"Arctracer" Letters

Sydney to Vanuatu, April-May 2002

We arrived in Port Vila on Efate Island in Vanuatu yesterday after nearly 2 weeks at sea and 1481 nautical miles. We didn't do nearly as much tacking on this trip as on previous trips. The rhumbline for our route is about 1450 nm from Sydney to Vanuatu. We stayed on starboard tack for almost the entire passage, with winds consistently SE.

Checking Out of Australia and Going to Sea: We tried to check out of Australia early on Saturday morning the 20th of April. However, it takes much longer for officialdom to respond so the customs people did not arrive at our boat until about 4 p.m., and then with some misunderstandings. First, we went to the wrong place to check out and were told by telephone to go to Watson's Bay for the procedure. We told the person on the telephone that we had a dinghy to pick up the officials ashore, so Jerry went ashore to wait for them. They ended up calling a customs official on his day off to go to Neutral Bay (where we had been in the morning to check out) so that he could run the large dinghy to bring the two officers to the boat in Watson's Bay.

By the time we were all checked out the weather forecast changed - now there were to be 30-40 knot winds outside Sydney Harbour. After being in calm anchorages for several weeks, we had no desire to go out immediately into large seas, so we anchored off Cobblers Beach in Middle Harbour until the 23rd of April when the seas had calmed a good deal. Upon our exit of Sydney Harbour we saw the US Navy Ship "Lake Erie" coming in with many men dressed in navy blues and we are sure they were looking forward to some shore leave in Sydney. It wasn't long before we had our spinnaker up (light air sail) to move us along. We used the spinnaker during each of the first five days.

In the late afternoon of the 27th of April we took down the spinnaker (for the last time during the trip) and rolled up a lot of the mainsail. There were squalls all around us and we had gusts up to 32 knots. From this time on we had a VERY bumpy ride. We discovered from the weather forecasts on the SSB radio that we were between a ridge coming from a 1034 High in the Tasman and a trough near Vanuatu. This caused strong wind warnings and gale warnings from the 29th of April until the end of the trip on the 6th of May. Our favorite SSB stations were Taupo Radio in New Zealand who gives the forecast from the Australian coast to 120 degrees west between the equator and about 55 degrees south; and November Mike Charlie (the computer in Hawaii) who gives the forecast from the equator to 25 degrees south between 160 degrees east and 120 degrees west.

Daily Occurrences: Daily habits prior to arriving within 20 miles of Lord Howe Island on the 27th of April included hot soup most evenings to keep warm, listening to Taupo Radio weather forecasts at 903 and 2103 UTC each evening, Jerry on watch from dinner time (about 6pm local time) until 1 or 2 am when Nina took over the watch from then until about 7-8 am in the morning. We each took naps during the day too, to keep up with our sleep. As usual, the first couple of days we didn't do much as we were getting our "sea legs."

Reminders of Previous Offshore Trips: We were often reminded of previous offshore trips - shooting stars, rings around the moon as thin clouds passed over it, green flashes. We enjoyed seeing lots of rainbows and one complete, brilliant double rainbow from horizon to horizon before and after squalls. We saw a few buoys in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere (probably lost from fishing boats), saw ships and fishing boats in unexpected places (also many ships in the shipping lanes about 50 miles off the Australian coast), made bread in adverse conditions, were able to read after the first few days and having our sea legs. We towed a fish line with no positive results but only lost one lure and watched the fish line being blown way downwind as it came out from under large waves. We also saw several humpback whales migrating north off the Australian coast. These are hazards at night, so we usually reduced speed to 4-5 knots during darkness. Jerry saw an (unusual) Bottlenose Whale about 30 feet long with a forward-aimed spout, resting on the surface as we passed very near. We saw lots of flying fish from about the latitude of 28 degrees south and used one for bait. (This trip we had fish scales on the cockpit roof and all over our presently carpeted floors.) We found a small squid on deck, watched storm petrels, saw only one albatross, saw a white- tailed tropic bird far out at sea, saw masked boobies - both juveniles and adults, and had a brown noddy rest on the boat over night after the winds picked up north of Lord Howe (noddies generally go to land at night, but we guess this one was too tired to contend with the rising winds - little did it know it would be over 100 miles from Lord Howe when it flew away the next morning about dawn). We watched lots of petrels following us with some landing in the water near us, resting, then flying ahead to be near the boat again. Jerry saw one petrel that had landed in front of the boat come out between the hulls at the back of the boat with what appeared to be a rather astonished look.

The large seas and strong winds we had on this trip reminded us of the gales we had going from South Carolina to Bermuda several years ago. Although we had days and days of nearly gale-force winds and the seas got so large that we couldn't see the horizon when in a trough, they never got as huge as they did on the trip towards Bermuda. We got splashes in our cockpit, but not as much water as we got in the cockpit of the schooner and we had a few waves washing up onto the roof of our cockpit. Although lots of water was going over and under us we didn't have any water in the bilges at the end of the trip. We had really tried to get everything watertight before leaving Australia and it looks like we succeeded. Like the schooner, we couldn't leave too much water in the toilet bowl or it would splash out - this was another unexpected aspect on a catamaran.

On the 28th we set all of our clocks ahead one hour, so now the time difference between the U.S. east coast and us is an hour less - 6 am our Vanuatu time is now 5 p.m. the previous day in Vermont. Differences Between the Catamaran and the schooner: The schooner had a gimballed stove which kept fairly level when the boat heeled, plus fiddles to hold pots in place. The catamaran stove does not have gimbals or fiddles, and we were told that they are unnecessary because the boat is so stable. On this passage we got dents in our tea kettle which leaped off the stove onto the floor several times, got several different kinds of soup on the floor when those pots spilled (sometimes we could catch the pot - getting hot liquid on ourselves), got hot cereal on the floor, and got coffee and its percolator on the floor. We had to "watch the pot" all the time. The galley floor got washed a lot this trip! When half of a pan of corned beef stew fell to the floor, the floor became like a skating rink. We had to use lots of soap to get the floor clean on this occasion. Needless to say, one of the first things we'll do when we get a chance is to buy a gimballed stove with fiddles.

We discovered that a catamaran lurches much more than claimed. While making chocolate chip cookies a large Tupperware container full of flour jumped out of a top cupboard and emptied its contents onto the floor. Now that was a mess to clean up, and again the floor got washed. When the cookies came out of the (not-gimballed) oven, I decided to call them "boat cookies" as the dough had all run together. As a result I learned that you can put the dough over the entire cookie sheet and cut it after as very thin squares! The pan was being constantly moved from the front of the oven to the back of the oven during the gales we encountered. Luckily the dough didn't go all over the oven itself! Bread pans tipped over in the oven with the continual jerking of the boat too. This never happened on the schooner. When I opened a lower cupboard to get vanilla for the cookies, an unopened jar of crushed garlic leaped out, lost its cover and spread all over the galley floor. What a smell that made inside the boat. Now, we really love garlic, but... I had to open the small galley window and hope the largish waves outside wouldn't come in. On the schooner I put boards in front of shelves when at sea so things wouldn't come smashing out, and will have to do the same on this boat. During this trip we just kept the things we used most out of the cupboards - like coffee mugs, tea, honey, etc. and locked the doors so they themselves wouldn't fly open and empty the entire contents of the cupboards onto the floor. We thought a glass of water or a coffee mug could be left on the table without fear of it spilling. Needless to say, this is another multihull myth. We wiped many glasses of water, juice and tea up from the table before learning to use bottles of water with screw tops. We couldn't use soup bowls for our soup so used mugs, and didn't set them on the table, but held them in our hands. The reason things do not stay on the table is that in large seas the waves often hit the bottom of the boat and jolt the table upwards. This didn't happen on our schooner - the table was stable although it was generally on a slant so we couldn't use it for food and drinks anyway.

Nina took more ginger pills on the "cat" than she ever took on the schooner. The motion of a catamaran is quite different. Ginger in any form is supposed to help alleviate sea sickness. I didn't really feel sea sick, but my stomach wasn't up to par. As usual I drank no coffee while at sea - only lemon-ginger tea for a hot drink and gingerale for a cold drink. Jerry had his morning mug of coffee every day, and never felt very ill, but spent much less time in the galley.

The catamaran handled large waves in a different manner from the schooner. We hove-to to eat sometimes, to repair the autopilot (which got salt water in its control box one night), and because we were anxious about the waves during the beginning of the large seas. The cat hove-to well, and we also found that it slid down wind with ease and took the splashes of breaking waves quite easily. There aren't as many places to attach a tether on the decks of the catamaran as there were on the schooner, so Jerry installed jack lines to clip onto when he went up front. His decision on where to tie the jacklines worked out very well so during the trip we trimmed the extra rope to give away to some local here in the islands. Perhaps it will be used as a painter on a dugout canoe.

Our new Coursemaster autopilot used a fair amount of energy so we found ourselves running an engine for an hour in the evening and an hour in the morning. This wasn't necessary on the schooner with its non-electrical self- steering system. Taking showers at sea (until the gales and resulting rough seas) was very different.

Setting up a drogue on a catamaran is a good idea. When trailing a drogue the boat is slowed down considerably. Before leaving Sydney we got one of our drogues with its bridle and long tether out of a front locker and put it in the cockpit. When the winds picked up Jerry attached the bridle to the back of the boat. We had intended to practice deploying it, but once underway neither of us discussed this again. I, Nina, considered it would be too difficult to retrieve and didn't figure we'd get much over 40 knots in the area we were sailing in anyway. It would have been difficult to retrieve and I personally was too lazy to go through the process. One day we will have to practice setting and retrieving it to be sure we know what we're doing in case we ever need it.

Boat Problems on the Trip: Boat problems along the way included the radar reflector falling down, but it stayed on deck and was remounted. It would have disappeared overboard from the schooner. One of the plastic rollers of a staysail sheet block broke under the strain of the wind's force. From the time it broke we didn't use the staysail again. It was too windy and wet on the foredeck to spend time on deck repairing it unless it became absolutely necessary. Instead of the small staysail we used a small piece of the jib rolled out for the remainder of the passage, and this worked just fine. This sail area was adjusted easily from the cockpit by rolling the jib more in or out to control our speed in varying wind conditions.

Saturday, May 4th was the most scary for Nina. With sustained winds over thirty knots for hours the waves built up to the steepest we'd seen. These waves hit the bottom of the boat hard. After Jerry came on watch in the morning, I went to take my usual 2-hour nap, but I couldn't sleep with all the noise. I was worried about the hull in the port forepeak right next to our bedroom. When I looked in there I found that one of the thick supporting boards had broken. After watching the inside of the hull for a few seconds I saw that it was flexing about 2 inches and the board was breaking more away from the hull. Jerry clamped another board to the existing (broken) one attached to the hull with fibreglass. This did prevent the hull from flexing as much, but it was still getting banged a lot so we kept watching to see if it was tearing off more. We used pencil marks to determine this. After tearing away another half inch, it stopped deteriorating. The boat was designed to have a single sleeping berth in each forepeak, but the previous two owners of our boat didn't want these berths. Consequently, the designer/builder put in the supporting board which broke. We are definitely going to substantially reinforce those points on the hulls, but will call the designer before we decide how to do this. We are thinking that we will make the present forward storage areas into water-tight compartments and put in another storage area from the floor up to complete the platform for a single berth. This will improve flotation and collision damage control while strengthening the hull and reducing hull flexing in waves. After seeing all this I remembered the steel of the schooner and that we never had to worry about a flexing hull with it. There definitely is something to be said for steel boats - my requirement upon first going cruising.

Also on the 4th while I was on watch during the early morning hours, our sails got backed and I couldn't get the boat to get back on track. I rang the buzzer to the bedroom that Jerry had installed in case one of us needed the other and he came out to see what was going on. We discovered that the autopilot was malfunctioning. Jerry spent 2 hours (3 a.m. until 5 a.m.) wiping water off the autopilot (one leak we'd missed and now have to find) and was exhausted, so I hand-steered for a few hours until he got the rest he needed. After his breakfast we hove-to while Jerry took the control box off the wall and apart. He found salt crystals and water inside, which apparently caused a short-circuit. He cleaned all the salt and water off and reassembled it. We were delighted that the autopilot worked again. We both realize now what a GREAT luxury our third crew member is. Without a self-steering system it is next to impossible to go to the bathroom or get a cup of tea while on watch - especially with the steep seas that we were sailing through. If a boat gets sideways to the seas more water comes on board and it is much more uncomfortable. In the roaring forties and screaming fifties of the Southern Ocean with their notoriously huge seas it would be even more imperative to keep the boat from getting in this position. Anyway, we were spoiled from having an excellent self-steering system on the schooner and that is why we had a strong new autopilot installed on the catamaran. The Autohelm 4000 that was on the cat NEVER would have handled the steering in the conditions we had the last half of our trip. It is much less tiring for us when the autopilot does the steering and we only have to keep good lookouts and watch for malfunctions.

Sailing Conditions During the 13-day Trip (as reported by the captain): Delayed departure from Sydney Harbour due to coastal gale warning. Stayed at anchor in Middle Harbour from Saturday evening, April 20, until Tuesday April 23. Raised anchor 7:50 at Cobblers Beach on the 23rd and motored out into the Tasman Sea, course 58 degrees magnetic, aiming just north of Lord Howe Island 400 miles away. Wind southerly 10-15 knots, a nice breeze for sailing, and we make about 7 knots boat speed all afternoon. Wind slowly dropped, and Wednesday morning we put up our spinnaker but still could not go as fast as the day before. The wind gradually backed into the southeast, until it was too far forward for our spinnaker so we had to revert to jib and staysail with mainsail. The wind continued to drop until at midnight Wednesday it was too light for sailing, so we motored until 5:00 Thursday evening, when we were again able to sail slowly. The wind backed slowly through northeast, to north, and then northwest. We passed Lord Howe Island Friday morning. By noon Friday we could use our spinnaker again and started sailing faster, though the wind was still light. Saturday, just before dark, we took down the spinnaker and reefed the main when the wind picked up to 18 knots from the south. By 8pm the jib was furled completely, as the wind was constantly over 20 knots from the southeast, there were gusts to 32 knots and black squalls were all around. The wind went down Saturday to 15-20, so we again used our jib and sailed at 7 knots. At noon Sunday we recorded 142 miles in the previous 24 hours, our best day's run on this passage. The wind stayed in the southeast for the remainder of our passage. Sunday evening just before dark we reefed the main further, and it stayed reefed way down for the rest of our passage. The wind gradually increased to 25 knots with gusts to 34 by Tuesday, and stayed strong until the following Monday. We hove to for much of Wednesday because the seas seemed very large (many 15 feet high), but we eventually changed to running off at about 5 knots with the wind on our quarter, using very little sail. One of the plastic rollers of a staysail sheet block broke under the strain of the wind's force. We took down the staysail then and unrolled a small part of the jib as our only forward sail. We entered the tropics at 10:00 Friday morning, May 3, when we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn. The seas were lower that morning (estimated 8-10 feet) and the wind was fairly steady at only 25-30 knots so we unrolled more of the jib and sailed at about 8 knots. The waves slamming the hulls broke one of the support pieces inside, so we slowed down to 5 knots by furling more jib to avoid further damage. We rounded the south end of New Caledonia on Friday, and turned more to the north, so the wind came more from behind us, easing the slamming of the waves for the rest of the passage, but we continued to sail cautiously. We saw gusts of 36 knots on Friday, then 40 knots on Saturday, with sustained winds of over 30 knots for hours at a time. We started considering 25 knots as a lull. Squally black clouds with occasional showers chased us towards Efate. The wind finally dropped below 25 knots as we made our final approach to Port Vila on Monday morning, May 6. We anchored near the quarantine buoy at 10:40. At anchor it was very calm, with light breezes and light rain.

Passage Details:

Date Day of Week Noon Distance Total Miles
23 AprilTuesday2424
24 AprilWednesday112136
25 AprilThursday114250
26 AprilFriday115365
27 AprilSaturday101466
28 AprilSunday142608
29 AprilMonday130738
30 AprilTuesday113851
1 MayWednesday77928
2 MayThursday1101038
3 MayFriday981136
4 MaySaturday1301266
5 MaySunday1141380
6 MayMonday1011481

13 days total. Averaged 114 miles/day

Other Interesting Features of the Trip: On the 27th of April, while 24 nm Northeast of Lord Howe Island we heard our friends Becky and Lach on "Xephyr" calling Clive on Lord Howe for directions to the anchorage there. What a small world! They had departed Mooloolaba for Opua, New Zealand while we had departed Sydney for Vanuatu. We attempted to call them on our VHF, but they could not hear us.

When Sara and Nico visited us last year, Sara prepared a message in a corked wine bottle. We added a short message saying that it was dropped overboard at 26 degrees 55' South and 163 degrees 55' East from a sailing boat en route from Sydney to Vanuatu on April 30, 2002. The place where we put it overboard was about 300 miles from our waypoint near the SE corner of New Caledonia, about 800 miles from Sydney, and opposite Mooloolaba on the Australian Coast. Mooloolaba is where we moved aboard the catamaran and sold the schooner. We will be interested to see if Sara ever has a response to her message.

From about the latitude of southern New Caledonia we kept seeing brownish lumps in the water. One evening we saw the stuff on our back step. It had washed up with a wave and hadn't washed back into the sea yet. Upon investigation we discovered that the lumps were pumice from one of the many active volcanoes here in Vanuatu. Some of them had been in the sea long enough to have barnacles all over them.

During the voyage Jerry got the GPS-Autopilot Interface working. This meant that we could tell the autopilot to go to a waypoint several hundred miles away or to follow a route and it would keep us right on the rhumb line. This worked well for the rest of our passage.

We saw land for the first time since Lord Howe Island at dawn yesterday, May 6th. As usual it was nice to think of the luxuries ashore again, and after this particular passage it was excellent to think that we wouldn't see huge seas and high winds constantly for days. The thought of being able to use the stove without having to worry about things spilling was a novel idea too!

First Day Ashore in Port Vila, Efate Island, Vanuatu: We had to stay aboard the boat until the quarantine officer came on board. We had been advised that we could not bring in plants, eggs, or fresh fruit or vegetables. We had eaten all of our fruit except a lemon so we had a lemon drink to use most of the lemon. Junior (the officer) didn't need to take the unused part as it came from either Australia or New Zealand. Perhaps he would have had to take it if we'd just arrived from Fiji. We also got to keep our plant and our last onion. Also, eggs were not on the list that he gave us, so we won't need to use them all up next time. As it turned out, Jerry made a lovely omelet (in a gale) the morning before our arrival to use up the last of our eggs. He didn't even have to shake it in the pan as the boat did the shaking for him to keep the omelet loose from the edges of the fry pan. We were also surprised to find that meat was not on the prohibited list. We'd heard that it was. We didn't have any aboard for the entire trip so it wasn't a concern this time.

After going ashore to check in with customs and immigration, we went to an ATM machine and took out 20000 vatu which we think is about $200 U.S. It is wonderful to have the ATM system take care of converting our dollars into local currency wherever we go. The smallest notes that came out of the machine were 5000 ones, so we went to a supermarket before going to the fruit/vegetable/souvenir market as it is unlikely the ladies selling their produce would be able to change big bills. The supermarket was well-stocked with a wide variety of things. I was even able to get pumpkin seeds to put in my bread. (I'd run out of them on the trip.)

At the market we had fun looking around and buying 3 papayas for 100 vatu, 2 tamarinds for 80 vatu, a huge stock of plantain for 200 vatu (we haven't had plantain since we were in Fiji over one and a half years ago), 2 pamplemousse for 40 vatu (and Nina loves grapefruit), a large hand of bananas for 100 vatu (much less expensive than in Australia), and a grocery bag full of limes for 100 vatu. The ladies generally said "tankyu tumas" when we bought things from them. This translates to "Thank you too much" or as we would say "Thank you very much."

Port Vila and the Ni-Vanuatuan Language - Bislama (Pidgin English): We've been granted visa extensions of three months beyond the normal one month, so we do not have to leave the country until September 6th. That should give us plenty of time to see several islands and villages here in Vanuatu. So far, the people here are very friendly - quarantine officer, customs official, immigration official, and Yachting World representative who brought the quarantine officer to our boat. They have a great sense of humor. Everyone here speaks English well and we've heard quite a bit of French in town too. Now if we can learn Bislama (pidgin English), the official language of the country, we should have no problem communicating in the outer islands. The first things I've learned are "Mi no save" (I don't understand) and "Mifala gat plenty finis" (I have plenty already). The latter is in case people want to trade vegetables for those we already have plenty of. At the market some of the people are from the interior and don't speak English, so I've also learned "Mi pem hamas long wan lamen?" which means "How much is one lemon" One example I especially like is "Is the tide coming in?" which in Bislama is "Solwata, I kam up?" or "Salt water, he come up?" Who knows how they know about pianos, but the word piano in pidgin English is "wan bigfala - I gat tith. Sam I waet, sam I blak. Taim you killem I singaot." which may be translated "one big fella - he got teeth. Some are white and some are black. Time you hit the keys he sings a lot." Interesting, eh?? We'll keep you informed with how we get along with our new language as the weeks go on.

Television in Vanuatu: For the past two nights we've had our television on here in Port Vila - our Australian TV works here to get their one station. We originally turned it on to see if we could get some news in the early evening. The first evening we found none, but watched a program about environmental action in the Sierra Nevadas and some of the next program (in French) about tourism in Egypt. About this time we were VERY tired, so went to bed about 5:30 pm. The following night we turned on the television about 6 pm and saw a National Geographic program on flamingoes in Africa. Following this was a music video featuring Melanesians. Then, at 7:00 there was news. The first part of the news was local news in the Bislama language. It was quite difficult for us to understand, but we did learn that a woman won a position in the recent elections. This is a BIG deal here, as traditionally women are very subservient in this culture. After the local news they had the international news in English. Then they had the same news in French. Very interesting! Another interesting feature of the television programs here is that the programs we've seen, with the exception of the news, didn't start on the hour or half-hour. Since there were no advertisements they generally lasted about 20 minutes. During the news they showed two ads - one for an antibacterial soap and the other for Colgate toothpaste.

What the Locals Think About the Present Weather: It was interesting to us to hear the quarantine officer say that one of the local government officials went to some of the other islands to collect ballots from the recent election and couldn't believe the waves outside the harbours. He didn't like them at all. Also, on our VHF radio we heard the port captain/pilot ask a trading ship if they wanted him to board about 10 p.m. at night to help them into the harbour. They answered in the affirimative and he said that he wouldn't go aboard until they got into protected waters as the seas were very rough outside. We listened to another Taupo Radio (out of New Zealand) weather forecast and found that the conditions outside the harbour haven't changed since we arrived. We sure are glad we aren't still out there in those strong winds and rough seas. It has rained constantly too. This is good, as most of the salt must be off the boat, we have our water tanks completely filled again and the laundry is done. Now, if and when the sun shines we'll hang it up to dry.

Health Issues in Vanuatu: Within the next few days we want to find a clinic to talk with a doctor or nurse. The people we have seen all appear healthy, and we want to stay healthy too. One of our cruising guides talks about the high risk of malaria here. We want to see if we should carry a test kit and cures on board. We've decided not to take any of the "preventative" anti-malarial drugs which are reputed to have all kinds of bad side- effects. We were told by the quarantine officer that there are no malarial mosquitoes here in Port Vila and that the World Health Organization is helping to alleviate the problem throughout the islands, but we have seen mosquitoes, are glad that we made screens for all hatches and doors before leaving Australia, and have kept these screens in place from about an hour before sunset to an hour after sunrise when these biting female mosquitoes are most active.

The same guidebook talks about having antibiotic powder (of which we have none). All cuts, no matter how small have to be treated with care and it is apparently important to keep cuts dry and out of salt water. They say that salt water in the tropics is not cleansing like that in cooler countries. They also allude to the fact that flies carry infections and the antibiotic powder prevents these infections. Red eye or conjunctivitis is also common, so they recommend finding out the latest and best cure for this so you can keep some on board. Since the guidebook states that there have been cases of typhoid, hepatitis A and B, Tetanus, and Tuberculosis within the past five years we want to get vaccinations for all of them too. Uck - Nina often faints when she has an injection!! Port Vila is the best place to get medical supplies and medical assistance. In the out islands there are very few trained medical people, and only basic First Aid kinds of help can be expected.