It’s been a couple of months now since we arrived in Vanuatu, and I admit, I’ve been slack with keeping up my blog. I could make excuses such as that we were too busy with the fishing, but the truth is, after a couple of great seasons of fishing the islands, the novelty has worn a little thin. A bit of writer’s block had given me some difficulty on putting a fresh spin on how exciting (not) it is to catch our 235th Wahoo in a row. WAHOOOOO! had gradually been replaced with “Aw, just another bloody wahoo”. Also, being Chief Cook for a horde of ravenous crew has kept me chained to the galley, away from my keyboard.
I suppose it’s having those fresh eyes aboard in the form of our mates and crew, that keep Garry and I grounded as to just how lucky we are to be cruising around the South Pacific aboard our beautiful 56’ sport-fishing catamaran, November Rain. We had some amazing fishing experiences the past few weeks, and we have loved sharing the adventures with our unpaid crew/friends, Lisa, Aidan, Lasse, and Ryan. I’ve hit my personal best with wahoo, yellow fin and dog tooth tuna in just the last month and have enjoyed seeing our crew get excited about their own firsts.
We left New Zealand in early May, with the necessary anchor drop in Port Vila to clear customs and immigration, before motoring north to our home base on Aore Island, across the Segond Channel from the big island of Santo. Of course there was lots of good fishing along the way, and I posted a few photos of the bigger ones to give credence to our lies on the website, Squealer of Faces, (for their ability to dob their “Friends” into the authorities with facial recognition software). If any of our mug-shotted but paroled fish go on to commit additional fishing crimes, such as stealing bait, chopping up lure skirts or busting off expensive jigs, well, I’m confident that there will be a photo record of their previous activities somewhere in “The Cloud” forever more.
After 18 months away, from a distance, our little house on the hill looked just as we left it. The grounds were in immaculate shape, thanks to Leon, a local villager whom we employ to maintain it during our absence. Naively, we assumed the locked house would only need a little dusting upon our return. To my horror, it seemed as if half of the island’s creatures had decided to take up residence while we were away.
The first order of business was chasing out the squatters and their messy habits. The little cottage was a disgusting disaster, piles of mouse and gecko droppings everywhere, giant territorial huntsman spiders defending their own corners against lizards, scorpions, roaches, ants, millipedes and a lost crab. Lisa gave me a hand with the dirty job, putting aside her irrational fear of spiders until she discovered how just big tropical arachnids really are and ran screaming back to the relative safety of the boat.
Mold and mildew are naturally a problem in jungle conditions and I had expected to find some mold. I did NOT expect to find an organic mushroom farm thriving in my TV cabinet. Termites had completely eaten through the bottom of one of the kitchen drawers. The rodent-urine soaked duvet and pillows were dumped onto the rubbish fire, knowing full well that finding a replacement for a King size bed in Luganville would be impossible. Gaz trapped two mice and a small rat the first night home. I lay awake in bed for the first week, listening for the tiny pitter-patter of vermin who might be trying to challenge their eviction orders. When I complained to Garry that we had somehow opted for the world’s two most inhospitable environments as our homes; the open sea and the jungle, he dryly replied, “Yeah, you’re right, maybe we should just return to Auckland”. Nice how he knows how to shed the right perspective on the situation.
After 8 weeks, our deck hands Lisa, Aidan and Lasse have become part of our family as they settled themselves into our lives aboard the boat. (Ryan left us after a couple of weeks for his wife, family and job, traitorous bastard!) We spent the majority of our time, when the weather was promising, chasing fish around the nearby islands. We tried every style of fishing imaginable, from trolling lures and divers, to poppering, jigging and even live baiting when we could find it. When the weather turned sour, we hightailed it home to the jetty in front of our small home on Aore Island.
There, we saddled the crew with boat chores, home improvement projects, or just hanging out with us and our island neighbors. We had two major projects to accomplish in the short time they were there: construct two additional floating jetties for our boat to tie alongside to, and beef up our solar system with 4 additional roof panels.
Our immediate next door neighbor, Kiwi Bob, happens to be an expert electrician and has been helping us with our solar system expansion. When we learned that he had an old Ford Falcon Ute for sale, we snapped it up at the asking price, not even kicking the tires, inquiring about the mileage or even asking the vintage of the vehicle. Happily, we now have wheels to jostle around the island’s dirt roads, collecting fallen logs in the bush for various building projects. More importantly, we can now arrive in style at one of the endless stream potluck dinners arranged by the island’s expat community, our crew balancing precariously in lawn chairs in the bed of the truck. Fortunately, the top attainable speed on the island’s dirt roads is only about 20 mph. Should Garry swerve to avoid a wild cow milling in the road, anyone bounced out of the bed of the truck shouldn’t be hurt too badly. (Speaking of wild cows, Garry discovered a patty on our lawn recently. Seems like the beasts have been sneaking on to the property at night to graze on our Hibiscus flowers.)
The only way to get building materials and groceries that aren’t locally sourced on our little slice of paradise is by boat, utilizing one of the island’s two long-boat water taxis to cross the 1 km wide Segond Channel. Since everyone here is on island time, the wait can be ridiculously long, up to half a day. To make matters worse, the town’s shops shut down for a long lunch everyday. It can be particularly frustrating to patiently wait 3 hours for the water taxi, only to arrive in town at 11:30 am and have to wait again for the shops to re-open at 1 pm. When a 4.7 meter tinny boat with a 40 HP outboard popped for sale on the local Squealer of Faces page, we jumped at it, no questions asked, paid the asking price without flinching. Around here, the saying is “The odds are good that the goods are odd”. Again, we don’t know the age or condition of the motor. A small leak in the aluminum hull is hopefully repairable and we now have our own set of water-wheels to zip us across the channel to town. Gaz suggested the name “November Hurricane” and maybe one day, we will get around to stenciling her name on her side.
Late one morning, Aidan, Lasse and Leon grabbed the Ute and chainsaw and went out into the bush, scavenging for fallen coconut tree logs to build my new garden bed. Leon somehow managed to gash a short but deep cut over his left eye after a branch bit back at him. Lasse, our holiday-making crew member, is a fully qualified physician in his home country of Norway, and immediately diagnosed two stitches. If we had a suture kit on the boat, Lasse could have taken care of it right then and there, but since we didn’t, they had to ferry Leon across Segundo channel to Luganville, where he could then be treated at the local hospital. Unfortunately, we had just come off a full moon, the tide was dead low and November Hurricane was resting on her bottom at the high water mark. Heave-Ho, Lasse, the Nordic Giant called out the “HOs” as five of us pushed-pulled the boat down the beach, across the broken coral bottom, squashing a high and dry 4-legged starfish in the process. (Amazingly, the starfish survived unharmed after I dug him out of the rut and tossed him back into the sea.)
In town, the boys split up, Garry and Leon heading to the hospital at the top of the hill in a passing taxi, while Aidan and Lasse went shopping for the beer needed to recover from the shock of it all. At the hospital, a poster on the wall spelled out the fees for treatment, all based on the size of the patient; Big Man, Pikinini, Baby Pikinini, (Adult, Child, Infant), as well as a substantially higher fee for the wealthier expat community, “White Man”. Leon was quickly stitched up, Garry covering the “Big Man” fee of 500 Vatu, the equivalent of $6 NZ. The boys were back on the island within an hour, a record time for an emergency room visit that included a 10 minute boat ride each way.
The very next day, Garry gashed his forearm on some metal flashing while working on the new jetty. Dr. Lasse diagnosed stitches again and it was a repeat of the previous day, dragging November Hurricane down the beach on a dead low tide (Heave-Ho), racing across the channel in the little boat, and up the hill in a micro-taxi to the hospital. The hospital nurse was happy to have Dr. Lasse stitch up the wound once she found out he was a physician (no ID required), but he declined after discovering the hospital did not stock sterile gloves in Nordic Giant sizes. He did however agree to inject the local anesthetic as the clinic nurse was very busy. This time, Gaz paid the “White Man” fee of 5,000 Vatu ($62 NZ), with no discount for bringing our own doctor. I’m happy to say that we have now gone 72 hours without any more work place accidents and the crew is forbidden from any further injuries unless it is at high tide.
We spent a fair bit of time out fishing local waters and managed a week-long trip north up to the Banks group of islands. The group of islands is remote, without a lot of pressure from commercial fishing and we had some phenomenal days, as well as a few disappointments.
Highlights included a huge dog-tooth tuna, doubles on sailfish, massive yellow fin tuna, 2 blue marlin and more wahoo then we can count. Rainbow runners and Barracuda were considered nuisance by-catch and weren’t counted in our rod time rotation.
Most of the fish, barring marlin and sailfish which we released, (some even intentionally) were kept in our new fish freezer, to be donated to the villages along the way. , Sometimes we traded fish with the locals for papaya (pawpaw), grapefruit, bananas and island cabbage, whether we wanted it or not. It was important to have to pretense of fair trade between us and the villagers. I tried my hand at cooking with yam, which resembles a dirty tree root, and found it delicious and an acceptable substitute for potatoes.
At Ureparapara, a conical-shaped collapsed volcano island that looks like Pac Man on the map, we parceled out a paltry dozen fish to a town of 390 Ni-Vanuatuans. We had been here twice before a couple of years back, and the villagers remembered us, waiting in their dug out canoes to welcome us into Diver’s Bay. The villagers treated our crew to a tour of the town, as well as a kava ceremony, and later, Chief Nicolson paddled out in his canoe to personally thank us for the fish and reminisce about our previous visit.
The good will was repaid the next morning when one of the villagers paddled out for conversation and shared information with Garry about an uninhabited rock that was “good for fishing”. We made a bee line to the mark and had one of the best days ever, hooking massive wahoo, doggies and sailfish galore on plastic lures and divers. We literally would get hit moments after dropping the lines in the water. Garry hooked up to a mystery fish and was spooled in 30 seconds with his 100 pound braid pushed to sunset. The reel was so hot that he actually burned his thumb on the metal. We theorized it was probably a dog tooth tuna of monstrous proportions. Fortunately the line snapped at the fish end, not the reel end, and he spent the next 10 minutes winding in slack line. Aidan and Lasse went doubles from a triple hookup of sailfish and Lisa bagged herself a nice yellow fin. We fished hard from dawn until dark-thrity and stayed longer that we should have. I landed a 70+ Kg Doggie that took a Rapala, on light tackle, 80 lb braid and went to bed early, sunburned, exhausted but happy. Garry drove late into the evening to get us to a decent anchorage.
The following morning, we made a point to stop off at the island of Gaua and donate the previous day’s catch to Chief Willy, whom we had also knew from our previous visits. We had fond memories of the place and were excited to return. This time we donated an equally large amount of fish, but the village was small, with only 14 residents and Willy finally said, “Enough! We can’t take any more fish!” as we kept loading up canoe after canoe. (Fortunately we were unable to unload the rest of it later at the next village.) We all enjoyed a wonderful snorkel in the bay outside the village, except for Lasse, who was too sunburned from the previous day. I was very happy to see that the reef’s coral was in excellent shape, just as I had remembered it from two years ago.
On our past couple of trips, we have come across massive schools of bait, boiling on the surface with frenzied activity, schools of yellow fin tuna, crashing and thrashing the surface as they gorge themselves on tiny whitebait-sized fish. There were seabirds dive bombing into the frothing water along with sharks feeding on the surface in deep water, and we even spied a humpback whale feeding. Aidan was itching to jump in for a snorkel with a Manta Ray that was circling the back of the boat but we were still hooked up with my 70+ Kg tuna at the time and Garry forbid it. At times, we had success casting poppers at the bait, reeling is some nice school-sized yellow fin. The new tuna tower addition has really come into its own for spotting bait from long distances and Garry spends a good part of his day going up and down the death-defying ladder.
Over the past couple of years, our marlin hook-up rate in the islands has been less than stellar, running only about 30%. In an effort to improve on the odds, Garry and Lisa re-rigged all our gear, at least 40 lures. to account for different theories of how the fish hit the lures and to set the hook in the corner of the jaw. Swinging hooks, stiff rigs, double hooks, single hooks, heavy and light gauge hooks, heavy drags, light drags…we have tried multiple combinations. After much experimentation, and a lot of heart ache, I’m proud to say our rate has increased to 100%. That is, we have lost 100% of the last 7 marlin that have hit the lures in the past week. Perhaps our previous 30% rate wasn’t so bad after all! To date, we have caught and released four blue marlin in Vanuatu, one for each angler, and lost another three right alongside the boat. We’ve done pretty well on sailfish though, using light gauge hooks, swinging rigs and light drag.
Lisa, our deckie, has just left us, to spend a few days fishing with Nambas Captain Russ and his partner Laura in Port Vila before returning to New Zealand. (Laura, pictured below, crewed with us in 2015 and was responsible for putting Lisa onto us.) Nambas Charters seems to be having phenomenal luck over the past three days, going 12 from 15 blues.
All we can hope for is that Lisa plays the role of double-agent spy and reports back to us their successful rigging formula. She just might have to trade the location of our secret island with the monster doggies for that information.
Lasse has jetted off to Brazil for his next adventure while Aidan is with us for only a couple of more days, working tirelessly to help Garry finish up the jetty project before he leaves for NZ. We have invited Aidan to join us with the crossing to Cairns in September. I do believe he has the marlin bug and will be back to try to catch the big girls later this year. In the meantime, I can put down my kitchen apron until the next guests arrive and write a blog or two.