Ship's Log s/v Uliad
June 2 :
We finally said goodbye to our friends in Roderick Bay--both the Solomon Islanders who had adopted us and the crew of Love Song. But we weren't able to leave without John Roka insisting on another beach party to say farewell to us. This was again accompanied by flower garlands, music, feasting, and the whole works. These people are unbelievable.
Our boat is filled with all the fruits and vegetables we could possibly eat. We have two bowls full of lobster meat and crab meat in the fridge that we haven't been able to eat yet. So when we say that another feast was simply unnecessary, we're not just being polite.
Kathleen did her best to clean out our closets of un-needed clothes and school supplies and made a big donation to the village in return. They are planning a "Yacht Festival" next month when they expect more cruisers to be in the area, so I used our computer to help John Roka make up a flyer for that, and we left him some money to make photocopies when Love Song takes him to Honiara next week. Still we feel like we've received far more than we were able to give here.
We've decided to join the Sail Indonesia rally out of Darwin in July. A yacht rally is when someone organizes a bunch of boats all cruising together along a certain itinerary. When we've seen rallys sail by in the past, we've always turned our noses up at the concept as it seems the participants are always rushing through an area to keep up with some external schedule. In addition, they tend to become an insular group and socialize with each other rather than getting to meet locals.
Indonesia, however, is a different situation. It is a complex process to arrange a cruising permit. In addition, the area is known for corruption and officials tend to have their hand out in every port you check in. So the benefit of the rally is that we pay someone else to get our permits and clearances and there are such a large number of yachts involved that the extortion is kept in check by the organizers contacts with important people. We also figured it might be a good way to find some other boats with kids Emmett's age--always a worthy goal.
We're already feeling the constraints of living on someone else's schedule, though. We could easily have hung out in Roderick Bay for a few more weeks and maybe even hung around in the Solomons for the Pacific Arts Festival which is coming in July. Instead we find ourselves motoring through the flat calms rather than waiting for good wind so we can get to the island of Gizo to take on fuel and then start making our way toward Darwin in time for the rally start in July.
At 8 degrees South, we've drifted up out of the trade winds. The Big Dipper has reappeared on the northern horizon at night. And its HOT. Really friggin hot. Especially on days like this with no wind.
We ended up motoring most of the 200 miles to Gizo. Ironically, the main reason for going to Gizo was to take on fuel. So we ended up using a lot of diesel to go get diesel. Gizo town was another place that was once an important base for the Japanese, and later the Americans during WWII. In fact, during the liberation of these islands, there was a PT boat that got rammed by a Japanese destroyer--cutting the PT boat in half. The commander of that PT boat was named John F. Kennedy and from where we're anchored, we can see the island where he and his crew swam to shore and were helped by the natives.
Gizo was once the center of Solomon Islands tourism, but after the civil war here in the 1990s, it seems that things still haven't quite recovered. It's just another smaller version of Honiara--dirty, run down, streets full of betel nut spit and mangy dogs. But on a brighter note, they have an adequate deep water fuel dock, so Kathleen parked us there, I tied the lines off, and the fuel man rolled over three beaten up drums of diesel fuel to pump into our tank. Despite the shoddy appearance of the place, the fuel seemed pretty clean.
We had a series of wood carvers and stone carvers come by the boat in dugout canoes to show their wares. With few tourists to sell to anymore, the negotiations quickly devolved from requests for cash to trades for old t-shirts, used sunglasses, and things we were pretty glad to be rid of anyway. One of the more traditional carvings they do here is a figure called "Nguzunguzu" which is pronounced Noozy-Noozy. Centuries ago, the headhunters would carve this figure on the front of their war canoes. As I understand things, Nguzunguzu was the land god, and known for being always alert and ready to ward off the troublesome water spirits. I know plenty about troublesome water spirits, so I thought Uliad could use one of these guys. He was the one carving that I paid cash for.
Clearing out of the Solomons has been quite an adventure. Our intelligence through the sailors network was that Gizo no longer had a customs officer last year, so boats had to clear out of the nearby island of Munda. We stopped at Munda only to find that customs and immigration are now back at Gizo this year. I spoke with both the customs and the immigration officers yesterday and confirmed that this morning I'd be in to clear us out. Customs went fine, but after three trips to the immigration office, nobody has been there. The building caretaker seemed equally bewildered as to where the town's immigration officer was today. So I guess we'll miss out on the chance to fill out more papers and get an exit visa stamp in our passports here.
About 30 miles out of Gizo, the low oil pressure alarm on the engine went off. I shut down the diesel to let us bob about on the windless Solomon Sea and then climbed down into the engine room to see what was up. The culprit was quickly traced to a blown hose that runs from the engine to an external oil cooler. Meanwhile several quarts of fresh hot motor oil was sloshing in the bilge. And did I mention that it is hot as hell on a windless day this close to the equator? Well, add a hot engine room to that.
So repair attempt #1 was to wrap the leak with some stuff called "Res-Q-Tape" that I bought years ago at a boat show. Well, it's been good for other stuff, but totally inadequate for the pressure involved in this oil line. My next effort was to fit a soft hose over the leaking hose and then use hose clamps to hold the patch in place.
By the time I had that done and the oil cleaned up, I was literally pouring sweat and feeling dizzy from dehydration. I was having trouble getting the threads to line up on the hose again and after struggling for what seemed like an hour to get the hose reinstalled, I finally climbed back up to the cockpit and threw up over the rail in the worst bout of sea-sickness I've ever had. Or maybe it was dehydration. Or maybe nerves...because if I couldn't get our engine running again I had no idea how we'd negotiate the reef passes of the Lousiades, or the Great Barrier Reef, or even get back to the Solomons with no wind.
After drinking some water and lying down for a while, I went below and filled the engine with oil again and things ran fine. For about a day, that is. Then the soft rubber hose blew, oil sprayed all over, and the alarm went off again. This time I sat down, drank a liter of cold water, and thought for a while first. There were two high pressure hoses there. One brought the hot oil from the engine and the other ran it back from the oil cooler. My final solution was to take that second hose and run a blind loop for the oil to go out and back again, bypassing the oil cooler altogether.
I cleaned up all that oil again, filled the engine with my second to last jug of oil and spent the next hour hovered over the gauges making sure that the oil pressure stayed up and the engine temperature stayed down. Everything ran great and has me wondering why I even have an oil cooler in the first place. So now I THINK we'll be ok navigating those dicey reef passes coming up. Fortunately, we're back in steady winds, so I can get by running the engine for only an hour or two at a time. Unfortunately, the wind is coming from the south west--right in our face. So what I thought would be a nice, easy, trade winds at our back, 2 day run across the Solomon Sea turned into 3 days of hell.
We finally dropped anchor in a pretty little lagoon off Panasea Island in the Lousiades Islands. (A remote part of Papua New Guinea). We're salty, grouchy, hungry, and too exhausted to care how lovely this anchorage is. But as soon as I get a good meal and a good night's sleep, this Nguzunguzu and I are going to have a serious talk.
The Lousiades Islands are a large group of atolls off the coast of Papua New Guinea. They divide the Solomon Sea from the Coral Sea. We tucked inside the largest atoll at dawn the other day and have been enjoying the lack of ocean swell. But the wind continues to be coming from the southwest rather than the usual southeast trade winds. So we're going to wait it out here until we have better wind to push us along to Australia.
The clearance procedures for Papua New Guinea are complicated enough that we decided to slip through the territory quietly without checking in with customs & immigration. The other complication is that there has been some civil unrest lately around Papua New Guinea's capital of Port Moresby. Since we didn't take the week in Honiar it would have taken to get advance visas, I was worried that if we tried to check in somewhere without it that we or our passports could get routed to Port Moresby and end up in the middle of a mess we didn't want. Technically, a foreign vessel can transit another country's territorial waters like this as long as we don't step ashore anywhere or linger too long, so I'm not too worried. There appear to be nothing but subsistence fishermen and copra farmers in these remote islands, so I don't think our presence will even be noted by anyone of an official nature.
Today we sailed upwind for two hours to get to another lovely little atoll called Bramble Haven. It sits adjacent to a deep water pass through the reefs called Jomar Passage. It seems to be the main artery for ships travelling between Asia and Australia/New Zealand because at any given moment all day long there is always at least one or two cargo ships visible on the horizon. It's a reminder to us that we're now leaving the ultra-remote south pacific and entering some busy shipping lanes as we approach the Torres Straits. We'll have to be a bit more alert on watch in the future.
We anchored off an absolutely stunning little island called Punawan Island. Our guidebook said it was deserted, so we were surprised to find a small village with three families living onshore. All day long a group of men sailed back and forth along the reef in their gaff sailed outrigger trolling for fish. A few kids wandered down the beach to have a look at their new neighbor, but after sailing, school, snorkelling the awesome reef here, and doing a few chores, we decided to wait until tomorrow to go visit.
Australia is known for being pretty strict with their customs regulations. To avoid introducing new pests to their island, we're likely to have our hull inspected by divers and if it's too dirty, we have to haul out at our own expense. Uliad's hull still looks pretty good to me, but I started the job of giving everything a good scrub today.
Australia also won't allow us to bring in any fruits, veggies, eggs, or meat. So we've been working on that problem over the past week. Before we left New Zealand, the Meadows family gave us an amazing care package of beef and lamb from their farm. There's no way we were going to let those Ozzies get their grubby little paws on that, so we've been cooking up another red meat feast every night lately. Tonight is going to be a big pot roast in the pressure cooker with the last of our potatoes. Yum.
On our last day at Punawan, we dared to step ashore and take a beach walk. We decided that way out here, there were probably no customs officers to notice. Ashore we found a few interesting shells and lots of hatched sea turtle eggs. Later when we introduced ourselves to the locals living here, Kathleen asked if there were lots of turtles here. "Yes," we were told, "would you like some? We're cooking up a few right now!" Kathleen nearly choked on her words but managed to politely decline.
We learned that the 4 families here lived on another island, but come here for 3 months of the year to harvest copra, and fish for sharks. They dry the shark fins and sell them to a buyer where I'm sure they eventually make it to China where they still seem to want shark fin soup despite the proven environmental devastation that it causes to fin sharks.
This is definitely not an eco-friendly place. It's hard to fault the islanders here. They live a subsistence lifestyle. The turtles offer a small bit of variety to a diet of starches and fish. They have no way of preserving fish products for market other than drying in the sun, and probably nobody wants to buy dried fish except for the Chinese and the shark fins. So it provides a singular opportunity for a bit of cash for these people. The whole visit left me thinking for a long time about marine environmental issues.
It's 470 miles from our last stop in the Lousiades to the Great Barrier Reef. This should take us three days with good conditions; and the forecast was for good conditions. Of course, things never go quite to forecast. The wind has been a bit lighter, and a bit more straight behind us than forecast. This has made for troublesome conditions onboard. Uliad doesn't sail her best when straight downwind. Without some sideways pressure on her sails she tends to wallow back and forth with the waves and that's exactly what has been going on. As the wind oscillates a bit, I keep trying to adjust the sails to make things better: bear off a bit, go wing on wing, jibe. Each time it seems to get us sailing better for an hour, then the wind shifts slightly and we have to change everything around again.
I shouldn't complain. I've run out of good books to read, so at least the sail adjusting gives me something to do. Kathleen is sure that our Nguzunguzu statue is turning out to be that Brady Bunch Tiki doll come to wreak havoc upon our boat. It has been banished to a deep locker until it learns to do its duty.
The Great Barrier Reef lies along the east coast of Australia and is the world's largest living thing. I admit having some trepidation in approaching the reef for even the great Captain Cook ran aground here. I imagine these great, giant Pacific rollers running smack into that giant solid wall and creating one heck of a maelstrom to try to pass through.
The first day and a half out of the Louisiades brought us troublesome winds that oscilliated right behind us. Uliad doesn't sail her best when running straight downwind; the jib loses wind and flaps incessantly, the boat wallows side to side uncomfortably, and our boatspeed was much slower than what we'd get if that wind would just turn another 30 degrees or so. I kept having to change course, gybe the main, run wing on wing, gybe back, and so forth trying to keep us steady. Drudgery!
Finally, after about 40 hours of this, the wind turned to its usual southeast trade wind pattern and Uliad took off like a rocket. We were making 8 to 8.5 knots steadily while occasionally surfing down the 10 foot waves that rolled up on our port quarter. The funny thing is, these were the exact same conditions we had for our last 2 days coming up from New Zealand, but now we were much more acclimated to the motion. So rather than feeling seasick all day, we just were tired from having to hold on to the bouncing boat all day.
We arrived at Raine Island just at dawn. This little speck of land has a stone tower built on it to mark a mile-wide deep passage through the reef here. I had slowed us down by reducing sail to just a reefed main, waiting until I could definitely see our landmark. And finally there, right where my electronic charts said it should be was the tower. In the early morning gloom, I could just make out a long white line of surf meandering southward as far as I could see. And just ahead, that white line curled inward to reveal the pass. We steamed ahead and took great pleasure in feeling those big 8 foot swells taper off into the windy but flat waters behind the Great Barrier.
I pulled up behind a patch of reef and Emmett lowered the anchor into 25 feet of water where we sat for a day to get some rest and have a look at the Great Barrier Reef from below. The diving and snorkeling here was absolutely incredible--everything we had been told about the GBR and more. There were dozens of new corals I've never seen anywhere else, there were big healthy populations of fish, both large and small. After bragging about finding such a large giant clam in the Solomons, I found right beneath Uliad's bow, an even larger one (41 inches across!!)
It probably helps to enter at this remote pass. We're 50 miles offshore from the mainland here, and even that mainland is remote uninhabited wilderness here. So this is about as pristine of a marine ecosystem as we have ever seen. It showed.
The wind blew a steady 25 knots, gusting to 35 all day long. If you've ever had the experience of having a viscious dog straining at his chain to come and bite you, that's a bit how it feels to be anchored behind the reef in these winds: There is relief, and perhaps even smug-ness that that big Pacific Ocean can't reach us behind the reef. But still an underlying anxiety that maybe it could if it tried just a bit harder...
The remaining passage to Thursday Island is all shallow water behind the reef. Ideally this would be done in good daylight to see the scattered reefs and shoals, but the distance is too far to make in 12 hours of daylight. So we had to make navigational compromises. We decided to leave around 3 pm and hopefully make it through one narrow slot between a few reefs before dark, which would then have us crossing the coastal shipping lanes in the dark, but these are generally deeper and the major reefs are marked with lights. Then we'd reach Cape York after sunrise where we could stop or continue on in daylight to the very shallow waters of the Torres Straits. Once again, the winds were howling and we raced along at 8-9 knots all day until, after dark and in safer waters, I gradually reduced sail until we had only a scrap of mainsail up but still were moving at 5 knots.
I find that if there are any challenging points of navigation overnight such as reefs to be dodged, landfalls reached or turns to be made, I can never sleep even when I trust Kathleen to know what to do. So I always end up waking up and offering to take over well before we reach that point. But sailing at night through all of these reefs meant that I stayed up all night and sailed the boat myself. When we finally reached a little island off of Cape York, I hove to and woke up Kathleen to help anchor as soon as the light was good enough. We compromised between the rough unprotected waters at the tip of the island and the too-shallow but protected waters further South. I went below and crashed for a few hours. Kath & Emmett did some school and finally sometime after noon we sailed the final few mile to Thursday Island. (Passing Tuesday and Wednesday island on the way. Whoever discovered these islands was not at his most creative moment.)
Cape York is the northern most point of mainland Australia and it marks the end of the Pacific and the gateway to the Indian Ocean. I spent a lot of time on my long last night sail in the Pacific Ocean thinking about all the places we went and people we met in the South Pacific. How I'll miss those beautiful, gentle Polynesians and the friendly, hospitable Melanesians, the industrious Indo-Fijians, the down-to-earth Kiwis... How I'll miss the sugary white beaches and the smell of frangipani in the air.
We called customs on the VHF to announce our arrival shortly after dropping anchor. They replied courteously and were a bit apologetic about needing to find a quarantine inspector to come to our boat. We offered that we were all pretty exhausted and if it was OK with them, the inspector could just come in the morning. The voice on the radio readily agreed to this and by sunset I was blissfully sleeping off the rest of my all-nighter.
Australia has a reputation for being extremely strict regarding customs matters. We knew that any meat, eggs, fruits, or vegetables would be taken on arrival. We had been told that our hull would be inspected, and if found to carry any undesirable flora or fauna, we'd be required to haul out and have it cleaned. We heard stories about long detailed searches of yachts--emptying every locker and drawer looking for contraband. So we made a point of studying the reguations and being prepared. As in our past dealings with customs officials in many countries, it paid off to be prepared, honest, and polite.
So when the officials arrived, Kathleen had already bagged up the few remaining bits of fresh produce we had left. The one package of frozen meat, a few aging cheese packages, and our wooden carvings were all at hand and ready for inspection. I had downloaded and filled out the "hull maintenance log" from the Aussie Quarantine website. Our electronic visas had been pre-ordered online. I have to think that this is why everything went so smoothly. No divers came to study the hull. Nothing was confiscated save a few heads of garlic, an onion, and some over ripe plantains. Our garbage was whisked away with our produce, the forms were filled out, passports stamped, and we were now welcome to move about the country. Oh, and there was the little matter of the $300 inspection fee, but we could stop by their office in town and pay that any time.
Thursday Island was not much to look at. There's a few hotels, bars, and stores, but nothing much we needed aside from buying fresh, safe Australian produce at the grocery store. Nonetheless, we spent several days here resting up from the crossing and hanging out at the one cafe in town with Wifi.
This morning, we finally raised anchor to press on to Darwin. As we passed Friday Island (yes, the next one after Thursday Island) we were blessed with 20 knots of wind from behind, flat waters, and a 3 knot current in our favor, resulting in the fastest, easiest sailing I could remember. Of course such things never last, but it's important to pause and savor those moments when things go right.
It was a tale of two passages. Our first two days out of Thursday Island brought strong 25 knot winds on the port quarter. As we got into the open waters of the Gulf of Carpentaria, the seas became rough and confused. We moved along fast, measuring over 190 miles per day for two days in a row. It was fast, but nobody was very happy about it.
By the third day, the wind gradually died out and about the same time, we rounded Wessel Island, after which we were protected from the open Gulf seas and everything calmed down. But of course, the wind died, too. So we spent the next two days with the motor running most of the time to keep us moving. Flat seas are nice, but bobbing around at 2 knots of boat speed is not so nice. Do I sound like a complainer?
As we started approaching Darwin, I could see that it would be one of those middle of the night landfalls, so we were all discussing whether we should motor as fast as possible to try to get in before dark, or to slow way down and arrive at dawn. Entering a strange harbor in the darkness is rarely a good idea. We're still bypassing the oil cooler on the main engine, so I've been really babying it: running only at low RPMs and trying to limit engine running to only a few hours at a stretch. So I didn't like the idea of pushing hard. We throttled back. We caught a breeze off of land and turned the engine off for a few hours before it went flat calm again. By now it was dark, but I realized while sitting on watch that the moon was pretty bright, and would be until 3am or so. If we just maintained a conservative 5 knots, we should be able to enter Darwin Harbor in the moonlight.
So that's what we did. With much help from a very accurate chart plotter and our new AIS pointing out the ships coming and going, we slowly poked our way in. As we puttered into the Fannie Bay anchorage, Kathleen stood watch on the bow with a spotlight to make sure we didn't ram any unlit sailboats and I kept watch on the chart and depth sounder until we found a likely spot to drop anchor. The rattle of the anchor chain woke Emmett up. He popped his head up just long enough to mention that Darwin looked bigger than he expected, then he stumbled back to his bunk.
Re-entering civilization after a long cruise through remote ocean always brings me mixed emotions. There is the excitement and anticipation of friends, food, shopping. There is relief in the safety of a good harbor, and the knowledge that if something breaks, there will be help available. There is great satisfaction in a goal accomplished, another leg of the journey safely navigated. But there's also a touch of melancholy--no more silence in the air, no more vivid nature shows all around, no more simple life. At 3 am in Darwin Harbor, the spell had not yet been broken, but I knew it only a matter of hours before we could hear the cars in their morning commute, hear the jets take off from the airport, see everyone scurrying around and jabbering on cell phones. With the diesel engine finally off, the silence was deafening. I took a deep breath and tried to breathe in that serenity of remoteness...take it inside me...and hopefully keep it someplace where it could last.
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