Leg 15 - Part Two - Over the top of PNG to Ambon

August 8, 2018

After a crew safety orientation we got underway to Rabaul in Papua New Guinea. It is a relatively short passage of 385 NM to the island of New Britain on which Rabaul is located. The first night of the passage was calm and uneventful. We passed close by the Treasury Island group, silhouetted against a starry sky, during my watch. A large container ship, called Danny Boy, also headed to Papua New Guinea, slowly overtook us during the night. 


 Approaching Rabaul, the gaping steaming mouth of the most recently erupted volcano, Mt. Tarvurvur, looks over the harbor. We arrived in the anchorage on Saturday morning around 9am and contacted the officials on the VHF radio. We were flying our Q Flag and the small PNG flag that Molly and I had hand-stitched and painted on the way. They told us to stay aboard and that they would come to us. After an all hands clean-up to be ready for them to board, we waited and waited and waited. They never came. At 4 o’clock we gave up and all went into the yacht club for a beer.


We had anchored just off of the club so had a place to put the dinghy and some sense of security. Areas of PNG are known to have problems with theft and boardings of boats at night. The Yacht Club was a fairly low key joint – only 4 boats and I think only 2 of them were seaworthy. They did have very cold beer and the Soccer World Cup was on. Everyone was pleasant and we received a good bit of information about the town.

In 1994, an eruption of Mt. Tarvurvur covered half of Rabaul in three feet of ash. Many buildings collapsed. Fortunately, the yacht club was rebuilt as it was the center of activity for us while we were there. The Rabaul Hotel was also recovered and is still hosting guests.


We were also told by the folks at the Yacht Club not to even bother trying to clear in on Sunday as no offices are open or officials available to do our clearance. Sunday morning, we had crepes. Most of the crew wanted to go and climb the active volcano. Richard and I had to go to town to buy food for passage to Indonesia. The seven crew went off after crepes in search of a guide at the Rabaul Hotel. They found Raymond who said he would take them by truck to the start of the track where they could climb up and look over the edge down into the crater. In Vanuatu, a few years ago, we sat on the edge of a gurgling and spewing fiery volcano at night. It couldn’t have been more dangerous than that, right?


Meanwhile, Richard and I had an urban adventure riding into town in a local minibus that was crammed full of passengers. Our bus rambled down dirt roads through the old ash covered town until it reached an area with the market and a few grocery stores. The market was going but with just about a third of the stalls open. It took a while to find what we wanted – some fairly rustic lettuce, bananas, pineapples, cucumbers, peppers. I found cabbages! Who would ever think you could get so excited about cabbages but I tell you they are a sailor’s best friend in the galley. I call it “cruiser’s lettuce”.


Several of the tables had baskets of eggs on them. Upon closer inspection, the eggs were humongous! They were about 3 inches long and very narrow. I had to ask. They were Megapode eggs from a type of bird that lays its eggs buried deep in warm, volcanic ash. The eggs incubate for a longer than usual time in the ash and the chicks hatch fully developed and ready to fly. I’m sorry I didn’t get to see any of the birds. This is the third place we have been with Megapodes. I am glad we got to see the eggs though.


I love the markets and all the people selling and buying produce. It is the heart of a town. Perhaps it is also why I like the farmers market at home so much. In PNG, Betel Nut is also an obvious vice – all the red mouths and teeth being a giveaway. I was intrigued by the man-purses made out of woven palms – in a half circle shape with a built-in handle. Almost every man was carrying one but I didn’t see any women carrying them. The handy thing is that they looked like they can be easily remade if they wear out. Later, I learned that the men carry their Betel nut chewing supplies in them.


After the market, we went into the stores looking for a few items on our list, mainly non-sweet mayonnaise, carrots, oil and cheese. A few frozen veggies or meat would be good too. In the end, we visited three stores, lugging our bags of market veggies along and found everything we needed except for cheese. Apparently, the only store that sold cheese would not be open until Monday.


Finding a mini-van back was a challenge. They were all full of people along with their many purchases. Luckily, the one we did catch a ride with took us all the way to the dock at the Yacht Club - a huge help as we were loaded down with bags. There was no sign of the volcano hikers yet so we took all the food out to the boat and put it away.


Pulling out the chart and doing some quick calculations along with looking at some weather maps, we realized that we had to leave that evening. There was some wind for the next few days and we wanted to take advantage of it. We felt really bad about probably having to forgo stopping at some islands along the way but unfortunately this is how it goes sometimes. It was an ambitious itinerary and we needed to get going.

I was relieved when Emma called us on the radio on their return to the yacht club. Apparently, the hike to the crater was incredibly hot and the smell of sulphur super strong. It was a bit of an ordeal as the truck ride took a couple of hours on rough tracks and payment for the excursion also became pretty convoluted. Everyone was tired and thirsty when they got back but had enjoyed the adventure. The photos show how close they were to the crater’s edge.

Molly, Annie and Emma look a bit warm.

Ernie still had energy and went to see a few WWII sites as well. After a swim, food and water, all felt better. Richard and I spent some time in the water scrubbing the hulls to help with our speed for the next passage. We got underway an hour before sunrise and didn’t stop moving for about seven days. Overall, it was a pleasant passage in relatively calm seas and motoring at times in light winds. Our speed was helped considerably by a knot and a half of west flowing current. The moon was full so we enjoyed the extra light on deck at night. We were very close to the equator but only one day felt uncomfortably humid. Everyone is enjoying the new freshwater hose and sprayer at the top of the starboard transom steps.


Fishing on the passage was productive – one yellowfin tuna, two mahi-mahi, and one mackerel. Unfortunately, we also hooked a large sailfish that we did our best efforts to release quickly. I managed to get a quick photo.


The watch schedule is set so that Richard, Annie, Emma and I keep the same watches and the rest of the crew rotates. This way, everyone has a different watch mate each day.


We had a trivia and appetizers night on one night. A ration of one can of beer was issued to everyone over 18. This was a real treat on a passage on Elcie as alcohol is not usually consumed underway. With two of the fish we made fried fish wraps for dinner. One day was almost cool and very productive with a few projects tackled including a patch on a tear in the mizzen sail and a hatch was re-bedded that was nearly removed by the mainsail sheet. Calm enough to get out the sewing machine, I made an Indonesian Flag. Fraser rebuilt one of the winches that needed attention. Along the way, most of the crew did laundry with some of the 40 gallons of rainwater we caught in squalls.

 Still north of PNG, we were sailing with light winds on the beam – a very pleasant motion and doing 9 -10 knots in the right direction. This was unexpected in a typically low wind area. We were going to pass by two small islands (hopefully uninhabited) where we would try and make a brief stop so the crew could perhaps stretch their legs and have a swim. Legally, we should not stop without having cleared into Indonesia first but would if no one was there to be concerned about it. Left, Jonny and Moonlight stand watch together. Right, Peter keeps up on his writing.


The anchor went down in about 40 feet over sand. The snorkeling was fantastic – one anemone was neon green which made a stunning backdrop for melon-colored clownfish. We also saw a ray and a moray eel on this healthy reef. It was just nice to be off the boat for a couple of hours. We tried to find a way into the beach but couldn’t make it past the reef with the dinghy. Ernie did swim over the reef to walk on the beach while we were snorkeling.


The last few days of the passage to Ambon were challenging and tiring. The autopilot stopped working and we had to hand steer. It seems after nearly 70,000 NM it had developed a groove that kept the brushes from making proper contact. There was much navigating to do through narrow inlets, at times during periods of torrential rain, all made harder by one person being tied up at the helm.


The last day was very windy. A 40 knot gust over a hill sent us scurrying to take the main down. After that, we had to motorsail hard on the wind for about 30 miles to the entrance to Ambon Harbor. We weren’t able to arrive in daylight so had to pick our way into the harbor at night - a slalom course through all of the small fish shacks that were anchored in the harbor. We knew about the approximate location of a mooring. It was hard to find in the dark but with a bright spotlight we finally did find it. Once on the mooring and the engines shut down, it was a tremendous feeling of accomplishment! The capable Leg 15 crew celebrated with icy beers we had remembered to put in the fridge earlier in the day.


In the morning, Richard went into the city center of Ambon to clear into Indonesia. Ernie went along with him. His Bahasa Indonesia language skills proved to be very helpful. The rest of the crew did a cursory clean-up in case the officials decided they needed to come aboard. Richard and Ernie had success with clearing with Immigration but Customs, Health and Quarantine would have to happen the next day. Fraser was off to the airport at 1PM for his flight back to Australia. I caught a ride to the store to buy some food while he was dropped off.


Shopping in Indonesia is also pretty challenging. For one thing, the exchange rate is 1 USD = 14,200 Indonesia Rupiah. This is not an easy conversion to do in one’s head. I had a purse full of Rupiah, a couple million, which was really just about $150 US.  I went to the largest store in the city and still there were not many familiar foods. There was tons of cooking oil, dried fish and noodles but not the things I was looking for. Also, there were so many cockroaches crawling around in the produce section that I didn’t want to buy much for risk of carrying them back to the boat. I didn’t buy much besides some local beer and some wacky snacks and white bread.


During our whole time in Ambon, the boat was on the mooring off of a hotel called Tirta Kencana in the town of Amahusa. At night, when we first arrived, the hotel looked interesting. In the morning, it was a bit less shiny. However, it turned out to be a very popular wedding venue as they seemed to be hosting a wedding nearly every night we were there. Amahusa is a Christian town though the rest of Ambon is 90% Muslim. Emma and Jonny went for a walk ashore and met a family that was very interested in Elcie. Ambon also has plenty of dogs. A pier just in from the boat was always busy with a gaggle of laughing and swimming kids. The beaches are sadly littered with much trash and plastic bottles. Twice a day, the tide turns and carries with it a slick of trash, mostly plastic bags, bottles and containers. So very hard to see.



Ernie and Johny left early the second morning and Peter left the same afternoon. We had about three days to get ready for the Leg 16 crew coming on Sunday. The laundry was dropped off at the hotel. I went with Richard back into town to finish up the clearance. A very helpful local sailor, named Johnny Ambon, came along with us which was good because the clearance was not straightforward in any way.


On our third day in Ambon, another boat came in and picked up another mooring. It was an Australian boat named Settlement and the first other cruising boat we’d seen in several weeks. The rain has been persistent here with few breaks during our time here.

 Ambon City is a crazy busy southeast population center with no apparent order to the traffic or the infrastructure. Poorly defined roads are total mayhem with bikes, motorbikes, buses, pedi-cabs, and people all weaving in and out of unmarked lanes. There was so much fresh food at the big outdoor market and it all looked beautiful. We bought papayas, and mangos and a stalk of bananas. We even found avocados. I found lots of Thai ingredients like lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves and Thai basil. There was fresh made tempeh that was still warm. We bought eggs from a stall that had a giant bin piled high with brown eggs. The young man packing them for us held them up to a bare lightbulb - eight at a time – to make sure that they didn’t have chicks in them. I was glad that he checked. It would be pretty disturbing to crack a baby chick into a frying pan.


A few more days here and we are off on Leg 16...stay tuned.

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