Sunday 14 July, 10.10pm (Vao Island, off NE Maleluka)

I signed off last night just as we were heading into inky blackness for an overnight sail. “Ray” the auto pilot did the work of keeping the boat on course, and we had two people on watch to do the thinking work that Ray can’t do – like for example, the wind has changed and the set of the sails no longer works for this direction, or “Goodness, we can see the port AND starboard lights of that boat in the distance, umm… maybe we should think of moving out of collision course.” Jen and Tony, being old sailing buddies, took the first two-hour shift. The wind was utterly consistent and the boat sailed sweetly at 7 knots or so (she’s graceful but not fast, this girl), as the phosphorescence made a double trail in her wake. Jim and I took the 11.00 to 1.00am shift, when the wind dropped away and we wallowed about in the swell waiting for the right course of action to become evident. Which, after a lot of pretending in the form of gusts coming and going, it did, in the form of Bob’s head appearing from below. Jim, who must be one of the greatest storytellers of all time with some of the richest experiences and most random jokes you’ve ever come across, had kept me entertained for the entire two hours. Rather than wake Jen and Tony again, Bob and Jim decided to take over together for a while.

Some time during the night I woke to a tremendous racket on deck, accompanied by shouting and the sound of wind. If I hadn’t been familiar with the sound of the main being hoisted, I would have thought that the whole kit and caboodle, including the mast, was coming down rather than going up. It called to mind those descriptions of old sailing ships which involved vast numbers of sails, many people, and extensive deck areas to shout directions across. I braced my elbow against one side of the bunk and my leg against the other so I could stay put, and fell asleep again. The fair wind (south-easterly up to 25 knots ) from then on brought us into a very pleasant anchorage between Vao Island and Malekula at 8am.

A flotilla of welcoming outriggers and curious faces peering over the rails into the galley where I was converting the dregs of the bananas into muffins was followed by a quiet morning involving sleeping, showers, practicing useful knots (“knot studying, are we?”), Bob sorting yet another tray of bits and pieces, and me making bread and vast quantities of brownies to give either in thanks for hospitality or to trade for fresh island produce. Although the stove is gimballed (swings feely to remain level as the boat heels), it doesn’t take care of the fore-aft rake, and the brownies were higher aft than they were forward. All part of learning the vagaries of cooking on board. Eventually in mid-afternoon we lowered the dinghy and, brownies in hand, all headed for shore.

Vao off Malekula; still rich with Kustom, wonderfully hospitable, picture-perfect traditional villages, strongly catholic – and French speaking. The high school French received a serious dusting-off today, as the man who greeted us on the beach and took us on a walking tour of the island spoke fluent French but no English. We were joined by some others en route, including a trail of kids, one of whom spoke some English, which was a bonus. There are six villages on this island, each with their own residential area and dance ground complete with 2.5m high traditional drums topped by carved faces, but sharing the same enormous church. Rows of wooden benches face three shrines: one to Jesus, with a candle kept burning to show his presence, one to Mary, and one to St Peter.

The sports grounds following the line of the beach for about 400m were packed with kids and young adults playing soccer, volleyball, catch, and whatever else took their fancy. The villages on the island compete with each other in soccer, and by the look of it they take it fairly seriously. Sunday is clearly a day they set aside for worship, playing sport, and generally hanging out together. It makes for an energetic and companionable atmosphere, quite apart from the breathtaking beauty of the place. The villages were so well kept they almost looked like model villages, with perfect little huts dedicated in one instance to the Virgin Mary, and in several others to the manufacture, consumption and sleeping-off of kava. We’re frequently asked if we’ve had kava. I keep saying no, because we’ve been told that half an hour after a shell of kava you feel like someone has hit you over the head very hard, and everything slows down. Doesn’t seem worth it somehow.

Pigs are everywhere; pink, black and mottled. I asked if they use them to exchange for other things and the man told me they’re very important – they exchange them for wives. One can’t help wondering how many pigs one is worth, so I had to ask. “How many pigs for a wife?” The response came in terms of numbers of teeth, and I couldn’t figure out whether it was twenty-four pigs for a wife, or it depended on the number of teeth the pig or the wife had. I do know, however, that according to Kustom, a woman who pleases her husband is permitted to have her two front teeth knocked out. Perhaps if you’ve been married and still have your front teeth, you’re not worth many pigs at all. Oh dear.

It’s been a deeply satisfying experience of connecting with these people. We came home with several coconuts, some “giant beans” which are actually a type of marrow, two more types of island cabbage wrapped in a banana leaf (they’re gigantic), a few samples of fruit, and a medicinal nut that has an antiseptic juice useful for open wounds. Our hosts ended up with brownies, chocolate, a couple of t-shirts and a hat our blokes had brought along. The day ended with a dinner of giant bean stuffed with rice and vegetables, leftover brownies, a spirited discussion of Australian politics, and a stern combined injunction to me: “What’s on the boat stays on the boat.” Oops.

Ann Shoebridge