Peterson Bay, Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu, September 23nd
Five days ago Roger headed ashore in Luganville with the “Important Documents” file in hand to extend our Vanuatu visas. The standard one month visa was not going to see us out of the country, despite having skipped a good deal of territory.
When we left Fiji we had no particular plan for Vanuatu other than to see Mt. Yasur, the active volcano on Tanna, to provision in Port Vila and to dive the wreck of the Coolidge in Espiritu Santo. Basically that’s what we’ve done but perhaps a bit more slowly than we intended. From here we head north to the Solomon Islands. By what path we’ll soon discover.
Tanna, Vanuatu, August 19th – August 22nd
Our Passage to Vanuatu from Momi Bay at the southwest corner of Viti Levu, Fiji was a good one. We left mid-morning on Thursday the sixteenth with our friend Mike on Alchemi right behind us. As we exited Navula Pass we headed off on a beam reach with twenty knots of wind while Alchemi turned left for a passage to New Zealand.
Over the next two days the wind crept further astern but the trip continued to be pleasant and dry. On Sunday morning with thirty odd miles to Port Resolution the wind dropped and we worked hard for each mile gained, finally resorting to the engine when we were ten miles out. As we approached the island we could see Mt. Yasur belch large clouds of smoke into the otherwise clear blue sky.
The anchorage in Port Resolution had a reputation for being rolly and it seemed to be well earned. We dropped a stern anchor for the first time in two years. Happily our friends on Kite were still in the anchorage and we were able to catch up over the next few days. On Monday four yacht crews and a variety of locals made the trip to Lenakel, the main village on Tanna, via Toyota pick-up truck. Three boats needed to check in and the rest of the passengers were heading to the vegetable market. The head count in the truck was seventeen, with twelve of us in the (short) bed of the truck. As one might suspect the two+ hour trip over the unpaved, winding jungle track was a memorable one. The crews of two Dutch boats entertained those in the back with boisterous folk songs. The locals found them particularly amusing. Roger and Jack sampled some Kava on the way back hoping to make the trip more pleasant. The results were inconclusive.
On Tuesday we made a trip to the volcano. We once again piled into the Toyota truck with numerous others and at five p.m., headed to Mt. Yasur. As we climbed the steps to the rim of the crater the sun was setting, making the glow of the lava increasingly more brilliant. When we reached the summit we were able to peer over the edge (no fence) into the bowels of the earth. Molten lava boiled away below us. Occasionally a rumble began beneath the surface and steadily grew until there was a huge explosion sending lava bits flying high into the air above us. It was all pretty impressive. We were told by other cruisers later that instead of lava bits they watched large rocks flying through the air. I think the lava bits were sufficient.
Port Vila & Havannah Harbor, August 24th –September 5th
On Thursday we retrieved our anchors and headed out of Port Resolution for an overnight to Port Vila. There was great wind and a nice view of the island of Erromango to entertain us on our way. By eight a.m. Friday we had picked up a Yachting World mooring and were surveying our surroundings. Ashore were a variety of large buildings with lush green hills as a backdrop. In the harbor there were dozens of yachts on moorings and tied along bulkheads. Just behind us (a matter of meters, depending on the tide) was Iriki Island, home to a large resort. After tidying up and watching a small beach wedding we went ashore to explore, returning to the boat after eating both brunch and a late lunch. After the briefest experience with village culture in Tanna we were in “the Big City.”
Our ten days in Port Vila went fairly quickly. We did a good deal of provisioning at the nifty Au Bon Marche II. It was our last major provisioning stop before Palau so we made the most of it. On the boat front we had a bit of a scare when Roger discovered leaking diesel at the base of the engine. With remote help from Jay at Merri-Mar he traced it to the fuel line return hoses. Thankfully it turned out to be self inflicted and repairable. Several days before, when Roger pulled a mooring line out of the lazarette to tie to the mooring ball on our arrival he bumped (and accidentally shut) the return line leading from the engine to the fuel tank in service thereby creating great pressure on the injector return lines. Argh. Once the cause was discovered it was a matter of opening the return line and replacing the fuel lines.
On the entertainment front we opted for dining out, skipping the native dancing and Jet Ski tour options available in this tourist hot spot. We enjoyed the Summit, a garden and restaurant combo north of town and Kanpai, a Japanese restaurant at the south end.
On Monday the 3rd of September we said our goodbyes to Kite once again and headed north. Our destination, Ai Creek in Havannah Harbour was only twenty miles north of Vila but would allow us to make the island of Epi in a long day sail. Unfortunately the weather closed in on us and we were stuck in Ai Creek for four long blustery days with the dinghy up and nowhere to go.
Epi & Malekula Islands, September 7th – September 13th
We finally made a break for it on Friday. The rain had stopped and the wind was howling at a somewhat lower pitch. Little entrance out of Havannah Harbor was as calm as could be after days of seething with white water. Our fifty-five mile sail to Revolieu Bay, Epi was terrific with 20-25 knots on our starboard beam. We made great time, dropping the hook by mid afternoon. The anchorage was well protected by a reef and was lined by a long sand beach. We planned on moving up the coast the next day so the dinghy stayed on deck.
On Saturday we headed ten miles north to Lamen Bay. In the afternoon we walked through the village to the far end where the grass airstrip was located. The locals seemed a bit shy but answered our questions with good humor. On our way back to the boat in the dinghy we encountered several large turtles and a pod of dolphins.
We had chatted with a young Belgian backpacker who said he had snorkeled with the resident dugong the previous day but we never saw it.
On Sunday we headed in for church. This week it was Presbyterian. Immediately after being shown to a pew we were joined by a helpful local who translated the highlights from Bislama to English. When the service was over Atis invited us to his home for lunch. After standing in the receiving line and shaking the hand of every Presbyterian in the village we headed up the hill behind our new friend. Atis moved with his wife to his hilltop spot in 1986 and has cleared it and planted a variety of fruit trees and crops in little patches. He has cows and goats to help him clear the land, which keeps them safe from the cook pot. He enjoys inviting visitors up to his place to compare notes on life. We spent a good afternoon sitting under his trees, eating laplap and talking about the world. We made it back to the boat in time for sunset and marveled as a local ghosted by in his dugout canoe using palm fronds as a sail.
On Monday we headed twenty five miles to the northwest. The trip to Awei Island in the Maskelynes was unfortunately a motor until we were three miles from the pass at which point the wind picked up to twenty knots. Timing is everything. Awei was a brief,” keep the dinghy on deck” stop for us.
The following day we had a great sail to Hook Bay on the west side of the Island of Malekula. Hook Bay is uninhabited but the beach a mile to the north has one family living there. The morning after our arrival we were visited by three teen-aged girls in a dugout who had drinking coconuts and papaya to trade. We tried to visit their beach later but couldn’t find a way in through the reef at low tide. In the afternoon we snorkeled the reef near the anchorage and saw a large napoleon wrasse and a sea turtle among other fishy life.
After another great sail and one more night anchored at the northwest corner of Malekula we headed to Luganville and our date with the Coolidge.
Espiritu Santo, September 14th –
Espiritu Santo, locally know as Santo is the largest island in Vanuatu. It is home to the country’s second largest “city”, Luganville. Santo first came to the attention of Americans during World War II when it was a staging point for the American military. Men and equipment left here for the battlegrounds of the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. From a diving perspective the war left two famous sites.
As the Americans were preparing to leave Vanuatu (then known as the New Hebrides) at the conclusion of the war in the Pacific, they offered to sell their surplus equipment for almost nothing to the British & French powers who jointly ruled the country. Thinking that the Americans would be forced to abandon the equipment and they would eventually get it for free the ruling powers said no deal. Much to their shock the Americans proceeded to build a long pier out into Segond Channel east of Luganville and dumped all of the equipment into the sea. This spot is now known as million dollar point and it is a very popular dive.
The second, and to me the more interesting dive, is on the wreck of the President Coolidge. The Coolidge was built in Seattle as a luxury liner. When war broke out in the Pacific she was pressed into service as a troop ship. As the Coolidge arrived in Luganville on October 26th 1942 she hit two “friendly” mines and began to sink in Segond Channel. It took her several hours to go down so almost the entire crew was saved by the time the ship went to the bottom.
The day before we dove on the Coolidge we met a man on the beach of the sparsely inhabited Tutuba Island, at the mouth of Segond Channel. He told us that his father, who is still living, had stood on the very same beach seventy years ago and watched the ship sink. I told him that on the same day seventy years ago my Grandfather had been on the deck of the Coolidge as it sank below him.
On Monday we were picked up at the boat by Santo Island Divers and headed out the Channel to the Coolidge dive site. David, our dive master from the previous day, took us down for our first dive. The ship is lying on its side almost completely upside down with the bow higher than the stern. We swam along the bow and past a heavily encrusted three inch gun. Continuing on we passed the giant anchor winch and two cargo bays, the second of which was full of tires attached to what might have once been jeeps. David showed us an old cook pot into which he had put a variety of goodies such as old shoes and a comb. Rifles and helmets are strewn about as are ammunition shells, small and large.
On or second dive we went inside the ship. We followed David on a circuitous route through the bowels of the Coolidge; past the barbershop, past a long row of toilets, past sinks with handles which still turned and to the pharmacy which still had jars of powders and liquids of astonishing colors on its shelves. There was more ammunition as well as airplane drop tanks looking like gigantic eggs abandoned in their nest. For a somewhat unnerving thrill David had us turn off our flashlights and we floated in complete watery darkness except for the glowing flashlight fish which loomed around us.
It was an amazing experience to be able to travel through the arteries of this once vital ship. What my Grandfather would have thought of this adventure I can only imagine.
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