Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Our Last Island Paradise: New Caledonia

Given a fairly decent weather window, we decided to leave Port Vila for the three and one/half day, 327-mile voyage to New Caledonia. On Oct 21st, we departed Port Vila in a nice southwesterly and quickly fell back into our offshore mode of three hours on watch and three hours off watch. Since your circadian clock gets completely out of whack on passages, we mainly just sleep at every opportunity we have. We sailed through the Loyality Islands along a rhumb line for Havannah Channel on the southeast side of New Caledonia. The channel is rather notorious for strong currents so we planned our passage to ride the flood tide in through the pass early in the morning. We were accompanied by Pandora and our old friends from the Galapagos, Geoff and Allison on Saroni. Allison has a very distinctive radio voice and it's always great when she is a net controller on the MagNet as everyone can hear her.

The hills along Havannah Pass are covered in Pine trees, a very unusual sight in the South Pacific. New Caledonia is also very rich in minerals and has over 25% of the world's nickel deposits.
We spotted the rust-colored cliffs along Havannah Channel and marveled at the size of New Caledonia. It is famous for very rich mineral deposits, including over 25% of the world’s nickel deposits, and the income from the mining provides for a very nice lifestyle for the French inhabitants.

Eventually we wound our way through various passes and channels and finally approached Noumea around noon. We talked with the marina but there was no space available so we eked out a very questionable spot just outside the legal anchoring zone. Once again our friend Neil on Pandora offered to give me a ride down to Immigration, where his fluency in French made the process go much smoother. As a former super yacht captain he knows all the ins and outs of the customs/immigration process.

The Port Captain hailed us from his launch asking us to move so this cruise ship could enter the harbor.
 Sure enough at 6:00 a.m. the next morning the Port Captain hailed us from his launch and said we'd have to move since a big cruise ship was coming into port. We'd been warned this might happen, but hoped it wouldn't. So still half asleep we meandered a bit east and found a good anchoring location amongst several large American cats, all waiting for slips in the marina like us.
It is hard to describe your emotions after several months of cruising in Third World countries and to come upon a French patisserie.
Our friends Kathi and Wolfgang had been in Noumea for several weeks already and gave us some tips on where to buy food and some good restaurants. Our first stop was an offical little French patisserie (just like in Paris) where we got fresh baguettes and some other French pastries. We thought we’d died and gone to heaven.

It is very easy to fall in love with the city of Noumea. As we said, the standard of living is very high here (the mining companies pay very good salaries to the French employees) so there is a plethora of good grocery stores, patisseries, and wonderful little French restaurants (albeit very expensive compared to Vanuatu). 

My first task was to try and get my broken MacBook computer fixed (I had gotten the broken hard drive fixed in Fiji but now the video card died), but the Mac store said it would take three weeks just to order the part. Dejected, we walked around the corner and found a wonderful lunch place where they made fresh salads (you walk down a counter and point to what you want). The best part was they gave you a small cup for frozen yogurt and goodies from their self serve machines. I learned you could get the yogurt (I have no pride when I’m hungry) to stand about six inches tall in the cup if you were very careful when you served it. It was some of the best frozen yogurt I've ever had.

The indigenous Kanak people are descendants from the Melanesian people from Asia.

The Kanaks were divided into clans and lived a simple life based on subsistence fishing and hunting. Like the Vanuatuans, the men customarily wore a penis sheath, and not much else.

One interesting aspect of New Caledonia is the indigenous natives, the Kanaks, were still very disenfranchised. Today they represent about 39% of the population. You'd see them walking around in groups with their hoodies over their heads with seemingly nothing to do. If you are in New Cal and are French, life is very good. If you are a Kanak, it's a different story.

Meryl was in seventh heaven shopping for fresh vegetables at the various stalls at the City Market.
The sheer quantity and quality of the food in the City Market was overwhelming.
There was a large variety of art from the indigenous Kanak people at the Market.

A live band played an eclectic set of tunes during the Saturday morning market.

There was a wonderful City Market near Port Moselle Marina that had some of the best fruits and veggies we'd seen in a long time. There were also stalls selling French dresses and all sorts of other items, along with a live band playing. The big thing to do is go down early in the morning and get a croissant and a hot coco and just sit and enjoy the ambiance. After the dearth of good food since Fiji, we thought we were in a culinary wonderland.

These are the local sailing craft used in the early days in New Caledonia.

We went to the National Museum the next day which had a surprising good collection of Kanak artifacts and other historic items from New Caledonia's early days. It was interested to learn of their culture (they come from Melanesian stock, different from most other South Pacific island).

A cruiser friend of our who is a "foodie" recommended this restaurant for Meryl's birthday. It was an excellent choice.
Meryl's fillet of sole was excellent.

A terrible selfie but a reminder of one of the best meals of the last six years of cruising.
On Oct. 28th, for Meryl's 69th birthday, we decided to splurge and went to La Table des Gourmets, which was recommended by a fellow cruiser. I have to say the French are among the best cooks anywhere, and our meal was outstanding. I had a pork roast that literally fell apart when touched by a fork, and Meryl's fillet of sole was one of the best she'd ever had. For dessert we tried a mullineaux chocolate which was a small chocolate cupcake filled with delicious hot chocolate. It was so rich you had to eat it very slowly and between the two of us we couldn't finish the whole thing.

The World War II museum was small but did an excellent job of depicting life in New Caledonia during the war

We spent most our days just exploring the small city, and one of our super finds was a patisserie called Le Petit Choux. It was outstanding. That day we also visited the World War II Museum near the north end of town. It was housed in an original Quonset Hut and had excellent displays of life in Noumea during the war.  New Cal was just south of the islands where the major fighting took place and served as a resupply station for the ships/airplanes and an R&R station for the American troops. They had some great videos of the soldiers going water skiing, hanging out at the beach, and socializing with the the young French women, who apparently liked Americans a lot. I wish my Dad were alive so I could hear the stories of when his submarine stopped there.

Students from the Conservatory of Music in Noumea put on an excellent show at the marina bar. The French certainly know how to have a good time.
Daren was kind enough to share his table with Meryl and I. Little did we know he was a Methodist minister from Australia. 
On our last night in Noumea we went to the Brasserie at the marina where a local music school was showcasing the various bands from the school. They were an eclectic bunch, but very talented and entertaining. The place was packed and we found a single guy siting at a table and asked if we could join him. He looked like a rugby player, but was actually a Methodist minister from Mooloolaba in Australia. And like most Australians, the guy could drink beer with the best of them. His name was Daren and he was visiting via a cruise ship from Brisbane. We had a wonderful time learning about Australia and wondering if the Methodist Church had changed since our days. After he left we met up with the crew of Pandora and enjoyed some more excellent French beer and entertainment.

The next day we debated when to leave New Caledonia for Australia. It’s a major passage and we wanted to get the weather window right. Neil mentioned they were clearing out that day and asked if I wanted a ride down to Customs. Seemed like it had become a tradition after our last three countries, so I said sure. As usual, checking out was fairly easy but we did have to walk about two miles from Immigration, to Customs, and finally to the Port Captain at the far end of the Port. Nice to have someone to talk to during all the trekking.

We left later that day and sailed a short distance out to Isle Nge, where we saw Pandora for the last time as they were sailing for Australia that afternoon. We had been working with a weather router to get the weather figured out and it looked like the first two days would be very light if we left then, so we decided to wait for one more night before departing. Pandora was taking a shorter route to Southport (just south of Brisbane), whereas we wanted to head further south to Coff’s Harbor where we were told Customs was a little more lenient.

We envisioned a quiet, idyllic few days anchored in the lee of this beautiful white sand beach island, but a strong 22-knot wind kept us pinned on the boat for most of the time. I did get a chance to dive on the bottom to make sure it was squeaky clean for Australian BioSecurity, who have a reputation for being very tough about food, bottom paint, and anything else that pops into their minds. More about this later.

Since you have to plan the weather for at least seven days out, we were flummoxed when the three computer models used for weather prediction could not agree on when a nasty storm would make it’s way north from Sydney to Coff’s Harbor and possibly further north. We made the decision to leave earlier, rather than later as planned and to shorten our trip by sailing just south of Brisbane to Southport. 

We bemoaned having to leave New Cal so early, as we wanted to visit the outer islands and just hang out for awhile, but the storm concerned us and we needed to get going. We prepared the boat and got an early start in the morning of Nov. 2nd for our last ocean passage in our lives. We had hoped it would be an easy one, but it turned out to be one of the more difficult passages.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Retreat to Port Vila

We waved goodbye to the John Frum cargo cult guys, who I'm sure were disappointed that we didn't bring untold riches to their island, and departed Tanna Island on Sunday morning, Oct. 15th. A strong front was coming northwest from New Caledonia and we didn't want to get stuck in Port Resolution with a large swell curling around the point. We had a choice of trying to outrun the storm to New Caledonia, or retreating northeast to the protection of Port Vila. Given our past experience trying to outrun storms we opted for the conservative approach and headed to Port Vila.

We expected a pleasant downwind sail, but when we got between Tanna and Erromango Island the wind funneled and all of a sudden we were hauling in 25-knot winds. It calmed down a bit after that and we had a non-eventful downwind sail into Port Vila on the Vanuatu island of Efate.

This is the inner harbor at Port Vila. You can just make out the power lines at the far right edge of the photo. The trick was to get close to shore where they are a little higher up.
We only had some old cruising guides on Port Vila and there was a lot of discrepancy as to 1) the depth of the sandbars you sailed over to enter the inner harbor and 2) the height of the power lines you had to cross under. Our charts showed 8 ft. of depth for crossing the bar and 62 ft. of clearance for the power lines (our mast is 62 ft. high). Another guide said there was 90 ft. clearance. We finally raised Yachting World who rents out the mooring balls and they said "No problem" (in only the way French speakers can say it) and said they'd send out a launch that we could follow in. I kind of just closed my eyes as these guys took us on a weaving course close to shore, but I never saw less than 12 ft. on the depth sounder and we cleared the power wires by at least 10 ft. So much for cruising guides.

It felt good (as it always does) to get tied up to a mooring ball and be able to relax for awhile. We headed in to meet Customs at the Yacht Club (relax, it just a small sparse office) just as a bunch of French sailors from New Caledonia arrived. They had participated in the Noumea to Port Vila Sailing Rally and naturally thought they owned the world. More on this later. We finally got cleared in and headed down the main street of Port Vila to explore the town and search for frozen yogurt.

If you've ever read any of Martin Troost's books (Getting Stoned with Savages) you'll learn a lot about Vanuatu and Port Vila. At one point the town became an offshore money laundering haven with several casinos and fancy hotels. But after many indictments and imprisonment of government officals, things have calmed down and now it's just a nice little town visited twice weekly by cruise ships from Australia.

I was searching for a 12v to 220v inverter so I could run my new Windows laptop and suprisingly found a fairly decent Chinese made unit in a local shop. We bought our requisite phone cards so we could get Internet and even found several good ice cream stores. It's a nice town and they did a great job creating a waterfront walkway (where the cruise ships come in) with lots of good restaurants, shops, etc.

It's hard to explain how finding a nice air conditioned restaurant, and sitting down to a cold Coke and fish and chips is such a treat to us. Just like we're back in the real world again.
This is one happy lady after lots or tiring overnight passages to reach Vanuatu.
They did a great job with the redesign of the waterfront near the cruise ship terminal. There are kid's playgrounds and lots of great little restaurants to hang out in.
The round dome in the middle of the photo is the new convention center, perched on a hill overlooking downtown Port Vila.
Inside the convention center is this "coat of arms." If you know Bislama, the local pigeon English, you can figure out what the plaque says.

We took a long walk the next day and saw the huge new convention center that the Chinese financed for the locals. It's amazing the amount of influence China has garnered in the South Pacific, all looking for UN votes to support their various political goals.

Meryl loves smelling and pinching all the local foods, much to the chagrin of the stall's owner.

Fresh yams are packed in local palm leaf carriers.

The entire family typically works at the Public Market stalls helping clean and parse the vegetables.

We ended up at the Public Market, a fairly good one as public markets go in Third World countries. Meryl always loves exploring the various local food offerings and trying to figure out what everything is. I mainly tease the young kids hanging out with their moms working in the stalls and try to learn the English names for the various foods. The kids always get a laugh from my feeble attempts at pronunciation.

As mentioned in an earlier post, the Vanuatuan's come from Melanesian stock and don't have the fine features of the Polynesians or even the Fijians. They are very nice and gentle people and it's always fun to try and strike up conversations or ask questions.  We've gotten so good at sign language and other ways to communicate that not knowing the language has never been a problem.

These women from a remote island were very proud to have "Best Display" in the competition at the Agricultural Fair.
The second place team poses for their photo op.

Sweet chili sauce has become one of our favorite condiments.
We had a fun time during one of our our walks when we discovered a huge agricultural fair (just like the one on Tonga) called the Pacific Week of Agriculture. Hundreds of tents were set up with various displays of local agriculture, fishing, and farm animals. We loved visiting the various tents representing goods and products from different islands/regions. The ladies were all dressed in similar dresses and one team had just been awarded the "Best Display" while we were there. Quite fun.

The big draw at the fair was the portable saw mill, which ripped large logs into usable lumber.
The most popular booth was one with a portable saw mill set up and three guys cutting lumber from large trees. Reminded me of the booths at the Western Washington State Fair every September. Loud, noisy machines still draw a crowd.

Jaywalking is easy here since the traffic crawls along at a snail's pace.
One thing that was hard to get used to was traffic. They use private mini vans for their bus system and the roads were literally grid-locked with hundreds of these vans bumper to bumper. The good news was you could get places fairly cheaply, it just took awhile. We had a fun time riding around trying to find a propane (BBQ) lighter for our stove. That took one half a day.

Site of the near international incident when I politely refused to go to the back of the line. The Brits just out of the picture gave me a big thumbs up.
On Friday the 20th we went up to the Yacht Club to check out for our trip to New Caledonia only to have all our friendly Frenchmen from the sailing rally show up again. I was near the front of the line when the rally leader came over and politely said I should go to the end of the line so the rally participants could clear out first. I politely explained to him why that was not going to happen. Several Kiwis and Brits sitting nearby smiled at me and gave me a thumbs up. We've had lots of experience with various local and round-the-world rally's blowing into town and thinking they owned it. The cruising community takes a very dim view of this practice and tries to avoid these rallies like the plague.

We departed later that day once riding on the coattails of a front that had just passed through, hoping the seas had calmed down enough for a pleasant voyage.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Under the Volcano

We had vacillated between sailing to Vanuatu or just continuing straight to New Caledonia, but the night before our departure Meryl read a stirring blog description of s/v Georgia's visit to Tanna and the hook was set. As you read in the previous blog, our passage between Fiji and Vanuatu was not without drama, but we were happy as the mountains of Tanna Island peaked out from the clouds early in the morning and we made our way into the safety of Port Resolution Bay.

Earlier visitors to Vanuatu also had their doubts, and the reason the islands weren't easily converted to Christianity is because the Vanuatuan's had a habit of eating the missionaries. We heard the last known act of cannibalism in Vanuatu was in the early 1960s, not that long ago. We had no plans of proselytizing so we felt we'd be relatively safe.

Port Resolution was first visited by Captain James Cook and named after his ship.
The entrance into Port Resolution has not changed much since Captain James Cook arrived in 1774. We rounded the corner of the bay and found about 10 sailboats bobbing at anchor, the result of a light swell that rounded the corner of the otherwise well-protected bay. Only a few grass-roofed structures could be spotted in the entire bay.

Cruisers go to Tanna Island for two reasons: to climb an active 1,184 ft. volcano named Mt. Yasur, and to learn more about the infamous John Frum Cargo Cults.

The eclectic Port Resolution Yacht Club main dining room.
Since Port Vila on Efate is the only official port of entry, we had to make prior arrangements with Vanuatu Customs/Immigration to meet us at Port Resolution (named after Captain Cook's vessel) to clear in. Another cruiser offered us a ride into the Port Resolution Yacht Club (don't get too excited, it's just a rudimentary thatched-roofed hut) to meet the Customs officials. Two other boats were also there and we split the cost four ways to cover the costs for the Customs officials to drive two hours from their offices in Lenakel on the other side of the island.

We met Stanley, who runs the "Yacht Club," and his cousin Wherry (the local Chief's son) who are the "go-to" guys that arrange things on Tanna. You have to remember there is just the Yacht Club, some backpacker cottages, and a small village. No stores, no infrastructure, no nothing at Port Resolution. If you don't have Vatu money you have to endure the four-hour, bone-jarring ride into and back from Lenakel.
Merriam, the local teacher, gives us a tour of Ireupuow village.

This little girl was determined to beat her brother to the top of the tree.
We made arrangements with Stanley to go up the volcano in two days and then wandered down the road to the local village, Ireupuow, where we met Merriam, the village's school teacher. She was nice enough to give us a tour of the village, including the school, two rudimentary churches, and a beautiful white sand beach. She showed us a house being constructed by a group of Australian students and mentioned someone wanted to build some sort of resort on the island. We promised Merriam a bundle of school supplies for the kids, a bag of reading glasses, and some very high tech line to build the younger kids a swing.

Back at the Yacht Club we met three French girls from New Caledonia and asked them if they wanted to join us and visit a John Frum village the following day, Friday. If you have read James Mitchner's Tales of the South Pacific you know about John Frum and cargo cults. Tanna Island is the homebase for Cargo Cults in Vanuatu. The short version of the story is US Marines/Army landed in Vanuatu during World War II, bringing with them huge amounts of vehicles, supplies, food, and constructing towns almost overnight. The Yanks were very friendly and open to the locals, something they had not experienced from the Europeans. The Vanuatuans were also impressed by how blacks and whites worked side by side in the Marines, and the fairness with which the multi-racial American troops treated each other.

After the war, cargo cults developed worshiping a fictionalized American called "John Frum" (which people think is an aberration of "Hi, I'm John from America"). They believed if they honored the Americans they would return with their mountains of cargo. Sulphur Bay, where we attended the John Frum dancing, is the epicenter for the Cargo Cults in Vanuatu. Many villagers believe John Frum and his followers live in the nearby volcano. As part of the Cargo Cult culture, men wear Army jackets with American flags on the shoulder, Red Crosses can be seen on the buildings, men sometimes march with wooden rifles, and somewhere the John Frum followers even built an airfield with wooden airplanes to entice the Americans to return.

The booms from the nearby volcano serve to magnify the surreal vibe of the John Frum village.
Our visit, after a bumpy ride halfway up the volcano and down the other side to Sulphur Bay, was somewhat anticlimactic. On each Friday the various cargo cult villagers assemble in Sulphur Bay village for singing and dancing. The problem was each village group gathered under a thatched roof hut in a tight circle with their guitars and sang what sounded to us like a very repetitive series of songs, the lyrics of which I assumed was to entice the Americans to return.

As each subsequent group sat down to sing, the songs all had them same tenor and rhythm.

Well, we were Americans and we had returned, but no one paid us any attention. What was interesting is the village is situated right next to the volcano and sudden booms resonating from the crater scared the pants off of us numerous times. You could see the red glow of the volcano pulsating right behind the village. It was a very surreal experience for us.

The next day at 3:00 pm we met Assam, our 4x4 truck driver, for the 45-minute ride to the base of the volcano. As mentioned, we have only experienced roads this bad during our safari in East Africa. The truck litteraly crept along as its suspenion performed feats of magic climbing over washed out sections of the road and tipping to precarious degrees of balance.

Meryl receives the traditional flower greeting from one of the Vanuatuan hostesses.
We arrived at the Volcano Welcome Center around 4:00 pm, paid our US$97.00 entrance fee and gathered in an open area organised by country flags (so they could handle the various languages). There were intrepid tourists from Australia, France, China, and other countries waiting to ascend one of the few accessible active volcanos in the world. Following a local dance asking the God's for a safe visit, and a short briefing, we climbed into 4x4 trucks for the 20-minute ride up to the volcano. Emerging from the tropical jungle we drove across a barren ash plain to the assembly area high on the shoulder of the volcano. Here we were assigned our guides or "safety officers" and given instructions on how to evacuate in case the volcano erupted, including the famous "don't run, just look up and watch where the molten blobs of lava are going to land and don't stand at that spot when they do." Despite that sage advice a tourist was once killed by flying debris many years ago.
It was only a short hike up a white bordered stairway to the first viewing level.
The guides got our full attention when explaining what to do if a large molten piece of lava is headed your way.

 We began a 10-minute hike along a white stairway up to the first level (with the guide frequently asking Meryl and I if we were OK. We were probably the oldest people there). From the first level you could just make out the orange glow from the crater, but it was not as dramatic since it was still daylight out. We then turned to the left and began a 20-minute hike along the ridge where we got enticing glimpses of molten red lava flying into the sky.

As you can see, there's not much between you and the precipitous drop into the volcano.
The wind and the noxious smell from the sulphur dioxide fumes made for an uncomfortable environment.

As we climbed the narrow ridge line the view got better and better. Finally on the southern edge of the volcano we had the right angle to look down, almost to the bottom where the pool of molten lava was, but not quite that far. There were occasional booms (which got your immediate attention) with subsequent fireworks of molten lava. You could smell a strong sulphur dioxide smell in the air and taste the volcanic grit on your teeth.

The French girl's father had hired a private volcanologist so they were allowed to hike along the more dangerous north rim.
It was only after about 5:30 pm that it got dark enough that the eruptions got really spectacular. We meet a young French girl who had been up on the volcano the day before and she said today was quite active. There are five levels of activity and we were lucky today it was at a Level 1, which meant normal activity and access to the crater was allowed.

Taking photographs was difficult since by the time you got camera focused the eruption was usually over.
There were actually four vents in the two distinct craters. It was hard to tell since you couldn't see the actual bottom of the craters.
It was quite windy up on the ridge and the amazing thing is there are absolutely no safety measures in place. You are standing with your little tippy toes hanging over the edge of a 500-foot sheer drop into the crater that was littered with chunks of solidified lava that had spewed out at various times. The French girl told us one landed fairly close to where we were standing the day before. It would be quite easy to lose your balance or have a gust of wind catch you off balance, so trying to focus the camera on an upcoming eruption in virtual darkness was quite the trick.

I had just switched my camera to video mode and pushed start when the largest eruption of the night occurred, filling the frame with a wall of red molten lava. This video certainly tells the story:

A little after 6:00 pm the guides hailed us to begin the long trek back to the trucks and I have to say most of us delayed and shuffled our feet as much as possible. As you might imagine, hiking down in the dark was a challenge, but most of us had flashlights or headlights. It was truly a once in a lifetime opportunity and well worth the effort.

We took one last look in the crater for John Frum and his followers but didn't see them.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Things that Break in the Middle of the Night (Again)

We did the last of our reprovisioning, said goodbye to friends, and slipped our lines at Vuda Pt. Marina on Monday, Oct. 9th. We went over to the Customs Dock to clear out, along with three other boats. Since we were the outside (last boat to arrive) everyone had to wait for us to clear before they could leave. As we were getting ready to push off, the staff from Vuda Pt. came down to the dock and with a guitar accompaniment, sang us a beautiful Fiji good-bye song. We felt that many of the employees who we dealt with daily for over the last month truly will miss us, so we left with a very good feeling in our hearts. Fiji is simply one of those special places on earth.

A hearty send off from the staff of Vuda Pt. Marina to the three departing boats.
We motored into a 15-knot wind for about two hours to Mololo Pass (near the world famous Cloud Break surf break) where we hoisted the genoa and felt the boat get a bit in her teeth and settle into a steady 7 knots as the beam wind increased to around 18 to 20 knots. We had 446 nautical miles to go, but the weather looked perfect.

We had just run into some old friends that we’d last seen in the Galapagos, Geoff and Allison on Saroni, and discussed various cruising options for our trip to Australia. We’re tight on time and vacillated on whether to go to Vanuatu. Our fate was decided the night before when Meryl read s/v Georgia’s blog about their experiences touring an active volcano on Tanna Island in Vanuatu, so that’s where we set our course. It was pretty close to the rhumb line for New Caledonia anyway. It would just take a week out of our schedule, but it seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

The 446 nautical mile trip from Fiji to Port Resolution, Vanuatu crosses some very desolate water, but the good news is there are relatively few reefs along the route.
We quickly settled into our offshore mode, standing three-hour watches 24 x 7. Night watches were now much more enjoyable since we had the new dodger and bimini installed:  no more water dripping on our heads through the bimini or fabric ripping in the breeze. More importantly, we now had plastic roll-up side panels alongside the cockpit so when an errant wave came rushing up the beam of the boat, we stayed dry and toasty. I can’t tell you how nice a feature this is. I remember one night on our Tonga passage when I had to bathe (you are soaked in salt water from these waves) and put on new clothes three times during one night’s watch. I was not a happy camper. We could now also wear lighter clothing at night since the 20-knot winds were blocked by the panels. It was like we had our very own sundeck on the good ship Flying Cloud.

We had two boats ahead of us and one boat behind us (although we couldn’t see them) and we could talk to additional boats on the MagNet on 8122 at 8:00 am and 5:30 pm. Saroni was one day behind us but had lots of good information on Vanuatu and New Caledonia. We had thought of sneaking into the Loyalty Islands (part of New Caledonia) but we’d be taking a risk since you can only clear into Noumea, which was about 100 miles after the Loyalties. Saroni told us strong winds were predicted in one week, so we decided to continue to Tanna, see the volcano, then head to Port Villa on Efate Island in the Vanuatus to wait out the storm.

With a steady16 to 20 knots of wind on the beam, we enjoyed near perfect passage- making weather averaging 7.5 knots day after day with beautiful weather and 80 temperatuers.

When the boat is on a broad reach it stays fairly level so we could function down below with out getting covered in black and blue spots. We both looked forward to our 3-hour “naps” on the lee berth down below. It’s very quiet down below and I sleep like a baby, Meryl a little less so (she worries about everything).

During our last night’s watch at 2:00 am (remember, everything bad happens at 2:00 am), Meryl noticed our new Windows navigation computer was showing a warning message it was just about out of power. I checked the batteries and was shocked to see they were at about 16v instead of the normal 24 to 25 volts. On top of everything else, the charger/inverter (which provides power to the 220v Windows computer) had shut off. This is about when it would have been nice to have majored in Electrical Engineering instead of History.

We immediately started the engine but were flummoxed when the meter showed no amperage coming into the 24v battery bank. I got out my handy Fluke multimeter and saw no amps coming out of the 24v alternator. My assumption (and remember I’ve lately had a terrible track record with assumptions) was that somehow the alternator had gone bad (and I’d just installed new belts to be on the safe side) and also the inverter/charger had gone bad. We have a 110 v Honda generator buried in the Master Berth, but I figured it would do us no good if the charger was bad. 

To save what little precious battery we had left (remember we are running at night and we need our night lights, nav lights, etc. to be seen by other ships), we shut off the power hungry autopilot and began trading off each 30 minutes hand steering the boat. This is never easy on a big boat such as ours, but the wind was now a stead 20+ knots and we were surfing off the waves at 8.6 knots in the dark. A half hour of wrestling the wheel for us 70 year olds was about enough. During one of my 30-minute rest breaks I mentally walked through all the options. I felt our best bet was to get to New Caledonia as soon as possible since they had marine electricians and a good supply of parts if we had to replace the very expensive Mastervolt charger/inverter. I had Meryl change course, heading up about 20 degrees in an attempt to get to NC before the storm did.

During all these mental machinations, a distant thought popped in to my head. It was like deja’ vu all over again. We’d had this same scenario (before we increased the size of our battery bank). I remembered the computerized regulator attached to our 24v alternator had a safety feature so when the house bank voltage dropped below 21v, the regulator would stop charing the battery to protect it from damage. Bingo!

A very happy Captain Meryl after solving our electrical problems out in the middle of nowhere.
As the sun came up we religiously watched the incoming amps from our solar panels and the minute the banks hit 21v we turned on the engine and watched the incoming amperage change from 8, to 20, to 40, and finally to 98 volts! I can’t tell you the sigh of relief that washed over Meryl and I as we fell off 20 degrees and resumed our course to Tanna Island in Vanuatu.