Sunday 12 July 2009 (Anchored off Mere Lava Island)

After a night’s sail from Santo, 80 miles to the south west, it was around 6:00am that Mere Lava appeared on the horizon; a grey cone, rising from a grey sea, disappearing into a grey cloudy sky.  The first 600 metres or so were visible, the next 400 metres were obscured by the cloud.

As the early morning wore on and we inched closer, more and more of the island could be made out.  A tinge of green, the outlines of trees up the ridges, the densely covered valleys deeply gouged in parts by landslips and mudslides.

Then around 10:30, we could finally make out a building with a blue roof – on the north west point as we came in for a close sail-by.

The water was a deep purple-blue, similar to Indian ink and so deep you could have tied the Queen Mary up to the trees at the water’s edge for most of the coastline. It just disappears away into the depths – about 500m deep less than a quarter of a mile offshore and up to 1500m deep less than a couple of miles offshore (sorry about mixing metric with imperial – but this was a joint French/English colony)

Nearing the north east corner of the island, where a few large rocks could be seen extending off the end of the island maybe 500 metres, we were greeted by a lone canoe; a chap out fishing.   We pulled up close and he said the anchorage further on was OK, but we would be best to go back to where we had seen the blue roof.  This was the main village of the region and there was a big white anchor painted on the rock.

We duly turned around, and even towed him for a bit because he was heading back that way, but it must have got a bit racy back there, even though the rope was very long, because he finally decided to untied the rope, whereupon he waved to us with a smile indicating he would be at the clinic.

Around at the painted anchor, it was still deep, but close to the black volcanic rock ledge it shallowed to around 10-20m and it was here that we dropped the pick with the assistance of some knowledgeable lads in two canoes.

Onshore, there were dozens of people gathered, many screaming and yelling in high-pitch voices as a form of excited greeting.  There was lots of waving, then some of the kids started swimming out so I attached a fender to a rope which was dangled out the back.  They used this as a holding on point as the surging sea made the boat’s rolling motion a bit dangerous up close.

There was a small beach, being made smaller with the rising tide and it was a very steep beach – we learnt later that the beach only appeared 8 years ago, the result of a landslip and mudslide further up their local valley – it is seriously steep!

Now for the task of launching the dinghy and getting a party ashore.  A study of the surf on the beach suggested this was going to be a wet affair.  Richard and Simon went in the first trip with Chris on the outboard and me in support on the bow.    Closer, closer, closer … the stern began to rise, the wave ahead was breaking up the black volcanic sand in a loud explosion, Chris gave it some more throttle, we rode the wave some more.  Then we surged forward on the white water, coming to rest just as the water began to recede.  The crowds of screaming, excited children raced at the boat, all acting as one to move the dinghy up the beach as quickly as possible before the next wave descended.  It was done!!  All dry and accounted for.  And the joy and excitement on the faces of everyone was amazing.

Bringing Jessy ashore was done just as efficiently, with Jo also making the trip in order to explore the village on foot with Chris.

Pretty soon a plan was established, which had us heading back to where we had just come from and where it was a calmer anchorage.  In the morning we would transport Graeme and all the required medical boxes, back to a spot roughly halfway between the two places – that’s where the next day’s clinic would be held.

Once again we received valuable instructions from the “canoe man” and managed to drop the anchor in a reasonably sheltered spot.

As it turned out, our arrival coincided with a community picnic at the nearby point and pretty soon there was a string of swimmers making their way to the boat – something akin to the start of the “Pier to Pub”.  At this point we dropped the ladder down the side and they clambered aboard.  All amid high pitched squealing and yelling on shore, excited laughs plus constant smiling and waving.  “Hello”,  “Hello”, “Hello”, “Hello”.

We were truly overwhelmed by such happy people, all wanting to join in the excitement.  I was at the step greeting people and looked down the back and there must have been 15 people, at least, watching Jo cutting onions for dinner.  Others were up the front.  Some were already diving off the side and back into the water.  I finally made my way down below to get my camera and upon return called out … “everyone up the front deck for a photo.”  The response was immediate with everyone running to the front, or being called back out of the water and onto the boat.  There was much laugher and giggling as the shot was taken and then as more arrived, I called out, “one more photo, but first, can you sing the National Anthem”.

Again, the response was immediate, with the power of the tuneful singing, their strong, smiling, confident faces making it a spine tingling experience.  (Watch for the video)

Later on that evening as the light was fading, and everyone had gone home with a taste of Cadbury Fruit & Nut in their mouth, another group of people gathered ashore calling and waving to the boat.  They stood maybe 400m away, near two large tree trunks which act as ladders and which extend from the rock shelf by the sea to the headland above and into which foot holds have been carved.

The six of us were eating dinner outside in the cockpit, reflecting on the wonderful experiences of the day and it was decided to sing our new friends a song.  This we did from the foredeck, facing the white, tree-ladders and the gathered locals, at the top of our lungs.  We started with Advance Australia Fair – always a good standby, then moved onto Waltzing Matilda.  The crowd ashore was delighted with this and after much cheering, they sang some more songs back to us – turning it into a mini sing-off.  However, we readily accepted that we were not likely to make it as finalists in the “Mere Lava Idol” any time soon.

The fading light brought proceedings to a close and after finishing off dinner, a wonderful sleep was had – we were all sleepy puppies.

Smooth sea, fair breeze and what wonderful people.

Rob