mass of whitecaps and spindrift. No wonder we were walking three miles each way!

The carvings on display were fascinating. Each day of the festival there were more and more as locals caught on there were buyers afoot. Note, it wasn’t just cruisers attending the festival. Some intrepid tourists (including a camera team from French television) had flown into the airport at Craig’s Cove, transferred here by fast boat, and were staying in the village. Unfortunately, other than knowing that Ambrym carvers are renowned in Vanuatu and that most every figure on display was a reproduction of some traditional artifact, we didn’t have a clue what we were looking at. Also, unfortunately, we didn’t have enough cash to buy much of anything. Too late, after the end of the festival, Chief Norbert passed out a museum quality booklet prepared for an exhibit of North Ambrym ritual art just finishing at a gallery in Sydney that pretty well explained everything (including what a ROM dance is!—Chiefs Norbert, Sekor and the whole dance troupe actually were brought to Sydney to perform for the opening last month! That must have been an eye-opener!). (The booklet shows that the gallery has a web address that might have an online version for those of you who are curious…it is )

So what is a Rom dance? Although we were all there to see it, I suspect very few of us had a clue. According to the museum booklet, Rom is one of three “secret societies” that controls and manages Ambrym’s mystical kastom culture. Of the three – Mange, Temar and Rom – Rom is the most open, with some of its dances occasionally presented for outsiders like us. I quote from the Annandale Gallery booklet:

Adult Rom masks are always danced by men who are invisible beneath floor-length banana leaf costumes as they represent powerful spirits rather than living men. There are many different types of Rom mask and each man who wishes to dance one must pay for the privilege of making it and wearing it. … The typical Rom mask has a sharp, angular face with a prominent lower jaw that juts out of a cone-shaped fiber-covered head dress at an angle of 45 degrees. The complexities of different grade rankings are communicated by variations in the patterns and colors with which the faces are painted and by the design of the ridge running up the center of the mask.

Our Rom dance began “off stage” 100 meters down a path leading to the nasara. Chiefs Sekor and Norbert and the troupe of uncostumed dancers began the chant in a very tight pack surrounded by eight spirit figures.
It took them quite a while to reach the dance ground proper, and unfortunately this led to the audience filing from their seats with their cameras and blocking the view for everybody else, which, also unfortunately, let to temper flare-ups and a lot of pissed off people. Of course, the dancers did finally arrive, and we all saw plenty of them as the spirits swished back and forth in various patterns each carrying an unusual woven staff/rattle that leant them a two toned mystical sound, while the singers chanted and stamped indefatigably.

This obviously is not the dance of a professional ballet, Broadway or even folk-dancing troupe, but the chants and the stamps get in you head, hypnotically melding you into a scene you couldn’t even have imagined before you came. The bludgeoning of the pigs – yes, another one, sending several youngsters into tears – is no westerner’s favorite part, but we are here to see their traditions; it’s not that they are not putting a show on for us.

After the Rom dance came a short magic session. They only did three “tricks” because they have their own magic festival at a separate time. I was imagining something a little more witchcraft-y, but the three tricks were actually rather agricultural. For me, the best was the first, where two men planted the top of a taro root with its attached cluster of leaves, poured some spirit water on it from a coconut shell and unearthed a full grown tuber! Hmmm. The second trick was a similar one with a yam, starting with a vine, and the last one was a water trick where they poured water into one length of bamboo and poured it out of another!

Chief Norbert – aka headmaster Norbert – closed the festival by explaining that the monies earned from the (fairly stiff) festival entry fee goes into a fund for education of the area’s kids, mostly funding students to secondary school.

The show ended with a public dance, where everyone was invited to get up and join the dancers – stamping or swishing as our gender dictated. Don was exempt with a sore foot, but I did my best to swish with the ladies, although Don says I was seriously overdressed.

Afterwards, Chiefs Norbert and Sekor hosted the cruisers to a feast at the yacht club. We had roast pig (most likely the porker from the first day) and two table loads of chicken, yam, cassava, salad, green beans, rice, fruit salad and the like. We all lolled on the lawn overlooking Selwyn straight and gobbled to get out platefuls down between showers.

The furiously strong winds stirring up the waters out in the open finally began to subside yesterday in time for boats to raise anchor and sail away. We said “Fair Winds” to Procyon, who took off for a night passage back to Port Vila and onward to New Caledonia. On Tackless II, we took Saturday to unwind, to snorkel the surrounding reefs, and, of course, to catch up on this log. Tomorrow, we head further north.

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Sunday, September 7, 2008
6 September 2008 – Laboring our Way to Efate

We left Banam Bay at 0630 in the benign glow of a gorgeous sunrise and empty blue sky. This bears mention because Malakula Island, downwind from volcanic Ambrym and all the particulate matter it dumps into the air, is inclined toward cloudiness. It seemed like an auspicious sign, and our first winds were decent, bringing a smooth ride, if close hauled.

But there was no getting away from the fact that our desired course line to Epi – southeast through the strait between Ambrym and Malakula – was dead into the wind, and all the wonders of the boatyard refit has not changed the fact that our beloved condo Tackless II is not a windward performer. So we were doomed to motorsail, but even motorsailing, thanks to tidal current, was problematic. During the hours the wind was with the tide, the ride was smooth, but headway was minimal. When the tide was with us, it was against the wind, so the short steep seas repeatedly knocked the snot out of momentum gained. We only had 25 miles to make to our planned staging anchorage on Epi Island, but for a while it was not looking good for getting there by dark. However, we eventually clawed our way far enough out of the straight that the boat began to sail more freely, and not only did we eventually tack our way over to Epi Island, but we did so with enough time to carry on past Lamen Bay (which was packed with boats) to a further anchorage.

Revolieu Bay is a pocket of water tucked behind a bracket of reef and fed by a dark river disgorging through black sand, and as we tacked in it was being misted by late afternoon showers and rainbows. Only two boats were there, and we knew both of them. No sooner was our hook down than Russ of Wandering Star, the boat we'd seen in Banam Bay, picked us up for a nice reunion cup of tea aboard La Boheme. With only an hour to sunset, it was a short reunion as all three boats planned to depart at or before first light for Efate.

Havana Harbor on the north side of Efate lay just sixty miles away on a bearing of 189 degrees, just west of due south. With easterlies, it would have been a grand sail, but full blown easterlies weren't in the forecast for four more days, by which time we'd be overdue for Vanuatu's 30-day immigration check-in. So we motorsailed again, but this time the wind, blowing 15-20, was thirty degrees off the bow instead of on the nose, so we had a lively ride albeit with plenty of water over the bows. As we neared our waypoint, the wind backed enough for us to shut down and sail the last hours in.

Havana Harbor is a huge bay framed by two small islands off Efate's north coast. It is reminiscent of Gorda Sound in the BVI, and during WWII it was a base for the US Navy. We anchored on its southern shore along with a clump of day charter boats and had a quiet night. In the morning, we raised sail and enjoyed an hour of idyllic sailing in twenty knots on Havana Harbor's protected waters, before popping out to bash around Efate's notorious Devil's Point.

On a better day, the huge bay that takes a bite out of Efate's southwest corner is probably a place for pleasant days sails, but for us it was a long hard motorsail to weather to get up to the smaller bay within the bay where perches Port Vila. We had heard so much about Port Vila as an oasis of civilization both before coming to Vanuatu and from all the boats that have already passed through that we pictured some sort of Shangri-la. As we passed through the outer buoys we passed a freighter at anchor on our left while off to the right was P&O cruise ship on the commercial wharf. Ahead to the left was the outer anchorage backed by the downtown area of Vila, while on the right, the small island of upscale Iriki Resort hid the inner mooring field. We followed the approach range almost to shore before turning right into the mooring basin. Along the shore was the sea wall with boats moored stern to, but, beyond, a field of some fifty or sixty densely-packed moorings wrapped around the backside of Iriki.

We had called for a mooring from Yachting World only to discover we'd arrived on election day and most everything was closed. Wandering Star, who'd been here several times before, opted to drop a hook in the outer anchorage, but our friends on Procyon hailed us and directed us to a mooring just vacated. There is nothing like entering a packed harbor area to make you realize how many boats you know. What was most peculiar is that it felt not just like Fiji transplanted, but Vuda Boatyard transplanted! There was Flight on the seawall and the big schooner Mundaca. The steel Kiwi boat Heartbeat, which had still been on the hard when we launched and left, was right there swinging at anchor, and Freedom Hunter, who shared bottom paint with us, was on mooring number one. Further on were several of our Musket Cove buds, including Procyon, Wind Pony, and Quantum Leap. And just to cap off the sense of déjà vu, a boat called Esprit, hearing us on the radio, called to ask if we were the same Tackless II that left Puerto Vallarta in 2004. The cruising world is a small one!

Port Vila has proved to be the sweet little oasis of civilization everyone says it is. It is a nice mix of islanders, ex-pats, tourists and cruisers. The downtown market is full of lovely vegetables with a French influence, and the supermarkets…well, La Bonne Marche is a cruising cook's wet dream. The main street is quite the mix of restaurants, cafes, souvenir shops, duty free stores, real estate agents and tour agents, and there's a steady stream of traffic, including mini-vans running as short stop busses…all driving on the right! France obviously won that battle!

And yet most of the people we have met are speaking English. Bislama, the official patois of the island chain, is more evident in posters and billboards, but it is close enough to English that you can slide by. The only French I've been called upon to speak was at the French consulate, and that was more because I wanted to practice.

Our main objective in getting back to Vila – besides cold beer and restaurant food – was to get our visas for Australia lined up. In the end, we did not go for the full bore one year visa because we might have been required us to get a lung x-ray for tuberculosis which was said to take weeks. Instead we went for the one year, multiple entry ETA (electronic travel authority) visa available on line. Since we anticipate flying out within three months (of a mid-November arrival), either to the States or to New Zealand, it answered all our needs. It also left us enough time us to apply for visas from the French consulate for New Caledonia. As US citizens we won't get the unlimited access to New Cal our EU and Kiwi buddies will get. Going into the Loyalties with the ICA rally will get us a full check-in, but we still would have been expected to get to the capital Noumea within one month. Having the visas will let us take up to three months to dawdle our way there, much as having the visas before arriving in the Marquesas gave us a full three months to dawdle our way to Papeete.

With the bureaucratic stuff out of the way, we now have to concentrate on the boat. We need to replace our main halyard and our furling line, for both of which we have spares, and Don is currently on the floor in the engine room replacing the fuel line from the tank to the engine, the culprit, we believe in the Perkins quitting a second time on us this morning. He is also being kept busy with watermaker calls, and we have sold off a lot of the Spectra parts we have been carrying. I also fear there are a few jobs for me with the sewing kit….

Events for the ICA Rally are scheduled to get going next Tuesday. There will be muster, and a briefing, a golf scramble and an excursion to a local watrfall. We'll have checkout and post check-out duty free topping up of liquids – diesel and alcohol! Departure for New Caledonia is targeted for Saturday the 13th.

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Saturday, September 6, 2008
30 August 2008 – Banan Bay, Malekula
As predicted, by turning back south, we have started paying the piper for all that grand beam-reach sailing we've been enjoying. That said, Tackless II continues to impress us with her performance even in these less than ideal conditions -- too much wind, choppy seas and close hauled...never our favorite point of sail.

However, our reward was pulling into Banan Bay anchorage on the east coast of Malekula (S16*20'.404; E167*45'.293). These places never look like what you picture from the sketch maps in the guide books, and I guess I never looked at the pictures in the Tusker electronic guide for this one, but it is a big round anchorage with wooded shoreline, great protection, and little sign of any villages except plumes of smoke. There was one boat in the anchorage when we pulled in, who turned out to be old friends from several years ago of whom we'd totally lost track. But bless their hearts, they pushed out of here at 5am this morning to bash further south leaving us to wake ALL BY OURSELVES! This is a first for us this year. And depending on the weather forecast I download, we may not mar it by launching the dinghy. The villages in Vanuatu have been wonderful experiences, but it's great to indulge in the feeling that we are all alone!

There is a record high pressure system (1049mb) crossing New Zealand to the south which is generating steady 20knots winds here, doggedly out of the southeast, when what we need are light winds or none from the northeast to enable us to get back easily to Port Vila. Not likely to happen, but, the wind is supposed to ease up a smidge tomorrow, so we will probably take what little we can get and bash onward.

In the meantime we are passing the day contentedly on Tackless II without launching the dinghy or exploring ashore. Every time we make this decision I feel guilty, because every place we stop has interesting stuff to see and people to meet, and we will not likely ever get back to any of them in this lifetime.

But there is only so much you can do right, especially when you have a schedule. If I haven't said it outright, you have surely deduced by reading between the lines, that we are not much liking having the ICA rally schedule over our heads. This is not really the rally's fault, but our own for being so late in the season. We owe the rally a lot for getting us out of Fiji relatively painlessly when our own motivation was about gone. And I believe we will be grateful for the same facilitating the rally will enable in the jump from Vanuatu to New Caledonia's out-of-the-way Loyalty Islands as the year fast counts down to cyclone season. We wouldn't want to miss New Cal in a late season rush to Australia, so it's either a little of each or all and none. The majority of the rally participants are New Zealanders doing their annual seasonal cycle – NZ to Tonga to Fiji to Vanuatu to New Cal and then back to NZ again– so they conceivably can do it over and over again. It's a cycle we could jump on if we had the gumption.

Since we probably don't have that gumption, I am sitting here in Banan Bay reflecting on the things I am not going to get to see in Vanuatu. We are not going to get to Espirito Santo, the island where the US Military was based during World War II. James Michener (along with John F. Kennedy) was based there during the war, and it served as the foundation of his famous Tales of the South Pacific, which, of course, led to the musical and film South Pacific. South Pacific was one of the first movies I ever remember seeing, even before Disney…although, in fact I may not actually have seen it, and just imprinted on the songs that my sister Cecily would have brought home. I remember her singing with me for hours, "Ditez-moi, pourquoi, la vie est belle; ditez-moi, pourquoi, la vie est gaie, ditez-moi, pourquoi, chere mademoiselle? Est-ce-que, parce-que, vous m'aimez?!" (With that kind of start, no wonder I've had a knack for French!)

Actually, the song that has been playing on instant replay in my mind since arriving in Tanna is the one about "coconut palms and banyan trees and coral sands and TONKinese." Between the two of them, I really did expect to see sweeping French plantations on the hillsides and Bali Hai on the horizon. There are certainly still sweeping stands of copra plantations, but I don't know if there are still some that are French-owned or how many of those owners continue to live here in colonial elegance. Maybe I'll find out in Port Vila. But we didn't get to Espirito Santo, and I probably would have been disappointed anyway as Dave and Chrissie report there is little left of the military base left at Luganville. And as for Bali Hai, Lonely Planet says Ambae, the island that was on our Asanvari horizon, is the one that inspired Michener. We didn't get to Ambae either.

And speaking of reflections, I have been reading Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs & Steel, very interesting material for a cruise through this land of dugout outriggers, subsistence gardening, chiefdoms and secretive custom religions all in a balancing act with cellular towers and DVDs, western religion, a bi-partisan colonial heritage (Vanuatu was ruled under a condominium government from 1906-1980 shared by the historically prickly governments of England and France!), and now thirty years of independence during which at least they have not been taken over by resort chains.

By this point in the Pacific, cruisers are frequently pondering about what it is we have learned from our travels, debating over whether places like Vanuatu should get outside help to get up to speed with the rest of the world or whether they should be entirely left alone. No easy answer as they are struggling with the question themselves. It's not so hard to foresee a time when the world will be without this diversity, where we will be largely homogenized into one global state. I'm glad that time is not quite yet here.

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