Saturday, May 24, 2008

It's the wrong island Grommet

By a combination of luck and some judgment we arrived at the reef break in Ouvea just after sunrise. With the wind blowing into the break, we alternately surfed the swell or lurched alarmingly from side to side, whilst I clung onto the rigging up the ratlines. In the event the break was clearly marked and there was little need for my arial gymnastics, fun though it was. Once inside we motored very cautiously a couple of miles to the anchorage trying to any spot coral heads emerging across our path in the less than ideal conditions of a low sun shining directly into our eyes.

Our cruising guide mentioned that we should "faire la coutume" - the custom of giving a small gift to the chief of the tribe in return for anchoring off their village. What would be an appropriate gift? We'd heard mention of tobacco, money or local printed fabric, of which we had none. Perhaps some of our fish? With abundant fish in the lagoon I feared this might be like offering Mother's Pride(1) to a Parisian.

Eventually we decided upon some homemade cakes/biscuits. Hence later in the morning we found ourselves outside a thatched open-sided village hall waiting for the end of a gathering, quietly satisfied with our offering of icing-sugar dusted "crispy orange cookies", presented on a silver-foil covered piece of card.

Inside the villagers appeared to have arrived with vast quantities of produce; stalks of banana, baskets of citrus, sacks of rice, flowers etc. Could they all be gifts for chief? In comparison, our dozen cookies started to look a little mean. People spoke, we tried to pick-out the chief. All of a sudden the meeting was over, people left with what appeared to be the produce with which they'd arrived - mystifying, what was purpose of the meeting? Perhaps some kind of redistribution occurred, or wrongs were righted, any thoughts?Duly we were introduced to the dentally challenged chief. Memories of childhood present giving returned; the excitement of the recipient opening my homemade gift and kindly appearing delighted. I'm not sure that "it's the thought that counts" gifts were quite what our chief had in mind, or it could have been the confusion I caused when I lapsed into Spanish as the French for "gift" eluded me, but he seemed less than impressed by our "regalo".

Previously I'd spied an overburdened lemon tree outside his hut and as Charlotta's "ripening green lemons" have unsurprisingly turned out to be limes I'd already pictured him graciously receiving our "cadeau" and inviting us to his hut for a drink, where we'd learn about village life and finally he'd offer us some of the excess fruit from his garden. Not sure how this imagined exchange was to take place with my limited French, but in the event, he accepted our gift with, what appeared, little enthusiasm, I gathered that we were welcome to stay in the anchorage, but no invite to gather fruit was forthcoming. So the great anthropologists set about exploring the village surroundings, lemon free, but hoping that the sacrifice we'd made to our butter supply would be appreciated.
By early afternoon we'd exhausted the sights in the village and beach and had to decide how to spend the afternoon. The options were to be take the folding bicycle ashore to explore further afield, take the dinghy back towards the entrance in search of some coral for snorkeling, or find another more sheltered anchorage with better snorkeling options. Our guide described an inviting anchorage across the lagoon, on an uninhabited island. It looked very appealing, but it was 18 miles away and the time was 13.30. The decision was made, we left immediately speeding across the lagoon to arrive an hour or so before sunset. Strange how the mind works - well mine at least. In the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary I continued believing something not supported by the image presented by my eyes. So it was with our anchorage for the night. The sketch chart of the anchorage showed an island in two parts, with a small barely navigable channel between the two and a bay offering protection from the SW wind. As we approached, we couldn't make out the break in the island, but consoled ourselves with thoughts that our approach angle probably hid the channel. We slowly motored round, eagerly searching for the hidden anchorage, until close to completing a circumnavigation with no gap emerging we admitted that something wasn't quite right. The situation wasn't promising - we'd tangled ourselves in a maze of coral in fading light, with no anchorage in sight.

A reexamination of the chart, our guide and our position, showed that in my eagerness to depart I'd set the course for the wrong island. The selected anchorage was another 6 miles east. Carefully we extracted ourselves from the coral maze and made full speed for the other anchorage, anxiously glancing at the setting sun and willing it to slow it's descent. We just made it, helped by sighting another boat in the anchorage, verifying that this time we'd found a tenable anchorage. With a couple of shouts of "full-reverse" to avoid wrapping ourselves on some coral heads which suddenly emerged from the darkening water, we dropped anchor into a beautiful sheltered bay. Unfortunately the anchor failed to set so in the final light of the day we both dived-in to see the problem. The bottom consisted of hard coral covered by a light dusting of sand - little chance for the anchor to penetrate. Again we discussed our options, but were saved when Charlotta spotted a tiny sandy hole. In the disappearing light I attempted to manoeuvre the boat and anchor over the chosen spot whilst Charlotta dived down and placed the anchor in the hole. Incredibly it worked and we barely had a chance to look around our new surrounding before the light vanished. Phew...

We spent two great days in Ilots Deguala, diving, scrubbing the hull, taking more shark photos, meeting the neighbours (Peter and Gisela on Comodo), sampling their their Chilean Pisco, spearing fish in the allegedly ciguatoxic free reef etc.
On our final morning we dived in early aiming to swim ashore and check some rudimentary traps I'd set for the local coconut crabs. The previous day, whilst scrubbing the hull we'd been in the watchful presence of a giant barracuda. With a recent warning from some fellow sailors still very current in my mind - "remember when you go into the water you're entering the food chain and you're not at the top!" - the teeth of this monster barracuda looked particularly menacing. As we swam ashore we noticed the barracuda had left it's new home under our hull and was following closely behind us. A few minutes later it was still following. Perhaps it was lonely and thought it had found some new friends, but I doubted it's intentions and started to become anxious. Sharklotta has more experience than me with close aquatic encounters and used her well practiced routine: "hey large potentially dangerous sea creature, that was too close, back-off, you've just invaded my personal space", Doctor Doolittle has nothing on her screaming and kicking - the monsters of the deep seem to understand.

Another notable event was Charlotta's first kill with the spear gun, resulting in a afternoon bbq feast on the beach for the four of us.
Will Charlotta's family and friends recognize the returning hunter? She is already talking about a potential new interest in hunting moose and wild boar on her return to Sweden.

We're currently on our way to Tanna in Vanuatu. So far the sailing has been perfect; full sails with the wind just aft of the beam on a slight sea. We should cover the 200 miles by early Saturday morning.

Position @ 10.50 (GMT - 11) S19°57.86' E169°01.06'
Wind SSW 10-15 knots

1) "Mother's Pride" = much maligned taste-free white sliced bread

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