Cruising the South Pacific with Captain Bligh

Continue our voyage to New Caledonia and Vanautu as Songlines sails 5,000 nautical miles around the South Pacific

Installing stays on repaired main Claire and Neville installing stays on the repaired main

New Caledonia  

We’ve been in New Caledonia for nearly a month now. We had a bit of a thrill on passage from Fiji when the mainsail blew out under stress. Nevill likes to go fast, and so does Songlines, but her 12 year old mainsail let go at a seam. It took a long time for us to get it repaired here and we were stranded in Noumea. As any of you sailors know, it’s hard to go to windward with headsail only, so we didn’t want to get stuck far away and not be able to get back.

But staying for two weeks in Noumea gave us lots of time to search for a certain hospital that our friend Ray Groendyke from Far Horizons Tucson Village in Tucson helped build in 1942 while serving in our armed forces.

The language barrier for us is considerable here. The French don’t like to learn English, my French is almost nil, Claire’s is a bit better, but misses the subtle things needed for such a search. We began at the municipal museum which proved to have one short paragraph about the U.S. presence in WWII, and a few pictures, none of them of hospitals. They only mentioned that New Caledonia had been changed forever by the American presence. Next we went to the public library, our favorite place anywhere, and were shown a large volume of the history of New Caledonia during WWII, all in French of course. However I can read French much better than I can speak or understand spoken, so I read all I could on the American presence. There were many fascinating pictures which helped. There had been an American hospital 16 kilometres north of town on the Plains of Dumbea, but since Ray said they could easily walk to town, I assumed it was not the hospital he worked on. Several mentions were made of Hospital 105 which appeared to be in Noumea, so we concentrated on that. I discovered that General Patch’s headquarters had been located at a beach where we had walked to from town just the day before, L’Anse Vata.

On the map of the city are two neighborhoods named Motorpool and Receiving, obviously from that period, but are now just residential areas. We anchored off L’Anse Vata for a few days, just for a different view from the commercial port, and found a small group of WWII era buildings housing a clinic. There Claire’s French got that it was indeed part of “the” American Hospital in WWII, and that if we came back the next day there would be an Australian gardener who knew more of the history. We rowed in again the next day and met John Clifford who had been in NC for 30 years. He told us the clinic was the remaining buildings of the only big hospital in Noumea, finished in September of 1942, and that these final buildings would be torn down in the next four years. The staff are all sad to be leaving as they love the buildings. John also told us that General Patch’s headquarters had been torn down a year before, just across the street. All that was left of it was an octagonal concrete pad and a flagpole base. What a beautiful view you must have had Ray! It’s still beautiful. We have pictures.

Friends of America in New CaledoniaThere is also a lovely memorial in the central city area memorializing the American presence here and thanking us for coming here. It’s a quite lovely memorial and well taken care of it appears. We have learned that there is a Friends of America group here who want to preserve what is left of the infrastructure left when the military left here at the end of the war. Just a week before we visited L’Anse Vata Clinic, the city museum staff had come to collect operating room lights that were still there, and still working! We have been unable to contact the head of Friends of America, but have given our email address to two people who can get in touch with him. We hope to eventually hear from him and learn more.

It has been a fascinating search for Fleet Hospital 105, and made our stay special, leading us to stretch our French and meet nice people. We hope to have more info for you Ray, when we get back in December.

With our newly repaired mainsail, we headed south to the island of Kuni, or Isle des Pins as renamed by the French. It is the most beautiful single spot we have visited. The pines are so ancient that they were around at the same time as the dinosaurs, and they look ancient. We spent a week sailing and anchoring in beautiful anchorages, visiting a village (more modern than in Fiji) and exploring shallow bays in the deflatable (that’s what Nev calls it because it deflates slowly and often) where only the local sailing pirogues go. We fished a bit and Neville caught one nice fish that fed the three of us. We always cut up several small pieces, fry them in butter and test for ciguatera, a very nasty reef fish poison that can kill. If we don’t feel any ill effects from a small amount, we eat the lot the next night.

We also got in quite a bit of sailing in the skiff in the small bays where we anchored. I got my first taste of sailing a small boat in a bit of wind. While trying to do a jibe in 15 knots from a beam reach (I can hear the sailors laughing) the boat tried to corkscrew into the water, with me inside, and succeeded. I ended up underneath the overturned boat with a tangle of lines, the mast pointing straight down. I managed to swim out, grab the daggerboard, stand on the underside of the hull, turn the whole thing upright, climb in and begin bailing in less than a minute, without knowing what I was doing at all. Nev, who was fishing from the deflatable roared up and said, “Well done!”, a rarity, believe me. I did learn what not to do and gained some confidence that turning a skiff turtle is not big deal. A few days later I even managed to get my backside up on the gunnels and found it a wonderful position for sailing. Claire is also making progress in the skiff, but has yet to turn it over. Soon.

Our last bay in Ile des Pins was the most beautiful, Baie d Gadji. Coming into the bay we had as little as one metre of water under the hulls, weaving between mustard brown patches of bommies even closer to the surface. When we are going through shoal coral areas, Nev steers, Claire stands on the cabin top, and I stand on the port or starboard bow, both of us straining to see the patch of coral that could rip the bottom out of one of Songline’s hulls, leaving us to sail back to Noumea with several tonnes of water and a bit of a lean. (multi-hulls don’t sink since they don’t have pieces of lead on the bottom to drag them down). When we see something we have to tell him precisely where the danger lies, “10 degrees off port bow, 50 metres” and point to it for a guide so he can steer away without actually seeing it himself. All this can be exhausting.

Shallow coral seas have a wide range of colours from brown through yellow, light green to aquamarine, pale blue and deep blue. Songlines can safely pass over aquamarine, which is one to two metres over white sand, and light green, the same depth over coral.

We’ll leave New Caledonia in a few days for passage to Vanautu, 300 miles to the north and east of here. We hope for good winds, but not too good!


Our passage from New Caledonia was a quick one, 31 hours at an average of nearly 10 knots per hour. The sheets were stressed into ovals and the blocks creaked with each gust. Nev’s idea of cruising is like most sailors idea of racing. He expects the sails to be trimmed to perfection at all times. When someone else is on watch and the speed drops a knot, he’s on deck wondering why; he trims the sails and we’re off again pushing and creaking, banging into the seas throwing spray; then he’s off to bed with a shake of his head and a grumble at the precious time lost. Claire really would like a bit less speed, but she has learned that is sailing blasphemy, and tries to hold her tongue. I don’t really mind a bit of speed, but am not really very good at keeping it up. Neville can see when the sail is not performing and it looks fine to me, not luffing or shaking, or shimmering at the peak. A catamaran is not like a keelboat, which tells you what is going on by heeling to the wind shifts and transmitting it through the rudder. The feel is much more subtle on a cat, and difficult to learn, at least for me. When the winds pass 25 knots and we feel like we are skipping across the water at 12-16 knots, I’m not so sure a bit less speed is not okay too, particularly when those squalls smudge the night sky, hiding the odd 50`knot knock…


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