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With a little over 2000 miles under the keels since we left Sorong, Indonesia we arrived in Gizo Island, Solomon Island’s where we would go through the always interesting process of clearing into another new country and anchored in Lemba Bay.
I was surprised to see three other yachts anchored here since we had not seen another cruiser since Ninigo Atoll way back in PNG where we met two other catamarans heading east.
One of the first things I noticed about the Solomon’s is the lack of people. This was one of the main cities and was no more than a large town of several thousand. The main road was quickly turning back to dirt with creator sized potholes.
Simple things like trash cans were non existent and trash lined the streets. The downfall to places like these are all the single use plastic wrapped items that people consume. They go in buy a snack and a soda which is placed in a plastic one use bag and down the street they go. First flies the snack wrapper and the shopping bag and a few minus later the clinking of the can hits the ground.
The next easiest way to get rid of trash is to simply throw it into the ocean. One day I see a guy sit down with yet another plastic bag carrying his lunch that is on a styrofoam plate covered in cellophane wrap. He unwraps the plate places the cellophane in the bag, finishes his lunch places the plate in the bag, downs his soda and gets up walks past the trash pile and throws his trash in the ocean and watches it drift away.
Oh well back to clearing in. Our first attempt found us at immigration which is located in a newly 80% finished building on Friday morning. The site is surrounded by a chain link fence and a huge mud puddle greets you where you pass through the gate. We found the gate locked during business hours and no body around? We left a note for them to call us attached to the lock after the third attempt and proceeded to customs a half mile across town where we were told that we had to clear immigration before clearing into customs. We explained the situation that there was nobody there and he told us to try back on Monday. Ok we said, but explained that in most countries you are not allowed on land without clearing in and asked if that would be a problem? He did not know how to answer that one and just said, ”Come back Monday” .
The immigration office claimed to open at 9 am but this is an island so you are on “Island Time”. This means whenever they feel like showing up they do, or not like on friday. The sole immigration officer on the islands job is to clear in 20 to 30 boats a year so being on time is not high priority especially when most days she just stares at the walls in her small 12×14 foot office with no AC.
At least we did not have to wear pants during this whole escapade. Finally just before noon we found the gate unlocked and the officer in her office. A few minutes after listening to her apologize for being late and not there at all on friday she had our passports stamped and we were headed back across town to the customs office. Customs was pretty strait forward, fill out ships information and crew list and hopefully be on our way. Wrong again! I filled out the paper and the officer goes over it and says that will be $4000 Solomon dollars ($350 something US) which I did not have on me!
F&^$&!! Off to the ATM we go! I put in my card, punch the PIN, enter the maximum amount allowed (which by the way is only $200 US for a $8 fee) and pressed enter and waited…and waited…. and next the screen says: DECLINED %^$&CK!!! We go to the next ATM and get the same result….
Grasshopper? Do you have your ATM card? Get us $4000 Solomon dollars….. His luckily works and we go back to Customs pay our fee and we are finally legally cleared in. All the while I am thinking, Pete? Why do you even clear into these little third world countries? They do not have patrols or a Coastguard, simply stay away from the big city ports and they will never even know you are here?
The Solomon’s were located at the center of the pacific war theater with well known battle sites such as Guadalcanal, Rendova, Vella Lavella, and the Russell Islands to name a few. There are still many reminders of this bloody time such as the 70 year old airplane and ship wrecks we dove on in the Vangunu and Florida Islands.
The shape of the landscape varies with islands that present huge volcanic peaks to others with low lying buckled limestone plates that had shifted millions of years ago creating jagged seashores. The surrounding waters are dangerous to sail, poorly charted with thousands of unmarked reefs and bomies (coral heads) that are scattered everywhere as we would soon find out!
Wind Woman hopped off here in Gizo bound for Costa Rica to find better winds and another kite surfing beach since there was little or no wind here in the Solomon’s and Grasshopper and I set off to see the outer islands and do some diving and hopefully find him a wave to ride.
Leaving Lembe Bay heading south is like weaving your way through a coral strewn minefield. We raised the anchor and left at the crack of dawn but we should have waited a few hours for the sun to get higher in the sky. I was following what charts we had, two different versions C Maps and Navionics that somewhat agreed with each other and things were going fine until the last 300 yards approaching the final pass when things I was seeing in front of me looked nothing like what the charts were showing! Not only was the sun in my eyes but the depth sounder was coming up FAST! I saw a single bommie coming up quickly right in front of us! I turned the wheel hard to starboard and had the engines in full reverse. The boat was slowing but not fast enough and the incoming tide continued pushing us sideways towards the bommie and the next sound we heard the dreaded impact and crunch as the rudder made contact with the six foot round coral rock 2 feet under the water! DA@#&IT!!!
With a 2 knot current pushing the boat forward and the rudder wedged between a notch on the bommie it was soon apparent we were not going anywhere until the tide came back up. Into the water we went to assess the damage while holding onto a line tied to the boat and fighting the current trying not to be swept away. Luckily Downtime has skeg hung rudders that give upper and lower support to the rudders, not so lucky is the fact that we hit the only bommie in the pass and done damage that would require taking the boat out of the water and to repair the cracked skeg and bent rudder. At least we were not taking on water and the rudder was still functional.
Thank goodness the tide was coming in and not going out or we would have been there all day. As it was we had to wait only two hours, all the time I was kicking myself on how stupid it was to try to leave when visibility was low. Two agonizing hours and the tide finally came up high enough to float us off of the bommie and we continued on our way to the west coast of Kolobanbara Island with a bent rudder and Captain with hurt pride.
A few hours later after sailing through squally conditions we dropped anchor in a little bay some friends told us about and were greeted with hundreds of flies! The pesky kind that like to land on your face and crawl all over you! We were like what’s up with all the flies!!
The next morning we went ashore to ask permission to dive and to buy produce that we had been told the college grew only to find out school started next week and they had nothing to offer. We asked about the flies and they said they have cattle and thus have flies? Next we did a few dives on the outer wall that had nice coral but very few fish bigger than six inches. Back on the boat the flies drove us crazy and up the anchor came and we set course for Arnaovon Islands where there is a preserve to dive in.
You have to wonder how well a preserve can be run in a country that has corruption honed to perfection but I have to say that the diving here was amazing and we saw a very healthy reef system with thousands of large fish. On the southern island is a turtle hatchery where the nests are protected and monitored daily. At least turtles have a chance to go ashore and lay their eggs here without being killed or their eggs stollen.
Heading west from here are literally hundreds of small islands with thousands of underwater reefs that would make any Sea Captain think twice about going through. It is not so much the reefs on the charts as much as that one that is not… At one point we were going through a pass that showed 30-40 feet while reading 10-12 feet on the depth gauge! But one good thing about all those reefs is the fact that the fishing is amazing and in a two hour run we caught three different types of fish, a mangrove snapper, Giant Trivially and a Spanish Mackerel.
I had sent Daria an e-mail to find the nearest boat yard and to my amazement there was a yard that thought they could haul us just 20 miles from where we hit the reef! I sent an e-mail via the side band radio and Noel the owner replied that the slipway was free and he could haul us as soon as we got there. What luck! One more dive at a small island of Ondolou along the way and off we went on a 50 mile sail to Liapari just 12 miles north of Gizo.
The slipway at the Liapari Boat Yard is twenty feet wide and seventy feet long and Downtime’s keels are just over 25 feet wide which left us a few feet short of fitting on the railway. Noel is the industrious type and can build anything and soon had the guys welding extensions on the trolly that the boat would sit on. I was a bit skeptical knowing how heavy Downtime is (26 tons) but we gave it a try when the welds cooled and new timbers were attached to sit under the keels.
It took an hour to center the boat and we slowly began winching her up the ramp to dry land while careful watching and listening to the timbers and trolly creaking. We were barely getting out of the water when things got interesting when timbers began cracking and it sounded like a fat lady standing on a twix bar when I told them to stop and access the situation. Luckily we did because a few of the welds were breaking away and several of the extended beams were sagging. Safely with Downtime back in the water we tried unsuccessfully to repair the trolly.
We were so close, but we had to be cautious and were lucky the boat did not fall off the trolly since it would have caused more damage that we already had,. It was not until another boat captain came up with the great idea of hauling Downtime up sideways that things stared happening again. We just were going about it all wrong. To make the boat fit sideways they just had to do a little more welding and re-arrange the timbers and up the ramp we went, the first boat ever to go up this slipway sideways!
The next stroke of luck was the availability of repair materials that John available who owns a boat building business had back in Gizo.
With boat finally out of the water I hired one of Noel guys to do the grinding and prep work. Giving him a white nylon safety suit, a few clean towels for a dust mask, a scuba mask for eye protection and some latex gloves before he started the messy job.
Grinding fiberglass is a terrible job and this guy spent hours and did a perfect job removing all the damaged glass. Next was what I though would be the easy part of putting layers of fiberglass mat to repair the crack. I spent an hour attempting putting just one layer on before throwing in the towel and giving up. Fiberglass mat and resin are like applying bubble gum to tissue paper in my hands. I had it everywhere but where it was supposed to go and it stuck better to my gloves than the boat. When I finally got a piece on I would sit back and watch it slowly fall back off.
While I was getting my fiberglass education down below Richie was up top painting the fuel locker. We had pumped the fuel off to lighten the boat and removed a tank that was leaking and all the other gear was out of it anyways so why not paint it?
He was not having any better luck painting than I was with the glass. We had bought the paint from John the day before which he sold to us repackaged in empty water bottles with no label and it just did not seen to be drying very fast? When we latter asked John this question he asked us if we had put the hardener in? We both said “what hardener?” which is was a “NO”. Now Richie was wiping of $100 worth of paint with another $100 worth of acetone. Not a productive day…
Later when we pressurized the tank and did the soapy bubble test to find the leak we did not see anything leaking? There was this one loose hose clamp when I removed the tanks and thought this was where the fuel on the floor must be coming from…. Wrong again Pedro…. We had a nice puddle under the tank a few days later when we filled it back up….GRRR!!! We will fix that later Richie!
Back to Gizo to talk with John… Luckily John was not too busy and I was able to hire him to do the repair. With a little extra grinding to make it “perfect” he began applying the many layers of matting. He made it look as easy as copying and pasting a document in Word! Mix a little resin dip the brush, paint a thin layer, apply mat,roll out the bubbles, and repeat…… twenty years of dealing with these products made him look like a miracle worker and in a few hours he was finished.
In the morning we put on a few coats of bottom paint and were in the water by two and thankful this mess was behind us.
One last stop in Gizo to fuel up and continue our way south east.
Heading east from Gizo you have two choices, open ocean or go through the narrows. I bet you can guess which one I took. Yep the narrows. We anchored on the south end of the big volcanic island Kolombangara that we had anchored on before in the bay with all the flies. Thankfully this time there were no flies and our view from this angle was amazing. On the west side we just saw a huge 3000 foot cone shaped volcano but on this side we saw a 7 mile mile deep mile wide valley. The volcano had blown out sideways and the main lava flowed this direction and the sides of the caldera were steep and jagged with dense jungle growing in the middle.
The next morning we stopped at Mbasroko Bay and dove on a sunken Japanese supply ship that was sunk in retaliation to a US plane shot down the day before just a few mile south we found out later. After 70 years there are not much left to see of these wrecks but you can still sense the awesome power of the distraction when you place your hands on torpedo ripped plates of half inch thick steel.
Just south of here Hathorn Sound begins and the entrance to the Diamond Narrows is on the south end. It is a strange feeling driving the boat down a hundred and fifty foot wide pass when you are used to having so much ocean around you It felt like I was on a river in the jungle as the narrows curved around each new bend. Houses lined the steep shores and kids paddled out in canoes when we waved to them the bag full of lollipops.
After just a few miles it opened back up into Lucas Channel and we were back to dodging reefs with only a few miles left to our anchorage in Munda on the western tip of New Georgia.
We heard of a few wreck dives in the area a went ashore to find a guide and wet our whistle at the bar. Richie went to the dive center and asked if we could hire a guide for 3 days and they declined but gave us the number to Sumba a guide with 20 years experience in theses waters.
The first wreck we dove was of a Spitfire with ammunition still loaded in the wing mounted machine-guns! This plane was found in tact in ninety feet of water by Sumba 10 years ago and very few people know its location.
Next he took us to another wreck of a Douglas a huge single engine bomber that was ditched when it ran out of fuel. Then it was out to sea a few miles to dive on a offshore reef where one of our friends saw a Hammer Head shark!
The first and last dive was a drift dive and we effortlessly drifted along a 200 foot wall along with a school of hundreds of barracuda! It was so nice to have an experienced guide who managed the gear and drove the dingy. I want to thank Sumba for all his hard work and for sharing his secrets.
Oh I have to tell you about our other sneaky crew member “Elvis”! It was here in Munda where Richie finally enticed him into the trap with a piece of cheese!
I first met Elvis 6 weeks earlier sometime after we had left Sorong, Indonesia. We had tried making a trap out of a plastic olive oil bottle a trap Richie saw on U tube and did not have any luck. Next we put down the glue traps with peanut butter and nuts on them but Elvis knew this trick and just changed his diet. Next we bought the spring loaded huge mouse traps, four of them but Elis would not go near any of them. One smart rat we had! Finally we bought a box wire trap with a trap door in Gizo and after unsuccessfully trying for weeks with all kinds of bait, Richie finally puts on a piece of aged parmesan. In the morning when we woke we found “the rat” securely in the cage, finally! This guy was not happy being caught but then lets face it neither was I with him getting into every bag of food aboard during the last two months. I have seen people do the humane thing and take rats to shore and let them go only to to have them hop on another boat but I was not going to let this little sailor have that option and it was scuba lessons for Elvis.
Elvis sadly did not make it past his first lesson, the one where he had to hold his breath for 10 minutes but he did get the last laugh. Later when we raised the main sail, the sail which had not been used in a while we found his hiding place where he had not so nicely chewed several large holes right in the middle of! We were lucky that this was the extent of the actual damage he had caused and that we had finally rid ourselves of this pesky creature.
With several more dives under our belts we continued south down the east coast of Rendova Island to Tetepare where we hoped to dive on another preserve. We never found the preserve but might have unknowing sailed over it and caught two and one half Spanish Mackerels. two and a half? Yes a shark ate the other half of the last one!
Our next wreck dive was on southern Vangunu Isalnd and we dove on a huge Japanese supply ship.
During the war the Florida Islands were home to a Catalina Seaplane base and there is a 80 percent intact Catalina that you can dive on and still see the guns, engines and even a movie camera still intact. You have to hire a guide and this wreck is protected by the locals and most the other wrecks are either too deep or have long ago been pillaged of anything of value.
It had been a interesting few months of adventure with Richie aboard but he had other fish to fry and a ticket to his next adventure waiting back in Honiara.
Our next stop is Vanuatu!
Until then, Peace, Capt. Pedro
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