Well we made it!

After 7 days of sailing through almost every condition possible we reached Samarai Island PNG on the morning of the 24th….our first overnight/continuous sail and our first international passage.

Hafskip managed brilliantly with only a couple of hatch seals and an auto pilot rudder suffering terminally in the process….oh and a bimini bracket….and a couple of pullies… and an alternator belt (snapping on the weather cusp of a thunderstorm off the PNG coast right when we needed to motor about 20 nautical miles upwind to get back on course, but that’s another story, one Ralph would probably rather forget as it was his fingers getting burnt as he dug down deep into the bilge to fit a new one).

We left Townsville at about 8.30 am on the 17th and spent the day sailing slowly but steadily towards the Great Barrier Reef through Magnetic passage. The plan was to find a nice little reef to anchor for our first night and basically reef hop until we got to the outer reef and then only have 3 straight days sailing to PNG, but we were feeling perky enough and the conditions were perfect so we just kept sailing on through the night. It would be our first night under the stars, taking shifts as Hafskip made her steady way through the waves….she’s no speedster but she certainly has a wonderfully solid way of pulling you through the water, so we were feeling relaxed and confident. I remember watching the sun set into a hazy horizon, and the rise of an almost full moon and being surprised at it’s simple beauty. I’m not sure what I’d really expected it to be like but for me it was like a deep sigh. Whatever was going to happen, would happen and I could do no more than simply take each moment as it came and respond as best I could…if anyone wants to know what living in the present feels like, then I would strongly recommend sailing alone on a dark sea….but just make sure you’re in the company of an experienced sailor and have had enough rest to enjoy it. I consider myself blessed to have had both and am thankful for the opportunity.

After 48 hours of sailing with steady South Easterlies accompanied by a large swell we were starting to feel a little pooped and headed for Holmes Reef for a wee break. You see it’s rather hard to get any sleep when the boats on a constant 20 degree heel (or more) and bobbing up and down, not to mention when your eyes are half open just in case you’re needed…. After a while of course this changed as we were both physically exhausted enough to crash no matter what the boat was doing!

Holmes reef provided us with just the break we needed so we motored our way tentatively in through the reef to a nice clear spot… the water was clear and turquoise with good holding in about 7 meters, so we just couldn’t resist a dip in it.

You’d think that all that way from land (about 200 nautical miles) you’d be alone…but no… we had neighbours… Danny and his travel buddies out on a diving and spearfishing expedition through the reefs in the coral sea to PNG…. They dropped by with 2 dog tooth tuna and an enormous coral trout….all of which were promptly filleted and select pieces barbequed (we still have heaps left). We had a long sleep and spent an easy morning pinning things back down on the boat that had taken a walk on passage, then had about half a fish worth of tuna sashimi…bloody marvellous….while we watched the weather turn….and turn it did. Even in our sheltered spot Hafskip was straining at anchor and thunderstorms surrounded us, delaying our departure as we got rolled around mercilessly. The tricky bit here was to make a call between a reasonably ‘safe’ anchor and open sea…which may not appear to be an option but believe me the open sea is a very viable option after the kind of swell we were copping.
Hafskip made up our minds for us with one loud crash of the anchor chain on the bowsprit (it bent the front cleat)…she was really not happy remaining tethered and clearly preferred being under way! So off we went after waiting for a little window in the action…out into the Coral Sea. I gotta say I was feeling a little tentative but Ralph was with Hafskip…so I just trusted the Captain.

We had some boisterous seas (around 4 metre waves) for a while with a big swell intersecting the waves at some weird angles and gusty conditions but it was better than bobbing around a victim to it all and at least we were making headway…the wind was sending us on the correct heading and all we had to do was surf the waves for a while to improve the ride (NB: for Paddy…Hafskip is as solid as a rock in big seas and to me 4 metres is big).

The seas abated a little and we were able to give the autopilot something to do. For a couple of hours we were laughing…even in significant seas it was holding and giving us a break from the helm, but unfortunately it was a little over-extended and quite simply snapped. The machinery was doing fine but the rudder just broke off…bugger! That may not seem like a big deal but it is… when you’ve been standing at the helm for three or four hours holding your course your body cops a beating. You’re straining against the constant heel, your hands are wet and tired on the wheel (I have callouses) and you’re constantly on watch for commercial vessels, weather changes and heading, but on we went shift after shift, some short breaks for the body and brain but basically pretty relentless for a couple of days. One night got a little hairy on my watch… Ralph was getting a well-deserved rest and I had managed to keep Hafskip heading on a close reach and balanced for about 3 hours…being very careful not to head too close to the wind (NB: for Mum….the wind gets stronger with a closer reach and with a gust it can either create too much of a heel or push you through the wind and stall you). I knew the wind was getting stronger and had changed direction a little but I was more concerned with Ralph getting some sleep so I thought I’d just soldier on. Bad decision. Ten minutes later a 25 knot gust caught Hafskip and we were veering at a rapid rate into the wind and I couldn’t steer her off it… With one plaintive cry to Ralph he was up in a flash through the rear hatch and in stormy conditions reefed that wayward mainsail, grabbed the wheel and settled in for about 4 hours of wet windy sailing while I collapsed below in our soggy salon (centre hatch doesn’t seal well) Lots of lessons from that one; reef early (especially at night), listen to your instincts, call for help before things get out of hand and go for shorter shifts when hand steering (a tired sailor makes bad calls).

By the time I’d woken and staggered out on deck the seas were still large but the weather had stabilised and Ralph was sitting under the dodger having a cigarette….no hands on wheel!!!! With the constant winds he’d trimmed the sails to perfection and simply tied a piece of string around the helm to hold the rudder steady….our new autopilot….he’s a crafty one that Ralph!

We continued on with shorter shifts (at least for me) and a reefed main for the next 36 hours making good headway at about 5-6 knots on average, using the autopilot (aka steering support string) whenever we could. We experienced quite strong steady winds and an almost cloudless sky at this point, and whilst this may sound perfect it was getting punishingly hot in the cockpit so we broke the rules and stretched out one of our deck covers to give us some shelter… not the safest practice but without it we would have fried (before our next long passage that cockpit will get some cover).

Our South Easterlies kept up until we were about 150 miles short of PNG, then slowly shifted to the north, making our heading difficult to maintain so we motor sailed further east to give us a better shot of making the west channel approach to Samarai…. It was at this point during one of Ralph’s routine engine checks the alternator belt snapped…so as we drifted further off course towards Port Moresby Ralph spent the next half an hour trying to replace it with one of the 2 spares we’d bought in Airlie Beach…thankfully one of them fit…but not without a great deal of sweat, engine burns and colourful language every time a wave caught us on the beam sending Ralph’s already burning hands further into the bilge. Yet again however, crisis was averted and we were able to head into a north easterly wind and across a south easterly current straight towards landfall and the most amazing electrical storms. Later we learned this was simply an evening phenomenon of PNG. Thunder and lightning give you a bit of a show but they are empty threats as no storm actually manifests. It did give us the opportunity to see the shadow of land however and get that first taste of a long journey nearly ended.

With sunrise we were through the sunken reefs, round Bruner Island (nice lighthouse there that guides you through the reef) and into the Western Passage within a couple of hours of Samarai. In the shelter of the passage the sea became calm, with only a steady swell reminding us of our proximity to the Coral Sea and we motored calmly with a 2 knot current in our favour between small islands, still blue and misty with morning dew….welcome to paradise eh.

After trying to raise Samarai Harbour unsuccessfully 20 or so times we simply gave up after a while and just enjoyed the scenery, rounded our last corner and for want of a better phrase, plonked our anchor down just outside the only populated area we could see. Within minutes a young lad rowed up in a canoe with coconuts and bananas which we traded for a screw driver and an old tee shirt (still sweaty) and were informed that Felix (the customs guy) knew we were here but was at the market. So in need of cigarettes and a little direction I took the dingy and went ashore only to discover that Felix was at lunch and to come back at 1.00pm. This we dutifully did and we completed our customs and check in quite swiftly in Felix’s office (or rather roasting shed). In a bizarre kind of way it all worked quite efficiently… you see before we’d left we’d been struggling to advise Samarai of our arrival so we’d faxed Port Moresby. This information had surprisingly been passed on to Felix so he was actually expecting us although his (and the rest of the island for that matter) phone line was not operational. Thank heavens for the grapevine.

So here we sit a couple of days on, having already wandered around the island, done our washing at the local well, emptied our bilges, dried our soggy cushions, partaken in a little local trading and most importantly, discovered the joys of several hours of continuous, deep sleep. Now we’re ready to continue onwards…but not before market day tomorrow.


November 27th 2010

Incidently…. Market day was very fruitful…no pun intended…. As sweet pineapples and bananas abound… not to mention, a delicious smoked lobster for 80 cents (incidentally, women who may be pregnant are not supposed to eat lobster, lucky for me eh there’s no problems there).

But I digress …aside from a brief market stop we spent our last day anchored in Samarai taking the dingy for a stroll to a neighbouring island…. A very pretty change. Compared to Samarai’s rather derelict and unloved exterior we found a beautiful, peaceful tropical paradise with the requisite church at it’s peak (the missionary presence is exceedingly strong!)…So we went for hot sticky walk to the top and wound our way back down again only to be informed as we stepped back into our dingy that there was a visitor’s surcharge of 10 Kena each. The church was nice, but not that nice. Still who are we to complain at a few measly dollars…the flowers and butterflies alone were worth it.


November 28th 2010

Samarai has the feel of a once prosperous town now forgotten… the people, whilst friendly enough, have something of a chip on their shoulder. The government support is minimal and notions of self -help appear to have been worn away with time, so apathy and resignation reign supreme. As a foreigner you are greeted with a low and somewhat ‘passive-aggressive’ level of suspicion that tends towards jealousy. Rightly so in some senses, as we have so much more than they and must appear wealthy by their standards…. In many cases friendliness is often accompanied by a desire to sell or trade goods so it not a place to relax…. Hence leaving was not so difficult.

Bright and early we motored (no wind…I mean not a puff) for six and a half hours into Milne Bay, towards Alotau (the regional capital) and as far as I was concerned not excitedly as I was anticipating more of Samarai only in greater density and perhaps not so benign.

Milne bay is rather deep close to the shore line but we found a nice bay (Discovery Bay, home to the village of Waga Waga) right opposite Alotau to drop anchor and spend the night. Past it’s point there’s a WWII wreck that is partially awash that might well make an interesting dive.

Within a couple of hours we had visitors. Initially two delightful young women, who surprisingly had nothing to sell! Almost on queue the flood of youngsters began, canoe tied to canoe so as to create a bridge to boat… so here we sat chatting with the locals, sipping cordial and eating biscuits for hours learning about the village and getting a basic language lesson. Unfortunately the words we learned will be of little use anywhere else in PNG as almost every village has it’s own, quite unique tongue.

As the light faded so did the interest in us and our boat, but we were refreshed by the contact and the laughing and felt at peace on the still mirror-like water of the bay. This place truly is paradise….think we might stay here for a while.

The noon sun is scorching and the air is breathless and heavy, making the cabin and cockpit a damp haven for flies and mosquitos, but the serene palm trees and dense mangroves frame a beautiful river outlet and blanket the village with a welcome shade…time to go and partake of it me thinks.


November 30th 2010

We went off in search of the village yesterday only to discover there really isn’t one…or at least not a central hub of activity as one would expect. Having walked along a mountain trail away from the beach for about half an hour we came across a young woman and her daughter that were on their way to the hospital so we did an about face and followed her around some more twists and turns, through a couple of creek beds towards the ‘town’, which was actually little more than a nice tree and a ‘canteen’.

This woman’s daughter had suffered badly from some kind of a fever. Not two days before she had carried her the hour and half trek to hospital for treatment….luckily she was feeling well enough to walk yesterday and was feeling perky enough to be cheeky. It was thought she had ingested some foul water after playing in one of the creek beds near her market garden….not malaria thank goodness. We learned most people take a yearly malaria medication of sorts so it’s a little rarer here, aside from the older folk who either refuse or choose not to receive treatment.

With the rain approaching and having left the hatches open on the boat we hot-footed it back and entertained visitors for the rest of the day….we now have a veritable fruit salad hanging off the back of the boat…. Bananas, coconuts, paw paw, pink grapefruit….and pineapple.

Until we get to Alotau (and a bank) we don’t have any local currency…so we trade in anything…fish hooks, line, jigs, tee shirts, batteries, caps….. This is all fine but we need to stem the tide of trade a little because if we eat any more fruit we’ll have the runs!

So it’s off to Alotau today…. Bank, maybe a phone card, diesel and empty out the rubbish. As Alotau is a designated customs port we have to ‘check in’ again so it means a few more formalities to contend with…but hopefully that won’t take too long….but my guess is it probably will….especially if someone is out to lunch.