It’s been a great winter(summer) in Vanuatu, and now it is time to return to New Zealand for the summer (winter). (As a North American, I am still trying to adjust to the reversals of the seasons in the South Pacific.) We are now an estimated 8 hours from reaching NZ landfall and I will attempt to recap our final week in Vanuatu as well as the open ocean crossing, just as long as I can keep my Macbook from bouncing off my lap during the largely conflicting wind/wave actions.
Garry and I motored from Luganville on the M/V November Rain, headed for New Zealand, with a stop over in New Caledonia, our journey beginning about 2 weeks ago, give or take a few days. It’s easy to lose track of time in paradise, especially when you spend one too many of those days on the open sea. (Yes, I am slightly crazed with cabin fever and sleep deprivation, so I am probably rambling.) We are joined by our German deckhand and #1 grocery carting donkey, Jonas, who has dedicated 4 months of life to fish handing duties and helping Garry with various construction projects around the Aore Island property. In exchange for his company, wit and muscle, he’s treated to room, board, and all the game fishing he can muster in a tropical paradise. He jokes that he’s our pack-animal donkey, but honestly, he eats more like a horse. One of his assigned chores is cleaning out the galley refrigerator (literally and figuratively).
Before we departed Vanuatu for NZ, we entered November Rain into the Vanuatu International Billfish Tournament, hoping it to be our “last hurrah” and the successful culmination of our winter fishing season. Last year, Garry, myself and our previous year’s deckie, Laura, participated in the very same tournament, entering the contest last-minute, after some soft convincing by Charles Wheeler, owner/captain of the Port Vila charter boat, Nevagivup. Over drinks at the Waterfront Bar, Charles talked up the tournament, and although he wasn’t fishing it that year, he suggested we give it a go.
The rules of this particular tournament specified 15 Kg line only, regardless of species, including marlin. Normally we fish 37 kg line, occasionally throwing a couple of 24 kg rods into the mix. At the time, we only had 1 qualifying outfit in our arsenal, so Charles graciously loaned us two of his own rod/reel combinations, allowing us enough gear for the contest.
As a visiting NZ boat, we ended up doing surprisingly well against the other dozen local boats, placing 2nd overall (3 Blues and 2 Mahi Mahi), with our angler, Laura MacLucas, winning both the Champion Angler and Champion Female Angler categories, along with some cash and gear, to accompany our puffed up egos. Naturally, we hoped/expected for similar results in 2016. We were better prepared this time around, adding 3 additional Tiagra 15 kg outfits to the armory before leaving NZ earlier in the year. As fisherman will sometimes do, Gaz talked up the tournament with excitement to Jonas, and I’m sure Jonas was already banking on a big win, as was I.
For the record, my experience with Marlin fishing is limited to the past 18 months, ever since beginning my new life with my partner and Captain, Garry Somers. In that period of time, we have participated in just 4 Billfish tournaments; 2 in Tonga, the aforementioned Vanuatu tournament and the NZ Nationals. In these tournaments, November Rain has placed 1st once, 2nd twice and a respectable 3rd in the NZ Nationals. My experience with tournaments has been limited to success. Garry, with years of tournament fishing under his belt, wisely warned Jonas and I to not to set our expectations too high. Do you think we listened?
Prior to the contest day, during a routine radio check with Nevagivup, we became aware that our VHF aerial was no longer functioning properly. In fact, we seemed to have a radio range of less than a mile. Truth is, routine radio traffic in Northern Vanuatu is virtually non-existent. There are few boats, far in-between, especially at isolated places such as the Sabine Shoals or the Banks Islands. There just isn’t anyone around to chat with, so we had gotten quite used to never hearing radio chatter, despite having the VHF permanently dialed to channel 16. Our aerial most likely had been down for a few weeks and we just didn’t know it. Fortunately, we have an older-model VHF for redundancy, (along with the hand-held) in the downstairs pilot house. Unfortunately, that required me to stand-by downstairs on radio watch for any incoming messages from Watchdog, then trot outside and shout the information up to Garry on the fly bridge over the roar of the twin diesels. Garry in turn, might ask me to relay a message back to Watchdog. As in the game of “Telephone,” a lot was lost in translation. It was difficult for Garry to keep a pulse on what was happening with the other dozen boats in the tournament. In the end, we still ended up fishing the very same waters as the winning boat, so perhaps we didn’t miss too much.
The contest was a 1 & 1/2 day tournament, with lines out in the water, 6:00 a.m., not so sharp.
Watchdog’s Rolex seemed to be off by a few minutes from broadcasted cell phone time, but then again, it’s Vanuatu, so it was anyone’s guess as to what was really the correct time. The morning started off very slowly, with little action reported to Watchdog over the VHF. To be honest, we weren’t really sure if there was just no action from the other boats or if our other radio was malfunctioning as well. Finally, around 9 a.m., we hooked into what turned out to be Fish #4 of the contest. It was such a-less-than-impressive Wahoo that we didn’t even bother with a picture of it. In the end, it weighed in as 3rd heaviest Wahoo, earning us a Magnum of Champagne. (You never know what fish will win a contest. Last year we won a Billfish competition in Tonga with only two Wahoo and an underweight Dog Tooth tuna). A couple of hours later, a massive bull Mahi Mahi took a solid strike at one of the outriggers, leaping, dancing and dashing away our hopes of winning the biggest Mahi Mahi category, which it certainly would have done, had it actually stuck.
Fishing was so slow for on the second day that when a pod of 6-8 pilot whales cruised in front of the boat, we pulled in the lines and had a play with them instead. They seemed to want to ride the bow wake, as their dolphins cousins often do, but they were having a hard time keeping up to speed at 9 knots. Gaz slowed the boat down enough to allow the cow to show her young calf all about the joys of bow surfing. The pod followed us for a good half hour. In the end, our competitive spirits took and we returned to trolling speed, leaving the whales behind.
As fisherman’s luck would have it, we picked up a massive 46 kg yellow fin, 15 minutes before “Lines Out” on the second day of the tournament. The tuna had the potential to put up a real battle with only 15 kg line, so we considered ourselves very lucky to get the fish boated in just a matter of minutes. The light-weight tackle perhaps worked in my favor, along with my girlish inability to “muscle the fish in”. I don’t believe the tuna even realized it was sporting a new lip piercing, as he swam right towards the stern of the boat, investigating what he probably thought was “a big giant moving FAD”.
All I had to do was take up the slack as he swam closer. Jonas managed to leader and gaff the tuna before it ever figured out the end-game. To be sure, this was personally my biggest yellow fin to date, and the second largest tuna for November Rain. Unfortunately for us, there were 3 even larger yellow fin hauled aboard other contest boats that same day, so this big guppy didn’t give us any edge on the points board. After the weigh-in, we donated the meat to the sponsoring fishing club, who in turn donated it to the crew that kept the radio tower open for the weekend contest.
10 minutes after boating the big yellow fin, I was standing-by the downstairs VHF, 2 pm-ish Vanuatu time. As I was waiting for the “lines out” command from Watchdog, ending the fishing for the day, I heard a reel scream off. I immediately grabbed the mike and radioed in the hook-up, hoping to beat the cut-off deadline. Watchdog came back with “You are 4 minutes too late, please copy,” resulting in some embarrassment on my part for missing the cut-off deadline.
Luckily, the fish on the line turned out to be a Short-Billed Spearfish instead of a Marlin, saving us some real heartbreak. While Spearfish are plentiful enough, it is difficult billfish to target, rare to catch, and the species did not count for any points in this particular contest. It just happened to be Jonas’s first Spearfish ever, so we gaffed it anyway, recalling that someone had once told us, “They make great eating”.. Well, I guess you have to try everything at least once….next time, we will just tag and release. It was really okay… firm, yet still very moist white fish, but after catching Mahi Mahi and NZ Snapper as well as the occasional Blue Cod and John Dorey, you could say we are just a bit spoiled on November Rain.
We were sadly disappointed in our opportunities for marlin, with only one Blue showing any interest on the first day. Meanwhile, Mama Mia, a 35’ Bertam, was hooking up right, left, in front and behind us both days, rubbing sea-salt in our deflated egos. In the end, Mama Mia swam away with Top Boat Prize, tagging 4 out of 5 Blues, cleaning up most of the secondary awards, i.e., Top Angler, Biggest Wahoo, etc… and even won most of the random raffle ticket draws. When your luck is in, it’s really in. Good on them, it couldn’t happen to nicer guys.
The nice thing about tournaments, even for “losers” like us, is the opportunity to connect with other anglers and swap stories, mostly lies. While contests can be as competitive as hell, it’s also good to catch up with old friends and make some new ones. It was really a nice night at the awards ceremony, hosted by the Wahoo Bar in beautiful Havannah Harbour, a great anchorage as well.
The next morning, Jonas dingied Laetitia, his visiting girlfriend ashore for their good-byes. Laetitia had wisely booked a flight back home to NZ, rather endure another 2 weeks of seasickness for the crossings. She’ll be waiting for us when we arrive… smart girl, yes she is…We picked up anchor at 6 a.m., and headed to New Caledonia, confident that the tropical depression originating from the Solomon Islands would miss us entirely. Yep, Laetitia is really a smart girl…
Twenty-four hours later, we rocked up to a remote Wadralu reef, off the East coast of New Caledonia. The fishing was spectacular as we trolled divers and cast poppers for hours, catching and releasing Doggies, Coral Trout, Red Bass, GTs, Blue Fin Trevely and Job Fish every few minutes. It really made up for the contest-losing-thing the day before… As the dark clouds loomed ominously on the horizon, Gaz decided it was time to continue on to New Cal.
It turned out to be the roughest 8 hours I have ever experienced, 30 + knot winds howling, rain pelting down, and 3 meter seas continuously pounding at the port quarter. (The video fails to show the magnitude, but I couldn’t manage to stagger my way outside for better footage.) Garry wisely made the decision to alter course off the open sea, seeking an anchorage to hide in for the night. The new course added a couple of days to the trip, but anchoring each night afforded everyone aboard some much-needed rest. It really does takes a lot of energy to brace yourself in widely pitching seas.
As we approached the port of Noumea a couple of days later, I found myself realizing that we’ve been living on another planet for the past few months. Everywhere we looked, cheap high-rise apartments, luxury condos and touristy beach-front resorts were sprawled haphazardly along the arid coastline. Many of the outer-lying hills were barren from strip mining operations. Obnoxious kite-surfers zig-zagged daringly between massive luxury cruise liners and rusty oil tankers, while clueless bare-boat chartered yachts sailed around, going nowhere in particular, ignoring maritime traffic regulations. One particularly idiotic kite-surfer maneuvered himself within 2 Meters of our stern, hoping to surf our wake. It was a good thing we weren’t trolling lines at the time… It would have been a real nasty surprise for him, (especially if we poked a tag in him — hee hee)… We instantly hated the place and were suddenly missing the peacefulness, tranquility and remote jungle beauty of Vanuatu.
As we pulled into the harbor, Garry immediately spotted into another catamaran, Domino, bobbing at anchor among the dozens of other boats. Garry and I had first met J.P. and Marie, the owners of Domino, in Fiji last winter, then bumped into them again in NZ a few months later. Domino is an impressive 65’ cat, self built by J.P. and Marie in Paraguay, and like November Rain, is of a Malcolm Tennant design. Malcolm Tennant owners are off in their own little planet in their cult-like worship of the prolific (now deceased) Kiwi catamaran designer.
Oddly enough, it seems every MT boat owner appears to know of every other MT boat ever designed, resulting in a loosely based “Owner’s Club”. JP and Marie invited us aboard Domino for coffee, loaded us up with lobsters and talked us through the very confusing immigration, bio-security and customs process for New Cal. As it turns out, they were also planning on returning to NZ the following week. We decided to keep in touch as much as possible during the crossing, although with our different rates of speed, it might only be for a few hours.
All in all, we spent about 4 full days in New Cal, which included a 1/2 day for check-in, a 1/2 day for check-out, and another ridiculous 1/2 day chasing down a SIM card, just so we could stay current with the marine weather and feed my Facebook addiction. As soon as we cleared in port, we were watching for a weather window to clear out. Jonas speaks fluent French, so he really helped us navigate the New Cal bureaucracy, which makes him one very talented donkey. There were also two separate shopping trips to the French market to restock our empty larders with long forgotten luxury items such as fresh mushrooms and lamb.
Jonas and Garry had a play at popper fishing around the reefs, resulting in only one very nice GT for a day’s worth of casting. We thought we wanted to snorkel but the visibility was pretty poor due the recent rains. Jonas, always happy to help out in any way, would jump into to the water with mask and snorkel and pre-scout the attractiveness of any potential sites, giving them a “Thumb Up” or a “Thumb Down” sign. In the end, I was just a big chicken, preferring to stay dry, rather than bbbbrrrr-risk the 25 degree C (77 F) water. Seems again, Santo’s 27 degree (81 F) tropical waters have spoiled me for all other islands. Now if I could just find a man like that… just kidding, Gaz.
The crossing from New Cal to North Cape, NZ is now 4 days of eternity; 2 days of crap weather on either side of the 2 really beautiful days. Originally the plan was to stop off along the way for some marlin fishing at the Whanganella Banks, but the weather window just wasn’t long enough for a play. We expect to arrive to North Cape around 8 p.m tonight, clearing into the port of Opua by mid-morning tomorrow. As it was in New Cal, we will be asked to rid ourselves of all meat, fresh fruit, veg, cheese, eggs, lentils, beans, nuts, and honey by the world’s strictest bio-security government department. Rightly so, NZ is determined to protect it’s amazing agricultural supply, as is well documented in a top-rated Kiwi TV reality show that features vigilant NZ custom agents politely searching airline passengers’ luggage for contraband and then subsequently arresting traffickers, usually involving illegal herbs, medicinal roots and strange Asian foods. I have Jonas and Garry on a force-feeding program at the moment, as I cannot bear to chuck away the recently purchased supplies. (If human’s could produce foie gras, the boys would be candidates for liver harvesting right about now).
While I’m sporting an injury to the bridge of my nose after the freezer lid smashed down while scavenging, ironically, for frozen peas, the trip has remained otherwise uneventful. We each take turns standing 3 hours watches on the bridge, and spend downtime trying to sleep on spin cycle. The biggest excitement of the crossing was watching Domino whiz by on the radar screen in the wee hours of the morning, 4 miles off our port side, as she was making her own passage back to NZ. We attempted radio contact on the VHF a couple of times but were never able to raise them…. Oh, right, perhaps it’s our broken aerial… And yes, an extra 10 feet of waterline and 2 extra knots per hour would be really nice about now… we might be home already, and perhaps a bit less shaken up.
Compared with the previous year in Tonga, we have spent about half as much time game fishing, primarily due to the heaps of time dedicated to improvements at the section on Aore Island. Over the past 6 months, various projects included solar-powering the residence, erecting a stone sea-wall, constructing a floating dock, and building sets of stairs to navigate the steep incline to the house. Garry and Jonas spent weeks mixing, pouring, sinking and sometimes repositioning 600 kilo concrete mooring blocks, all in an effort to provide secure holding for November Rain alongside her new floating jetty.
I’d like to believe that the 31 billfish that we have tagged and released this winter are a time-proportional ratio to last year’s number of 63, but Garry is quick to remind me of our dismal hook-up rate, with a mere 20 Blue Marlin tagged, in comparison to a gut-wrenching 48 fish dropped. (The remaining tagged fish consisted of 4 Striped Marlin, 7 Sailfish and 2 Short Billed Spearfish.) To be fair, fishing did seem a bit easier the previous year in Tonga, with the Blues more willing to commit, and hook-ups rates that didn’t appear as dependent upon the phases of the moon, the rising sign of Pisces on the cusp of Aquarius or the New York Stock Exchange Index.
Garry and I will return to Santo, Vanuatu (along with any deckhand we manage to shanghai for the season) late May 2017, for yet another winter(summer) of fishing/island exploring and home improvements. Until then, we plan on knuckling down in NZ with a few boat improvement projects, including the possibility of adding bulbous bows, replacing the worn-out galley stove, and repairing, replacing or reconditioning the well-used tackle. In-between, weather permitting, be sure to keep an eye out for us on the King Bank… we’ve heard that it’s chock-a-block with Striped Marlin.