"Arctracer" Letters

Isle of Pines to Ouvea, New Caledonia, Sept-Oct 2002

We arrived in French-speaking New Caledonia from Vanuatu on September 8th. It's a bit farther south here and we immediately needed more blankets on our bed at night. The islands of New Caledonia are just about on the Tropic of Capricorn - 23 degrees 27 minutes south. After getting supplies and socializing in the big city of Noumea we went to the southern coast of the big island of Grand Terre. At Baie du Prony we spent five nights waiting for the weather to clear so that we could see the reefs on the way to the beautiful Isle of Pines. It was prudent that we did this as we did encounter a couple of uncharted reefs and had to keep a good lookout for the 38 miles of sailing.

It appears that most cruisers visit New Caledonia to check in at Noumea and learn a little bit about it, then visit Baie du Prony to wait for weather to visit the Isle of Pines - a close and beautiful small island with wonderful white beaches. From the Isle of Pines they return to Noumea to check out of the country and then usually head to Australia or New Zealand. In listening to the SSB radio recently we know that many boats have already headed to these two places. Many people are going to New Zealand early to see some of the Louis Vuitton Cup races that determine who will race against the New Zealand boat in the America's cup races in February.

From the Isle des Pins we went up the east coast of Grand Terre to Yate. Again we wanted clear skies to approach the Loyalty Islands of Lifou and Ouvea with their many reefs. We waited at Yate from the 30th of September until the 6th of October, then sailed the 90 miles to Lifou (mostly during the night) so that we would arrive in daylight. From Lifou Island we sailed to our present anchorage at the island of Ouvea. It has the most protected anchorage in the Loyalty Islands, so is a good place to continue the work on strengthening the forward hulls before heading off to New Zealand.

Baie du Prony

From Noumea this bay is about a 30-mile sail. We trailed a newly made lure on the way and caught a tuna mackerel to feed us for a couple of days. Jerry saw a dugong shortly after we left the anchorage in Noumea. It was good to be out of the city where the public toilets (costing money) caused a few laughs. One automatic door wouldn't stay closed for any length of time, and kept trying to expose Jerry to the sidewalk audience.

At this bay (with no village in sight) we made our own bread and finished our fresh fruits and vegetables. We collected rain water to fill our tanks and jugs, and did laundry. Nina made a new French flag as we still have material left to make flags. Ours was in quite a sad state after being used previously in the French islands in the Caribbean, French Polynesia, and New Caledonia on our previous stop. We read some of the books we had about the Kanaks (local Melanesians), our cruising guides and our Lonely Planet guidebook. Then we had time during the rainy/overcast days to read other books too. This kind of weather isn't conducive to using epoxy as we can't keep the boat well-ventilated. It also isn't good for using electricity as the solar panels don't get much charge. However, we did manage, using the engine to charge our batteries, to finish the last general letter, send and receive some email, print out some boat cards with a photo of the catamaran and our names and address, and go through the last of our Vanuatu photos taken on our old digital camera - the only camera we have now. We also continued our nightly challenge of backgammon and cribbage. Jerry installed the new Canon printer for Nina's IBM ThinkPad that we'd bought in the Sydney area and never taken time to install. What a luxury it is now to have a printer with each of our computers! Are we spoiled or what?? When we bought the boat, a weather fax modem was left on board and Jerry finally had time to read about it, but its software doesn't work. Many boats out cruising now download weather information to their computers via their single sideband radios - eventually we'll probably see weather maps on one of our computers too, but we need to get better software first.

After a few days in this bay we met Geoff & Chris, a nice couple from the Bay of Islands, New Zealand. We visited their beautiful wooden boat and they visited our catamaran. We listened to our SSB radio for weather and gossip each morning at 8 am and then listened to a weather station in New Zealand each evening at 8 p.m. The bay had large fish swimming furiously about, but we didn't have any luck attracting them to our lures. They probably would have been too large for the small fishing rods anyway. Geoff rowed Jerry to his boat to see a huge grouper (reef fish) hanging out near it.

Isle of Pines

We enjoyed a couple of very sunny weeks at the Isle of Pines, spending a week in Baie de Gadji, two days at the village of Kuto, and three days near the village of Vao. It was very relaxing, as the locals left us alone. This was very different from Vanuatu where we had a stream of dugout canoes coming by every day to "tell stories" as they say and/or to trade fruit & vegetables for t-shirts or other items. On our way to Baie de Gadji we caught another tuna mackerel so had fish to eat for a couple more days.

The scenery at Baie de Gadji is absolutely beautiful - pristine waters colored from blues to greens with many small islands and no village in sight of the anchorage. The monohulls that dare to venture into the anchorage have to enter at high tide because it is shallow. We were there by ourselves at times and at one point there were seven other boats there - mostly catamarans. We watched turtles, rays, and squid in the anchorage most days. It was good to see some turtles around as the locals eat turtles here - even serve their meat to tourists in some restaurants on the outer islands. Jerry caught several small lizard fish the few times he made casts from the boat, but we didn't catch any fish to eat. We attempted to get a squid with a lure designed especially to get them, but didn't have any luck with that either. We saw several Osprey too.

One chartered catamaran had an enormous swarm of bees living on its mast, so the people went to another catamaran while one of the men sprayed the bees. As I was outside doing more laundry they warned me about what they were doing and warned us that the bees might fly towards our boat. That's exactly what they did. The first bunch were quite lethargic and died shortly after landing, but as the day went on we continued to have more healthy bees come to our boat. We must have spent over two hours with two fly swatters killing bees. Even on the following day we killed occasional bees. We didn't want the queen to find our boat and start a hive! Now, over a month later we still don't have a bee problem, which is wonderful.

It was here that we finished our last long general letter. We also had a broken winch handle - stuck in the top of one of our winches, cleaned/scrubbed the outsides of the hulls again wearing a wetsuit in the cold-to-us water (needs to be done about every two weeks now as we don't have much bottom paint left), did some major fiberglass/epoxy work on the bottom of our dinghy as it had been leaking so much with our guests on board in Vanuatu that we had to bail every time we rowed ashore, & repaired two of our four oars and then painted them as they had split. After about a week of fabulous weather the dinghy and oars were fixed and we could row the dinghy to explore some of the small islands and lagoons in the area. We saw many "giant" clams, but not nearly as large as those we saw on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. However, they were various colors and very pretty to see. There was lots of staghorn coral that looked very healthy in yellow and purple. We noticed lots of pumice on the beaches and wondered if it had come from the recent activity of the volcano on Tanna Island in Vanuatu. Here at this anchorage, for the first time in a year, Jerry took time to get the sailing parts to our dinghy out so that he could go for a sail. The centerboard needed some work so he worked on that too. He was finally able to go for a short sail in this beautiful bay.

Along with all the above work, Nina spent many hours making new cushions for the main salon. One of them needs to be taken apart and tightened up to look okay, but they are now almost finished. What a major project that was! Our old cushions all started to fall apart at once, so it had to be done. The new beige-brown striped material looks much nicer than the old, faded and tattered, red-green-black plaid. We need to be more careful now about spilling wine or sitting with fresh epoxy on our pants! We also have a lot of material to make curtains, but haven't started that project yet. It is difficult deciding how to make curtains for our slanting windows so we're still in the thinking stage.

Jerry continued building single berths in the forward hulls, mainly to strengthen the hulls. The one on the port side is almost completely finished, and he has started on the starboard one. This has been another very major project! Scraping paint is very tedious, but necessary before using fiberglass cloth and epoxy to join the new boards to the hull. Cutting half-inch marine plywood with a hand saw takes a good deal of time, and then there are multiple layers of epoxy and fiberglass cloth to apply and sand.

On our way from Gadji to Kuto we saw a Frigate Bird. They are always neat to watch and we hadn't seen one for a while. We had to keep our eyes open on this trip as there are a lot of coral heads and reefs in the 11 nautical miles between the two places. We spent two nights in Kuto. We briefly visited another catamaran after we saw "Montreal" on the back. They have a house north of Montreal, but built their French-designed aluminum catamaran themselves in France, and have sailed it as far as New Caledonia now. We went on a very pleasant walk in the bush around a peninsula on the first day and took a fairly long walk the second day to see the remains of an old French penal colony circa 1871 - 1880, a cemetery for the deportees who died there, a take-out place that didn't have any food to serve (and we hadn't had lunch), a defunct grocery store, an old prison waterworks building that has been refurbished and is used today, and a couple of places where tourists stay when they visit the area. We saw the start of the trail to the highest peak in the area (266 meters), but it was totally without shade. Since it was a hot day we skipped that walk. There were some wonderful banyan trees and strangler fig trees in the area and we saw colorful kingfishers.

Sailing the 6 miles from Kuto to Vao we had to watch carefully for reefs and coral heads too. Vao is the administrative center of the Isle of Pines. On one of the beaches we saw the Shrine of St. Maurice encircled by carved driftwood totems. Vao is the only place we've seen sailing pirogues (outrigger canoes) in New Caledonia. Jerry took a wonderful 4-hour sail in our dinghy into a large shallow bay and saw the pirogues. He had to do a lot of tacking with a tide against him, but still really enjoyed the sail. Nina had sailed the previous day to explore another bay, do some shell-collecting, and walk along some beaches. The trade winds were fairly strong and she got wet and cold, so decided not to sail on the longer trip.

Our solar panels were working very well now, so Jerry reconnected the regulators to prevent overcharging. What a wonderful thing to have sun again! We met Gerald and Diana from South Africa on a South African-designed catamaran that they built themselves. We can't imagine spending 8 years building a boat! They've been cruising now for about 3 years and plan to return to South Africa within the next year to go back to work to get more funds for cruising. They are one of the few couples that we've met that spent some time on the Intracoastal Waterway on our East Coast. They plan to be in Australia for the cyclone season, but will have to have their dog checked weekly by the officials, and won't be able to take it off the boat. Luckily it's a small dog. We saw lots of turtles, hawks and some porpoises in this anchorage. It is the only place that we visited on the Isle of Pines that had a Saturday market. It was wonderful to get fresh fruit and vegetables again even if they were 3-4 times as expensive as in Vanuatu. We bought so much from one woman that she gave us a papaya and lots of lettuce (free). It's great to have a husband that understands some French if it's spoken slowly and who can speak a few words too.

(view Isle of Pines photos)

Before leaving Vao, Jerry used our computer charts to plot waypoints around the reefs at the southern end of the Isle of Pines. Our paper charts are off by over a mile and caused a bit of anxiety for us. On this 44 mile sail we saw nine whales in groups of two or three. We think they were fin whales, but aren't really sure as they never came too close to the boat. We anchored at Baie de Ougo for the night, but there was a northerly component in the wind and it was a very uncomfortable anchorage so we departed about daylight the next morning. The wind was very light, so we couldn't go as far as the Loyalties that day. We anchored at Yate on Grand Terre after motor-sailing for about 50 miles.

Yate on Grande Terre

We really needed clear skies on arrival at the Loyalty Islands, so stayed at this rather uninteresting anchorage for a week of overcast/rainy weather. For two days, Jerry had a fever and didn't even feel like reading. We did some walking, found a small store to buy bread and eggs, and found a place about 3 miles from our anchorage to fill 8 of our 20-liter jugs with diesel. It took Jerry 2 hours to row to the petrol station and return against the 20-knot winds. That is one way to keep in shape!

We wrote email, did more laundry, read books (got to get that weight off the boat), listened to weather & gossip in Vanuatu and New Caledonia and racing results in New Zealand on our SSB radio, and generally relaxed. This kind of weather isn't conducive to the boat work that still needed to be done - because of epoxy and paint smells as mentioned previously. Jerry did mend a small tear in our borrowed jib, but not much other boat work was done.

Lifou Island in the Loyalty Islands

We were at sea the night of October 7th after leaving Yate. The 90 miles to Lifou was quite comfortable and we caught a 4' mahi mahi on the approach to Lifou Island. We were excited about this as we hadn't caught once since Fiji. We kept enough fish for three meals and gave the major portion of it to the chief at Chepenehe Village. He seemed quite pleased when Jerry presented it to him.

There were no tour guides or rental cars in this town but we were told that it is easy to get around the island by hitchhiking. We met a Swiss cruiser who spoke French and English fluently and he happened to be going to the main town of "We" at the same time we were. We got rides with two different families and it was easy and fast. We walked around and saw a marina under construction. When it is completed the French government plans to station a customs/immigration officer there. This will be very popular with boats going between Vanuatu and New Caledonia as they can save 100 miles (a day of sailing) between check-in and check-out places. The only place with customs officers now is Noumea. Our 1990 Lonely Planet Guidebook to New Caledonia says there are no banks in the Loyalty Islands, but we found a bank in We with an ATM machine. We talked with a gentleman at the tourist information center, but they don't make phone calls for tourists, so he couldn't organize a tour to some caves we wanted to visit. We hitchhiked back, and bought some groceries at the store in Chepenehe. It was by far the best store we'd seen since Noumea. They had good bread and much fresh produce, including onions, potatoes, and green peppers. What a treat!

The following day we decided to walk and hitchhike again. We got two rides to the caves we wanted to visit. The second ride was on a bus of some kind, but only cost us about $2. What a deal! A Kanak the same age as Jerry and his 7-year old granddaughter took us on a tour of the caves for about $7 each. The cave was called "Grotte du Diable." It had three cavities and one of them was a cemetery with skulls and bones in some of the crevices - hence the name. Again, because Jerry understands French, our guide Arthur (father of the usual guide) gave us a mat to sit on in the shade of his trees, made coffee for us to have with our pate and baguette, and then took us half way back to the boat on his way to town. While he entertained us he had his granddaughter take a German couple through the caves. They understood English better than French, so we explained to them what they would see, that they could take photos, etc.

(view Lifou photos)

Ouvea Island in the Loyalty Islands

On October 12th we sailed 50 miles from Lifou to Ouvea Island. It was a beautiful day and we had a lovely sail with a breeze of only 10-15 knots. We used our spinnaker almost all the way. Ouvea is an atoll, with islands and reefs making an almost complete ring in the ocean. We came through a deep water pass into the protected lagoon and anchored off a beach that didn't appear to have any village nearby as we didn't want to disturb people on a Sunday. The white sand beach off which we are anchored stretches for 38 kilometers (about 24 miles).

On Monday we heard about the terrorist bombs in Bali. We know a couple of cruising boats now in that area. Our friends from the UK emailed to say they heard about the bombs just as they left the Bali marina. We'll have to email our friends from Florida to see how close they were. Jerry improved the slide for the mainsail sheet, repaired our flag/fishpole holder, and fixed our "captain's chair" which was getting rather wobbly. After the sun got high we changed anchorages from Mouli Island to the main island of Ouvea. On the way we caught a 28" Jobfish which we wanted to give to the chief, but he was in Noumea so we gave it to a worker at the smallish general store. We've left a fair amount of trash there since then, so hopefully they consider it as good a trade as we did. We've been able to buy green peppers and tomatoes, pate, cheese, and mediocre baguettes there.

We anticipated it being quiet here so that we could finish strengthening the hulls. We have scraped some paint, sawed boards, cleaned the outside hulls again, oiled wood surfaces, and done some general cleaning. We met a family on a catamaran from Western Australia and socialized with them. We've seen the "Green Flash" a couple of times. We've done some walking to see the town of Fayaoue. The second day that we went walking in the afternoon a local Kanak named Zacharie took us in his car to the bridge that was built between two of the islands in 1984. He did some fishing with his two different sized nets (ones that you throw) and we watched lots of fish under the bridge. Then he went to another fishing spot and showed us the famous cliffs with their indentations and many stalactites and stalagmites. It was very beautiful with the late afternoon sun on them, but we hadn't brought our camera. He also pointed out three rather old sandalwood trees. There aren't many left as they were taken off the islands by early European traders. He only got two fish, but it was terrific that he showed us so much. Since then he has found very good bread for us and has given us papayas and limes. He also gave us a hat made of palm leaves.

We took him and a 7-year old out sailing one day. We trolled two lines for 45 miles around the lagoon but didn't catch a fish. They seemed to have enjoyed their first time on a sailboat, and he invited us to his Protestant church. They distinguish between Catholic and Protestant churches here, but don't seem to identify Protestant denominations. He also invited us to a bougna after church. A bougna is called an umu in Tonga and a lovo in Fiji. It is local food cooked in an underground oven. Some restaurants offer bougna for $15 to $30/person if you let them know in advance. We hadn't planned to do this as we've had lots of food cooked in underground ovens. The women sat on one side of the church and the men on the other side, which is a common practice on Pacific islands. Here on Ouvea Island they had benches to sit on and the church was a big cement and wood structure similar to US churches. In Tonga and Fiji we sat on mats in thatch and tin buildings. After church Zacharie arranged for us to sit with Yvonne, who spoke more English than he does, to eat the food prepared in the bougna. When I asked her if she found the shells for the necklace she was wearing on the beach, she gave it to me. I really liked the quite small white and brown shells, but I'll have to be careful about what I say from now on. Jerry gave her a Turk's Head bracelet that he'd made in return for her kindness. A couple of days previous to this I epoxied small shells from the beach here onto a mirror. It really looks quite nice, but it didn't have any shells like those in the necklace. Yvonne is an amazing person. She is on the planning committee at the church and travels to other Pacific islands to learn what other churches are doing to keep the younger generation interested in church services. She and her husband at about 50 years of age are bringing up their 3 and 1 & 1/2 year old grandchildren while their daughter works in Noumea. Yvonne said that her daughter hadn't seen them since last December, but that she will be back in Ouvea again this December. This is the "Island" way and all children are loved and always taken care of by some member of the family no matter what the circumstances.

In addition to being invited to church, Zacharie wanted to take us on a tour of the island on Monday if we put petrol in his station wagon. We have no idea the cost of gas in the U.S. now, but here it is $1.50/ liter or about $6/ gallon. We can't imagine it being that expensive yet back home. We met him at 8 am for our tour on the 21st. Shortly afterwards we picked up his wife, Delphine, and went to Gite Iretal (a place for tourists to stay) to have bread and coffee. Members of their family own the place and since we were being treated like members of the family we didn't have to pay for our breakfast. After putting $35 worth of petrol in the car we went on practically all the roads on the island. It was an overcast day, but never rained too hard. We saw a monument to the 19 Kanaks killed by the French military in an incident here in the late 1980's. We also saw the government buildings, a desalination plant that was constructed in 1997 for the northern and central parts of the island, the wharf where the two weekly ships deliver supplies, the copra distillery where there was no work since the coconut oil tanks were full, the soap factory where coconut oil is made into soap by 8 employees doing everything by hand, and a "blue hole" with brackish water and mangroves. They told us that they used to use the seeds to the mangrove plants to make flour for bread, but not many people do that now. We learned that there are 5 big chiefs on the island. Two of the three districts on the island have two big chiefs, while the smaller district has one. There are also about ten "petit" or small chiefs.

We bought cheese, pate, tomatoes and bread and had a picnic on a secluded beach. While at this beautiful spot Delphine wove some baskets, plates, and bags from palm leaves for us. She had me help her a little bit so that I would get the general idea of how to do it. We also collected shells, drank green coconuts, ate papayas and ate coconut meat from mature coconuts. Zacharie took us to another "blue hole" where one of the grand chiefs keeps his turtles after they are captured in the ocean. There were only two turtles there at the time, but we got one good photo of what we think was a Hawksbill. This is where all the children come on Saturdays to jump off the high cliffs into water about 27' deep. Zacharie said he used to do it when he was about 10 years old. We saw many coconut tree plantations, copra-drying sheds, beef cattle; several different kinds of birds, several gardens (one complete with a scarecrow), many churches, many friends and family members of our hosts, a Melanesian nun and French priest at their Catholic school, and the "Paradise" Hotel where they charge over $300/night for a room and $65/person for dinner (mostly to Japanese honeymooners). Near the end of the tour they took us to a bakery - a shack with a huge stone oven where other members of their family make delicious bread. On the way there we passed the only banyan tree we'd seen. This is a very special banyan tree to the islanders. Zacharie firmly believes that there is a tunnel to the big island of Grand Terre (about 50 miles away) where it connects to a similar tree and they form the "way of the spirits." It is near some caves that we wanted to visit, but apparently it was too wet and slippery yesterday to visit the caves. So, Jerry's ability to understand/communicate in French again provided a fantastic island experience for us. We doubt many cruisers have had such a personal tour as the islanders feel the white French people look down on them and from what we've seen, most of the foreign boats don't communicate in French.

(view Ouvea photos)

Work and writing are happening today, but Zacharie is planning a very interesting new adventure for us. If it happens, you'll read about it in our next letter.