Sailing, Vanuatu Style

Oceangybe

Words by Hugh

Location: Lat 15 deg 22′ South

Long: 168 deg, 07′ East

So by now you’ve figured out that usually it is possible to tell how much fun we’re having by the number of blogs that get written. It’s an inverse relationship; the less writing we’re doing, the more amazing experiences we’re having. It’s been a while since someone sat down to write up about all that’s been going on for the crew of Khulula in Vanuatu. So you’ll know for sure that our days have been full with incredible (soon to be an overused adjective) sights and sounds. It’s really been non-stop.

After picking up the Robertson folks, along with a new starter motor (Thanks Dad! Ryan installed it in a record 16 minutes!) in Port Vila about a week ago, we’ve slowing been making our way northwards towards the Banks Islands, and the northern reaches of Vanuatu. Highlights along the way have included multiple stunning beaches, a turtle sanctuary and hatchery complete with 400 bite-sized turtles, Pentecost Island – the birthplace of a well-know extreme sport (separate blog on this to come shortly), bathing in tropical waterfalls, tuna-catching, a missionary sailing mission, getting schooled in spear-fishing by a 5 year old, learning about island waste problems and solutions, becoming Khulula: SV Photo-ship, snorkeling, diving and so much more. Wow, it is daunting just contemplating the words I’d have to pen to do it all justice. So I’ll start by tackling yesterday, one of the highlights of the islands for me thus far, and maybe leave a few of the other choice stories for the other crew to tell.

Before going into yesterday’s activities, I must first touch on probably the biggest highlight of the islands and the catalyst for all the magical moments we’ve had thus far: the people. Never before have we been to such kind, generous, happy and truly welcoming communities. While walking through tiny villages or on the busy streets of Port Vila even a passing glace is returned with a warm smile, bright eyes and a generous look. Everyone from bus drivers and store clerks to fishermen and chiefs are always quick with a joke or warm smile and full of genuine questions, answers and advice. As a tourist you’re made to feel as a welcome guest and friend, not simply a source of income. Our curiosity and unending questions about their islands, way of life and kastom are met with effusive and proud, yet humble explanations. As Canadians, we often scorn tourists from south of our border for their seemingly ignorant questions about our geography or technology, yet I couldn’t have placed Vanuatu on a map before setting sail last year. And I can’t help but think that a few people here must go back to their palm thatched huts and have a little chuckle at our expense, as we busily snap pictures of coconut shell drinking cups, fishing spears, dugouts, banyan trees and their small solar electricity systems as if they were anything but ordinary bits of everyday life.

And it was with this attitude of everyday sharing that we were welcomed by the people of Asanvari Village on Maewo. We pulled in after a relatively fast sail from an uncomfortable anchorage off the island of Pentecost (our sailing guide didn’t recommend it, and now nor do we)! As is kastom on all the inhabited islands of Vanuatu, we first went to shore make ourselves known to the chief; showing respect to the people and their home. Chief Nelson and his son Nixon gave us a warm welcome, explained the layout of the village, confirmed it was ok to visit the school, waterfall, and explore a little bit unescorted.

On our way back to Khulula I spotted a remarkable dugout canon pulled high up on the beach. It was far bigger than any dugout we’d seen yet; twice as big at least, and its main hull was carefully painted with patterns, not something we’d seen so far. Yet most remarkable, it was fitted with a mast and sails. A SAILING CANOE! This was no ordinary boat, and I was going to find out the story. But I’d have to wait a little while yet, as the sun was setting, and we still had a stunning waterfall to frolic in. So with all haste we made for the waterfall, the crew plunged into the fresh water, and there was bathing and much rejoicing.

Later that evening Bryson and I were ashore meeting a few other westerners (their story is another entire blog soon to come!) and some locals. Most of the people from Asanvari spoke only a little English but soon I was in conversation with Olivette, a village elder and David Simon, who had lived in the village for sometime. With only one thing on my mind, I made some conversation about our travels and learned a bit more about the social structure around the village before I couldn’t take it any longer, I blurted out “That big canoe on the beach, who’s is it? What’s the story?” Olivette and David both leaned back and smiled and nodded knowingly. “Ah, yes, Joielle. It is his canoe.” And over the next hour I sat and learned of Joielle, his famous canoe and its great exploits.

Joielle is revered as the greatest waterman on Maewo and all of the surrounding islands. Canoes and the water are a part of everyday life for these islanders. When a young boy reaches a certain age, he will go into the forest, find a big tree and build a canoe for himself to fish and travel. Joielle started with a smaller canoe, maybe half as big as the one I had seen, and with no mast or sails. Yet still it was bigger than any of the others in the village. He would paddle his boat miles to other villages and catch very large fish. They explained in awe that he can even paddle a canoe without an outrigger, the pontoon that provides stability for these keel-less boats! Imagine trying to balance on a log kneeling while trying to paddle it, not easy I assure you!

About two years ago a big cyclone came through the islands and wrecked many houses and boats, including Joielle’s first, smaller dugout. So he enlisted his cousin’s help and together they hiked high up the mountain above the village in search of the largest tree they could find. What they found took them, plus 7 more brothers and cousins to drag down the mountain to the village to hand hew into a canoe. When the main hull was carved out, Joielle fitted a doubly reinforced pontoon and extra braces to support a mast. Next came sails, but when I asked where he got the two sails, the understanding was a bit lost. He either was given them by a yachtie, or a yacht was wrecked and he got themd. I’m not really sure…

As the tale went on, I learned that with this new sailing canoe, Joielle has sailed all around the waters of Maewo, to the neighboring islands of Pentecost and Ambae some 25 miles away, and on overnight trips! As I was feeling a bit bolder, I asked David and Olivette if maybe Joielle would take me sailing in his canoe. They chucked and said ‘yes’, probably he would take me out.

The following day the beach was a hub of activity, with men and boys around two boats: a skiff pilled high with branches to build a new ‘tent’ for a chief’s meeting in a few weeks time and Joielle’s sailing boat. As I wandered around surreptitiously trying to film the whole scene, guys would catch my eye, smiling and saying “Go with Joielle today?” or “Sailing in the canoe!” They all knew exactly who I was and what was going on! I had expected that going out in Joielle’s canoe would be just him setting it up, launching it, and us going out. But no, this was a big group activity. He was simply an overseer to the boys lucky enough to be allowed to help him rig the mast and sails, quietly showing some the finer points of the setup. Clearly he was idolized by them, and they each clambered to help with rigging in hopes of coming along for the ride.

One of the men whom I’d met earlier introduced me to the man himself. For someone who’d obviously done some pretty daring things and was looked up to by the village, Joielle was very quiet and diffident. He almost seemed embarrassed that such a big deal was being made out of his boat. Communication was tough as Joielle’s English was fairly limited, and my pidgin no existent. Even so, his face lit up with a big smile as I conveyed in gestures and basic English my admiration of his boat and excitement to go sailing in it.

Soon enough the thin multi-coloured nylon ropes holding the mast were tight, the two sails “hanked” on with random bits of line and a few paddles had been loaded on. So we all dragged it out and she was afloat. Hopping in I expected a tippy canoe, but with its size and the outrigger, this boat was solid. There were about 7 of us on it in total, and the boys were climbing back and forth over the hull and outrigger getting in position as it was totally stable with about 30 cm’s of free-board. It slipped effortlessly over the reef into deeper water as the sails filled!

We cruised back and forth across the mouth of the bay, going up and down wind and taking advantage of little gusts of wind. Steered by a paddle, Joielle’s canoe sailed beautifully. There was no tipping, it took no water on, and even could sail up wind a bit, a remarkable feat without a keel. Once we were safely over the reef and with a bit of sea-room Joielle asked if I would like to steer!?! Wow! So I took my turn tacking and gybing the boat, trying my best to keep it straight and not appear to struggle with it too much turning her. But to be honest, I was using all my strength on the paddle to get the boat to alter course. Dugout canoe = not so light! Or Hugh = not so strong. The best part was how much fun all the boys were having on board. There were non-stop outbursts of laughter, whistling and hoots and hollers. Especially hilarious to them was my reaction as the boat sped up. When a little puff would hit and we’d shoot forward, I’d give a little ‘yee-ha’, which was immediately echoed but everyone else on board, followed my fits of laugher. I’m still not sure if I was being made fun of or if they were sharing my enthusiasm, regardless we were all having a blast!

Earlier on while I was sitting down filming the canoe being rigged, a young man came over to look at the screen of the video camera; everyone, the kids especially, love seeing photos and video being played back on digital cameras. He spoke a bit of English so I asked him if he’d like to film us sailing from the beach. Ryan and Brys were off exploring the waterfall, and I really wanted some footage of the canoe sailing. He was hesitant at first, but assured him it was easy, and soon he had the camera in hand and a group of others looking on. I explained ‘rec’, ‘stop’ as well as ‘zoom’, then jumped in the canoe. Sure enough, I saw him on the beach, with kids crowded around the camera, as we sailed out into the bay. I figured after 15 minutes we’d be out of range and he’d lose interest. Well, we started sailing back in after an hour or so on the water when I thought I saw my faithful camera man standing on the outer point at the entrance to the bay, with the camera pointed in our direction! As we got closer I confirmed that, yes, it was him… now clambering down the rocks and getting into another dugout, video camera in hand! Sweet! So as we sailed back in, our ‘professional’ camera crew was circling Joielle’s boat in another dugout getting it all on film! Stoked. Hopefully we can get some clips up soon enough.

Whew. Well, usually I try to avoid the play-by-play accounts as often they only make good reading for the authour. But hopefully you can glean from this telling the nature of the people here and their impact on us. We’re back in the land of internet access for the next 36 hours, so there’s a chance you’ll see some new pictures soon too. Stay tuned!

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