Where superlatives run out

Saturday 27 June, 8.22pm (anchored near Lolawai, Ambae)

How does it come about that whole days on board can pass with all of the crew fully occupied even if we’re not sailing that day? There’s an endless stream of tasks that demand attention, from rejigging the mosquito nets to neaten their fit over the open portholes, to repairing the awning and replacing clips that tie it back, rewiring the fresh water pump, desulphating and boosting the batteries and installing a new charging system, tinkering with the generator to make sure it runs well, and so on. Bob doesn’t sit still long enough to photograph easily (unless he’s asleep) because he’s always on to the next thing that needs fixing or improving, Martin is the mover and shaker and the gadget mogul, Tony is a demon with the pop-riveter, quietly trouble-shoots, patiently teaches the novice crew, and supports anything and everyone and whatever is happening. Jim is up early every day keeping the deck and dinghy sparkling, and works the boat hand-in-glove with Bob, as I’ve written before. Jen is an all-rounder; experienced sailor, seasoned traveller, IT wizz, great galley hand.

The most recent problem-solving exercise arose because we weren’t too sure how much of our fresh water we’d used. It all started with no water coming out of the tap, when we’d already changed to a new tank. Working on the assumption that we had a full tank, we considered the possibilities. The electric pump was the most likely culprit. Tony and Jen pulled up the floor and made a thorough inspection of the whole setup. Everything looked secure until a small tweak revealed an electric terminal and its wire had corroded and parted company due to their proximity to salt water in the bilge. Cleaning, reconnecting and sealing the terminal led to the decision to service the wiring for the whole system. No-one on board knew the exact capacity of the four water tanks nor how much was left in them after nine days’ use, so there began a discussion about how to figure it out. By today, the discussion had developed into a brainstorming session. Out came the tape measure, and a series of contortions performed to determine each tank’s volume. A plumb line was constructed from a lead sinker and stray line, the hose from the filler hole on the tank removed, and the plumb line carefully lowered into the tank. There was a clunk when it hit the bottom. It was then pulled out, the depth of the remaining water established by giving the string the lip test to see where it changed from wet to dry, and the volume calculated. We discovered that our actual water use matched our estimated use, which is good – an average of 4 litres per day per person; less than a standard toilet flush, for you water-conscious Aussies. A detailed drawing of the system with measurements has now been entered into the maintenance book.

A day later the water had stopped again, but only in the galley. After a re-inspection of the whole system, everyone ended up gathered around at the logical end – gazing at the galley tap. As Bob was stroking it in an enquiring kind of way, the end fitting came off in his hand. It was chock-a-block full of sediment and debris, blocking the flow – just like happens at home. It’s all working beautifully now, having kept everyone entertained for days.

Just as we were finishing lunch today, the walkie-talkie crackled and we heard “Anyone awake over there?” The medical crew had come off the mountain and were waiting on shore to be ferried back on board.

Yesterday they had a steep 15-20 minute walk from the landing place up to a spot where the slope eased off and there was a primary school and some huts built into the hill. There they stayed, sleeping on the floor of the school. The village had had a vague idea of their arrival date, so for the team it was very much a matter of taking things as they found them. Today, after giving all the school children acuity tests, they set off toward the top of the mountain to the appointed spot for today’s clinic, a two-hour walk away. Two-thirds of the way there, they regrouped and decided that rather than trudging all the way there and all the way back again, it would be a better idea if the clinic candidates came down the hill to see them. Accordingly, a conch shell was pulled out and blown, and in due time their patients appeared from up the hill. It appears that the village is scattered amongst a number of terraced areas in the mountain, with the main part of it at the very top very inaccessible by our standards.

This community is struggling and poverty-stricken, with many families unable to meet the school fees, even though they are very low. Their major income is from kava but the market is slow because kava is plentiful and easy to grow, so there is a glut. We left seventy-odd exercise books behind for the school kids.

A motor-sail of less than an hour in soft grey weather brought us to Waloriki and a wide open black sand beach with a reappearance of outriggers. The medical team and their gear were transferred to the beach with the efficient and enthusiastic assistance of Louis, a young lad who pulled his canoe alongside us, boarded Chimere at Bob’s invitation, and jumped into the dinghy to give Martin a hand with all the gear. Tony fended his canoe during his absence so that it wouldn’t splinter itself against Chimere’s steel hull. Ambae has the reputation of being responsible for the weight of Vanuatu’s intelligentsia, and the level of language skills, global awareness, energy and initiative shown by the people on this island during our stay have borne out this story.

The swell at Waloriki promised to be equally as unsettling as it had been for the three nights and days around Ndui Ndui, so after dropping the team we headed further north to Lolowai. We nipped in between a couple of tiny islands pulled straight out of a Dr Suess book, rounded a rocky cliff hung with vines, and found ourselves in a deep, clear lagoon encircled by black sandy beach, rock-walled and be-jungled hills with a small settlement nestled into an elbow. All of us were speechless. There is a point where superlatives run out, and we reached it as we glided into this anchorage. We went in to shore to have a look around, and immediately ran into Olivette, a nurse who works at a clinic on the next island, Maewo, and is a good friend of Mary Tabi’s. She issued us with an invitation to visit her and the clinic she works at on Maewo. In any event, we will be in this area for a couple of days until the team needs us to bring them up. It is so lovely so have the boat rocking gently instead of sending things flying!


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