Cruising the South Pacific with Captain Bligh

Vanautu

lovely lady of Vanautu Woman at Vila market in her beautiful Mother Hubbard dress. Doesn’t she look huggable?

Vila is our kind of town. We felt that Noumea was a bit too French, a bit too white for this part of the world. The French (it is a territory of France) have subdued the Melanesian population to the point of being nearly invisible, seen mostly lying under bushes in the parks, cowering from the Gendarmes, avoiding the eyes of whites. The same race of people here in Vanautu, where they have had their own country since the 80′s (it used to be New Hebrides, jointly administered by the British and French). They have a vibrant economy and, most importantly, deal with foreigners as free people. They are very friendly and open, just as the Fijian Melanesians were, and a joy to be around. They look you in the eye, smile when you smile, offer a hand of greeting and a wave goodbye.

The Vila market is a wonder, and the best we have seen in the three Melanesian countries we have visited. The produce comes in all day, fresh from the countryside, offered by friendly faces. Most of the vendors spend three to five days at the market, 24 hours a day, and go home for the week-end, always for Sunday. They sleep at the bayside market, on woven coconut palm frond mats, for the entire time, taking turns selling, sleeping, and caring for children. It is not unusual to see mother and baby cuddled together on the thin mat over concrete, while the aunt or granny takes care of the produce. The men bring the produce in from the countryside all day long, replenishing the tables. It is a beautiful sight: many coloured and strange root vegetables, fruits and green vegetables, tomatoes (like you would grow yourself, ripe and sweet) red bell peppers (capsicum for our Aussie friends) small sweet bananas, grapefruit, oranges, lemons, clusters of several coconuts ($.70US) and many things I despair of trying to describe and have no way of naming. One day Claire and I had lunch at the market: dalo, a root vegetable paste/pudding with a piece of “meat” (don’t ask) on top, wrapped in a banana leaf. Then we bought a drinking coconut each, a slightly sweet clear refreshing liquid. After we finished the dalo and meat and drank the coconut milk, we smashed the coconut on the concrete and scooped the sweet gelatinous meat out of the shell for dessert. Yummy lunch for two: $2.64 US. These are the kind of experiences we treasure most from our travels.

Pedro and Bob Bob and friend Pedro in Port Vila, Vanautu

After a few days in Vila we sailed to the NW side of Efate Island to Havana Harbour where we anchored for the night off a small village hidden in the coconut palms and behind the mangroves. After sunset the wind calmed and the sea went flat and quiet, dark with an inner blue glow. Small phosphorescent sea bugs floated around Songlines in the dark, replacing the stars lost to cloud cover. They turned on and off slowly, drifting in the gentle tidal current, looking for love. The next morning Karlos and Esau paddled up in Karlos’s small dugout outrigger canoe. Karlos asked Neville to take them around to the outer reef where we could all find better fishing, as their craft was not suitable for the trip or the seas that might be encountered.

The three of them went out in our inflatable to anchor over the reef ledge and fish with spear guns. Claire decided to stay on board because salt water would slow the healing of a cut on her finger, and she wanted time to sketch from Songlines. I decided to swim from Songlines to the reef next to a line of cliffs nearby:

I don snorkel, mask and flippers and begin swimming slowly toward the reef. I check the condition of our anchor rode and anchor set on the way out: anchor set in white sand at 10 metres, chain and rode clear of anything that might hang us up when we try to raise it; something I always do when snorkeling when the water is clear enough. I follow a white sand lead between the coral far below me, experiencing again that strange feeling of flying very slowly. Small electric blue fish flit from coral patch to coral patch, ignoring me, so high above them. The bottom comes up to meet me, now five metres, and some of the larger fish flee the strange creature with funny flipered legs, clumsy and slow. Large coral heads mushroom up from the last of the bleached coral sand, leaving dark ledges for big things to hide under – a black tipped reef shark? – a hammerhead shark? The tops of the coral heads now are too shallow to swim over top of in the swell, so I follow narrowing leads shoreward. Some are dead-ends and I have to be careful not to damage the coral, or cut myself, when I turn to retrace my route. I don’t like the swell when I am close to the hard sharp stuff. I am nearing the cliff face and want to avoid getting too close where I might come to grief. I look above the water to get my bearings and I see a low cave not 30 metres away. Suddenly my curiosity overcomes my tentativeness; I want to see what is in that cave. I try a couple of shallow leads, following a brilliant yellow and blue striped perch. He leads me to two mushrooms of coral the size of buses, overhanging, nearly joining, too narrow to swim through and rising above the water. My fish swims under them and I follow, diving a couple of metres below to clear the coral. My guide abandons me halfway, and it looks further than I thought, but I come up okay, and very near the mouth of the, mostly underwater cave. I surface and find I have wandered off course a bit, and have to swim back under the coral heads again. I see a beautiful yellow and black and white parrot fish hanging head down, floating with just a tentative fin flick now and again. I float and watch him. Maybe he’s lost too? I follow a promising lead into very shallow water covered with new corals I have never seen. The light is weak, and I realize it is not a cloud, but the cave overhang that fosters the growth of the unusual coral. I look ahead and all is dark. Do sharks like dark caves? The bottom turns to bleached broken staghorn coral pieces, shallows to a steep beach at the end of the cave, a dozen metres into the cliff. I climb out and sit. It is dark, and smells sweet. Just a sliver of light comes through above water. The bleached coral beach appears to glow from the light piped in through the water. The small sliver of horizon I see seems very empty, Songlines, and Claire far away, out of sight. It is silent and dark, and reminds me of special hidey-holes I found as a small boy growing up in the country; places that belonged to me alone for a short time, places to be quiet and listen and smell, and think about things I can’t remember now, perhaps travel… I want to stay longer in my limestone and coral hidey-hole, but the realization that the rising tide would make for a very long underwater swim if I waited too long sent me slowly swimming back out over the reef again, following the butterfly fish, coral fish, angelfish, anemone fish, damselfish, parrotfish through the undulating blue tinted world of coral and light, slowly following a sand lead back to Songlines.

We’re back in Vila for a few days preparing for the 1000 mile crossing to Australia in a couple of days, weather depending. Wish us fair winds (for once!) We will be traveling in radio contact with several other yachts in the Port Vila to Port Bundaberg sailing rally.

Sunday October 20, Port Vila, Vanuatu. There was a Port to Port Fun Ocean Passage meeting at the Rossi, fancy restaurant who’s owner is the organizer. We were interested to meet the other yachties involved. However as the afternoon of beer drinking and BSing dragged on, Claire and I lost interest and decided we wanted to spend more time with the locals downtown. We were looking for a newspaper in the supermarket when we heard the unmistakable thump of drum, crash of cymbal and blare of trumpet; a marching band! In Vanautu? Down the street marched the band, green and yellow uniforms, playing a familiar hymn with vigor and marching with style. Behind them followed at least a thousand waving smiling Melanesians, and a smattering of white folks, carrying flags of many nations, including the USA. Some chanted Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, smiling all the while. I could feel it in my chest, as it echoed off the buildings of the narrow street. I felt something akin to a thrill of good will for their joy, a feeling having little to do with my typical conflicted Westerner’s relationship with religion. However, after listening to our skipper, Neville’s regular preaching of Atheism, his own religion, for four months, I am more inclined to look with favor on these practitioners of Old Time Religion, full of life and joy. We followed them down the street cheering them on, waving and smiling back at them. We stopped an old woman hobbling along the sidewalk, too slow for the parade, what the occasion was. She told us it was the opening of a two day prayer gathering on the hill above town where they were marching. I was reminded that we heard the evening and morning devotionals given over a loudspeaker at the market, from our anchorage nearby. Sometimes they would sing before and after the prayers and preaching, and it was the most beautiful singing imaginable. It drifted to us over the dark waters of the bay each evening wrapped in the mystery of their language, Bislama and came again with morning’s first light; a wonderful awakening.

October 24 Thursday. First Vila and then the mountains of the island of Efate fade slowly over a horizon clean, flinty blue and hard edged. Easy winds fill the drifter/reacher, red orange and yellow against the pale blue tropic sky. It appears this will be our first passage with following winds, the southeast trades. We just ghost along at five to seven nautical miles per hour; very slow for Songlines, and I can feel the skipper’s frustration at not being able to will wind into the sails to get us up to the ten knots or better he expects.

October 25 Friday. Still no wind. I took a noon sun shot with Neville’s sextant. When I checked it with the GPS it was about seven miles off the correct latitude. Not terrible in the middle of the ocean, but a bit loose for coastal navigation. I still can’t do the calculations for longitude. Looks like a project.
October 26 Saturday. Wind The wind is weakening. The drifter and spinnaker change places often, and each time the mainsail has to go up or down. I’m getting a bit of exercise grinding the main halyard winch. There is one very good thing about easy following winds; Claire is not seasick! Moonrise on night watch was a brilliant orange ball rising through black lumpy clouds over a royal blue metallic sea. It looked liked a crayon drawing I once did for Halloween, about age eight.

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