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Luganville, Espiritu Santo

Written by Cathy Siegismund
September - October 2003


We left early Wala Island before 0700 so we could arrive in Luganville by mid-day and have favorable tides going into the channel that separates Espiritu Santo and Aore island. We motorsailed to charge our batteries and make water and made good time, arriving just before noon.

Route from Wala Island to Luganville, Espiritu Santo

There are two options for anchoring in Luganville. The first is to anchor in a very shallow area in front of the west end of town. There isn't a very convenient dinghy landing spot at the heart of town and the anchorage can be exposed to and become rolly because of the predominant southeast winds which blow through the channel. The second option is to pick up a mooring at the Aore Resort on the south side of the channel from Luganville. When we arrived the resort moorings were full, but we were third on the waiting list. We ended up anchoring in the shallow anchorage and waiting a day and a half until a mooring opened up at Aore. We then moved across the channel at picked up a mooring.

Segond Channel between the main island of Espiritu Santo and Aore Island

Felicity finally settled on an Aore Resort Mooring

   

   

Aore Resort

The Aore Resort is quite nice and a renting a mooring gives you access to the resort amenities. They have a dock where you can tie up your dink, use their water, the restaurant, bar, and pool, and they also provide a free water taxi that makes three daily round trips across the channel to Luganville.

Aore dinghy dock and water taxi

Pool at Aore Resort

Luganville was going to be our final stop in Vanuatu. The main attraction for us there was the diving. Luganville was the base for US military during WWII, with hundreds of thousands of troops passing through the base during the war. Remnants of this military presence is seen everywhere both on land and underwater. Old rusty Quonset huts litter the town and downed planes, ships and jeeps, etc. Two of Luganville's most famous dive sites are Million Dollar Point and the wreck of the President Coolidge. Million Dollar Point basically an underwater junk yard of WWII US military equipment. At the end of WWII, the US was going to sell all of its surplus equipment to the French government in Luganville. Just before the US was going to pull out of Luganville, the French lowered their offer to pennies on the dollar thinking the US would have no option but to accept as it was not cost-effective to ship all of the equipment back to the US. In typical friendly US-Franco relations, the US got its back up in the air and decided rather than sell to the equipment to the French, they would rather bulldoze all of it into the ocean. The result is Million Dollar Point. The second famous WWII dive site in Luganville is the wreck of the President Coolidge. This is the largest most accessible shipwreck in the world. The President Coolidge was launched in 1931 as a luxury cruise liner. The ship was 654 feet long and weighed over 21,000 tons. It was arguably the most luxurious cruise ship to have ever been built in the US. During WWII it was commissioned by the US Army as a troop carrier. Many of its luxurious appointments were removed to maximize the ship's occupancy for troop movement.

The Coolidge made several South Pacific runs in 1942. On October 6th, she departed San Francisco for New Caledonia and Espiritu Santo carrying 5,092 troops who were reinforcements for the battle of Guadalcanal. On the morning of 26th October, the Coolidge approached Espiritu Santo by the Eastern side of the Segond Channel, just as we did in Felicity. The US navy had neglected to radio captain of the Coolidge the 'Special Instructions', due to security. The "Special Instructions" would have alerted the captain of the "friendly" mine field that littered the entrance to Luganville. Warnings came too late and the Coolidge struck several mines. To the captain's credit, he knew the ship was lost and sent the ship full throttle toward shore to be run aground.  Of the 5,092 people aboard only 2 were killed in the shipwreck. One man is figured to have been killed in the explosion, and the second man was lost who returned to look for him. There was a massive loss of supplies and military equipment and of course the loss of the fantastic ship.

Evacuation of the doomed S.S. President Coolidge

The ship slowly slipped backward down the slope leading to shore and as she sank she rolled over onto her side. She now sits on her side with her bow in about 90 feet of water and her props sit in about 250 feet of water. The visibility is not superb on the dive, but the novelty of diving on such a large ship and the history of her makes it a requirement for divers visiting Vanuatu.

Ken and I along with GB and Sarah from Djarrka signed up for some of the dives on the Coolidge. The first two are the Promenade, a warm up dive for the divers to see the Coolidge and for the dive operator to assess your diving skills.

   

Gun mounted on the boat of the President Coolidge after she was commissioned into Army service

The promenade dive takes you on a few easy swim throughs, and takes you around the exterior of the bow of the ship. The second dive is The Lady. The Lady is actually a ceramic bas relief sculpture of the "Lady and Unicorn". This had been set above the mantel of an antique marble fireplace in the opulent First Class Smoking Lounge on the Coolidge. This sculpture is remains beautiful today with the colors and detail little effected by over 60 years underwater. This dive does require swimming deeper into the ship as The Lady is in about 140 feet of water.

The Lady and Unicorn

Swimming up to the famous sculpture

Ken posing with the Lady, which sits sideways in the water as the ship rests on its side

   

GB & Sarah pose with The Lady

The dive also featured mosaic fountains and ceiling lamps, which have changed little since sinking in 1942.

Ceiling Lamp

Mosaic fountain

   

Port holes in the Coolidge

Exiting the ship by swimming out through one of then ships skylights

At the end of each dive on the Coolidge, as most of them are decompression dives, you swim to a small man-made coral garden in about 25 feet of water and do you decompression stop. We were happy to find several clown fish which provided us entertainment.

Sarah waiting at the decompression stop

   

   

Cath and several shots of clown fish at the coral gardens

Following our second dive, I came down with a cold, but Ken and GB and Sarah did few more dives in Luganville. These included a trip to Million Dollar Point and several of the deeper dives on the Coolidge into the holds where more of the Military equipment was located.

   

Jeeps, wheels, and tires that filled one of the holds in the Coolidge

Lantern

   

Mess hall items

GB checking out the dishes

Ken following the dive guide through the narrow swim-throughs in the Coolidge

Most of our time in Luganville was spent exploring the town, diving or relaxing at the resort. Many an afternoon we met GB and Sarah ashore for canasta games.

The familiar site of our afternoon card games at the Aore Resort

We where also delighted to see John and Amanda Neal on Mahina Tiare pull into Aore Resort and spent enjoyed catching up with them and meeting their current group of expedition members.

At the end of September, we started to go into our pre-passage mode. We made our to-do list and worked on small repairs,  as well as our usual passage prep of watching weather, getting fuel, and provisioning. We have enjoyed all of the places we've visited in the Pacific, but Vanuatu is one of our favorites and one where we hope to return some day.

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