So…now it was time again. Another longer passage. This time some 1060 nm from Port Vila in Vanuatu to Bundaberg in Australia, with a planned stop at Chesterfield Islands in the middle of the trip. Chico had already left us on a plane to Melbourne for his ten days at quarantine and Sabina and Ella would fly down to Bundaberg and pick him up there and wait for Breeze to come sailing in a few weeks later. Two Swedish friends came down to Vanuatu to sail with me; Torgny and Michael.
The wait for the weather window was over and it was time to leave early in the morning on the 8th of November. Michael had arrived only two days earlier but Sabina and I had done most of the stocking up before the boys arrived, and it was only the last shopping for veggies etc left to do before take off.
First leg is 587 nm and I was planning on landfall the 11th. Wind the first two days was 8-12 knots true from behind. Not much sea with that wind speed, but it made my initial calculations with an average of 200 nM a day crack within the first day of sailing. We also had some counter current and could only keep an average of 156 nM a day the first two days. We now had two options, since I don´t like going in at night to new places in remote areas - slow down and spend another night out at sea, or speed up and fire up the engine. When the wind died down to 4-5 knots the third day, it made the choice easy. I have always hated going slow and rolling around in old swell from the side, so we started motor sailing at 9-10 knots. We made landfall just before a beautiful sunset on the 11th of November and was greeted by chirping birds and the most beautiful turquoise water and white sand islets. Sundowner with Entice, Helios and Nimrod
We were not expecting any other boats, but found three others at anchor when we arrived – two Australian catamarans and one American monohull. Nothing wrong with sundowners but that had to wait for another day, because we were eager to go exploring the islands in the morning.
Chesterfield Islands, what is that??? Yes, it is
not very well known, but it´s not hard to hit it if you are passing this area
unknowingly. Many wrecks scattered around this reef is the proof of that. The
reefs extend from 19˚ to 22˚S between 158–160˚E in the southern Coral Sea halfway
between Australia and
New Caledonia. The outer reef itself stretches approximately 70 nm from the south
to the north and comprises of reefs on the northern part and reefs with small low
lying motus (islets) on the southern part.
Exploring Chesterfield Islands
It is an atoll, which is really an old sunken volcano, just like the ones in the Tuamotus. The area belongs to New Caledonia and is a protected marine and coral reef area. The best description of this paradise is a mix between Minerva Reef (for the few of you who have been there) and Galapagos (a bit more well known).
All animals are completely unaware of humans as being a threat, and you can walk right up to them. There is no other way to reach these islands than by your own boat, which makes it pristine and unique. The New Caledonian government is happy to grant you a chance to stop on your way to Australia, without having to go all the way to Noumea to check in, if you agree to send them a report of what you have seen and done at Chesterfield. Not many boats do get off the beaten track to get here though. They only get 15-20 visits of boats a year.
The islands are inhabited by thousands and thousands of birds, with visits by the big sea turtles coming up to lay their eggs certain times of the year and we arrived right in the middle of the turtle season.
Waters outside are amazing with one of the clearest waters you can find in the world with 30+ meters visibility. Reefs are healthy and fish are plentiful and huge (AND willing to be speared by your spear gun whenever you get hungry.There are lots of sharks (a good sign of a healthy reef) in the water, but they are only curious and wont bother you if you don´t shoot a fish too close to them. At the turtle breeding season and bird hatching season, Chesterfield is also a nursery for Tiger Sharks since it is so easy for them to find food at this time of year.
One calm day we took the dinghy through a small pass to the outer reef on the east side to go spear fishing. Huge Snappers and Parrot fish, but decided to shoot the not too big ones since I was not 100% sure if there was any Ciguatera (fish poisoning) there or not. We knew that some friends of us had been here a month ago and eaten fish they caught in this area without getting sick, so we felt pretty confident after all.
After cleaning the fish and throwing the carcasses in the water we had a new friend at the boat – a small Tiger shark. Small, when we are talking about Tigers, is 3 meters. All other types of sharks are easy to chase away, as long as you act as a predator and not a prey, but Tigers are the sharks responsible for the most attacks and accidents on humans in the tropics (and second on fatalities in the world, behind the Great White). No serious diver/spear fisher feels safe when having a Tiger shark in the water. Every time we threw something in the water our friend was there again, so that was the end of my crews daily swims from the boat at that anchorage.
The small islands stretch kilometer after kilometer at low tide and consists of the whitest coral sand you can think of…and birds. Birds, nesting in the small trees; birds, nesting in the bush; birds, nesting in the sand. Brown Gunnets, Masked Boobies, Frigate Birds, Crested Terns, Black Noddys and many others I don´t know the names of. It was fun to read in our bird book written by Neville Coleman that they don´t know where the Masked Boobies have their main breeding grounds. Now we know. There were hundreds and hundreds of them on the different islets of Chesterfield. The Masked Boobie always lay two eggs, but only one nestling survives.
Super moon and turtle watchEvery morning we went to the islets we could see new tracks from the turtles that had been up during the night to lay their eggs. Of course we had to go in one night to see them. This was the time of the super moon and in the dark, with nearest light pollution some 1000 km away, it was almost like moving around in broad daylight. One night we saw a big Green Turtle that had just laid her eggs and we could only feel happiness. Not many of her hatchlings will survive to come back and lay their eggs, but we were happy that this is one of the sanctuaries in the world where the turtles still can breed in peace.
Snakes in paradise
Unfortunately, there were some snakes even in this paradise. We had been there for three days when we saw two Chinese fishing vessels entering the lagoon. They immediately started fishing. We think they were diving for Sea Cucumbers and fishing for shark fins. We emailed the New Caledonian government to warn them, but they have no resources to send ships or planes for ID. We were asked to observe and take photos but not to interfere, since they can be dangerous if they feel threatened. We did not need to hear that twice, since we were alone out in nowhere and would be an easy target. Nevertheless, we felt extremely sad to see this piece of paradise being damaged and we really hope that they will be able to stop this fish pouching.
Time to leave
this paradise was hard to do, but as always weather decides. A low developing in
the north threatening to bring 35-40 knots to the islands, and potentially
worse, made us want to leave after the next front that was due on the 15th. We
left the islands at first light 5:30 on the 16th in a nice 15-20 knots breeze
from ESE and a benign 1,5 m swell. Winds kept increasing during the next day
and so did the swell. We ended up sailing along in a howling 25-35 knots of
wind from forward of the beam and a 3-meter short choppy swell just aft of the
beam. It was fast, I give you that, but we reefed hard to slow down the boat to
make it a bit more comfortable. Still, making more than 9 knots on average on
the two days of our last leg to Bundaberg made it a short and overcoming pain.
And as always, it makes the getting there so much nicer :)