Deum Horribulus

Coordinates: 12 deg 14 S 143 deg 13 E

Yes, it was a horrible day that started so well. After three days beating our way South, the winds had picked up further to a nasty chopped-up 25 knots on the nose and we’d decided to stop for the night in the lee of a tiny island, to catch up on sleep and wait for the sea to subside. In the morning we took the dinghy ashore to take a look, give the boys some running around time before leaving. This islet took about 10 minutes to walk around, and turned out to be the habitat for thousands of nesting seabirds who on closer inspection were all protecting eggs. As we walked they’d rise up in thick clouds of Alfred Hitchcock-like grievance, shrieking their anger at us to send us on our way. Warnings of crocodiles were reinforced by a sign announcing their presence, so we stayed together and kept a careful eye out. Thankfully nothing sighted.

It was on our departure, however, that things started going a little pear-shaped. We couldn’t raise our anchor, and trying every angle of attack from the boat made no difference. With great reluctance I dived down the 12m anchor chain, to find the chain firmly wedged underneath a huge rock outcrop. Swimming here was clearly not encouraged; the water was murky, the first dive gave me a bleeding nose, and the situation had all the ingredients of being scary as hell, but as we were stuck and a long way from any help we simply had to resolve it ourselves. On the third dive I managed to attach a line to the anchor, we dropped all our chain onto the seabed (with a buoy at the very end), and attempted to pull the anchor out head first, dragging the offending chain behind it. It had taken us 3 hours to get to this point and this was really our last ditch attempt, so a lot hung on it. With hearts in mouths we watched as the boat finally made way, and after much winching and heaving we recovered both anchor and chain. Phew.

At one point during the general carry-on the boys had mentioned an alarm sounding below, but this occurred at a crucial time and we couldn’t attend to it. Fresh from celebrating our narrow escape, Rebecca mentioned that the starboard engine wasn’t responding and another dunk into the water revealed no prop. Somehow we’d managed to drop our propeller. This clearly wasn’t to be our day. If I’m honest there had been warning signs that I’d either ignored or misinterpreted, thinking we had an intermittent problem with a slipping gearbox. I don’t even know if that’s likely, but it seemed likelier than the prop working it’s way off. I feel quite sick about the whole thing, knowing that a simple dive on the prop could have prevented it. Anyway, spilt milk and all. Fortunately, being a catamaran, we have two engines so we’re able to continue on just the port engine, although we’re weakened and there are some difficulties in doing so. We hope to be able to source a replacement prop once we get to Cairns, although the journey there is proving very slow and hard-going and this won’t have helped. Somehow it feels like the sailing Gods are agin us a little at the moment. Aside from the above, we also now have a failed regulator on both solar panels and wind generator, a fault VHF antenna, and a jib that needs serious reinforcement. Cairns is increasingly building to be a key stop.

In the meantime, we’re tacking tacking tacking down the busy Queensland shipping lanes. Last night a squall came through on us, coinciding nicely with a large tanker bearing down and the urgent need to tack off an approaching reef, and I decided enough was enough… so we headed for the nearest safe island and anchored up for the night. The nice thing about this part of the world is that the charts are accurate. We’d never dream of negotiating reef-strewn waters like this at night in the South Pacific, but here everything is where it’s supposed to be, so anchoring at midnight off an unseen island is quite feasible. Nevertheless, some of the passages are only a mile or two wide, and tacking across them with shipping going up and down isn’t easy at night. Unless the trade winds abate, this might be our pattern in order to make headway South and keep our sanity: get up at 6am and get underway, anchor up before midnight to get some guaranteed sleep.

Our plan is to stop for a week at Lizard Island, which is about 150 miles short of Cairns, to give us all some rest time, but we’re still 200 miles away from there, so we keep having to reassure the boys that this passage will end. Sometime.

Gobble or declare?

We’re on the road again, this time winding our way down the shipping lanes and through the many reefs between the Northern Queensland coast and the Great Barrier Reef. We said a lukewarm farewell to Torres Strait at 1am on Monday, hoping to catch the falling tide and avoid the 4+ knot currents that run through there. Why only lukewarm? Nothing against Thursday Island itself, just that it was a stop forced on us, and we were left with an odd impression of the place, probably reinforced by two or three people we met who were thoroughly fed up there. Actually it was all fine, except that everyone we spoke to warned us about crocs, stingers and sharks…”and if they don’t get ‘ya, the rip currents will”. So we’d looked out from the yacht longingly at the water, but daren’t swim: torture for the boys, and frustrating when I know our hulls needs another good scrub.

On arrival we were boarded by no fewer than 6 Customs & Quarantine officers, all kitted out in smart uniforms, new inflatable lifejackets and para-military boots. Suitably intimidated, we watched as they inspected the boat and took our documents. To our dismay, however, they showed no interest in confiscating our small pile of remaining fresh food – the stuff that we hadn’t gobbled down in our pre-arrival feeding frenzy. Can you believe we indulged in all that over-eating for nothing! But we were informed that Torres Strait has special quarantine status, so any fresh food we bring from here to mainland Australia will be subject to a further inspection and likely removal. Odd, given that everything you can buy at Thursday Island has been shipped in from Aus. Which begs the question of strategy: gobble or declare? Our gobble strategy this time turned out to be needless, albeit very over-indulgent and yummy. Of course, there is a third unspoken option: Hide it. We discussed this at length as we approached Thursday Island, with much thought given to where we could best hide a couple of kg’s of cheese without it going off, but eventually decided best not. Aside from the inevitable barrage of official complaints this would unleash from our rule-oriented children, I had visions of sniffer dogs tearing the boat apart in a cheese-sniffing frenzy. Like I said, these guys don’t mess about. After all, they’ve got to deal with boatpeople, illegal commercial fishing, and now kiwi cheese smugglers. Mind you, the Hide it option is made somewhat easier by the simple fact that we don’t know exactly what we’ve got on board. 8 months of regular reprovisioning, and even Rebecca’s detailed inventory is bound to lose it’s way. A plunge into any one of our many lockers usually throws up some unexpected find… “ooh look, we’ve got a bottle of Baileys down here!.

So we’re clawing our way down the coast, heading for Cairns as our next major stop, beating very slowly into 20 knot tradewinds as before, although this time in smaller seas. Progress is painfully slow, but the pounding less insistent and it’s good to know that when it all gets too much we can head for the nearest reef and park up for awhile.

So in the meantime, here’s a favoured joke enjoying it’s multiple retelling amongst the boys: The three bears return to their home after enjoying an early morning walk in the forest. Daddy bear goes to the kitchen table, stops suddenly and says my bowl’s empty – who’s been eating my porridge? Baby bear looks at her bowl, and says my bowl’s empty too! Who’s been eating my porridge? Mummy bear sighs and says oh, for Gods’ sake, do we have to go through this every morning? I haven’t made your wretched porridge yet.

Reluctant Aussie cruisers

Our priorities on arrival here at Thursday Island were sleep, sleep and more sleep.. then clean the boat (as you’d imagine, she’d got pretty nasty down below after 9 days at sea), re-provision and figure out what next.
Thursday Island is a sweet little place, the hub of Torres Strait industry which is based on transit cargo traffic, pearl-farming and (we suspect, based on the number of officials here) stopping illegal fishing and boatpeople. It has a small village about the size of Beachlands, but because of it’s remoteness from mainland Australia has to be self-sufficient. The place is a mixture of white Aussies and Torres Strait Islanders. The former are either workers brought in on contract, or the locals who you can spot a mile off by their shaved heads, big goaties and extensive tattoos (and that’s just the women), true frontier-men every one. The indigenous people don’t seem to look like Aborginals, more like Melanesians and I guess are more closely related to Papua New Guineans, but they’re determinedly Torres Strait Islanders and nothing else.

This has been our first re-introduction to relative prosperity for 7 months, and it’s been noticeable. Authorities are clear and efficient, theft and safety not an issue, no-one pays us the slightest bit of attention and the shops have stuff in them. Remarkable! Not a single dugout in sight. The boys aren’t shouted at, chased, and grappled with as some kind of extraordinary blonde-haired novelty. They’re no longer feeling beleaguered every time they go ashore, which is something they’re revelling in. I think they’d almost forgotten what normal was… even Gabriel’s now keen to go ashore. Unfortunately a strong current and the presence of saltwater crocodiles makes swimming a no-go, so today we walked off to the local swimming pool for what would otherwise be a truly mundane trip to the pool, but is by now a huge novelty in it’s own right for the boys.

Our last passage has definitely made us re-evaluate our plans. Nine straight days of beating into 15-25 knot winds, and we’ve realised two important things: 1) “Tonga Moon” goes to windward like a…like a…well, like a thing that doesn’t go to windward very well, and 2) it’s bloody miserable trying! Further research since we got to Thursday Island has shown us that no-one in their right minds attempts the route we’d planned. This route promises more of the same beating into trade winds, this time with stronger winds and over much greater distances. I don’t think any of us have the appetite for it, and I’m not confident that all our gear, sails especially, would hold out. Several yachts have previously attempted sailing East to PNG then SE to Vanuatu, and most have ended up aborting. The winds and currents are just too contrary. So a major re-think has been needed.

And this is were we’ve got to. We’ve reluctantly given up on our plan to return to PNG, instead we’re going to sail down the N Queensland coast inside the Barrier Reef to Cairns and probably further South, perhaps as far as Bundenberg, to get ourselves better placed for the long ocean passage to Vanuatu with a more manageable angle for tackling the 1000+ mile journey into the tradewinds. This will still mean beating into SE’erlies, but it should be in smaller seas as the Barrier Reef provides some protection, and when it gets too rough we should be able to find islands to stop at. We hadn’t intended cruising Australia, and I think for both Rebecca and me this has needed a bit of a mental adjustment. We haven’t given up on wanting to return to the remote and primitive life of Vanuatu, but everything we hear tells us that Queensland has some wonderful cruising, and it might also allow us to make more professional repairs to our sails, which are a bit beaten up but still have a lot of seamiles to go to get us home in one piece. So we’ll enjoy the Aussie hospitality, as much of it as we can afford at least, for the next two months as we head South.

So tonight we upped anchor at 1am to catch the outgoing tide and depart Thursday Island, beginning the slog down the coast to Cairns with the likelihood of a couple of stops on the way. Here’s hoping for settled weather, or even better, a break in the tradewinds.

We finally made it!

Thursday Island, Torres Strait – coordinates 10 degrees 35 south, 142 degrees 13 East.

We arrived at Thursday Islands in the Torres Strait after 9 days at sea with a huge sense of relief all around. The straight line distance was a mere 520 nautical miles, which with a conservative average cruising speed of 5 knots should have been quite do-able in 4 days. But with winds on the nose the whole way, plus a couple of short ocean stops to make repairs, we ended up sailing a horrifying 880 miles (yes, as a further method of self-inflicted torture I sat down and worked it out). “Never again” says Rebecca, a tall order but one I think we’re all in agreement with. The main issue hasn’t been the length of the journey, despite it taking so much longer than planned. No, the issue really occurred from the 3rd day when the wind increased to 20-25 knots and the seas became horrible. Not so much massive – they probably topped out at 2-3 metres – but very steep and confused, which meant that the boat pounded its way into them with bone-jarring shocks, and we lived in a constant state of low level anxiety regarding breakages. We had to slow the boat right down to minimise the pounding, and even then sleep was a huge challenge with the slamming noise down below. On top of this, we ran through two days populated by a series of squalls, each one pushing the wind above 30 knots with virtually no warning, leading to a frenzy of sail reduction, only to pass through half an hour later. Given the pounding Tonga Moon has taken I guess the sum damage hasn’t been too bad: one split mainsail seam, a frayed jib, a damaged fibreglass dinghy (where it worked it’s way loose one night), a couple of leaking hatches. A few things to add to our running repairs list.

But for the last two days we were blessed with a drop in wind strength and smaller waves. This was hugely welcome as the pounding reduced and it allowed us to pile on more sail and really get cracking, although still having to tack, tack, tack. The mood onboard lightened, and we even cranked out the stereo for a bit of an on-watch boogie. Worryingly, we’re finding that the old-folks’ tastes (blues, jazz, rock, even dare I say it the odd classical piece) is increasingly getting shouldered out by Luca and Gabriel’s new found fondness for electronic dance (thanks a lot, Nico!) and, even more disturbingly, rap. I may be a reactionary old fart, but somehow urban rap doesn’t work on a sailing yacht. Still, there’s no telling these young upstarts.

Speaking of which, the boys survived the ordeal very well. Jakey has been his usual easy-maintenance individual, never happier than larking around with the big boys. They’ve followed a regular daily regime of breakfast, playtime, watchkeeping and home schooling, rewarded with a movie late afternoon and a story read to them in the cockpit after supper as part of the first night watch. They’re starting to be active crewmembers which helps us all, standing watches, pumping bilges, cooking breakfast, whatever is needed.

And so we finally arrived. During our last night before landfall we had a favourable windshift that allowed us to line up our destination and hoon towards it, elation the common sensation. But in a fashion common to the whole trip, the wind Gods were of course just playing with us cruelly and the wind shifted back after a few hours to force us to tack again, clawing every painful mile to our final anchorage. As we entered the Strait we were buzzed by a Australian customs aircraft, who promptly called us on the VHF to ask our intentions and reinforce clearing-in regulations. These guys don’t mess about. So in anticipation of having all our fresh food confiscated we set about consuming it. Out came all the treats we’d been so carefully storing: eggs, cheese, butter etc and we feasted on the highest cholesterol meal our little hearts could handle. Someone questioned whether the honey was from Australia, and on discovering it was Indonesian we fell into it with renewed gastronomic gusto, feverishly scanning the galley for anything else we might have to give up. “Give up nothing – eat it all!” was the cry, and we arrived feeling bloated but quietly satisfied that our stomachs had beaten Australian customs to our goodies.

Groundhog day in the Arafura Sea

Thank you to everyone who sent us concerned emails about the earthquake and tsunami alert in Banda Aceh, Indonesia. This is at the NW’ern end of the country so we’ve felt no affects, besides which, we’ve been at deep sea for the last week. We’re far behind the latest news but this sounded pretty bad, so here’s hoping for minimal damage.

Day 6 since we departed Aru Islands, and this has to be the slowest passage on record. The wind has stayed resolutely from the direction we need to go (so much for my transition period theory), the trip continues as a long slow slog to windward through the Arafura Sea, tacking back and forth across our rhumbline seeing a lot of miles under the keel but sadly not many towards our destination. We’re lucky if we’re averaging 2-3 knots VMG, and continue to pray for a favourable wind shift; sadly, our forecasts suggest no change. A stop-over at Thursday Island is now inevitable, given our fuel consumption…that is, if we ever get there.

The boys are each now pulling 2 x 2 hour watches a day, one during the day and the other at night. Gabriel usually wakes early anyway, so he takes the 5-7am watch, while Luca plays to his night owl strengths and takes charge from 7-9pm. One of us crashes out in the saloon while they’re on, on call if things don’t seem right, but they’re growing in confidence. Sail changes, winches and furling lines on a yacht this size still require quite abit of muscle, but they’re getting to be able to help with letting out ropes (without losing fingers, that is). All of this is a great help, as it lets us get more sleep and thus keeps the skipper and mate from being less grumpy. Rebecca and I switched to a 4-hour night watch system on the suggestion of my father whilst he was with us, one of us doing 9pm-1am and the other 1am-5am, thus giving each of us 4 hours uninterrupted sleep. It seems to work better.

Despite our slow progress, the boys’ morale is good. Gabriel, thinking via his stomach as he does, helps set the menu for lunch and supper each day, and Luca continues to churn out inspiring poems for his little brother. We took a two week Easter break from home schooling whilst my sister was with us, which ended this week. The last few days have been abit rough for normal school though, so we’re putting the boys through ‘Braintastic Maths’ and a teach-yourself to type course on the laptop, which they seem to enjoy.

R & my morale is good to middling. We’ve been abit demoralised by how poorly Tonga Moon performs to windward, and to be honest I probably underestimated how gruelling long windward passages can be. Given that most of our planned trip back to Vanuatu will now involve similar trips, it’s making us revisit our planned route back to NZ. Apart from our tiredness, beating to windward also takes its toll on the boat with constant pounding, and we have to limit our speed to reduce shock loads of the real bone-shakers as the boat gets stopped dead by an untimely wave. Having been dismasted before on a previous offshore trip, we’re very aware of the risks of gear failure. This is probably my biggest anxiety in conditions like this.

For example, on the morning of the 4th day we discovered a long split near the top of the mainsail where a seam has failed. As it happens we’re sailing through shallows at the time, so lower sail and drop anchor. Rebecca spent the morning painstakingly hand-sewing the seam back together, and we then smeared sealant on both sides for good measure. Uncomfortable though the anchorage is, it was a short respite from sailing so we each took saltwater showers, cleaned out the loos and generally spruced up. We were back on the road within 6 hours.

Prior to this though on our 2nd day we’d found our wind gauge not registering wind speed and discovered that our VHF antenna had dropped and was interfering with the wind paddlewheel at the top of the mast. Now, climbing the mast isn’t usually such a drama, although at the best of times it takes some moral fortitude for an inveterate vertigo-sufferer such as myself to go up. Thus it was that Rebecca had been the last one up (altho’ my nephew Nico, in a haze of overloaded testosterone and with no particularly pressing need, had also climbed it while he was with us…mad fool). Rebecca doesn’t suffer from fear of heights, and approaches the climb with the same nonchalance, (perhaps I should say ‘quiet professionalism’ in case any former patients are reading this), that she tackles medical emergencies. But this time we were at sea, not snuggled into a nice flat bay, which meant that the smallest movement on deck was multiplied several fold by the time it got to the top of our 60 foot mast. It felt right that I should go up, and in an attempt to avoid having to stop our already sluggish progress we tried dropping the mainsail only and continuing with the engine and jib. This proved a no-go, as I found myself clinging on for dear life only halfway up as we pitched violently into the 1-2 metre seas. Common sense prevailed and we stopped the boat and drifted, and up I scampered. Attached to the main halyard, of course, with Rebecca securely belaying the rope from the deck (at least, I hope she was, I’m of course too scared to look down). By the time I reached the top the motion of the yacht was frightening, three rolls and a pitch and she’d settle for about 4 seconds before restarting the pattern, each roll felt like the mast is trying to throw you off. As you can imagine, work was slow when you have to grimly hang on for every 8 of a 12 second cycle, but eventually the offending antenna was secured and Rebecca lowered me down to flop on the deck with relief, legs no longer responding to instructions.
Which reminded me of singlehanded offsore racing yachties like Ellen McArthur, who over the last two decades has completed most top-level single-handed offshore races, included several non-stop round the world. She’s not much more than 5ft tall, but sails 90 foot out-and-out racing catamarans or trimarans that travel at anything up to 30+ knots. On her first round the world attempt she had to climb her 120ft+ mast twice to fix problems, self-belaying in the middle of the ocean with no-one to help her if things go wrong. I now appreciate how much balls that would take.

Slow beating and sore backs

Anchored off Pulau Jeh, Aru Islands, coordinates: 06 degrees, 55S; 134 degrees 29E.

Just our luck. We’ve spent the last three months confidently anchoring on the eastern side of islands, safe in the knowledge that the wind will blow NW every day. And bar a couple of squalls, it has. Then two days before we begin our big SE passage to PNG, sure enough the wind swings around to the SE and stays there, determined to make our trip as slow and painful as possible. That’s not to say that we believe the world and its entire meteorology revolves around us… perhaps just this part of it.

And we’re discovering how well catamarans sail into the wind. They don’t, and ours especially doesn’t. For those acquainted with sailing, it seems that the best we can do is 50 degrees true (30 apparent), which gives us an effective 100 degrees true non-sailable range on the compass. That’s pretty poor by anyone’s standards – I think Team New Zealand might have a word or two to say about it. We can motorsail, of course, and have been, but it’s slow progress. We only carry so much extra fuel, and so our ability to hammer our way into the wind is limited. The barometer is high and steady, suggesting that this weather pattern may be here for awhile, so completion of this next passage requires careful planning and conservative use of fuel and water. It could take awhile.

We completed the first leg to the Aru Islands and decided to stop for a night off an uninhabited island off the mainland to catch up on sleep before continuing on, but Rebecca tweaked her lower back on the way in and has been laid out flat in some pain. I’d like to suggest that she tweaked it in the pursuit of nocturnal chandelier-swinging activity, but you can imagine there’s not a lot of that going on whilst on passage, and sadly the circumstances were much more mundane. Anyway, she’s slowly recovering and is now hobbling around the boat like an old woman. Hopefully we’ll be on our way again tomorrow.

But life is not dull. The night we arrived at Aru Islands, a flying fish managed to fly straight through a hull hatch and land in our toilet sink! What are the odds of that occurring, I wonder? Passage woes temporarily forgotten as we crowded around the sink to witness this extraordinary event, with Gabriel immediately claiming ownership of the fish for bait. This morning we’re visited by a passing longboat, and three very dark Indonesians joins us on the yacht for a chat and oggle. More oggle than chat, as they don’t speak English and my bahasa is stilted at best, but we establish they they are pearl divers (Aru Islands are famous for their pearls) on a pearl collection trip from the mainland. Might be an opportunity to grab Rebecca and early birthday present maybe?

Seasnakes and dodgy ferrydrivers

We waved goodbye to my sister and nephew yesterday morning, only the earliness of their departure (4:00am) preventing a more emotional farewell. We’ve had a wonderful week with them onboard: the rainy season let up and provided perfect cruising weather, the boys enjoyed an Easter break from schoolwork, and we spent a very happy time snorkelling, spearfishing, windsurfing and running our own little quadrathlon by the beach. This comprised three teams running, swimming, paddleboarding and kayaking, and was won convincingly by myself and Luca’s team, a particularly pleasing outcome given Nico’s obvious athletic superiority (he played rugby for Cambridge University, and just earnt a half blue playing ice hockey for them) which we neatly handicapped by adding Jakey to his team. Ha! That soon doused his youthful exuberance!

Much excitement on our last day, when Nico and Gabriel emerged from snorkelling to announce there was a huge seasnake swimming under the boat. Seasnakes are poisonous here but generally too small to inflict a bite, so the word huge caught all our attention. We didn’t have to wait long before the snake emerged at the stern and without so much as a ‘by your leave’ proceeded to climb onto the aft step. Yikes! It was at least 8 foot long, with the characteristic yellow and blue circles down it’s body. We all gathered round to look at the ghastly thing, and decided it’s free roaming of the boat wasn’t on. Rebecca happened to be standing closest, so I handed her a fin and she swiped it off the boat back into the water, giving out the girliest shriek I’ve ever heard her utter! Rebecca’s not usually one for girly shrieks, so this was strangely reassuring – I think we all felt abit girly in the face of this beast.

We moved the yacht back into Tual town in order to sort out last minute details for our guests and begin final departure preparations for ourselves, in the process arranging more diesel and water delivery from our friendly supplier Mr Eddie. Now you may remember this chap from a previous blog, where he’d driven past us in the rain one morning when Rebecca was raising the anchor in less than full clothing, and secured his status as Mr Sleeze by determinedly oggling her. Dad and I had defended the poor guy over that incident, but he struck again yesterday while Nico and I were ashore. Whilst delivering diesel to the boat, he came onboard to introduce himself formally to Rebecca and Biddy, and did so by taking their hand, sniffing it and letting out a low guttural grunt of pleasure for each of them in turn. Notwithstanding my sister’s undeniable tendency to exaggerate (you wouldn’t find that tendency here, oh no), it did seem that both women had been sniffed by the man and were aflutter with the indignity of it all. Tempting though it was to interpret the incident as one they should have been flattered by, Nico and I took the wiser path and quelled the thought. Great blog material though, I think you’ll agree. As it turned out the next day, the girls’ disapproval of Mr Eddie was vindicated when he quietly took me and Nico aside and tried to sell us women. It seems Mr Eddie provides the full service to other seafaring folk.

And now we’re on the road again, having geared up over the last week for our next big move which will take us from Indonesia south through the Torres Strait to PNG. April heralds the theoretical end to the South Pacific cyclone season and the start of the misleadingly named SW monsoon (when SE winds dominate), so we’ve tried to time our trip back to sneak through the April transition window, safely after the cyclone period but as early as possible before the serious SE winds kick in. Few yachts sail this particular route as it invariably involves strong headwinds at some stage, most choosing to go the opposite direction, so there is scant information for us to follow. Our theory that the transition window will allow us through without incident is shortly to be put to the test. We’ve been tracking cyclonic weather patterns over the last month, and it seems they are becoming fewer. While my father was with us there was a tropical depression circling around the Gulf of Carpentaria, just west of the Torres Strait, and this seemed to spread it’s influence all the way north where we experienced heavy rain and regular squalls. With luck this weather pattern should be well behind us by the time we get there.

So we’ve said farewell to the Kei Islands, but we’re breaking up the journey with a short stop in the Aru Islands to catch up on sleep before taking on the 5 day passage to the Torres Strait, where we hope to catch a few more zz’s as a further short-stop before making the subsequent 3-5 day trip to our PNG destination. Diesel conservation will be key if we’re to avoid having to stop in Australian waters in the Strait to refuel, so unless we get good winds it could be a slow trip. A stop in Australia would be fine, except that they take all fresh food off you and charge you many dollars for the privilege. And of course they’re Aussies, so the grief they give Kiwis knows no bounds. Worth avoiding, we think.

The Truth (an independent view)

So having both followed the Tonga Moon blog from the rainy/snowy UK over the past couple of months, we Fred’s sister Biddy and nephew Nico finally made it out for a week before Easter to see just how much of it was a wind-up. How much of it to believe, how to separate the cock from the bull. With little contact with the world back home, it is only natural that stories should get taller, and they’re 7 or 8 months in already…surely we’d catch them out.

Well…. it’s fair to say that we were both expecting non-stop chores as well as back breaking manual labour and taking over Maths and English tuition. This was not the case. Expecting to cope with high seas and heavy storms (we are approaching cyclone season, Fred assures us) instead we have found the sun shining and it has been the proverbial plain sailing. Add to that blue skies, white sand, coral gardens, and a whole lot of friendly (if persistent) fishermen pulling up for stilted conversation, then you get a pretty good picture. Rebecca cutting kids’ hair on the back steps, Fred sent out to spear the evening meal…we were maddened to find that many of the blog tales seemed consistent with this Nolan bubble of serenity. School’s out for our arrival, so we didn’t even get to scrutinize Fred’s English teaching! Unaware of how much bribery may or may not happen behind the scenes, we still found all three juniors to be pretty well-behaved in what seemed a cosy but by no means palatial living space. Ultimately, more than half a year in and all that seems to have cracked are some of the saloon cushions and small parts of the keel, NZ mementos to unfortunately shallow sections of coral reef. We were somewhat gutted not to find more ammo to come back home with.

So we were spared the teaching. How though, you ask, were we given the privilege of examining the keel? Here some of the veneer to the idyllic cruising scene begins to peel off. It would seem that several months at sea encourages the growth of all sorts of nasties beneath the waterline, which have to be routinely scrubbed off. At this point the task was daunting enough to warrant a multi-stage plan of attack, several scrubbers and the all-important paint scraper for barnacles. So this week meal allocation has been decided based on scraping merit, children exempt of course; all four of us have had several goes and we can safely say that the port hull is nasty-free (starboard remains to be seen…). Hazards have included a very ‘abrasive’ hull that can claim fingers, territorial sea lice (no kidding), and the paint that comes off the hull with the muck. Drug-taking in Indonesia carries the death penalty, but the potent combo of diesel fumes and toxic paint makes flirting with the law wholly unnecessary. The final very real threat are the waste tubes on the inside of both hulls. There’s no way to put this nicely: if you time the job badly, then you may without warning find yourself up shit creek. With only a hand-held scrubber.

Staying in touch with the music scene is something everyone onboard is keen to try, and after dinner conversation was initially dominated by up-and-coming artists in the UK, and how many couldn’t quite compare to ‘the good old days’ of no X-Factor etc. Understandably the crew’s selection of iPod-based music is now a bit behind the times… so the injection of new artists and playlists was much appreciated. Gabriel declaring that of all the genres tested, Dubstep was the one for him. For those readers who haven’t come into contact with dubstep yet, it is a mixture of heavy bass and a whirring wha-wha-wha in 8 bar phrases, mainly remixes from other artists. Youtube ‘Rabbit Heart’ remixed by SLOF MAN to get an idea, the week’s favourite played on repeat. Now picture a quiet Indonesian sunset, the waves lapping, the fishermen returning home… and SLOF MAN blaring out on full. Thankfully there don’t seem to be any portable speakers onboard as yet, so SLOF MAN wasn’t able to accompany us for our evening bonfire on the beach…or we’d have had the makings of our very own Indonesian Full Moon Party. Surely the ‘bule gila’ (mad foreigner) reputation enhanced.