Our Current Position

Saturday, 7 December 2019

Return to Pittwater

After almost exactly three months away, we arrived back on X-Pat on 30th November ready to finally bring her home to Pittwater, NSW. During our time away we spent six weeks in the UK and sold our house in Pymble! 

After a day of preparations and getting our heads back into sailing mode, we were ready to depart, but the weather had other ideas. With strong winds forecasted for the Monday we decided to stay put and wait for things to calm down.

After arriving back in Australia from Vanuatu we decided that is was high time for Debi to skipper the boat. So on Tuesday (3rd December) with Debi on the helm, we reversed out of our berth at Newport Marina at around 0900. Our first port of call was Scarborough marina to fill up with diesel and then out across Moreton Bay to Cape Moreton. The winds were light and on the nose, so we chose to just motor this part of the trip.  We hoisted our sails once clear of the channels and sand banks of Moreton Bay and off we went.

The weather was reasonably kind with variable winds but mostly behind the beam. Debi had researched the location of the southerly going East Australian Current (EAC), which we found fairly quickly, despite our water temperature sensor failing, and so we made good progress down the coast. As we passed the Gold Coast and into NSW the smoke haze from the huge bushfires became more and more evident. Even when we were 30 nm offshore the haze was still present. By the time we got to Port Stephens we realized that the visibility was reduced to less than 3 nm in places. Light-houses would have been little use had we been using traditional methods of navigation.

On the final night of the trip we were visited by a Brown Booby, who seemed intent on perching on the boat and proceeding to crap all over it. We are not sure what he had been eating but the result wasn’t good. 

The Brown Booby - such a messy bird

The forecasted winds of 15 knots from behind failed to materialize on our final afternoon and so we had a frustratingly slow last 40 nm. We had been looking forward to the sight of Barrenjoey Lighthouse at the entrance to Pittwater, but had to wait a long time as the smoke haze worsened. It was then that we realized that the boat was not only covered in Brown Booby crap but also in a fine layer of ash.

White boats and bushfire ash are not very compatible

We only just got into Pittwater before dark and so decided to pick up a mooring at the Basin rather than trying to get all the way to The Quays marina, which would have meant arriving in the dark.  Once tied up it was time to crack open the champagne and get a solid nights sleep. We covered 494 nm in 3.5 days.

Arriving in Pittwater to bushfire skies

Our skipper all tied up on the mooring at the Basin

It's that time again

This morning we headed across to the Quays marina and our old mooring (No. 27). We left here on 31st July 2016 (see blog entry https://xpatcruises.blogspot.com/2016/07/and-we-off-sort-of.html) and it was a strange but nice feeling to be back on familiar territory. 

Getting tied up back at our old mooring at The Quays

We spent a few hours cleaning up the boat and in particular the deck, before calling up the tender to come and collect us. The end of quite a series of adventures. 

To be continued ….

Thursday, 5 September 2019

Homeward Bound

After a lovely four weeks in Vanuatu, we finally left on 26th August. We cleared customs and immigration which involved a fair bit of messing about and scurrying between different offices around town, which was a little annoying. Once cleared we headed back to the boat, deflated the dinghy and, at about midday, we set off.

Our first night went well. Although neither of us had much sleep, the weather was kind and we had 15-20 knot winds on the beam so made good progress at around 7 knots. We had a couple of Chinese fishing vessels to keep us company in the middle of the night which we are pretty sure that we saw on the way to Vanuatu as well. They seem to get everywhere.

The idyllic weather continued into the second day giving us a gentle but fast trip. We covered a total of 313nm in the first two days, which was great progress. This took us to just to the north of New Caledonia, where we had to start picking our way through the reefs in the area. We passed through what is known as “the Grand Passage” in the company of the cruise ship “Pacific Aria”. They were also heading to Brisbane, but travelling at about three times our speed.

Flying along at 7 knots in ideal conditions

The miles just disappearing behind us

By the fourth day out we intercepted the trough, which was forecasted, and passed through some heavy rain and choppy seas. Initially this was tolerable as the wind stayed consistent and we were making good progress. However, overnight, it turned a bit wild, with a wind shift to the south, gusts to 30 knots and very heavy rain. It got so grim at one stage that we had a Sooty Tern sheltering on the deck. A beautifully delicate looking bird, but obviously tougher than it looks.

Having passed through the trough and cleared all the rain we were looking forward to getting back to some sailing in the forecasted 15-20 knots. Unfortunately, the only thing that was right about the forecast was that the wind would be a southerly! For about eight hours overnight we had consistent southerly winds over 30 knots, gusting 37 knots. We had a heavily reefed main and no headsail and were going nowhere fast. Having been sailing for five days in pretty much a straight line to Brisbane we should have known it wouldn’t last.

The strong winds and big seas brought us another visitor, this time a Red Footed Booby. It somehow managed to balance on the polished stainless steel rail next to the cockpit and stayed there all night. Remember it was blowing over the 30 knots, with the boat pitching and rolling and this thing has webbed feet!  It was totally unfazed by us coming into the cockpit – obviously needed the rest.

An impressive balancing act from the Red Footed Booby

As we approached Fraser Island the wind eased but was changeable in direction and our wobbly track reflects these changes as we continued to try to progress south. We had lots of traffic to avoid as we approached within 30 miles of the coast with cargo ships and tankers heading up and down the coast. We finally spotted land, Fraser Island, at 0730 on the 2nd September. With the wind still preventing us heading south we decided to take the easy option and furl the sails and put the engine on. We had the EAC (East Australia Current) to help us progress.

Lots of traffic to avoid as we approached the Australian coast

The final night at sea was slow going and, as we approached Moreton Bay, the weather deteriorated again, so we waited for daylight before negotiating the channels. Then it was a slog across the bay and five miles up the river through the commercial shipping port to get to the marina where we had to clear customs.

Motoring through the commercial port in Brisbane

After exactly eight days at sea and 1134 nm, we tied up at the fuel dock, which doubled as the quarantine dock, at Rivergate Marina at midday on 3rd September. 

Tied up at Rivergate Marina awaiting customs clearance

On arrival we asked the dockhand how to contact customs to let them know we had arrived. His answer was interesting. He said “Oh don’t worry they know you are here. They have been following you on AIS and there are surveillance cameras throughout the port!” Sure enough, within the hour they showed up. Welcome back to modern society.

Despite all the rumours to the contrary, the customs and quarantine people were a delight to deal with. They were very friendly and courteous and very efficient. The quarantine process was very thorough, examining not just for banned foods etc. but also for insects and infestations. He pulled the boat apart but thankfully didn’t find anything nasty.

The whole process was over by 1630 after which we left the marina and headed back through the port and once more out into Moreton Bay towards Newport Marina, our final destination. By the time we got there at 2000hrs the tide was too low to get into the marina and so we anchored outside, in what felt like the middle of the bay, waiting for the tide. The champagne came out and disappeared fairly quickly and we had a very sound sleep.

The champagne just seemed to evaporate

All clean and tied up in Newport Marina for a few months
After getting tied up in the marina yesterday we had a busy day cleaning the boat and getting everything neat and tidy. We had a nice meal out last night at the Moreton Bay Boat Club and today we are locking up X-Pat and departing for home. We will be back in November.

Sunday, 25 August 2019

Wala, Luganville and World War II

Our last week feels like it’s been a bit of a lazy one, but we do seem to have done all we wanted to do.

After a nice long stay at Ambrym Island, our target was to get to Luganville on Espiritu Santo Island where we can check out to head back to Australia. The Ambrym to Luganville trip is a bit long for a day sail and so we decided to break the journey by calling in at Wala Island for a couple of nights.

Wala is just off the north-east corner of the island of Malakula and there is a nice sheltered anchorage on the western side. We had only been anchored a few minutes when a local man name Yannick arrived in his dug out canoe with outrigger, to welcome us to the island and invite us ashore for a tour. We were a little anxious as we had spent all of our cash on Ambrym and also exchanged most of our spare things there, so we had little to offer in exchange for a tour. It didn’t seem to matter.

Yannick explains to Debi how the stones represents their ancestors

Sustainable Housing on Wala Island

Cocoa growing on Wala Island

The next day we went ashore and had a nice tour of the small island that has an amazing 300 inhabitants. The kids all go to school across the water on Malakula but were on holiday when we visited and so were enjoying the beach and jumping off the jetty. There were kids everywhere and none of them seemed bothered by the lack of television or smartphones. It was also interesting to see all of the different things that they grow on the island, from the usual papaya, bananas and grapefruit to different sorts of nuts and even cocoa.

The kids here eat plenty of fruit (note the machete for peeling grapefruit)

Happy people

Yannick's well on the beach. It's about 5m deep and has surprisingly fresh water.

Yannick's wife, weaving mats

Yannick introduced us to a gentleman who did carvings from volcanic stone, but we explained we had no money. However, the opportunity for an exchange soon arose when he explained that his wife was suffering from a bad back. So we exchanged some paracetamol and pain relief patches for a nice carving.  We also managed to scrounge together a load of food and other stores that we shouldn’t need to give to Yannick as a thank you for the tour.  He asked to come back to the boat with us to see what it was like on board.  It seemed a fair exchange.  After all, he had shown us his house.

The man with his carving. 
With a following wind and just the headsail up we left on Tuesday for our final inter-island sail to Luganville and we have been anchored outside of the Beachfront resort since then.

Luganville was an important base for the Americans during World War II and indeed, at one point after the bombing of Pearl Harbour, the remainder of the Pacific fleet were stationed here. The remains of their presence are everywhere.

Work is currently underway to raise funds to build a major museum to tell the story of WWII at Luganville. We visited the project office, which also has a mini museum, which is very well done.

This reclaimed land and concrete slabs remain from WWII

There were hundreds of these buildings here during the war. A few still remain.

A few of the relics in the WWII mini museum

Pat couldn't resist buying a machete for the new garden

On Thursday we did “the tourist thing” and did a half-day kayak trip up a river to one of a number blue holes on the island. Santo is quite a mountainous island and in places along the coast natural springs have eroded out pools that are filled with crystal clear blue water. After a bit of confusion over our pick up and a fairly long drive across the island, we had a nice trip, kayaking through the rainforest and stopping at the blue hole before heading back down to the coast again. We went ashore in the evening for a meal at the resort and a jug of sangria. We then made the mistake of having a second jug of sangria. It was an exciting ride back in the dinghy that evening and a subdued morning the next day.

Who's meant to be steering this thing?

A huge banyan tree at the blue lagoon

The clear waters of the blue lagoon

At the end of the war, the Americans were left with huge mounds of equipment and troops on Santo. They donated all the buildings, roads and infrastructure to the islanders, but with ships in short supply after the war, they couldn’t repatriate everything and so attempted to sell the equipment (vehicles, tanks etc) to the French at what they felt was a bargain price. The French knew that the Americans couldn’t take it back and so basically held out to get the equipment for free.

The Americans were not impressed and so, instead, they dumped the millions of dollars worth of equipment into the sea at a place now known as Million Dollar Point so that the French wouldn’t get it. They literally bulldozed the equipment into the sea and then at the end drove the bulldozers in as well. What a waste. However it has provided a valuable tourist attraction and we headed off with our snorkels and masks to take a look. It’s fascinating to try to work out what everything is and to see how the coral and the sand and sea have gradually consumed it all.

Illegal dumping ground?

Once a bulldozer, now a reef

Some not so careful parking

The tyres seem to have lasted particularly well.

The coral is really getting a hold here

The beach here is strewn with bits of rusting metal

We have spent the last couple of days preparing for the trip home. We have bought a few provisions to top up supplies for the trip, filled up the fuel and water and have been watching the weather forecasts about six times a day. It is all looking good for a departure tomorrow (Monday) bound for Brisbane. The journey should take us 7-8 days.

It’s been great trip but we are both looking forward to getting home and seeing family and friends and our new house!

Saturday, 17 August 2019

Volcanoes, Dancing and the elusive Wahoo

It’s been a very busy last 10 days with three new islands visited, each with its own character.

On leaving Port Havannah, we set off in classic trade wind style, on a reach with a reef in the main and the headsail. We flew along at 7.5 knots with Debi sitting up on the rail in her favourite spot and arrived at Embae Island in the early afternoon where we dropped anchor in a nice sandy patch but close to what appeared to be quite a lot of coral. Debi didn’t delay in getting into the water to investigate and discovered some of the most extensive reef we have seen. It just seemed to go on and on. She had a brief encounter with a green turtle and we even had dolphins swimming nearby as we sat on deck for sundowners.

Debi on her favourite perch

At anchor amongst the coral of Embae

Debi conducting a coral survey

Extensive coral at Embae Island

Colourful clam on Embae Island
We stayed at Embae for only two nights and with all the snorkelling and a bit of time doing running repairs we never actually found time to go ashore! The following day we set off in the rain for Epi Island. Although there are a number of anchorages on the west coast of Epi, we decided to head to the far north at Lameh Bay which is reputed to be a good habitat for turtles and dugong.

As we headed around the final headland to enter Lameh Bay we were kicked into action by the scream of the fishing reel playing out loads of line. We promptly brought the boat to a stop and proceeded to try to haul in what turned out to be a large Wahoo, estimated to be 1.5m long. We eventually got it to the back the boat but it was too big for our net and in the time we were taking to work out how to land it, it managed to wrap itself around some equipment at the back of the boat and escaped. The one that got away!

The local girls walk on water in Lameh Bay

Offshore Taxi Service

Onshore Taxi Service 
As we anchored in Lameh Bay, we were greeted by two large turtles, but sadly no dugongs. We could hear some sort of concert going on ashore and decided we must have stumbled across yet another festival. We were too tired to go ashore that day but went in the next day. It turned out to be the 50th anniversary of the Epi High school. They were celebrating with three days of events. We briefly watched a football match and then headed out for a walk to the local airstrip.

Epi High School Celebration football match

The people of Vanuatu were declared the happiest people in the world

The airstrip at Lameh Bay, the terminal building is on the right. It looks terminal!

The jetty Lameh Bay. Interesting construction method, they made concrete in bags and then removed the bag to produce a building block.

We met another cruising couple on our walk, who had been coming to Lameh for years. They pointed us in the direction of a lady who baked bread and also ran a little restaurant. This lady was very entrepreneurial and had a beautiful building set up as a tiny restaurant. There was no menu but she said she would cook us dinner with whatever she had. So we bought some bread, headed back to the boat and returned in the evening for a lovely meal of fish in coconut milk. Ironically we think the fish was wahoo. This was served with kumura, beans and laplap, a strange gelatinous dish made with yams. After dinner we headed back to the school to catch a bit of the talent competition.

The tiny local restaurant at Lameh Bay

Beautiful but simple house construction on Epi Island

The traditional way to catch fish, dugout canoe with outrigger

The next morning we set off north again. We had had a bit of a debate as to where to go next but Debi decided that she liked the sound of the north side of Ambrym, one of the most active volcanoes in the world! We had a perfect trip for most of the way, but the wind turned a bit nasty in the last few hours as we approached Ambrym, which is renowned for strong gusts coming off the volcano.

Anchored in the shadow of a volcano, Ranon, Ambrym Island

Debi had read that there was some sort of festival on in the north of the island and so we headed ashore to find out. Vanuatu is amazing in that you can basically ask anyone in the village about things you want to do and before you know it it’s all organised. We met a woman who we asked about doing a walk up the volcano. She led us to her husband, Freddy, and he pretty much organised the next two days for us.

Freddy and one of his daughters. He organised everything for us on Ambrym Island
Our trip up to Marum, one of two volcanoes on Ambrym, comprised a 6:30 am start with a 4WD trip along some pretty rough roads and then up into the rainforest as far as the road went. When we got out we were introduced to our guide who had bare feet, a pair of flip flops in one hand and a machete in the other. This was an interesting set of equipment given we were heading up to a volcano at an altitude of over 900m which was expected to take us about eight hour round trip.

The only way to travel on Ambrym

4WD through the coconut plantation

Trekking through the rainforest. The statue is carved from tree fern trunk and represents an ancestor

We set off through the forest with our guide, who didn’t seem to speak much English, slashing away at any growth that seemed to be encroaching on the path. After about half an hour he cut a length of vine that was growing across the path, threaded it through his flip flops and tied them around his waist. An instant and totally recyclable belt. He continued to walk barefoot. About ten minutes later he poked his machete into the undergrowth and pulled out a coconut. This turned out to be his drink supply and lunch! He could have probably survived up there for years equipped only with his machete.

Walking on the ash plain. Note the coconut on the end of the machete.
It was not a nice day for a walk up a volcano, with high winds and steady rain. Visibility was poor as we left the rainforest behind and started out on the ash plain, which was vegetated with bamboo cane. As we climbed higher the vegetation disappeared and it all became very bleak. The walk became a bit treacherous with the wind threatening to blow us off the final ridge approach to the crater.  Unfortunately, once there, we couldn’t see much and the ground was too fractured to go too close to the edge but it still had an ominous feel to it.  We didn’t hang about at the top and it was good to get back into the forest and then back to the truck for our lift back down. We were back on board  X-Pat by about 3pm and after a quick swim to freshen up, we spent the rest of the day recovering.

A demonstration of how to de-husk a coconut with a machete

Bamboo took over from rainforest as we climbed higher. 

This could have been taken on top of a mountain in Wales, but believe us it's a volcano in Vanuatu

Our well earned view into the crater! Hmmm

Yesterday, we had another interesting 4WD trip in the back of a ute to the “Back to my Roots” festival. It was very, very bumpy and not the safest of rides. The festival seemed to have been organised by the local chief to celebrate local traditions and dance. The audience of about 30 people were all visitors to the island, almost exclusively yachties. Things were a little disorganised, but we just went with the flow and everything just seemed to happen.

We saw a number of traditional dances accompanied by the sound of the Tamtam, a local drum. There were also some brilliant demonstrations of sand drawing, producing very intricate and symmetrical drawings in the sand using one finger which they do not lift out of the sand for the entire drawing. After the main festival we walked from the festival area down to the beach to see a fascinating display of water music. The story went that when the ladies are bathing naked in the creek, they make these sounds in the water by splashing around, which warns the men not to come there. The sound is like a base drum with lots of rhythm.

This dance was a bit like musical chairs and was called "Find the fire"

The Yam dance, which is performed at the start of the yam planting season.

The organiser and chief on his phone!

The boys pose with a Tam-tam, a form of drum

Spot the odd one out

Traditional meets contemporary

The girls join the women in traditional dance

The power of the stick

Sand drawing

The weather was not kind in the afternoon and so we waited about an hour and half for the rain to stop, before sharing a ride in the back of the ute with the water music ladies and our guide Freddy back to the boat. We bought a Tamtam drum before we left with a combination of money and barter items (rope, torches, t-shirts, reading glasses, bedding etc). It’s fascinating how this place works. Nothing is wasted and there is always a way.

The ladies making water music

Today we are having a day off. We took the barter items in to Freddy this morning and plan to just swim, make water and chill out today before heading off north again tomorrow.

Return to Pittwater

After almost exactly three months away, we arrived back on X-Pat on 30 th  November ready to finally bring her home to Pittwater, NSW. Duri...