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Sailing in New Caledonia

SAILING IN NEW CALEDONIA

© David Kerr 2001-2004

New Caledonia is a wonderful cruising ground. It has a large barrier reef, a huge cruising area, clear and warm waters and is well charted. In March 2000, we found that chartering was an effective way to preview the area, prior to a more substantial commitment of time in our own boat.

Needing a Holiday

Penny and I needed a holiday; we have six active children and stressful work lives. We own a yacht which is in charter on Pittwater NSW but we wanted to travel further and only had a week. So, out came the atlas and we "cruised the Internet". A number of the Pacific Islands only advertised skippered charters, whereas we wanted to bareboat. We selected New Caledonia and began contacting the 15 listed charter companies. It was tough obtaining responses from many of them and our school French (from 38 years ago) plus their English provided some amusing interludes. Fortunately, we discovered that there is much more tolerance for poor French in Noumea than there is in Paris! The smallest yachts available were 11 metres.

The boat

We settled on "WALA", a Feeling 36 sloop which was advertised by three companies. We selected the cheapest and most responsive organisation. Cost was relatively high at 41,500 French Pacific Francs per day (about A$565) so we booked five days (which were costed as four) on the boat and a couple of days in a hotel for some land-based sightseeing. We purchased a copy of the excellent "Cruising Guide to New Caledonia" by Marc, Rambeau and Blackman. The crew was my wife Penny, myself and "Mac", a friend from Ireland. Mac is an Irish Catholic priest whom we first met 35 years ago. We last saw him 22 years ago when we were adventuring around Australia and he was about to return to Ireland. Mac would be an excellent crew member with his own yachting experiences in the Irish Sea and his humour, wit and great communication skills. He had spent two years in Quebec, so we thought his French might come in handy. This would be his first holiday for 20 years and he could not wait for it to begin.

We were keen to know something of Wala's safety and other equipment, however the list of questions was unanswered by the charter company until a French friend translated it. We then received a speedy and comprehensive answer! Wala was a couple of years old, with everything we needed and we hoped that we would not use its lift keel.

Getting there

We flew direct from Sydney to Tontouta airport on a Saturday. The trip was only a few hours, the day sparkled and the views of the reefs and lagoon were wonderful as we descended. Customs and Immigration were effortless and we were soon in the bus that we had prearranged. The outside temperature was 29. It was an hour's trip with picturesque scenery and the bus driver kindly dropped us at the charter office in Port Moselle. The charter guy (who we'll call "Claude") only spoke about 30 words of English.

Provisions

We decided that Mac and Penny would take a taxi to the nearest supermarket while I was shown the boat. Claude kindly called the taxi and explained the destination. The boat familiarisation was in sign language with plenty of laughs. I was keen to learn their rules and was surprised to discover that there didn't seem to be any! We could have gone anywhere, even through one of the reef passages to the Loyalty Islands. The only requirement was the return of Wala in one piece on the appointed day. There were no skeds and no specified arrival time or means of contact as the charter company had no radio and we had no phone. Incidentally, boats are moored European style in Noumea with the bow to a mooring and two stern lines (under considerable tension) to the marina.

Penny and Mac arrived back loaded with goodies. The description of their trip to the supermarket had me rolling with laughter. Mac had decided that he could not trust the taxi driver with their destination, so he explained it to him. The only problem was that he used a mixture of rusty Quebec French corrupted by a number of Italian words plus some English, with the colourful mixture delivered in a heavy Irish brogue. No wonder the driver was totally bewildered and expostulated as only the French can.

Communications!

We discovered that there were no toilet paper or matches so Claude obligingly set off in his car to obtain them. I will leave Mac's explanation of "toilet paper" to the reader's imagination! Claude returned and indicated that we could now leave. In Australia, charter companies would insist on taking the boat off the marina, but not here. We headed out of Port Moselle and found the log was reading zero, so I went below, pulled up the floor and cleaned the impellor while we motored. We anchored for the night off the beach in Baie des Citrons. At dinner, we found that the coffee cups were the size of thimbles, so we drank our coffee and tea from soup bowls. We have a photo which is not for publication! There was quite a swell and a lot of shore traffic; however, we slept soundly.We were up by sunrise and noted quite a few people nearby, swimming a couple of kilometres before breakfast. Fitness activities are very popular in Noumea.

Some spots

We set course for Ilot Amedee (which was about 11NM South of Noumea) through the huge lagoon, into a 15-25Kt South Easterly. We tacked easily through the shoals and reefs which were well marked on the charts. It was then that one of Wala's undesirable attributes emerged. The rudder was too small and there was too much sail area aft of the keel so that the boat rounded up very badly in any gust; the traveller and mainsheet were set up via jammers and winches so that it was quite difficult to "play" the mainsail. Twice, we self-tacked and were very quickly sailing backwards! Unfortunately, this ensnared the trolling line in the propellor, so we anchored under sail. Amedee was a beautiful island with a picturesque lighthouse which was built in France and rebuilt on Amedee in the late 1800s. The place was a busy day-venue with lots of visitors but pleasant all the same. We snorkelled, explored and untangled the fishing line. There were quite a few sharks swimming around under us as we snorkelled and we were surprisingly calm about this in the belief that they had more than enough fish food to eat!

Navigation

In the afternoon, we headed on a comfortable broad reach in 10-15Kts to Baie Uie which was 25NM NE of Amedee. Mac proudly demonstrated an Irish plotting device. Unfortunately, this sometimes produced the wrong bearings so we always surreptitiously checked when Mac used his device. During this trip, we encountered a couple of strong 30Kt squalls with plenty of rain and zero visibility. There was a change in wind direction near Uie so we ended up close hauled. I had ignored Penny's wise suggestion of no more trolling and....you guessed it.....again we anchored under sail. Uie and the surrounding area lie to the West of a large island (Ile Ouen) and there were many beautiful, deserted beaches with gently waving palm trees.

It was a pleasant evening so we decided to fire up the barbecue. Every boat we saw had charcoal barbecues. Unfortunately, our barbecue was rusted into one piece so we needed to break up the coal and stuff the pieces through the grill. Finally we got the thing going. Sparks and flames were flying so we moved the tender, outboard and petrol to Wala's bow. Scary!

Day three dawned wet and very misty. We decided to explore Baie de la Tortue to the South and then head into Baie de Prony via Canal Woodin to our North. Prony is about 35NM East of Noumea and is a large picturesque bay with much to explore. The landscape varies hugely due to mineralisation which causes many soil colours such as reds, browns and blacks. Vegetation is thick in some areas and sparse in others with plenty of evidence of old mining. Before heading off, we found that putting a permanent reef into the mainsail fixed our sail balance. We experienced no further problems, with little impact upon boat speed. We headed North from Baie de la Tortue and discovered the Western end of the Canal, which we entered on a favourable tide. The Canal runs roughly West to East, is a few miles long and separates Ile Ouen from the mainland. The wind was very variable; sometimes we were doing 8Kts and at other times 1Kt. We entered Prony just before noon and picked up a public mooring on the West side of Ilot Casey- an island nature reserve with a small resort. The snorkelling there was really excellent. After lunch we headed for Baie du Carenage, one of the cyclone holes tucked into the Northern part of the Bay. We anchored for the night and again we were alone. We had a great time up one of the freshwater streams which boasted waterfalls and hot springs.

Great snorkelling

Day four dawned fine, very still and misty so we headed for Recif de L'Aiguille (Needle Reef). This is an amazing coral needle poking up from 35M to within 1.5M of the surface. We tied up to the danger mark which was 35M from the needle and then snorkelled in the absolutely still and clear waters. Wow, what a sight! The needle had many spires, like a cathedral and hot freshwater flowed out of them making a syrupy effect in the saltwater. Beautiful fish were swimming around us. Any movement of the water stirred up the "syrup" and made photography difficult. Finally and reluctantly, we tore ourselves away to explore more of Baie Prony. We anchored in the South East corner in Bonne Anse. We were surrounded by more beauty and again no other boats. We went ashore, trekked around and climbed one of the steep hills. The only thing wrong with this idyllic spot was a huge pile of bottles, plastic, tins and paper left presumably by fellow travellers. It was the worst we have ever seen in such a spot and a real shame.

That evening, we experienced the most phenomenal sunset any of us have ever seen. The photographs struggled to represent the true majesty and incredible colour changes every minute or so.

Our final morning dawned crisply with fog and no wind. We had over 35NM to sail back to Noumea via Canal Woodin and Ilot Maitre, a small island a few miles to the South of Port Moselle. We motored most of the way with a brief look at a number of other islands and reefs. We lunched at Ilot Maitre before our last snorkel with the many colourful fish in the beautiful warm water. Ilot Maitre is a popular destination for locals and tourists. Finally, it was time to leave and we threaded our way through the bommies then beam reached back to Port Moselle. Claude was waiting for us on the breakwater and signalled for us to refuel the boat at the fuel wharf and then put it back in it's spot. As no return time had been specified, Claude probably spent most of his day on the breakwater! Despite the fact that Wala's rudder was almost useless in reverse, we did the European mooring thing with aplomb in a 20Kt crosswind. We couldn't have succeeded twice in a row!

Communicationg- again

Overall, we had managed with minimal French. We were in the cyclone season and so listened carefully to the weather forecasts which were in French but sufficiently understandable. On the couple of occasions we called to ask specifics of the weather, there was always one person available who spoke excellent English and could answer our queries. Charts had sufficient detail, however we sometimes found gross disagreement with our two GPS systems.

The only casualty of the trip was my knee which was swollen, sore and looked as if boiling oil had been poured over a large patch of skin. It started during our walk ashore in Bonne Anse. Foolishly, I didn't seek medical advice in Noumea. The problem was caused by a blister tree. I thought I would be scarred for life, but it eventually got better and a year later there is no sign of the damage. It would be disastrous for this tree to touch your face or other sensitive areas of skin.

Summary

In summary, we had a fantastic time and realised that we had probably explored less than one percent of New Caledonia's cruising potential. We resolved to take our own boat one day and spend months cruising the huge lagoon, the Isle of Pines and the Loyalty Islands. Chartering proved to be an effective way to whet our appetites and evaluate New Caledonia for the future as well as having a great holiday.

Last changed: 9th May 2004

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