Another cruising adventure is finally upon us, we have departed for Vanuatu aboard our 56’ sport fishing catamaran November Rain. It’s our third season that we have left New Zealand and gone offshore for 6 months at a stretch, the last time in May of 2016. (We gave 2017 a miss as the boat was undergoing major renovations). This voyage is a little different in that we are planning to be offshore for the next 18 months. Cruising and game fishing the islands of Vanuatu are the primary agenda, before heading to Cairns, Oz to fish the black marlin run scheduled to arrive in October. From there, the plan gets a bit fuzzy, written in sand at low tide. The general idea is that we will return to Vanuatu the following winter, most likely cruising through the Solomon Islands and hopefully, Papua New Guinea. Over that period of 18 months, we plan to entertain several groups friends and hanger-ons from New Zealand, as well as several international crew members, recruited from an internet site.
The passage crew consists of six mostly able-bodied anglers to fish the 1,200 mile open ocean crossing from Auckland to Port Vila; Garry and myself, our three unpaid but adventurous Crewbay.com recruits, Lasse, Lisa and Aidan as well as Ryan, our marine sparky. We expect the voyage to cover 8 days, accounting for 2 days of side trips; one day of marlin fishing the Whanganella Banks, a drive-by of Norfolk Island, a brief lunch stop-over at Walpole Island and some popper fishing of Le Blanc Reef.
Lasse, age 29, is an exceptionally tall Norwegian, who quickly made himself useful as my grocery carting donkey and reaching high things. He’s just finished his medical training in Norway and is enjoying a couple of months of freedom before settling on a speciality, most likely surgery or internal medicine. Aidan, age 26, is a Brit, has a background as a football (soccer) coach and came to us after a year working on a cattle ranch in the Australian outback. Aidan has loads of experience with fishing lakes in the UK. He’s a nomad of the highest order, with his life’s possessions in one back-pack. Lisa is an attractive, enthusiastic young Kiwi woman, age 24, and is the most experienced big game fisherman of the gang, having worked on small charter boats and for the Kiwi lure manufacturer, Bonze. She is super-keen on fishing and has managed to attract the attentions of some sponsors, garnering us some Shimano swag for the team and also a mention of my blog on the Shimano Facebook page. Lisa would like to make a career in the game fishing world and she is well suited for it.
The three young recruits are all crammed into the small bunk room, tight quarters for the next two months. They will either become the best of mates or the most bitter enemies as only the most stringent social experiments can match life aboard a fishing boat. I imagine it will be like the TV shows Hot Tuna or Deadliest Catch, but with attractive, friendly people in a warm tropical climate on a boat equiped many niceties. (Come to think of it, that is the exact opposite of those shows.) Ryan, the marine sparky from our boat’s recent rebuild, will also be joining us for the crossing, returning to NZ, once he’s had enough of us or his wife, who remains in NZ threatens divorce, whichever comes first.
After two very friendly Kiwi customs agents gave us the nod, we tossed off the dock lines and puttered north at 9 knots along the west coast towards North Cape. As we passed Ocean Beach, lines and lures were put out behind and excitement was high. Garry schooled Aidan and Lasse with his crash course in game fishing 101, demonstrating the use of the outriggers, the lures and fitted each of them with a game harness and bucket.
We enjoyed a snapper fish the first night at our super-secret spot and popped a few fishing cherries for the two Europeans, snagging Kingies, Blue Cod and one Trevelly as well. We hit limits on Snapper, releasing all but enough for a feed. Ryan and a seal competed for the rights to Paua bed and thankfully, Ryan won. The 1/2 dozen Paua were minced using an antique meat grinder which we just happened to have on board (Thanks Heather) and Lisa fried them up into tasty fritters. Kingfish sashimi, fried snapper and blue cod made for wonderful Kiwi meal.
We arrived at the Whanganella banks at dawn on the third day, light drizzle failing to dampen our excitement. The water temperature was a cool19 degrees. Another Power Cat, Bwanna, was already on the bank, and we beelined towards their AIS triangle, hoping that they had already scoped out where the marlin would be feeding. Radio contact with Bwanna learned us the bad news; they had tagged only two stripey the day before, out of seven shots. It seemed like the large schools of marlin had already left the bank, maybe heading down to NZ where we had just come from. We trolled around a while, not having much luck finding the bobbing sooty shearwaters that would pinpoint the bait balls. After a few hours of burning diesel, we got lucky and pulled a small stripey off a small bait ball into our spread.
Pandemonium begins in a surprisingly orderly fashion. The team cleared the gear quickly and Aidan is perfect with his first marlin as he drops the drag back slightly, picked the rod out of the port outrigger rod holder, pointing the rod at the fish as he made his way to the fighting platform. He managed to place the rod in his bucket and I helped him with the harness clips to the rod. Meanwhile, the marlin was jumping and leaping on the starboard side of the boat and Garry was shouting from the flybridge indicating the action. There was a big belly in the line but Aidan got on top the fish fairly quickly. Ryan leadered the estimated 50 kg fish on the port side and Lisa assisted with the double-rigged hook removal. The fish was released nicely after a few quick photos. It was all over in 15 minutes and we had popped Aidan’s Marlin cherry. High fives were passed all around. We teased Aidan about how hard it was going to be to go back to fishing carp in English lily ponds after today.
Radio chatter reveals that a third boat on the bank, Destiny, fished a great day yesterday, tagging several stripeys. Garry and Ryan reckon that we should head towards Destiny’s AIS targeted location to find the elusive fish. The problem is, they are 30 miles away, in the wrong direction from Vanuatu and we have to travel into a head-on sea. We slog it out for a couple of hours without any action before deciding to pull the pin and turn the ship back around towards Vanuatu. We picked up our shit off the floor and stowed the gear back into proper ship-shape location.
We had some fun the next day with a couple of Wahoo strikes, earning Ryan his first catch of that particular species. Lasse brought aboard a nice 30 kg + yellowfin, which was also a first for him. The tuna was expertly carved up for a sushi/sashimi bonanza dinner. Lasse also demonstrated his surgical skills at hook removal from the booby birds that were stupidly and repeatedly attacking the plastic lures. The water is getting warmer, up to 22 degrees now. I’ve stowed away the blankets.
On the forth day, we passed the west coast of Norfolk Island Unfortunately, the easterlies winds were starting to get up and the island did little to offer shelter. We carried on, and over the next 48 hours, got pummelled with 25 knot winds. The swells were only about 2.8 meters, but they were hitting us starboard side-on and it was a very miserable three nights for everyone, (except Lasse, who apparently can sleep anywhere, courtesy of his residency training) Garry’s and my stateroom is forward, straddling the starboard hull, and it sounded like a war zone in there, with explosions going off every few seconds as the boat fell off each wave and bounced off the water. The boat shuddered and shook so fiercely after each mortar round that I feared she might break apart, despite the recent kevlar reinforcement to the hull. I tried moving into the lounge after the first night, but Ryan had beaten me to it, having been tossed out of his bunk on the flybridge earlier. The next night, I quickly lay claim to the best spot in the lounge for a passable night’s sleep, but Garry moved in like a cat and stole my berth when I stumbled to the toilet at 5 am. I laid right claim to the settee from there on out, only to find Garry sleeping on the floor the following night, as his mattresses kept sliding off the pedestal due to the side-on pummeling. I took pity on him, but not enough to concede my right to the lounge berth.
Life aboard has fallen into a routine. Every crew member stands a 2-hour night watch and manages their sleep schedule around it. My shift is 7-9 pm and a second shift follows at 7-9 am, allowing me 10 hours of uninterrupted rest time to lie awake, bouncing around in bed. The rest of my day is spent cooking meals and hanging on for dear life. The crew has taken to watching movies and playing cards to dull the monotony. Occasionally, suicidal squid or flying fish carcasses are
dispatched from the deck for burial at sea. Food has become a distraction and meal times are highlights of the day. Lisa has given Lasse the nickname “Hoover” to account for his enormous appetite.
The “new” November Rain has been performing as expected. The addition of bulbous bows have improved the overall ride, and she cuts through the water without porpoising. However, due to the angle of the current swell, we are taking a fair bit of spray over the starboard side. Occasionally, a large wave will throw more water than the engine bay scuppers can manage, which slops over into the bilge of the starboard hull. This periodically triggers the bilge alarm which wails away and annoys us until the bilge pump eventually clears the water. We will have to improve the seals around the hatches. Our fuel economy on the new Yanmars, best that we can work out, is about 2 liters/mile, which satisfies Garry. Our clean laundry flaps in the breeze off the flybridge, a testament to the luxury afforded by the new washing machine.
On the 7th day, we approached the deserted island of Walpole, about 120 miles west of New Caledonia. It is an eerie site, as it rises straight up from the ocean, a large flat topped rock of 90 meters high and 2 miles long with steep cliffs on all sides. Sea birds nest alongside the cliffs, while scrub and trees struggle for tenacious footholds on the rock face. The windward side of the island is covered in whitewash as waves pummel the rocky shore. It reminded me of some kind of Hollywood movie set, like Papillon’s prison island, or perhaps the location of King Kong’s birthplace. Dozens of Frigate birds begin circling our wake as we approached, keen eyes on the trailing lures.
Garry scouted a beautiful sheltered bay on the lee side of the island and dropped the hook in 4 meters, rewarding the crew with a much needed 2 hour reprieve from the side-swell assault. After lunch on the back deck, the gang jumped in to snorkel over the pristine coral. Garry spotted a small 3 foot long shark hanging around the anchor chain. I held off disposing of the leftover lunch over the side until the crew was safely back aboard.
7 miles north of Isla Walpole is the Le Blanc Reef which Garry had targeted as a fishing destination, prior to leaving NZ. We trolled Rapala style lures for about an hour, Ryan pulling in a nice sized Rainbow Runner, myself, a large Job fish, but the reef was not as productive as we had hoped. The water temp is now 25 degrees and we are in singlets and shorts.
On the 8th day, we entered Vanuatu waters at the southern end of the island chain. Garry ramped up the speed to 18 knots, steering towards the East coast of Tanna. It’s an active volcano island and we spotted the smoking cone off in the distance. A 20 degree shift to port put the waves on our starboard quarter and greatly improved our comfort level. Our cells phones lit up with old messages, letting us know we have come off the dark side of the moon. We continued past Eramango, water temps now reading 27 degrees and we are now sweltering inside the cabin in our underwear.
We stopped for a quick jig for dog tooth tuna off Eramango, after Garry spotting some impressive targets on the sounder, but had no luck. The fishing has not lived up to our expectations. We continued on to our final destination, Port Vila, Vanuatu. With the waves and swell behind us now, November Rain rides like Aladdin’s magic carpet ride. Now, if I can only find the magic lamp and wish the Genie to bring us some fish.