Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Vanuatu: The Adventure Of A Lifetime

This blog post is about my three month sailing voyage with my father Max from Christchurch, New Zealand to Vanuatu and back. The journey was… a maelstrom of experiences. That would make a good title, although it’s not the one I chose. In fact it took some deliberation to decide on a suitable title for this blog post. I even pondered this during the trip, usually during my darker moments. “Worse Things Happen At Sea” was a good one, or suitably apt, “The Joys of Flying”. Finally, I settled on the current title of “The Adventure of a Lifetime”. Not only because it certainly was that, but also because it obliquely comments on, in my own humble opinion, the repeatability of the experience. 

I landed at Christchurch airport on the 7th of July. Canterbury had received its first dumping of snow, with several centimetres of cover at sea level. The plains were white and the air frigid; I was entirely unimpressed. We bought a few articles of warm clothing from a second-hand store. I met our third shipmate, Tristan, and we did the grocery run for the trip. Two days later we were aboard the good yacht Sunshine, riding the tail end of a passing low northward. 

Around thirty hours later we rounded the point at Cape Campbell and sheltered from weather which had turned rough. The next morning we set off with intentions of braving the Cook Strait. Things went awry almost instantly when we motored through a dense patch of seaweed which caught on the rudder, slowing our hull speed in the water. We lost the main boathook when it snapped in half while using it to clear the seaweed. We finished the job with the backup boathook, which had an aluminium shaft but was shorter. 

The wind picked up sharply as we entered the Cook Strait and Max decided to turn back. We went about and tacked back to Port Stanley for the night, anchoring among the mussel farms. 

We made passage through the Cook Strait the following morning and anchored close to a small island in the Marlborough Sounds. Our intention was to clear customs in New Plymouth, but by the time we had reached Stevens Island the weather had turned suspicious and it was decided go south to Nelson instead. We sailed down the west coast of D'Urville Island, visiting Janet, an old family friend who graciously allowed us the use of her shower. 

With our sweet-smelling bodies sans salt and sweat, we sailed to Nelson. The voyage had taken about a week. During this time, tensions had steadily been growing between Max and Tristan. There were several outspoken differences of opinion in sailing style, which ultimately impacted on Tristan’s feeling of safety. Once in port we discussed our options. Tristan had recently become a father, so safety was of particular import to him. With this in mind, and with our assurances that all would be well, Tristan returned to Christchurch. 

The weather did not favour our departure. We were looking for a large high-pressure system to sail north to Vanuatu on, but time after time a low would move in from the west and hang just northwest of Nelson for several days. The big high just wouldn't come. We waited on the boat in the port of Nelson for one icy week, after which I went to see Brenda for a week, and then back to Christchurch for another week. I caught up with friends. I pruned the orchard. I tied up the raspberries. At long last, after three weeks, a high system of notable size was building over Australia. We took the next bus to Nelson and prepared the boat. My frustrations would soon be eased. We were going to leave.

The Northward Passage

We cleared customs as soon as the office opened. It was a clear day and the water was glass-calm as we motored out of the port. Dolphins saw us off.

Several hours into our sail the wind began to pick up. We had anticipated this – we were actually sailing onto the tail of a low pressure system, leaving a little early to manoeuvre ourselves into a good position for the coming high. We put on wet weather gear and reduced sails as it got rougher. Eventually Max decided to drop the mainsail altogether and continue with only the headsail. Max went forward and undid the brake, releasing the halyard and dropping the mainsail. Once it was fully down he unclipped the halyard and handed it to me in the cockpit. A sudden blast of Swiss-German curses cut the wind and I looked up to see Max kneeling by the mast with panic in his eyes. ‘It’s gone!’ he yelled. What’s gone? I wondered. ‘The halyard! It’s fucking gone!’ The other end of the halyard had come unfastened from the winch. As I was pulling my end down to clip onto the boom, Max watched the other end disappear into the mast like spaghetti into a hungry Italian. It was impossible to fish out again. I had no choice but to keep reeling in my end, coil it up and stow it below decks. The mainsail was down, and would stay that way until we could figure something out. 

The other thing which went disastrously wrong was that the sea maps on our GPS failed us. We have a Lowrance GPS which displays not only your position and navigational information, but also detailed sea charts. The sea charts are loaded in separately via a SD chip reader, and is provided by a company called NAVIONICS. 

My purpose of mentioning NAVIONICS here is to give them a bit of deserved bad press. You see, Max had forked out a hefty $600 for the pacific charts, which come on a regular SD card. The first thing you think when it arrives in the mail is ‘hey, I can back this up on my laptop’. In fact, he did just that. What he didn't know however, is that the chip is designed to literally self-destruct, corrupting its data when inserted into a regular SD card reader. If you read the back of the packet it warns you of this effect and states in no uncertain terms their no-refund policy for corrupted disks. Overzealous copyright protection is high up on my list of all things small and nasty. What irks me most is that their chips are accidents waiting – no – designed to happen. It’s like a door handle with a small-printed sign saying ‘do not turn’. The wonderful irony is that someone somewhere will eventually figure out how to copy their charts. And when they do, all you’ll need is a SD card drive and a bittorrent client to replicate them. NAVIONICS, karma’s got your number. 

Anyway, ranting aside, we had taken our NAVIONICS charts to a Lowrance retailer in Nelson to see if they could be updated. Well they couldn't  but the guy was friendly and tested them to see if they worked properly. They did. We put the pacific chart into our GPS on the boat and the Vanuatu islands all appeared. All seemed well and we were satisfied. In fact, it was only once we were en-route to Vanuatu in the middle of the pacific ocean that we tried to zoom in to lay a waypoint. To our horror, the high resolution maps along with their vital details (shorelines, rocks, tides, currents, coral reefs etc etc) were missing. Great. I would say that being in the middle of the Pacific with no charts can be likened to being up shit creek with no paddle. Max in his infinite wisdom had brought some old paper charts and had a cruising guide on the laptop, which is what we ended up using for the remainder of the journey. It meant manually laying waypoints into the GPS by transferring lat/long coordinates from the map or cruising guide. They weren’t always accurate, but it kept us off the rocks. I got better at reading and navigating from sea charts. 

Several days of rough weather passed uneventfully. Max and I were doing six hour shifts, slowly becoming salter and stinkier as the days rolled on. We must have eventually found the centre of the high because the weather calmed and we had to motor for two days. Max used this relative calm to jury-rig another halyard. We dropped the headsail and hooked Max to the headsail halyard (or whatever it’s called - it probably has a specific word, but meh). I then winched max up the mast with an array of tools, ropes and pulleys. He hooked a pully to the top of the mast and ran a rope through it to the headsail, allowing the headsail to be raised by another reef. It wasn't perfect but it would do until we found safe harbour in Vanuatu. 

The two-day calm packed in again and a southerly blew up. Day by day, six hour shift by six hour shift, mile by mile, we crawled north. We noted the changes in temperature and our multi-layered gear slowly peeled away until we could sit in the cockpit in shorts and a t-shirt. At long last, after thirteen long days at sea, unwashed and unclean, dispirited and a feral, we sighted Aneityum.

Cruising The Islands

We pulled into the Anelgowhat harbour, dropped anchor, raised the quarantine flag and waited for the quarantine officer to clear us into Vanuatu. The sudden stillness of the boat was eerie. The quarantine officer didn't arrive until the next morning (lastiktime they call it), but he was friendly and professional. He was also the local policeman. Max was able to borrow his cellphone and call Rowena who had flown into Port Vila, saying that we had arrived. Rowena replied that she had a flight booked, and would arrive in about a week. We had some time to burn.

I went ashore. I was wobbly and clumsy, due not only to sea legs but probably a bit of muscle atrophy too. I bathed in a fresh water stream, I did laundry, I snorkelled around the reef, I drank kava with the locals and ate fresh grapefruit, bananas and coconuts. Max went up the mast again and we fed the halyard back down the mast and affixed it to the winch once more, being certain to thoroughly tighten the grub screw which held it. Max and I hiked with a local guy to the tallest peak of the island and back. I explored mystery island (named so by the Queen) and snorkelled in the lagoon. Time passed grudgingly, like a difficult stool. Rowena eventually arrived, spent a day or two on the island, and we made to leave. 

For the next month and a half Max, Rowena and I cruised the islands. We started in Aneityum, island-hopped up to Efate, then northwest with the trade winds to Malekula and Espiritu Santo, then east to Ambae, and south along Maewo and Pentecost to Ambrym, stopping briefly in the Maskelene Islands south of Malekula, then battling our way back to Lamen Bay on Epi and back to Efate. Highlights were diving Million Dollar Point and the SS President Coolidge, catching a huge tuna and sharing it with a remote village full of kids, talking and drinking kava with a village chief and being shown around the village, swimming in beautiful waterfalls and rivers, snorkelling, meeting amazingly honest and welcoming people, guitar on the beach with a campfire, and drinking coconuts. Potentially I could fill endless pages of text about this part of the journey, waxing on about the people, their customs, their language, their problems, the land, the wildlife, infrastructure, government, income, taxation and many, many other topics. But I fear I would bore you to near suicide. Instead, here is a lovely Google map I made of our journey and some pretty pictures.

View Vanuatu in a larger map

The above four shots are from Erromango. TVL (Telecom Vanuatu Limited, see the ukelele man's t-shirt, top right) was setting up a cellphone tower and their transport ship had arrived offloading the cargo, mostly sandbags. The village was supplying the labour for the whole job. For free of course. They got cellphone coverage out of it, though they would also end up with bills to pay.

 The underwater post office where I sent a postcard (left). Mele Island from the top of the hill, with Sunshine sailing out of the harbour (right).

 Biking around Efate. The roads are built by NZ contractors, and the signage is cute.

 An eccentric guy talking about his collection of bottles from WW2 times (left). I bathed in a  pristine little pond by the roadside. 

This is what I loved most about Vanuatu. The people are so genuine and friendly. We sailed into a bay and dropped anchor. All of a sudden kids started swimming out to the boat. Some girls came in a dugout canoe. We dropped the dinghy into water, tied a rope out the back and towed half a dozen laughing kids ashore. We left the rope behind in the form of a swing.

I dived Million Dollar Point on Espiritu Santo. At the end of WW2 the Americans had a war's worth of hardware and didn't know what to do with it. The English and the French refused to pay anything, so in a grand gesture of defiance they built a jetty, ran everything off it, and blew the jetty up. A landscape of mangled, rusting hardware now rusts at the bottom of the ocean. There's even a boat down there. The sheer magnitude of it is unbelievable. Just 200m along the coast is is the sunken wreck of the SS President Coolidge. It was a luxury liner commissioned for troop transports, and was sunk by US mines in the channel.

Eventually we returned to Port Vila for a scheduled crew change. Marissa arrived and Rowena flew back home. After spending such a long time in a confined space with people twice my age, Marissa was a breath of fresh air.

About the first thing which happened once we left Efate was that Max got an inner-ear infection. This made him completely deaf in one ear (and only partially deaf in the other). We stopped at Erromango and picked up a cocktail of antibiotics from a small village. They didn't work. We anchored in Port Resolution on Tanna and crossed the island to Lenakel where Max was able to visit the regional hospital and get some more antibiotics. 

 Being shown around by Edward

Marissa and I had hoped to climb Mt Yasur, the famous active volcano, however our plans were dashed when we came upon what I have come to recognise as the death knell for any government-run national park: a toll gate. The guys sitting comfortably behind it required around NZ$50 to let us walk past their pretty gate and climb the volcano ourselves. It didn't matter that we were yachties, nor did it matter that we didn't have the cash on us (actually true, not that we’d have given it to them). They would not be moved. We shall not pass. The driver explained on the way home that the Vanuatu government had erected the barrier and was collecting all that cold hard tourist kash for themselves. None of it makes it to the hands of the local communities. Three words: nom nom nom. And the greatest irony? The bitumen road being built from Lenakel to Mt Yasur to promote tourism was being done expressly with Australian and New Zealand aid money and expertise. Pretty sweet deal if you ask me. Yeah my impression of the Vanuatu government aint that flash.

Public transport / Buying Tanna coffee

Mt Yasur Driveby

For the record, Marissa and I had intended to return the next day via a different route and ‘not see’ the toll gate, but our skipper sensed that the weather was about to become unfavourable, so early the next morning we sailed further south and Mt Yasur became the volcano that never was. 

We returned to Aneityum and prepped the boat for the return voyage. We said our farewells to the friends we had made in the village and Marissa made an awesome feed of pancakes for our final (non-rocking) meal. We lifted anchor, hoisted the sails, set our course and headed into the wide blue yonder.

The Southward Passage

Marissa suffered from constant, unrelenting seasickness. As soon as we got under sail and the boat started a decent rock it would begin. And once it began, as long as Marissa was sitting upright with her eyes open, it would not stop. I cannot believe how persistently and patiently Marissa tried to overcome it. Being above decks did not help. Staring at the horizon did not help. Ginger did not help. Even vomiting did not help; once her stomach had emptied its contents overboard she would simply dry-wretch thereafter. And yet she kept trying. Eventually we all realised that Marissa would not find her sea-legs on this journey and we found ways of dealing with it. Because Marissa vomited up everything she ate, we brought her meals in her bunk where she could eat lying down and close her eyes again afterwards. That, along with plenty of hydration (we made a sugar/salt solution) minimised the effects of malnutrition and dehydration. It was a real concern. It didn't make sense for Marissa to do regular shifts, so Max and I resumed our six-hour shift duty and we just got her to cover from the end of one shift until the next person woke up naturally. This way we got maximum sleep and Marissa didn't have to spend too much time topside. 
The weather on the return passage was rough and unrelenting as Marissa’s seasickness. The wind was initially southerly and gradually turned southeast, 35 knots and rough as guts all the way. We had expected a lull or a wind shift after a few days, but it never came. We beat our way against the wind and swell to the tip of the north island in a gradual curve over nine days, close reaching all the way. Waves broke over the deck and water was driven into every crevice of the boat. We were pumping the bilge several times per day and frequently unblocking limber holes in the hull compartments which kept filling up with debris. It came by the litre into the chain locker, saturating the bike stored there and rusting it. It was driven up and under the chimney cover despite my efforts at sealing it. It ran down the inside of the mast and dripped on you as you sat on the toilet. It got in under the aft hatch and rusted all the tuning pegs on my guitar. It even found its way into the ship’s electronics dashboard and shorted the terminals of our inverter (resulting in a warning alarm and the smell of burning plastic when we turned it on to charge the cellphone). But worst of all, worse by a nautical freaking mile (think: country mile but longer), it gushed up and under the cabin hatch, ran along under the ceiling and dribbled down onto my bunk. And it did this a lot. The net result was soaking wet bunk and blankets for me. I haven’t delved much into my own state of emotions yet, but let’s say it didn't help. If I lifted my mattress out of the way it just rained onto the cans stored below my bunk and rusted them instead. You couldn't escape it, and you couldn't win. 

And there you have it. Nine days. Exhausted, fatigued, wet, salty, stinky, and for some of us, sick. We pulled into Opua, cleared quarantine and customs, parked the boat in the marina and got, off, the, boat. Marissa and I kissed the ground. We danced like hippies (nobody looked at us funny though – I think this happens a lot). I cleaned myself up. Showered, shaved, did laundry, ate the best steak and cheese pie in existence. Ate a second one. Ate cornflakes with milk. Ice cream. Used internet. Stayed at a backpackers. Put glasses on flat surfaces and marvelled how they didn't slide off the table. Marvelled at the simple fact that we could walk straight without bracing on walls and ceilings. The list goes on and on and on. The relief was simply enormous.

 Solid ground. Walking. The stuff of wonder.

So, uh, how was the trip?

Upon learning that I recently sailed to Vanuatu and back, this is the very question which instantly and casually spills from a person’s gob to land like a cowpat at my feet. It is the question I dread and avoid. (Notice how you had to claw past my wall of text and pictures to get down to this part?) The expected answer is a gushing of statements and descriptions including adjectives like amazing, wonderful, beautiful, breath-taking and so on ad infinitum. The honest answer, if answered honestly (I often just shrug and say it was great), comes as a bit of a shock. It’s complicated, multi-layered and takes some time to explain, best done over a beer or half a bottle of whiskey. Simplified: it was not a good time for me. 

How such a trip can end up under a negative light is difficult to explain. I could scarcely believe it myself. At one point I was so inundated with loathing that I gathered together the sum total of my irks and annoyances into one seething little mass and write it down. The next chapter is nearly word-for-word to what I wrote. Bear in mind I was not my regular cheerful self, and please excuse the expletives.

Things to hate about sailing.


  • Once the perishables go, you’re down to packets and tins. 

Food Hygiene:

  • Salt water makes dish-washing liquid into a sticky paste (not foam) which does not clean. Therefore, dishes were only rinsed in salt water for the majority of the trip.
  • Cloths of all kinds become moist, bacteria factories and clog with strata of fatty leftovers. You shouldn’t think about this too much when wiping down surfaces. 
  • The scrubbing brush changes colour to remind you what you cleaned with it last. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.
  • The increased spillage (from rocking) means most surfaces are smeared, stained or filmed-over with stuff that didn't quite make it to the plate.
  • How to determine if something on the boat is still edible:
  • The. ‘Fridge’.
    There wasn't actually a fridge. There was an insulated food compartment where we stored drinks and other (usually liquid) perishables. Spillage was an inevitability. Runoff pooled at the bottom and soured, the resulting aroma being somewhat undesirable.

Personal Hygiene:

  • No showers.
    In calm weather you can swim or sponge-bath. But we didn't get much of that during our crossings.
  • The salt, the sweat, the squalor, the stink. This grows and grows. The saving grace is that you can’t smell it, but you can definitely feel it.
  • The toilet.
    Hit-and-miss standing to pee (I obstinately refused to sit – it was my way of proving to ocean it hadn't broken me yet), the lid closing on you, the sound and smell of someone else in there, privacy and lack thereof (the curtain is all you get).
  • There’s nothing that happens at one end of the boat which isn't heard at the other – or smelled, for that matter.

The Fucking Rocking:

  • Unable to: walk, dress, piss, cook, stand, drink, put anything down.
  • Easy tasks (such as walking) become difficult.
  • Moderate tasks (such as carrying two cups of tea) become impossible.
  • Difficult tasks (such as juggling chainsaws) become suicidal.


  • The sheer difficulty of doing basically anything saps your will to, well, do anything. Life becomes an effort.

Cabin Fever:

  • Being annoyed at everyone about anything.
  • Eating noises, flatulence, deafness, slack cooking, indecisiveness, naturalism, being corrected, being ignored, being ridiculed (about being annoyed)… anything and everything.
  • And there’s nothing you can do about it.

Hitting Your Fucking Head On Everything:

  • “Every surface is an opportunity, every corner an invitation.”
  • This was honestly my favourite pet hate. Whacking your head on a concrete beam could instantly and reliably turn a good day into a bad one.

Salt Itch:

  • Saltwater seeps into your clothes, just from sitting there for hours on end. After being salt-damp for a day it begins to itch, a sensation akin to having fibreglass bats in your underwear.

The world being generally out to get you:

  • This being chiefly accentuated by the above points, plus random saltwater drenchings in your face as required.
  • The boat is made of concrete. We are floating on water. This is not natural. Only sheer willpower keeps us afloat.
  • I once sat atop deck staring out at the endless sea. I pondered, 'how much of that water out there needs to get in here to sink us?'. Answer: Not very much. Reality: It wants to.
And I didn't even get seasick.

Angst and impotent furor. This was my theme song.

Dry Land

“Now I’m a broken man on Opua pier, the last of Max’s privateers.” And so I was back on dry land, in the far north of New Zealand. I had reached an all-time low on the trip back, and to be honest, wasn’t really a pleasant person to be in a confined space with. Max and I had regular flare-ups, and the atmosphere wasn’t pleasant by any stretch of the imagination. To our credit it never got in the way of sailing the boat, but it sure wasn’t peachy. 

Before making landfall I had decided that I wasn’t able to help sailing the boat back to Christchurch. I was to continue by land. Max understood and accepted this, but it meant he would have to search for a new crew (Marissa was also unable to sail further for obvious reasons). I felt bad about letting him down, but it really wasn’t something I was able to do. So I hung out with Marissa in a backpackers for a few days in Paihia and got in touch with some friends. My timing was perfect; one of my good friends was getting married in Auckland. I caught the next bus. 

Meanwhile Max went to visit with his brother in Rotorua. We had received word that his father (my granddad) had passed away back when we were cruising the islands, and was grappling with that in addition to the troubles he and I had had. 

A few days later Max sent me an email. The weather was looking good and heading back north to the boat. He’d been unable to find crew and wanted to know if I could help him complete the journey. I met him at the Auckland central bus station. 


It was a three-day sail from Opua down the east coast of the north island to Gisborne, where we waited out some bad weather for another three days. The weather turned in our favour and we made the rest of the journey to Christchurch in four nights (three days). The sailing was much more pleasant, as was the atmosphere, and we worked well as a team. I remember waking up on the last morning and looking out to see the sun rising in the east, and the first pink light hitting the Kaikoura ranges covered in snow to the west. It was so good to be home.