The Underwater Volcano Was A Bust

It’s noon Saturday local time, and Sophie left Gizo 21 hours ago. We have covered 132 nautical miles during that time. Current position is 07.00.816 South, 154.54.437 East. All of this distance has been covered while running on just one of the engines at a time @ 2200 RPM. We seem to have a bit of a current pushing us and are averaging above 6 knots. Our fuel consumption is low, and the ride is quite comfortable. There is no wind to speak of.

Our planned highlight for yesterday was trolling directly over an underwater volcano. The water around here is quite deep, but we were told of an underwater volcano that is on the charts 26 miles north of Liapari. It’s summit is just 100 feet below the surface, and it spews warm water that makes the local fish go crazy. Our goal was to troll directly over it and land a nice yellowfin. Unfortunately, since we cleared out of Gizo at 3:00 PM, it was 8:30 and after dark by the time we reached the volcano, so we trolled over its alleged location in the dark. Leo and Hazel stayed up for the event, there was lightning flashing in the distance, and we had no idea what to expect. Would we see a red glow beneath us? Plumes of steam? What if there had been a recent magma buildup and the summit was just 5 feet beneath the surface instead of 100? What if we caught a mako shark in the dark?

So what happened? Nothing. Charts here are a little off, and we never saw the volcano on the depth sounder. We must have just missed it it. No disturbance on the surface. No magma. No fish.

But it was nice to hang out after dark up top with Leo and Hazel, listening to them read to each other in the early moonlight. And Lauren had just made a curry with coconut crab and mahi mahi that was spectacular. So we are not complaining.

This morning was dark and squally, and the wind was too variable to keep a sail up for any length of time. Jenna directed the kiddies in Sophie school, I installed a new bilge pump and float switch, and also did some water maker maintenance. Lauren drove the boat while scrubbing bird poop off the deck in the rain. (She’s a rock star.) In other words, another normal passage day.

Our last few days in Liapari were quite relaxing. We got to know Noel and Rose, the couple who run the little shipyard there. The two cats from Africa were there as well. We even all hung out for an impromptu Halloween party on Thursday night.
Our highlight for today will be when we pass over an area on the chart labeled “Planet Deep”, which apparently has 25,859 feet between Sophie’s keel and the ocean floor. Unfortunately we won’t get there until after dark and I will be a little reluctant at that time to hop into the water for a quick dip once the sun is down. Sharks, you know. But I will definitely toss something (organic) into the water.

The adventures continue.


It’s Tuesday here, and Sophie finally left Gizo this morning and motored the 14 miles north to the boatyard island of Liapari, where we are currently stern-tied to a dock.

It took me until 1:30 yesterday afternoon to finish up all of the government paperwork required to check into this country, and by the time I was done we think the outside temperature was touching 100 degrees F with very high humidity. Much of that time was spent waiting in line at banks to get cash to pay the government and to buy diesel. By the time I finished up all of the government work and shoreside errands on Monday, it was too late to head up to Liapari. So the rest of the crew joined me on shore for lunch, and then Jenna and Lauren hit the market while the kids and I hit returned to the boat and hit the air conditioner button on Sophie’s electrical panel. We ran the AC for over 4 hours and then slept soundly through the night.

There were 5 other catamarans anchored in Gizo when we arrived on Saturday morning, and all of them are eventually heading up to Kavieng, Papua New Guinea. That is where we are planning to go on Friday so we seem to be on a popular route right now. We’ve been told that only 50 cruising boats visit the Solomon Islands every year, so over 10% of them are here right now. We definitely feel like we have left the popular “coconut milk run” cruising route between the Americas and Australia/New Zealand.

And that case of beer I bought Saturday morning? It seemed to go away very quickly and I had to go into town to buy 2 more cases to last us through this week. We were tired and thirsty and hot.

A Hans Christian cutter arrived in Gizo Saturday evening, and they had just sailed south from Kavieng. They said the town was lovely but that their passage was awful. All of those strong southeast breezes that gently pushed Sophie up from Vanuatu smashed into the nose of this poor boat as it headed 480 miles into the wind to get to Gizo. Timing is everything when it comes to cruising.

We met the couples sailing three of our neighborhood cats over the weekend. Roland and Micky are South Africans on a Fontaine Pajot that they have been cruising since they took delivery of the boat from the factory in France in 2008. They rounded South America to reach the Pacific. We spent a couple of meals with them talking about how to cruise to South Africa. Their recommended route, which was one we were considering, was to head across the Indian Ocean from Thailand to Sri Lanka to India to the Maldives to the Seychelles, then turn south to the northwest coast of Madagascar and then Mozambique and then hop the coast of South Africa around to the Atlantic. They were especially keen on Madagascar and Mozambique, which they described as lovely, safe, and full of friendly people. And what about the dreaded Argulas current, which cruising websites describe as a place that produces steep 20 meter waves that smash your boat into waiting schools of great white sharks? “South Africans love the Argulas current … it pushes your boat south at 4 knots!” said Micky as Hazel lay her head on her lap. “You just need to make sure you don’t get too deep into it so you can get out when you need to.” They also described how we can go about going on safaris while visiting their country.

We’ve made new friends, and they could very well be crossing the Indian Ocean when we are doing so.

Another highlight of the weekend was buying stone carvings from dugout canoes that paddled up to the boat. Most were carved from river stone similar to the stone used for carvings in New Zealand. Jenna and Lauren bought about 10 pieces between them, including carvings of the local fishing god (body of a man, head of a bird, tuna in his hand) and carved wall hangings of “Gasere”, the local worship octopus that grabs your enemies to prevent them from harming you.

Our Gaseres must have worked, because we went into shore on Saturday and Sunday nights for dinner at waterfront restaurants and we were not bothered by the local gangsta boys on either night. Plates of local lobster ranged between $8-$10 at each restaurant, and they were delicious. We did, however, lock the boat up tight each night and slept soundly in the heat.

There was no rain on Sunday, and we were able to get 8 loads of laundry done, dried, folded, and put away. The local heat seems to dry wet clothing very quickly.

Yesterday while I was dealing with the government, Jenna was back on Sophie supervising the loading of 600 liters of diesel onto the boat. It was delivered in 200 liter drums on a long boat and then hand pumped into our tanks. During this procedure, Jenna’s sunscreen must have sweated off, because yesterday was the first day in our entire 2 year trip where she got a sunburn. I thought she was impervious to that sort of thing, but she simply takes really good care of her skin and the Solomons climate got the better of her.

Liapari is very hot and humid. Spirit of Africa is docked next to us, and they will be leaving their boat here for the cyclone season while they go back to Africa. Our friends on Per Ardua were here 8 days ago before they left for Kavieng, and we hope to catch up with them there. It would be nice for the kids to once again have some playmates their own age.

Finally, the manager of the shipyard here, a man from the Solomons, asked me where we were from. I told him. He then said “when someone from a yacht says they are from Australia, we say ‘Welcome to the Solomons.’ When someone from a yacht says they are from England, we say ‘Welcome to the Solomons.’ But when someone from a yacht says they are from America, we say “WELCOME TO THE SOLOMONS MY FRIEND. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU” as he dropped to his knees and spread his arms wide, a big smile on his face.

We are feeling very welcome, indeed.

Stuck in Gizo

Hello everyone. Sophie dropped anchor in Gizo, Solomon Islands at 8:15 local time this morning. We have good news, bad news, and good news in regard to this.

The good news is that we safely completed another long passage. Sophie traveled around 740 miles in 5 days, almost all of it straight downwind. Our current position is 08.05.840 South, 167.35.521 East, which is the farthest north we’ve been since we arrived in the Marquesas on my brother Richy’s birthday in March of 2013. Nothing broke during the trip, we caught some fish, and at one point crossed over the South Solomons Trench, which is 23,000 feet deep. Everyone on Sophie is happy and a little tired.

The bad news? It’s Saturday here, and the folks from Customs, Immigration, Quarantine, and Health are all gone for the weekend. Legally we need to stay on the boat under a yellow quarantine flag until Monday when they are all back in the office. We had pushed to get here on a Saturday morning because we had hoped that government offices here were open on Saturday mornings like they are in Vanuatu. No such luck. I went into town when we arrived and was directed to the local police station, where an officer named Hilton took me under his wing and walked me down the street to the customs office. Hilton was wearing an Australian bush hat and a sleeveless cowboy shirt. He had the deep, gentle voice of an English butler, and his teeth and gums were stained bright red from chewing the local leaf. After he tried the door to the Customs Office, he turned to me and politely said that we really needed to stay on the boat until Monday. I asked him if it was safe in the harbor for us to do so, and he apologized and said that unfortunately there are some bad boys in town and that if we stayed on the boat and kept it locked we’d be fine. This wasn’t a surprise to us, but I was bummed that we were not able to head directly to the marina at Lamieng.

The other good news? Hilton also said that if we needed anything from a shop this weekend, it was OK for us to come into town to get what we needed. That was nice to know. Every store on the main drag of Gizo had a sign for something called “SolBrew”, the local beer, so I went into a bottle shop and asked how much did a cold bottle of beer cost. The response? “$1”. I asked how much was a case of 24 bottles. “$24” was the answer. I smiled and bought a case on the spot.

Throughout the last 18 months, the price of local beer has ranged from $3 to $8 per bottle, depending on the country. SolBrew is far and away the most inexpensive local beer we’ve encountered on the entire trip. Once we got the case back on board we realized that it tasted like a real German lager! Jenna’s verdict? “This is some of the best beer we’ve had!” Also, we are anchored off of something called the Gizo Yacht Club, which is also called the “PT 109 Bar and Grill” (JFK served here in WWII.) I spoke with the owner when I first arrived on shore, and he apologized that they do not yet have the capability to prearrange yacht clearance into the country. He had just bought the place and was trying to get it back on its feet. He also insisted that we all come in for dinner tonight, he would deal with any issues that arose from customs, and that Sophie would be perfectly safe while we were gone as long as we locked it. We are anchored 150 meters from his bar, and we are very much looking forward to a local meal on shore.

But first? Long naps. And school. And some laundry.

Have I mentioned how lucky we are?

Vanuatu to Solomons, Day 4

Sophie’s current location is 09.34.435 South, 158.39.830 East. We sailed 149 miles in the last 24 hours, and have just 140 miles to go before we drop the anchor in front of the government wharf in Gizo, presumably tomorrow morning. We turned a motor on earlier today to make sure that we have a good chance of doing so first thing. Once we clear customs and immigration in Gizo, we plan to travel another 14 miles to the harbor in Lipari, where there is a small community built around a local boatyard. We are looking forward to hanging out there for a few days before starting out on our leg to Kavieng, Papua New Guinea. That city is 490 miles north of Lipari.

Sophie has sailed 580 miles in the last 100 hours, and all of that has been straight downwind. This has been our longest stretch of straight downwind sailing ever. We’ve had the motor on for 8 hours during that period of time and had the chute up twice. We will definitely adopt a double headsail downwind approach before we cross the Indian Ocean, because I think it will add another 20-50 miles per day to our performance at this wind angle. It also gives us another project to work on over the next year.

There is not much else to report. Everyone has developed their sea legs and is sleeping soundly through the night. We finally caught our fish, a 20 pound mahi mahi with the pole and a very small lure. The fish fought very hard and jumped 10 times before we landed her on the boat. She provided five meals for the freezer plus some meat in the fridge that I assume we will eat tonight. Last night Lauren produced a roasting pan full of pumpkin, honey, chicken, cabbage, and other really good stuff. She is spoiling us with her work in the galley.

The weather remains hot and very humid. We continue to sail through rain squalls and struggle to keep the cabin cool. Jenna just rigged some lines across our foredeck to prevent the jib sheets from catching underneath our forward salon hatches. They seem to be helping.

I do the late night watch and was able to experience a spectacular sunrise over Guadalcanal this morning. The island is 80 miles long, with a ridge of mountains running down its spine. Low, puffy cumulus clouds blocked a direct view of the sun and bathed the entire eastern sky in golden light. I wanted to stop the boat just to watch. In ten years I will probably forget most of the day-to-day details of this trip, but my Guadalcanal sunrise today is something I will keep with me forever.

Vanuatu to Solomons, Day 3

Well, when you trade off speed in favor of safety, the boat does indeed go slower.

Sophie sailed 125 miles in the last 24 hours, averaging a hair over 5 knots. Current position is 10.44.121 South, 160.53.153 East. Our destination of Gizo is 287 miles away. Guadalcanal Island is is only 50 miles to the northeast, but unfortunately we are skipping a visit this trip due to some local unpleasantness. We hope to see it later today, assuming the squall clouds clear at some point. It’s been a rainy morning, and we are all gathered in the main salon right now. Jenna is leading the kiddies in Sophie School, Lauren is making up a big old pot of chili for lunch, and I am hanging out.

The boat is sailing at 5-6 knots right now, heading straight downwind with 20+ knots of true wind at our backs. I really want that second jib! We had light air through yesterday afternoon and all of last night. The chute came down at 3:00 PM because we were only sailing at 5 knots with it up and there were squalls all around us. We then actually turned a motor on and ran it at 1900 RPMs for a few hours, mainly to keep the trolling lures moving through the water. At sundown we turned the motor off and enjoyed a very quiet 5 knot night.

After the big fish broke our 80 pound test line on the pole yesterday, we decided to switch to just using hand lines. Our last 2 hits on the pole were from a billfish that we saw and a pelagic big fellow that we felt. We didn’t want to lose any more gear. That decision turned out to be a mistake. Just as we were taking the spinnaker down, we saw that we had motored into a churning bait ball. The fish were a bright turquoise and may have been small tuna. We circled the bait ball a couple of times, and it kept disappearing and then reappearing right in front of us. Earlier I had replaced the pole with a new hand line with 150 meters of 30 pound test. Of course that is the line that a fish hit, and I got it to within 20 feet of the boat but it dove under the rudder and the line easily broke. It would have been nice to have had it on a pole so I could have kept it from going under the boat.

We spent the afternoon with 5 lines in, including a very small lure trolling off the pole way behind the other lines. We saw a few more baitballs that afternoon, but no more hits.

We’ll catch one today.

There’s not much else to report. We had leftovers, kumara mash, and sausages for dinner. Chicken is on the menu for tonight. We have used very little fuel on this passage so far, and if we continue at this speed under just the jib we should be able to hit Gizo by Saturday.

Vanuatu to Solomons, Day 2

The sun has come out, and the spinnaker is up. And long ago somebody left with the cup…

Sophie’s noon position is 11.40.439 S 162.46.667E, meaning we have covered 156 miles in the last 24 hours. Our destination of Gizo is only 412 miles away, and the first of the Solomon Islands, Santa Catalina, is just 50 miles to our north. We hope to catch a glimpse of it before sunset. Sophie is ambling along at 6.5 knots straight downwind on our rhumb line course of 284 magnetic with a comfortable motion in relatively calm seas.

We’ve had an uneventful 24 hours. We sailed with just the jib up through sunrise today, and then I tried to sail with the mainsail as well but we couldn’t get a good sailing angle so we went back to the sailing with just the jib. I did succeed in waking everyone up, though. 2 hours later a squall line came through and Sophie hit 10 knots of boat speed as the winds gusted up to 30 knots. This lasted through late morning. After the squalls passed, the wind died down to 15 knots and we decided to break out the chute. It’s the first time we’ve had the spinnaker up in a long time. It feels nice to be on a gentle boat after 2 days of rock and roll, breaking surf.

The current temperature is 90 degrees F inside our shaded salon. It will continue to get warmer with every mile north we sail. Jenna, Lauren, and Hazel are all taking naps right now. My life vest is beginning to feel a little warm and uncomfortable in the heat. I will stay up top watching the chute until we take it down at sunset. We plan to do so even if it means we will be going slower with just the jib up overnight. We don’t want to get caught with the big sail up in a squall in the dark, even if we sacrifice some miles to do so.

Our weather forecast is for the wind to slowly die down to nothing over the next 72 hours, which means at some point we will likely turn on an engine or two. But we are glad that we left when we did in order to take advantage of the trade winds.

In terms of fishing, we’ve had four lines in over the last 24 hours and caught a very small mahi mahi that we released. We are increasingly running into groups of birds working the water, which we didn’t really see in Vanuatu. This is a good sign and we’re still hopeful we’ll get that tuna. Unfortunately there are also some white birds that like to dive at our lures, which is somewhat annoying. Fortunately they chicken out at the last second. We do not want to catch bird.

Dinner last night was grilled Ono accompanied by the lasagne that Lauren made and some green beans. After owning a little panini press on Sophie for the last 4 years, it suddenly dawned on us that we can use it to grill fish and meat in addition to sandwiches and toast. We used it for the fish last night. It took 2 minutes to cook and produced a very tasty meal.

Leo and Hazel are once again proving that they are excellent children on passages. They seem to fight with each other less when we are at sea and have been doing a good job at their schoolwork despite the rolling motion. Leo is now taking afternoon watches and is learning how to navigate. Hazel is learning to cut down on her gymnastics when the boat is getting rocked by waves.

Solomons to Gizo will be Sophie’s longest offshore passage until we begin to cross the Indian Ocean for South Africa in a little over a year. I am beginning to feel sad that this passage will soon come to an end. I like sailing offshore.

POSTCRIPT: As I was giving this a final proofread, the pole exploded with a hit. I ran out and saw us passing a big bait ball boiling on the surface with 50 birds attacking from above. Something big was on the lure, and it swam straight down and away from the boat. Almost all of the line ran off the reel, but we couldn’t slow the boat down below 6 knots with the big chute up. I pointed the pole at the fish and the line broke at the lure. We think it was a big tuna or a shark. Never jumped. There are more out there. Our blood is up!

Vanuatu to Solomons, Day 1

Sophie is rolling along on a straight downwind run on our first day of this passage. Current position is 12.51.229 South, 165.08.442 East. We’ve covered 149 miles in the last 24 hours. We tacked downwind in the middle of the night, so we’ve actually sailed a longer distance than the 149 miles since we left. We have 567 miles between us and Gizo. Right now we are sailing close to the rhumb line and are hopeful we will make our arrival by the end of the week.

The wind has been blowing between 20 and 30 knots since we left, and it is a little frustrating for us to be sailing at a speed between 6 and 7 knots. But straight downwind sailing can be a problem for catamarans like Sophie, because our mainsail becomes ineffective at this wind angle. If we were heading in a direction 40 degrees more to the south or to the north, we’d be cruising along at 9-10 knots with our full mainsail up. Right now the mainsail is down and we’ve been sailing with just our jib for the last 20 hours. There is too much wind for our spinnaker or code zero, which are large, light air sails that do well at this wind angle. And we are making just enough speed heading directly toward our destination that we don’t feel like putting up the main and tacking downwind.

We’ve never had a good solution for sailing straight downwind in winds over 20 knots, but we think we may have finally found one. We’ve re-rigged our jib, running the sheet to a block on the midship cleat on the inside of the lifeline, then back to the spinnaker block and then up to the winch. This wider sheeting angle prevents the sail from collapsing when sailing straight downwind. There is also no chafe on the shrouds or the lifelines. I now think we want to buy an identically-sized jib and sail it from our little bowsprit with the same sheeting angle on the other size of the boat for these downwind scenarios. I think the width of the sheeting angles will keep both sails filled on a downwind run and would likely increase our boat speed up to 8-9 knots at this wind direction, adding an additional 50 miles a day on our downwind passages. The second sail could also serve as a backup to our primary jib. I wouldn’t bother using a furler and simply fly it from the sprit using the spinnaker halyard.

The only other excitement on our trip so far? We hooked another billfish yesterday. It was either a sailfish or a smallish marlin. It hit the Riebling lure trolling off the pole and jumped 4 times within 100 meters of the boat. It had a dark top and yellow belly and initially started swimming towards Sophie after getting hooked. We were all pretty tired and Sophie is full of food, so we quickly decided to cut the line and let Miss Marlin go. Maybe sportfishing for marlin is simply not as exciting for us as it used to be. We are all interested in getting some yellowfin tuna, though. THAT would be exciting.

Overall the boat is working well. Nothing is broken. Jenna has the kids in Sophie school. Before we left, Lauren made pumpkin curry, pork/pumpkin/alfredo lasagne, and pasta with an eggplant red sauce. She also cut up half of our fruit and put it into containers for the fridge. We are not going hungry.

So far, so good. 4 lines are in the water and it’s getting sunnier. Sure beats work.

Santa Maria

We have finally started the process of leaving Vanuatu and are currently anchored on the top of Santa Maria Island. 14.12.775 S 167.27.704 E.

We sailed here yesterday, covering the 75 miles from Oyster Island in Santo in under 10 hours. It was a bright and sunny sail, with 20 knot winds from the east slightly ahead of the beam. We sailed most of the distance with a single reef in the main and a full jib. The beam seas were a little uncomfortable for the folks below in the main salon, so the bowls were out and the movies were on.

While we were underway, a large fish snapped one of our meat line snubber/shock absorbers in half, leaving just a small length of nylon rope attached to a stern cleat. The length of black rubber tubing was completely gone, along with 10 meters of 400 lb line and a very nice squid lure. None of us saw the hit, but I assume it was a marlin or some other large pelagic predator. We’ve caught 50 pound fish on those babies and they worked fine. Now one is gone. The hit must have been quite a sight.

When we came into the lee of Santa Maria Island, the wind died so we turned on the motors. After 30 minutes the starboard Yanmar overheated, so we immediately shut it off. I am pretty sure it’s the first time that has ever happened. We motored the rest of the way into the anchorage using the port engine, and turned the starboard engine back on to help set the anchor. Raw water was coming out of the exhaust, which is a good thing because it meant that the impeller for the raw water cooling pump was still working. Marine diesel engines cool themselves with seawater that is pumped through a heat exchanger, which in turn cools a fresh water/radiator fluid mixture that circulates through the engine. I’ll take a look at it later this morning. I am hopeful that there was a temporary blockage in the sea water system or that the coolant level was low. Good thing we have 2 engines!

Prior to going to Oyster Island, we spent 4 nights in Santo Harbor hanging out with Arctarus II and Flour Girl in front of the Beach Front resort. There were 5 kids between the ages of 6 and 11 across the 3 boats, and it was good for Leo and Hazel to play with other kids. We did Steak Night at the resort one night, sundowners on Flour Girl another night, and a birthday party for 9 year old Khan from Arctarus on Thursday. The weather that week was rainy, the anchorage was rolly, and the water in the harbor was too muddy for swimming. But Jenna and I enjoyed the company of the other adults, and the kids enjoyed the resort’s small pool. The $3 happy hour draft Tuskers didn’t hurt, either.

We couldn’t leave Santo until a package for Jenna arrived from New Zealand. We were starting to get a little nervous about whether or when it was going to show up, but thankfully we got the phone call from the post office on Friday morning and were soon on our way 10 miles around the corner to the Oyster Island resort. That place was beautiful and protected with a lovely beach and a restaurant on the water. It’s also for sale, and we spent a couple of hours discussing what we would have to do to increase traffic there if we owned it. Nice place.

From Santa Maria today we will sail another 18 miles north to Waterfall Bay on the Island of Vanua Lava. We’ll get our passports stamped by the island’s policeman/immigration officer on Sola Bay on Monday morning and then start sailing northeast. We’ll make a final stop at either Norbarbar or the Torres Islands, and then we will begin our 680 mile passage to Gizo in the Solomon Islands. The heading from here is 288 degrees magnetic, and if the southeast trade winds continue we will have a comfortable downwind run. Lauren is still with us, and it will be nice to do a passage with 3 adults standing watches at night.

We met a young couple in Santo this week who had just lived in the Solomons for 3 years. They said Gizo was lovely, and that the mayor there was from a German family that had lived there for 3 generations. The family sailing on Per Ardua arrived there 4 days ago, but my assumption is that they will be on the way to Kavieng by the time we get there in a week. I assume we will catch up to them in Kavieng.

The boat is full of food and we are enjoying the transition into adventure mode after over a month here in Vanuatu. Please wish us fair winds with no storms over the next week!

Millenium Cave

We are still in Santo but have moved across the harbor and are now anchored in front of the Beach Front Resort, and we’ve been hanging out here for the last couple of days. Our weather pattern remains consistent: sunny humid mornings that give just enough of a sense of hope that you think you can get a load of laundry outside to dry, followed by an afternoon of torrential tropical downpours, thunder, and lightning. It’s actually quite delightful, and we are enjoying ourselves very much.

It was sunny enough two mornings ago that we were able to move the boat across the harbor, change the oil in the Yanmars, and get our last load of laundry finally dry (third time was the charm) before the day’s deluge began. We spent the afternoon in Sophie school and doing inside projects, marveling at how much rain can actually fall from the sky at one time. Since our itinerary involves traveling up next to the equator during monsoon season over the next year, we know that this weather pattern will be with us for a while.

Afterwards, we took a cab into town, walked around a bit, then ate dinner at a steak restaurant called “Deco Stop” (a dive term) located on a mountain overlooking the harbor. We very much enjoyed the view from up high.

When we returned to the Beach Front, we saw the Philippines National Rugby Team in uniform walking into the restaurant for dinner. They were in town to play the Vanuatu National Rugby team the next day, and for Santo this was a big deal because it was the first time there was a friendly for the national team that was played outside of Port Vila, the country’s capital. The Filipinos, as rugby players, looked much smaller than rugby players from New Zealand and Polynesia. Their team’s main sponsor was Philippine Airlines, and the airline’s logo was on the from of their jerseys. When I was in college, I lived in the Philippines for 6 months, and the airline’s logo back then was PAL, adorning the tailfin of their planes. The locals used to joke that PAL stood for “Plane Always Late.”

We spent yesterday on a daylong expedition to a local attraction called “Millenium Caves”, and it turned out to be one of our best adventures since we left Seattle 2 years ago. And that is pretty special praise, because we have had an adventure or 2 during our trip. We shared the tour with our friends from Morrigan, and we weren’t even sure that the trip was on until 7:15 AM. It gets cancelled when the area gets heavy rains, and as you know it’s been raining a lot around here lately.

But the journey was on, and there were 8 of us that piled into a diesel Hyundai 4×4 van at 8:00 AM for the 45 minute bouncy drive through the jungle to the start of the tour. The trip involved several stages: the van ride to the village; a 90 minutes trek through the jungle to the cave site; a 30 minute scramble through the cave in a stream in the dark with flashlights; a break for lunch, a 30 minute canyon scramble over boulders after the cave; a 30 minute swim/float through waterfalls along the river; then a 15 minute climb up ladders and cliffs back to the village and the Hyundai for the trip home.

The cave tour is owned and operated by the local small village, and they have been working very hard to turn it into a destination for foreign tourists. Our group had 5 guides including the local chief and his son. They wore uniforms, had lifejackets and waterproof flashlights for each person in the party, and even assigned dedicated guides for Leo and Hazel. They needed them, because the initial jungle trek was pretty rough going, with the party going up and down jungle ravines using ladders and wooden stairways cut from small logs. The trail was brand new. In fact, we were stunned to learn that the village had constructed it earlier in the week because the original trail had washed away in the rain. This trail was probably 2 kilometers long and had 40 ladders and stairways cut into the hillsides, and 15 men had constructed it in the rain over a 48 hour period earlier in the week. We were all amazed, because with every turn in the trail there seemed to be another brand new 50 foot long ladder or stairway.

We stopped in a clearing right before the final descent to the caves to get our faces painted. The locals believe that people entering the caves for the first time needed to have designs – bat, bird, stone, fountain – painted on their faces to show respect to the cave spirits, so we all had clay fingered onto our foreheads, noses, and cheeks before the final 100 foot ladder climb down to the river that flowed into the cave.

We all had to dive into a pool and swim to the mouth of the cave, then scramble 400 meters over boulders and through little waterfalls in the dark. The cave ceilings towered 50 to 150 feet above us, and swallows and bats flew through the air. Leo and Hazel’s guides each had an iron grip on their hands, but Hazel kept trying to break free so she could scoot down the little waterfalls by herself. The water was warm and had a decent rate of flow, and the whole experience wasn’t very scary (except for when I wondered what would happen to the cave river if there was a sudden deluge in the ravine above us, but I tried to keep that thought out of my mind.)

When we finally emerged from the cave, it had indeed started raining. Some women from the village had carried our day packs down to the little rocky beach where we stopped for a quick lunch. As the rain strengthened, the guides urged us to eat quickly and get moving. Once we were back underway, we understood why. It was now dumping rain, and our gentle river had turned into white water rapids. We scrambled along its banks, using metal handles hammered into the boulders at key locations. You could tell the guides were nervous about us, especially when they deployed their climbing ropes and carabiners to assist us in crossing water chutes and at one point the entire river.

We finally got past the whitewater and reached a stretch of river that flowed quietly past 100 foot cliffs on either side, punctuated by towering waterfalls every couple of minutes. The guides tied ropes to Leo and Hazel, and then asked everyone to jump in and float down the river. It was still dumping rain, and we floated in the river for 20 minutes. We were as wet as could be, and the whole experience was epic.

The float finally came to the end, and we then climbed up out of the canyon on large ladders and cliffs with steps carved into them and ropes to pull on. The guides continued with their iron grips with Leo and Hazel, and the rest of us proceeded quite cautiously. We finally made it back to the village where they served us coffee and fruit. Hazel used her tooth fairy money to buy a blue and yellow (with green streaks) tie died pareo.

We finally made it back to the diesel Hyundai, and the drive back to town seemed much quicker than the drive out. It was too late for us to make it to the rugby game, so after a long and luxurious shower stop back at Sophie we returned to the Beach Front for pizza, beer, and the hope of seeing the Philippines Rugby team partying after their match. Unfortunately they never showed up, but a Vanuatu player on crutches met his family there for dinner. The poor guy had broken his leg during the game.

It was the only sad note for what was otherwise one of the best days we’ve had on our trip. We are incredible lucky to be doing this.