Just chillin’ watching the light change on the volcano opposite the boat now safely moored in Rabaul.

It’s been a while since I’ve had the opportunity (or interest really) to write and quite a bit has happened in the last couple of weeks….

We left Salamau Harbour and sailed peacefully out of Huon Gulf on the 11th, light winds and slow progress meant we had only just reached Tami Islands at the cape of Huon by nightfall, where as luck would have it, we encountered a whopper of a storm (yes another one). Dee… our hitchhiker was on deck with Ralph at the time and I had taken the opportunity to have a wee nap….and within 5 minutes it was on for young and old…. All hands on deck! Main down, genoa in and we attempted to motor to the edge of this bugger…unfortunately this was not possible as the entire system was being joined by fresh lows and building in all directions… no choice yet again but to progress at haste through it. Three exhausted and drenching hours later we managed to past through but continued our vigilance all the way across the Vitiaz straight as lightening was ever-present. Poor Dee was almost suffocating down below though as all hatches and portholes had been fully sealed against the elements and he had spent the whole time down below hangin’ on for grim death.

As with most storms….this one passed and as day broke we had a bit of residual swell but good sailing along the southern coast of New Britain, our next port of call was to be the Island of Akiwok in Gasmata Provence and we made pretty good time for the rest of the leg…. Not to mention that with three people taking shifts at the helm we were quite well rested when we arrived mid morning.

Only one casualty along this leg….we lost our autopilot rudder again!!! The heavy following seas near Tami had lifted our new baby clean off….so we were back to hands on again….extreme bummer!

Nonetheless we were well rested and ready for our next anchorage….and what a pearler it was. Akiwok was the birthplace of Carol (The wife of Lionel – another of the kind generous folks we met in Lae) and thanks to Lionel we were warmly welcomed to this incredible island, nestled behind a series of reefs within short reach of mainland New Britain… This was indeed the very kind of place one tends have in their mind when thinking of a tropical paradise… clean huts with reed-thatched rooves, happy children playing in crystal clear aquamarine waters that wash gently on bleached coral sand….mmmmmm…..

We anchored no more than 20 metres offshore and threw a rope to land just to keep us steady and on place…and there we stayed for a couple of days (would have been more if we didn’t have our visas to worry about). No sooner than we’d set foot on land Stanis, Peter and Sebastian (Carol’s brothers) had whisked us away to a cool mountain water hole….. fresh water dripping down the edges of a deep cave with water so cold we actually developed goosebumps…. After such a long time being hot, sweaty and salty, it was absolute heaven. We stayed there diving in from the surrounding rocks until our hands were prunes.

Even bigger score was the evening ‘sing-sing’ (dance/celebration) and as guests we were welcome to attend…I’m so glad we did, what an incredible night…the folks in these parts are big on drums and spectacular costume so it was a sight to behold. Every man danced with his own hand made lizard skin drum (fyi…the lizard has to be caught by the user) and 2 foot high white headdress (originally made from cockatoo feathers but now more opportunistically produced using cardboard and cane, then painted white) and each woman wore a self-made grass skirt, dyed in bright colours and further adorned with local leaves and flowers. Ralph, Dee and I were not left out…. We were very quickly decorated with grass headbands and flowers. So looking rather conspicuous (not to mention white) we watched and tapped our feet while we got the low down on each dance and it’s significance.

Now here’s the rub…. Our cameras died in the fading light and the entire celebration was to last ALL night…so we disappeared to replenish our batteries, ready to return again at daybreak. Our host for the evening, Stanis, remained at the ‘sing-sing’ the entire night…by the time we found him in the morning he was still going strong but had lost his voice completely.

The following day we pretty much just chilled out (aka recovery)…eating local crayfish and oysters whilst chatting with the locals as the following day we had to get moving again.

Dee decided to remain in the village for another couple of days (who could blame him) so it was only Ralph and that set off through the reef invested waters back out to the Solomon Sea.

But nothing’s ever simple is it?...... Within about 10 minutes of leaving the village I successfully managed to run Hafskip up onto a rock at the edge of a reef bank …thank Christ for a steel hull, is all I can say…..We were swaying back and forth on our hull wondering how the hell we were going to dislodge ourselves when a host of canoes popped up and surrounded us…young lads by the bucketload (or perhaps canoe-load) who with great glee… but more importantly great diligence, spent the next half an hour scrapping, pushing and wriggling our stranded yacht until they dislodged it. We were then free to depart (again) with no damage aside from a couple of scratches and a slight nervous breakdown.

So off we went, heart still pumping…paying a great deal of attention to the sonar (funny that) out away from the coast line and out into the Solomon Sea heading towards Rabaul. Before we’d even hoisted the sails however our fan belt gave out….so yet again we were reliant on sail power alone for the rest of our trip. The winds were consistent though (if not in the most helpful direction) and we tacked our way up the coastline occasionally attempting a variety of belt substitutes….some more effective than others. Probably our best attempt was a piece of safety line sewn to just the right length (yes Mum I had to sew)… but this one we kept up our sleeve to assist us with our entry into Rabaul harbour.

The rest of our passage to Rabaul was surprisingly free of incident. We had good winds and kind sailing most of the time…there was one point however where I’d say I had something of a throw down/epiphany.

The swell was large and the wind had dropped to zero around midnight…. Ralph was down below having a rest (not that that was possible in that swell) and I was vainly attempting to capture non-existent puffs of breeze whilst being thrown from one side of the cockpit to the other. Within an hour I was battered, bruised and hysterically tired….. Having reached the end of my emotional tether and physical endurance I simply gave up!... This, as it happens, is the best thing I could have done. You see what I learned that night is that there are times when control is not an option and you simply need to relax…get as comfortable as possible and wait for nature to assist, rather that attempt to fight it or bend it to your will….. in short the whole episode was a rather painful lesson in ‘letting go’. There’s no doubt about it….that one basic element makes for much happier sailing….all of a sudden I wasn’t frustrated by the often fickle nature of the wind and simply waited for its re-establishment playing only with what I could manage.

With this one rather large epiphany under my belt the rest of the trip into Rabaul was a pleasure… even being sent round in circles for 4 hours by a 3 knot current in St. Georges Channel was simply a matter of doing the best we could….took a while but we got there.

While we were playing around with the current we’d obtained the phone number for the Rabaul Yacht Club and had established contact with Rod Pierce (more on Rod later)… a dead set legend who motored out at dusk to bring us a spare fan belt that he happened to have hanging in his engine room. So with a last super human effort from Ralph to get the bugger on we then followed Rod back into Simpson Harbour to a beautiful quiet anchorage under the shadow of a couple of spectacular volcanoes.

As it turns out our cruising guides were once again not quite up to date…Rabaul Harbour is not full of floating pumice and our boat was not covered in fine ash…. There is the odd whiff of sulphur but at present the volcano is largely inactive… The township of Rabaul is also in remarkably good condition and it’s a safe, friendly place… the roads are indeed covered by ash and you will get a mouthful of it in a stiff breeze, but you can provision extremely well in town without needing to travel the 45 minutes by PMV (Public Motor Vehicle) to Kokopo. Of course if you want  the internet, a post office or need to do some serious banking, then maybe you need to travel to Kokopo…but otherwise all is within easy reach in Rabaul….including a continuous supply of beer and Rabaul history at the Yacht Club.

So what now….

This is where Rod comes in…. turns out he’s an underwater salvage guru…having lived his entire life in PNG (born in Rabaul) he’s completely and utterly devoted to the discovery and documentation of as many WW2 plane wrecks as he can possibly find. His latest project is a circa 1942 Japanese fighter plane…a Zero to be specific…that he’s in the process of slowly releasing it from the silt in the hope of identifying its place in history. So I’ve been down a couple of times and Ralph’s been down almost every day since we arrived (the man’s half fish)…the plan is to assist with the dredging process in the next week or so…teams of 2 taking it in turns to blow the silt away from the aircraft until it reaches a point where it can be lifted to shallower water. There is also the possibility there are still human remains in the cockpit….so we’re pretty stoked we might get to help in the identification process….certainly makes history come alive when you can touch it.

Right now we’re quite happy to stick around here for a while…. We have a little leeway on our visas and the option of a little work on the side (bit early to tell what that might be as yet)….so to be honest we’re not sure whether it will be 3 weeks or 3 months but for the moment we’ll stay put and reassess our options a little way down the track.