the journey

Mono Island and Papua New Guinea

December 7-15, 2008

Blog Location: Passage from Hermit Islands, PNG, to Palau
Blogger Current Location: Palau, Micronesia

The sails are snapping again as the boat rolls restlessly back and forth in the beam seas. Squalls have swept through again leaving the wind breathless. It is day 5 of our passage from the Hermit Islands in Papua New Guinea to Palau, Micronesia. A journey of what will be about 900 miles and eight and a half days if we're lucky.

This passage has been wildly unpredictable and void of much wind. (We have slipped beyond the reach of the consistent trade winds of the South Pacific.) We are a sailboat and yet I smell the sickeningly sweet stench of diesel far too often. It's not that we have light winds. Mostly we have had no wind to squally variable and changing winds.

This morning while the black curtain of squalls and sea parted at twilight two pale blue eyes watched our slow progress out of the east as I made our way west. Eerie really as everything other than those eyes was gunmetal grey. Dawn brought with it another squall with light winds and our course continues to lead us though a 1.2 knot counter current. The pilot charts and boat reports ahead of us suggest we should have lost this miles ago.

At some point we have to turn the engine off. We are supposed to be SAILORS. Some salty dogs out here wouldn't turn their engines on at all. Truthfully, we're not that salty. We are impatient and we also try to avoid bad weather. Like the cyclone that is passing 400 miles north of us packing 65 knot winds with gusts to 85. Areas of high convection basically meaning lightning, rain and possible winds of 20-40 knot winds are forecasted to greet us soon. Lightning, rain and gusty winds are not our favorite. But we'd take the wind.

Despite my outlook, our passage hasn't been bad. Let me give you the highlights so far. We sailed for a great 24-hour run and a total of 36 hours. Hopefully more is coming. We saw a finback whale swimming through the swell. We've read two books each and are on our third. We haven't been seasick and we've been getting sleep. I wished on 6 shooting stars this morning when the Big Dipper guided me north like an old friend (haven't seen it sailing for a year and a half).

Back to the other reality, lately we have been dodging logs and refuse in the counter current. In the dark of night we heard the dreaded bang and thumping of a big log hitting our hull. No damage, but this morning I saw a partially submerged metal box with a sharp spear off the end, flip flops, plastic bottles, bits and pieces of trash. And who knows what else just below the surface. Our depth sounder keeps going off at four feet. Hopefully they are fish enjoying the current and not hidden trash.

At last we seem to be moving out of the grasp of the counter current, cumulus clouds are finally forming and the wind is starting to fill in from the south. Maybe my wishes were heard after all. We've got just 10 more hours of fuel left without the reserve and we have over 48 hours to go. Our emotions have been riding the 12 foot swells kicked up from the cyclone passing to the North and we hope the winds will push us along the 200 miles we have to reach Palau.

We're sailing with all that we’ve got in 9-15 knots of wind. Trimming constantly and trying to get the most out if it while it blows, I feel like a racer instead of a cruiser. The squalls keep rolling through giving us punches of wind we can use to move forward before it dies again. We are so close, a day out and the wind fluctuates but seems to be consistent out of the south and we are moving forward. Less than twenty-four hours if it keeps up and we'll be in Palau.

Those stars fulfilled my wishes; fishing boats linger outside of the pass in darkness. The twilight of dawn revealed the humped outline of the islands. We are ecstatic. We weave our way through the reefs to Malakal harbor and wait through squalls along with the fishing boats for officials to check us into Palau, our new home for the next 4 months.

December 1-7, 2008

Blog Location: Hermit Islands, Papua New Guinea
Blogger Current Location: Hermit Islands, Papua New Guinea

Safely anchored in the Hermit islands we soak up our world. Surf breaks upon the barrier reef that surrounds these islands. Sunlight streams through the aqua liquid glowing. We peer down and can just spot our anchor dug perfectly into sand 45 feet below. Ribbons of turquoise shallow water call me to explore while Gar is pulled to the passes to look for the big stuff.

We rest and explore here for 6 days before heading on our 900-mile passage to Palau. Days are filled with reading, cooking, napping, snorkeling, and visiting the village. Many things have struck me about the Hermit Islands. I am pleasantly surprised by the abundance of giant clams. There are hundreds of them and 4 species are represented here. The giants are 3-4 feet long and at least 2 feet wide, others sit on the sand alone and some cluster together like an inseparable family. My favorites of the day are coral clams, their mantels boast the most imaginative color combinations, dark chocolate brown with mango orange and cream spots, highlighted with a turquoise splattered along the edges. The abundance of giant clams is rare as in most places in the Pacific they are over harvested for consumption. Here they are safe for now.

The Hermit Islands are mostly Seventh Day Adventist which means that people are not supposed to eat turtles, sharks, clams, or shellfish (coconut crab, lobster, shrimp). Unfortunately they don’t follow the practice that they cannot hunt some of them. The Taiwanese have made their mark and have employed these subsistence islanders to do their dirty work. Within no time I fear most everything that have here that is healthy and thriving will disappear.

The Asian fleet has the Hermit islanders working for them, the only choice of employment on this tiny island. A fish pen has been set up for the live fish trade. Yet, this seems to have been abandoned as the last time the mothership came to collect, they were loading the coral trout, grouper, parrotfish and wrasse in the middle of the night and left without paying the locals. Still there is a shark fin trade. Locals were boasting their prize of 48cm fins from Mako sharks and their current hunt for Silvertip sharks.

Something has to be done. Soon everything will be gone. Thousands of trochus shells lay bagged in a shed waiting to be delivered or picked up, beche de mar (sea cucumbers) are almost non-existent here while outboard engines, compressors, fiberglass runabouts, and power tools are abundant. By Melanesian standards the Hermit Islanders are wealthy in possessions but for how long?

We hope that somehow there will be another option for making money than exhausting their marine resources. Marine resources are their riches. Without much else what is there and who am I to tell them they don’t need outboard engines and shouldn't watch movies? This is the challenge all over the world. Unfortunately in this global economy there is demand for things around the world and the effects of the harvest will be felt directly by the locals and eventually globally.

Shark finning in all of the earth's oceans has increased dramatically over the last few decades as the demand by Chinese for shark fin soup has sky rocketed. Serving shark fin soup at important functions such as weddings is a huge status symbol. One bowl of shark fin soup can go for as much as $100. If the rate of shark finning continues at its current rate we may manage to decimate the one of oldest living animals on the planet (sharks have been swimming in the world's oceans since before the time of dinosaurs).

If you want to learn more about the issue:

see shark finning campaign
read Men's journal on patrol with the men fighting to end the great shark slaughter October 2006 starts pg 98
and watch SHARKWATER, Rob Stewart's internationally awarded film.

November 10-14, 2008

Blog Location: Mono and Sterling Islands, Solomons
Blogger Current Location: Kavieng, Papua New Guinea

It is feast or famine in our world. I can still taste the lobster we had for lunch while I sip bush limejuice that slides refreshingly down my throat.

Provisioning and cooking while cruising is both a creative art and adventure. I never know what I will be able to get. Menu planning is almost impossible in this part of the world and I have found substitutes for almost everything in recipes that once were old staples or I've abandoned them for something new. I find myself making lists that at one time were long and detailed and now they are quite different. When we are in some sort of a town my list looks something like this: milk (powder or UHT boxes), sugar, rice (there is only one kind here), nuts, fruit, something green, oil, cheese (this is something we always wish for and stock up on when we find it).

The best practice I have now learned is when you see it buy it (you may never see it again). It's not like we're malnourished here or suffering at all, eating is just a different adventure and one that is far more exciting than it ever was in Whole Foods or a gigantic New World or Safeway. Ok, don't get me wrong, seeing two hundred types of cheese and 30 varieties of chocolate and an entire tea isle is really exciting when I stand face to face with them now but in someway they are extravagant, and totally unnecessary albeit delightful.

Back to provisioning here. Like I said, buy it when you see it. We are lucky that our freezer is still partially full of the finest organic Vanuatu Beef, New Zealand cheddar cheese (bought in Honiara at the Bulk Store), lobster tails, freshwater prawns, and soup for passage. Fearing we wouldn't see wheat flour in all of Melanesia we stocked up in New Zealand, we have seen it once in Port Vila in the French market. I was concerned we would be lacking in brown sugar as we were last year so I stocked up before leaving New Zealand (it has been everywhere), really the adventure is in discovering what each new place has in stock or in season and enjoying whatever it is.

We are now in Mono and Sterling Islands, our last stop in the Solomon Islands. The people here are friendly, curious, and delighted that there are now 5 yachts in their anchorage, the most there have ever been at one time. We are visited from sun up until well past sundown by people coming by to say hello and merely watch us or plain stare but I digress. Other people paddle their outrigger or dugout canoes to and from home to garden, fresh water streams or the ocean.

Thanks to them we are enjoying a plentiful harvest. But it all started when we sailed into the entrance at 0700 trolling two hand lines through indigo water that was boiling on the surface and full of fishing terns. We pulled one line in having hooked our first ever yellow fin tuna, sashimi anyone. We were ecstatic, they have been alluding us since we left California. We couldn't stop at one. The sea around us continued to rise and fall, the black backs of fish glistening in the early morning light as they chased silver fish to the surface. After bleeding our prize, we threw the line back in. Looking out on the horizon I saw an outrigger bow lift in the swell and I could see we were not alone. Again and again and again we pulled in tuna. Each time we pulled them on deck, killed them and bled them to keep the meat fresh. We delivered three fish to guys out in the ocean who had caught none and headed in.

Three days later, after making friends and trading plenty our stores are overflowing. What will you do with over one hundred limes a friend asked, make lime juice of course and drink it by the gallon, and the 15 eggplant, grill, stir-fry and mash into babaganoush. They along with green beans, star fruit, pineapple, chili peppers, and eggs all seem to be bursting in abundance. But how can I say no to the girl with sparkling brown eyes and missing teeth who carefully approaches the boat and offers yet another pineapple for pencils or washing soap or rice, or sugar? Seriously, I never thought we could get sick of the sweetest organic pineapple on the planet but we are ready for the season to change.

Last night our fisherman friend Davis awakened us at 11pm. He had returned from 4 hours on the reef with 12 lobsters. He delivered 4 large spiny lobsters to us. The price, 8 D batteries so they could have light to hunt with. Four others he traded with other boats and kept the rest for himself. Now or never, at 11pm we boiled a pot of saltwater and cooked, de-veined (de-pooped), and shelled this delicacy. By midnight they were safely tucked away in the fridge and freezer.

We just finished shelling 33 freshwater prawns traded again for some batteries. We’ve also got a pumpkin and of course some limes to make prawn curry.

Still have 6 more pineapple. Like I said feast or famine. Eat your heart out.