One of the constants throughout this voyage seems to be that whenever we get comfortable with where we’re at, pretty much straight away the bar seems to get set higher with a new challenge to face. So after settling into a nice rhythm for over a month in Fiji with its lagoon and easy access quality surfing, it was soon time to shake things up once more and set sail to the west again, this time to New Caledonia. Having decided not to stop over in Vanuatu (with the cyclone season clock ticking, and there not being much there in the way of surf) meant that this 5 day passage would be our longest yet, just the two of us.
As the sun rose we sailed out of the calm lagoon through the pass at Cloudbreak for the last time, and were quickly greeted by a pretty frisky breeze and some nice side on swell to go with it. After being totally drenched by a wave breaking into the cockpit within the first 30 minutes, we knew we were in for an interesting passage. A few more drenchings later (sooo much water, its like having buckets thrown at you) and the novelty had worn off. We were already wet and salt encrusted, and it was only day one.
But as the days rolled over the swell died down, and eventually the wind did too, leaving us floating calmly on a gigantic mirror for the last 24 hrs with no choice but to motor. Better than being drenched in the cockpit though, and perfect for a quick (much needed) dip off the back of the boat - although splashing about in 6000m of ocean is quite the unnerving experience, no matter how comfortable you are in water.
On the graveyard shift during our last night, after gazing for hours at nothing but the stars and moon I spotted a haze of light on the horizon. Excitedly assuming it was the glow of Noumea’s city lights, I started thinking we must be closer than we thought. Until I realized the glow was in entirely the wrong direction. A quick check of our navigation systems confirmed that yes, we were definitely still on course. But I was still a little puzzled. There was no land in the vicinity that should be able to give off that amount of light. After puzzling over this for a while, as only you can do after 4 days at sea and limited sleep, our AIS provided the answer. A ship, a very large ship (tanker), flagged in that area with a status we’d not seen before - ‘aground’. Very freshly aground we found out later, with a rescue operation underway (hence the bright glow of light) on a reef that is clearly marked on the charts. (Zoom in people. Zoom in!)
This would not be the last shipwreck we sailed past on our way to Noumea. Once we had made it inside the lagoon, aside from the weirdly beautiful tall skinny pine trees everywhere, there also seemed to be an unsettling abundance of wrecks washed up on reefs and shores all along the southwestern aspect of the island.
But back to the weird pine trees… it sort of felt like we were arriving somewhere in North America, but with tropical air, and the occasional palm tree thrown in. And birds, the beautiful sound of birds. Not like anything we’d experienced before in the Pacific. It was odd to realize only then that most of the other islands we’ve visited have been strangely silent.
But to be honest one of the reasons we were most looking forward to arriving to New Cal was to do with reliving some of the benefits of French colonization we’d already experienced back in French Polynesia. To say we were pretty excited about loading our stores with French cheese and wine couldn’t be more of an understatement. And with New Cal’s check in process seeming about as relaxed as the French Polynesians were with me overstaying my visa, we decided check in could wait until our bellies were full. A baguette and a block of comte cheese later, plus a few cannelles for dessert (and only a slight tummy ache), and we were pretty sure we were going to like our time here.
Then the wind arrived.
For those of you that have been to Noumea you’d know there’s a LOT of boats with not much swinging room, and relatively poor holding. And of course the customary wrecks here and there on the shores, just to remind you that there can also be a LOT of wind.
Needing badly to refill our water, fuel and food supplies we decided that rather spend the next few days worrying about dragging around our unprotected anchorage spot and getting saturated with spray doing dingy resupply runs, it was time to face our biggest challenge yet (up goes that bar again)… and brave entering the marina… in 30-35kt winds.
For us that’s our worst nightmare. We’d both rather cross rough oceans than try to negotiate marina berthing. So many boats. So close by. So much fear of how our boat will handle in a tight space when a gust of wind comes through. But with white knuckles and a good dose of adrenaline filled self talk we managed to slide on into our (to be fair incredibly spacious) berth, unscathed, and (seemingly) unfazed. And there we stayed, comfortably tucked out of the wind and waves, for the next few days as we loaded up with cheese and other French goodies. And made use of the hot shower facilities. Wow. So good. It’d been a while!
Aside from its gastronomic attraction, Noumea didn’t hold much else in the way of interest for us. So as soon as we were washed, laundered, refueled and restocked, we were off. The wind died down enough for us leave the marina with much lower levels of terror than when we went in, and we sailed straight out to the islands, headed north in search of waves.
New Cal is well suited to surfing off a yacht with all of the breaks being on the outer reef. And with more than a few passes to choose from and swell in the forecast, we were looking forward to good things. The only problem being that a LOT of wind (30+kts again) was also in the forecast. But with the trade wind pattern here easing off overnight and being light in the mornings, before really getting cranking for the rest of the day, we thought we should be able to get some good morning sessions in.
It turns out that was not entirely true.
In 10 days we managed only a handful of successful surf sessions. But the surfing was great mind you, with no crowds (often no one but us), and fun long left handers (which is all two goofy footers could ask for). In between we bunkered down trying to find the best shelter we could amongst the many small islands we had to choose from as the wind just blew and blew.
It was during these in between times that we realized we seriously need to add kite boarding to our skill set if we want to keep doing this and stay sane. We tried going ashore to climb the small mountains or bush bash around the islands for some exercise, but in the north the landscape is quite arid and harsh. The vegetation is dry and unfriendly (spikey bushes and cactus plants rather than the palm trees we’ve become used to), and akin to trying to walk through barbed wire. We ended up covered in scratches and more frustrated than when we started.
And although the water at the outer reef is beautiful and clear, we weren’t too keen on getting in the murky green water closer to land where we needed to anchor in order to escape the winds. Sea snakes aplenty (their mouths are so small they can’t bite you, but for some reason they are incredibly creepy), and a relatively sizey bull shark who cruised coolly behind our boat for a while, slightly lessened our enthusiasm for non surfing water play.
Hearing that one of our friends (the only other boat we met searching for waves) woke up in bed the night before to find a sea snake curled on his head?!!.... (WTF?!!! How did it even get in their boat?!!) also didn’t help matters. Especially when a few days later as we lazed around in our cockpit at sunset we found one writhing at our feet, having slithered from the swim step up through one of the drainage holes!!!
But on a more crowd pleasing wildlife note, there was also an abundance of turtles, schools of spinner dolphins, and lots of odd large creatures that looked like a cross between a dolphin and some sort of seal, which we quickly realized were nothing other than dugongs - such beautifully strange creatures.
With our cheese supply running low and the swell forecast dwindling, it was time to head back to Noumea to restock. No marina this time, just a quick anchor, shop and go. The way we like it.
Stocked and ready to explore more of what New Cal has to offer, we headed out again, this time south…
...to the beautiful Ile des Pins.