Sailing the Solomon Islands

Our 400 mile crossing from Vanuatu to Nendo in the Solomon Islands went well apart from a burst cooling pipe on the refrigeration condenser. I noticed water coming up through the cabin sole about two days out and when I opened the engine room doors it was clear we had a major leak, the bilge was overflowing. The fridge and freezer had stopped working as a result, I drained the bilge but as we were motoring and the engine was too hot to cross over so we kept the fridge and freezer lids closed to keep them as cool as possible and to slow the rate at which our food defrosted. The following day we sailed and with the engine now cool I spent and hour or so in a dark cramped hole while the boat pitched and tossed with Mel handing me tools and material as required, I’m ashamed to say some very bad language came out of the engine room that day and all to no avail. When we arrived in Nendo we dropped anchor in Byron Bay and the following morning I set to work again trying to fix the problem. This time I got the freezer running by by-passing the relay switch which had burned out and fixed the split cooling pipe. No fridge but at least the contents of the freezer had been saved, but not for long! During the night another pipe split shorting out the refridgeration electrics and the two controllers. There was nothing more I could do I needed spares from Australia and a fridge engineer neither of which we were likely to find in the Solomons or in Papua New Guinea. The challenge then was to save the contents of the freezer which would stay cold for two to three days, after that we would have to resort to tinned food, mostly spam and corned beef.

In the meantime we sailed up through the islands, stopping to anchor each night but unable to go ashore as we hadn’t cleared customs, immigration and quarantine so we flew our yellow flag to let everyone know. In Santa Ana on the south end of Catalina Island Stewart, the chiefs representative paddled out from the village in his canoe to welcome us, we were surrounded by curious onlookers from a dozen canoes all staring from a distance. Yachts are seldom seen here and we were obviously the main attraction. Stewart told us we could check in at the police station in Kirakira, the district capital about 40 miles north and suggested if we wanted to come ashore he would check with the island chief to make sure it was OK. We debated this but decided to stick to the rules and the next morning set off in brisk trade winds and frequent squalls to Kirakira. Mel and I went ashore and four young men picked up our dinghy and laid it on top of the jetty for us, out of harms way from the surging surf and sharp rocks. We found the police station with the help of a young lad who acted as guide. The very nice policeman asked for passports and boat papers but told us he couldn’t clear us in as the customs and immigration office had been closed some time ago. After copying our documents he bade us farewell and told us the only place we could check nowadays in was Honiara on Gudacanal some 200 miles north. So off we went hopping from one island anchorage to another, gradually eating the contents of the defunct freezer which lasted to Guadacanal. This through a lot of ingenuity from David and Mel and the repeated use of the pressure cooker as a means of sterilising food each day. By this means we eked out our meat for 9 days.

We duly arrived in Honiara on Guadacanal, a scruffy, dusty, place with a filthy harbour full of water taxis coming and going all day. There is only one mooring buoy in the harbour which we picked up being the only yacht there and thinking ourselves lucky. How wrong we were, when the tide changed the constant swell banged us against this large mooring buoy which removed our anti fouling but fortunately didn’t damage the gel coat on the boat. It was a nightmare we couldn’t sleep with the constant banging of the buoy on the side of the boat.. Fortunately the next day the wind dropped and the swell abated. Anchoring wasn’t an alternative option for lack of swinging room and the deep water in most of the harbour.

The anchorage in Honiara, the Yacht Club is behind the beach area.

It was also one of the most expensive Pacific clearance procedures I have come across requiring a payment of $2000 Solomon just for Customs. Then it was off to shop for much needed provisions.

David and Mel at Honiara market,

While ashore we booked a tour of the battlefields on Guadacanal for the following day and and our guide Eddy turned up in a lovely air-conditioned people carrier, we hadn’t been so cool since New Zealand. He took us to see Red Beach where the US Marine Corps first landed, Bloody Ridge where a pitched battle was fought against Japanese troops attempting to recapture Henderson Airfield.

The three of us on top of Bloody Ridge

We went on to see the Japanese and US war monuments and Henderson Field which is now the islands main airport. We could imagine the ferocity of the fighting and sadly the large number killed on both sides.

The next day was Mel’s last so we decided on a nice farewell dinner at a local hotel and we were joined by the crew of a Swedish boat Valkyrie, Heinrich, Mac, a burly American and Ben a young Israeli. Mel and I had lobster while the others plumped for the curry buffet.

Mel’s farewell dinner at the Heritage Hotel

The Point Cruz Yacht Club was a star in an otherwise mediocre town. They offered incredible hospitality, as we had no freezer or fridge they agreed to chill our white wine for dinner on the boat, they kept our shopping for us, we were allowed to leave the dinghy there, we used their showers and washed our clothes at their tap, all for free as visiting yachties. I was really sorry to see Mel leave to go back to the US she had been a great asset on the boat, had fitted in very well with David and I and had become a really good friend. The next day David and I sailed the boat over to the Florida Islands about 25 miles away and both of us pleased to be out of Honiara and we’re treated to an escort of dolphins as we arrived. We had decided to explore the islands while waiting for my friend Nick who was flying out from England to join the boat. I had met Nick, a retired barrister and his wife Jan a doctor who was working as a locum in Whangarei Hospital while I was in New Zealand. Nick was also a sailor, he and I had both volunteered for the NZ Sailability charity and got on well together. Our first stop in the Florida Islands was a snug anchorage in well named Sandfly Passage. Here we were met and directed to our spot to anchor by John in his dugout canoe from the nearby village. No sooner had we anchored than we were besieged by trading canoes offering fruit, vegetables and carvings.

Curious onlookers as we came up to the village

David and I became expert at fly swatting there, we must have killed hundreds but still they kept coming. The people from the village were lovely and happy to show us their washing river where we could clean our clothes and bedding, a new experience for David.

We left John and his village after two days and headed to Tulaghi anchorage about 15 miles eastwards, the scene of another battle between Japanese and Americans in WWII. The harbour had many wrecks of bombed ships and crashed aircraft and the dive boats were regular callers to our anchorage. By now we needed stores so we ventured ashore and walked a couple of miles to the village shops which as usual had very little, the market was particularly disappointing with no fruit and little veg. We managed to buy the now ubiquitous chicken wings, sausage and mince and replenish our beer supply after much tramping around different huts.

A typical outrigger canoe which was carved from a single tree trunk and lasted about 10 years

One day during our weeks stay here an old man who said his name was John arrived in a canoe to introduce himself, he asked me where we were from, how long we’d been travelling, how much the boat cost, how old I was etc. When I asked him how old he was he thought for a while and then said “31” he must have been nearer 70. Two days later he caught David on deck and tried to sell him a sea horse in a broken beer bottle that he’d caught while diving for shellfish, to save it being sold to a trader and going overseas for someone’s fish tank. We weren’t however prepared to pay his extortionate ransom to save it.

We gradually grew to like our anchorage in Tulaghi where we were the only yacht again among locals and where we could listen to opera at high volume while showering in the dark off the back of the boat, anchored in a lagoon in mirror still water under a carpet of bright stars. One of life’s moments!

Sunset in Tulaghi Harbour

On the days before Nick’s arrival David and I worked on the boat cleaning and repairing the inevitable damage of several months of wear and tear. Our stores after a week were depleted again and David introduced me to the delights of fried spam sandwiches for lunch, that, corned beef, tinned tuna and mackerel were all you could buy in Tulaghi’s empty shops.

We moved the boat back to Honiara in time for Nick’s arrival but anchored this time using a smaller mooring buoy as a kedge to stop us swinging in the tidal flow, which worked out pretty well and we had peaceful nights there this time.

We spent the hours before Nick’s arrival replenishing our water supply, carrying it out in jerry cans in the dinghy and doing our washing at the Yacht Club tap while guests arrived for the 7th July commemoration ceremony for the battle for Guadacanal. We were buzzed at low altitude by a US coast guard C130 which was here for the ceremony.

The 7th August commemorations at the Point Cruz Yacht Club

There were also several Navy ships in from the US, Australia and New Zealand and the club was replete with Admirals and other high ranking officers alongside ministers from the Solomon Island government.

US, Australian and unseen behind New Zealand Warships ariived for the commemoration ceremony

We set off to the airport after lunch and met Nick off the Brisbane flight. He was carrying some much needed spares from the UK and best of all a portable chiller unit to use as a fridge substitute.

The following day we headed off for the Russel Islands 40 miles NW and then we motored 24 miles to Wickham Island in South Georgia, horrible sea, very confused, slopping all over the place. There was no natural rhythm to the boat’s motion, it’s just as well we all have strong stomachs.

From Wickham we sailed up to the reef on the northwest side of South Georgia and attempted what we knew would be touch and go. I tried the passage marked on the chart but had to pull back as the water became too shallow, we tried again slightly further over but the echo pilot was showing it was still too shallow ahead. On the third attempt we used the transit marks and David sighted while I crabbed the boat to hold the line compensating for a strong tide. This time it worked and the lowest we saw under the keel was 5 metres, in this respect the chart was accurate. We motored up through a narrow channel between the islands to Noro where we called port Control to guide us to a safe anchorage. They sent out a boat to guide us through the reef which we cleared with only a foot to spare but we were snug for the night.

The anchorage at Noro.

We were here to clear out of the Solomons through customs and immigration but first we needed supplies, a weather forecast, fuel, water and a meal ashore. We asked if we could come alongside the main wharf to bunker and take on water, much easier than the jerry cans we had to use in Honiara, permission was given and we moored up. After getting our clearance from customs and immigration we took on duty free fuel at the equivalent of 50p per litre, one of the nice things about cruising outside Europe.

We left after lunch to head for Siniasoro Bay on Fauro, an overnight sail 110 miles north, still in the Solomons. Here we planned to rest before completing the 70 mile sail to Kieta, the nearest port of entry in Papua New Guinea. Sianasoro proved to be a quiet anchorage where we met Livia and his wife Caroline and their daughter who were passing by in their dugout canoe. Livia told us he farmed copra which he sold dried for $4 per kilo. This involves planting the trees, collecting the coconut, husking them, drying them in a homemade kiln and shipping the bags 100 miles by motor boat to Noro where it’s then loaded on to ships for processing and oil extraction. After a quiet night in a beautiful Bay we headed off for Kieta through reefs and shallows and with a 5 knot tide to help us we motor sailed at 8 to 9 knots as we shot out of the Slot.

The North of Guadacanal with inter-island ferry and cargo boat passing.

Our views on the Solomons were mixed, despite the dire warnings the people were lovely, we were shown nothing but courtesy and kindness and they were curious and interested about where we came from and how long it had taken us to get there. They were keen to barter and we had bought extra rice and sugar just for this purpose.

The islands are very similar, small beaches, heavily wooded, occasionally broken by rivers or logging and small villages. So once you have seen one island you know what to expect at the next. That said the bays are beautiful and there are many good anchorages even if swimming is limited because of crocodiles.

The lives of the people outside the few towns was very basic, there is no tourism to speak of other than at Guadacanal so no infrastructure, no roads, no internet, no TV, no street lights ad very few houses with lights, where they had them they ran off solar panels. There are probably no more than 20 restaurants in the whole country and most of those are in Honiara.

The main activities are fishing, copra farming and growing vegetables, really just subsistence living. Despite the poverty people were clean, polite, simply dressed in t-shirts and shorts and their only mode of transport was a dugout canoe. They would think nothing of paddling several hours to get to another island in the open sea to visit relatives or sell produce. Ironically we were the tourist attraction and people would paddle distances to come and see the British boat. There’s no doubt we were a rarity, we never saw another boat while we were cruising the islands, it seems fewer and fewer yachts are coming here.

The children were universally well behaved and learned to paddle a canoe from the age of 4 or 5 and were often seen out on their own competently handling the boat. Schooling seemed to be optional, other than parental control there was no means of stopping truancy and it was evident it was quite high. In common with many Pacific Islands many of the towns were dirty places with people tossing their rubbish but the villages were generally clean and well kept.

Young children visiting Romano in their canoe, most were very shy and didn’t speak.

There’s little evidence of any influence of the Japanese or American presence during the war and the residual hardware has been swallowed by either the sea or the jungle. We enjoyed our journey through the Solomon Islands but I wouldn’t come back again.

2 thoughts on “Sailing the Solomon Islands

  1. Hello Mike. Keep the updates coming enjoying reading them. Nice to see you fulfilling your dream but I see it is taking a bit longer than the 3 years we discussed 😦 Speaking of fulfilling dreams I retired myself at the end of May and went immediately on a 7 week trip in the Moho. we went to the Alsace region then to Lakes Como & Garda, returning to Uk via the Verdon Gorge, central France and Bordeaux before heading home via Brittany and many places in between. A number of other trips planned but doing a bit of DIY while I have a break between them.

    Not as exotic as your travels but, as you know, I would get lost!

    safe travels my friend

    Derek G

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