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Vanuatu to Australia

Written by Cathy Siegismund
October 2003


We had Felicity fueled and were ready to go. Ken thought the weather window looked ideal and we also got a green light from the New Zealand weather guru, Bob McDavitt. Monday, October 13, we checked out of the country, bought some last minute fresh food and cast off our Aore Resort mooring at about 1500. We said goodbye to GB and Sarah on Djarrka, and motored westward through the Segond Channel. The passage from Luganville, Vanuatu to Bundaberg, Australia is 1050 miles. We were taking what is known as the "over the top" route. This route would take us north of New Caledonia and Chesterfield Reefs before we would turn more southwest and head for Bundaberg. This passage would complete our sail across the Pacific and would take us through the Coral Sea to Australia.

Route from Luganville, Vanuatu to Bundaberg, Australia

For a 1050 mile trip, our estimated passage time would be 8-12 days, barring any unforeseen circumstances. We cleared the Segond Channel in the early evening, and as we cleared the islands the breeze started to freshen up and a lumpy south-southeast swell started rolling us around. We were soon averaging 6 knots, which is quite fast for us, but I was feeling pretty green around the gills. There was no easing into the passage routine on this trip. The first night, I was quite miserable feeling very seasick so Ken let me sleep a few extra hours. By the next morning, I was feeling a little better and Felicity was still rolling along. We didn't beat our 24-hour run record, but we had four days in a row where we covered over 140 miles. This may not sound like much to many of you, but it was very fast for our fat little 31 foot boat.

There was a huge high pressure system stalled right in our area. Our plan was to ride the SE trade winds as far as possible, and then as we went further south and approached Australia we would ride the northerly winds from the back side of the high or the front side of the low pressure system that was moving in behind the high. The only thing we had to worry about was not going fast enough and reaching the Australian coast as the backside of the low was moving arriving. This would provide southerly winds, which oppose the a southerly current running along the east coast of Australia. This has been known to catch sailors off guard, not only having to beat into the southerly winds but having the southerly winds blowing agaist the south-moving current creating steep short waves. With this in the back of our minds, we were delighted to be making such a fast passage.

Most of the boats in Luganville when we left were waiting for the Port-to-Port Rally from Vanuatu to Bundaberg, which was not leaving for another week. We therefore, were only doing the passage with a handful of other boats. There were some other boats we heard on the daily net heading for Bundy from Port Vila and New Caledonia.

As we were nearing the top of Chesterfield Reef, we did see a large freighter closing in on us very quickly. We contacted them and they said they saw us and would pass to our stern. Looking at the chart, we guessed it was a ship on its way from Auckland or New Caledonia to Asia.

One night on watch while I was checking for ships, I saw that we had picked up a hitchhiker. A large booby was trying to balance very precariously on our stern rail by our solar panel. It is not uncommon for boobies at sea to land on a boat. Sailors historically, often ended up having booby for supper when this happened. We weren't interested in eating this tired sea-bird but didn't want him pooping all over our cockpit -- these are big birds. We had one hitch a ride with us one night on our Marquesas passage and he left quite a mess on our bowsprit. To shoo away our current castaway, we tried all sorts of "scary noises", flapping arms and stomping feet. The most we got were a couple of tail wiggles and wing flutters.

   

Booby hitching a ride one night north of Chesterfield Reef

Finally, when Ken reached out and touched our guest's tail feathers he let out an indignant squawk and flew away. Not ten minutes later, on my next 360 degree look for ships I saw a booby-shaped shadow balancing on our jerry jugs on the side deck. We decided to let our guest stay this time. We figured he must be tired to manage landing on our bouncing rails twice and neither of us wanted to spend our night watches chasing a booby off various parts of the boat. In the middle of the night, he took off, fortunately only leaving us a small mess to clean up.

As usual we spent our days watching weather, reading, and counting down the miles to our destination. Our monitor windvane continued to steer us flawlessly as it has for the last 12,000 miles.

   

Monitor windvane in action, steering us to Australia

We had mostly fine weather, but did pass through a few squalls as we usually do on passage.

One rainy gray sunrise at sea

We had mixed luck with currents. For over a day, we flew along often averaging 7+ knots over ground with a current we were riding. We however, paid for this when we neared Kenn Reef and starting bucking a current of .5 - 1.5 knots. The winds and seas evened out and, except for one night when we had winds from 17-35 knots making sail changes a pain in the rear,  the passage was turning into one of our best. I finally settled into the passage routine and was feeling better, we had no wind in front of the beam and we were making very good time.

It was looking like Ken picked a perfect weather window for us. We were going to arrive on the morning of Tuesday, October 21 for a 7 3/4 day passage!

As we neared the Australian coast we entered shipping lanes, the likes of which we hadn't seen since the west coast of the US. These shipping lanes were designated on our charts and as we entered them we started dodging ships. Passing ships in the day or night is always something that requires vigilance, but it no longer instills the fear I felt on our first few nights out of Neah Bay. We watched many of them fly past us just big solid returns on radar at night, sometimes a glow on the horizon at most. Others cruised past us coming within a couple of miles. This is plenty close to a freighter at sea and until you see these behemoths underway on the open ocean, you really can't imagine how big they look and how fast they move. After a night of about 12 ships spotted, I awoke for by 0600-0900 watch to a clear morning with just over 100 miles to go to Bundy. The wind had died and we were motoring under sunny skies and flat seas. We had hoped for our last day at sea to be flat and calm so we could clean up the boat prior to arrival. Ken, as the person coming off watch, told me what sail was up, and that we were motoring, and if there were any ships around. He said "oh, there's a ship coming up from behind us", then he dived for the sea berth and shut his eyes. I spotted the ship on radar and went out and got a visual of him on our stern quarter just on the horizon.

Speck on the horizon is a freighter heading along the Australian coast.

I have learned that once you can see these big guys visually, they will be right next to you pretty quickly. They often go horizon to horizon in less than 20 minutes. I watched him for a little while and he seemed to be heading right for us. I then put a bearing line on him on the radar to verify if he was on a collision course with us. He seemed to be marching right down the bearing line to us. I hate to wake Ken up, as he often thinks I'm paranoid about big ships. I finally tell him that this guy is on a collision course with us and we need to call him or change course. Ken is playing opossum in bed and snickers, saying he thought this might be the case when he went to bed. I was only mildly amused at this "passage humor", but wasn't as ticked off as I would have been a few years ago. We called the ship, who answered immediately, and was very polite. He even offered to change his course to accommodate us. We were pleasantly surprised and thanked him. He turned a bit to starboard and crossed behind us -- but not by much.

The large freighter with his bow wake visible as he turns slightly to starboard to avoid us

The freighter passing us on the starboard side only about 1/4 mile away.

The day ended up being a glorious one. We got through the shipping lanes by mid-morning; the sun was shining and we had flat millpond seas of the crystal clear water of the Coral Sea. After our morning off-watch naps, we started cleaning up the boat. We cleaned the galley, wiped down the wood and hosed off the cockpit. Felicity would receive a proper bath once we got in the marina, but we did an initial clean up as we expected to have Australian quarantine and customs officers aboard as soon as we arrived.

While we were cleaning we were greeted by a pod of huge bottlenose dolphins. This is a site that we always find exciting. We were soon on the bow with cameras in hand as the dolphin played under the bow and did aerial acrobatics around the boat.

Cath, on the bow, watching the dolphin

   

   

A large pod of Bottlenose dolphin playing in Felicity's bow wake in the Coral Sea, 100 miles from Australia

We motored the last 100 or so miles in flat seas and light winds. On our last night, we had a few rain squalls and some thunder and lightening we could see toward the coast.. By dawn the next morning, we were within 30 miles of the coast and surprisingly still couldn't find Australia on radar! It is a flat country. After a few more hours, we spotted the coast on radar and then visually. We had contacted Australian Customs via email about halfway through our trip with an approximate arrival time, and called them again once we were within VHF range the morning we arrived. We motored into the well marked channel of the Burnett River heading for the Bundaberg Port Marina. As we approached the marina, we were first told to anchor in the river to wait for a customs slip to open up as there were several boats checking-in. A few minutes later, we were called again and directed to a regular marina slip where customs and quarantine would meet us.

The quarantine officer was the first aboard. As in New Zealand, she was very polite and friendly. However, both New Zealand and Australia take their quarantine issues very seriously and we lost a number of food items as well as had to have some of our woodcarvings sprayed with insecticide. Next the customs/immigration officer came aboard. You are required to have an Australian Visa, before you enter the country. When you fly into Australia, this is usually done electronically by your travel agent. We had applied for and received our visas at the Australian Consulate in Port Vila, Vanuatu. However, as we were bringing a boat into the country there was quite a bit of additional paperwork we needed to complete. The Customs official asked the usual firearm, tobacco, and liquor questions. He was quite reasonable about our wine collection, which exceeded the 2 bottle limit, letting us keep everything duty free. He also asked to see the list of drugs in our ships medical kit, and though we had a couple of items that were on their restricted list we were allowed to keep these too.

After a about an hour, we were checked into Australia! We had made it across the Pacific having traveled over 12,000 miles in our little 31 foot boat.

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