Good to be back

Gosh, it’s good to be back. Not that we’ve been to the Louisiades before, but we’ve now cruised enough of PNG, Solomons and Vanuatu for the Melanesian environment to have some familiarity. We know what to expect, and we know we’ll love it here. It does feel like returning, and we’re now fulfilling the promise we made to the boys last year that we’d find a place to stop and really get to know. This is it. No overbearing bureaucracy , no-one to tell us our kids are too young to operate the dinghy on their own, no proximity to internet, skateparks, phones etc to encourage ongoing requests from the boys for modern trappings, and a people who are friendly, funny, courteous and keen to interact with us. It’s back to basics again, tending our supply of water, fuel and food to ensure we can prolong our remote anchorages as long as possible before being driven back to civilisation, catching rainwater and washing clothes in the island creek, putting genuine value on our ability to catch fish and trade for fruit & veggies as one method of doing so.

It was in doubt for awhile back then whether we’d get to do this again on this trip, and even on the passage from Cairns I think both Rebecca and I had moments of questioning the decision to head North, especially after the mainsail tear. Mind you, it was a pretty grim four days, so I figure we’re allowed one or two moments of uncertainty. But we’ve done the right thing, no doubt, and we’re now feeling like we’re reaping the rewards of the hard yards we’ve pulled in getting here: beating down from Indonesia, sticking it out in northern Queensland to make repairs, and committing to the Coral Sea passage.

The Louisiades Island Group is an area of islands, reefs and cays some 200 nautical miles long and 50 miles wide, stretching out from the SE’ern most tip of the PNG mainland. I believe “archipelago” may be the correct title, but it’s far too poncy a word for this journal and for some reason it’s a word I find myself unable to utter without using a silly voice. Not sure why, maybe there’s something inherently pretentious about it. Perhaps a bit like having to mimic an American accent when using the word “closure”? Anyway, the island group has one port, although that might be overstating it somewhat, Misima which used to be a mining centre but has lost this industry, but still retains it’s title of capital of the Louisiades. There are occasional flights to Misima but precious little accommodation once you get there, so this area has never been on the PNG tourist map. Until, that is, a few yachties started to visit regularly from Australia, and these cruisers have become for many who live out in these remote islands the only contact with the outside world.

Gabriel and I have been spearfishing for the last three days, our fishing fiend finally getting to exercise his new speargun with a vengeance. As we’d be told, the marine life is lovely here with turtles, rays, reef sharks and a host of reef fish commonly parading themselves. Yesterday I pointed out a very large and colourful parrot fish to Gabriel, chiefly as a “look at that!” rather than any direction to shoot, but before I knew it he’d dived down and nailed the thing. Well, these fish a re good to eat and he proudly bagged his largest fish yet. Today we tried the more tricky job of fishing in an outer reef passage in the hope of coming across pelagic fish. Despite battling against currents we found a method of staying put, and before long were witnessing a slow but steady parade of jobfish, trevally and dogtooth tuna swimming by. We returned with a good haul, and decided to attempt smoking some of it island-style. The local fishermen had erected a wooden frame, underneath which we built a fire, placing the fish on overlaid sticks and covering them with leaves. Rebecca stoked the fire continuously with damp coconut shells, and before long we had our own smokehouse. Two hours later the boys were picking over warm smoked fish for supper, even Jakey wolfing down the result with much slapping of lips. It’s a good job our boys all like fish.

We gleaned advice about which islands to visit from a neighbouring yacht. The charts here are OK, but uncharted bommies abound so navigation is very much eyeball, and moving is only really safe in good daylight. Our neighbours brought over their own chart of the Louisiades that was published, get this, in 1847; but most believe these soundings are still current and are the same ones we have on our laptop-based Cmap charts. Amazing what they achieved back then, given that fixing their original position was done solely by astral navigation using sextants, all surveying was made from sailing ships or their rowed longboats, and the soundings themselves taken using leadlines. This does mean a margin of error is inevitable, and depending on how the original soundings were taken, the error itself may differ mile by mile. Aside from this, we’ve inherited an array of what cruisers call “mudmaps” – hand drawn diagrams of bays and anchorages with relevant info scribbled all over them. Much of the scribbles are relevant nautical data, but some refer to locals by name; those who’ve been particularly friendly or helpful, or pushy for trading, or in one or two cases hard-case wideboys whom it’s suggested cruisers avoid. Tomorrow we put this info to the test. We’ll take off for our first inhabited island and proper encounter with a local village.

Overpowered canoes at the Duchateau Islands

Coordinates: 11deg16S, 152deg21E
Made a cautious early morning approach through the outer reef and around the back of Duchateau Islands PNG, all classic white sand tropical islets with palm trees bending in the trade winds, white surf crashing on the windward side. Beautiful. Gabriel pulled in a good sized jobfish on the way in so our supper was sorted, and we dropped anchor in sandy patches between visible coral bommies. Ahhhh. Four days and nights in a rough sea, and the moment of stillness when we finally come to rest is truly worth savouring. Rebecca’s priority at this point is to boil the kettle for a cup of early grey tea, as for some reason she’s unable to drink tea when stifling seasickness with scopaderm patches. I reach for a well-earned bowl of muesli and the boys promptly call for fried eggs, which given their watch-keeping contributions seems a reasonable request. The boys are pulling two-hour night watches each plus time at the helm during the day, and we’ve achieved a level of confidence with them now to sleep within easy calling distance, so this is a great help. Jakey just carries on bouncing around the boat in his inimitable fashion, but with renewed enthusiasm at the prospect of an imminent beach visit.

Although uninhabited, the island is used by visiting fishermen and we arrive to find a couple of guys returning from their most recent shark-fishing outing in their outrigger. The Louisiades are famous, at least amongst the cruising community, for their sailing outrigger canoes and the sailing skills they’ve honed by negotiating high winds and currents through the island group. This couple come hooning through the reef in their outrigger hooting and holloring, spray flying behind them, their bright yellow sail clearly overpowered and the canoe looking like a guaranteed capsize, so I dive for my video camera to capture the moment. But of course these guys know exactly what they’re doing, and despite shipping substantial amounts of water they cruise through the reef and drive straight onto the beech with the full-armed welcome wave to us that is so typical of Melanesians. We go ashore in the afternoon and catch up with the fishermen, named David and Joseph (looks like the missionaries have been busy here) two likely looking lads on a four day shark-fin fishing expedition. Friendly without being pushy, they seek trade of T-shirts or shorts for fish, and we arrange crayfish for tomorrow and offer use our of grinding stone to sharpen their machetes. Luca joins me in teaching one of them the game of noughts and crosses in the sand, and within a couple of games our new friend David is consistently taking Luca to the cleaners, clearly chuffed at the notion of beating a ?im dim(white guy) at their own game.

We’ve been told that water can be a problem in this part of PNG, so to avoid resurrecting the perennial “why didn’t we buy a watermaker?” debate, I nipped out and bought a new tarpaulin whilst in Cairns in the hope that it’ll rain at some point. But in the meantime we’ll be down to strict water rationing. We’ve read that some villages have creeks, so whenever possible we’ll be begging to refill our jerrycans, and no doubt plunging the boys into anything that looks cleaner than them. Which will be anything by then. This evening we clearly all needed a wash after four days at sea, so took turns to stand over a large plastic bin to recycle each other’s greywater and managed a complete family clean-up on just one bucket of water, this to be further cycled for rinsing seasick stained towels. Ah, the joy.

This may all sound very staunch and spartan, but of course this is the Nolan family we’re talking about, and Rebecca as our provisioning boss has catered for box-loads of muesli, Earl Grey teabags, chocolate and all the other yummy luxuries that seem to have become our cruising necessities. It ain’t going to be that tough!

1st Louisiades landfall tomorrow

Coordinates: 11deg50S, 151deg54E
Day four of our 520 mile passage to Louisiades, and things are looking up. In fact, we’re nearly there. It’s been a fairly rough trip, the wind rarely dropping below 20 knots and frequently rising to 30 as squalls pass by, so we’ve had our fair share of pounding and seasickness. But everyone started to rally by the third day, and meals have almost been restored to their full gluttonous Nolan portions, although with seas like this you can imagine the menus are kept pretty simple. Anything anyone has the stomach to cook is generally well received.

Of course with our damaged mainsail on its third reef only, we’ve needed abit of wind to push us along. But we could do without the 2-3 metre swells that have come with it. Last night on my watch a rogue wave came out of the darkness and fell right over the bimini, which I estimated must have made it some 3 metres higher than the rest. Still, you can’t have your cake and eat it. Although, as I discovered much to my advantage, we could have our cake (our French friends kindly baked for us the day we left Cairns) but most of the crew couldn’t stomach it through their seasickness so it was all mine, mine, mine!

We carry an optimist dinghy for the boys to sail, strapped across the port bow trampoline. Luca has had some good mileage out of it. But our first 24 hours of pounding on this trip, waves thrown with force upwards through the trampoline, took its toll and the dinghy came adrift. It seems that the wooden backing plate that Conrad and myself had so lovingly improvised back in NZ had finally rotted through and disintegrated, the dinghy was being launched with each wave, and the tramp itself had lost it’s lashings. Not good. My initial thought was to jettison the dinghy as I was concerned about it damaging the deck, but Rebecca encouraged me to find another way and after some two hours of wave-drenched re-strapping we managed to secure it. This was clearly destined to be one of those types of passages.

But the rest of the trip has gone, if not smoothly, perhaps bearably, and tonight we approach our first island landfall after four busy days at sea. Given the vagaries of wind and sea, it’s impossible to accurately predict arrival times, but somehow we always manage to time arrivals at reef-strewn and poorly charted islands at night, leaving us no option but to slow down or stand-off and wait for daylight. So we’ve slowed ourselves right down, and we’re plodding along at a sedate 4 knots, enjoying the reduced slamming this provides.

We’ve decided to make the Duchateau Islands our immediate destination. They are three small atolls, perhaps no more than sand cays in one case, sitting just inside the outer reef. A couple of other yachts have recommended this is an easy first stop, as they are near our route into the island group, they are supposedly quite beautiful, but also uninhabited so should allow us some time to get the boat back in order and recover ourselves tidy up, dry out and sleep before taking on the more energetic activity of interacting with curious villagers, visiting canoes and demanding local kids; and figuring out how what to do with all this aid. We plan to stop here for 2 or 3 days, collect ourselves, make necessary repairs (poor old Rebecca will be out with her sail repair kit again I fear), then start our cruise proper within the wider lagoon. Next destination still to be decided – a plan unencumbered by any planning! – but we have lots of yacht advice and hand-drawn charts to work through, and plenty of time to figure it out.

Limping up to PNG

It’s the end of our second day at sea, having left Cairns on Saturday morning with a brisk 20-25 knot tradewind. We’d picked this weather window not for it’s light winds, but for the wind direction which would avoid another passage of beating into headwinds, and in that respect it’s been good. We’ve got the direction we want, if not the wind speed. So we said farewell to our French and Dutch friends and we spent the first day hooning along on a tight reach with the second reef in our newly rigged mainsail and a partially furled jib, our average 8-10 knots sadly being eroded by a westerly ocean current. We’d been warned about this, so have been determinedly making more easterly than we need, in anticipation of this current getting fiercer further north.

It would be fair to say that Rebecca and I were a little apprehensive about this passage, coming off a three month run of unpleasant beating. We’ve also been sitting at anchor for the last three weeks, which has undoubtedly made us a bit soft and taken the edge of our sea legs, the result being a thoroughly seasick Team Nolan for the first two days on this trip, not helped by a lumpy sea overlaying a 2-3 metre swell. The swell we can deal with, but the lumps mean repeated slamming. You’d have thought that the seas would have had time to sort themselves out, given that there’s no substantial land to windward of us for thousands of miles. But last night we went through a series of squalls that pushed the winds up to 30 knots, and I guess it’s these that disrupt the wave patterns.

Our last days in Cairns proved eventful. Every fortnight Cairns has strong tides that rip through the estuary and dislodge anchored yachts. It was clearly our turn a couple of nights before we left – funny how it’s always nighttime when you drag anchor, isn’t is? – but we went to bed content at our anchorage, and woke up in the morning about half a kilometer downwind, sitting right in the middle of the shipping channel. When we retrieved our anchor we found that we’d swung round so many times that our own cable had tripped the anchor, wrapped around it several times. What barefaced luck, though, for Tonga Moon to have dragged past several neighbouring yachts without hitting one, and drifted into the channel, avoiding sand banks on either side, to finally come to rest sitting there sedately waiting for us to wake up in the morning to sort her out. We must be blessed.

Or perhaps not. This morning we woke up after our first night on passage to find that during our night-time squalls we’d torn our beloved new mainsail, a large vertical tear just above the 2nd reef. Too large to repair on passage, this is a cruel blow and thoroughly demoralising given that we thought we’d put our sail woes behind us. My immediate thought was to turn back to Cairns for repairs, given that we were still only 24hrs out, but Rebecca and I took a breather and thought further. We could still use the main on its third reef, which means that we’re still geared for high winds, plus we both know how long repairs can take and were thinking that if we turn back now, we may never make it to PNG. A sobering moment and important decision. We decided to crack on. That was early this morning, and since then the strong 25 knot winds have remained and we’ve continued making reasonable progress, aided by a low rev engine. If the sail damage is as bad as we think, it’s quite possible that a completely new mainsail might be the only solution, and if that’s the case we might as well limp up to PNG, make the best hand-repair we can up there, enjoy our cruising (which won’t involve a lot of sailing), and start ordering the sail for our return.

So we’re still going, now limping rather than hooning our way north, looking forward to a landfall probably Wed. We’re somewhat demoralised, all but myself are seasick, and the boat’s starting to take on the look of a boat-on-passage (i.e. stuff strewn everywhere). But early tomorrow morning we should pass our half-way mark, and before we know it the lovely Louisiades Islands will hove into view. This is just one more minor setback – there’s much to look forward to.

A truckload of aid

We’re in the final countdown for departure to PNG, working through our usual lists to get fully ready; except this time we’re anticipating up to three months of very limited supplies so need to be self-sufficient for this time. This has translated into Rebecca making one huge shop-up at the local cash and carry, plus several more supermarket runs for other stuff.  Most of our repairs are now done, we’ve retrieved our passports from Canberra complete with shiny new PNG entry permits, and we’re almost ready to go. Best of all, it looks like there’s a good weather window opening up for us this weekend, giving us the much sought-for south-south-easters rather than the more typical south-east or even easterlies. For us this could mean a fast close reach rather than a miserable slog to windward. This weather patterns passes through here about once every fortnight, lasting approx 3-5 days, so we must grab it or be stuck here in Cairns for longer.

Yesterday we met with an Australian couple who have made annual trips to the Louisiades Islands for ten years, and now organise aid for the islands during the off-season. It seems that the Louisiades are so remote, even by PNG standards, that even the mainland authorities forget about them and they really struggle to get basic supplies. Some of the aid is destined for a yacht rally leaving in September, but the couple suffered a shipwreck just a week ago and so badly needed someone to carry their own boatload of aid. We volunteered, and now Tonga Moon is groaning under the load of endless boxes of the stuff. Rebecca and I spent today working through what we’d inherited: many boxes of adults and childrens’ clothing, school books, pen and pencils, rope, baby blankets, medical supplies and various other things. On top of this we’re also carrying our old mainsail and genoa, which weigh close to 100kgs alone. Heavy sailcloth, we’ve been told, makes great roofing/sunshades and the villages can make good use of it.

A flatbed truck’s worth of boxes to sort thru’

We’d already bought similar stuff cheaply in Indonesia, anticipating opportunities to help out the odd village and also trade for fruit and veg, but this load is at an altogether different level. The couple have given us some advice about how to distribute, but they’ve also said “over to you, however you think best”, so we’re still working through how to do this without showing favouritism or becoming a floating free handout centre. It’s a weighty responsibility. It’ll wonderful to have the opportunity to help out these communities, but we both anticipate things becoming a bit fraut if it’s not done the right way. This will probably be through village chiefs, pastors or school principals, and we both agree that it shouldn’t be handed out from the boat, but only given ashore. It would be sad, but all too easy, to create an environment where every canoe who approached the boat was after a freebie. Anyway, they’ve also given good advice about which villages to visit, and our intention is to settle in just a few, and really spend time getting to know people.

We’d planned to collect aid from this couple a week or so ago, but just days later we received a horrifying email informing us that they’d lost their yacht. A bit careless, we thought. But their shipwreck story has been a shocker, and a salutary lesson for us all. They’d been entering a channel north of Townsville at night in bad weather, taking a wide sweep past a sand spit that they’d safely navigated around several times before. But cyclone Yasi had apparently extended the spit several hundred metres, and before they knew it they’d hit the side, broached their 50 foot monohull and the three metre-high waves quickly swamped her onto the reef. They triggered their EPIRB, managed to clamber out, and sat shivering on the reef until being rescued a few hours later. But the boat was full of sand and water and is probably a write-off. They sat in our cockpit telling us the story, both clearly still traumatised by the event, and honest enough to admit that it was navigational error, no excuses. And this after some ten years offshore cruising.

Rebecca and I talked about this later, and have taken the tale to heart. It’s all too easy to get complacent, and disasters like this can unravel quite quickly. Just a few weeks ago we left an anchorage near the outer Barrier Reef, having arrived the evening before without mishap. Neither of us bothered to check for bommies or uncharted reefs on the way out of the bay, thinking we were safe to go back down our path in, and sure enough we hit one. The damage wasn’t significant, easily repairable, but still very galling considering we’d just hauled-out for a fresh anti-fouled hull, and it was absolutely our fault. So this is a relevant story for us, one that we can resurrect whenever we’re feeling just that too bit relaxed or ‘can’t be bothered’.

So we’ll leave Cairns tomorrow morning for what should be a 4-5 day passage, no doubt sitting several inches lower in the water than we should, laden with full diesel, petrol and water tanks, months of food supplies in addition to all the aid. But based on the forecasts I don’t think we’ll be short of wind to push this lump of overweight fibreglass through the water. The boys enjoyed their last play at the Cairns waterfront skatepark with their French friend Johan, but it seems that his family may be following us up there in the next week, so we hope to hook up with our fellow French yachtsmen quite soon, this time in a more remote location. This is the first long ocean passage we’ve undertaken since the horrid Arafura Sea episode, and we’re both looking forward to a much different experience altogether. Here’s hoping.

Flying the flag for NZ

I was concerned that I’d find nothing to write about whilst in the familiar territory of Australia, but somehow I’m managing to witter on. Time seems to be dragging somewhat, as we sit in Cairns waiting for our departure. We can’t leave yet, as we still need to retrieve our passports along with a new PNG visa; we need to finish fitting our new mainsail, now almost complete; we need to beach the boat one more time to finish fitting the propeller; and most importantly we need a good weather window to avoid facing headwinds all the way up to the Louisiades. So we’re looking at at least another week here.

Having made the decision to go, this is a tad frustrating, but we’re well occupied all the same. Rebecca had been through all our miriad of storage lockers to figure out what we’ve got before re-provisioning for what could be three months with no shops. In between the major jobs, I’m slowly working my way through the list of minor repairs that have been bugging us for awhile.

We took delivery of the second-hand mainsail a few days ago. Seems that every Australian government bureaucracy wanted a piece of the action, and it took an import agent, customs, freight forwarder, quarantine and Uncle Tom Cobbly to carry, look at, weigh, assess and generally make up plausible reasons why they should add their own surcharge. So it was with a lighter pocket and somewhat aggrieved mood that I finally picked up the 60kg parcel from the airport and took it straight to our friendly sailmaker’s loft. This chap, John Fisher, is the same man who made our new jib for us, and is quite a character. He works in his industrial complex warehouse bent over his huge sewing machines stripped to the waist, happily telling any casual callers to “piss off, I’m busy”. He has to be the most obstreperous man I’ve dealt with, but somehow manages to pass it off with good humour. We lay our new sail over the old one, and with heart in hand I await his verdict: will it work? See, mainsails are usually built for the specific boat and mast that they’re flown from, and every mast has a different rake and bend to it. Ensuring a compatible length and breadth is only the start, and I was nervous to establish whether this sail’s luff curve and other technical details would fit. He walks up and down, and after much poking and stretching he pronounces “you’re a lucky lucky bastard, Mr Nolan. Looks like you’ve got yourself a winner”. This is received with some relief, as it would have been an expensive and time-wasting project to have ended up with a duff sail, and to be honest it was only near the end of the whole transaction that I started to appreciate how risky that was. So yesterday we spent the morning transferring batten pockets, fitting battens and attaching the thing to the mast. Today gave us a rare and welcome light wind, so we hoisted, tinkered around with ropes and whatnot (as you do when you’re a sailor trying to look like one), and admired our new purchase. It’s grubby but functional, and a whole load better than our last one. This weekend we test sail it, but for now we’re happy.

Out with the old & in with the new, Rebecca leads the ceremony

 

We also took delivery of a new NZ red ensign, the flag flown at the stern that shows country of origin. It seems that flying national flags – which I’d always thought was a legal maritime requirement – has gone out of vogue in the last few years, as few yachts seem to do it now. This is a bit inconvenient, as it removes our last vestige of country distinction, something we’ve relied on to avoid making regrettable anchoring decisions. e.g. “OK, there’s a German boat to starboard, lets go to port!” Still, we’re old school when it comes to this stuff, albeit perhaps not as old school as our ancient mariner would have us (!), and we like flags. We fly a courtesy flag of the country we’re visiting from the spreaders, and proudly remind everyone who won the last rugby world cup from the stern. Sadly our current ensign was so tattered that the back half had completely blown away, removing all four stars and leaving only a bit of red and the corner union jack, so those who’d taken an interest would have guessed we’re British: a mistake none of our kiwi friends at home would have made, of course! Anyway, with much unnecessary ceremony and self-conscious posturing we lowered the remains of our old flag, and raised the dazzlingly bright new one for the admiration, or more likely complete disinterest, of all boats around us.

There’s certainly no shortage of interesting people on the boats around us. The locals are a far cry from the standard tourists who teeter around Cairns in high heels, booffy hairdos and tight white tops. We’re still not that far from Cape York and Torres Strait, and the wild frontier man-look is only partially gentrified here. Not all locals have 3 foot goaties and shaved heads (as in Thursday Island), but there’s plenty of hard cases living on beaten up old boats in the estuary, and I’m relieved to note that some form of facial hair is still de rigour here.

Now that our friends the Von Trapp family have departed North for Indonesia, our boys have befriended a French boy Johan who’s on a 45 foot yacht with his folks and 16 year old sister. They’re from Paris, spent the last 9 years living in the bush in New Caledonia and have now sold up and taken to the sea with no plans other than to follow the wind (i.e. go North). They claim to change their lives every 5 years, and this is their next change. Of course they come with all the usual Parisienne glamour and haughtiness, leaving us feeling like the country bumpkins that of course we are. Johan looks on with bewildered contempt as we try to engage him with our appalling Franglais. This evening Rebecca and I are mortified to discover from Johan that the age-old and celebrated “most interesting fact about the French” – that their dogs don’t say “woof woof”, but “waa waa” – turns out to be complete rubbish. Surely not?  

Heading back up North

Cairns has been a good place to stop for awhile, a necessary stop to make repairs but also an easy place for the kids to have fun. The local council have developed the waterfront here with lagoon pools and imported sand beach, grassy parks, an outdoor gym for musclemen to preen (and imagine they’re in LA, presumably) , an enormous playground, climbing wall and skatepark all along a couple of kilometres of waterfront promenade. So Rebecca has been homeschooling and exploring these free attractions, whilst I’ve had my head stuck in engine compartments, bilges and toilet holding tanks trying to resolve various plumbing problems…what joy!

I could expand further on my holding tank adventures, but I’ll refrain. Suffice it to say that you virtually have to burn a layer of skin off with undiluted bleach to get clean. No-one would consider me a natural DIYer, but I’m slowly getting better after all the maintenance practice of the last year. But for someone as mechanically challenged as me, this improvement comes at a high price. Almost every job follows a similar path: my initial diagnosis and enthusiastic (i.e. poorly thought-out) repair creates worse damage than before, I rush off to seek advice from someone vaguely competent and end up re-repairing the original problem plus my own mess. This week I was truly stumped on a leaking hot water connection that took out our whole fresh water system. After several visits to the local plumbing suppliers – they know me by name now and have even stopped bothering to conceal their amusement as I approach – I settled on fitting and bending a copper pipe. Of course, I’ve never worked with copper before and made an almighty hash of my first installation, more water spraying all over Gabriel’s cabin than the original leak. I could only be thankful it was Gabriel’s cabin, and not ours: Rebecca’s sympathy was still holding. So I traipsed back to the shop, and they showed me how to connect it in words of one syllable, and my second attempt finally nailed it.

Meanwhile Rebecca had decided that we all needed a haircut, and this time not one of hers. In true tight-arsed cruising style she ferreted out a local hairdresser training college that offered cheap haircuts by their students, and without a word of consultation with us she’d enrolled us as their willing guinea pigs. Of course, none of us really care what our hair looks like at this stage (bar Gabriel, perhaps): she could just as easily have enrolled us into a “haircuts by blind amputees” events for all we cared. But as it turned out, this might have been favourable. The problem wasn’t the quality of cut (“like we’d know the difference”, I hear Rebecca say), but how long the whole thing took. These poor students were so timid, every tiny cut had to be thought-out and carefully executed, and after half an hour of patiently watching while each individual hair follicle was assessed, measured and snipped I was ready to grab the scissors and plunge them into my students chest. So it took most of the afternoon, but cost almost nothing – a pretty good trade given our current circs.

But after much heart-searching and advice seeking, we’ve decided to turn around and head back up North. Despite the many good things about Queensland, ultimately it ain’t doing it for us. It’s simply too much like home for us to spend our last 6 months cruising here. It’s all convenient, but where’s the challenge? And the whole coastline is dominated by tourism, which makes everything just a tad, well, touristy. So we’ve decided to head back up to PNG, to the Louisiades Islands to be specific, and hope to depart in the next two weeks. It’s about 4-5 days’ ocean sailing to get there, which depending on the weather system could be hard-work or easy, so we’re hoping for the latter and will wait for the right conditions. Play our cards right, and we’ll have 5 days of beam reaching all the way up; now that would be nice.

We’ve lucked out in our research by connecting with a guy who travels to the remote Louisiades Islands every year and collects aid for them. The volume of stuff has snowballed to a level beyond his own boat’s capacity to carry, and he’s keen for us to take some of this stuff up to distribute. We’ve done this once before, some 13 years ago in Vanuatu when we distributed school books on behalf of a Port Vila project, and we’re keen to do so again. It’s lovely arriving at a village, knowing that you’re bringing something of value to them other than your own inquisitiveness. We already have a reasonable collection of goodies to give away or trade with – expecting as we were to sail straight from Indonesia to PNG – including shirts and shorts, kids schoolbags, school books and pencils, fishing hooks, and lots of flour, sugar, rice etc. so it’ll be interesting to see what other stuff they need. Now that we’ve made the decision and sent passports off for visas, I think both of us have rediscovered our travel mojo – the excitement of planning for something largely unknown, picking people’s brains for all the info you can get, and re-provisioning knowing that we’ll be a long way from any shops for 2-3 months. Can’t wait.

Swinging our way around Cairns

We said a sad farewell to our great friend Sheila yesterday, after a very happy week where she got to experience cruising in all it’s forms: lovely days on reef-fringed islands and croc-spotting up river, and long days repairing toilets or knee-deep in foul-smelling mud fitting propellers. Sheila you are already greatly missed.

One of Sheila’s lasting impressions is likely to be the weird few days where we struggled to find a secure anchorage as the local spring tides produced a tidal range of >3m and a ripping current in and out of the estuary of 3 knots or more. This coincided with a strong wind warning for the area, and during the in-coming tide we sat with 2-3 knots of current pushing the boat one way and 20 knots of wind trying to push it the other. Poor old Tonga Moon, with her high freeboard and mucho windage, didn’t know what to do with herself and swung wildly around her anchor, scaring the bejesus out of most of our neighbouring yachts.  We weren’t the only ones swinging, but each yacht swung differently depending on her hull and keel shape, and the sum result was a right royal mess. After several hours of nervous watching one evening, we were caught out in an off-watch moment and clonked into a neighbouring yacht, fortunately not hard enough to damage either of us but certainly sufficient to decide enough was enough, so we upped-anchor and headed upstream. Our second attempt to anchor near town the following day, having tried and failed to get a secure holding in several other spots, led to the somewhat embarrassing situation of us swinging very close, nearly into, one of the few other yachts that we’d made friends with (the Anglo-American family). We were clearly on the fast track to making friends and influencing people here! They were all very polite about it of course, but boating etiquette dictated that they were there first so it was therefore our prerogative to move not theirs, a fact that they were clearly very aware of!

Woops! Swinging abit too close to our neighbours again.

Anchoring problems can dominate all else, and in our case had meant that someone had to be on the boat most of the day to prevent further clonking. Not good. But as often happens to us, luck stepped in. It seems that a couple of the locals had decided we clearly needed help, and a friendly chap we’d met whilst beached last w/e came over and offered us his mate’s vacant mooring, which we picked up with great relief the following day. This mooring has been a godsend. We’re still swinging around all over the place, but at least not into other boats.

The extended Von Trapp family on croc-watch

We swelled the ranks of kids onboard for our up-river croc-spotting trip by taking four from our friend’s yacht – the aforementioned Anglo-American couple – perhaps more accurately referred to as the Von Trapp family.  Our friendship hasn’t extended to surnames yet, but their four kids feels like a whole lot more than our three. We promised thrills and spills of the toothy variety, spectacles of enormous prehistoric creatures lurking menacingly on every mudbank, and all seven children were agog with the thrill and terror of it all. Needless to say we didn’t see a single croc all day, but of course the kids had forgotten all about crocs within minutes of departing so we had a lovely time pottering and fishing amongst the mangroves anyway. The following morning I took Gabriel fishing up a creek just a couple of minutes’ dinghy ride from the yacht, and lordy!…there on the opposite bank sat the most enormous crocodile either of us had seen. Eight feet, so we’re told. The Cooktown locals’ reference to inflatable dinghies as “croc-floss” was ringing in my ears, so we kept a good distance while the beast sat sunbathing, my hand twitching on the throttle ready to execute a heroic exit. The thing just lay there, seemingly not particularly bothered by us, and we rushed back to the yacht to show Sheila. Sadly by the time we returned a local fishing charter boat had motored too close and chased the thing away, so she only had our word on it’s existence. Given others’ previous suggestions of exaggeration (on this blog? can you believe it?) this looked like a tough sell.

Yesterday evening we decided to immerse ourselves in Australian culture (if that’s not a contradiction in terms) by taking the boys to a game of Aussie Rules. I had no idea how it’s played having only watched it only once briefly on telly, but something to do with lots of kicking and catching. I asked Rebecca about it, but perhaps unsurprisingly all she knew was the attire: tight shorts and cut-off sleeves. Seems there was an early evening game, so I set off with our two eldest, the full Von Trapp family and an additional French kid off another yacht. With me and the American Mum (Joni) leading a trail of seven children, I figured passers-by must have thought we’d been pretty productive.  But Joni was at pains to point out to anyone we spoke to that we weren’t a couple, a point that I chose not to take too personally.

Sadly my planning turned out to be somewhat flawed when we arrived to find it was rugby league, not Aussie Rules after all. But Mrs Von Trapp knew nothing about rugby (being American) and her children likewise, so they couldn’t have cared less. I was interested to see whether my early impressions of League as a vastly inferior offshoot of real rugby (union) would be altered if I actually watched a whole game and allowed some fact to inform my opinion.  It didn’t.  Lots of guys running hard at each other and being stopped every few yards, but only rare moments of passing or kicking skill. The game was enlivened somewhat by the cheerleaders, but even they seemed a bit lacklustre and struggled to rouse the crowd beyond polite clapping. So I still don’t see the attraction, but nevertheless it was a fun evening made all the more satisfactory to find that if we sat on the grass we’d get in for free. Long-term cruising has certainly refined our ability to scrimp and scrounge, and after much pressure from the kids for an icecream on the way home we ducked into a supermarket and bought a packet of 8 for four dollars on special. Now that’s what I call a great evening out! 

Beaching the cat

Picked up our great friend Sheila from Cairns airport a couple of days ago, and headed out of town to nearby Fitzroy Island for a few days’ explore. Lovely island with a resort that’s friendly to yachts (i.e. lets us use their showers and internet for the price of a beer).

We’re nearing the end of our repairs here, which feels great. New jib in Cooktown, clean bottom in Port Douglas, new propeller fitted a few days ago, and we’ve just got lucky and found a secondhand mainsail in good nick that will work on our rig, our tattered old mainsail having been declared “utterly buggered, cobber” by our trusty Cairns sailmaker. It’s in Auckland so being freighted over to us this week, and despite heavy freight costs will still save us a heap of money over a new one. Hoping to take delivery in the next few days, and once we’ve made any necessary adjustments we’ll effectively have a complete new (to us, at least) set of sails. Our budget may have got smaller, but our go-faster stripes will have definitely got faster!

One or two other things to buy or repair, but these and the new prop are the major expenses covered. I’m fitting a new backing plate for our anchor windlass, having nearly ripped off our current one trying to free ourselves from a stuck anchor. Will be replacing our VHF radio, having already replaced the antenna and realised that the radio was also stuffed. We’ve even ordered a new NZ red ensign flag, our current one so worn away by wind and sun that half is missing, making it impossible to establish whether we’re British, Kiwi or (god help us!) Aussie.

We spent a very frustrating two days unblocking a blocked holding tank, the day that our good friend Sheila came to stay with us for a week… no-one’s idea of a fun job, but this being particularly unfortunate timing given Sheila’s long-held view of us as slovenly!  Welcome to our beautiful home, Sheila, don’t mind the smell.

The 2nd biggie for us is fitting the new propeller, and much preparation and anticipatory anxiety had gone into the planning for beaching Tonga Moon. This is a big deal for us, never having beached a boat before (at least, not deliberately), but haul-out costs here are massive and it just doesn’t make sense. So we sought advice. Slightly concerned to hear back from the Australian Leopard salesman that beaching the Leopard 42 wasn’t recommended, and this further backed up by the manufacturers. Bugger. This wasn’t the answer we wanted, so like all good researchers we tried other sources until we found the answer we did want. Thankfully the Moorings charter fleet in NZ’s Bay of Islands (who we bought the boat from) came back saying they regularly beached them, and we just needed to be cautious in how we did it. So we lined up a nice mud/sand beach up the Cairns river, and sought local advice about tide, mangrove strength (for tying up to) and, of course, crocodile proximity.

Disconcertingly, we were bringing the yacht up the Cairns river the night before beaching, having spent a very pleasant two days out at Fitzroy Island with Sheila, and we heard the local Coastguard put out a VHF radio “securite” call, announcing that an 8ft croc had been spotted just along from the main marina. A tad spooked by this, I asked about crocs from a couple of locals who’ve beached their boats in the same spot. Both gave us the predictably unhelpful “yes, well there are lizards here (locals’ slang for crocs) but don’t worry, they’re only aggressive at night”. Reassuring.  So we’d planned a rolling croc-watch duty to be shared by the boys whilst I paddle about the water drilling and fitting. Sure, muggins here gets to do the paddling.

 

Look – no keels!

As it turned out, we chose a bit of Cairns estuary beach that was so muddy the boat sank right up to the top of her keels, so structural support was never an issue, and neither were crocs. I spent about four hours up to my knees in mud fitting the prop, and most frustratingly failed to complete drilling a new split-pin hole in the shaft (this being our new plan to avoid losing the prop again). Stainless steel is as bugger to drill, I got halfway through the prop shaft but broke 3 bits and couldn’t get more before the tide came in again, so ended up making a real Heath Robinson-type bodge with s/steel wire. Will probably have to beach her again I think, before we leave, to satisfy myself that the final fixture is dependable. Still, we’ve now got both engines back and we’re using our stbd one gingerly but with alot of gratitude. The only downside is me having to hop over the side every couple of days to check the prop hasn’t worked it’s way loose, with boys posted at each corner to keep croc-lookout. As you can tell, we’re starting to get a little less nervous – probably I should say abit more sensible – about the whole croc thing. Having said that though, the kids still aren’t playing in the water, and my forays into it are very very quickly executed!

 

 

Meanwhile, we’ve met an English/American couple who’re cruising with four children, in fact have been doing so for five years can you believe it, and our boys are thrilled to have found kindred spirited kids to play with. We’re thinking of heading up river later this week, before Sheila finishes her stay with us, to see how far we can get and do a little croc-spotting of our own, this from the safety of our 6ft freeboard catamaran. Crocodile Dundee has nothing on us.