Ship's Log               s/v Uliad 


 May 2 :

    We said goodbye to Tanna and sailed up to Port Vila, which is the capital city of Vanuatu.  Quelle difference! as the French expatriates here might say.  The day after we arrived a large cruise ship pulled in and disgorged several thousand Australian tourists to the duty free shops and trinket stores that line the waterfront here.  The hills are lined with luxury villas and the beaches front luxury resorts.  It seems unbelievable that only a day's sail away, the Vanuatuans are living subsistence agrarian lifestyles and living in huts little different from hundreds of years ago. 

     The shopping opportunities here were not to be missed, as we don't expect to find a city this size (maybe 40,000 people?) for a long while.  Today I found the hardware to repair a stern shower valve that had broken, and serendipitously found a fabulous French grocery store.  We anguished over whether to sail from New Zealand directly to Vanuatu or to come by way of New Caledonia.  We eventually decided to skip New Caledonia when we realized that the only reason we really were thinking of stopping there was for the French cheeses, baguettes, and gourmet foods that seem to be found in any French overseas colony.  Vanuatu was a British protectorate before gaining independence in the 1970s, but it appears there was enough French influence here to pay off for us with about 4 pounds of great imported cheeses now onboard!

     All of us are feeling a bit tired from the long and rough sails.  Other years when this feeling came on, we'd just park somewhere nice for a few weeks or more until we regained the ambition to move on.  But despite the travel fatigue, Port Vila seems more like a place to get the shopping done and get out.  It feels like Australia's version of Cancun, Mexico here with the casinos and parasailing and t-shirt shops.  So we'll see about how soon we can get ourselves to raise anchor again.  In the mean time, poolside at the Grand Hotel offers cold drinks and a great view of Uliad in the harbor.

Port Vila harbor from the Grand Hotel   Port Vila's main street

      The other big difference here is that we have now officially entered the malaria belt.  The risks grow the further north we travel from here, so Port Vila was the place where we officially decided that we should be onboard with the hatch screens closed before sunset (or else wearing mosquito repellant, long sleeves, etc.)  There are preventive medicines for short term travelers, but when you're "in-country" for more than a month or two, most experts seem to feel that the risks start to outweigh the benefits. 

     So between the lack of wind in the bay at night and the screens that reduce the airflow, we've been sleeping with the electric fans blowing all night to try to fight the stuffy heat.  I have to remind myself how only a few months ago I was dreaming of the day I'd be back in the warm tropics. 


 May 6: 

      Two hundred years ago, when European missionaries started coming to the South Pacific, they were quite alarmed to find that the Polynesian and Melanesian islanders pretty much didn't wear any clothes.  Living in this climate, I can understand the wisdom of this arrangement.  Nudity is about as comfortable as you can get on a hot, humid day.  But the missionaries knew better, so they quickly taught people that part of Christian doctrine is to cover up your naughty bits.  They appealed to the congregations back home who sent cotton cloth and the missionaries started teaching the ladies how to sew a simple, shapeless sack of a dress.  Then they added a scalloped hem, and bit of lace ribbon at the neck and sleeves and you've got what is still worn today by Pacific Island ladies everywhere: the Mother Hubbard dress.  They are cheap, ugly, and every woman outside of major tourist areas wears one.

      It's quite the irony now that the descendants of those Europeans who first taught the South Pacific to cover up now come here on vacation and cause quite the scandal when they sunbathe topless or walk around town in bikinis.  For South Pacific ladies these days have taken to heart what those missionaries taught them.  So Kathleen always tends to try to blend, and she's come to realize that island ladies tend to be more approachable when she wears a skirt or dress rather than shorts & a T-shirt.

      On our last day in Port Vila, Kath made up her mind to really go native.  She went shopping for her very own Mother Hubbard dress to wear when going ashore in the more remote villages.  So we hiked off the main tourist street to a local market building filled with stalls of clothing vendors.  Near the street were the touristy T-shirts, pareus, coconut bras, and fake grass skirts.  But way in the back were where the local ladies shopped. In the back stalls, seamstresses huddled over their machines while her latest creations hung around her. 

      At first Kath was steered toward what they presumed the white lady wanted:  hand painted souvenir frocks and knick knacks.  But eventually she convinced them that, yes, she just wanted to try on that plain purple Mother Hubbard dress up there.  "How does that look?" she asked me.

     "Very sexy!" I smirked while trying to hold the camera steady.  After wandering the aisles for 10 minutes and trying a few on, I think suddenly Kathleen's mindset changed.  No she was not going to find one that she liked.  She was not going to find one that made her butt look good.  This was more like shopping for a pair of sweat socks than a dress.  Just pick a color and find something reasonably close to the right size and it will do the job fine.

   Shopping for a Mother Hubbard dress   Kathleen chooses her island dress

     So I tell this little story now because in the upcoming pages of this blog, you may see a photo of my wife wearing a horribly ugly purple pup tent.  I want to make it known now that Kathleen has not lost her fashion sense, gone insane, or gained 50 pounds.  It's all in the name of cultural sensitivity. 


 May 8: 

    We finally left Port Vila on the night of the super moon.  If you're not an astronomer, a super moon is when a full moon coincides with the time when the moon is at its closest point to earth in its 28 day orbit.  As a result, the super moon is a bit bigger and a bit brighter than normal full moons. The extra gravitational pull of the supermom causes bigger than normal tides and some people think that extra gravity can also make earthquakes, volcanoes, and tidal waves more likely.  Sure enough--last year around the time of a supermom there was an earthquake near Japan, followed by a horrible tsunami, followed by nuclear meltdown!

    But super moons are great for sailing. (And of course, the safest place to be in an earthquake or tsunami is offshore on a boat.)  We could see our landmarks almost like daylight in the bright moonlight and I could read a book in the cockpit without turning on a headlamp.

Sailing out of Port Vila under the supermoon light

     No natural disasters occurred as far as we've heard, and by the next day, we were anchored in a little cove surrounded by reefs just offshore from the island of Malekula.  When we arrived near low tide, it seemed like most of the village was out walking the reefs and taking advantage of an unusually low tide to gather fish and octopi.  A few folks stopped to chat on their way back and invited us to their village.  But overnight the unusually high tide let the waves spill over the reefs and we had a rather uncomfortably rolly night.  So we decided to move on the next morning.  The locals here live in villages out on a small offshore island, but they row over to the mainland to tend their gardens where the soil is better, so we had to dodge the morning rush hour traffic of dugout canoes heading off to work in the mainland gardens.

     Six hours of motoring later, we arrived off a village on the north side of Ambrym.  This island is known for its two active volcanoes who seemed to be spewing smoke as steadily as ever despite any encouragement from the supermom.  It is also known for its woodcarvers.  I went to meet the chief who arranged us a tour guide to visit the carvers about town and see the giant "tam-tams".  These are also called slit drums--logs from the breadfruit tree that have been hollowed out through a long slit to give a loud drum sound when you bang on the log with a stick.  There are many different designs and faces carved into these almost like totem poles, and each family group owns a certain design almost like an informal copyright system.  Most of the carvings get shipped to be sold in Port Vila to tourists, but a few are still made for ceremonial purposes and these items, we are told, are taboo to be sold.  In fact, our guide told us, they are kept in "secret places" and brought out only for special occasions.  After much cajoling, though, we did manage to get him to show us his special dancing mask.  As for the secret place, all I can tell you is that it was somewhere in his hut.  Some of the carvings were pretty cool, but we are always tight for space onboard.  And Kathy was reminded of this one Brady Bunch episode where bad luck fell upon the Bradys after they bought a spooky native tiki kind of like these...

Kathy & our guide Barry.  Tamtam carving on Ambrym  Nice carvings, but is there a Brady Bunch curse?

     We also happened to arrive during a fundraising festival for the local school.  Shortly after the chief met our dinghy on the shore, he excused himself to go meet another arriving boat which happened to be carrying a freshly slaughtered cow for the big feast tomorrow.  I ended up helping carry the carcass to a waiting pickup (thankfully divided already into hindquarters, forequarters, and head.  Even then it was heavy!).  By the time we got up to the school, it was splayed out on a banana leaf mat and a team of boys with knives were skinning and hacking away at the beast into more manageable size parts.  These were then carried off into a building where another group of girls with knives were doing the final butchery into bite size pieces for the big feast.

Steve helps haul tomorrow's feast  The Ambrym butcher shop

     Meanwhile, a soccer tournament was going on for the boys teams and a volley ball tournament for the girls.  We watched for a while before moving on to Pentecost island.  (Oh, darn, no time to stay for a plate of that beef.)  Just as we were leaving, a big mega-yacht pulled up, so we figured the prices on carvings probably just doubled in the village.  The mega yacht was painted silver and looked more like a battleship than a pleasure palace.  We called it the battle yacht.   

The battle yacht "Exuma" at Ambrym


 May 9: 

     When I was a kid, my parents got National Geographic magazine.  I always enjoyed looking at the photos of exotic places and one issue that I distinctly remember was of a far off jungle where the people ran around mostly naked and the men tied vines to their ankles and jumped head first off a giant tower to show how brave they were.  There was something about that article that seemed more strange, more exotic, more unlike anything that a Midwestern small town kid like me could ever imagine.  It seemed like another world.  And of course the fact that they were all naked probably kept me studying the photos a bit longer also.

    Anyway, this childhood memory came back to me suddenly and strongly a few months ago as I was researching Vanuatu.  Because Pentecost Island in Vanuatu is where it happened...and where it still happens, every year in May and early June, just after the tribe finishes harvesting yams.  I quickly decided then and there that we would do our damned best to get an early start on the season and get to Pentecost in time for the land diving.  That same spectacle that amazed me in photos decades ago will hopefully amaze Emmett (and me, and Kath) in real life. 

    It was a short, two hour motor sail over from Ambrym to Homo Bay, where the local people do the land diving.  The word has gotten out over the years, so that in Port Vila, tour operators were charging $400 per person to fly over to Pentecost every Saturday to see the divers do their stuff.  But when we arrived, we heard from the only other yacht here that tomorrow (Thursday) is when the real thing was taking place.  Over the years, the villagers have ended up building a second tower near the airport where they put on a weekly show for the tourists, but amazingly, the day after we arrived here was when they would be having their own village festival, with a much taller tower, not for the tourists but for the yams and the bravery and the custom and tradition.... oh, and also for a TV crew that was flying in from Hong Kong to film it all.

     Every great journey has its milestones.  For me, arriving at Pentecost Island has to be one of the biggest.  It has something to do with a boy looking at a picture in a magazine, imagining the farthest, strangest place on earth.  And something to do with that boy growing up, and sailing across the ocean and finding that very spot, magically on the very day that those strange things were about to take place again.  I can't wait.


 May 10: 

     We were greeted as we stepped off the dinghy by Chief Laksali of the village.  Land diving has been going on for a long time here and they have shrewdly recognized the commercial value of their custom.  So the first item for us to discuss was the price that we'd need to pay to see the ceremonies.  The tour operators from Port Vila were charging $400 per person (including airfare) to see the tourist version at the airport.  The one other yacht in the bay was paying $200 for 4 people.  So starting with that information, we ended up at $150 for the three of us.  Better than what I was told to expect.  Maybe it helped that I dropped that I was a doctor and would be available to help if anyone got hurt.

     With business completed, we hung out on the beach for a while, watching the sky for the plane to arrive that would carry the Hong Kong TV crew that was planning to film the festivities.  They were late.  Eventually boredom got the best of us and we wandered through the village.  Queen Elizabeth came here once when this was still a British Colony and watched the land divers.  Vanuatu is independent now, but they still have a sign commemorating her visit.  And then at the end of a broad field was the tower.  Built entirely of wooden poles and vine lashings from the surrounding jungle, the tower stood easily 5 stories tall atop a hill.  Our friends on the other yacht were told yesterday that women weren't allowed to go near or even look at the tower during its construction.  But now that it was all finished, Kath was permitted to go up and inspect it with me. 

     At the top of the hill we had our first encounter with men in traditional native Vanuatu dress.  Which is to say: entirely naked except for a banana leaf wrapped around the man's penis.  The leaf is then tucked into a cord or leaf tied around the waist and this traditional outfit is called a namba.  Most of the adult men took things a step further by fashioning a sort of penis sock out of woven banana fibers, while the boys (who are always outgrowing their clothes, you know) made do with a fresh green banana leaf wrapped just to size.  The ladies wore brown grass skirts and green leaf necklaces that more or less covered the breasts (mostly less as the necklaces soon wilted in the heat)

Boys wearing nambas   Traditionally dressed villagers perform the opening ceremonies

     Eventually the TV crew arrived and no sooner had they unpacked their cameras than the ladies began whistling in rhythm and dancing.  The men then joined in and a big procession started across the field and up the hill to the tower.  We did our best to find our viewing positions while out of the view of the TV cameras as we figured they probably didn't want white Americans milling about in the background.  The villagers danced up the hill and formed three rows behind the tower.  The chanting and stomping of hundreds soon had the ground shaking and tension began to fill the hillside as the divers and their attendants climbed the tower. 

   The villagers sing on the way to the diving tower   Dancing and chanting

    So here's how the diving apparatus is set up.  After lashing together enough poles to build a tall tower, platforms were set up at varying heights.  The vines are tied to the end of the diving board-like platforms.  Beneath there were bamboo struts holding them out horizontally.  The struts are designed to snap with the weight of the diver.  That and the elastic spring of the green vines was what absorbed the shock of the fall and hopefully prevented these guys from dislocating their joints!

     First up was the chief's 10 year old son--back for his third season of diving already.  He was carefully tied about the ankles, edged his way out to the end of his platform.  Already a great showman, he smiled and moved his hands to the beat, encouraging the dancers.  Then, fists raised overhead, he took his 25 foot plunge.  The vines held and the first dive was over.

The chief's son prepares to take the opening leap  The first jump

     The chanting and dancing seemed to keep growing despite the heat.  One by one, eight divers in all took their turn, each one a bit higher than the last.  The ritual always the same:  Two attendants carefully wrapped the ankles in fibers and tied off the vines.  The diver carefully edged his way out to the end of the platform and, more often than not, hesitated a few times before finally letting go of the poles behind him.  Then a few arm pumps to the beat to whip the dancers into a new frenzy, followed by a long gaze skyward where surely each thought, "take a good long look at this beautiful blue sky, since you might die 10 seconds from now.  Fists raised to the sky, then in to cover the face, gathering the courage to begin the agonizingly slow lean foreword.  Then Jump!  into empty space and certain death unless everyone did their traditional jobs just right:  the one who selected the vines, tied the ankles, built the tower, cut the vines to the right length...and so on.  How many errors were made over the year to gain the knowledge of how to do this just right?!  But each time the vines snapped taught less than a foot away from the diver's head hitting the ground. (Which was thoughtfully tilled to fresh soil--as if that will provide much cushioning!)

The land dive, part 1  Diver gathers his courage  In mid air...   The vines hold and the diver survives!  whew!

     About 2/3 of the way through the jumping, one guy had one of the two bamboo struts holding his platform up snap.  "That's it," I thought, "he'd better call it off.  He won't have the shock absorption he needs with only one strut."  But after some discussion with his handlers on the tower, they held the platform steady and off he went.  One of his two vines snapped and he landed hard.  With a gasp it really struck me for the first time that there was a chance we could all watch a man be killed before our eyes.  Was it a bad idea to bring Emmett here?  The guy got up with a bit of a limp and shook it off...a darned close call.

    But up the tower they climbed until only one platform remained, at the very top of it all.  By now, the dancers had literally pounded the grass into bare dirt beneath their feet.  The chanting raged on in the hot sun.  The last diver got tied onto the vines and edged his way out, seemingly having the hardest time of anyone letting go of that last balance pole.  A long look skyward and off he went.  With perfect form leaping out into open space.  The vines went taught, the platform snapped.  His head was snatched back only inches from the ground and the recoil pulled him back to land feet first right in front of the tower, looking like he practiced this every day!  Incredible!


    Click here to see the video (posted on YouTube)


     Things wound down quickly and everyone walked back through the village to enjoy a lunch of lap lap (baked manioc and plantain) and baked breadfruit with coconut milk.  Pretty starchy and bland fare, but after dancing and chanting for several hours nonstop, it got devoured pretty quickly.  A few guys started playing the slit drums and you'd have thought it was 1986 again and someone put on "YMCA".  Everyone in the village jumped up and danced around the drummers singing what was clearly EVERYONE's favorite song.  Earlier in the day, with all these near naked folks around, it was a little uncomfortable trying to figure out where to point one's eyes, but by now I had gotten used to it.  And it never was an issue for the villagers (except by now some of the younger ladies were holding their arms across their chests while dancing.  I imagine they were getting pretty sore bouncing around without bra support all this time.)  Apparently a number of villages up in the hills wear nambas and grass skirts all the time.  But on the coasts most have adopted western cotton clothing (mother hubbard dresses for the ladies, shorts and sometimes t-shirts for men).  Nobody seemed in any rush to go change after the festivities were over, though. 

     The TV crew packed up and climbed into pickup trucks to rush back to the airport on the far side of the island.  And with little appetite for lap lap, we were starving by late afternoon.  We wandered back to the dinghy and then to Uliad, all of us stunned by the spectacle we had just witnessed! 



 May 12: 

     The following morning, I went back in to shore to visit Chief Laksali.  After hearing I was a doctor, he asked if I could look at his daughter's eye.  We walked down the long trail to his hut and that gave me time to ask more about what we had just seen.  The conversation went something like this:

Q:  Is this the only village that builds land diving towers?

A:  No, they also do this in Bunlap (up in the hills) and in Wali (next bay north).  In the last few years, they've started building a small tower by the airport for a tourist show.  But it's just for tourist money.


Q:  Do the villages ever argue about whose tower is the tallest or whose jumpers are the bravest?

A: (smiling)  Oh no, we don't do that.


Q:  Whose tower is the tallest?

A:  Ours.  Wali's tower is a woman's tower.  Ours is a man's tower. 


Q:  Has anyone ever been seriously hurt or killed.

A:  Oh yes.  In 199--no--2007, Wali village's tower fell over and two people were killed, one of a broken back, one of a broken femur.  Before that one year the vines snapped and a man broke his neck.  Wali is not so good, but here nobody dies because we follow the rules.


Q:  The rules?  (I'm thinking there must be ancient traditions of only jumping at the end of the rainy season when the vines are strong and stretchy, not dry and brittle)

A:  Yes.  From the time we start building the tower until the jumps, I do not sleep with my wife.  If you follow that rule, you don't get hurt.


Q:  Do you worry for your (10 year old) son when he jumps?

A:  No, because I did not sleep with my wife I know he'll be ok.


     So by then we had reached his hut and he showed me his one month old daughter who appears to have some sort of congenital micropthalmia--which means that one eye didn't grow normally.  But after a good exam, I couldn't find any other problems so I told Mom & Dad that she'd probably always be blind in one eye but otherwise grow up fine and healthy.  They seemed glad to hear that and handed me a sack of sweet potatoes for my consultation.  On the way back to the dinghy, Laksali asked if I'd like some pamplemousse, too.  I replied that I never say no to pamplemousse and he immediately runs up a nearby tree until he's 30 feet above me and swaying back and forth in the treetops standing on a branch no bigger around than his ankle.  His son ran into a nearby hut to borrow a basket which he then used as a sort of catcher's mitt to catch the six big pamplemousse that the chief dropped down.  I can see how they get the courage to climb giant rickety towers on this island.

    Then as we walked the rest of the way, Laksali's uncle came by with a business proposition.  He has some land on another island near here and he was "looking for a white man to be my business parnter".  I think he wanted to build bungalows or a resort or maybe timeshare condominiums, who knows.  In any event I politely declined to invest but agreed to spread the word.  So if anyone reading this wants to go in on a guest house in a tropical paradise, contact me and I'll get you his number. 

    In the afternoon I put Emmett's recent studies in geometry to good work by having him calculate the height of the jumping tower without climbing it.  He measured the length of the tower's shadow, then the length of a stick and it's shadow and used that to calculate the height.  It turned out to be 19.84 meters if you're curious (65 feet)  So next time you're looking out of a 6th story window, ask yourself if you'd have the courage to jump with vines tied to your ankles.


May 13:

    One last thing I forgot to tell you about Pentecost Island.  On the evening before we left, I could hear a bunch of yelling and cheering going on in the village in the late afternoon.  What's this all about?  Emmett and Kathleen were both engrossed in books and I couldn't get them to come along.  But curiosity got the best of me and I wandered back to shore to see what was going on. 

     As if there hadn't been enough thrills and dangers for one week in this village, I found the whole town turned out to watch a big boxing tournament.  A makeshift ring had been set up with rope and coconut tree logs right in the middle of the school grounds and several hundred people were gathered on the lawn to watch bout after bout.  Most were only one or two rounds and decided by three ringside judges.  A heavyset woman with a beard (the loudest voice in the village) served as the ring announcer and two pair of boxing gloves were passed from contestant to contestant after each round. 

     The thing is, every contestant seemed truly joyful to take punches at each other.  I never saw a single mean "I'm gonna kill you!" face among any of them.  Everyone wore a smile from the best guy out there to the biggest loser even as the whole crowd was laughing uproariously after he got knocked down.  What a hoot.

     So Pentecost continued to amaze and surprise us.  And it probably would have done so even more but we decided to move on and see what the next island had to offer. 



 May 15: 

    We had a nice 10 hour sail over to Espiritu Santo, which is the largest island of Vanuatu.  The Allies had a large naval base here during WWII and used it to support their advance north into the Solomons against the Japanese.  The infrastructure from those days can still be spotted today: old Quonset huts being used to warehouse copra, crumbling concrete piers, and the scattered rusty bones of old ships.

    The two biggest attractions here are WWII relics.  The first is a place called "Million Dollar Point".  As the story goes, when the war was over, the US army didn't want to or wasn't able to ship home all of the trucks, bulldozers, forklifts, and other heavy equipment used to build and then run the port here.  So some officers tried to persuade the local French authorities & plantation owners to buy it all at fire-sale prices.  Then whatever Frenchman was in charge of his side of the negotiations thought, "Why should we pay them anything?  If we don't buy it, the military will just pull out and abandon everything and we can have it for free."  Well, this is one more example of how the French hubris didn't sit well with the Americans, so some General gave the order to drive everything off the end of the pier and into the ocean. 

     We snorkeled on the site and, in 6 to 60 feet of water, you can still see the piles of jeeps and trucks and other assorted equipment now rusting away and crusted in coral.  After the war, a few enterprising divers made a short career of salvaging engines, scrap metal, and whatever was valuable down there, but most of it still sits there on the bottom and nobody is allowed to cart anything away anymore.  Needless to say, there are no cargo cults on Espiritu Santo.

    The other big underwater attraction is the USS Coolidge, which was an enormous cruise liner that was converted to a troop carrier for the war.  It steamed into the harbor here in 1942 filled to the brim with an Army regiment and all of its gear, but somehow, the Navy forgot to tell them that mines had been laid across that particular harbor entrance.  So after getting struck by a friendly mine, the captain had to drive his ship up onto the beach so everyone could abandon ship.  The ship then sank and slid down a steep underwater bank and its bow is now 60 feet underwater while the stern is over 200 feet deep.  We dove on the wreck and I can confirm that the forward holds are still filled with all of that regiment's gear.  We saw stacks of mortar rounds, gas masks, Howitzer cannon, trucks, jeeps, and so forth.  Pretty cool stuff.

    Kathleen was just as enamored with the wreck as she was with the nearby beach.  She loves to collect sea glass and that ship wreck must have also carried a big supply of bottled whatever.  Because the nearby beach is thickly scattered with well worn, smooth pretty sea glass.  We even found a few rare colors like yellow and cobalt blue. 

    Unfortunately for all of us, on my first dive down onto the junk pile of Million Dollar Point, one of the seals failed on our underwater camera.  So I have no images to share from these fascinating places.  But I'm sure if you Google it, you can see what I'm talking about. 


 May 17: 

    One charming thing about Vanuatu is the language.  They say there are 113 distinct languages among all the different tribes and villages of Vanuatu, which makes it the densest area of language diversity in the world.  Only when WWII came here and islanders were recruited to work on different islands for the Allies did the mixing start and eventually the common tongue came to be Bislama, which is really a oversimplified dialect of English.  If you imagine a really bad Tarzan movie where the jungle natives say something like, "You Tarzan wantem swing vine back you tree house"--well that's pretty much Bislama. 

    Here's a 10 second Bislama lesson:

     You = Yu

      Me/I = Mi

    We/us = Yumi

    Any verb suggesting connection or ownership = blong  (belong..get it?)

     Child/children = pikinini  (yes, I'm serious!) 

     The advertising billboards for Vanuatu's local beer all proudly say: "Mi wantem Tusker!"

     Here's a typical sign in a shop instructing people to leave their bags here while shopping.  See if you can translate:

A sign in Bislama

     Look at that, you can speak a foreign language!


 May 21:

     Everything seems to be conspiring against our plans to leave Vanuatu lately.  We cleared out, only to be hit by several days of rain.  Who wants to sail in the rain?  Then when there seemed to be a break in the weather, we quickly set off only to find that the GPS antenna signal wasn't getting to my chart plotter.  Now we do have about 5 different GPS systems onboard, but this was the one that lets me stand at the cockpit helm and look at my little screen and see the little red boat on the video map to show us exactly where we are.  Which is a huge convenience compared to having to go below and look at that same information on the laptop.  Or, God forbid, actually have to plot our coordinates manually on a map.  So that plus another rain squall aborted the day's efforts and we tucked into a snug little cove called Palikula Bay.

     I eventually tracked the problem down to some corroded wire connections beneath the helm so with that freshened up, we were on our way.  The good luck continued with good winds and fairly flat water in the protected sound off of Santo.  If you've ever spent much time sailing, then you know that it often seems that the wind is ALWAYS either too much or not enough or coming from the wrong direction.  So I remark on it now just to remind myself that it does sometimes happen.  The winds were perfect from Espiritu Santo to the Torres Islands!  And to top it all off, Emmett and I landed this enormous 33 lb. yellow fin tuna on the way:

  33 lb Yellowfin Tuna 

     Our friend Otis from Independence bragged years ago about his purple Rapala plug that never failed to catch fish for him.  I traded something (can't remember what) for one of his magical lures and then proceeded to never catch anything with it.   I think I've reminded him several times over the years what a bad trade that was, but now with well over 20 lbs of fresh ahi tuna on ice, I think his lure finally came through. (In fact, this tuna didn't just bite the lure, he tried to destroy it:  chewed through the paint, bent the hooks...) Thanks Otis!  What's more, I'm almost to the point where I can justify the cost of the new reel that I bought last year compared to the cost of buying that much seafood. 

     We stopped for a day on Tagua Island in the Torres Island group to enjoy snorkeling in the beautiful crystal clear water here.  A Canadian boat called Myriam joined us.  We've run into them a couple of times in Vanuatu and they have two boys on board so Emmett got to play for a bit before we all set off for the Solomons.  Once again, we' were dodging rain showers trying to leave.


 May 25: 

     The three day, 450 mile sail to Guadalcanal proved to be more exhausting than expected.  We were dodging rain squalls and fishing boats most of the way so I was already feeling less rested than usual due to scanning the horizon all the time and making little course adjustments while on my watches.  Then on the last night out, we had just turned up the channel between San Cristobal and Guadalcanal.  I was already a bit anxious about this final approach as our charts of this area are not as good as we usually have.  What's more, it was a new moon and an overcast sky.  Normally the starlight is enough to keep an eye on islands in the area but it was so black that I couldn't see anything.  We were coming in as blindly as possible in the GPS era. 

     Anyway the black skies were such that I didn't see a large squall coming our way until the rain hit along with a 40 knot gust of wind right on the beam with full sails up.   This was enough to knock us a good 40 degrees or so until I could run around the cockpit in the driving rain and get our sails reefed.  Oh how I wished I was offshore and could just head downwind and run with it until the squall passed, but in the narrow gap between the islands and reefs, we had to just suck it up and hold our course.  After finally getting our sails set and our boat back to a more comfortable 15 degree tilt, I raced below to check our position and finally the rain cleared enough to see the light from a lighthouse on shore to reassure me that we were in the right spot. 

    We finally stumbled into the harbor in the capital of Honiara and tied up to a mooring there only to find that the harbor is just as rolly and exposed as we had been told.  For the first day, it didn't matter a bit.  I was so exhausted that I slept for 12 hours and never felt a thing.  Tonight will probably be different, though. 


 May 27: 

     Guadalcanal, you may recall, was the site of probably the most pivotal battles in the South Pacific in WWII.  The Japanese invaded here and started building an airbase to put them within striking range of the Allies in New Caledonia.  In the process they didn't treat the natives very well.  The US marines landed and finished building the airbase, and the US Navy eventually repelled the Japanese ships that kept trying to land troops and supplies to get the airbase back again.  As a result, the waters off Guadalcanal are called "Iron bottom Sound" because there are literally dozens of US and Japanese battleships, destroyers, cruisers, airplanes, etc. littering the ocean floor.  The Solomon Islanders remember.  There are memorials to the US servicemen and the locals who helped them all over.  The rare American tourist is very welcome here.   But it's the Japanese, Chinese, and Koreans who have come back to fish the surrounding waters, open small shops in town, and keep the economy going these days.

    I read a little history of the Guadalcanal campaign before arriving here.  In a world of smart bombs being launched from a thousand miles away, it is amazing to look around and realize how close combat once was.  I stand on the deck of Uliad and can see it all:  Up there are the hills where the Marines were dug in.  Over there the US airfield.  Off in the other direction--that point of land-- that's where the Japanese ships would sneak in under cover of darkness and land troops and supplies.  Between here and that island on the horizon was where the biggest naval battle in history took place.  What must it have looked like from here to see and hear all those 8 and 10 inch guns firing at each other all night long? 

    The capital city used to be in a beautiful port on the island of Tulagi just north of here.  But it was destroyed in the war so they decided to utilize the big US military base abandoned at Honiara to make the new capitol.  The problem is, for anything smaller than a battleship, Honiara is a terrible, exposed harbor with no good anchoring ground and a constant roll.  So our goal was to clear in with customs & immigration, and then get out of here as quickly as possible.  We also looked into getting visas at the Papua New Guinea consulate here, only to find out their offices doesn't take visa applications on Fridays, and then Monday was a public holiday, and they said that visa approval take 5 business days.  So there was no way we were going to sit around here for a week and a half.  We'd just show up in PNG and hope for the best.

     We wanted to check emails and upload the latest to the website, but found that the National Telekom's wifi service hasn't been working for a while now.  Eventually I spent an expensive half-hour in a hotel business center only to find that there was nothing much new going on back home. 

     Then the only remaining delay was the arrival of Emmett's 12th birthday.  Fortunately, when we got here, we found old friends onboard Love Song--a boat with two boys on board whom we first met a couple of years ago in Fiji.  So we ordered a cake from a nearby hotel and had a birthday party at their swimming pool all afternoon on Sunday.  Among Emmett's gifts were a new PSP game, a couple of new books, new swim fins, and a necklace made of Solomon Islands shell money.  Traditionally, seashells were ground down into little circular disks with a hole in the middle and this was used as a sort of tribute currency.  A six foot long string of shell money is the going rate to buy a bride according to the ladies in the market, so I told Emmett that he's got a little over 5 feet to accumulate in the next 10 years or so.


May 28:

     We left Honiara and headed north to a place called Sandfly Passage--a narrow pass between two islands near Tulagi.  On the way we were entertained by a big pod of dolphins, then by a series of rainbows, and finally by a waterspout (far in the distance, thankfully.)  A most auspicious day for Emmett's actual birthday.

     The Solomon Islands are not visited by yachts as much as the rest of the South Pacific.  There are good reasons for this.  There are salt water crocodiles that have eaten sailors swimming around their boat.  There are horrible stories of shark feeding frenzies upon the survivors of those WWII battles.  Recently, they've had more than their share of civil unrest here.  They're the poorest country in the South Pacific.  And their traditional culture is one of warfare and mistrust of outsiders.  This is where the original "headhunters" were.  The first few rounds of Christian missionaries here were simply killed and eaten, their skulls kept in caves as mementos.  There are not any good guidebooks for sailors here, but there are plenty of stories of theft and armed robberies to yachts here. 

      But where there is crisis, there is opportunity.  The reason we decided to come to Roderick Bay in the Sandfly Passage was a poster in Honiara trying to tell yachties about the free moorings in croc-free waters off of their safe and friendly village.  Along with Love Song, we decided to check it out.

     A few miles from the bay, we were chased by a boy in a canoe waving his T-shirt to attract our attention.  After we slowed down, he introduced himself and excitedly offered to guide us to his father's free mooring.  I didn't think we needed the help, but his enthusiasm got the best of us and after tying his wooden dugout canoe to our stern, he ran to the bow and started pointing which way to go. 

     In the bay we found Love Song safely tied to one mooring ball and we were led to the other.  By the time we were tying off, 3 more guys in canoes had rowed out to help tie us bow and stern to two buoys in a protected little cove right in front of the village.  When the last line was tied, applause erupted from the women and children lining the shore!  The village chief's name was John Ruka and after introducing his family and thanking us for coming, he eventually explained their big dreams for this place:  They would add more moorings for yachts, hold their first annual yacht festival next month, and grow prosperous not by robbing us, but rather by protecting and providing whatever services he could to foreign boaters.  He had worked on a tugboat in the past, but John was the first to admit that they all had lots to learn about what yachties need, so he hoped we'd tell him any ideas we had.

 Joseph guides us to our mooring in Roderick Bay    Roderick Bay

     We had a lovely, warm chat before retiring for the day.  But later that evening we learned just how serious John Ruka was about making his bay safe for yachties.  His two brothers rowed out after dark and climbed aboard, explaining that they would sit up all night, armed with two flashlights and be "Security".  I suppose they could just as well have been there to murder us in our sleep, but sometimes you just have to go with your gut instinct and mine told me to bring our enthusiastic protectors a plate of cookies, close the hatch and go to sleep. 

     That proved difficult with me waking up at every little footstep on deck and then Kath and I getting the giggles about our private security force out there.  But sometime around sunrise they quietly climbed back in their canoe and paddled back to shore for naps.  And in the cockpit not a thing was disturbed aside from two neatly stacked water cups atop an empty cookie plate.


May 30:

     I mentioned to John Ruka when we arrived that I was a doctor and was available if anyone in the village needed medical help.  He thanked me and said yes, there were several kids with eye infections if I could come in the morning.  So yesterday I packed up my medical bag and with Emmett as my assistant, we went to shore.  The whole village soon gathered around to watch the entertainment as one by one, folks stepped forward with their complaints.  There was not much privacy in this exam room.  I imagine, though, that there's not much privacy period in a village of about 10 households on a remote island.

     There were no great diagnostic challenges.  People everywhere suffer the same mundane array of backaches, migraines, arthritis, asthma and what-not.  Little kids get pink eye and old folks need reading glasses.  The challenge came from figuring out how to help without medications.  Even if there were a pharmacy, these people had no money to buy it.  So I spent lots of time crawling around in the sand demonstrating back exercises and discussing smoke-avoidance with the asthmatics.  For the migraine headache sufferer, the best I could do was give him an old pair of sunglasses to block out the light on bad days.

Steve holds his medical clinic   The smile of a betel nut chewer.

     What I really needed was to have Jim the dentist back on board.  The drug of choice in the Solomons is the betel nut.  Apparently you get a little lift by chewing betel nuts with a little lime powder and tucking it in your lower lip.  It also turns your mouth orange, then over the years the teeth turn black and finally the lower incisors fall out.  The sidewalks of Honiara are polka-dotted with orange spit and the gutters full of betel nut shells.  Like Starbucks back home, there are betel nut carts on seemingly every corner.  But their teeth!  Oh their teeth!  It takes a conscious effort to hide our disgust every time a betel nut addict smiles at us.

     This morning I was planning to administer one more round of eye drops and then take the day off.  But then the alarm was raised from Love Song where 8 year old Morgan had gotten his fingers caught in a pulley as the dinghy was being lowered, pinching off all the skin on his middle finger and lacerating several others in the process.  So out came the medical bag again.  In their cockpit we got his fingers numbed up and cleansed well.  Love Song had their own well stocked medical kit on board, but this was no job for a beginner.  He had exposed bone on his fingertip and no skin left to cover it.  (For those doctors reading, I ended up doing a V-Y plasty to advance the volar fingertip skin enough to cover).

     With that finished, I hung around the boat all afternoon doing school with Emmett.  And then the canoes started rolling in with gifts for helping with their medical problems.  Total payment for a 2 hour morning clinic came to:  4 eggplant, 36 bananas, a bowl of limes, 1 papaya, 1 bunch of green beans, one bunch of some sort of green leafy stuff they called cabbage but it looks more like dark dandelion greens.  Oh, and 3 fat lobsters.  I may just have to set up shop here permanently.


    Tonight we're all invited to shore for a potluck dinner with the villagers.  (Or as John Ruka calls it "lucky pot")  Kathleen has been busy making two giant pots of pasta salad to share.  Last night Allan (from Love Song) and I went spearfishing with the locals and brought back a pile of fish, crabs, and a couple of lobsters, so the ladies on shore are probably cooking them up right now.  Should be fun. 


May 29:

     Oh. My. Gosh.  Wow.  That was so much more than a casual potluck get together. This was a full-on feast--south pacific style.  We arrived on shore in the evening to find a large banquet table covered in leaves and tropical flowers.  As our dinghy touched the shore, the young boys swarmed upon us, jockeying for position to be the one who would get to help pull our boat up the beach or help carry the things we had brought.  The youngest and prettiest girls of the village then lined up to hang garlands of flowers around our necks and then offer a chaste handshake.  Then a fresh coconut with a natural reed straw and a hibiscus flower was pressed into each of our hands to refresh us from our 60 second journey from Uliad to shore.  What a greeting!!

Greeted with garlands and coconuts

      We put out the pasta salad and cake we had brought.  Then Emmett and I pulled out our ukuleles to play a little pre-dinner music for the kids while waiting for dinner.  One villager shyly came over with his own ukulele that he had hand carved out of wood and strung with fishing line.  He seemed a bit embarrassed by it compared to my fancy store-bought uke, so we traded for a while.  I was pretty impressed that he could make that with little more than a jack knife and a tree trunk.

      Later another guy came and was watching me play a couple of songs so I handed him my ukulele and asked if he wanted to try.  He grabbed it and immediately laid down a perfect C-F-G7 chord progression.  "Hey, you know how to play", I said. 

      "No, I have never played before," he smiled and said.

     "But how do you know the chords?" I wondered.

      "I have been watching you," was all he said.

      The musical talent here was just amazing.  They play pan pipes hand made from hollow bamboo stalks.  One young guy had created a sort of instrument consisting entirely of lengths of 2 inch PVC pipe.  3 pipes were cut so that when he whacked the open end of them with an old flip-flop, it played a 3 note chord.  He had 4 sets bound together in a row to be able to progress between 4 chords and with this, all the kids sang along to a dozen different songs!   Alan from Love Song brought his guitar, which was soon poured over by several different men playing songs. 

Click Here to hear Roderick Bay Village Music

      Eventually, the chief stood up and welcomed us all and a parade of ladies walked up, each holding a hand-woven basket filled with grilled fish, roasted kumara, yams, something called panna that tasted like a potato dipped in coconut cream, and something they just called pudding that tasted like a ball of wallpaper paste.  We offered our American pasta salad and lemon cake and it was quickly devoured with many compliments.  The leftover starches in our baskets were then passed around and eaten by whoever wasn't full yet.

My dinner plate at Roderick Bay  The Roderick Bay children's chorus performs

      The village kids got up for another round of songs and music.  Some of us started dancing.  Speeches were given and translated by the Chief:  thanking us for coming...telling us that we were always welcome and would be treated like family here...thanks for helping with medical and mechanical issues (Allan had spent the day reviving the village's only outboard motor that hadn't run for years).  We reciprocated with thanks for the hospitality and praise that, despite all the warnings we had heard about the dangers of coming to the Solomon Islands, we found the warmest welcome here that we have ever been given in over 18,000 miles of travel. 

     After more music and dancing, John Ruka got up to remind everyone that our children were looking tired and we should probably wrap it up.  Once again, everyone rushed in to claim the honor of carrying one of our possessions down to the dinghy.  Emmett was surrounded by about 5 young girls holding his hands and arms and escorting him to the boat.  He looked like a rock star trying to leave the concert hall at the end of a show!  As we puttered back to Uliad, each of us was stammering for words.  For about the 4th time since we left New Zealand, Kath and Emmett both said "This has to be the most amazing thing we've experienced yet in all our travels." 

      It can be disappointing for a sailor who grew up reading books by Thor Heyerdahl and Joshua Slocum to find that most of those magical places they described have changed.  Most places you visit in this world have seen many yachts like you before.  But here, in this remote corner of the South Pacific, we experienced a welcome just like those early explorers once described.  Magic like this can still happen out there.

     In the resorts of Honolulu or Tahiti, people pay a lot of money to attend a "luau" feast like this and enjoy the illusion of happy islanders welcoming you to their paradise.  Here was the real thing.  Here was the real emotions and sentiment in the hearts of everyone present.  Here was a real outpouring of generosity and a real joy in the simple pleasures of food, music, friends, and family.  Here was something worth coming half way around the world for.



 May 31: 

     The village chief announced the other night that we are his children; in other words, we have been adopted.  That's just what it feels like now anyway.  Every day another patient or two trickles by, usually with some food to trade.  A couple of fresh lobsters is worth two of our old T-shirts in exchange, so we've been eating pretty well. 

     I took a large, festering pyogenic granuloma off the leg of a young man named Macklin who lives in the next village over.  (A sack full of cherry tomatoes, jalapenos, and 6 plantains received later in appreciation)   So this morning I went to check up on my patient since I didn't want him walking the 20 minutes it takes for him to come to us.  I agonized over whether to perform this simple surgery on him.  If his wound got infected, (and cleanliness is not easily achieved here) he could easily end up worse off.  But after hearing how his father had taken him a day's canoe ride to the main village three times over the years, each time being told by the health nurse at the clinic there that he didn't know what it was or what could be done about it...  There is a referral hospital in Honiara which has a surgeon I'm sure, but everyone here says getting help there is "impossible"--perhaps because of the cost, perhaps because of the 30 miles of open sea to get there, or perhaps they required preauthorization from their HMO?   In any event, I talked it all over one night with John Roka, who was onboard providing our security detail, and he encouraged me to do it and assured me that my instructions about wound care would be followed to the letter.

     So after seeing that Macklin's incision was healing nicely, I rebandaged it and then attended to another dozen villagers who gathered around the American doctor.

     It has not been all work here.  After that task, we spent the afternoon demonstrating kneeboarding to the village.  Love Song is way into surfing, so we tried pulling the kids on surfboards behind our dinghy, and everyone got a turn on their stand up paddleboards.   The snorkeling here is fabulous.  We found two of the largest giant clams I have ever seen lying in 4 feet of water.   The biggest one measured about 30 inches across.  I can't tell you how extraordinary this is.  Giant clams are such an easily harvested source of protein that in much of the South Pacific they are getting endangered.  Where they are still found, they tend to be in the 5 to 8 inch size.  So I spent a long time talking with Chief John about the importance of our find:  This was probably one of the largest living giant clams in the world.  It needs to be protected.  Harvesting it must be made taboo.  John seemed unaware of the clam's existence, but he recognized its importance.  He seemed excited that he could show it to future visitors as one more of Roderick Bay's charms.

Emmett paddleboarding with Dulce in Roderick Bay   The giant clam

      There is also a big shipwreck here.  A small (perhaps 180 feet long?) cruise liner struck a reef here while seeking shelter from a storm 15 years ago.  It still lies on the beach at the head of the bay, tilted rakishly and with jungle starting to grow on its deck.  A beautiful green pool lies on the beach side with grand arching tree branches providing shade.  The man who lives on shore next to it (bummer about your view, dude!) said that the floors are starting to rot through in places so we didn't try to go inside.  But the anchors and chain are still there on the bow, which would make for some great yacht mooring materials for them if someone came by with a cutting torch. 

The wrecked cruise ship in Roderick Bay 

      We intended to stop here for a day or two, and that has quickly turned into a week.  Unfortunately, we do have a bit of a schedule to keep this year, although we've thought hard about skipping the whole Darwin rally to hang out here longer.  But in the end, we've decided to move along.  One can only eat so much lobster. 




                                                                                                                             created by Steve Erickson 2007-2012
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