Sailing the Squallomons

Now that we’ve been in the Solomons for a couple of months, it’s probably time to play catch up a bit. This will be a bit of a time warp post, with a bit of rewinding and fast forwarding to hit the highlights. First, we rewind to leaving Vanuatu. On our way north from Luganville, we made a couple of quick stops in the Banks Islands of northern Vanuatu. There, a pod of melon headed whales led us into Rowa Island, a stretch of sand barely sticking out above the water, with a few coconut palms clinging tenaciously to the high point. We dropped into the clear, blue, lagoon waters and quickly lost count of all the rays gliding gracefully above the white sand, but the highlight was the strange, writhing, spot-covered zebra shark Rob found while I was absorbed in my perpetual quest to find a sea horse. One island later, we sat storying with Chief David. His people are originally from Rowa Island, but moved to the steep-sided sunken volcanic crater of Ureparapara long ago because the low-lying beaches of Rowa offer no protection from hurricanes. He recognized our zebra shark immediately when we showed him the photo in our fish book, and he asked us whether it was sleeping on the bottom or swimming. “He can’t bite you,” Chief David said,” so sometimes, when he’s on the bottom, we tie a rope around his tail.” “Then do you kill him and eat him?” We asked. “Sometimes, but he’s not as good as the other ones. Sometimes we just make fun. Then we let him go.” It’s true, the zebra shark is a plankton eater, so he is not pointy-toothed, but he is over 11 feet long, and he gave me an evil glare when I swam close for a mug shot. Ureparapara was our last stop in Vanuaut, and from there, we had a short, 2-night sail to Ndendo Island, our first stop in the Solomon Islands. It was a pleasant, fast sail until the second night, when Rob must have done something to anger Zeus, who spent the early hours of the morning, Rob’s watch, hurling vindictive lightning bolts between us and our destination. Where there’s lighting, there are ugly squalls-sudden blasts of strong wind, torrential rain, no wind in between, and lots of sail changes. Since Rob generally refuses to ask for help at night, even when he should, I turned over the watch just before it started raining, and tucked myself into bed below while Rob got to spend the next few hours running from lightening and managing the squalls. I thought about coming out to help since I wasn’t sleeping, but he didn’t ask for help, and it sounded like it was really raining hard out there… In all that fussing with sails for the squalls, the big jib (the sail that goes up front) flogged itself a large new rip along a stress point, and we spent two full days in Ndendo sewing a shiny, new patch over it. But, once we tucked into the calm anchorage in Gracioso Bay, Ndendo Island, we fell in love with the Solomons. The houses are a bit bigger here, and are raised up on stilts because of tides and hurricanes. We noticed more concrete houses and iron roofs, and not as many houses woven from leaves and cane as we had seen in Vanuatu (though the people acknowledge that traditional, “leaf houses” are better suited to the climate). The canoes are larger, and a bit more artfully carved, but they do not use outriggers here. The people are every bit as welcoming as the Ni-Van were, though they don’t get quite as many tourists. Nearly everyone’s teeth are stained bright red from chewing betel nut, a mild stimulant, and the streets are spotted crimson from the juices. Red teeth or not, we met some great folks in Ndendo. In particular, we traded t-shirts for tapa (bark cloth with traditional designs painted on it) with a man from Nea, a village on the southeast coast of Ndendo. Last February, an earthquake near Ndendo triggered a tsunami and this village took it head on. Our new friend told us all the houses, except for his, which was built higher than many others, were washed away and gardens destroyed. One woman died. The gardens are recovering, but people are still living in tents and they need tools for rebuilding. We felt a bit foolish for not having realized this and walked over the hill to visit his village as soon as we arrived, and wished we have bush knives to donate. We did meet an aid worker from New Zealand in Lata, the main town on the island, who said that, because the island is so remote, they were still waiting for supplies to arrive to help with the relief effort. There is also a Red Cross office in Lata, which, I’m sure, could use help. From Ndendo, we had time for only a couple of stops on our way to Honiara, where we had to complete our check-in with customs and immigration. Our trip to Honiara was another overnight, and this time, Thor decided it was my turn for a ruckus, and threw a temper tantrum. Shortly after dark, I braced for a gust as the dark mass of clouds on the horizon finally caught us. We never got much wind, but Thor’s hammer ricocheted above us as a rain of Biblical proportions was unleashed. For three hours, I could see no further than the phosphorescent glow of our wake. As the rain pours in a torrent, it flattens the crests of the waves into an eerie glow. It’s is quite disorienting at night, as the waves rise up beside you and you squint into the pelting raindrops to gauge the wind direction from the arrow atop the mast. At one point, I called Rob out to help as the wind switched abruptly, then died, and the boat wallowed. As we struggled with the sails, the light that I had thought was a beacon on shore suddenly turned into a giant cargo ship and materialized right behind us. Visibility was so bad we hadn’t been able to see the boat until it was nearly on top of us, and the VHF and the radar gave us nothing but tatic with all the lightening. In the morning, the thunder storm abated, and we eventually made it to Honiara. Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands today, sits on the edge of Iron Bottom Sound, so named because of all the World War II battleships littering the depths. Guadalcanal (the island on which Honiara is located), was the site of significant battles in World War II as the Allied forces fought back the Japanese advance in the Pacific. The war still shapes Solomon Islanders’ views of the outside world today (for instance, they’re generally fond of Americans, who they saw as coming to their rescue during the war; they are less fond of their former colonial administrators, who they thought were leaving them for dead during the war, and who they think might be a bit snobby anyway). At the time of the war, the colonial capital was Tulagi, a nearby island. Tulagi, however, was bombed to pieces in the war, and the capital was moved to Honiara. Perhaps for that reason, Honiara does not have a well-protected harbor like most island capitals do. It’s quite exposed to the swells, which would be tolerable except that there is also a big problem with theft. A couple of the other yachts at anchor had hired locals as security guards for their boats at night; we just opted not to sleep very well. Because of that, we didn’t stay long in Honiara, though there was a museum, and a few other things we would like to have seen there. We did, however, make time for a couple of well-deserved ice cream cones. Instead, we sailed over to the very welcoming village at Roderick Bay in the Florida Islands, a theoretically pleasant day sail. But, we failed to heed the giant, swirling cloud hanging over Guadalcanal (we thought it would stay put–it had been there all night). This time, we got a couple of miles from Honiara when it became apparent that the cloud was not staying put. We must have angered Uira this time, a Polynesian deity, who let lightning fly from his armpits with a vengeance. Just when we thought the initial gust was over, we found ourselves blasted nearly on our sides, with white caps suddenly frothing all around us and a wall of rain fast approaching. Chaos reigned for the next 20 miles. The drifter, our lightest sail which was flying just before the squall, was down, but still sitting on deck, when the squall hit. It caught on a life line and ripped badly. The jib sheet jammed and Rob had to go out on the bowsprit to roll in the jib by hand, getting doused in the waves all the while. The dinghy, on deck in anticipation of a pleasant, easy sail, got in the way of everything. Rob tried to raise the staysail and accidentally let go of the halyard, which dangled out of reach over the side most of the way there. I forgot to close the thru-hull for the kitchen sink, and as we got pushed on our side, salt water gushed up through the sink and drenched the kitchen. Thing flew everywhere inside the boat and the chart ended up in the water, a soggy mess. Such is sailing in the Squallomons. But, we finally made it to Roderick Bay, soaked, and found ourselves welcomed to a calm, secure anchorage where we had a comfortable spot to clean up our mess and fix the drifter. We spent a couple of days there snorkeling (great coral and lots of new fish for us), hiking up a ridge to get a better look at the chatty cockatoos, and trading for carvings and vegetables. Big canoes manned by little girls, toting their tiny siblings, maneuvered up to our boat daily offering us coconuts, papaya, eggplant, kumara, island cabbage, even ngali nuts (a traditionally important nut that’s quite tasty), and wild mushrooms! The girls, with big, sun-bleached ‘fros, oversized t-shirts, and a lot of spunk, are too cute to refuse and happy to accept whatever you offer as a trade. Consequently, we’ve adopted a novel approach to grocery shopping in the major towns: We now buy a lot of stuff we don’t need so that we can trade it for things we do need at the next stop. No other village has had quite such an impressive roving market (the Roderick Bay folks sell their veggies at the market in Honiara), but there’s always something on offer, and it seems like good policy to participate in the local economy. After Roderick Bay we fast forward a bit. We sailed to Malaita from Roderick Bay, but I wrote about that in my last post, so we’ll skip Malaita and move on to the western province, where we are now sitting, and waiting for a thunderstorm to pass. There has been a lot of rain lately, and I think perhaps the Melanesian deity responsible for rain and thunder is wroth with us. Unfortunately, although I’ve been asking in nearly every village, I have been unable to find out what heathen spirit had squalls and storms in his charge in “time befoa,” so we have not been able to offer libations to the appropriate devil-devil. In Malaita, however, they did tell me that if you set tongs in a bowl and put it in an open place, it will stop the lightening. Perhaps I can trade a smelly t-shirt for some tongs somewhere… The western province, which includes Marovo Lagoon, is the part of the Solomons that sees the most tourists, and our time here has basically been one big snorkeling extravaganza, interspersed with looking at carvings. The carvings, which the carvers bring to us by canoe, are beautiful, some of the finest in the Pacific. Many are carvings of kastom spirits and come with great stories, but they also come with big price tags. We have tried to trade for a few, but no one seems very impressed by our wares (this probably won’t come as a big surprise to you if you have ever seen the clothing Rob wears). In Marovo Lagoon, we saw staka fish. Staka big fish, and staka sharks. And beautiful coral. The Solomons are the eastern edge of the coral triangle, the area encompassing Indonesia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomons, which has the highest underwater biodiversity in the world, and it’s noticeable. We are seeing lots of new, colorful things: soft corals that look like giant, purple, broccoli bobbing in the currents; huge, red sea fans sticking abruptly off the edge of steep cliffs of coral; purple and yellow sea squirts that look ready to pot; enormous anemones with clown fish hiding among the tentacles; lacy sea slugs and sea hares slowly chewing through the algae; massive sponges with intricate patterns; and branching forests of green, yellow, purple, and blue corals sheltering thousands of cowering, tiny fish. On the islands near Peava, at the southern end of the lagoon, the shallow reef, every inch of it covered in vibrant coral, projects out from the island for a couple dozen yards, then you swim right off the edge, over a sheer drop into the deep blue. Sharks stare right back at you as you marvel over the landscape. Some of the highlights from the last couple of weeks underwater have been schools of huge bumphead parrotfish (a 4-foot long algae eater that looks kind of like a submarine, and is a positive indicator of healthy reef ecosystems), a big school of intimidating barracuda circling us, an octopus who oozed new camouflage colors as he lurked from one hiding place to the next, large schools of big fish, and, best of all, a sea horse hiding in the sea grass. We’ve been looking for a sea horse for a long time, pretty much since we left home, and, admittedly, we didn’t find this one entirely on our own. Some locals found if first and brought it over to the boat in a bowl to show us. Then they released it, and we decided to go snorkeling in the sea grass until we found it in its natural habitat. They are very good hiders, but we found him, and he was absolutely sea horse. Unfortunately, some of our snorkeling fun has been sullied by the swarms of tiny, brown jellyfish that infested some of the best spots in the lagoon and viciously attacked me. They come in clouds of thousands, though they are so small you can barely see them, but that means they get stuck in your swimsuit lining and just keep stinging. A week later, I still had itchy, blistering welts everywhere and looked like I’d been rolling in poison ivy. They’re still there now, but they are improving. Rob, on the other hand, didn’t have a single itch. This proves that, as I’ve long suspected, jellyfish are not aimlessly drifting on the currents, subject to the whims of wind and water. No, they are malicious, spiteful devil-devils that move with intent and purpose, and they hate me. They are trying to kill me. And this is why we should save the sea turtles. Sea turtles are lovely, silly creatures that hurt no one, and eat a lot of jellyfish. Turtles good. Jellyfish bad. Need more sea turtles. Now, it is time for my annual haircut. For some reason, my expert stylist, Rob, who is setting up the salon, is calling for the WD-40…

2 thoughts on “Sailing the Squallomons”

  1. Oh, my! Storms and jellyfish stings! Good thing the coral is beautiful and you got to see a sea horse and the people are so nice.

  2. It’s just as well I wasn’t aware of the riskier moments you experienced at the time. Now I can say that it was a great adventure and you’re better for it.

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