the journey


The Underwater world of Santo

September 30, 2008

Blog Location: Luganville, Island of Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu
Blogger Current Location: Honiara, Solomon Islands

"Did you dive IT?" everyone asks. "You ARE going to, aren't you?"
The biggest attractions in all of Vanuatu are the live volcano in Tanna and THIS spot in Espiritu Santo.

We finally dropped in. It was a bit surreal and definitely a unique experience to visit one of the most famous shipwrecks in the South Pacific Ocean. The Coolidge. The USS President Coolidge. She is a WWII carrier that sank in the Santo harbor in October of 1942 after the captain made a costly error and struck two mines. The ship was carrying 5000 men whom all made it off alive, except two, as it was sunk right off shore and took 85 minutes to drop to it's watery grave. Access is easy, the water is warm, and there are numerous dive companies all making a good business taking the tourist divers on underwater tours. There is lots of information about this wreck available on-line including many U-Tube videos with some good underwater footage if you are interested. To learn just a bit more start here.

Nicole and I had just been engrossed in a fantastic "page-turner" book called "Shadow Divers", by Robert Kurson. We were enamored by this story, but we have no desire to take diving to the limits these guys go to discovering deep wrecks, mostly in the cold Atlantic Ocean. If you haven't read this book, it is a winner!

We have both dove on many wrecks before, and honestly, neither of us have been that keen on them, but the Coolidge is world famous and, of course, we had to do it once. So on the first dive we found ourselves dropping down to the bow at around 80 feet and taking a quick tour over the top-sides (the whole ship is lying on it’s port side on the reef) where we saw the huge windlass, anchor, and enormous gun on the foredeck, along with a pile of ammunition beside it still. One of the best things about this wreck is that most everything has been left onboard and all the dive companies prohibit the "treasure hunting" mentality that happens on most wreck dives.

We quickly reached 100 feet in depth and did a quick tour of just a small piece of the forward area before ascending to the top of the boat (starboard side) and skimming the top of the soft and hard coral garden that has grown there filled with all sorts of reef fish that now make it their home. Moray eels, wrasse, anenome fish, damsel fish, and even lionfish.

It was an interesting dive, but we knew that the second dive where we would "penetrate" the inner passages would be the one.

We had lunch at Million Dollar Point, another interesting WWII story in Santo. After WWII, the Americans began clearing out of Vanuatu and the huge base on the island of Espiritu Santo. The U.S. army built a ramp and dumped thousands of tons of military equipment off this point. It is a huge underwater junkyard with piles of fork-lifts, cranes, trucks, tanks, and even some smaller ships sunk at the site. It is said that the U.S. tried to sell this "surplus" machinery to the jointly held chaotic Condominium government of the French and British but they didn't want to pay, so...the U.S. snubbed their nose at them and it's now a weird quirky snorkel or dive right off a sandy beach.

If you are interested this article will give you a better history lesson. Link to Article

I took a quick 10 minute snorkel at lunch time and deemed it worthy of coming back one afternoon for a longer adventure. A week later we did just that with our friends', Jim and Kevin on SV Cardea, and our friends', Ray and Peggy of SV Sol Searcher along with their daughter and son-in-law, who were visiting.

Back on our lunch break we had a couple of super thoughtful gifts given to us from both of our dive guides, Fred and Alfred. WWII brought 100,000 Americans to Espiritu Santo, along with all of their military supplies and logistical supplies. When they left there was stuff left behind including the glass containers that held a favorite brew, Coca Cola. These dive guides have been diving in the Santo waters thousands of times and have found over the years many little treasures, most common are the Coca Cola bottles from the 1940's. Fred and Alfred each gave us a Coke bottle from the 1940's, one of them manufactured in Oakland, and the other, San Francisco. How cool is that.

Fred and Alfred are both really nice guys, but more importantly, they liked us even more because we are Americans. In Vanuatu, almost everyone we met loved the United States. "Very good country," they would say, "You people very good to us." So refreshing to hear this when you travel the world, as you quickly find out when you are a traveler, there is a ton of "American bashing" that goes on, unfortunately, most of it very justified. But it definitely makes you feel proud of your country when you are given these heartfelt genuine comments and radiant smiles from the people out in these islands.

Our two hour lunch time, slash, decompression time, was up, and we boarded the little boat and headed back to the wreck. Alfred asked us what part of the wreck we wanted to dive? So many dives on this wreck, but many of them are deeper then we have ever dove, so we told Alfred to choose as long as we weren’t diving more then 130 feet. He smiled. "I'll take you on Alfred's tour," he said. We dropped in.

At 90 feet we penetrated the ship. We shimmied through a gap in the deck and found ourselves in another time. With our dive lights on we closely followed Alfred as he pointed out gas masks, shoes, dishes, and random personal effects strewn about. Then we ascended a bit through another corridor and saw a huge row of toilets still intact. Next was the medical facility where there are still jars of medicines and syringes lining a shelf on one wall. Eerie.

Most of the time we had natural light piercing in though various gaps and openings in the ship, which created a surreal light and experience as we were floating in the water inside this immense steel beast. Sometimes we would float over these corridors that dropped below us into a seemingly black hole that even my powerful dive light wouldn't illuminate. Add all this to the fact that we didn't know where we were going and we were diving at over 100 feet deep.

For whatever reason, I was doing well, but when I would meet eyes with Nicole I noticed her huge eyes and her erratic kicking. She kept returning the o.k. sign to me, so I knew she could handle it, but I was keeping a close eye on her and wouldn't of been surprised if she would have bolted at any time for one of the bigger gaps in the ship where we could see the brilliant blue of freedom.

But we trusted Alfred, as he had dove the Coolidge over 4000 times and knew every foot of this ship. Next we squeezed into a crazy room where we all turned out our lights. We were in the middle of a school of flashlight fish that danced patterns around us, just like fireflies on a sticky sultry summer night. Ten seconds was enough, as we had to keep moving to reach the end of our adventure before our allotted time ran out.

Next was one of the cargo holds with trucks and jeeps rolled on top of each other, everything still there in its watery grave just like it was 60 years ago. Almost finished. Alfred led the way and wanted us to squeeze through one last corridor, but Nicole was unsure. Her dive computer was beeping incessantly as it does when it tells you your time is up at a certain depth and you need to start ascending. Basically, on this dive we were "maxing" out our allotted time at these deep depths for what the "recreational tables" deem safe. Overall, the tables are very conservative and we were perfectly safe, but still very unnerving to have your computer constantly reminding you of this reality.

Nicole wasn't sure if she wanted to go in, but Alfred kept reaching out to help her and finally she committed. Nicole and I don’t even remember what we saw in this room, but it was something Alfred wanted to show us, and then we saw our exit. We swam through the passage and out to the big blue again slowly ascending the bow line that brought us up to our shallow decompression stops at 20 feet and another at 15 feet.

Was it worth it? Definitely. Diving the Coolidge is pretty fascinating, a real journey to another world and to another time. Doing two dives on the Coolidge was enough for us, but we’re both glad we had a glimpse of this crazy ship and took the famous "Alfred tour" back in time.

Blog Blong Zack

September 27, 2008

Blog Location: Islands of Maewo and Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu
Blogger Current Location: Leavenworth, Washington State, USA

It wasn't easy leaving home. Summertime at my house is filled with building projects, barbecues, babies, biking and, because of the town I live in, bratwurst. Having a 1.8 year old and a pregnant wife didn't simplify things either, but I was bound and determined to fly to this Vanuatu island in the South Pacific, where the last reported cannibalism happened in the 80s--the 1980s that is; where DreamKeeper was currently anchored, awaiting my arrival.

Exhausted, arriving 2 days later, the humidity hit me like a tidal wave, and Gar met me at the airport with a big smile, and was happy to see the big black duffel arrive with all the goodies I brought from the mainland: boat parts, kitesurf gear, varnishing supplies, care packages, movies, & slim-fast. In the past Gar and I have spent much more time together than we have in the past couple years, so this was a real treat to have a full 12 days with him, in a foreign land, on a sailboat, in the South Pacific, man the adventures! The first thing I did was take a long swim in the bay off DreamKeeper and washed all my travel troubles and jet lag away. I ended up sleeping a lot for the first three days. Gar & Nic took very good care of me.

I gotta say, I fell quite easily into yachtie life, and though I missed my little girl and wife, I didn't think much about home at all for the first little while. It was all too new---sailing, sleeping in a little berth, cooking meals in a rolling little kitchen, and eating out on 'the patio', which doubles as the cockpit on the 40' cutter Gar and Nic now call home. You HAVE to be organized on a boat, there's just no other way. Everything lives somewhere, be it a toilet brush, a serving spoon, a clothespin, or duct tape, it all has a home. I watched in a kind of jet-lagged stupor how it happens on a yacht: Up around 6, hot water on, go to the potty and pump-flush the toilet, check the batteries, weather, (& sometimes email), go outside & have a look around, then either drink coffee on the patio/cockpit, read your book, lean back and pick a banana off the bunch tied there, or make the boat ready to leave the mooring/anchorage. We had both types of mornings, and I must say I got pretty good at winding in the anchor, raising the dingy onto the poop deck, or hoisting the dingy engine onto the boat. Living on a boat is all about creating systems for everything, and then LIVING RELIGIOUSLY BY THEM.

Gar and I futzed with a leaky fuel line for the first few days, but then got it licked--I had to wonder about the leaky diesel injection line showing up just as I arrived, as anyone who knows me knows I spend a fair amount of time wrenching on VW diesels, so while this was nothing new to me, I began to wonder if I brought it with me...Sorry guys? (As a sidenote, my vanagon diesel project has been running GREAT ever since I got home!)

We spent several nights in a beautiful little anchorage called Asanvari, on the island of Maewo, a long island in the northern part of Vanuatu. Gar has reported thoroughly on it, and Chief Nelson. The Vanuatuan island villages are comprised of lots of bamboo and thatch huts, gardens, chickens, pigs, goats, and kids running around. All in all it's a peaceful existence--very different from roads and cars and Ebay and shopping at Safeway.

I also got kind of seasick, and would have a lot worse, but I took some really good stuff Gar had, and it backed down. By the time 10 days when by, and we returned from a full day's passage of open water with 6-8 foot swells, I was feeling fine. That was a very rolly day on the boat, and one of the two fishing lines we trolled with an ENORMOUS rubber jig looking thing and hook began to twitch--well, pull rather; it was apparent we had hooked something BIG and HEAVY. Nicole took the wheel, gar reeled the thing in, and I had to gaff the silvery beast with a razor sharp gaff hook, and I tell you what, there was lots of blood. We pulled a 4 foot Ono on deck, and amidst a very rocking boat, Gar cut two huge fillets which he packed neatly into bags, and I swear from the time we pulled it out of the water to the time it was all cut and in the fridge was under ½ hour. It was amazing. Ono steak burgers that night. Just fantastic.

One activity we found very exciting was a 'tour' in the Island of Espiritu Santo's inner-most Jungle called "the Millennium Cave Tour". We met "Lino" our driver in the morning, in a brand new $35,000 Toyota quad cab turbodiesel 4x4 pickup--the kind of pickup that you KNOW would sell like hotcakes in the USA, but for some reason aren't available... Gar just sat and kind of drooled a little bit. An hour later down a very bumpy and rutted road we arrived at a good sized village where a sleepy looking "guide" agreed to take us to the caves. Seriously, the dude had only been awake for 10 minutes, and it was 10am. My picture of all village locals being in the fields working the manioc root at sunup was totally shattered. We had our lunches, and our little backpacks, and our bug dope, and our sunscreen, and our hats, our water bottles, sunglasses, and our cameras, and.... Our guide walked along in blown out K-mart flipflops carrying nothing. Not even water.

We had to walk quite a ways, on a trail that became more bridges, creek-crossings and ladders over steeper and steeper terrain, until we arrived at the mouth of a large cave with a small river running inside. It was raw and beautiful, unsullied by humans; the water was clear and cool, and as we were each given a very cheap and questionable flashlight, we were informed that the cave took 1/2 hour to pass through.

It was DARK in there, and there were swallows & bats and bat guano, and the sound of the river, and we did our best to follow our guide, with very dim-bulbed lights (did the guide have a backup light somewhere hidden?) You start to wonder a little bit--damn, why didn't I just throw in my brand new Petzl lithium battery swivel micro-headlamp with the 4 settings including the flashing red beam--I mean, when have you EVER used a flashing red beam for ANYTHING? No matter, we're moving on, thru the dark, as best we can, squinting in the moist dripping darkness. Gollum was around every corner,with a fish in his mouth.

Eventually we emerged into the canyon, the most tranquil and gorgeous sheer walled canyon--like a miniature grand canyon but green and lush and mossy. We lunched--gorged actually, while our guides sat nearby and talked, not eating or drinking. At this point I began to feel a little wimpy. We made a paltry offering of some peanuts, but giggling we devoured our peanut butter sandwiches, chips,and dried apricots.

The next part of the trip was the jewel. It was like a slice out of an amusement park, with little wooden footbridges, the rushing river below, duck behind a house-sized moss-covered boulder, shimmy down a length of chain to a narrow ledge, squeeze through a hole in the rocks and go underneath the huge rock as big as a Mac truck, slither around the corner narrowly missing the swiftly moving water and mantle up to the next ledge where our guide, Celebran, was waiting. Words can't do it justice, and none of my pictures did, you'll just have to trust me, it was fantastic, the kind of place film crews gush over.

The last part of the trip was the icing on the cake. We each were given a plastic inner tube to float down the 4 pools to the trail. Not just any ordinary plastic inner tube--but the variety you'd buy at a gas station for your 2 year old to use in the kiddie pool--no kidding. We were laughing in disbelief and incredulous at the same time--wait, are you SERIOUS? Since it wasn't really cold, and our guide had one too, we just blew them up and went for it.

The water was "chilly", but remember, we're not that far from the equator, and it doesn't get THAT cold... My tube and the guide's tube had pretty good leaks, and the trip down was just outstanding--like an Arizona slot canyon, but with lots of clear water and moss and jungle above--unbelievable.

We were in awe most of the time, laughing at our tubes and our good fortune for finding such an unspoiled place. The tubing ended, and we hiked up and out of the canyon, back to the village, and on to Dreamkeeper where we all reveled in our awe at how excellent our excursion had been.

Visiting foreign lands can be unnerving at times. Traveling to Vanuatu was the furthest from home I've EVER been, and it felt a world away. I humbly consider the day and-a-half it took to get there, the jet fuel consumed, the credit card I paid my airfare with and the check I'll pay that off with, my house, the falling dollar and our US financial market fiasco, my cars and pregnant wife and child I left at home, and the ease of moving about in a fully provisioned sailboat, and I juxtapose that with the simple agrarian island life of the local Ni-Vans, some never leaving the islands--most probably never leaving the country, and I think: Am I better off or are they?

Thanks for a swell time, Gar and Nic. My very best to you both.

(contributed from our Salty Mate, Zack Lodato, who just spent 12 days on DK....btw, don't always believe everything he says)

The Chief

September 18, 2008

Blog Location: Asanvari Anchorage, Island of Maewo, Vanuatu
Current Location: Luganville, Island of Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu

"Hallo?" "Is this Chief Nelson?"
"Yes, this Chief Nelson," I heard from the other end of the digi-cell mobile phone we were talking on.
"Our friends, Reinhart and Marlene, from the yacht 'Adio' said you need all this food for the yacht club?" I asked.
"Yes, yes, you can bring to me here?" He questioned.
"You have money to pay us for all this food?"
"Yes, I have money." Chief Nelson replied, "and bring box of breakfast cracker too."
"So you want 2 bale rice (1 bale = about 12 kg or 26 pounds), 2 bale sugar, 24 tins of corned beef, 3 case of Tusker beer, and 1 box of crackers and you pay for it all when we arrive to Asanvari in 4-5 days?"
"Yes, yes, no problem," Chief Nelson replied.
So we were off again to town.

DreamKeeper was starting to turn into more then our home in these northern Vanuatu waters. We had shuttled two ni-van men the 45 nautical miles from Port Stanley, Malakula, to Luganville, Espiritu Santo, along with their 5 huge bags of mangrove oysters that filled our cockpit. Now we were loading up our boat with food to bring out to the village in Asanvari, on the island of Maewo, about 60 miles away.

Most of these villages are very removed from the town where supplies come from. Sometimes a supply boat brings goods like flour, sugar, crackers, and rice only every couple of months, if they are lucky. If a ni-Van person wants to get to another island, they have to pay 2000 vatu or more (20 dollars U.S.) to ride on the copra boat full of coconut meat, which is a ton of money for these very poor people. To have the money to take a plane is limited to very few in Vanuatu. So who can blame them for asking help from the sailing yachts that often come visit their villages?

Then there was Chief Nelson. He had the luxury of having his land on a beautiful bay on a beautiful island, a great anchorage totally protected from the southeast trade winds. Sailing yachts were welcome there and during the high season they would come in droves.

Chief Nelson was no fool. He was an enterprising man, very American, always looking for ways to increase his financial coffers. The yachties built him a "Yacht Club" where they could congregate on-shore next to his family-compound and drink cold Tusker Beer and have his son, Nixon, prepare dinner for them. Cold beer, you may be wondering? Well, of course, another group of yachties brought in a small hydroelectric turbine that is run from Chief Nelson's local gushing power! Lights, a refrigerator, a VHF, and a place to plug in all the village Digi-cell mobile phones (this can be an issue in these villages as many people have phones but no where to charge them up). Then another group of yachts came in and put three mooring balls in the bay. Not so much to protect the coral, as there is ample room in sand and rubble to anchor without hurting the coral heads, but for Chief Nelson to use as a money maker to help support his village. At first we heard he wanted to charge $1500 vatu/night (about $15 U.S.), but was talked out of it by the sailing community as it is a really high price to pay for a mooring. He eventually realized this and changed the price to $500/vatu ($5 dollars).

We wanted to help Chief Nelson too. We took super dingy back across the mile-wide channel to town, walked to the stores, bought all the goods, loaded up some taxis, loaded up the dingy, and sped across the channel to DreamKeeper. Our friend, Zack, was on-board at this point, and to make his berth we had to empty it out of all our stuff first. Similar to emptying your garage and finding a place for all the belongings in your house. Now we had Chief Nelson's goods to store. We stacked the boxes of beer and bales of rice, sugar, and corned beef under our salon table, hoping to arrive soon to Asanvari so we could offload the goods and have our space back.

We arrived in Asanvari a few days later. Chief Nelson was excited to see us and gave both Nicole and I big hugs, very un-ni-Van like. Clearly he was appreciative of our effort to help him. We decided to hook up to one of his moorings and paid him $500 vatu for it out of generosity, figuring we should be able to tie up to one for free considering what we just did for him.

Asanvari turned out to be a real treat. The water is clear and visibility is at least 60-70 feet. The reef is healthy and there are some huge fish on the outside edge. Big schools of snapper, trevally, and sweetlips abound.

Our good friend, Jim, on his boat S/V Cardea, showed up with his nephew, Kevin, for a few days too. On their way across the channel from the island of Pentecost, they hooked up with a 4-foot wahoo. Yummy!

Fishing has been good to us all lately.

We spent some quality time with Jim and Kevin exploring the village, the school, and the huge waterfall. We met some very nice people in the beautiful community and had some good talks with the local school headmaster and principal.

Later, we visited Chief Nelson's nakamal (traditional kava house) with some of the other yachties in the bay, drinking shells of kava while Chief Nelson sat in the corner tallying our drinks on his tablet of paper. 100 vatu a shell. The most we have paid in Vanuatu for kava. Other villages offered kava to us for half that and some villages shared it with us for free. Did I mention that Chief Nelson was enterprising?

After a few days in Asanvari, Nicole and I wanted to do a day trip up the coast of Maewo to a village called Nasawa. One of Seacology’s projects is there re-building some schools in return for a forest and marine reserve. We told the ni-Van Seacology representative, Kevin, that we would check in on the project and Nicole would document it with photos. Jim and Kevin wanted to come along, and, of course, Chief Nelson. We weren’t quite sure why he wanted to come, he mentioned something about one of his sons possibly being in the village. He said after Nasawa he would take us to the Moon Cave and to see some petroglyphs. He also asked us if another guy who works for the Vanuatu government could hitch a ride with us up to Nasawa. So Chief Nelson and his buddy came along for the adventure.

The wind was brisk and we were humming the 12 miles up along the coast. We dropped our hook in the rolly Nasawa bay, dinghied in, and were warmly met by the village Chief and the female principal of the school. Nasawa was a very attractive village and clearly the school buildings first built by missionaries in the 80’s were in rough shape. The new work had begun and more supplies were getting delivered from Port Vila soon. The village Chief and principal were very very appreciative of us coming. They truly love Americans and are so happy to have the support and funding from Seacology to make the project happen.

Nicole and Zack both clicked away.

Before we left we had some photos taken with the chief and principal, but, of course, who didn't want to get left behind? Chief Nelson slid in at the last second.

We left Nasawa behind and motored a couple miles up the coast to another rolly bay and Chief Nelson led the way through the Moon Cave.

The "Hole of the Moon Cave" has a large circular indentation on the expansive roof of the cave. Legend has it that the god Tagaro tore out a piece of rock and hurled it into the sky, creating the moon.

After the Moon Cave we pulled up the dingy on the rocky beach and were met by the local family and their many many kids who own the land and guide the few tourists to the caves and petroglyphs. They were very happy to see us and we were met with big smiles and many laughs.

They guided us up to Malangauliuli, the "Cave of Writing". The petroglyphs are old. Many symbols and depictions of early European ships were carved into the moist overhung wall. But more fun then looking at the petroglyphs was watching the kids run around and laugh at their pictures getting taken by all of us white tourists.

Back on DK we sailed a nice beam and close reach back down to Asanvari Bay. We thanked Chief Nelson for joining us and Jim and Kevin dropped off the chief back at shore. The three of us sat back in the rainy squalls to sip on cold Victoria Bitter's and barbecue some local Vanuatu beef burgers.

Under our first ever "moon-rainbow" at 4 a.m. we raised our mainsail in the squally wet conditions and sailed towards the island of Ambae, one of James Michener's possible "Bali-Hai" islands he refers to in his classic story "Tales of the South Pacific".

Later, our friend's, Jim and Kevin, told us Chief Nelson was asking about us later that day. Where did we go? Why didn’t we pay him the rest of the money for the mooring? He, of course, wanted Jim to pay him our "mooring fees", but thankfully Jim set Chief Nelson straight about how much we did for him bringing him all his supplies. Chief Nelson relented eventually.

When I first heard this, I was angry. Then I just laughed and let it go. It is a good example of Nicole and my struggle with how to contribute and help the local people. We have so much and most of them have so little. There is a fine balance between beneficially giving and creating an expectation and dependency. From our experience and talking with other cruisers, there are many anchorages that are now avoided because local people demand payment or goods for everything, when it wasn’t always that way. Now those villages and the people in them are suffering because no one wants to go there anymore. It is always difficult for us to choose how much to give and to whom to give it to.

After only being in Asanvari for 2 days, Chief Nelson told me straight up that he had already sold 2 cases of beer and all the rice. I knew he was selling the beer to the yachties and making good money from it, but the rice? Where did you sell the rice? I asked, confused, as his son Nixon was not around and no one was cooking meals at the yacht club while we were there.

"I sell the rice to the other villagers", Chief Nelson told me with a sly smile.

Well there you have it, I thought. He was even making money off of his own people and most likely hoarding all the yachties money for his own family. This put it all in perspective.

When we first arrived I assumed that our provisions for his yacht club would benefit the whole community, but as time went on, it became clear that there was only one "financial namba-one big fella" in this large village.

Chief Nelson is not a bad man. He is just looking to make some dough and uses his charm and property positioning to work the many yachts that come here. In the United States, he would blend right in to the multitudes of developers and savvy businessmen. Chief Nelson is just a modern day, kava drinking, ni-Van enterprising chief, one of many characters we have met along our travels.

Making it right

September 5, 2008

Blog Location: Passage from Malakula to Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu
Current Location: Luganville, Island of Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu

Jerry shook his head back and forth while clicking his tongue against his teeth "tche, tche, tche, tche...", in typical ni-Van style. We had just lost a wahoo ("ONO" in Hawaiian) next to our boat. A big wahoo, 4 plus feet long. I was leaning over the rail trying to get a sail-tie lassoed around the wahoo's tail when it threw the lure. I looked up to Elder Willie and Jerry, our ni-Van passengers we were taking to the island of Espiritu Santo from the island of Malekula, and both of them were shaking and clicking away. I felt like a loser.

One hour later, our hand-line went tight. We looked behind the boat two hundred feet where our special Hawaiian resin-head lure was skipping along the surface of the blue and saw a huge fin. Marlin. "Uh-Oh", Nicole and I muttered to each other. We watched the huge fish follow our lure, give it a couple of swipes, and then "WHAM", our 200 pound mono-filament fishing line snapped like a rotten twig. We looked back as the huge marlin leapt out of the water three times clearly exclaiming its dominance and taunting our trivial and primitive fishing methods. This was our first marlin strike, and hopefully our last. We have no desire to try to land and kill such a big fish. We are not sport-fisherpeople. We are meat-fisherpeople. We fish to eat.

I looked at Jerry and Elder Willie for the tell-tale head shakes and tongue clicks. They did not disappoint.

I added a new lure to the broken line and let out the hand-line spool again. Another hour went by and the line went taught again. We stalled the boat, spooled up the other hand-line and began fighting the fish. This time I was amidships braced along the life-lines, Nicole at the helm, and our new ni-Van friend, Jerry, next to me with our 5 foot gaff hook. It was another wahoo. We got it close to the boat and this time Jerry successfully gaffed the fish through the gills and held it while I lassoed the tail and tied it off to the boat. With wahoo, one needs to be very very careful bringing the fish alive on a boat. Their teeth are razor-sharp and we have already met three cruisers who have had major lacerations on their legs from wahoo thrashing around alive on their decks.

After killing the fish alongside the boat, we brought it onboard. Not as big as the one we lost, this one only about 3 1/2 feet long, but still a beautiful and tasty open ocean fish. I looked up at Jerry and Elder Willie and was only met with big white toothy smiles this time. We were all having fresh wahoo for dinner tonight and, more importantly, we had earned our new friends respect.

We Are Hunters

September 3, 2008

Blog Location: Banam Bay, Malekula
Current Location: Luganville, Island of Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu

We have become hunters. Armed with Hawaiian slings (a long metal shaft with a four pronged spear off the end, a rusty spear, and gaff hook (used to bring fish onboard), we patrol the reef, scanning for any spiny predators. We are hunting crown of thorns starfish.

Snorkeling the outer reef of Banam Bay we were delighted to see a school of 15 bumphead parrotfish, many large grouper and reef parrotfish, jacks, turtle, wrasse, and clown fish. (The abundance of parrotfish and grouper, highly desired food fish, are often an indicator of reef health and sustainable fishing practices.) But as we continued our tour of the reef, I couldn't help but be distracted by all of the Crown of Thorns starfish (COT) I saw gorging on coral.

Just seeing these creatures makes me mad. If you haven't seen them. They are not to be reckoned with. They look like terminator predators. Armed with a skin of thorns and more than ten spiky arms they puke out their guts and cover a coral, feasting on live coral polyps. They leave a coral skeleton behind and continue to feed. Their toxic spines can break off and remain embedded in the skin potentially causing paralysis with their poisonous thorns. Colored to camouflage with many reefs in pinks, oranges, beiges, and deep lavender they might be easy to miss.

Why are they such serious predators? In small numbers they are beneficial and help the reef by maintaining balance. With an infestation, it is disputed as to how much damage can be done. They often hide in rocky or coral crevices during the day. This day was different. As Gar was searching for big fish in the deep, I became more and more frustrated and could do nothing but count the crown of thorns. Once I started seeing them, within half an hour I counted over 45, many of them far larger than big dinner plates over a small patch of reef.

When we met back up I was fuming. How many more are there out here I wondered as I thought of the scarred and dead coral. We went to talk to Chief Saitol's son John Eady to arrange a dance and ask if he knew anything about the Crown of Thorns starfish. He told Gar they ate them? Gar showed John a photo and clarified, they definitely do not eat them. After a bit of conversation John was more than enthusiastic to have us remove Crown of Thorns from Banam Bay reefs as there had become more of them and for Gar to bring him a big parrotfish. He said the people were too lazy to catch the big fish and some times they removed the Crown of Thorns.

So it was with the chief's son's blessing and my obsession that we became hunters. We started at 9 the next morning, having enlisted our friends Jim and Kevin on Cardea to help and three of the local boys and their tinny boat. We were a bit of a circus with our hunting vessels, as the tinny has no motor and needed to be towed behind super dingy. One of the boys sat on the bow with a speargun poised, like an AK-47. Another boy laughed wearing one of our masks on his head while one had the tough job of steering with a hand held metal shaft with blade, every now and then he abandoned his duty and the tinny surfed erratically behind us.

"We go to the outer reef," Gar asked the boys. The shook their heads, "the house reef," they replied. We dove 10 feet to secure super dingy and the entourage to dead coral in the quickening current. Slipping into the water we all had jobs: Gar and Jim were armed with the slings, one of the local boys had the gaff, another boy had a rusty spear, Kevin and I searched for the predators and I photographed (well until we both started removing them off the reef, sharing tools), the third kid stood at the ready in the tinny, waiting with a machete for COT deliveries.

Once I pried my first foe off the reef I was possessed. As I peeled the purplish orange predator from its prey I was appalled to see hundreds of tube feet clinging to the coral and an expanding white scar where the coral polyps had just been ingested. From then on I was a girl with a mission. One of the boys with the gaff spotted deep ones he could not get because of damage to his ear; Gar or I dove for these. The boy seemed to get as much joy out of it as I did. He constantly spotted 3 or 4 in one area and waited kicking his bare feet for one of us to show up with a tool. Jim used the two or three star method where he would pry each one off the reef and corral them, spearing each one on top of the rest.

After three hours we were all exhausted and elated. We had collected over 75 Crown of Thorns, had drug the boats against the current and reanchored over 7 times, and buried them all at the beach. It is the only effective way to kill them as cutting them up only increases the population as they can grow again from severed limbs. Talk about terminator species, our hunting mission was a success.

Magic Sea Rocks

August 28, 2008

Blog Location: Awei Island, Maskelyne Islands, Malekula
Current Location: Luganville, Island of Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu

Vanuatu is filled with magic. There are sorcerers and magic stones and magic tricks and magic medicines and more magic. We are looking for magic sea rocks, the only magic sea rocks we know of in Vanuatu.

Wandering down a wet brown sandy beach under a grey sky and sprinkling rain I scanned the ground. Before I knew what I was looking for I spotted a few small magic sea rocks. Glowing ever so slightly, the smooth smoky lavender stones were different from the other rocks and shells cast up on the beach. Even the encrusted ones were different.

You don't want to mess with magic sea rocks. I wasn't even sure I wanted to touch them. When struck together, the rocks are said to have the power to bring thunder, lightning, and torrential rain. As a sailor I have no interest in big storms and lightning.

Once we spotted the first magic sea rocks we were obsessed in hunting for more. We gathered them carefully in our wet palms and searched for more and more. We followed the footprints of a man named John and eventually ran into him. He wore a salty smile and a pink sunhat with white elephants and an aloha shirt splashed with the only bright colors we would see today. He had a few big magic sea rocks in his hands.

"Where will you store those," I asked? He cocked his head, his blue eyes sparkling under his pink elephant sunhat, looking inquisitively confused. "Have you heard about these rocks," I replied. "I just thought they looked special," he said with a smile.

They are, I thought and then I explained the magic in the rocks. Be careful where you keep them I warned. In darkness when you strike them together a bluish spark will flash and within 24 hours there will be a storm. We all stood silent for a while and looked at the collection of magic sea rocks we had gathered in our hands.

I still struggled with taking any rocks away from their home but Gar definitely wanted to leave with some. "Where else in the world are there magic sea rocks?" He asked and said strongly as if to convince both of us it was completely justified to bring some back to the boat. "It's best when you gather a collection and you take one or two with you," John explained as he carelessly tossed a few back onto the beach. "Be careful," I warned.

We parted ways and Gar and I carefully put the rocks in our pockets and wandered through shallow sea grass beds out to the reef to watch the waves crashing. After finding blue sea stars and some tiny cowry shells clinging to sea grass blades we turned around and headed back to the beach.

Contemplating taking a few magic rocks, I was surprised to see a purplish glow coming from beneath a tangle of woody trees. If he says ouch or gets scratched we are supposed to leave the rocks here I said to myself. Holding my breath until Gar emerged with a small cool rock I had my answer. Where will we store ours I wondered?


August 26, 2008

Current Location: Ambrym Island, Vanuatu
Current Position: Approx. N 16° 09.08', W 168° 07.63'

Next Location: Island of Malakula, Vanuatu

My dogs are barking. Not only did we just hike for ten hours straight, but it was on a local Vanuatu trail up through the rainforest, across a volcanic plain, and finally up a slippery ridge to the rim of Mt. Marum, the immense active volcano on the island of Ambrym. Our guide, William, did it barefoot. No kidding.

What took us over five hours to ascend, he told us he could do in two, barefoot. We believed him. We were humbled.

This is no easy walk around the park, but it was worth it. Not only did we get some serious exercise, which we have been craving, but also we were witness to the raw beauty this island offers. We must have passed through five different ecosystems ascending from true ocean level where we tied up our dingy at sunrise on the black sand beach in front of Ranvetlam village. Up we went passed the pig enclosures and small subsistence garden plots carved out of the ridge we thoughtfully navigated. Taro, cassava, yams, island cabbage, bananas, paw paw, and kava grew, surrounded by huge banyan trees, coconut trees, and a lush green tropical pageantry of foliage in all directions. The clouds hovered on the extinct cinder cone looming above us and rained intermittently. It was hot, humid, and muddy and after only ten minutes walking we were both dripping in sweat.

After a few hours we arose out of the rainforest onto a palm tree covered promontory and looked down into the vast volcanic plain filled with huge tree ferns, where wild horses, wild pigs, and wild cows are said to be roaming. The clouds were parting and we could see the cone of Mt. Marum miles away across the plains.

We had a "small eat", Bislama for "snack", and then descended onto the plain. We hiked across the crushed lava rocks, William called it “the beach”, navigating our way through the huge plain that makes up much of this island and finally into a creek bed where we scrambled up and over the lava formations to gain a moss-covered ridge that took up to the rim.

We were amazed to see how big this volcano was.

It was huge. At least one thousand feet deep and big enough to hold at least ten of the volcanoes like Mt. Yasur, the active volcano in Tanna we went to see. Steam and smoke were rising out of the abyss in many places and hot molten lava spit and bubbled in two cauldrons we could see a thousand feet below us. Not nearly as active as Mt. Yasur in Tanna, but this volcano, Mt. Marum, is so much more impressive in overall grandeur and immensity, there was no doubt we were in a powerful place.

We lingered for a bit, took some photos, and then were off again, knowing full well what we had in store for the way down.


Life has been interesting for us this past month. After leaving the island of Tanna on a fast overnight passage to Port Vila we tied up to one of the forty boat moorings in town and DreamKeeper stayed for a few weeks. Our intention was totally different, re-provision, see Vila for a few days, and then escape and cruise to some other anchorages around the island of Efate, the island where Port Vila is located. We had also hoped to connect with the Oceanswatch boat called Magic Roundabout that was doing some Reef Check work with the local fisheries biologist monitoring some marine protected area (MPA) reefs. But the name of the game is flexibility and the weather had other ideas. A couple of lows came through bringing winds from all directions and lots of dark clouds and rain and we decided to stay put, do some boat projects, and get ourselves settled for a quick trip to Fiji we had planned long ago.

After a week in Vila we left our boat on the mooring and flew back to Savu Savu, Fiji, for 10 days to spend time with Nicole's parents, Bob and Michelle, and to join the group from the organization Seacology for their Fiji trip to visit the local village projects and marine and terrestrial reserves that have been created.

We spent our time catching up with Bob and Michelle, eating way too much good food, snorkeling and swimming everyday, and partaking in two village project ceremony’s and celebrations for the opening of their new school and community centers. As always, we also appreciated the hot showers and clean sheets, the two luxuries we will never again take for granted.

(read a little more about our trip here)


Back in Vanuatu, we had one day to get ourselves organized, provision the boat, clear out with customs and be on our way. Our destination was the "Back to My Roots Festival" on the island of Ambrym. Unfortunately, I was feeling sick and was pretty worthless so Nicole had to run around town doing all the shopping while I tried to sleep and rest up for the passage to Ambrym.

The next day I was feeling a little better and by late morning we were off to Ambrym. We saw winds from 10 to over 20 knots from the southeast, nice trade winds, and the seas were only 5 to 6 feet. We were so appreciative of the weather as we were both low energy and not feeling 100%, and extremely grateful for the pleasant and comfortable 120 nautical mile passage to the north.

By 9 a.m. we were dropping our anchor at Rodd's Anchorage on the outside edge of over 35 cruising yachts that had already beat us here. Busy. Real busy. We knew it would be this way as this is one of the big cultural festivals this time of year, but still, not really our style to be in a huge rally type setting.

The festival started that morning, but not for us. We were pretty wiped out and decided to have a rest day and save our energy for the next couple of days to come.

The next morning we rowed super dingy to the beach and were met by many of the smiling ni-Van Nebul villagers who helped drag the boat up the beach to the high tide line. There we met Zebulon, the local ni-Van young man who was to look after us yachties and soon became our good friend. We connected with many of the yachties also arriving on the beach, people who had sailed here from all over the world, the U.S., New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Columbia, Australia, and South Africa. It was a good mix of folks, many whom we already knew but also many new faces appearing that morning.

We hiked the 45 minutes to the festival site outside the community of Olal. Ambrym is still saturated with custom traditions. It is the island known for magic and powerful sorcerers. It is also know for its woodcarvings, sand drawings, and grade-taking ceremonies. But most of all, Ambrym is known for it's traditional ceremonial dance called the Rom Dance. Only men who have paid the right (through giving pigs) to enter the Chief's nasara (private space) may take part in the ceremony. Even the Rom costumes are sacred, filled with magic, and it is tabu to see them being made. The festival would end with the Rom Dance.

For two days we joined the hundreds of people gathered at the festival site. Over 90 tourists who had sailed and flew in for the event combined with the hundreds of local people created a vibrant gathering. We snacked on local fry bread, skewers of roasted nuts, breadfruit lap lap with coconut crème, and drank the refreshing coconut water.

Cameras clicked as men and women danced, sang, and did magic tricks. The rain showers came and still children played, women cooked, and dogs lounged in the shadows.

Finally, the Rom Dance began. About 30 men, 8 of them wearing full Rom costumes and the rest clad only in traditional nambas many with bird feathers in their hair, chanted and stomped to the ceremonial rhythm. The tourists went crazy. People got up from their seats and swarmed the men, cameras in hand all vying for the best position to get their memory on film. The French professional film crew seemed to always be in the way and eventually people were yelling at the cameraman to clear from the scene. Emotions were high and people's patience short. There was even some pushing, some name calling, and overall just plain rude behavior. But the dance went on and on for hours. Over time people spread back out, sat down, and chilled out.

The Rom Dance was indeed powerful. Looking back on it maybe that was the reason for some of the tourist’s strong emotions and "rude" behaviors. Maybe they were just caught up in the intense energy woven by the dance.

The dance ended with the "nambaone big fella", the high chief, clubbing a full-size live pig on center stage. It was what needs to be done for the Rom Dance to happen. It was fierce. It was real. It is what happens in Vanuatu. Back to the roots.

Back In Time

July 21, 2008 Island of Tanna

I am standing on the rim of an active volcano. Bathed in a dreamy surreal light as the sun sinks behind this ancient crater and into the lumpy South Pacific sea, the earth hisses and rumbles from this powerful place. KABOOM!!! With no warning, bright orange molten lava and dark gray billowy ash explode hundreds of feet into the air directly in front of me and the intensity and sound of it reverberate through every cell in my body. I stare intently at the lava rocks hurled through the space and calculate their erratic paths hoping that none will attempt to fall in my direction. After around ten seconds the explosion dissipates and I draw in a lungful of oxygen realizing I have been holding my breath ever since the explosion initiated. Around me I hear a chorus of "Oh my God! That was so intense!", "Unbelievable", and "Holy Shit!!" exclamations from the group of tourists who have assembled this evening to watch this incredible event. In the core of my being, I tremble. I am captivated by the power. Like staring at a campfire and watching the flames flicker, I am absorbed by the volcano's might, it's spontaneous explosive energy, sheer brute strength, and dazzling fire that pierce the glow of twilight. I can't believe we are actually allowed to be up here. I can't believe we are really here.

We are on a fascinating island called Tanna in the country of Vanuatu. The volcano is Mt. Yasur, one of the most accessible live volcanoes in the world. Some people on this island believe Mt. Yasur is the originator of the universe. Others believe that this is where their spirit will go after death. Regardless of belief, there is no doubt that this mountain is powerful and deserves respect. Vanuatu lies directly on the ring of fire and there are more active volcanoes here than any other South Pacific country. Mt. Yasur is special though, as you can actually drive to within 150 meters of the rim and it is often extremely active.

We arrived yesterday. After a three day passage from Fiji and just like Columbus did in 1774, we finally sighted the obscure entrance to Resolution Bay and slipped between the coral shoals to anchor amongst the six other sailing yachts already bobbing in the bay’s rolls. Framed with dark volcanic rock, sandy beaches, coconut trees, and steaming hot springs, Resolution Bay is a beautiful place to begin our Vanuatu adventures.

Vanuatu is made up of 83 islands rising from the sea and built on coral and volcanic rock. There are a little over 200,000 people living in Vanuatu, the locals are called Ni-Vans, but like all countries in the South Pacific, some ex-pats live here as well. The Ni-Vans are mostly Melanesian, but there have been Polynesian influences here too. History has brought Spanish, French and British explorers here. Then the black-birders arrived carrying off the Ni-Van's to work in the sugar-cane industries of Fiji, Australia and New Caledonia practically as slaves. The missionaries followed. And of course, the epidemics like cholera, measles, smallpox and chicken pox that wiped out the population from estimates close to one million people, to a decimated 41,000 by 1935.

The Ni-Van culture is fascinating. The people live in extended family villages, growing their own food and supplementing it with fishing and hunting. There are chiefs, taboos, a history of cannibalism, the practice of magic, many special ceremonies, men wearing nambas (penis wrappers), ritualistic drinking of potent kava, and, most importantly, pigs. Pigs represent wealth. You want to marry a girl, 10 pigs. You want to rise up in village position, more pigs. A feast, kill some pigs. Special ceremony, pigs. If you really want to be special in traditional Ni-Van culture, you would raise a pig by removing it's upper teeth, hand-feed it and keep it from foraging or fighting. Then around seven years it's tusks will complete a circle and penetrate its jaw, very valuable. If you can do it for around 14 years and get a pig with double-circling tusks, you will club the pig and hang the tusks around your neck. Highly-esteemed!

It was Sunday afternoon as we piled into the back of the 4x4 Toyota pick-up truck. Wooden benches were nailed together in the bed where the eight of us yachties and a few Ni-Vans from the Port Resolution village all squished together. No cushions, no roll-bar, no seatbelts, and definitely no child-seats, this is Vanuatu. The engine revved to life, reggae beats vibrated through the steel, and we were off with John, our Ni-Van driver, dressed like a Wesley Snipes rastaman outfitted with a tam and some aviator shades. We hurled along the rutted and often washed out dirt road first through the village where all the smiling kids stared and waved at all of us white people. We shot through the forests of Tanna alongside enormous banyan trees, small villages, rooting pigs, people carrying bundles of taro plants, kids walking back from school, and over cattle grades made of wood logs that looked way too small for their task. Don't get me wrong, this was no leisurely sight-seeing truck ride. We were hauling ass! Dodging tree branches that tried to smack your face, rutted washed out road sections that threatened to launch you off your hard wooden seat, and steep four-wheel-drive-only hills that smashed you into your nearest neighbor, this was all business.

After 20 minutes or so, we pulled into the deserted Tropical Retreat Guesthouse. No one was around. Stanley, Chief Ronnie's son from Resolution Bay village, was our tour guide. Stanley looked perplexed, "The dancers aren't here," he said, "I'll go get them". He brought us down to the dance space framed by an enormously beautiful banyan tree and surrounded by crude bamboo poles lashed together for audience seating. We were here to watch a traditional Kastom dance because some of the other "yachties" we were with thought it would be great fun. Nicole and I had our doubts about this one, thinking it may be more "touristy" than traditional for our like.

Fifteen minutes later Stanley returned with a smile. The male dancers arrived through a passage carved in the banyan tree wearing only nambas, which are traditional penis-wrapped accoutrements designed out of leaves or pandanus. There were about 15 guys, ranging in age from 8 years old to 60. The performance was actually good. It was after the show that you had to laugh. We were all back in the truck starting to leave when the group of men came out from behind the banyan tree all dressed in western clothing again and a couple of them catching a ride with us back to their village.

By five o'clock we had made it to the official Mt.Yasur parking lot, a gray barren volcanic ashy knoll below the eastern rim. The ground would shake with every eruption. We spent a couple of hours on the rim and then piled back into the truck. We were all elated from the intensity of the volcano, but the evening wasn't over yet, we still had to drive back down to Resolution Bay.

We flew through the darkness, the dull headlights illuminating the truck's obstacle course through the terrain ahead. We were about half way back to Resolution Bay when some pigs made the poor decision of trying to cross in front of our charging vehicle. The driver gunned it, we heard a thump, and immediately a pig's high-pitched squealing. The engine stopped. Stanley and the driver walked back into the darkness towards the squealing pig. The pig was put out of its misery and dragged back to the truck.

Stanley had this guilty smile on his face, "Don't worry," he said, "It's a wild pig from the other village." We all looked at each other, wild pig, yeah right. We all knew how important pigs were in Ni-Van culture. There are no wild pigs.

"Is it OK if we bring the pig back in the truck with us?" Stanley asked us. So a warm bloody pig was thrown into the truck-bed and slid at our feet as we heaved and hurtled through the forest. It was perfect. Our first adventure in Vanuatu and we had already seen a live volcano erupting, a crazy vehicle adventure, witnessed a touristy, albeit traditional, dancing event, and now probably just started a village feud over killing someone's pig.

July 19, 2008 Island of Tanna

Thankfully I have a selective memory. I am already beginning to forget about the first days of our passage out of Fiji to Tanna, Vanuatu. But not before I tell you about it. We waited for over a week so we wouldn't have 30 plus knots of wind and 12 foot seas. Gar and I are learning to be patient. This time it helped but not all that much.

Leaving Momi Bay, we decided to put two reefs in the main. The forecast was for 16-18 knots. We figured we were sailing downwind and we could always unfurl the beastly genoa entirely. The wind was out of the ENE off of our starboard stern and continued to clock around to the E so we were sailing almost directly down wind in rolly 12-foot big seas.

I can still hear the waves hissing as they curled and frothed, towering above us, sometimes slapping the boat so hard she shuddered or was that me? The wind piped up to 25-30 and we were sailing fast, 7-8 knots surfing down inky dark waves. My knuckles must have been white; I know I was hiding unsuccessfully in the cockpit from green water and rain. We were both a little green ourselves. The shaft of the rudder of the windvane snapped. Darkness brought clouds and squalls and I began to question what I was doing out here.

This continued through the second day. The wind continued to shift back and forth from ENE to ESE. The autopilot was still possessed and changed course 180 degrees. The clouds built and scattered and we were surrounded by squalls. The surface of the ocean looked like shattered glass. We both felt small, vulnerable, and insignificant.

The ocean has so many faces. Overnight she became my friend again. My morning watch unveiled a moonlit sky, allowing only the brightest stars to sparkle. I could see constellations I didn’t know existed. The wind settled to a comfortable 18 knots out of the SE and the seas decided to lie down as well and dropped 4 feet overnight to eight. I was dry, the boat was balanced and flying at 6-7 knots and we had 178 miles to go to Vanuatu.

We can't have it all. The wind continued dropping and on our third day we had to turn on the engine on for a few hours to charge the batteries and to keep moving until the wind filled in again. Darkness brought clear skies and a rising full moon. We sailed beautifully throughout the night, following the moon west while the seas whispered, gently carrying us onward while the winds pulled us forward. By morning I was in love with my life. We had 24 miles to Tanna when I watched the giant yellow moon slip slowly into lilac seas while the sun rose into a pink painted sky. I'm grateful for my selective memory.