Vanuatu: Espiritu Santo and Aore Island

Sunday afternoon, having got ourselves anchored and settled in Luganville Bay, we headed ashore to the Beachfront Resort. We were pleasantly surprised as it didn’t look much from the anchorage and were particularly impressed that they even had a yacht information pack for us when we registered at reception. We had a couple of cold ones before heading back for an early night.

Monday morning we had a lazy start and I stayed on board while Richard headed into town for some petrol. And the rain just kept on coming through in waves. We eventually made a dash for it ashore where we were joined by Aso, Dan, Jeff, Katie and Mark for our (23rd) wedding anniversary meal and had a fun time together. Aso had been to the market during the afternoon and introduced us all to her crab friends who were facing a boiling pot of coconut milk later in the evening. We did tell her off for playing with her food LOL.

Tuesday morning and we up very early as we had organised to go diving on the SS President Coolidge. This was an ocean liner built in 1931 which served as a troopship in the second world war having been converted in 1942 and assigned to the US Navy. Many of her civilian fittings were removed or boarded over for safe keeping at this time. Guns were duly mounted and she was painted grey. She was sunk by American mines here in Espiritu Santo which was then part of the New Hebrides (two ships were lost to friendly fire as, allegedly, the authorities did not inform the captains of the newly laid minefields). When the Coolidge hit the mines Captain Henry Nelson beached the ship and evacuated the crew leaving all their personal belongings behind, with the expectation that they could undertake a salvage operation in future days.

However a coral reef was in the way and ripped through the hull of the ship and within 90 minutes the Coolidge slipped down the shelf and was completely submerged. When Vanuatu won independence in 1980 they declared that no salvage or recovery of any artifact would be allowed from the wreck of the Coolidge. Since then the ship has been used for recreational diving and it is possible to swim through numerous holds and decks. There are guns, cannons, jeeps, helmets, trucks and personal supplies still left on board.

At 8.15 am we were collected by the dive company and driven to their private site on the shoreline. We were delighted to find we were the only divers that day. We were given our (heavy steel) tanks and proceeded to kit up before having our briefing. We were going to penetrate holds 1 and 2 but no further on this first dive. So ready to go and the dive guys carried my gear into the water for me (as we had requested to avoid stressing my back). Richard had to walk in carrying all of his own gear. Our dive leader was impressively kitted out with side-by-side double tanks and he also carried a spare tank and regulators for safety reasons.

This was important to us as some of the dive operators here have a reputation for taking people into dangerous scenarios with deep penetration of the wreck to decompression depths without ensuring that the divers have the appropriate experience/skills to do such technical diving, and there have been deaths as a result.

We carried on walking out across the reef until it was time to descend. The visibility was not particularly good (because of the recent rains) and, at around 30m, the bow of the wreck came into sight……it is huge! We had a look at the variety of objects (including armaments) scattered around and our dive leader decided to shoot us with a gun and try on a gas mask for good measure. We did penetrate the wreck but not deeper than 33m. We thoroughly enjoyed it.

The safety stops were a bit longer than was strictly necessary on the ascent but again, safety first, and we are certainly not complaining. While we were hanging around in the shallower water on the ascent we hovered around a colony of clown fish who were very protective of their nursery. Have never seen such tiny Nemos!

Back ashore and, again, the guys carried my gear out of the water. They realised that I was good on air (having returned with 120 bar after 41 minutes) so they promised to provide me with a smaller tank for the next dive so that it would be more manageable for me. We were taken by minibus back to the dive operation’s resort, Coral Quays, and enjoyed a very leisurely four hour surface interval having lunch overlooking the rain forest.

Early afternoon we repacked our stuff into the trailer and took off again back up the road for our second dive on the Coolidge. This time we took a different route and penetrated slightly deeper to the medical quarters. Really good diving.

The safety stop intervals were even longer this time and to pass the time we fed the fish while sitting on the sandy bottom.

Arriving back at the surface we cleaned up all our kit and was returned to the Beachfront Resort. We made use of their fresh-water showers to clean ourselves and all our gear up and then had a few cold ones with some fellow cruisers waiting for the torrential rain to pass.

Wednesday morning and the forecast was for more settled weather and for the wind direction to be more westerly – perfect for getting to Vao Island which sits at the top of Malekula. So we weighed anchor and headed out through the western exit of the Segond Channel to get a better sailing angle once we were clear of the island. Well, as we neared the exit the wind was not coming from where it was supposed to be and the sea was building and building and we were getting nowhere into the large breaking waves taking green water over the bow. This was stupid – and at the speeds we were making – it was clear that we weren’t going to be able to make the 30-odd miles to arrive in daylight (which is necessary as Vao is surrounded by reefs and we need to eyeball our way through). So we decided to cut our losses and aborted the attempt. As we neared Luganville we realised that there was a spare mooring ball at the Aore Island Resort – somewhere we had wanted to go to – so took the opportunity of picking that up.

Disappointed not to have left Espiritu Santo but, never mind, we’ll enjoy a few days R&R here. We dinghied ashore, registered ourselves, and had a few hours chilling by the pool before having a pizza supper and retiring onboard for the night. Had been a frustrating day but this lovely interlude more than made up for it.

Thursday evening the resort was providing a show by the women from the northern island of Gaua. They are famous for their water music and dancing. So we had a productive day on board doing boat jobs and the laundry before heading ashore about 4pm. We bobbed in the pool and lazed on the beach before having showers and getting cleaned up in preparation for the show and dinner.

We had reserved a table and they had given us one right on the deck over the sea which was prime position for the show. So we settled down to watch. It was fantastic! How they make the sounds by virtually drumming the sea was just amazing, but it was difficult to get photos as they move so fast! This was then followed by a lovely candlelit dinner, all very romantic.

Friday morning and we were up very early again. We had run the weather models late the night before and there was another weather window to move south. So at 7am we slipped away from our mooring ball saying a fond farewell to the resort, and proceeded out towards the eastern exit of the Segond Channel. The wind was on our nose (as expected) and we knew it was going to be a close hauled sail once we turned towards our destination but all was looking good. Slow going but we knew we could make up time once we were under sail away from the local island effects. Anyway – we turned into the channel between two smaller islands – and the wind increased to 25 knots (forecast at 12-15) and the seas built and we were now punching into the waves hard and our boat speed suffered significantly. OK, local weather effects are often felt in close promixity to the islands and we also anticipated an increased fetch as the sea is channeled through small gaps. But the sea state deteriorated and the wind increased and it was just plain horrible. By now we recognised that we couldn’t possibly make Vao before dark (again!) so we took the decision to return once again to Luganville to await another window. The forecasts are just rubbish here and until you physically get out there it is difficult to gauge what you are going to face. Although we are very keen to move south again now it is not at any price!

So we turned around, pulled out the genoa, and had a lovely sail back towards Luganville. By now the wind had swung SE (again not forecast) and when we got back to Luganville Bay the chop started to make the anchorage very rolly. But we got our anchor down and then rerun the weather models only to find that the wind was now going to increase signficantly during the night. As we had had to run for cover from this anchorage before in those conditions it looked like we needed to move on again. We got out the binoculars and realised that our mooring at Aore Island was still available so we quickly weighed anchor and rushed over there to claim it again as it is protected by the island from the trades. Phew….19 miles….and we hadn’t been anywhere yet again. Frustrating but at least we are safe and sound and will enjoy just being here for a few more days until this latest unsettled weather system clears.

This morning, Saturday, and Richard is relaxing while I’m blogging. We’ll go ashore and visit the beach later this afternoon…. So I’ll leave you with my favourite picture of Morphie from the Aore resort.

Bye for now