Vanuatu, Port Vila to Banam Bay

From Fiji, Picton Castle had another fine passage under sail to Vanuatu. Truly sweet tradewinds. One could almost get used to this!

We anchored off Port Vila, Efate, Vanuatu after six days under sail from Suva, Fiji. As we approached the bay at dawn a big cruise ship overtook us, so we followed this ship into the anchorage – let them go in first, seemed prudent!

Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu, has a decent if deep harbour, open to the west. This is fine as long as the wind stays in the east. There were a few cruising yachts at anchor off the town, a big fancy luxury yacht and couple old fish boats too. The town climbs from the water’s edge into some low hills. Vila took some pretty hard damage in a cyclone not too many years ago.

We got cleared in after some time. We had cleared into Vanuatu so many times before we were unaware of some changes they had made to the rules and I had assumed that things were the same as before  – they had wanted us to send documents from Fiji well in advance of arrival. We were told that they had tightened the rules up so much because so many cruising yachts had simply been failing to clear in at all, or clearing in only after they had already been through the islands. Can you imagine doing this in the US or Canada? You would get some REAL trouble. The officials could not have been more understanding of my mistake for which we were sorry. Soon enough we were all cleared and sorted.

Vila is a busy place with cafés, lots of ‘Chinese stores’ all selling the same stuff (pots and pans, clothes, shoes, flip flops, bush knives, plastic toys, fabric by the bolt, hand crank sewing machines as well as powered units and so on), produce markets, religious revival meetings in the parks, handcraft markets with great baskets and wood carvings and massive and LOUD music parties at night. All night to three a.m. LOUD DANCE music. Kept us awake onboard. Sound carries over water to be sure.

We also finally got the royal yards crossed, first one took a long time, but the second went up swiftly. A nice piece of seamanship by Line, Clara and Spring, with Dustin and Sara on deck. Nice to see the yards up where they belong. Next, bend sail.

A big destination for us here in Vanuatu is Banam Bay on the island of Malekula. A village on a fine bay where about 200 people (100 of them are kids) live quite naturally in small palm thatched houses near the beach, and who have been so friendly to Picton Castle crew in the past. My hopes were for something of a repeat of this reception this time. We sailed the 100 miles towards Banam Bay overnight. Overnight passages are always a bit tiring and the more so when sailing in proximity of islands, reefs with shifting winds and currents. The crew sailed the ship off the hook, we got out to sea and braced up to the southeast winds. The crew sailed their ship capably and effectively. I wanted a midday arrival with a high sun for piloting purposes. The charts for Banam Bay are not much so I want a high sun to see coral heads – good vision to supplement my local knowledge for a safe approach. Banam Bay is a very good anchorage in tradewind conditions, with good bottom holding. After a good overnight sail we made our way around the headland and into the smooth waters of Banam Bay. About 1,000 feet off the beach found a good spot to anchor. It had been a long time since our last visit. Would it be OK? We will see.

From the ship we could see a fair amount of recent cyclone damage. Torn up trees, shredded coconut palms, some thatch roofs missing from the small houses. The bay was still and the village looked quiet. In due course a dugout with a man and a boy paddled out to us. They were welcomed aboard and offered coffee, tea and juice. It was Afung and his son John. Afung had been our first greeter many times before and it was nice to see him. He is a gentle man and a son of my esteemed friend, the late Chief Saitol. We sat on the ship’s bridge deck and caught up a little on the five years since last at Banam Bay. Shortly we had a couple more outrigger canoes with a passel of kids aboard laughing and playing. Some paddled an old log out to the ship. Soon they were swimming and playing on the ship. What joy to behold.

Then came time to go ashore and formally ask permission to visit the village. Dirk, Donald, Spring, Tammy and I went ashore to pay our respects and ask permission to visit. Most of the bay is edged with coral reefs. There is a nice sandy beach landing at the SE end of the bay. Smooth it is there. Then it’s a bit of a walk down the pretty beach on the edge of the forest (lots of nice shells and hermit crabs), then follow a path through the woods into the small village where we met with Kastom Chief Menasae, his assistant Dixon, and Elected Chief Carl and his assistant Caleb. The walk down the beach became something of a parade with maybe 20 or more small kids clustered around us along the way.

Soon we were sitting in the cool of a big shade tree near Dixon and his wife Yvonne’ house. We were warmly welcomed with handshakes and hugs all around as we were well known to each other. Not surprisingly Dixon had gotten word we had been in Port Vila so they were expecting us and had been making plans for the imminent visit. We had some small gifts for them and especially for Yvonne and Dixon’s little daughter Tammy, named for our Tammy of course some six years ago. Such a big smile on little Tammy’s face.

So – what did the chiefs plan for us?

First an informal welcome to the village and play some soccer with the kids. Then a big welcome party at night with the string band and trying the famous kava of Vanuatu. Lots of dancing by crew and villagers. More on kava later. They wanted to know if we had anything for trade. We said yes, kitchen and cooking gear and second hand clothes. So, two “trading days” were planned. John, a crew member who is a nurse, helped out at the local and threadbare clinic. Medical support is pretty thin on the ground in outer-island Vanuatu. Not lots we could do, but do what we can. We mentioned that we had schoolbook sets and school supplies like paper, pencils, rulers and the like – and asked if the teachers could come out and see what sort of material of ours they could use for the school. We have lots with much earmarked for township schools in South Africa as are most of the clothes. “Kastum Dans” traditional dancing by both the men and the women. Quite an event. Then a traditional meal in the village for almost all hands. And then a final goodbye party with string band and, of course, kava.

Kava? Well, kava is the gentlemen’s relaxing drink of choice (after beer, that is). Maybe the women drink it too, but I have not witnessed that among the villagers. It is a muddy silver grey colour and to be frank, is an “acquired” taste, not always all that acquired. What does it taste like? A bit soapy, a bit peppery, maybe a bit weird. If you do not have too much it has a relaxing effect on the body but seems to leave the mind fairly clear. A couple “shells” is about it at Banam Bay. That means two cups. Then no more. Vanuatu is the Columbia/Bolivia of kava. Kava is imbibed in Tonga, Samoa and Fiji. Used to be taken in eastern Polynesia as well but that seems to be done now. Vanuatu kava is to Tonga/Fiji kava what over-proof tequila is to lite beer, or a wine spritzer. BIG difference. Made from the roots of a pepper plant, it is cut and chopped up into small pieces and the pounded in mortar and pestle and mixed with some water. Quite a bit of work is making kava. Remember; two shells only. It is drunk with some ceremony, usually two people at a time and you do not sip it but quaff in one go, with some self control needed to curtail the gag reflex. Some people actually like it.

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