Index of slides from this report.
"You'll have a miserable trip."
Brian glared at us.
"You're not in cruising mode and if you don't start now you're not going to get in cruising mode, you're going to go back to Australia and sell the boat."
Hard words, but true. I sunk glumly into my chair and tried to marshall the various feelings ricocheting around inside myself. Eager to get back to Australia, we'd already cleared out with customs.
SamaraiAfter making the decision to turn around after we cleared in at Samarai, we decided to explore eastern PNG for a week or so before heading back to Port Moresby to acquire Australian visas. It would have been nice to spend more time - we had provisions for a couple of months - but with the decision made to turn around, we needed to hurry (again) so as to avoid the worst of the South Pacific cyclone season. Possibly, getting "into cruising mode" means that one simply ignores all of the various weather/visa deadlines. Possibly, "cruising mode" is just a fiction invented by yacht salesmen.
Anyway, as the anchorage in front of Samarai was quite comfortable in the prevailing light south-easterly conditions we decided to stay on for a bit. We'd arrived during a school vacation and the kids were particularly keen to mix with the local kids who spent all day playing on the dilapidated warfs that front the town.
For the kids, I think that the next couple of days were the high point of the trip. They quickly made friends with the local kids and spent the better part of the next two days playing in the water. They came out only for meals and then only grudgingly.
Nicoline made friends with a local girl, Mary, and invited her to visit us on the boat. After checking with her parents to make sure that we were safe, Mary swam out for a visit. Mary went to a Catholic boarding school on a nearby island and was home for the week.
For my part, I was deeply moved when Karin confessed to having smuggled not one but two panetones aboard. Consider for a moment the density of Italians in the South Pacific and realize that that there was an excellent probability that we were in possession of the only two panetones in a million square miles. Rather than doing anything noble like trying to breed them in captivity, I must confess that we ate them as rapidly as possible. A few days later I felt a deep sense of affinity with the Moa Hunters as I sadly picked the last few raisins out of the empty pannetone box.
NavigationFrom the legend of one of the (Australian) PNG charts:
A bit daunting, particularly that "MAY BE SIGNIFICANT TO NAVIGATION" bit. We were spoiled by Australian coastal charts which either allowed one to plot GPS positions directly or provided a translation factor. Usually the translation factor was less that the tenth of a mile to which we round positions anyway. While faint heart never won fair lady, I imagine that it might quite happily cruise only islands with WGS 84 surveys. Ah well, if they did it in 1887, I'm sure that we'll be able to muddle through somehow, hopefully with fewer floggings. Fortunately, the water is very clear and very little about this part of PNG has changed since 1887.
Our first trip was just 2 miles from Samarai down the East Channel to Rogeia Pata Bay on Rogeia Island. True to the warning on the chart, the waypoint provided in Dim Dims & Dolphins plotted on the beach of a bay with a different name. 1880-style navigation to the rescue. Sadly, our boat is horribly deficient in that it has no crows nest. Both of the kids have repeatedly pointed this out.
Pitt BayGetting an early start from Rogeia Pata Bay, we sailed down the East Channel to the eastern end of Basilaki Island through a small straight between Basilaki and the adjoining island and into Pitt Bay. Pitt Bay came highly recommended by Dim Dims & Dolphins and we were hoping to make contact with some of the friendly locals mentioned in that book. As it happened, one of the first canoes that came to greet us was piloted by the sister of Harrison, the fellow that was mentioned in Dim Dims and Dolphins. Harrison had gotten married and, as local tradition dictates, had moved to his wife's village.
There was an odd schism in the village. Some of the people clearly tried to get as much as they could out of us, while others were more reticent. For our part, we always felt the tension between being sources of charity and polite guests. Should we just give things away or demand something in return? If we gave things to one person, would they share? Should we reward forwardness or go out of our way to give things to people who were more circumspect? And what to do about gifts? Given that we had provisions for a couple of months aboard, it felt more than a little odd accepting gifts of food, in some cases more than we could eat. On the other hand it would be rude to decline. I guess I can understand why yachties seem to put such a premium on uninhabited islands.
Among the less demanding of the local people was Mathew. After the initial onslaught was finished, he paddled out and seemed genuinely interested in making our acquaintance. After receiving yet another pinapple from him, we promised to come visit the next day.
With all our apprehensions about how to interact with the locals, it was reassuring to see the local children playing with their new balloons in the twilight. Kids have no problem with silly adult worries.
The next morning, we rowed ashore with a good portion of our trade goods and were met by the whole village. Rhoda intercepted Karin and Nicoline and whisked them off to Rhoda's house while Mathew made Tristan and I welcome. We were invited to sit on woven mats in the shade of Mathew's house where Tristan and I were each given a drinking coconut. Mathew's English was not particularly good and it appeared that he'd invited a few friends with better command of the language. We talked storey for a while. Although we'd heard talk that people were going to leave for a soccer game at a neighboring island, no one seemed to be on any sort of schedule.
Nicoline was delighted to find dozens of giant clam shells on the beach near the village. Evidently, the locals eat them and discard the shells on the beach. As soon as the native kids discovered what she wanted, they all pitched in. This shell collecting activity first came to our attention when she paddled back to the boat with a truly giant giant clam shell balanced on the surfboard in front of her. After wrestling the 20 kilogram shell over the transom she announced confidently that she was going back "for the rest." Half an hour later we had three giant clam shells and dozens of smaller varieties decorating the transom steps as though a particularly hungry and artistically inclined tribe had taken up residence in the cockpit.
Nicoline moaned and blubbered when we informed her that the entire collection was not, absolutely not, not under any circumstances, coming with us. No! With the understanding that it might be confiscated by customs, she could pick the finest shell and some of the smaller ones to keep. No, not even if she did the next month's homework. At last convinced that we were not to be budged in the matter she chose her favorites and lugubriously pitched the remainder of the collection over the side. I'm sure that when she's an unhappy forty year old lawyer instead of a marine biologist her (very expensive) theraptist will have a field day with this incident. In the meantime, we have a boat that still floats.
On the third day, a lone canoeist paddled up and introduced himself as the local constable. After the usual polite smalltalk he asked us if we'd had any trouble. Evidently, some gossip had spread about local kids stealing something from us and he wanted to know if this was in fact true. As it happened, I suspected that someone in one of the visiting boats had grabbed a tee shirt out of the cockpit. At the time, I decided not to make a big deal over it because it was from a stack of tee shirts that were for giving away, and so I took the same line with the constable. No problems. It wasn't until we got to Port Moresby that I noticed that the retracting line that I used to hold the bobstays out of the water when the bowsprit is retracted was missing.
We decided to turn around after Pitt Bay and head back west along the PNG coast to Port Moresby. There were, of course, dozens more islands to explore even before we got to the Louisiades, but we had 300 miles to sail to Port Moresby, visa uncertainty and always, in the back of our minds, the increasing possibility of Cyclones.
As we worked our way along the coast of Basiliki Island, we had brisk winds out of the SW, sometimes shifting WSW and obliging us to tack south. After chasing the breeze for a couple of tacks we found we could lay the opening between Doini and Rogeia islands, due east of us. Not a lot of detail on the chart but the passage looked viable and the shortcut would save us at least half a day over sailing back to Samarai and around the north end of Rogeia Island. Taking the shortcut would, however, commit us to a night at sea because, aside from Samarai, there aren't any anchorages safe to come into at night. I had suggested daysailing along the coast from port to port but Karin, having the decision to turn around behind her, was for pressing onward. So onward it was.
We had a few miles to line up the gap. Our close hauled course seemed just sufficient to clear the rocks on the north side of the channel. Ideally, of course, we'd head upwind and then fall off so that we would have a bit more flexibility to deal with wind shifts or adverse currents but the reefs off Doini Island to the south prevented that. If worst came to worst, we'd have to crash tack as soon as we cleared the reef to south.
Naturally, the wind increased as we neared the pass but we had no trouble seeing the coral reefs on either side and the steady march of land behind the leeward rocks reassured us that we would make it past them. Boosted along by a following current, We cleared the rocks by a 50 metres or so and rocketed into an ugly patch of wind-against-tide confusion on the other side. Instead of being relieved to be through the pass, we spent the next half hour bashing through short steep seas with the rocky shore of Rogeia Island still lurking ominously under our lee.
I was hoping that the winds would allow us to lay Brummer Island directly but the closer we got to the mainland the more the wind came from the west, forcing us to tack long before the island. To use the surveyed channel over the Sunken Barrier Reef, we'd need to tack west as soon as we could clear Brummer Island to the south and then tack again for the channel. On the other hand, we could just keep going south and sail right over the Sunken Barrier Reef which was, after all, sunken, and to a minimum depth of 12 metres if the inadequate survey was to be believed. As we had a decent sized swell running which would make any unsunken portion of the reef obvious, we decided to take our chances.
Safely over the reef, we shortened sail for the night. The plan was to keep our southerly tack for four hours or until the wind came more south and tack west until we fetched up against the coast in the morning. Keeping its own council, the wind remained W/WNW (where we needed to go) all night and gradually dropped off. By morning it was barely blowing 5 knots and we were tacking lazily toward Kau Kau Bay on the mainland.
Kau Kau BayAs the wind was very light and right on the nose anyway, we decided to pull into Kau Kau bay and rest up. We had the mud map from Dim Dims and Dolphins but we had no luck finding the indicated anchorage. As we drove in increasingly tired and irritated circles the depth sounder histogram bounced up and down in jagged little peaks indicating a coral bottom. Three or four times we tried to set the anchor over what looked like a flat patch of bottom only to have it give the telltale clank (indicating coral) when we tried to set it. There's nothing worse than failing to anchor. We were exhausted from sailing all night - desperate to get some rest, the kids were cavorting round the boat and two canoes full of curious locals were watching us, no doubt wondering how anyone could be stupid enough to have a boat that couldn't just be pulled up on the beach. Eventually, after something like 6 tries, we got the anchor to set in a way that wasn't obviously (cough) unsatisfactory.
We chatted with the locals as briefly as was polite. When they understood that we wanted to sleep, they courteously left us alone for the rest of the day. Toward evening we were out and about, having napped and eaten a meal. A couple of canoes came out to visit. Unlike Pitt Bay where we felt an undercurrent of greed from some quarters, everyone seemed genuinely friendly. We doled out the last of our balloons and, not being satisfied with mere air balloons, Tristan and Nicoline showed how to make water balloons and tried to explain how a balloon toss was played.
Just as conversation was winding down in the rapidly gathering tropical twilight Karin noticed that we didn't seem to be in the same place we had originally anchored. I switched on the instruments and was dismayed to find that the depth sounder was reading 17 metres, not the 8 that we had anchored in. We were adrift.
With barely 20 minutes of daylight left we had no time to agonize over a decision, no decision to make really. We had to leave. With no way to see the various reefs and the morning's anchoring fiasco fresh in our minds it was obvious that attempting to re-anchor would be foolhardy. Instead, we used the remaining daylight to get through the worst of the passage out of the bay.
Outside, winds were still very light but the angle had changed such that we could sail parallel to the coast. Needing a good night's sleep we reefed even though the winds were light enough for full sail. True to form, the winds dropped even further leaving us drifting in glassy calm seas. At 2 knots, we drifted our way through the thick tropical night towards Port Moresby.
The next morning, we switched on the motors for a few hours until the breeze strengthened enough to make sailing under spinaker worthwhile. The SSE winds were never stronger than 7 knots but that was enough for us. We flew the kite all day taking it down just before dinner. With another easy night drifting along under first reef, we'd arrive off Port Moresby the next morning. Aside from getting a drifting branch wrapped around the daggerboard during Karin's watch, it was an uneventful night.
Port MoresbySince it wasn't a planned stop, we had no small-scale charts for Port Moresby. Fortunately, three of the guidebooks we carried did have sketch maps, and even more fortunately the maps were more-or-less in agreement with each other.
Coming through the Basilisk passge, we couldn't raise anyone on VHF 16 so we gave up on the radio and decided to motor to the yacht club fuel dock and sort things out in person. We had just barely started to explain ourselves at the fuel dock when the petty officer of the RPYC galloped up and made us welcome. Imagine that, a yacht club with an actual petty officer, who makes visiting yachts welcome. As we were to find out it was just the tip of the iceberg. The hospitality of the RPYC was so free flowing as to make one a little gun shy in conversation. In short order, we received dozens of invitations to all sorts of activities.
To pick the most egregious example, Brian Hull, the local representatitive for the SSCA introduced himself and promptly offered to drive us around town to take care of formalities. And, did we want to go to lunch? He knew of just the place.
Shortly after making Brian's acquaintance, we met John and Stephan, the delivery crew of the yacht Golden Rod. They spend 9 months moving the yacht to wherever the owners want to go next and then take a 3 month vacation while the owners cruise. Makes one wonder about the wisdom of either boat ownership or cruising or, in our case, both. Much to Tristan's delight our conversation revealed that Stephan spends the northern hemisphere summer working as the brake man on one of the roller coasters in Tivoli (in Kopenhagen). With this much early exposure to singular career possibilities I'm pretty sure that Tristan is never going to have a normal job. In private school, no one so much as hints that this sort of life is available.
Golden Rod had pulled in to avoid the reinforced trade winds that blew with a vengence for the next three days. Brian claimed to have seen up to 50 knots on his anemometer. We first became aware that something unusual was going on when we noticed a large, rather ineptly driven steel ship trying to get into the yacht harbour. I was owlishly gaping at it, trying to figure out how they were planning to turn without crashing into us when it short circuited my lumbering calculation by running hard aground on the breakwater. Gradually sense emerged out of the VHF radio chatter that I'd been ignoring. The ship was not inepty driven, it was not under command: a barge that had broken loose from its mooring in the commercial harbour. Had the barge made it into the yacht harbour it would have been very awkward for us as we would have been down wind of it. Trying to avoid getting crushed against the breakwater while slipping both bow and stern lines would have been, "a drama". Knife work, if we'd been thinking fast, otherwise...
We were med-moored off the breakwater as there was no double berth available in the marina. I'd put out 5:1 scope (all chain) and then we'd run our spare rode ashore off the stern. We watched a local tug chase the barge until it became tiresome, all the while congratulating ourselves on the security of our position. An hour or so after the barge incident, a huge gust hit us, there was sort of a sliding lurch and the stern line went slack. 30 meters off the lee shore of the breakwater We had dragged anchor. A frantic scramble ensued as we tried to start the engines, take down the bimini, and figure out what to cast off first. We couldn't motor forward because of the stern line, and without being able to motor forward we couldn't get the bridle off the anchor rode, which we would need to do to let out more scope. I decided to try motoring forward gently to keep the strain off the anchor while we cast off the stern line. This wasn't the greatest idea as, without the tension from the anchor, the bows caught the wind and the boat yawed violently back and forth. Several times I had one engine full throttle ahead and the other full throttle astern and was only barely able to turn the boat back into the wind. In all of this mayhem, I cast off the wrong stern line and the next yaw sheared off the aft staunchion.
Fortunately, no one was hurt (badly). We got the stern line off and reset the bow anchor with a lot more scope and that held while we talked to the RPYC. We spent the night on the fuel dock and then moved to a work dock that they'd cleared for us in the morning.
After Brian finished yelling at us about our bad judgement and complete failure to get into cruising mode, he introduced us to the lady he was meeting for lunch. Also a yachtie, Betty, volunteered to take us to see some of Port Moresby the next day. Faced with such a formidable onslaught of the combined forces of wisdom and hospitality, we decided to put off our departure for a couple of days. With three Korean Navy ships on an official visit, customs probably wouldn't even notice. And besides, delaying departure due to inclement weather is quite normal.
The next day, our 9am radio sched. with John and Stephan aboard Golden Rod made use very glad we'd waited a day. They had had 18 knots from the SSE all night. A little bouncy but ultimately not bad for them as they were heading due west through the Torres Strait. For us it would have meant a long night hard on the wind that would have resulted in something like 50 miles of progress towards Cairns.
Instead, we spent the day with Betty, visiting the national museaum and the Parliment. She treated us to lunch and dropped us back at the yacht club in time for an afternoon swim at the nearby Aviat club to which we had been given (courtesy of the RPYC) an honorary membership.
The Coral Sea, Again.Wednesday, the next morning, we awoke to dead calm, said our farewells and paid our tab at the Yacht Club. We motored out of the harbour past the visiting Korean navy ships, out the now familiar Basilisk Passage and then due south towards our first waypoint off Osprey reef in a 2-knot easterly breeze. The great circle distance back to Cairns was about 50 miles shorter than the Townsville to Samarai trip so we were hoping for another three-day trip.
An Afternoon Under Sail
CairnsOn the third day the winds gradually died and, faced with the prospect of sailing through the Trinity Passage and across the shipping lanes in the middle of the night or motoring in and having a good night's sleep at anchor we opted for the latter. A wise decision, as the wind dropped off still further. In the evening, as we motored past some of the permanently moored platforms on the Great Barrier Reef, we were treated to a huge display of lightening. Thankfully, the worst of it seemed to be over land. The same could not be said of the rain which seemed to peak in intensity just as we were crossing the shipping lanes.
So it was a clean boat that motored into Trinity Inlet and dropped anchor just opposite the marina at ten that evening. And suddenly, the anchor was deemed to be set, the engines extinguished, and we sat quietly in the cockpit listening to the waves lap against the hull while admiring the lights of Cairns and smelling the smell of fish and chips which indicated (if the GPS could not be believed) that we were truly back in Oz.
The Captain's ReportMorale improving markedly, no doubt due to the easy access to Cairns and the fleshy pleasures therein contained. True to form, the crew have lost their entire pay and several weeks of advance in a few hours on the local fiddlers green. While the Captain himself does not partake of Dance Dance Revolution Max, he feels it best to turn a blind eye to the excesses of the crew.