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Sailing the Solomon Islands

Destination: Solomon Islands (2002)

(c) D Kerr 2003

Few cruisers who visit the Solomons see more than Gizo, Honiara or the Marovo Lagoon. They miss the very different village life and come away with restricted impressions of the country and its people. As Penny and I, daughter Bernadette and son William can testify after spending 10 weeks and sailing 1000nm around the Western and Choiseul provinces, there's much more to see and it's worth getting away from the towns. Hundreds of islands provide incredible variety and the places we visited were and still are peaceful despite the troubles that previously occurred on Guadalcanal. We walked through steaming mud pools in an active crater on Vella Lavella, cooked the large Megapode eggs that our guides unearthed and explored eerie bat caves filled with thousands of bats on Kolombangara.

Rough ride
To get to the Solomons you can come from the west (as we did), the east (Vanuatu or Noumea) or the south (the Australian mainland). We sailed from Misima Island in the Louisiades to Gizo, which is a Customs clearance port. There are also a number of other convenient clearance ports. Next visit, we will sail on a nice broad reach from Bundaberg or Gladstone in Queensland.
Ours was a rough trip in extremely bad weather with three knockdowns. There had been no weather forecasts due to the Solomons' financial situation and the Australian High Seas forecast was totally wrong. Our passage was a fast two days and Pastime of Sydney, our Swarbrick S111, suffered some damage to shrouds, solar panel and lifelines.
We surged into Gizo Harbour under sail in six-metre breaking seas on top of contrary six-metre swells. This was not the most appropriate method of navigating coral reefs in over 40kts of wind, but it was less daunting than pulling down the sails.
Being in harbour had never felt so good. I went ashore to clear Customs and they were friendly. The immigration man was stranded on an adjoining island due to the storm, so we did not legally clear Immigration for a week. Australians obtain visas upon arrival and need to give a detailed itinerary.
A rigger in Sydney was able to make up new lower shrouds and DHL delivered, all within 10 days. You need to be self-sufficient, but in Gizo and Honiara you can still get things fairly quickly if you are prepared to pay the freight.

In the Solomons there are many fatalities from low freeboard canoes and the distances people travel. There is no fringing reef to protect the islands. Despite this, cruising is excellent for yachts and little if any night sailing is needed. The local people are knowledgeable about reefs and we found their advice reliable. The worst weather comprised a few short squalls that blew through in 10-15 minutes each. The rain did occasionally fill the rubber ducky to overflowing!
Any visiting yacht is sure to have plenty of canoe visitors and they are respectful of your topsides, particularly if you have a few fenders and an obvious gate in your lifelines. Canoes are nearly all single dugouts, except in the Shortland Islands, where outriggers and sails are still used. Indeed, we saw one rare canoe with a mainsail and jib. It was capable of about eight knots and the owner, Luciano, seemed very adept at simultaneously sailing and trolling. He skillfully sailed right up to us. Sadly, he was lost at sea a few months later.

Shaken but not stirred
One of the memorable moments of our trip was a major earthquake while anchored in a peaceful bay on the spectacular double-volcano island of Kolombangara. The quake was 6.5 on the Richter scale with its epicenter only 20nm away. It felt as if a giant hand had picked up the boat and then thrown it down. In the Shortland Islands we also experienced minor tremors every few days; these rocked the boat and set small wavelets in motion for up to an hour each time.

Nggosele Passage
Another trip we won't forget was white-water rafting in Pastime ' or fairly close to it! Cutting across the bottom of large Choiseul Island is the Nggosele Passage which is like a narrow, winding river. It comes complete with rocks, shallows and reefs. Our cruising guide said it was navigable. A school teacher from a village near the western end also gave us excellent advice, all of which was accurate. We spent several hours motoring through the spectacular area, with up to 6.5kts of assisting current, whirlpools, bends and plenty of jungle. Imagine our heart rates when Pastime rounded a bend at more than nine knots and the narrow channel split, with white water on a reef in the centre. Fortunately, a veer to port avoided the reef then a flick to starboard stopped us ploughing into the fast-approaching bank. The teacher was right!

Wagina Island
Wagina Island and village are firm favourites on our list of most-popular spots. This large village of about 1000 did not look accessible, with the chart showing no decent anchorages and the reef entrance was for "surfboards only", being three metres wide with breaking waves. However, a villager showed us a wonderful lagoon a few miles away. Charts indicated nothing useful, but after travelling a couple of miles North over supposedly dry reef, we anchored in a delightful, sandy, one-yacht lagoon.

Vona Vona, Lola and Skull
Vona Vona Lagoon is a large, magnificent lagoon to the west of New Georgia Island. There are few people here and they are very quiet, unlike the very talented but pushy wood carvers in the Marovo Lagoon, near Vangunu Island. Vona Vona was spectacular and accessed via the Diamond Narrows of New Georgia.
We stayed almost a week anchored off Lola Island which has leaf-house cottages and a natural resort. The passage was quite complicated and "mud maps" were of benefit. Someone had provided waypoints but without a datum they were useless. The scanning sonar was again useful as was a good visual lookout. We travelled cautiously, with only 2.2m above the reef in one tricky spot. The peace at Lola was great, with good fishing and enjoyable snorkelling. From there we visited Skull Island where the skulls from 700 years of New Georgia Chiefs are kept.

Bat caves
We'd read about ineresting bat caves in the <I>Lonely Planet guide and decided to cruise to "Bat Harbour" on the SE Coast of Kolombangara to visit them. Old machine guns still sit on rocks nearby as you glide into the peaceful harbour.
Solomon and Ellen Ngana live there and Solomon showed us the excellent caves and relics of the Japanese Occupation.
The bat caves are extensive, with many species and thousands of bats in every nook. There were a few screams from family members who were startled by wings brushing their faces!

Ellen generously cooked us lots of "Custom" food with ingredients from their extensive gardens. They used to receive many visits from yachts, particularly during the time of the Brisbane to Gizo Yacht Races, but these have ceased. They would like more yachts to visit.
Swimming in the natural harbour was discouraged by crocodiles, but there was excellent, safe diving and snorkelling on the reef to the south of Bat Harbour entrance. One caution ' there is an uncharted reef a few hundred metres off the SE Coast of Kolombangara. Fortunately, our scanning sonar picked it up during a tropical downpour with zero visibility. A crash gybe brought us to a stop in a boat length and we navigated around the treacherous reef when the rain abated. Navigate with caution in rain squalls! The reef is visible in fine weather.

Shortland Islands
The Shortland Islands, being very close to Bougainville, had been off-limits to yachts for almost 12 years during the bloody Bougainville Crisis, which had recently ended.

They have a Chief system which is different from the rest of the Solomons, and it is wise to gain permissions and approvals if you plan to cruise there. This sounded a little daunting until we actually arrived and met the wonderful people.
Great visibility allowed us to dive and snorkel on 11 aircraft off the village of Nila. At one stage, I accidentally dropped four dinner plates in almost 16 metres of water and could see them lying on the bottom. Yes, I did retrieve them.
In the village of Toumoa on Fauro Island the Chief told us that the children could see us coming for hours and gathered on the beach calling out in their native Alu, "Big white bird coming". He told us "just as the aboriginal children did when Captain Cook came to Australia." No village child under 10 had ever seen a yacht before.
The 150mm guns that were pointed the wrong way on Singapore in WWII and subsequently brought by the Japanese to defend Poporang Island in the Shortlands were an interesting piece of history. We also sat on a scout's motorcycle in the jungle, still with rubber on the wheels. The Solomons were the scene of intense fighting in the war and there are relics everywhere.

Weather, water and fishing
In July, during the early part of our stay, there were frequent tropical downpours, but it was relatively dry for the latter part. Some people take watermakers, but these are not essential.
Tidal variation was often only 30cm and there was only one tide per 24 hours while we were there. This made anchoring relatively simple and a swing of the trades to the north forced a hurried relocation only a couple of times. The bad storm at the start of our visit was very unusual and apparently the worst in more than 20 years.
The water was 27-29'C, which was fantastic for swimming, diving and snorkelling, and the air was about the same with 75 percent humidity.
Lure fishing was excellent and was only necessary when the stocks were running low. Fortunately, Ciguatera poisoning has not reached the Western Province. We did some trading for lobster.

Homeward bound

Sadly, the time came to leave and we set off direct for Coffs Harbour. We would not do this again during the trades. Pastime was close hauled the whole time as the wind was S to SW and there was a 2kt westerly current to keep us hard on the wind. It would have been much better to head back through the Louisiades, or to Townsville; unfortunately we had not allowed enough time for those options.
I thoroughly recommend the Solomons as a cruising destination. Now that peace has returned to Guadalcanal, the whole area is available to cruise- but seeing it all could take several seasons!

David Kerr is a regular contributor to CH. He, wife Penny and two of their six children Bernadette and William sailed from Sydney, up the coast to PNG, then to the Solomons and back to Sydney.

2: Cash
You will not be able to buy Solomon dollars in Australia, but they are plentiful in Gizo or Honiara if you have Australian, NZ or US cash.


It is important to take malaria precautions and have your own antibiotics. We met several cruisers with badly infected tropical ulcers. The most basic medicines are in short supply, though you will find well-qualified doctors in big towns like Gizo or Honiara. Our only mosquito problems were short-lived when in a couple of small bays close to shore.

There were no working lights and some marks have deteriorated. Be wary that GPS positions have a datum; lack of this can throw positions off by a mile or more for the unwary. Some of our electronic charts were very inaccurate, disagreed with the paper charts and showed Pastime sitting on island hill tops.

The people
You will meet the straight haired Kiribati and the frizzy haired original Solomon Islanders. Hopefully you will bring back some excellent stone and wood carvings along with wonderful memories, great photographs and a strong desire to return soon. Unlike a small minority of cruisers, make sure you leave each place visited better off as a result of your visit.

Steer clear of Bougainville (PNG). The situation in Honiara was tense but is now fine.

Make sure you are self-sufficient with adequate supplies, particularly spare parts. You can buy basic commodities in the bigger towns, at a high price if they are imported. The local markets have an excellent selection of fruit, veggies, fish and eggs. The bakeries are also very good.

Batteries, fuel and ground tackle
Alkaline batteries are unobtainable, except occasionally in Honiara. Diesel fuel is available at Gizo and had to be carted in Jerry cans; it was cheaper than Australia but in short supply and not available to a couple of yachts wanting quantities over 100L. Outboard fuel is freely available and the price is about twice that in Australia. All diesel and petrol had rust particles, so good filtering was essential. Gas in Gizo was only available by cylinder exchange. We took our own filler hose and decanted from a friend's 45Kg cylinder by inverting it.
Make sure your snubbers and ground tackle are in top condition with plenty of chain. Pastime had 60M chain and 60M nylon, two big-bridle storm snubbers and a "general use" 5m snubber.

Trading gear
Flippers, masks, snorkels, sharpening stones, hooks, fishing line & something on which to wind it. T-shirts, soap, shampoo, caps, childrens' clothes, transistor radios, shorts, dresses, fabric, exercise books, pens, pencils, magazines, yeast. Tools for wood working, sand paper, power tools, film, batteries, watches. Gifts of lollies and balloons for the kids.

Guides and charts
The "US Sailing Directions" NIMA SD126 are extremely useful. "Solomons Island Cruising Guide" by Dirk Sieling is good, but GUD datums. Contact the NZ based Island Cruising Association. "Sail the Solomons" by Dayle Smith is another useful book, available from Boatbooks. Cruising Notes from Wunschtraum and also Nkhwazi may be available via a web search. The Solomon Islands Lonely Planet is particularly good.
Aus4622, 4604 and 4060 for overall planning. Other useful charts are SI07, BA3994, BA3995, BA3996, BA1713, BA1714, BA1735, BA4623. Aus 615, 616, 617 for Coral Sea Reefs.

1. Pastime at Vella Lavella, entertaining visitors
2.Gizo Market
3.PHOTO. Welcoming Alu children
4.Centuries of Chiefs' skulls on Skull Island
5.Sunset over Logha Island
6.A typical Solomons village
7.Peaceful Bat Harbour
8.PHOTO. Solomon in the bat caves showing us WWII Japanese artefacts
9.Traditional Kiribati dance
10. The wood and stone carvings are excellent
11. Visiting the Ulo volcanic sites.
12. Hot volcanic spring at Ulo.
13. Young Pan Pipers perform the ghost crab dance.
14. PHOTO. WWII gun from Singapore on Poporang.
15. Penny with shell ornament gift made for our boat.
16. PHOTO. Beautiful Nggosele Passage.
17. PHOTO. Penny shows inquisitive children the yacht.
18. Kennedy Island where JFK and his men swam after their PT109 was destroyed in WWII.
19. The town of Gizo- second largest in the Solomons.
20. Traditional leaf house.
21. Solomon and Ellen's fertile garden. They welcome yachties.
22. Great views every time you wake up! (Vanga).

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