Alvah Simon and Family 368
Too often I tell Diana that this cruise is an adventure, not a vacation. I just want to keep a fine focus on why we are out here.
We sailed north out of Luganville, heading for the remote Banks and Torres Islands of Vanuatu. Once away from Luganville, the supply lines run thin, the potential assistance from other yachts disappears, and breakdown, accident, or illness become matters of more serious concern.
One school of thought would have this as exactly the wrong time and place to take unnecessary risks. But I felt that because we are heading into poorly charted, reef strewn, desolate areas of the Pacific, now was the perfect time for a “live fire” exercise. That is, just like in boot camp, make the stakes real to test and assess our nerve, skills, and teamwork after a long period of fairly benign sailing.
As we approached the narrow pass to Peterson’s Lagoon I noted that the wind had switched to the south and strengthened. We could have opted to find shelter in the more easily entered, even if rougher, outside anchorage. But my intuition said we could make it through the reef into the calm of the inner lagoon.
That was not an obvious conclusion because the forces of nature seemed to conspire against us. First, rain squalls were racing up our stern. Next, the tide was ebbing. If we grounded there would be no chance of kedging off until well after dark. Also, the southerly made this a direct downwind approach. This would make it difficult to control our speed while still maintaining steerage. The impact of grounding would be severe and further exacerbated by being pushed up onto the shoal by increasing wind and wave.
In days past I prided myself in being “naturally literate”; that is able to read, as Shackleton described, “the text that nature renders.” In these waters color is everything. Brown can mean either a rocky but deep bottom or a dangerously shallow coral reef. It all hangs on an interpretation of shade. Deep blue is good, light blue OK, but lighter yet is certainly a sand bank. The sun should be high but slightly behind you. Once you determine that conditions are viable and enter the minefield, invariably a cloud scurries across the sun, turning the oceans surface into a monochromatic blank. Then it becomes a test of memory.
I walked back to the cockpit and said to Diana, “Look, you and I have done this together many times before. Just follow my hand signals exactly, make every turn a radical one until I straighten it out, call out the depths at regular intervals in a loud voice but calm tone.”
She is a catch, this girl. She nodded as if I was giving her directions to the nearest post office. I walked towards the bow, stood up on the high granny bars and surveyed the challenge ahead. The colors made it clear that if indeed we did make it through it would be by a matter of inches, not feet. Still, I felt calm, alert, and alive.
The reef seemed to stretch across our path entirely, but as we drifted nearer I could see that it was an optical illusion. There were actually twisting lanes of sand behind and between coral patches. I had to get closer to better judge if we could make such tight turns, but that view would put us past the point of no return. Even if we could make those turns, would there be water enough beneath us?
I would like to claim complete confidence, but in truth I slipped my arm between the mainsail and mast so I would not be pitched over the pulpit if we grounded.
I motioned for a hard port turn and headed for the picket fence.
Diana knows how important it is to keep her eyes directly on me, so that she will not miss a signal. This proved fortunate, as she did not see how closely we passed that first coral patch.
I could feel how crisply she was reacting to my hand signals, so I gave her a hard starboard followed immediately by a hard port command. This heeled the boat sharply and the keel carved neatly between two rocks.
Diana called out, “Eight Feet.” The was just enough tone in her voice to encrypt the message, “Listen up cowboy. You have precious little water between our home and these rocks. Don’t cross the border between bold and brash!”
Dead ahead, a burst of reverse, swing the bow, and the keel just missed another head.
Even as the coral thinned out, the depth sounder refused to rise. Did I get it wrong? Then Diana called out, “Eight point five…nine feet.” I started smiling.
We probed between the mainland and a series of palm-fringed islets. Then we slid into the perfectly placid waters of what is certainly Vanuatu’s most secure and perhaps most beautiful anchorage.
Never gushy with compliments, Diana simply said, “Well done.” That meant a lot to me.
After the anchor was secure, we rowed to the island’s beach to discover hidden in the trees the Oyster Island Resort. Let me just say that it defines the word entropy. In its best days the thatched resort would have been called “rustic,” and maybe even “quaint.” After 12 years in tropical Vanuatu, the French owners Jean Pierre and Anna can hardly be blamed if the infrastructure has declined a bit.
In any event, we discovered that it is best to think of Oyster Island Resort as a restaurant with some cabanas attached should you eat yourself into an epicurean stupor on the amazing food these five-star accredited chefs put on offer. How they do that way out here is beyond me.
By word of mouth from around the world, customers arrive unannounced on the mainland shore fronting Oyster Island. To alert the staff of your arrival you grab a steel bar and bang on an old dive tank. If he can get the old outboard started, the friendly Vanuatan, Marcel, will dash across the pass and ferry you to the island. If not, you have to help row the boat back over.
Cool yourself with a drink, and let Jean Pierre do the rest.
On our second day in the lagoon, I was reflecting on our entrance through that reef. It wasn’t “death defying” but I had to admit it was a bit edgy. The thought struck me that perhaps I was beginning to take this brave, steadfast nature of Diana for granted.
That night Jean Pierre helped me thank her for being the woman she is with a starter of fresh local oysters, followed by a spicy stuffed crab, fricasseed tropical vegetables, and finished with a to-die-for desert called Macoute — I can’t spell it but Diana is still raving about this Tunisian pastry stuffed with date pulp and orange rind, deep fried, then dipped in honey.
Even before the cold Chardonnay was finished, Diana sat at the hibiscus- and frangipani-decorated table and just smiled and smiled. Encrypted in that beautiful smile was a message for me — this cruise can be the adventure you so crave. But it can also have it softer moments, a bit of a vacation from the wild and wooly. Something for us both.