Vanuatu, a voyage to the edge of the world...

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Why so far away? There's no doubt that if you pick the right time, wonderful moments can be experienced along our own coasts, and even very close to home. But that's not enough for me... Like some of you, I've not always escaped unscathed from my sailing experiences in the South Pacific, yet this third experiencee of sailing there will certainly not be my last.
So what is it that draws one back to Vanuatu? Why is it that its people were named as the happiest on the planet? Perhaps it's their isolation or perhaps the fact that they are a bit old-fashioned? Maybe in these isolated regions, there's a special balance that exists between a generous Nature and a sparse population. In short, as we don't really know the answer, why not try and live it? You will need to "give up" three weeks of your time: something that's not easy, but is one of the reasons that these islands are still pristine...
The archipelago is situated in the South West Pacific, with Fiji to the east, the Solomon islands to the north and New Caledonia to the south. Stretched out across their latitudes over 800km, you can swim in the sea all year round, even in the south during the southern winter, which lasts from June to September. It's during this dry period that you will find the best conditions for discovering the islands' luxuriant flora and fauna, without the crowds (there are less than 22 inhabitants per km_). Vanuatu and its 83 islands cover an area half the size of France, and are a wonderful playground for those travellers who arrive by boat, which is of course the best way to discover them. There are lots of extremely secure anchorages available.
What about the language? The main language is bislama, based upon a pidgin english, although english and french are both spoken and taught... amid a hundred or so local languages. Just imagine: how did the British and French jointly govern the New Hebrides before their independence in 1980? Their linguistic and cultural heritage resembles the aftermath of an England France rugby match. Even today some children walk miles to get to the French or English school becausee neighbouring villages don't speak the same language... Yet still, this strange cultural mosaic works: there is a political proximity, which takes place at the nakamal, with the elders and the chief. The result of this is exceptional security, and a wonderful hospitality which creates a harmonious ambiance.

Skipper on the way to Port Villa

Franck, the skipper on the way to Port Vila.

The catamaran: a family history, and an Outremer one too...

Franck, my younger brother, settled in Noum_a a few years ago... Having sailed around the lagoon in a Catana 42, he sold it to buy an Outremer 45, the second in the series. With engineering rigour, but also after a couple of intense runs in the Baie des Citrons, he methodically revised it and made it more reliable.
Our paths crossed when I was in Vanuatu in 2002. Three of us were doing a family round the world trip on "Papoose", the latest Outremer 55 Light, custom built at the shipyard. Arriving as part of a rally from Musket Cove in Fiji, we headed alone to the capital, Port Vila and then north as far as the Banks Islands. This group of islands offered us some wonderful moments, with each anchorage having its share of surprises, each landing its own authentic charm and every encounter filled with kindness.
In 2008, the three of us were in the islands again, this time to visit the south around Tanna, and the much-visited Yasur volcano, before spending a secluded week on the tiny island of Aniwa with a local family.
For this, my third trip to Vanuatu, I was one of the three crew on board Franck's Outremer 45.

A guide for our trip in catamaran

Pentecost (Homo Bay) : we'd hardly arrived and Luke Baby came to visit us on our cataman. He guided us for 3 days

Discover Vanuatu in catamaran

Pentecote (Homo Bay): Luke Baby and the new pride of their village: the new nakamal built against a massive banyan tree.

The (great) idea, and the crossing...

Franck's plan is prtty simple, but pretty ambitious too, as time is of the essence:
An initial trip with the 4 of us from Noum_a to Port Vila, followed by a spin further north with two highlights: Land Diving on Pentecost Island, and then Ambrym with the Marum volcano, after which we would return to Port Vila and change crew.
There would then be a second trip. It would be shorter but a little tougher, as part of it would be against the Trade Winds. We would sail from Port Vila to Port Resolution, the closest anchorage to Mount Yasur in Tanna, and then return to Noum_a, possibly going via Loyalty Islands Province, whilst hoping for a favourable wind direction, or light airs, as this would dictate whether we were to choose this option.
Two full days in situ were enough to see off my jetlag and to get all the frenetic preparations done before we set off. There would be 4 of us on board, including a couple of reliable sailing friends of Franck: Claude, who has his own boat, and is a huge guy with boundless energy. His wife Cathie, who we call "Aoua Cathie" is a New Caledonian through and through. Brought up in the bush, she never complains, and is perfectly capable of holding her own in the rather macho environment.
Where does a Frenchman stock up on supplies in Noum_a? With the boat on the quayside and supermarkets less than 10 minutes away... Noum_a is a village: everything here is quick, convivial...and expensive. However, being able to stock up on proper saucisson in this part of the world is a priceless luxury.
So, we were stocked up to the brim with supplies, even having to load up the sea kayak...
We set out on Saturday June 6th: it's a classic crossing, with calm sailing as far as the careening bay to the south of the island where we stopped for the night. The forecast was for the wind to turn south-east, which would be ideal for heading to Port Vila... The next morning, the Trade Wind was indeed present, but very strong, and the few boats that were there stayed in their anchorage. Franck doesn't think twice, goes around the south of the island, and begins the crossing. I'm a little nervous, but there's no need to be. He's used to battling the elements with the other catamarans in Noum_a, and he sails upwind more in one season than I did in a year's sailing around the world. In short, he knows his boat's limits!
East south east is ideal, as we are reaching and should make the most of it, because if the Trade Wind turns north, we'll be close-hauled. With an average wind speed of 25 knots, it's a lively crossing, but there are four of us to cover the watches: we even surf along at 20 knots during the night, with two reefs in the mainsail, a small headsail and the pilot on maximum. We arrived at Port Vila the next evening.
The first contact with a country is an important moment, and in this case it would have been difficult to do better: we fixed a meeting via the VHF, and the next morning, the customs and immigration people came on board for a coffee. They were on time, cheerful and took their shoes off, which gives us the rare sensation of feeling as though we are being treated like clients! The rough weather means that we are the only new arrivals, and we take a buoy in the lagoon.

Discover local culture in catamaran

The Gol Tower and all of its different levels. Impressive!

Pentecost: Kastom Village and Land Diving

We set off the next day, just before nightfall: the usual 25 knots of wind are present, but this time in the right direction. We sail with 100/110ç apparent wind, and it's clear that it will be a damp and lively night with squalls marking our watches from the cockpit. However, the catamaran deals with all of this, and from 2am the conditions improve and we arrive at Pentecost in the morning as the skipper had predicted. Despite the wind, it was easy to anchor in a windy Homo Bay in 8 metres of black sand. Luke Baby, the son of a former chief came out to meet us in a pirogue that was leaking seriously! There would be some Land Diving in two days' time, and we fix a rendez-vous for the next day for a walk around the island followed by a meal. It's still raining a little bit, so today will be for recharging our batteries.
After the weather cleared, we set off on a two hour walk on a track which climbed up through the forest, and whichh was dotted with stopping places under the Banyan trees. We are spotted by a teenage boy wearing a penis sheath. We must have arrived at Ratan, a hamlet of 60 souls which is an offshoot of the Bulap Kastom village where the inhabitants have decided to stick to their traditions, including their attire, which is minimal. Nobody is expecting us, as all the men are in the fields. However, the women welcome us into the village as long as we don't take any photos. The children touch us, obviously curious of our pale skin and blond hair: in fact Luke Baby is a little uneasy, and explains to us that unlike the children down on the coast, these children don't go to school...
We leave quickly, and head off via another track which leads us down to the river which is in the middle of the water taro plantations. Luke proudly shows us the new village nakamal, built next to a Banyan tree which is like an extension of the main room, before returning to his home where we eat Lap Lap of small pig, the national dish. Then it's back to the boat for a game of tarot (the card game this time)... The night is black and the spectacle offered by the stars from the recently rainwashed trampoline rounds off this remarkable day wonderfully.

Vanuatu cruise in catamaran : discover a new culture

Luke Fargo, the crafty MC of the Land Diving. He knows perfectly well and unashamedly how to maximise all the islands' traditions!

Land Diving

This spectacle (which is what it is, even if it is still seen as an initiation and rite of passage) is linked to the seasonal calendar. There are even a few cruise boats that stop during the short, 3 month season, when the lianas (vines) are green and have a good elasticity. Today's jump is the penultimate one of the year. It is taking place at Londot, a coastal village 8 km north of Homo Bay. There are twenty or so other tourists, but hundreds of locals. Luke Fargo, the ageing M.C. wearing his penis sheath with pride, leads the group to the tower which is a few hundred meters into the interior. He is clearly enjoying himself. He climbs up on to the tower and makes a short, calm speech: "This jump is the authentic benji, because it is an initiation. Thank you for your money!" (—100 per person!). A handful of men carefully prepare the lianas. There will be 7 jumps today, from the child who will throw himself from the first level, to the champion of Bulap the Kastom Village who will dive from the top which is over 20 meters. Around thirty locals, all dressed in traditional costume, are singing wildly. Their excitement is contagious, and it is clearly an intense moment. You need to be pretty fearless to be the first to take on the jump with your arms flat against your body and your face grazing the ploughed soil... Let's hope for future generations and tourists, that the money that's involved doesn't destabilise these communities, and that the season will still only last for 3 months. Two hours of walking later, the crew was bathing in the Homo Bay river. Why use the onboard water supply?

Vanuatu cruise : local tradition

The star attraction, with the athlete from Kastom de Bulap at the top of the tower... He gratefully accepts all the local chanting for a few minutes before throwing himself into the oblivion...

Ambrym: Fanla and the Devil's Cauldron

The next day, Luke Baby has a day off, and so offers us some grapefruit. We set off for Ambryn, whichh isn't far, with three reefs in the mainsail. We try to anchor at Olal. In calmer weather, friends of Franck had been able to do so in the small area behind the barrier, but our sounder is only saying 1.20 m, the black sand renders the visibility poor, and the conditions are just not good enough. With 25 knots of wind and the tide coming in, the protection afforded by the barrier will be less effective and will simply bring more current and choppiness. Franck decides to avoid getting caught in this trap, and it's at 7 knots sailing only under a genoa, that we head for Ranon, and anchor safely in 8 meters of water
The next day, we organise our climb up to the Mt Rarum volcano, leaving from the village of Raventlam, about 20 minutes from our mooring. Ruben, the Chief, leaves his council meeting to welcome us and to organise the next day's trek. Here too, the last cyclone had left its mark, with roofless houses, and uprooted breadfruit trees. In the afternoon, we take the dinghy and explore the coastline. We discover that the water which flows down to the sea is often hot. Very hot in fact!
At the end of the night, we leave our dinghy on the black sand beach and head to Raventlam where we meet up with Ruben. He introduces us to our guide Asayan, an older chap with plenty of enthusiasm, and a young porter, who will carry the extra water. It's the ideal temperature for walking. There is still the odd shower, but thankfully it's not wet enough to make the path slippery... It takes around two hours walk amongst the tree ferns and banyan trees to reach the caldera. From there, it will take time walking on the ash to get to the bottom of the crater. From what we can see, it's clear that there are cows up here! Asayan explains that they have been wild for many years, and that no one looks after them. Then we head into the crater, at first following a river, and then along the ridge. An incredible sight awaits us at the summit. The clouds which are scudding along seem to disintegrate and the view leaves us speechless and alone, staring at the incredible sight of a boiling lake... Wow! The Marum volcano contains a lake of glowing magma, which contorts and bubbles, a veritable devil's cauldron, that we just can't take our eyes off. Asayan is getting a bit cold. He tells us that only around 150 people make the climb each year. The other (expensive) option, is to take the helicopter from Port Vila. Our final recompense after 26 kms of walking, is a swim in the river behind Raventlam...

Vanuatu cruise : The

The "Devil's Cauldron" of Mt Marum. A unique sight just for us... Well worth the trip!

Vanuatu cruise : at the top of Mt Marum

Ambrym : alone at the top of the Mt Marum crater after a five-hour walk.

Epi: village festival.

The next day, we set off at dawn, as the weather once again promised to be interesting as we headed for Epi. From Ambrym to Craigh Cove it was relatively calm, but from then on it was pretty wild, and we had to tack in 20 to 30 knots of wind, while being battered by squalls, and constantly dealing with the sails... However, we didn't have far to go, and we were soon anchored up at Epi, in a pleasant bay just below Cape Foreland. We went on land and were welcomed by Nathalie who spoke French. We were invited to a village ceremony. In fact a lovely but slightly wacky family of Americans had just brought two water tanks from Port Vila for this community. They had brought them on their large catamaran, with one on each trampoline. Thankfully the weather had been kind and the wind fair. The new installation was inaugurated, and after the flower necklaces and speeches, everybody in the village, women and children included, lined up to shake our hands... It wasn't really anything to do with us, but what the heck?... We can start to understand why these people are so happy!
The next day we covered the 76 miles to our buoy at Port Vila without any incidents or tacking necessary. Cathie had to get a flight to Noum_a, so we waited for Arslan, our new crew member before heading south.

Vanuatu cruise : return to Port Vila

Return to Port Vila: There's a headwind for our return which Franck has to deal with... A good boat allows you to surmount difficult conditions and stick to the time constraints.

Tanna, Port R_solution And the Return To the Volcano

It's one day later. We're heading south, and for the first time, there's hardly any wind, and we even need to use the motor to get to our anchorage in Port Resolution, which is situated below the Yasur volcano. The unusual image of the day: our catamaran alone in the bay as we celebrate our new arrival on the trampoline in the red glow of the volcano. Arslan is our author/funboarder (you can read his novel "Pegasus Point").

The next day, in the afternoon, we headed for the volcano with Stanley, the young Chief of Port Resolution, along with the crew of an American sloop which had just arrived from Fiji. This time we take a vehicle, as our feet are a bit worse for wear. Some initially insignificant scratches had not healed properly. It's just a few minutes walk once you leave the 4x4 to reach the viewpoint, which makes Mt Yasur the world's most accessible active volcano. When we visited it was relatively calm and we were able to move around the crater to see where the lava was bubbling up. We couldn't take our eyes of the spectacle, but the odour of sulphur is quite overpowering and as the night fell it started to get very cold!

Vanuatu cruise : back to New Caledonias's lagoon

After 3 weeks, we return to New Caledonia's lagoon.

Back home (Noum_a)

After a rest the next morning, we were ready to set off again after lunch. With two reefs in the mainsail, and at 70ç to the wind, we're really motoring... The wind picks up, and the night gets pretty lively as we have to take in the third reef at 10pm because of the gusts in the squalls. It's wet outside, but that doesn't stop us going along at 5-7 knots. Then, having gone around the south of the island, we saw the turquoise lagoon of New Caledonia, and finally, just before Port du Sud, friends of Franck and Arslan who are tacking between the Baie des Citrons and l'Ilot Canard, after a round trip of 1052 miles.

Vanuatu cruise : great fishing

Between Tanna and Nouméa: the sea bream with which we celebrated our return...

10 tips for sailing in these waters

You will need three weeks, but that is enough. The jetlag on the trip there can be shaken off quite soon. The trip is so long that you really want to get moving when you arrive. It's the ideal way to get prepared.
Use a boat which has proved itself and which is well known by its skipper. You can only count upon yourselves in these waters (we saw 3 other boats in 3 weeks). The minimum size should take into account all the demands that this autonomy and safety require. With a smaller cat you can still do this trip, but it will take longer as you will have to deal with whatever the weather throws at you.
You will need a minimum of three operational crew members in case of any navigational problems, and to be able to stay in "cruising" mode.
Bone up on local knowledge in Port Vila, at the bar next to Cruising World. You can chat to other cruisers and part-time residents.
You need to be 100% autonomous. Stock up in Noum_a or Port Vila, as you won't find any shops. There is fresh produce available (grapefruits, taro, chicken, eggs, piglets, nuts, coconuts). If you don't have a desalinator, you can find drinking water everywhere.
Encourage contact with the locals wherever you go. If anyone comes to you, they will probably have the agreement of the village to accompany you on walks or to organise a typical local meal. Always stick to the tribe's rules if they ask you to do anything (visiting the Chief, the nakamal or a kava party).
During the southern winter you will need a full set of clothes for your watches, especially at night. Also, a good pair of walking shoes and and light waterproof clothing for the rain. A small waterproof backpack. You won't need any serum as there are no venomous animals, but take some disinfectant and bandaids for scrapes and cuts.
Take cash in small denominations for paying, and also things that you can use to barter. Bartering is king in the islands, and passing boats are often the only way that they can get the things that their food-producing economy cannot provide (clothes, mobile phone top-up cards, bits of food for the animals, preserves, kitchen utensils, medicine)
Forget Internet! (We had an Iridium just in case). It's an amazing internet detox!
Finally, unless you're obsessed with walking, volcanos and ethnology, don't set off for Vanuatu without visiting the southern lagoon of New Caledonia, which is easily accessible on board one of Noum_a's many charter catamarans.

Sailing on someone else's boat?

I was slightly apprehensive about putting myself under the authority of my younger brother for the first time aboard his boat, especially after 10 years sailing around the world and making all the decisions on my own boat. "Decision making" is in fact the only thing which I had to give up, but it was a real pleasure!
Authority is the slave of responsability. The one that's paying makes the final call. It's a simple rule which works onboard too.
The 3 crew members were all boat owners, so understood the constraints and the costs involved. It's definitely the ideal way to ensure the all round experience for everyone.
Before setting out, the boss had fixed the earliest and latest In and Out dates for our trip. The less constraints that you have, the easier it is to deal with the changing weather, and hence safety is enhanced. He also laid down a few basic rules (dish-washing, watches, cleaning after our return...) as well as participation in the onboard kitty.
After departure, although the crew can debate the program, it's still the captain, using his interpretation of the weather forecast, who makes the final call. What could be more logical?
A trip's success is dependent upon a good basic organisation, but also a good boat, a good skipper and... a good supporting cast. Franck had assembled a small crew, which shared common values, and whose qualities and motivations he knew well.

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