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Cruising Magnificent Islands


The Team: David, Penny, Bernadette(22) and William(15)

LEAVING HOME: It is six months since we departed Sydney for Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. We had been working feverishly for months in order to get our affairs and the boat in order. We left the house in the capable hands of house sitters whom we found via the Internet. We left Pittwater in April and headed up the East Coast of Australia for Cairns, where we intended to clear Customs. The coastal winds were lighter and more variable than last year, interspersed with the occasional strong blow. We used our spinnaker a lot out and gave the engine an occasional run. Fortunately, Pastime of Sydney is a fast boat, so we were able to sail most of the way, albeit at a slower pace than we had predicted. In NSW, we stopped at Newcastle, Broughton Island, Camden Haven, Coffs Harbour and Yamba. We then went straight to Mooloolaba, in very light winds until the last six hours or so when a big front piped in. We spent a week there waiting for the strong winds and big seas to abate and then headed off (around Fraser Island) for Lady Musgrave lagoon. A big sea was still running and we would like to have stopped inside the Great Sandy Strait, however the bar was impassable and the anchorage outside almost as bad, so we pressed on. Fortunately, the seas abated and we had a fast run to Musgrave, catching a big Spanish Mackerel on the way.

LADY MUSGRAVE: Our three days in the lagoon were pleasant, but windy (a couple of weeks later, two yachts were wrecked there). One afternoon, we had consistent 45kt winds which made for very rough conditions at a high tide. It was exactly how Lucas describes it and it would have been imprudent to leave. Our ground tackle and big storm snubbers got a good workout and managed with ease. The skipper and crew found it rather wearing and another boat there broke their whole supply of snubbers and chain hooks.

We moved on to Northwest Island, which used to be one of Dave’s favourite places, however this time it was rough and we pressed on after a night to Great Keppel. We spent a couple of days there, exploring the lagoon, swimming and generally lounging around.

BILLY BOY II: We headed off for Port Clinton and again, the spinnaker was flying. We chatted with and were overtaken by the Grattans in Billy Boy II. We did not understand how they overtook us until we saw the vapour trail from their “iron spinnaker”. Port Clinton was beautifully calm. However, the mossies and sand flies were troublesome, so we tried out our mossie-proofing for the first time and it worked well. Next day, we headed for the Percy Isles- for once, motoring all the way in the nonexistent breeze. The Grattans stopped at Middle Percy and we were at Northeast Percy. We gossipped on the radio that night with Rosenkavalier and Byamee, who were further South.

SHARKS: We were up early the next day and drifted for hours. The kids went swimming off the transom, but were soon leaping out of the water when a school of 2-3 metre sharks appeared, circling the stern! The weather was brilliant but windless, so we finally motored again, reaching our goal of Scawfell Island around midnight. There were a dozen yachts already anchored, but none were in our special spot, snugged up relatively close to the beach and reef. We went in cautiously using the scanning sonar to alert us to the fringing reef around 100 metres away. When we awoke late next morning, we were the only ones there! Scawfell is such a great place that we stayed for a couple of days before a fast, invigorating spinnaker run to Laguna Quays where we topped up provisions, performed some minor repairs and made good use of the Resort’s free sailing dinghies, archery, swimming pools etc. We stayed five days and met most of the friendly people. John and Tracy (who run the marina) kindly lent us a whole pile of “mud maps” for the Louisiades- these proved invaluable and we were and are extremely grateful. Then it was time to push off to Cairns. We stopped every night, but headed off again each morning. The days were beautiful, with light winds. Fortunately, we normally had the GBR current with us and the spinnaker was used every day. We stopped at Double Bay, Cape Upstart, Cape Bowling Green, Great Palm Island, Dunk Island and Russell Island. Our favourites were Russell, Great Palm and Double Bay (Nth of Airlie Beach).

CAIRNS: Cairns was FULL and we were fortunate that Billy Boy II invited us to raft up to them on the visitor’s arm of the Yacht Squadron. We spent four days in Cairns and disliked it considerably with the sand flies, mosquitoes, 90+ humidity, 35deg heat and the difficulty of getting things done in such a touristy place. We were very relieved when we were finally able to leave. We said goodbye to the Grattans, who we continued to speak with until we were in the Solomons and they were around Darwin, well on the way through their circumnavigation of Australia. We also spoke with Windchimes, Byamee, Rosenkavalier, Ambience and others throughout most of the trip as well as interchanging emails (over HF) with people all over the world.

LIZARD: We had a beautiful sail for the 140NM to Lizard Island, where we anchored for a couple of days to await a reduction in the 30+kt winds. We swam, snorkelled and explored the island by binoculars as Customs regulations forbade us going ashore. Finally, we headed off for Samarai, PNG through a narrow reef opening. The forecast was totally wrong, with winds of 30-35kts and fairly rough seas. We passed through the reef with waves crashing a few hundred metres on either side of it. We would not want to do this in the dark! Once through the reef, the conditions were worse and we were on a tight reach, doing 7.5kts with just the Genoa up. Fortunately, after 24hrs, things improved and we put up some mainsail which steadied the boat. We made excellent time, arriving in just under 72hrs from Lizard despite 0.6kts of adverse current. We logged 560NM from Cairns. It was exciting to see the PNG islands and mainland appear with the dawn; we were stunned by the beauty, which was not something we expected.

PNG: We anchored off the small island of Samarai and called up “harbour control” on VHF. The general store answered (there is no other VHF on shore) and they promised to find the Customs guy. Several hours later, there was a loud whistle from the shore and there was Felix, the Customs/Immigration/Quarantine guy, dressed in a heavy boiler suit, despite the 35deg heat! David picked him up in the rubber ducky and brought him to the boat, where we went through the formalities. We wished we had brought carbon paper as Felix had none and every form had to be filled out in triplicate! Felix cannot be very busy because we were the first yacht to clear that year and there had only been one other vessel, a large US motor cruiser [on which all the crew wore guns]. We bought fresh vegetables and some fruit from the market and enquired about water, as our illustrious tow-behind-watermaker had disintegrated on the way. There was no drinkable water, however one of the two ex-pats (Ian Poole), who has been there for over 25yrs, kindly gave us water from his rain tank. This was great because the rainfall is very light at that time of year and likely to be even less as we moved East to the Louisiade Archipelago.

Then it was time to leave, with the children breaking off school to wave goodbye, as they had done when we arrived. We spent several days at nearby Rogeai Island and had a great time.

LOUISIADES: We then sailed East, always close hauled, via Hummock Island & lagoon to the De Boyne and Calvados lagoons where we spent several more weeks. We will not go into detail as there were about five accounts of the Louisiades in the Mainsheet earlier this year. It was even better than we expected. We had a wonderful, educational and relaxing time. The people are so gentle, humble, poor, generous, happy and spiritual (all at the same time). Their harmonised singing is fantastic. The scenery is breathtaking and varied. We usually had excess fruit and vegetables and developed a real liking for drinking coconuts- much healthier than Coca Cola! We had as much fish as we wanted and only fished when the stocks were running low. We mostly caught large Kingfish. We spent several days at least, at each place. We also tried to visit spots that were “off the beaten track” and the family always voted on the destinations. We followed the principle of trying to provide some benefit to each place we visited. As we knew would be the case, money was almost useless and we were pleased to have a good supply of trading (or bartering) goods. Until our last couple of days in the Louisiades, we did not see another boat (other than sailing and dugout canoes).

LEAVING PNG: When the time came to leave, we really did not want to go. We brought away many fond memories, friendships, visual images, photographs and a deepened view of life in PNG.

In an earlier Mainsheet, we described our scary trip from Misima Island to the Solomons. The gale force winds were not the worry- it was the huge breaking seas that were the very real danger.

GIZO: We had been to Gizo before and had friends there, so it was easy to unwind while we tidied up and settled down. The gale went on for several more days, so it was good to be snugged up in port. Unlike the Louisiades, we had rain, rain and more rain! Indeed, we estimated that we received 1,300mm during July, but this did little to prevent our cruising the Western Province. There was no trouble keeping the water tanks full, just from the canopy.

August received a much more normal rainfall so we had a good respite from mud when we were ashore.

SOLOMONS WESTERN PROVINCE: In the almost three months we spent in the Solomons, we got to know people well. We visited many villages and people’s houses. We ate with them and were often humbled to be honoured guests. We dived, snorkelled, fished, walked, explored, talked (“tok tok”), ate (“kai kai”) and were very healthy- this island cruising diet was excellent for us. We always had a wide variety of food- broader than the Louisiades due to the better soil and rainfall in the Solomons.

We saw several other yachts in the Solomons, but almost without exception, they just stayed a few days in the well-known spots like the Marova lagoon, Gizo and a few other places. We covered over 1,000Km in our time there and could easily have spent another year without seeing anything twice.

One US couple asked us to specifically mention that a number of Australian and US yachts were taking advantage of the local people. An example was people inviting themselves to a village feast, eating and drinking heartily then up anchoring and leaving first thing next morning. The Solomons will not continue to be such an idyllic cruising ground if people keep up that sort of selfish behaviour, made even worse when you realise how few possessions are owned by the average islander. Incidentally, at one stage we found ourselves explaining to someone who owned a few pots and pans, a dugout and little clothing, that not only did our yacht cost around SD$500,000 (A$125K) but we ALSO had a home back in Australia. Incidentally, a labourer in the Solomons earns SD$20 (A$5) per day (IF work is available)- so 90 yrs work would buy a cheapish yacht like ours if you saved every cent.

Bernadette flew home from Gizo to resume her Uni studies. She was sad to go and we were sad too. Her effervescence, humour, cast iron stomach and sailing ability were all missed.

The Solomons and Louisiades have many similarities and also differences, but both are wonderful. The people of the Louisiades are a little shyer and poorer, but just as cheerful as those of the Solomons. The health and education systems are better in the Louisiades. The Solomons is in a financial crisis with the government broke and unable to pay public servants, so the kids and those who are ill suffer. Those who complain that the Solomon Islanders are “too pushy” have likely only experienced the stone and wood carvers (who produce truly wonderful work) and not the average villager, who is living a subsistence lifestyle, works very hard and is not “pushy”.

The Melanesian peoples in this part of the world are great. There are no street kids or homeless people. If a child’s parents die, the child is immediately adopted. No-one goes hungry. There is much sharing and helping of others. The quality of a village depends a lot on the leadership- this is not always perfect, however some of Australia’s leaders could learn a lot from some time in either the Solomons or the PNG Islands.

A HIGHLIGHT: One of the highlights of our trip was a couple of weeks in the Shortland Islands. This area was “off limits” and too dangerous for yachts for about 10yrs due to the Bougainville crisis so we were a very unfamiliar sight up there. When we were circumnavigating Alu (Shortland) Island, we were within 3.8NM of Bougainville and we hurried past as there are still too many people there who have grown up with guns and violence. The chief of one village we visited on Fauro Island (in the Shortlands) said that the children were on the beach watching our sails for several hours before we arrived. They were calling out “big bird coming”. The chief said this was just like the Aboriginal children in Australia when Captain Cook came. He told us that we were the first yacht that most children under 10yrs of age had ever seen. We should mention that the PNG, Solomons and Kiribati children are absolutely delightful. At one stage we had about 30 of them inspecting the boat. There were always kids coming to visit us in dugouts everywhere we went. At one village, on the island of Vella, there were 16 canoes with 50 people in them around the boat even before we dropped anchor! We always had 3-4 fenders over the side ready for canoes. People were always very good and used them, sometimes “rafted” four deep. Still, if you are scared of getting a scratch on your topsides or you do not like people being around, the Louisiades and Solomons are the wrong place for you.

We saw some of the 150mm British guns that were facing the wrong way on Singapore, then moved by the Japanese to the island of Poporang. We even sat on a WWII motorcycle and sidecar (still with rubber on the wheels) in the jungle. We also dived and snorkelled 12 sunken ‘planes.

A PLEA FOR A RADIO: There is so much that Australians could do to assist the people of PNG and the Solomons. Towards the end of our trip, we decided upon one course of action for which we would like to solicit as much assistance as possible. We came across a very isolated village of 500+ people (GOMAI) at the top of the Shortlands. The supply/passenger ship has only been there once in four months. They told us we were the second yacht in 10 years. It is incredibly difficult for Gomai if someone needs medical attention or they need to communicate somehow with outsiders. It would make a huge difference if they had a HF radio (plus battery and solar panel). There is no chance of them being able to save this much money and the financial situation is getting tougher with outboard fuel at SD$9 per litre and rice at SD$100 a bag. So, we have committed to get them a radio. We have already raised about A$2,000 through friends but it will take more than twice this sum. If any CCCA member would like to contribute to this excellent cause, please give us a ring or send us an email. A radio will have huge benefit over a long period of time for these 500 people (growing to 1,000).

OTHER HELP: We took medical supplies (donated by a doctor friend) to Gizo Hospital, which is critically short of many supplies. Other boats (such as Windchimes) are assisting various aspects of life in the Louisiades. We would like to hear from any boats going to the Louisiades or Solomons this coming season as we have an old Genoa (for the Louisiades) and can obtain more medical supplies for the Solomons.

We are searching (with very little success) for a bell to give 1,000 villagers of Toumoa village on Fauro Island. They were enslaved by the Japanese during the war and their village bombed out of existence by the US. Almost no-one has a watch, so a bell (currently an artillery shell) is used to signal nearly all village activities. If anyone has hints on where to find a bell (30cm+ and not too expensive), could you please let us know?

LEAVING: Finally, the time came to leave Gizo on a Saturday morning. If the weather was good enough, we planned to sail direct to Coffs Harbour. The contingency plan was to make Australian landfall at Bundaberg or Gladstone. We had expert private weather advice from the well-known Roger Badham, via email. The weather was patchy for the first day, until we motorsailed through a small low South of Gizo, then we had S to SSE winds- not quite what we wanted, but we were just able to lay Coffs, by being continually close hauled. We got a bit tired of being heeled over day after day and the Westerly set (of current) at up to 2kts was a bit of a pain. We really did not know about this until shortly before we left Gizo and realised that the “South current” on the chart actually goes West! Tuesday/Wednesday, the wind came around from the SE to ESE and we deliberately headed as far East as we could- about 60NM- as Roger predicted more South to come. It did come, on Thursday at 30kts and we could no longer hold the great circle course. Still, we were only 25NM to the West on the morning of Friday 13th when the wind came back to the SE and we were able to pull closer to our desired course- plus the Westerly set had disappeared.

DISMASTED: We had been going well as the end of Penny’s watch neared, at 1150. We were over half way, were 1,300Km South of Gizo and about 1,000Km East of Bowen. We were sailing at 6.5kts with heavy reef (to trysail size for the mainsail) and 70% genoa. We had almost got used to the huge “crash” every 10-15 minutes as we fell off the back of a backless wave. Suddenly, there was a different “crash” and Penny blew the whistle and told Will and me that the mast had gone. We scrambled up on deck to behold the scene- mast in two pieces, sails everywhere, damaged stanchions, pushpit and wind turbine. The sea was rough, but not too bad. We only had an occasional wave over the deck. It was hard to get to the foredeck with the wreckage. Penny, Will and Dave worked calmly and well together. We got out the cable cutters, axe, hacksaw, bolt cutters and all the other stuff we thought we would never need. The wind turbine and MOB block and tackle came in very useful. It was very hard work, but we lashed the mainsail down, winched the top of the waterlogged mast alongside the starboard topsides and got the furler & Genoa on board. This was tough, with the sail full of water. We jury rigged a HF aerial from the wind turbine tower, via the boat hook lashed to the mast stump, thence to the pulpit. Our Selcall to Penta Comstat got through immediately and we told Jeanine of our situation. We then motored 24hrs to Frederick Reefs. We made over 5kts through the big seas and strong wind but only achieved 3kts over the ground. This used a heap of diesel and our normal 500NM range shrunk very considerably (we had also motor-sailed South of Gizo). As Jos mentioned in his recent article where he was dismasted (by a cliff), the motion of a dismasted yacht in a big sea is appalling.

JURY RIG: We anchored at Frederick. It was so rough at high tide that Penny needed the stove gimballing to be engaged! We have never ever experienced this at an “anchorage”. Over the next couple of days, we cut away the rest of the rigging, packed away the sails [we saved the mainsail but the Genoa was covered in anti foul and had some small tears] and sawed up lots of aluminium alloy. We had a choice- sail back towards Townville or Cairns or make something that would allow us to sail to windward (to Bundaberg or Gladstone) against the SW winds that we were experiencing. We had insufficient diesel to make land and it would have been foolhardy to risk it in case the engine died. The diesel fuel we had obtained at Misima Island and Gizo was not the best either (very waxy and rusty). Roger Badham was great and increased our email forecasts to three a day to assist decision making. We managed to erect the top 8.5 metres of mast (thus giving us a 10.5metre mast from the waterline), attach the gooseneck and boom plus a storm headsail (using improvised hanks) and trysail. We were a yacht again! We used winches and lots of school geometry to erect the mast. The spinnaker pole was used to make a crane, along with the MOB block and tackle. The sheet winches and Genoa cars were used to keep the mast straight and then lift it when the angles were right. We had to hinge the bottom of the mast to the top of the mast stump and then cut the hinges when the mast was vertical. We had plenty of Spectra rope (very strong and ultra low stretch) and this was used for the forestay and part of the shrouds. We were able to tension the various stays to about two tonnes each with the winches and used G clamps to hold the truckie’s hitches while half hitches were applied.

A weld had failed inside the deck and underneath the stemhead fitting, which then ripped out of the deck. We used an anchor roller as a substitute. We had a couple of rivetters and swaging tools; these were essential, as was the power drill. Those cable clamps that we have been carrying for years were vital, once we remembered where to find them.

TO GLADSTONE: We set off on a Tuesday morning and sailed/motor sailed to Gladstone. We were close hauled the whole time and had to tack quite a bit. If we were doing it again, we would have put up the mainsail on its fourth reef as the trysail was an odd shape and too small. We could only do three knots with the trysail whereas we knew from past experience that the quadruple reefed mainsail and storm jib gave us 6.5kts in 30kts. Still, it was better not to tempt fate, particularly as we knew a big front was coming- the one that hit NSW around the 15th September. We survived that just fine. The only time we got a real SE wind was when we were 12hrs out of Gladstone and could finally come off a close hauled course. We got into the customs pen at 0130 on the Saturday- tired but happy to be safe and well. We had been two weeks at sea and covered 1,108NM on the GPS (much more on the log). We were not scared at any time and counted ourselves fortunate not to have lost the mast between Misima Island and Gizo when we had been knocked down in those worrying, breaking seas.

THE END IN SIGHT: As we write this, a new mast is almost ready and we hope to sail out of Gladstone on about the 26th of October. The new stemhead has been constructed differently as the butt weld in the broken one was of poor design and poor execution (it was a weld with poor penetration and only 50% of the perimeter was even partly okay). The total damage bill is almost $30,000. We had offshore insurance, but still have to pay $12,500 due to the large offshore excess. Still, much better to have been insured than not insured. Club Marine was good to deal with. We encourage everyone cruising extensively offshore to ensure they have detailed rig measurements as it is much harder to put the measurements together when the mast is in three pieces and the rigging has been cut up!

David and Penny Kerr (Pastime)



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