[110704, 2057 UTC, Port Vila, Efate, Vanuatu,
17º44' S / 168º 19' E]
Now back in Port Vila, Vanuatu and waiting on supplies, we wanted to take this chance to catch up on our stories.
When we first arrived at Port Resolution, Mt. Yasur, Tanna's volcano, had been highly active - a Level 3 alert issued by volcanologists - so visiting it was not recommended. Those who did were not allowed beyond the "parking lot". For days, we watched the ash cloud billowing into the sky above the coastal mountains to our west. At night we could see the crimson glow of the caldera reflected by cloud cover. During this period of high pressure and calm winds, the ash actually enveloped us, leaving a film of black inorganic ash on all surfaces of Carina and filling the water column below us with black speckles. Early one morning, we awoke to watch the setting full moon peeking in and out of the undulating ash cloud. As the sun rose, the ash cloud turned pink and then an intense orange. Two of our photos of this scene are on the website. A spectacular sight; but the best of Mt. Yasur was yet to come.
It seemed for awhile that we were destined to watch the volcano from afar. For two days running, we showed up at the village commons at the appointed time of 1630 only to wait on a truck that would not arrive. The village actually has three vehicles that are hired out most days to transport visitors (doctors from New Caledonia who visit villages running clinics in one instance, and the regional Seventh Day Adventist minister in another) or to transport people to Lenakel to pick up village supplies. Certain men of the village are trained drivers and others are trained mechanics.
We didn't completely understand the dynamics of the situation but it seemed that there was a classic standoff of church versus state (or clan in this case) on both days when we were denied the trip to the mountain. It seems that the Seventh Day minister had commandeered the vehicle and re-directed the driver to take him to an alternate location instead of back to the village for us, as was arranged by chief Johnson. When Philip expressed doubt that we'd have success if we came back for a third day, Johnson said, "You don't understand, I AM THE CHIEF, this is the village truck and tomorrow there will be a different driver and you will have the truck". The following day, we had our truck.
Day three arrived and we all piled into the rugged 4 WD king-cab truck, the two of us and the two French sailors from Sweet Life in the cab with two other cruisers, Letizia & Guymo, and some locals in the back. Our driver, Natonga, was a personable guy and careful as we negotiated sections of road washed out completely, dictating we drive into the surrounding bush, sometimes at odd and seemingly dangerous angles. The trip to the park gate took a very long half hour but luckily we were packed-in tight and our bodies just bounced gently off each other as we cheerily talked in English, French-lish or French (in the case of Natonga and Edouard and Jean-Marie).
Arriving at the gate, a large drive-through made in traditional style of rattan and other natural materials, we paid 3350 vatu per person for tickets (about $35 USD) and continued on up the steep, rutted track through the jungle, emerging just below the caldera, onto a bleak and sere moonscape of steaming vents and spent lava bombs. By this time, daylight was fading. Passing by the Vanuatu Post Box (a lone box on a pole where you can post your singed correspondence) the trail passed by the eroded remnants of a walkway that had been lined with handrails of stripped native wood that wended its way roughly 200 meters up towards the puffing sky above. As we climbed, Wendy, our local guide - or maybe she was our babysitter to make sure us village guests didn't do anything stupid and get ourselves hurt - pointed to rocks being projected into the air above. Our eyes got wide and she simply smiled. As we reached the rim and looked down at the two major vents, we realized we were being allowed to climb even higher to a spot directly above the main vent. We could see the silhouettes of a few others already perched there, so we turned and started down the path that followed the edge of the precipice to this lookout.
Climbing up through soft ash, we reached the upper rim at almost the same moment as the volcano rumbled deeply, exploded and spewed pieces of molten rock the size of small cars into the air. Camera ready, Philip tried to get a shot but was unbalanced by Leslie's spontaneous startled jerking of the straps of the backpack lashed to his back, her attempt at keeping him from falling into the caldera. Mind you, there are no red or yellow safety tapes here, no handrails, no observation platforms, just a crumbly edge to the caldera that falls away roughly 1000' into the fiery core of the earth. Nearby a local guide who was attending to other tourists whooped and jumped and taunted the volcano in his native tongue. Whatever he was saying surely had an effect because soon a hot gust of air whomped us from behind as the volcano sucked air in before roaring to life and sending a molten explosion up almost to the level we were standing.
This is the tropics and darkness falls quickly, so we crouched down and propped the camera on its tiny "earthworm" tripod and waited anxiously for the next explosion. We didn't have to wait long; it seemed that the rate of eruptions was reaching a crescendo, so we stayed low and continued to shoot photos. Once it became completely dark, people started to peel away and descend, shining flashlights at the black ash in an attempt to find footprints in the black-on-black "trail" as there were no cairns to define it. Awed but still anxious, we soon followed suit, slowly and carefully stumbling while shuffling to find the trail away from the danger. Back at the truck, Edouard broke out celebratory cold beers and we all piled in and started back down into the dark jungle, stopping occasionally when a person would suddenly step into our headlight's glare, inevitably bearing a bush knife. Natonga would chat in Bislama (the common language for peoples who speak approximately 20 different native tongues on this island alone) and then the weary traveler would climb aboard in the bed and wiggle down amongst the chilly occupants out back. We felt it was a spectacular and unforgettable experience and one that we may never get again in our lifetimes and it made us glad we beat back against the tradewinds to visit Tanna.
By this time, we had been in Port Resolution for over a week and decided we should make plans to push on, meandering our way back to Port Vila after a stop at Erromango, a seldom visited island just 60 miles to the north. When we checked weather files, we noticed that strong winds were predicted to start just a few days away. Later predictions indicated the bad weather might be with us sooner. We decided, reluctantly, to skip Erromango but to leave the following day and sail directly to Efate Island and Port Vila, a distance of 130 miles. After visiting the village and saying our goodbyes, leaving a thank you gift for the chief and collecting three gorgeous hen eggs in return - still warm from the nest - we pulled our anchor and hoisted our sails at midday while a number of villagers gathered on the hillside waved goodbye.
Most of our passages are uneventful but this one turned out a little different. Soon we had 15 knots of wind from the southeast and were on a broad reach zipping along at a comfortable 5 knots. But the wind continued to build and storm clouds showed on the horizon. In the middle of the night we left Erromango 6 miles to our starboard and, as soon as we slipped past the lee of the island, the wind increased and the confused seas deepened. The weather continued to deteriorate and, by the time we approached Efate it was after dark the following day, and it was raining and blowing a gale with gusts over 40 knots.
Philip was on watch and was viewing some lights on the island through breaks in the weather. He was also monitoring our radar screen and as a rain front started to clear off ahead, he noticed ship's lights through the rain and mist. Sure enough, a hard target emerged from the weather smear on the radar screen, the vessel just 7 miles away and directly on our course. He alerted Leslie who donned her PFD and came up into the cockpit. We tried to hale the vessel by radio and got a response from Pacific Petal, a southbound cruise ship. We asked if they could see us on their radar.
"Uh, no, we're having a few 'equipment issues' right now".
Philip then asked if they could see our lights.
"Uh, no, we have no visual; do you see our navigation lights?".
Philip was beginning to get a bit frustrated as the radar screen showed us getting closer.
"You're a cruise ship lit up like a Christmas tree; all I see are lights! Would you please tell me what your course is, sir?"
"We are on a course of 160 degrees true; what is your course?"
Philip responded we were on a reciprocal (nearly collision) course of 340 true and one or both of us needed to take evasive action. Pacific Petal suggested that Carina alter course to starboard and Philip responded that we were under sail and couldn't unless we jibed, which we couldn't do quickly under the current conditions, especially given the proximity of our two vessels. Pacific Petal radioed back that they would alter course to starboard and we watched them slowly move out of our path, passing less than two miles away, ablaze in light on this cool stormy night.
This was our second visit to Port Vila and we felt we could make a nighttime approach since we knew what to expect and had our GPS waypoints from our previous visit. To shorten the story a bit, we picked our way into the bay as the wind screeched in the rigging, dodged a few unlit anchored sailing boats and finally dropped the hook in the quarantine anchorage at 2330. We had been on an adrenaline high but the stress of the day-and-a-half bumpy trip finally hit us and we turned in to our bunk soon after letting the anchor fly.
Your friends of the yacht Carina,
Philip, Leslie and salty cat, Jake