Trouble in Pacific Paradise

In sailing, there are two types of cruisers: those with freezers and the rest of us. The yachties with freezers lead a glamorous existence filled with filet minion, ice cream, and cold drinks. The rest of us subsist on an assortment of bland dry goods (i.e. pasta) and barely edible culinary imposters (i.e. powdered milk). On Saturday, I had the rare pleasure of seeing how the other half lives. The setting was the spacious catamaran “Chaotic Harmony” owned by doctor, writer, and sailor Gavin LeSueur. In addition to numerous articles, Gavin has written three books, including the multihull section of the offshore sailing bible, “Heavy Weather Sailing.” Clearly, Gavin is not the type of cruiser who would set off without a fully stocked freezer. Also attending the soiree were Tom and Vivian of “Imajica” and Barry of “Valhalla,” all Australians who can be counted among the “haves.” While dining on grilled steaks and sweet potatoes and sipping on cold rum drinks, the conversation wandered from Tom and Vivian discussing how they make ice cream and beer on their boat to Gavin and Barry commenting on the endless supply of beef that they store in their cavernous freezers. Anna and I sat scowling at the opulence around us as we considered our steady diet of rigatoni, penne, fettuccini, and spaghetti. The brief glimpse of a better life illustrated the considerable discrepancy between the sailing classes and, made to feel inferior by the privileged class, it is easy to understand the strong attraction of socialism. Freezerless cruisers of the world unite! On Sunday, I celebrated the two-year anniversary of our initial departure from Onset, Massachusetts. To mark the occasion, Anna and I splurged on a gourmet feast served at a small bungalow on the beach. We had arranged the luncheon on Saturday afternoon and had made reservations for six people. However, the unexpected break in the weather on Sunday morning resulted in the other three boats deciding to haul anchor and set off for New Zealand, Fiji, and points beyond. The sudden exodus left the entire anchorage of Port Resolution to us. It is always difficult to be left behind and the temptation to head off for New Zealand was strong. However, we have been closely monitoring the weather forecast awaiting a favorable “weather window” that would provide the most comfortable possible conditions. As always, my father has been invaluable in assisting in tracking the various complex weather systems at work in this area of the world. After a rapid exchange of e-mails over several days, we decided to enlist the assistance of experts and hired a weather routing service to help us understand the weather patterns and to select the optimal time for a trip south. The route to New Zealand is particularly susceptible to bad weather and most cruisers that have completed the trip in the past say that they have been hammered at some point along the way. Following our recent traumatic passage from Erromanga to Tanna, a relatively short beat into wind and waves, we are not inclined to endure any more punishment than necessary. Despite the departure of the neighboring boats, we decided to go ahead with the feast. Flush with cash – 9,000 vatu or $90USD – we opted to have our chef Lea prepare the feast for six people and we took the large quantities of leftovers back to the boat. The meal consisted of a delicious omelet, a terrific chicken in sauce, rice, bananas, sweet potatoes, papaya, salad, and pumpkin. As plates, we were served on woven mats covered by a big banana leaf. Lea told us that she had begun gathering the food from the garden in the morning and had spent the next several hours preparing the feast. The meal was served in a small bungalow nestled on the white sand beach. As always, we cherished the break from our boring diet and the feast was the gift that kept giving: we spent the first half of the week grazing on the leftovers. While we were watching a movie onboard on Sunday afternoon, a canoe rowed up to the boat and a couple of villagers asked for our assistance. Apparently, the village generator had broken the previous day while they were watching a DVD and they wanted help fixing it. Armed with tools, I headed ashore and found the small, two-stroke generator lying on a woven straw mat among the village bungalows. A crowd of about twenty people gathered to watch the magic. As the villagers huddled around, I utilized what little knowledge I possess of generators. I checked the spark plug. I requested that they bring the manual. I cleaned the fuel filter. I explained the instructions provided in the users guide. As a last resort, I referred to the ultimate sailor’s reference for all things mechanical, Nigel Calder’s “Boatowner’s Mechanical and Electrical Manual.” Ironically, this book and the local Bislama language share the similarity that they are both virtually incomprehensible to me. After much fruitless tinkering and investigation, it appears that whoever had tinkered with the generator between the time that it had broken and the time they sought me out had compounded the problem. We were unable to even get the generator to start. Unable to fix the problem, I can only hope that I didn’t contribute to it. If they were expecting a mechanically-inclined sailor, they were sorely disappointed. My background in finance has done little to prepare me for the necessities of maintaining a yacht, never mind repairing a generator. Perhaps if they needed me to construct a cash flow statement or analyze a balance sheet I would have been of more help. I do lament the fact that I missed the chance to demonstrate the sort of white magic that could have propelled me to the exalted position of a cult leader. The excitement for the week was provided by the weather. Thanks to the relative security offered by periodical advisories delivered from the weather routing service, we detachedly monitored the formation of the cyclone Xavier just north of Vanuatu. On Monday and Tuesday, the forecasting models predicted that the cyclone would track well to the east of us and weaken as it encountered the cold water to the south. Although it has been over 30 years since a cyclone has struck Tanna, the villagers all monitored the progress of the system. The Peace Corps volunteer in the Port Resolution received a warning from the head office of the potential danger. Still, we remained confident of our safety, despite the disconcerting loneliness of occupying one of the major anchorages in Vanuatu all by ourselves for the entire week. Suddenly, on Wednesday evening, we learned that the cyclone had strengthened and had turned in our direction. The wind outside the harbor was already in excess of 35 knots and the seas were predicted to be around 18-feet, precluding an attempt to run for safety. The realization that we were confined to an unprotected, wide-open harbor potentially in the path of a cyclone with winds exceeding 110 knots was not a pleasant experience. The good news was that our anchor was well dug-in after a week of strong winds. Also, the relatively shallow harbor allowed us to let out a huge amount of scope and we were fortunate that we had the whole anchorage to swing around in. With nothing else to do, we waited. Fortunately, after a restless night, we awoke to terrific news on Thursday morning: the cyclone had weakened and turned back to the east. By mid-day Thursday, former cyclone Xavier was a tropical depression with winds of only 35 knots at the center. We dodged a bullet. If the cyclone had continued to strengthen and moved in our direction, we would have been forced to ready the boat as much as possible (put out a second anchor, let out our remaining anchor chain, take down all the canvas, batten down the hatches, research sailing books to see how to handle conditions, pray, etc.). In the case that the situation deteriorated, we would have left the boat for the safety of shore. Luckily, this proved unnecessary, but the close call was a harsh reminder of the unpredictability of the weather. Even though cyclones are extremely rare this early in the cyclone season and the chances of being in the path of one is slim, disaster can strike at any moment. While the island of Tanna is not yet overrun with tourists, the potential financial benefits of tourism have not been lost on the locals. In Vanuatu, everything has a price. When Captain Cook visited, a single nail could buy a pig. Ten pigs could purchase a wife. Ten wives could obtain a chieftainship. Two hundred nails could make a king. Sadly, inflation has done its dastardly work. Today, the hot springs cost 500 vatu. It is usually 500 vatu to visit a village. The cross-island truck costs 1,000 vatu. The volcano costs 2,250 vatu. Even looking at a bay or walking on the beach is expected to yield a few hundred vatu. In lieu of spending money, we opted to trade with the villagers and they were happy to receive such hard-to-come-by items as t-shirts, DVD’s, and wine. Trading also allowed us to meet more of the locals and to interact frequently with villagers. By the end of our stay, we have developed a vast network of suppliers throughout Port Resolution and had become familiar with the various roles that different individuals hold. Werry is the yacht club manager, builder, soccer coach, and coconut cookie supplier. Russell is the school teacher and future village chief. Jackson is the headmaster. Johnson is the tour guide and medic. Mariam is the kindergarten teacher, as well as the connection for eggs, bananas, and sweet potatoes. Tom provides lemons and pamplemousse. Lea is the chef. Larry is the Peace Corps volunteer and yachtie cultural advisor. Chief Ronnie is the self-trained obstetrician. Nelson is the DVD guy. Stanley is the man for onions, papayas, and cabbage. The village is composed of a motley cast of characters and offers an unusual sociological experiment. Rather than professions being based on ability, no special training is required and a person may just begin to practice whatever occupation interests them. Our thriving trading has been aided by the fact that everyone has English names, making it fairly easy to remember who met, and the lack of privacy in the small village means that it is never difficult to find anyone – at any time of day, just about everyone in the village knows exactly where and what every other person is doing. It has been nice staying in Vanuatu for over two weeks and the second week being the only boat on the island has allowed us to better understand the unique people and culture here. However, if we stay much longer we will have to construct a bungalow and request a garden plot. Fortunately, the weather forecast looks promising for a Monday departure and we are eager to set off for New Zealand. The passage promises to be a difficult one but we are ready to accept whatever Neptune throws our way. We are preparing for the worst and hoping for the best.

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