Things to remember when you’re looking for a lost yacht: take a charger for your iPad, have Plans A to C prepared in advance, plenty of water and a darn sight more cash. And be thankful for the kindness of strangers, so much kindness, so many strangers…..la gentillesse des etrangers…
Ailsa’s thoughts after her island adventures in the Coral Sea
I started this tale while anchored off a beach on the Isle Ouvea, one of the most northern atolls of the Loyalty group on the eastern side of New Caledonia.
Back in the spring sunshine of Auckland, New Zealand, stories from Ailsa and Margaret, partner of Captain Tony and part owner of Taranui III have been incorporated
We arrived at the Ouvea Atoll after motor sailing (using both wind and motor) from the island of Lifou, a distance of some 30 nautical miles. The absence of breeze meant the motor was used for a good 3/4 of that leg. We saw squadrons of flying fish. Trails of pumice, froth from submarine volcanoes, streaked the water. Kora caught a huge Mahi Mahi fish. Unfortunately, it slipped off the gaff.
Kora and Greg had arrived ahead of us in Noumea, so they caught up with us in the huge apartment we had rented. The three and a half days there gave us the time to relax and wring out our fatigue. Sleeping, adjusting snorkel gear, visiting the aquarium to learn the fish we hoped to see or avoid (the stingy, bitey kind), also to sample some genuine french cheese and pate.
Our early morning Lifou flight of only an hour, unallocated seating, sit where you like, to a new world. A feather light touchdown, but entrance to the airport terminal locked – eventually one of the public unlatched the portal doors. Tony met us and we crammed into a brand new hire car and whizzed on a quick ‘tiki tour’ of the northern half of the island.
Taranui III was anchored off a coral beach among a squadron of boats in this rally. We settled in, stowing gear, and getting intro lectures from Tony (important stuff about how to use the toilet, shower, gas stove and how to deal with a Man Overboard Rescue). Then all jumped off the back of the boat, swim time. Not as warm as I expected, but comfortable. I surprised a turtle grazing on some seagrass – I followed it as it swam off unhurriedly.
Dinner was wahoo steaks cooked on a small BBQ. That night was the coldest of the trip – according to T. It was a rough night for everyone and I copped it for snoring.
I was surprised at how big the atoll of Ouvea is. Having glanced at the chart and noting the arc of islands the map scale must have passed me by. The green tree fringe stretches in a gentle arc over the horizon. So many reefs and islands are invisible to us. The sand is white and powdery. The water is as clear and blue, like the bottle and liquid of Bombay gin. Ten meters below the keel the sandy bottom, weed, or coral is easily discerned.
On the beach that night, at a very swank resort, the boaties from the cruising squadron met over a beer or wine glass to talk plans, weather, repairs, gear, ropes and knots. Jess, an Australian woman was learning French. Bored with boat talk Jess grabbed the opportunity for an instant tutorial with Ailsa. Jess and her husband Peter practically live on the water in catamaran “Caravanserai” with a vague home base in Eden, NSW, Australia.
A group date is made for a reef/lagoon tour in a glass bottom boat the following day.
Of course the day was sunny and hot, but palm fronds roofed the awning of the boat, Glass in the viewing tubs was broken. Felix, tour operator, spoke only French in an accent Ailsa found hard to understand. We cruised the weird limestone cliffs draped with stalactites and mites normally seen only in caves. There was a cave, with a catholic shrine to Mary of the Sea and naturally formed acoustics. Bet a choir would sound etherial there.
Snorkeling the reef was very exciting – corals, clicking cacophony of fish language, sharks nesting in a hole, and a fish population beating the Noumea aquarium.
Later in the afternoon Taranui III motor sailed across some 20 k of the lagoon to explore two island anchorages and potential snorkelling spot – catching two whopping great sea trout on both trolling lines and still adding several kilos of meat to the freezer even after dinner. Unfortunately the anchorage at the islands was too exposed, so we switched anchorage into a comforting arm of the atoll offshore from the church of St Joseph.
Only red lights were used in order to maintain night vision. But I have lousy night vision anyway and stubbed my toe painfully by missing a step in the cabin.
Limping about ashore for the morning bread and a quick (painful for me) explore of the St Joseph settlement, we translated a plaque outside the church. It celebrated the life of a priest whose life spanned a 100 years. (or was it to celebrate a century of Catholicism on the island)?
Time stretched out on our next leg. Leaving Ouvea to return to Lifou it was into a wind ‘on the nose’ – blowing from the direction in which we wanted to go. At 15 to 20 knots, it stirred a swell from the Coral Sea which bent itself around the islands, creating uneven and often contrary waves. In the yacht, the motion was compared to being in a washing machine. I felt it was like travelling in the figure eight ellipse of the infinity sign, appropriate because the passage seemed to go on forever. Despite the Paihia Bombs (anti-nausea pills) shared around to prevent sea sickness, Ailsa became very ill, Greg lay down quietly, Kora persevered, but eventually succumbed. I just felt seedy.
We tucked into a quiet Lifou anchorage at dusk.
Faced with another passage of 120 nautical miles and given a round of discussion, it was decided that Ailsa should either fly or ferry to our next destination, the Isle of Pines.
Margaret takes up the story from early next morning:
Ailsa and I left for the village of ‘We’ on foot trying to ‘faire le stop’ (hitchhike) to buy either her flight or ferry ticket and me, to sort out an outstanding rental car account. After walking for about 15 minutes we were picked up by two French guys who were on the island to look after the roads. They dropped us at the Air Calin office where we waited with a room full of local Kanaks. A man with a big head of dread locks apologised for having driven past us and not picked us up. He was an archaeologist preparing for a London trip to catalogue the Kanak treasures held by the British Museum. This is the first step in repatriation of the cultural artefacts. His English was superb having studied on a French government scholarship in Canberra and then doing a Masters at Oxford.
Tony had checked weather reports, plotted wind direction against our track to the Isle, gauging where the wind would push the boat most efficiently on that track. He could then work on way point and compass bearings to sail. These compass bearings would be entered into the auto pilot (‘Otto’) and at the appropriate spot, ‘Otto’ would take the helm. Radar and satellite technology then monitored progress and warned of any approaching vessels. Distance travelled, longitude and latitude, current position, reefs and land displayed on screen. Our job was then to watch for wind shifts, other encroaching boats or help trim the sails.
I arrived back at the boat at about midday and by set sail 1.30 pm. At first the seas were biggish and the wind was on the nose again. We all shared in the captain’s dismay that this might be the situation for the entire journey. Luckily it wasn’t and four hours into the journey we were able to turn the engine off (such a relief!) and sail on a sweet tack straight through the night.
Ailsa takes up her story:
After purchasing my ticket and headed for the airport, I was picked up in Lifou almost immediately by a lovely young woman with a frangipani behind her ear who worked for a tourism company, guiding Australian tourists around Lifou. She was going to the airport to meet and welcome the next tour group.
Little Lifou airport is quite busy with mostly F27s (Fokker Friendships) coming in for a quick turnaround. I was surprised at the amount of movement in between the isles. I had to fly to Magenta airport in Noumea and out again to Ile des Pins, no direct flight. Talking to locals, it was established that I would have to catch a connecting flight from Noumea that evening to the Isle des Pins as there was little price difference between flight and ferry – it would save finding a place to stay overnight in Noumea, plus, the next ferry sailing was two days away.
Greg hooked a big Mahi Mahi about an hour before sunset. His two requests as he reeled it in, “Get me a knife and bring the camera.” In the heaving sea, Greg was a bit reluctant to fillet the fish but bravely dressed it before rigor mortis set in. Finishing that job, he went below for a deserved lie down.
I was a little nervous about arriving at night, in the dark, with nowhere to stay and not even a map so while we were waiting to board, I chatted to fellow passengers about accommodation. A teacher, called Lesimione, suggested a ‘gite’ or a sort of lodge for NZ$80 instead of an expensive hotel. Lesimione teaches maths and science at the island high school and is of Tongan and Reunion Island descent with a Fijian grandfather. His friend, also a teacher, gave me a lift to the ‘gite’.
‘La proprietaire’, the lovely Rose Marie, quickly made me up a makeshift bed in a ‘case’, pronounced ‘kazz’ – a wooden funnel shaped Kanak house with a high roof which had a ceremonial carved rooftop spear on the top. I think each one is designed to be representative of the voice of the family ancestors. A three course dinner cooked by Rose Marie’s children was shared at a communal table of ten multilingual people. Although I struggled to keep up with the French conversation, I was so glad to have the experience.
That night my iPad ran out of juice and I had not brought a charger.
Sailors call shift work ‘watches’ on board, which is what the crew did. I watched the stars, finding new constellations such as the hoover, the constellation of the hair clip, the fridge and the black hole where things that can’t be found disappear to. Star gazing staved off sea sickness. No moon, but Jupiter blazed a bright sparkle on the water to match the phosphorescence. Fatigue was banished by ‘hot bunking’ or swapping a bunk with the next up on watch and wedging oneself between foam squabs to stop being thrown out of bed. So we waited for good light to enter the lagoon, then anchored at a bay near the village where we had arranged to meet Ailsa. Unfortunately it was a ‘Bay Too Far’.
There are many tiny islands here, with characteristic tall, skinny pines featured in photos you see of the Ille des Pins. We anchored about 8.00 am and then had a nice breakfast of the fritata that I had supposedly made for our dinner (no one was very hungry on the journey due to queasiness – only Kora actually got sick but it didn’t last long, thankfully). Now we await Ailsa’s arrival. We have no idea when that will be. Her plan was to take the ferry and then somehow get to us. She has the handheld vhf so she can radio us when she arrives. I’m expecting her to be full of stories of her adventures (she’s curious as well as eager to practice her French).
Plan A: ..Early next morning I set out on foot, with thumb poised (le stop) to go to our designated meeting point at the village of Gadje. Picked up by a young construction worker, who after five minutes dropped me at an turnoff with sign pointing to “Gadje 6 kms”. After walking that distance, greeting locals working in their fields and having a conversation with a lonely horse, I arrived at the promised calm anchorage off shore from the thriving community of Gadje and the Baie des Crabes. It was the end of a dirt road with no camping ground as promised, no settlement, not a car in sight – not even a crab – there was 800 metres of mudflats stretched before the exquisite clear turquoise sea, no possibility of anchorage for Taranui III.
Plan B..look for the next beach with a decent mooring, ten am and already very hot. I had a little water and was grateful to Saint Marg for some ginger biscuits, ‘just in case’. Halfway back up the hill again, I flagged down a little red rental car with four French tourists, they sympathised with my situation and squeezed me into their car. We drove right around the island, for a couple of hours, doing touristy things until they dropped me off south of the islands. I hitched from Vao, the capital, up to the next beach called Kuto along the west coast. The island is 18 kms long and 16 wide, so no great distances – except if you have to walk in the heat! I arrived at Kuto, midday, having accepted a lift to within 2 kms of the beach….I used the VHF radio which only worked by line of sight, yet there was no boat to see.
Plan C: Beg or bribe someone who had access to the internet so I could email Tony. A tres, tres gentille Frenchwoman running a craft stall immediately sensed the urgency (and growing panic) and let me use her computer. That wouldn’t work without the forgotten passwords! Brainwave: use the mobile roaming data from my cellphone and voila! An email arrived written at 7.35 am. Taranui couldn’t moor at Gadje and was waiting at the next beach south west in the Baie de Ouameo, by Hotel Kodjeue, around 10 kms from where I was. At this stage I was too hot and tired to hitch. Depleted of local currency, I then found someone to change NZ dollars, so I could flag a taxi and catch up with the Taranui Crew. And after all that, there they were, marching up the road up the road in search of me, 200 meters from the beach and 150 meters from a refreshing beer. What we believe happened was a difference in spelling from the map and the local use – that the Bay of Gadje was actually Kodjeue.
With Isle des Pins our last stop, our last day was a quiet sail across the lagoon, fish suppers and looking for clear water to snorkel in. Using wind and motor, we explored likely spots, the first, poor holding for the anchor, the next, still no holding and too many coral heads – after the keel ‘kissed the reef’, we sailed on. A disappointment because the clear water had much promise with deep blue sea following the blue spectrum to ultraviolet. Kora was causing some concern as her sea legs had abandoned her, so we whizzed back to safe anchorage and shot her off to a doctor. While waiting we watched these coconuts bob up on the surface, then disappear. Then realising that the coconut was a turtle having a breather. Kora was hoping she would be prescribed a night at the luxurious hotel we anchored near. But it didn’t happen.
So the next morning, early, that was it. A taxi to the airport and a 30 minute flight back to Noumea. I wonder if I’ll remember the nautical terms – ‘wind on the nose’ or ‘aft of the beam’. Stiffen the mainsail, ‘sheet it in’, ‘cleating the rope’, the bow line and combination of sails – the reacher, stay sail, genoa and floating ‘wing on wing’.