Friday, 15 September 2017

Maskelyne Islands in words

[Here is part 1 of 2 of Liz's letter on our visit to the Maskelyne Islands]


The kids and I flew home to Canada for a month in early July, so this email is a bit of a trip back in time; I drafted most of it before I left, but oddly enough, with family commitments around the clock for the last couple of months, it didn't edit and send itself!!

Here we go ... (in Bislama "Yumi go!!")

One of the nice things about cruising is connecting with people at different times and places.  After Honey left our anchorage at Ambrym to carry on towards Port Vila and New Caledonia, we headed for Malekula Island and the Maskelynes.  In Honey/Fluenta style, we spent only one night at Gaspard Bay, where we were fortunate enough to see the elusive dugong (sea cow/manatee) swimming near the boat, then we went on to Uliveo Island and Lutes village.  At the village, we were given the visitor book to take back to Fluenta to add our own message.  It was a delight to read back through previous entries, and see notes from Honey, whom we had just left, as well as Field Trip and Nirvana who had passed through in previous seasons.  It really is a small cruising world :)

The pass into Lutes Village is both shallow and narrow, so we actually anchored for the night outside the village and behind the barrier reef.  This turned out to be behind a new island which was just identified last year, an on which our friends from Field Trip were amongst the first foreigners to set foot.  It felt a bit like anchoring at Minerva Reef, but with poor holding! After several tries, and an extra 50 feet of anchor chain, we finally got the anchor to set.  At one point, we gave up on this position and tried to anchor nearer to the village at another spot listed in the guide (in a lee-shore position, which we generally avoid), but we found one of the only pinnacle bombies in the area: when we saw one foot of depth under the keel, we turned around and headed back behind the reef!  Max went back a few days later with the hand held depth sounder, and the rest of the track was fine.  We had wondered if the seismic activity to create the island had changed the depths in that area as it had (by up to 3m) in others.  

In preparation to enter the Lutes anchorage, Max and I went in just after first light in the dinghy to check out the waypoints and the depths.  Finding everything as per the chart, we braved the pass in Fluenta just before high water at around 9am.  At one point, we had 6 feet under the keel, and reefs on either side only a few feet away.  Thank goodness for satellite imagery and GPS [and taking the time recce the route ahead of time]!

Our host in Lutes was Stuart, who called us on his VHF even as we were anchoring, and proceeded to help us feel welcome throughout our stay.  Having done a three-month sailing course, as well as a radio course, he clearly takes his role of assisting yachties very seriously.  The community has created a small flyer with various activities, so he left it to us to determine what we wanted to do.  Lutes is well known for its traditional (Kustom) dancing; however, with only ourselves as potential audience members, the dancing proved a non-starter during the week we were there, as we would have had to foot the bill for the entire troop of dancers on our own.  

On Sunday, we were honoured to attend the 'comfort service' in the nearby village of Pellonk for one of Stuart's cousins who had died earlier in the week.  Whenever a villager passes away, all three Presbyterian congregations worship together on wooden benches and woven mats near the family's home to offer solidarity and comfort.  Before the service started, Stuart pointed out a mat that had been laid out especially for me on a porch, in case I wanted to sit there with Benjamin; I especially enjoyed my sheltered seat when it rained briefly during the service :)  Beside me was a man who shared his English copy of the "Good News Bible" with me and offered his Bislama hymnbook so I could join in the singing; I felt like I was at home in Canada, especially when we sang the familiar tune of "God be with you til we meet again" in Bislama and I was able to get the gist of the words!

Our days in Lutes were a lovely quiet combination of boat jobs (for the first time in ages we were in a calm and flat anchorage), trading with the men and teenagers who came by in their dugouts, and expeditions ashore.  Everything was very low key, and everyone was very friendly.  

When Max and I went ashore on Saturday afternoon to ask about church on Sunday (after being invited by two different people) Stuart's wife and daughters were weaving mats at their home.  Curious about the bright pink and purple contrast colours being woven into the otherwise neutral designs, I asked how they created them, expecting to hear about some rare village flower.  Instead I learned that they buy powdered dye and mix it with boiling water as we might do in Canada!  This was a good lesson in setting my assumptions aside :)  After watching for a few minutes, Stuart indicated that his daughter was finishing a section and that she would show me how to weave as she started the next area.  The girl's fingers were much faster than mine as she laid down each strip of mat, and then expertly folded alternating pieces to the side to do the weaving.  The mat was formed from the corners outwards, so each row became both longer and wider.  As I did my best to mimic her movements, under the watchful eyes of the entire group, from little girls on up, all I could think was how much Victoria would have enjoyed being there with us!  

Monday saw us meeting Stuart first thing in the morning to walk back to Pellonk village to visit a Giant Clam Sanctuary.  For us, the visit was especially enjoyable because we had met the owner and his younger brother shortly after we anchored in Gaspard Bay and had traded gasoline for some Island Cabbage - they were in a new boat, and had somehow ended up out on the water without enough gas (a situation which baffled us, as these are knowledgeable island people, but we traded with them at their request, nonetheless).  The Sanctuary had been created in 1991 by our host's grandfather; he had wanted to create a place where the Giant Clams would be safe to generate their eggs to keep the local reefs healthy with Giant Clams.  Many clams were destroyed during Cyclone Pam; however, we were still able to see some very old, large, and colourful specimens, despite the extremely murky water.  Some Giant Clams live to be upwards of 200 years old, and it was gratifying to see a local effort to maintain the health of their natural population.  Going well above and beyond the requirements of our admission fee, the Sanctuary host also sent us home with a big bag of pamplemousse.  I think he was still grateful for the gasoline in Gaspard Bay!

Over the weekend, we had traded with two canoes of boys for some coconuts.  They were not interested in T-shirts or sugar or coffee as the adults were: they wanted soccer balls.  I happened to have two aboard, so both groups were in luck.  I told them that they would have to share with the other kids because I had no more, but the message they took back to the village was that I had plenty of soccer balls!  The next day a couple of girls came by, and they were quite disappointed to hear that I was out, but they were happy to hear that I might have a volleyball to trade: they had won the Independence Day tournament the previous year, but were currently practicing with a home-made ball.  Two of the girls on the team were Stuart's daughters, so he and I had a chance to whisper together about the girls' wish for  new volleyball.  On Monday evening, the girls came back with some drinking coconuts and we happily traded a colourful volleyball from a shop in Majuro as well as some clothing.

When we are in small villages, we are often asked to give clothing to our hosts.  I have always scrounged for clothing in our own cupboards, bashfully offering garments that are stained and torn and very near to their end of life.  While we were still in Luganville, I had gotten an idea from another cruising couple that it would be smart to buy a 'case-lot' of second-hand clothing.  Being in a hurry, I didn't select the items myself, but gave instructions to the girl that I wanted clothing suitable to trade in the Islands (ie t-shirts, skirts, and shorts for men and women, boys and girls, and babies).  Somehow, she took this to mean that I wanted a bag of skimpy tops, short shorts, lingerie, and business attire for women and girls!  Victoria and Ella (HONEY) had fun creating outfits by picking random items from the bag, but I wasn't sure how I was going to pass the items along in the remote villages.  I decided that I would off-load them all at once in Lutes by making it known that I was coming in the following morning with a gift for the ladies of the village to share around, and that I would trust the villagers take it from there.  On Tuesday morning, I brought my big bag ashore, and was met by one of the (4) Chiefs' wives, a woman who seemed to be the spokeswoman, and a good-sized group of ladies, all sitting around in a shelter where previously we had seen only men.  I explained that I had a bag of clothing from Luganville, and that I didn't know if any of it would be what they would want to wear, but perhaps they could at least use the fabric.  One by one, I dumped my bags on the woven mat, and each time, as soon as I did, a swarm of hands descended onto the goods.  Children's clothes - gone.  Ladies' clothes - gone.  Shorts - gone.  Lingerie - gone. Within minutes, all the clothing had been shared, and the spokeswoman explained that these ladies would take the items and share them further as there were needs.  I have no idea how the distribution eventually panned out, but everyone seemed to have some fun with the unusual selection.  I even saw one of the men modelling a sheer black blouse - I guess I was wrong that the whole bag was for women!  

Tuesday was our last day in the village, as we had a light-wind weather window for Wednesday to sail against the trade winds to the island of Epi.  In addition to the Clam Sanctuary, the other stops that I wanted to make at Uliveo were to the Women's Resource Center and to the Coconut Oil Soap Factory.  

When we got to the Resource Center, I had expected to find a bustling hive of activity, but I quickly realized that most women were carrying out that 'women's activities' at their own homes, and that the Resource Center was aimed more at helping some women with disabilities to learn traditional skills.  The Center also offers some courses and workshops.  Once Victoria and I had completed the arduous task of choosing our woven souvenirs (a big purse, a small purse, and a colourful fan, taking a pass on bulkier items like floor mats), I went off in search of Stuart to take us to the Soap Factory, while Victoria and Benjamin stayed with the ladies.  When I came back with Stuart's stand-in (his 14-year-old daughter on her first guiding assignment) I found Victoria in the final stages of weaving her own fan :)  At first I wanted to "get going" but I soon realized that the project was nearly finished, and that we could make up time later (I was 'on the clock' to get back to Fluenta so we could leave the anchorage before the high tide in the early afternoon which is a rather stressful counterpart to being on 'Island time').  Between Victoria and the two ladies, a fan very quickly took shape on the table in front of us, and Victoria was thrilled with her tangible memory of her visit.

In fact, we made up the time right away: I had been told that the soap factory was about half an hour away, but we arrived in about ten minutes.  Stuart's daughter walked us along the well-marked two-wheeled dirt road between the villages, and then through the maze of narrow footpaths within the village until we arrived at the home of the factory overseer.  She took the key to the facility and walked us further through the village until we arrived at the site, which she opened especially for us.  My understanding is that the Coconut Oil Soap Factory was begun a few years ago by an ex-cruiser from NZ who realized that all the raw materials for soap were growing naturally on the island.  She opened her factory, trained some ladies, and now they export from Uliveo Island to NZ and beyond (  Several villagers work in the factory, and others sell them raw materials (coconut oil, cocoa beans, etc) from their crops.  The Factory was a simple facility with a kitchenette to boil the soap, a long wooden table for preparing it, and shelves on the end-wall for storage.  Numerous kinds of soap were described in posters on the walls but only Coconut Oil Soap and Exfoliating Soap were available, so we bought some of each.  Apparently, both lather well in Salt- as well as Fresh-water.  Plain bars of soap were 100 vatu, while the same soap in a cardboard package was 250 vatu :)  Needless to say, we took the plain soap, since we had no need for additional cardboard boxes onboard.

For once, Island Time and Fluenta Time corresponded, and Victoria, Benjamin and I arrived back onboard before the search party was deployed for us, in order that we could leave through the pass while the tide and the light were both high.  We returned to our position behind the reef to anchor overnight, before an early morning start for Epi. 

We had chosen our Wednesday departure to correspond with a period of light winds that the GRIB files (weather models) had predicted; what the GRIBs didn't predict was that the rain and still air of Tuesday evening would result in an 'inundation' of bugs of various kinds by Wednesday morning: we woke to flying ants, overgrown mosquitoes, and some kind of beetle all vying for space on the upper decks.  We hoped that they would blow away on our passage, but they took days to leave, eventually departing without fanfare as suddenly as they had come.  The overgrown mosquitoes were especially bothersome: they didn't bite, but they liked to land on every flat surface (in the same manner as the bees that had swarmed our solar panels after our New Year's rain in Mexico).  The evenings were the worst, as they were attracted to the lights, so we ended up with a self-imposed after-dinner curfew until they left.  Even computer work (eg emails or blog posts ... thus the delay in correspondence) was impossible because of the bugs walking all over the white screen.  On the bright side, we had a taste of 'early to bed, early to rise' and everyone felt unusually well rested :)

Our visit to Epi was a bit odd: we set out to go ashore on our first evening in Lamen Bay, only to stop at another boat which said that there was nothing to see, so we came aboard for drinks with them instead.  The following morning, an unusual swell had built from the West, and our normally sheltered and flat anchorage was extremely uncomfortable; we eventually drove a few miles around the headland to the north where it was somewhat better protected.  This turned out to the beginning of a multi-day chase between ourselves and the swell: we kept moving to reach a more comfortable anchorage, without spending any time ashore once we got there!  In this manner, we saw several bays, as well as Pa'ama Island, which was the rolliest of all.  At one point during the transit, the boat rolled so far that our dinghy (hoisted on its halyard because it was so short and calm) sat right into the water before popping up again.  The only good points of our aborted trip there (where the sand drawing is supposed to be especially good, but few yachties end up going as it is off the beaten track - our kind of place) was that we caught our only two fish of our entire season in Vanuatu within 10 minutes of each other.  In short order, we had two wahoo resting in our bucket, which provided fish for 6-8 dinners each.  

The main focus of our 'visit' to Epi was to continue to trouble-shoot our Honda generator.  All the testing pointed to a problem with the stator/rotor mechanism, which meant taking it almost completely apart, right back to the shiny copper coils of the rotor and stator (one rotates, one is stationary, and the result is supposed to be electricity). At one point, I channeled my inner 'Wendall' (Dad) and had to re-jig our puller with Amsteel to get the rotor to come off the axle.  Unfortunately all of this was to no avail, as we eventually determined that the Ignition Control Module was burnt out, and Max ordered a replacement part from the US once we got to Port Vila.  It was a tough season for power generation with our rapidly dying five-year-old batteries needing at least one daily boost, and our generator being out of service!  Neither engine nor our engine mechanic (Max) appreciated the extra engine hours this necessitated, although we enjoyed the resulting hot water, for dishes and showers

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