Aventures dans le Grand Sud

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Index of slides from this report.

"Would you please give us the estimated date of depature from the pontoon."

The ever so polite request from the Port Moselle marina, jolted us out of our comfortable downward track of sloth and gourmandizing. Our planned week at the marina was stretching on towards two. It was dangerously easy to live in Port Moselle, shopping daily for groceries in the market, keeping atop the pontoon gossip: what had failed on whose boat, where adapter plugs could be found, who had managed to get a visa extended and under what pretext, and always the weather.

A stranded American with the unctuous charm of a baby seal secured a crew spot on a boat headed for Port Moresby. He'd been an east coast lawyer, he said, before giving it all up to hitch hike around the South Pacific. Several boats came in from New Zealand, all having been clawed by a passing depression. "Don't they look at the weather map before leaving?" was the sotto voce judgement of the pontoon. Possibly, the weather around NZ is always so vile that a mere depression is of no concern. "Never liked that bimini anyway."

However, the sensation of the week had been the arrival of the 20-metre, aluminium, wave piercing, wing masted, eco (it had two wind generators) catamaran. Of course, it was French. Now normally, there's a subtle dockside etiquette when one checks in. People wander past, take a circumspect look at your boat, and perhaps offer a brief welcome and some handy tidbit of information, "Quarentine is taking honey, can you believe that?" as an opening gift. This etiquette was universally scuttled in favor of simply standing and gaping, then running back to one's boat for a camera. After a full day or so of this treatment, the newspapers and television got onto the story and the pontoon nearly sank under the weight of the assembled gawkers. I'm sure it infuriated everyone who arrived that week and found no takers for their story of mistreatment by the Tasman Sea.

Evidently, the Te Maramu had set out from New Zealand with two novice crew aboard. She had run into bad weather and engine(?) problems (she has a single engine mounted in a central pod) more or less simultaneously. A mayday was broadcast, and the two crew elected to be evacuated by a passing freighter while the skipper stayed with the boat. In evacuating the crew, the wing mast had been dammaged so the skipper had more or less drifted in the general direction New Caledonia until someone had sailed out to tow him in.

There. I've told you more than I know already.

Bastille Day

The nominal excuse for hanging around in Noumea was Bastille Day which would be celebrated by a parade and fireworks. Before the parade medals were given out. I was hoping for an execution "pour encourager les autres" but we got a long speech (in French!) instead. The parade featured various divisions of the French military in their very fashionable dress uniforms, uniforms, which, while unique and expressive of zeal and panache, seemed singularly ill-suited for actual combat, or even the odd bit of heavy handed imperial menacing. Nonetheless, we revelled in this expression of French colonial might. After all, they were marching past a McDonalds.

Off to the South

No, the camera isn't broken, it really is that color. Interestingly enough, you can see from the middle picture the colours that might have motivated Captain Cook to name the place "New Caledonia." He landed (briefly) at Île des Pins, which is mostly coral plateau with brilliant white sand beaches. Grand Terre, he only saw from a distance. If Mars had an ocean, this is what the seashore would look like. Yachties enjoy complaining: high prices, contrary winds, amoebic dysentery, etc. Here what they complain about is the red mud which gets tracked everywhere no matter how byzantine the foot cleaning ritual between beach and boat. Actually, cleaning the boat was easier than cleaning our feet which still show red around the toe nails.

It is always easier to get an early start from anchor than from a marina. In a marina, the boat is tethered to land by various ganglia which must be individually severed before departure. Some, such as dock lines are visible and some, such as the bill at the office and new friends that need to be farewelled, are not. At anchor, connection to land is a much more tenuous affair, easily severed at first light while the coffee brews. Rather than have to race daylight after unplugging from the marina and getting fuel, we decided to anchor out for a night in Anse Kuendu, a small notch in the coast just north of town with a pleasant beach and a (reputedly) good restaurant.

At 11 the next morning, all accounts settled, we eased ever so carefully out of the slip which we were sharing with Tegan I. It is such a novelty for us to share a slip. It was like sleeping over at a girlfriend's for the first time. Suddenly all these heretofore private rituals - fenders here and there, this sort of noise while brushing teeth, etc. - are exposed to someone else. I hope we didn't offend. Being Canadian, the Tegans were, of course, too polite to complain.

There were a couple of other boats ahead of us at the fuel dock so we took a turn around the harbour while waiting for them to finish up. The B&G instruments, which had been working fine since having the last few problems fixed in Sydney, froze up. Bugger! The usual fire drill of checking connections and rebooting brought no joy and in all the panic, we didn't get to the fuel dock until 12:15 and so had to wait until 2 when it re-opened. Businesses around here still close from noon until 2 so that you can sleep off the bottle of Bordeaux that you drank with lunch. I used the time to phone up the instrument dealer in Sydney but the person I needed to talk to was out of the office so I made an appointment to call back at 5. We motored up to Anse Kuendu anyway so that everyone could at least go for a swim. Both kids got to fire the new speargun to see how it felt. It certainly seemed lethal enough to deal with any instrument problems...

Since I had to make a call at 5, we motored back to Port Moselle and anchored there for the night instead of staying at Kuendu. Perhaps, having taken the, er, point of the spear gun exercise, the instruments worked flawlessly on the whole way back and the call with the B&G tech support guy didn't shed any light on anything.

Bright and early the next morning, we made a lightening dingy trip back to the market to stock up on grapefruit and oranges - in season here, and very tasty - and then made sail for the south. The instruments worked. Wind was 10 knots from the SE/ESE so our starboard tack took us almost back to the Amedee lighthouse where we first entered the lagoon. We tacked back towards the mainland and the wind died for an hour or two while a little cloud rained on us and then came back to speed us through the final few miles into Baie Uié.

Baie Uié

Bai Uié, on Grand Terre about 20 nm SE of Noumea, is one of those easy sorts of anchorages where you just motor in towards the middle watching the depth sounder (if it is working) and pitch the hook overboard as soon as you see 4 metres. None of this "Come to a course of 300° true as soon as you pass the little coral bommie, but before the fringing reef which comes further out than you think" sort of jiggery pokery.

Karin cooked: potato salad, green salad, and organic lamb sausages that we bought in Newcastle. Good. Very good. We have one more batch of those sausages and then we're out. As always, provisioning successes are that much sweeter because of their limited lifespan: A delicate flower that blooms from the depths of the freezer. Soon enough, we'll have to rely on the native saucisses, which, admittedly, are quite good.

On the next morning's high tide, we explored what I termed the Uié (Ooey) River in the dingy before setting sail for Baie de la Tortue on Île Ouen.

Baie de la Tortue (Turtle Bay)

From Baie Uié to Baie de la Tortue is all of about 7 miles, but since it was dead upwind, we had a spirited sail across the lagoon until we could lay the southern point of Île Ouen on the starboard tack. Of course, the wind changed as we got closer to land so we had to tack twice more to get into the bay. Bummer.

The guidebook indicated a small resort ashore and an airfield whose approach we would need to keep clear of. We saw the resort clearly enough, but the buoys marking the approach were long gone. We anchored in a reasonable looking place which we later discovered was right next to a sunken fishing boat whose location was supposed to be indicated by a white buoy. So much for guidebooks and navigational aides.

Tristan, dying to try out the new speargun, discovered to his chagrin that all fish species that just hang around waiting to be speared have long since gone extinct. He lurked for hours, waiting for a shot at a coral cod living, ironically enough, in the fish hold of the sunken fishing boat, but the wiley fish never showed himself for very long. Blue with cold and never having gotten off a shot, the mighty hunter flopped up the transom and accepted a plate of dinner that he hadn't killed himself.

We were planning on hanging around, hiking to an abandoned jade mine, but the mornings forcast for SW (SE? on that more later) winds decided us against leaving ES unattended in Baie de la Tortue so the kids were spared one of our little Bataan Death March outings. Instead we motored about 8 miles through Canal Woodin, the channel between Île Ouen and the mainland, to Baie de Prony. It was calm the whole way except when we turned the corner into Prony where it was blowing about 10 kts out of the south.

Baie de la Somme (in Prony)

Baie de la Somme was indicated as good for SW winds, so no sooner had we dropped anchor there than it proceeded to blow briskly out of the east, and rain. Fortunately, we'd left swinging room to the shoreward and the wind soon relented.

"There are many species of poisonous fish within the bay," note the Navy sailing directions, somewhat lugubriously. What was it that happened here to cause this notice? No matter where you go, there is always something to worry about. Ignorant of their peril, the kids swam until dinner.

Anse Sebert (in Prony)

Anse Sebert is the next bay north of Baie de la Somme. In addition to banyan-reinforced penal colony ruins at the village of Prony, it is favorably placed for a dingy trip out to the (reputedly) fabulous Aguille du Prony, a needle-like reef in the middle of the bay. Also Karin and I had seen nice looking coral there when we took made a reconnaissance in the dingy.

It was cold and rainy the whole day, Karin and I had a fight ("stop carrying out your intentions and watch for my signals" cf. signals sidebar on previous travelogue), and the wind changed such that anchorage was vile.

On the positive side, the next morning, Tristan finally speared his first fish. "It looked so much bigger," he said as the jewel-toned parrot fish lay expiring on the transom. "OOooh!" chorused the girls, immediately taking sides with the fish. As it was rather gruesomely perforated, release was out of the question. I readied the frying pan while the kids figured out how to gut and scale it. We found beautiful rainbow scales around the boat for a week. My little bite was quite tasty.

Baie du Carenage (in Prony)

After bouncing around all night off Prony, millpond conditions were urgently desired. We motored all the way back into Baie du Carenage ("careening bay") which is several twists and turns removed from the entrance to Baie de Prony. While I seriously doubt that much careening ever happened here, the anchorage is perfect.

At high tide, you can dingy right up to a waterfall where what I've taken to calling Carenage Creek tumbles the last few metres into the ocean. Just below the waterfall is a hot spring which has been channeled into a man made hot tub. It sounds alluring, but the hottest water was just barely luke warm. At the springs, we met crews from a couple of boats, Cadenza from New Zealand and Namagdi from Australia. The Cadenzas later visited us for a very pleasant afternoon tea and regaled us with tales of the vile NZ weather - "forty knots isn't bad if you're just going out for the afternoon..." I don't think we could carry enough gin.

Near the springs we found trails for Abbatoir Point, the town of Prony, and something known as "lac 8" which we took to be either:

  • A lake, 8 kilometres away
  • A figure-8 form lake at some unspecified distance
  • The 8th lake encountered on some route

Karin, Nicoline and I, thinking it prudent to avoid anything named "abbatoir" hiked up the creek towards "lac 8". Tristan, thinking it even more prudent to avoid any sort of hiking stayed on the boat and read. While we did not find "lac 8", we did find the twenty-third one (chrome mine?), something called "le Toboggan" which we fondly imagined to be a waterslide but which wasn't, and a pretty good swimming hole.

The country looks like Utah desert, but is actually quite wet. The vegetation is stunted and sparse due to the high metal content of the soil and the lack of nutrients. The land is uplifted abyssal plain (quite rare) which accounts for the huge mineral wealth.

We listened to the weather forecast from Radio Noumea, Foxtrot Juliet Papa, on VHF 25 and gleaned that the vand tomorrow she will blow sud/sud-est (or sud-ouest, we are never sure) and there will be some ool but not too much. The forcast around here always seems to make a big deal about ool even though we are in a lagoon where precious little ool ever finds its way in. Perhaps that's why they get so excited about it. And there were some other things that we could not quite make out and a couple of securités, they love those here. Like, they invented it or something.

Bonne Anse (in Prony)

After three nights in Carenage, we were still thinking about making a dash for Isle des Pins. We woke up at 5am and discovered that the winds had changed direction overnight, swinging us uncomfortably close to a neighboring boat. Our bad. We motored away as stealthily as possible at 05:30 but the weather forcast which caught up with us halfway out the bay (rain, winds SE 20 knots - on the nose, 2-metre ool) discouraged any thoughts of immediate departure. No reason to fight those kind of conditions when we still had half of Baie du Prony to explore.

Menaced briefly by wind and ool, we scootched across the main entrance to Prony and into Bonne Anse ("good harbour") where we found anchorage in a little bay below the Pic N'doua light.

We hiked up to the light atop Pic Ndoua. Whether caused by man or nature, the landscape seems prone to erosion. Somewhat like the hills around the Bay Area. Exploring one little canyon the kids stumbled across a pitcher plant. We'd only ever seen these in botanical gardens, but they seem to be quite common here. They're carnivorous, digesting insects (or small children) unfortunate enough to fall into the pitcher-shaped leaves. A handy adaptation for poor soils.

As there were several recently used firepits ashore, a bonfire seemed acceptable by local custom if not by law. Firewood was easily found and the Endless Summers enjoyed a bonfire ashore. We'd hoped to see a coconut crab but they seem to know better than to show themselves near bonfires.

Choice

Sometimes, when watching the kids explore a reef, or making new friends, or seeing them atwitch with cabin fever in the middle of a passage, I think about the life that might have been, junior high school, friends, baseball games, and wonder about the choice. For, as much as our modern high-tech society tries to insulate us from the necessity of choice, one thing still does preclude another.

It takes a measure of doing: snorkling alone with a cocked speargun, a metre and a half of cold death in one hand and the distortion playing tricks with one's peripheral vision, or marching grimly towards the bakery with only the mantra "deux bagettes à l'ancienne" spinning in your head and only the cold comfort of a fist full of 100-franc coins.

They've had to do a lot of growing in the past year and I'm proud of them. Among other things, they're both crack dingy pilots.

Back to Noumea

Out of milk and fresh veggies, with uncertain quantity and quality of both at the Île des Pins, we decided to stop back in at Noumea to reprovision before trying for Île des Pins again.

Yachtie Details

Paper Charts

Obtaining charts for our circumnavigating Grand Terre has proven to be unexpectedly difficult. What I'd hoped to find was a nice second hand market in charts as cruisers came and went: We'd buy a full set of used charts for $400 or so and sell them back when done. Charts are expensive, the French SHOM charts retail for about CFP 3300 (US$ 30), but they're much cheaper than a new boat. If worst came to worst, we'd just buy new the 15 or so charts that we need new and sell them when we're done.

What we found was that the local chart agent didn't even have a full set of charts in stock and finding a full set to buy or even to photocopy proved quite challenging. As of this writing, I've managed to photocopy some medium scale DIMA charts, which actually seem to be better than the corresponding SHOM charts. For the purposes of entering and leaving the lagoon at major ports, they're probably good enough to scrap the small-scale charts (in conjunction with an anchorage guide) but they don't show the lagoon in enough detail for sailing inside.

Having compared, BA, DIMA and SHOM charts for a couple of interesting areas around Île des Pins, I was hard pressed to find much difference. The chart datums are different, but they all show pretty much exactly the same level of detail of the surrounding reefs and all are considerably out of date with respect to the local nav. aids. Not surprising, since they all claim to use the original French survey work which seems to have been completed in the sixties.

Why not use digital charts? I suppose I'm getting closer to doing this, but I absolutely hate the idea of having to keep a computer running in order to navigate. Possibly, printing off a page or two of relevant chart for twitchy bits of navigation (reef passes, anchorages) is a reasonable compromise, however, a small scale printout has two problems:

  1. You have to correctly identify twitchy bits of navigation in advance and print out the chart for them.
  2. Sometimes the amount of chart that could be printed on a letter-size piece of paper is insufficient to show important things such as the bearings off of relatively distant objects.

Most of the (IMHO) prudent people that use digital charts, also claim to have some degree of paper backup. So it comes down to $3000 or so for a worldwide set of vector charts, plus some ammount of of additional outlay for paper, or roughly $3000 for paper though the price can vary depending on how successful one is at finding used charts or photocopying.

Digital charts, win points for convenience and for completeness. However icky it is to depend on a computer actually running, a digital chart is better than a paper chart that you didn't buy because you didn't think you were going there. While it is probably possible to get into most places with just a cruising guide and a sharp lookout (how we got into Port Moresby), I wouldn't recommend it as a matter of general practice.

Chart Plotters

And while I'm on the subject, why don't we have a chart plotter? Well, a chart plotter is a perfect example of a solution looking for a problem. It is easy to write a computer program to plot one's position on a chart, so therefor it must be useful. Not so. At sea, one has plenty of time to plot position on a chart as it amounts to a minute's work every hour (or every four or six depending on the scale of the chart). We usually look forward to it. Near land, taking the little boat cursor displayed on the chart to be the current position of your vessel, is a dangerous truncation of coastal navigation. Traditional coastal navigation relies on massive redundancy: "If we are really here, then we should see the following 4 things... and their relationships should change like this as we proceed in this direction..." Having done that, the prudent pilot will then think: "And, where I really don't want to be is here where I would be seeing the following things... arranged like this..., so I'll just make doubly sure that that isn't what I'm seeing." There is no way that a quick glance at the chart plotter can meaningfully replace 5 or 10 minutes of piloting which establishes the boat's position in the real world relative to dangers which are seen directly by the the navigator. Making the mark on the chart is a triviality that takes a few seconds after one is confident of one's location. And, the act of plotting provides yet another opportunity for redundancy as one can compare the distance off the last plot with the boat's preceived or expected speed.

Here's a concrete example of what can go wrong with a chart plotter: A night time approach to a rivermouth in a semicircular bay. "Hmm... those lights don't look quite right" thinks the skipper, but a quick glance at the chart plotter shows the boat cursor right in the middle of a semicircular bay just as it is supposed to be. "Ok then, in we go!" What the quick glance failed to reveal was that the boat was in a similar semicircular bay (there are lots of them) just north or south of the intended one. It has actually happened. Given:

  1. the small scale of the chartplotter screen
  2. the fact that the chartplotter is "always right"
  3. the tendency, given a source of position that is "always right," to disregard other less reliable sources and depend solely on the one source of information that is, after all, "always right"
  4. the tendency, given a source of position that is "always right," not to study the charts for your destination in advance of getting there
  5. the tendency, given a source of position that is "always right," not to bother with the usual hourly determination of the boat's position
  6. the natural desire to be "in the right place" which, of course, is determined by the one source of information that is "always right"

This sort of mistake is quite easy to make. It is a stupid mistake on the part of the skipper, but then nearly all mistakes are.

Of course, there's nothing to prevent one from using a chart plotter as an addition to traditional coastal navigation but for me, the cost and the additional gadget to maintain outweigh the very slight labour saving. Conversely, in the past year of cruising there was only one situation that a chart plotter would have made easier to handle. But:

  1. it was downstream of several other bad decisions
  2. it involved an integrated instrument failure that might have knocked out the chart plotter anyway
  3. we handled the situation adequately using the GPS equivalent of danger bearings: ie. "we are in safe water as long as we're east of 151° 23"

In the same situation now, I'd heave to before reaching the islands and (hopefully) reach the sane conclusion that it would be better to:

  1. Stay hove to for the rest of the night or...
  2. Tack back out to sea