New Caledonia and Return



After an easy passage from Port Vila, during which the winds stayed conveniently in the east, we arrived in New Caledonian waters on 15 July. Though we had hoped to hit the tide right to enter Havannah Pass, we could hardly have timed it better, carrying it not only through the pass, but also well into the southern lagoon on our way to Noumea through the night. It is about 40 miles from Havannah Pass to Noumea, through a fairly complicated channel in the reef-dotted southern lagoon. However, the channel is very well marked and the charting is excellent. We caught a few hours sleep at anchor in the Baie d�Orphelinat and entered Port Moselle Marina in the morning to clear in.





Noumea is very like a provincial French city dropped down into the middle of the south Pacific. All the wonderful and awful aspects of French culture are there. Unfortunately, so are the prices. The South Pacific Franc is directly linked to the extremely strong Euro and as a result everything was very expensive, but frankly only slightly more so than in Port Vila, which we had found a good deal pricier than we had expected. However, especially with respect to food, you do get your money�s worth in Noumea!



We only stayed in Noumea for three days, as we were keen to get up to the northern lagoon. A pleasant morning�s motoring took us up to the anchorage at Ile Ndukue in the Baie de St. Vincent. It was a functional rather than beautiful stop. There are probably nicer anchorages in the Baie. On our way out the pass for our passage up the coast we passed three Aussie cruising boats, whose crews were indulging in a little surfing on the breaks next to the pass.





We had originally intended to make one or two stops along the west coast before entering the northern lagoon. However, with a brisk 25 knots of trade wind under our counter, we soon realised that we would have to slow down very considerably to be able to enter any of the various options in daylight. It was more than we could bear to give away such a wonderful passage-making opportunity, so we kept going, rationalising the missed stops on the basis that the west coast has been horribly raped by nickel mining and that the potential stops were at industrial ports.


By late morning we were entering the northern lagoon through the Passe de Koumac, still with a brisk SEly whisking us along.






The landscapes of the west coast and the northern lagoon are generally arid and stark. Unlike Vanuatu, where there are coastal villages everywhere, there are very few in New Caledonia. Two-thirds of the country�s population lives in the Noumea area and the vast majority of the rest live in the coastal mining towns. The few villages of the indigenous Melanesian population, the Kanaks, are mostly in the north and in the Loyalty Islands. These villages bear little comparison to those of Vanuatu, however, as they virtually all have modern infrastructure and services laid on by the semi-autonomous, but French-supported government. Because of the lack of lively village life it is much harder to meet local New Caledonians.


After our rapid passage, we anchored tucked into the shelter behind Ile Tanle.





The following morning we moved on at breakfast time to the appropriately named Baie du Croissant. It was a pretty spot, in fact, probably the most attractive bay anchorage we visited in the northern lagoon. Though the hills above were relatively dry there was lush vegetation near the beach and an extensive reef for exploration at low tide. We saw virtually no cruisers while in the northern lagoon, but did have two fortunate meetings with local French yachties who kept their boats in the little marina at Koumac. Philippe and his wife on �Dune� also had a baby and three dogs to keep them company � though the dogs spent a good deal of time in the water, swimming ashore to have a run. Philippe was a local fishing guide and was able to give us a number of useful tips about good local anchorages.


Two days later we made a brief stop at the village of Poum to visit the small shop and have a walk. Once again, unlike the Vanuatuan villages there was hardly anyone in evidence and those we met had nothing to say other than a polite �bonjour�.






Since the anchorage at Poum also offered only poor shelter, we moved on the few miles to Ile Neba. This was a wonderful spot. The anchorage was well sheltered from the trade winds. There were a couple of miles of beach to explore, with a huge reef exposed by the spring tides. In addition there was a kind of mini-lagoon, full of interesting marine life, from the heart-shaped corals to turtles, sea-snakes and spider conch.


We also met Jacky and Erica on �Glen II�, another French yacht based at Koumac. Jacky had visited both Ile Huon and Ile Surprise in the D�Entrecasteaux Reefs and gave us invaluable waypoints for this area, where the charting is not to the WGS 84 datum. They also gave us invaluable practice with our French, forcing us to dig through memory banks untouched for decades.








We made a brief stop at the small, but attractive Ile Yava for lunch and snorkelling, but the protection was inadequate for a night stop, so we moved on to a bay un-named on the charts, but near the Kanak village of Bwa Vodo. There were numerous small fishing boats kept on the beach here, though the village was on the other side of the peninsula.


The Iles Belep are the northern-most group of islands in the northern lagoon, and these are about as far north as most cruisers go. Having decided that there was a good weather opportunity to visit the D�Entrecasteaux Reefs, we headed to Ile Pott in the Beleps for an interim stop. The bay on the west side of the island is very well protected from the prevailing winds, but unfortunately it is mostly filled with reef, leaving a small basin for careful anchoring among a few coral heads. Ashore there are the remains of a few buildings left over from the use of the island by American coast-watching personnel during WWII.








North of Ile Pott, there is a stretch of about 50 miles of the northern lagoon within the confines of the long outer sea reefs. Though this area is not well charted, it appears to be mostly clear of dangers, apart from those which are roughly indicated on the chart. Friends had told us that they had seen no dangers passing through this area. Nevertheless, we decided to pass through in daylight, but also saw nothing alarming, with very even depths all the way to the deeper water of Grand Passage. North of this are the five atolls of the D�Entrcasteaux Reefs. Two of these have islands, Surprise and Huon. Though the former is larger and potentially more interesting, it can only be visited in calm conditions as the anchorage is exposed to the trade winds. We were heading for the mile-long grass-covered sandspit which constitutes Ile Huon. Though it was hard to slow �Sunstone� enough to make our target of arriving at the southern pass at about 0900, we did manage it and found Jackie�s waypoint to be spot-on, giving us an excellent starting point for our passage across the lagoon. With a little up-the-mast pilotage, we found a reasonably sheltered anchorage in the lee of the island.





We knew that within a couple of days the winds would strengthen, so we went straight ashore to explore this very isolated spot. It�s isolation is, of course, what makes it attractive to the thousands of sea-birds which nest there and to the turles which visit annually to lay their eggs and sometimes leave behind their shells and skeletons when they don�t make it back to the water.







The larger nesting birds were mostly masked boobies, attractive, but not very intelligent birds, which seemed quite happy to lay their eggs on any old exposed stretch of sand only just above the high water mark. There were also some brown boobies and thousands of smaller noddies, with their distinctive silver caps. The nesting season was clearly well under way and there were a number of chicks and even juveniles in evidence, even while there were other adults still in the midst of courtship dances.


As might be expected in a relatively un-visited place like this there was an amazing variety of sea shells to be found.







Despite the limitations of its size, the island gave us plenty to explore for two days, wandering from one azure-bound end of the sands to the other.


Interesting as the wildlife was, of course the primary reason for our visit was yet another opportunity for Vicky to commune with her hero, Bruni d�Entrecasteaux, who visited and charted so much of this area during his fruitless search for countryman, La Perouse. Ile Huon is named for Huon de Kermadec, the captain of one of Bruni�s two ships.






We knew that the strengthening trades would soon make the anchorage very uncomfortable, so after two days we headed off for the long beat back down to the Iles Belep. Having come up through the lagoon area during the day, we were sufficiently confident to beat back during the night � given that the only alternative was to head into open water outside the reef for a much longer and less protected passage.


We were relieved after a bouncy 150 mile beat to reach the shelter of Baie de Aue in the lee of Ile Art. A further day�s beating brought us back to the northern-most anchorage on Grand Terre behind Ile Yenghiebane, its attractive cliffs giving us a welcome lee from the day-breeze reinforced trades.





After this breezy spell of real sailing we were happy enough for several days to motor quietly through the reef-bound channels down the northeast coast, where short-tacking would have been a real trial. The well protected anchorage at Ile Pam was a pleasant stop where a local�s kind gift of fish gave us a break in our tinned food diet.








We had briefly touched base with Simon and Kitty van Hagen (RCC), aboard �Duet II� when we were in Noumea. Their plan was the reverse of ours, namely to circle New Cal counter-clockwise. As a result, we met on the northeast coast at Ile Poudioue, yet another sandspit island and yet another d�Entrecasteaux opportunity, but a sad one this time. The tiny island is the site of a monument marking the grave of Huon de Kermadec. The captain died here and was buried in the depths of night on the sands, which submerge on every tide. The reason for this strange choice of time and site was that he had no wish for his corpse to become dinner for the locals, who had distinctly cannibalistic tendencies.


Our complementary courses around New Cal gave us a chance to exchange useful information with Simon and Kitty, as well as the usual gossip and cruiser dock-talk.








From a scenic point of view, the northeast coast of GrandTerre is probably the most attractive area of New Caledonia, with wooded mountains coming right down to the shore, enlivened by occasional cascades and the bright colours of squat French churches at the villages, such as Puebo, where we anchored for the night on the way south.




Perhaps the highlight of this scenic viewing are the fantastic rock formations at Hienghene. Here it is possible to anchor in the bay off the village in the moderate shelter of these same formations. However, our cruising guide said that it was also possible to anchor in the river, once the shallow bar and winding channel were negotiated. We found our way in on the second half of the rising tide and anchored in mid-stream to our usual Bahamian moor, with one anchor up- and one down-stream.


We had hoped to do some hiking from the village or even possibly hire a car to travel a little further inland. However, the next day it poured with rain and we were disappointed with the rather touristified, but almost deserted village. In addition, we were told at the information centre that anchoring in the river was now �interdit�. We either had to move to the marina or to the outer anchorage. As the tide was already ebbing, we moved to the marina for the night, but found the depths to be no more than 1.4m at low water.


We�d had enough and headed off the next day for a brief, muchmore pleasant stop at Touho.






In 2001, we had visited Ouvea and the very beautiful Beautemps Beaupre in the Loyalty group of Islands. This time we headed for the island of Lifou, arriving in Baie de Santal after a bewildering night of confused winds and rain. Initially after our arrival, the winds were from the north, making the most sheltered spot the northern corner near the village of Easo. This is an attractive anchorage with beautifully clear water, but unfortunately the bottom is encumbered with lots of coral. We anchored for a while, long enough to watch the capering of three hump-backed whales in the bay, however, by afternoon the SEly kicked back in and we decided to move to the southern end of Baie de Santal off the white sand beaches of Drueulu village. Here we found a nice piece of sand-bottom for a quiet night at anchor. The next day we also had a pleasant walk through the attractive village, where each modern house also had a traditional �case�, thatched hut, behind it. Talking to one of the locals, he was insistent that these traditional structures were in many ways superior to modern ones during cyclone season, when their low profiles and shape made them less easily destroyed by the strong winds. Though the cliff-lined shore and reefs were attractive the snorkelling was mostly among dead or dying coral and limited fish life.






While at Lifou we decided that the tail on the burgee had finally become too much shortened by repeated repairs. For the first time we got out one of the spare tails and Tom stitched its bright red cloth to the fly with its rather faded RCC crest. Fortunately it didn�t take long for the tropical sun to make them a better match.


We spotted a brief easterly shift in the trade winds after a couple of days and decided that a night passage should get us back to Havannah Pass at just about the turn of tide shortly after dawn to take us into the southern lagoon. So it proved, though after our longish spell with fairly little company, the relatively crowded southern lagoon, with its troops of catamarans came as something of a shock.






We entered Baie de Prony and anchored in the attractive and sheltered Anse Majic. The only downside of the anchorage was its uneven, coral encumbered bottom. Fortunately, though the holding was indifferent, the shelter was so good that we were not worried. The attraction of the anchorage was partly that it gave us the chance to hike up to the lighthouse which provides the leading line for the Havannah Pass. Here we also found a group of young people carrying out whale observations and surveys, using computer-assisted technology which allowed them to locate each whale sighted very precisely and to track it for a time, observing also how it might be affected by boat traffic nearby. On the sparkling day, the view from lighthouse over the southern lagoon was wonderful, showing up the contrast between the wooded land and the reefs bounding the channel from the pass.







From Anse Majic we made our way to Port Koube on Ile Ouen. We had visited the island in 2001 and knew that it was often possible to find nautilus shells washed up on the beach here. However, this time, despite an extentsive search we came up with only a few rather broken shells, much to Vicky�s disappointment. As a compensation we had the company of several dolphins which posed very obligingly for Vicky�s camera, cavorting repeatedly under �Sunstone�s� bow.




The following day we headed back into Baie de Prony, in the hope of finding an anchorage we hadn�t visited before. After a couple of fruitless explorations of possible spots which were either too crowded or too deep or too shallow, we decided that we were better off with what we knew and headed up the higher reaches of the bay to the Carenage, which we knew to be both attractive and perfectly sheltered.


We were becoming conscious that our time in New Cal was drawing to an end and when we saw that a possible window for a passage was opening up we decided to head for Noumea.






Here, we had three meetings which reinforced our belief in cruising serendipity. Down the dock from us in Port Moselle Marina was the palatial catamaran, �Adagio�, owned by Steve and Dorothy Darden, with George and Penelope Curtis aboard, all OCC. George is the energetic editor of the OCC�s excellent website. Steve and George plied us with computer advice, while Dorothy gave us a wonderful gourmet meal.


Caroline and Stephan from the yacht �Fruity Fruits�, also OCC, and last met in Salinas, Ecuador, were also in Noumea, where they now base the boat between other cruising.


We had known that Campbell and Jen Good were in the area, on passage with their boat, �Camdeboo� from Australia to Fiji and thence back to British Columbia, where we first met them in 2003. We had thought that we would miss them. But when we decided to wait for another couple of days in Noumea, our paths re-crossed. It was great to catch up with them after six years.





On 20 August our window looked as good as it was going to get, so we took our chance. Leaving from the islands to head for NZ, we knew that we would be in for some windward work at first to get south of the trades. We said good-bye to the distinctive Amadee lighthouse and set about beating our way south. As we expected we had a slowish time of it for the first couple of days, mostly in light to moderate SElies. However, we soon got into reaching winds which pushed us more quickly on our way.



By the 25th the strong Nlies ahead of a front reached us, the reefs went in and we were darting along toward North Cape, now with several layers under our oilies rather than shorts and t-shirts.


With perfect timing, we arrived at dawn on the 28th at the quarantine dock in Auckland Harbour, cleared in and motored back to our berth at P65 in Westhaven Marina.


We had had a wonderful time. Our fears about Vanuatu had been unfounded. Despite the inevitable changes, the people were as delightful as ever. We had had some wonderful new sights and experiences as well as re-visiting previous favourites.




However, it was good to be back in what we now think of as �home�. What was more, an unseasonal but very fortunate week of perfect varnishing weather immediately after our return gave us the chance to make good the wear and damage to the varnish sustained during the cruise. What more could we ask!