Into The West – Passage to Vanuatu

IMG_2192So here we are again, chasing sunsets (and our friends on Rehua) as we travel ever further west across the Pacific towards Australia. During our voyaging we’ve experienced a whole gamut of passages – boring ones, bumpy ones, beautiful ones, downright nasty ones but never have we experienced such a frustrating passage as this one to Vanuatu.

It starts out well (they always do) with a good 16-20kts of wind on the beam, just as the forecast predicts. We weave our way out through the reefs surrounding western Fiji, both trolling lines out in the hope of catching those elusive fishies. Not far ahead is “Nimrod” a Seawind catamaran also on their way to Vanuatu. Slowly we overhaul them (we are bigger after all) and settle down into our watch routines of 3 hours on, 3 hours off. We check our fishing lines and discover the first frustration of the passage – some monster has taken our brand new lure, chomping clean through the wire trace. Bugger!

At least the sunsets are spectacular
At least the sunsets are spectacular

Night falls and with it the wind dies and moves further aft, forcing us further south of our rhumb line. No worries, the forecast is for the wind to move more into the south-west (it’s now ESE) which will allow us to come back up on course. With less speed we’re getting knocked around more by the swell, so it’s not a comfortable night. The wind continues to move into the east. Now we’re on our worst angle of sail with the wind almost dead behind us (cats don’t sail well dead downwind). There’s quite a bit of swearing. From both of us. Every now and again the wind shifts more to the south and we claw a few miles further north, ever hopeful that it will be kind to us, but it teases us for a few hours then swings east again. By daylight we’re very frustrated. OK, time to put the spinnaker up so we can run square. Luigi hasn’t had many outings in the last few months so it feels good to get the big fella up and running. He lasts about 10 minutes before there’s a bang – and we discover the block that the tack line runs through has pulled out of the deck fitting. Down comes Luigi, pack him away, more swearing. The wind starts to shift south and strengthen – hurrah! We put a reef in the main and we’re off in the right direction, doing 8 kts SOG (speed over ground). But within 2 hours it’s back to its old tricks, wandering east again. We’ve been reluctant to gybe as the angle will be horrible, sending us backwards but there’s nothing for it now we’re getting too far south of our rhumb line. It takes us 3 hours to claw our way back north and who should we come across but “Nimrod” just a few miles ahead of us. Arrgghh!!! Their choice to stay north of the rhumb line obviously paid off.

Now the seas are building to 2 -3 metres and the wind is coming in at 20kts, so we’re under reefed main with a small amount of genoa out. This we don’t mind, as we have forward momentum in the right direction, even though the sailing angle is still way aft of the beam. We pitch and toss in the building seas and I’m very wary of having an accidental gybe – we have a preventer line set, but no boom brake (it was on my wishlist in NZ, but the money ran out). So there’s no relaxing on watch, no reading or listening to music, just watching the wind angles with an eagle eye and adjusting course constantly to keep us safe.

On the second day of the passage we lose our second fishing lure to another sea monster. That’s it, the lines are coming in, no more fishing or we’ll run out of lures. Then the AIS decides to play up. Bruce fixes it and it works for a while, then stops again. This goes on for the next 24 hours and we have no idea what the problem is. But Murphy’s law says it will always happen when there’s shipping around – on our third night we come across several large Chinese fishing trawlers and it’s very unnerving when they disappear off the screen and then pop up again a few minutes later travelling in a different direction. It’s a bit like playing blind man’s bluff with several thousand tons of steel.

Pentecoste Island wreathed in clouds as we approach Selwyn Strait on the way to Santo
The volcano on Ambryn Island hidden by clouds as we approach the islands of Vanuatu

We always aim to make landfall in daylight and try to avoid weekends (because clearance charges are usually double) but getting the timing right is tricky on longer passages. We’ve estimated we’ll get into Luganville Harbour on the island of Espirito Santo around daybreak on the 4th day of our passage, but of course the wind has now piped up. We slow the boat down by reducing sail but we’re still going to arrive in the dark. Bruce used to run a business here many years ago, so he knows the harbour well and assures me it’s not a difficult entrance – but I’m not reassured. It’s always hard to get your perspective in the dark in a strange harbour. We have some difficulty getting the main down in the strong wind but then we’re in the calm of the channel. OK, all we have to do now is find where to anchor. Off to our right near the shoreline is a confusing array of lights. They don’t seem to be moving so we assume its part of the wharf. Hang on a minute, the wharf seems to be coming closer…oh crap, it’s a barge moving down the channel, go port, PORT!! We motor down to the suggested anchorage off the customs wharf but it looks decidedly dodgy, so we scoot across the other side of the channel to Aore Island Resort who supposedly have moorings we can pick up. I have the big flashlight up front trying to spot the moorings – there’s several but they all have boats on them. Now what? We’re not sure what the bottom’s like here and there seems to be quite a bit of tidal race coming through the channel but we’re running out of options, it’s 3am and we’re both dead tired – so we drop the anchor off the resort and hope for the best. It holds and we breathe a sigh of relief. It’s been a frustrating 620 nautical miles and  3 1/2 days. Did I mention I don’t like coming into strange anchorages at night?!

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