Pit stop in New Caledonia
6 - 15 October 2008: Noumea, New Caledonia
Having waited nearly a week for some good weather for the passage from Fiji to New Caledonia we left expecting light winds all the way (it seemed that yet again the Pacific was delivering gales or nothing!). We preferred a gentle reintroduction to life on the open ocean which would give us time to adjust after so long in the sheltered Fijian waters. We sailed out of the reef protecting the islands with the full Mainsail and the Genoa, but as the distance opened between us and land the wind kept increasing until we were down to 3 reefs in the main and the staysail. None of the forecasts we looked at before leaving predicted the Force 7 we were experiencing, and to cap it all, we were sailing into it rather than with it. It was rough, uncomfortable and wet and we were none too happy. Luckily, the wind eased overnight, and by the following morning we were back to full sail and were bowling comfortably with the wind on the quarter for the rest of the day. The feast or famine Pacific was just teasing us though, because soon the wind died completely and we motored for the next 20 hours, occasionally silencing the engine when a puff of wind appeared. On the third day the wind returned and we were finally treated to some great sailing. The conditions were perfect for Rahula and she was effortlessly cruising at 7-9 knots under full Mainsail and Drifter in 10-15 knots of wind. There was hardly any slamming, and the only sound was the gentle hiss of the water passing under the hulls. A white speck on the horizon ahead turned out to be a large monohull that soon became a small dot astern as we overtook with little fuss. The owner of the boat called us on the radio, surprised at our speed in such light wind conditions. It seems that finally ridding Rahula of her payload by eating all the tins we bought in Panama was paying off (I wonder what a difference getting rid of a few pairs of shoes would make? J).
Along the way James trawled for fish as usual. On one particular day he managed to catch 3 Mahi Mahi, but all managed to escape just as he was about to gaff them and bring them onboard. When the reel went off again near sunset James was determined to land the fish, and fought hard until it was dark and a Skipjack Tuna was decorating our deck (they don't half bleed a lot so it was an interesting red spatter effect….J).
As we neared New Caledonia the weather deteriorated again, and we struggled to make way against a current flowing between the islands. We wanted to make landfall in daylight because to get to the capital Noumea we had to navigate through a 50 nautical mile passage through the reefs and islands surrounding the main island (New Caledonia has the world's largest lagoon). The charts we had were good, but we have come to realise that they are often offset from the GPS positions, and working navigation lights in the Pacific are very rare. We were due to arrive at the pass through the reef around midnight, which would have meant a 6 hour wait in the rough seas outside for daylight. James decided to carry on into the lagoon, and if navigation became too difficult to anchor in one of the many open bays along the way to wait for daylight. Luckily all the navigation lights were working, and once we spotted the dim transit marking the way in we sped on through the pass in the reef under sail. There is something very disconcerting about navigating reefs at night, but a full moon, good chart, navigation lights and, of course, my awesome navigator husband, meant that we arrived at Noumea the following morning with no problems, having sailed the whole way inside the lagoon (nice… J).
We were at anchor by 0730 and after a good breakfast of scrambled eggs on toast to use up some of our fresh ingredients before the Quarantine Inspector came onboard we were ready to face New Caledonia. As it was a Saturday Customs and Immigration were closed, so James had to pay the Marina to help him clear in to the country. I stayed onboard to clean the boat and was dismayed when James returned with the Quarantine Inspector. We thought they would not come onboard until Monday! The Inspector nosed through the Galley and Pantry, pulling out a large plastic bag into which I had to dump all our remaining fresh fruit and vegetables. In every other country we have been to (including the Galapagos Islands) we have been allowed to keep fresh produce as long as we didn't take it ashore. As a farmer's daughter I understand the importance of pest and disease control, but this Inspector took our big bag of garlic (surely a French woman would understand the importance of garlic!), all the limes I was reserving for the G&T later that day, and much more! She didn't even let us keep anything for lunch. The consolation is that we are now cleaned out and ready for the Australian Quarantine Inspector, who is apparently even stricter. (Even more consolation is that I made the Inspector sit on the windward side of the dinghy on the way back and didn't spare the horses so she got a little wet… J)
Formalities out of the way we could relax and enjoy our short stop. As we drove into the anchorage we both had to do a double take, as floating at the other end was Rahula's twin: another Banshee! There were only 16 ever built in Plymouth, and it was unusual enough to see another one in the UK, let alone half was around the world. We spied on the other boat through binoculars, then we couldn't stand our curiosity any more, so we went over to have a closer look and meet the owners. Dennis and Heather are a British couple who bought their Banshee in 1995, and have sailed her to New Zealand from the UK. They have spent the last 5 years in New Zealand, exploring the western Pacific islands in the season. The interior of their Banshee had been finished by the first owner, and so we slightly different to Rahula's, but other then that the boats were identical. We chatted amiably and exchanged stories on cruising and our boats. We were delighted to discover that they had the same problems with their boat we were experiencing on Rahula, some of which they had managed to solve. When we returned to Rahula the job list for Australia extended somewhat as we took on some of their ideas… Dennis and Heather were a really nice couple and we sincerely hope that our paths will cross again someday.
We also met some old friends in Noumea, and Hanse and Georgie onboard Arbuthnot invited us to dinner on our first night. We had a great evening with food and drink flowing easily, but soon our tiredness from the passage caught up with us and we had to retire. We returned the invite a few days later, and this time we all managed to stay up much longer!
Unfortunately our first full day in Noumea was a Sunday, so everything was shut. We went for a stroll through the deserted, featureless town centre, where the only sign of the previous day's trading was the endless rubbish blowing through the streets. We meandered around the harbour, eventually reaching the Maritime Museum. The Museum contained exhibitions about the early Melanesian seafarers, and how New Caledonia's ports developed as the Nickel mining and export business grew. There was also a temporary exhibition about famous French pirates and privateers which was rather fun.
As this is a part of France most of the Museums were shut on the Monday as well, so we decided to follow the city walking tour recommended in the guidebook. Noumea developed as a town in the mid 19th century, when the French started to use New Caledonia as a penal colony. Most of the present day buildings date from the 1960s and 70s, but a few of the old colonial buildings remained, giving the town some element of charm in between grey, featureless buildings. The City Museum is housed in the old Town Hall and gave a fascinating tour through the town's development and history. The French expended a lot of effort flattening the hills around the town and using the dug up earth to reclaim much of the harbour and surrounding swamps. This has obviously resulted in a drainage problem, as on several days while we were there the harbour stank of sewage.
The general impression I got of Noumea was that it could have been anywhere in France, and there was no concession to its location on the edge of the Pacific. The Kanak, who are the indigenous Melanesians, skulked in the background, hanging around on street corners or chatting in the park. They were obviously generally much poorer than the French settlers, and there was little sign of the friendliness or fierce pride we have found in Melanesians/Polynesians elsewhere. Even the shops had very little in the way of local arts and crafts, beyond the usual tourist tat made in China. (I used the word 'moribund' a lot… J)
There were some efforts being made to revive Kanak traditions, as had happened for the Polynesians in Tahiti. We took a bus out of town to visit the Tjibaou Cultural Centre, which is supposed "to increase awareness and appreciation of the arts and culture of New Caledonia and the Pacific". The architecture was unusual (designed by Renzo Piano) and contrasted well with the woodland surrounding the centre. The rooms contained sculpture, paintings and photographs from New Caledonia and its nearest neighbours. It was an interesting, if scant, collection. Outside a path led through some of the native fauna, explaining the myths the islander attribute to each plant. At the end of the path where 3 examples of Kanak Chief houses, resembling tall thatched tepees with carved wooden posts.
We got a better view of Melanesian art and culture at the Museum of New Caledonia, which had more interesting carvings and ordinary household objects. The museum was very good, giving detailed descriptions of the rituals and culture of each peoples it covered.
In between sightseeing we tried to monitor the weather carefully, in order to determine when we could sail to Australia. We were out of the Tropics now, and no longer in the comfortable Trade Winds. The passage South to Sydney would put us in the path of weather systems coming up from the Southern Ocean, which are not to be taken lightly. Our main source of weather information when in harbour is the Internet, and we expected such a large cosmopolitan town to have good Internet provision. We were wrong. There were very few Wifi services, and only 3 Internet cafés within easy reach. On 2 of the 4 times we tried to get online the whole network was down, on one occasion taking down all the bank ATMs as well so we couldn't get any cash. It was very frustrating, as we spent hours walking from one internet café to another trying to find a connection that worked. In the end we gave up and used the satellite phone.
Not long after our arrival it seemed the weather was looking good to make the hop to Australia. After talking to others in the anchorage we realised that we could be waiting weeks for the perfect weather, so we decided to go when the forecast looked good enough. We were keen to get to Australia so we could get the boat packed up and get work done before flying home in December. Five days after we arrived in New Caledonia we weighed anchor and left for the last leg across the Pacific Ocean.