It’s 21:00, on the 24 of March 2017. We leave Port-Vila for our first trip to the Shepherds Islands. It’s cold at night, wet, I’m sneezing. Doesn’t matter, because for the first time, tomorrow we’re going to sail through the rest of the Shepherds islands, those which are rarely seen by visitors, rarely visited by locals. It’s a special feeling, a tickle in my right arm which pushes me to steer through the night, like it’s gonna make us go faster. It won’t, but again, it doesn’t matter.
Head sail and main sail are up, all night. The bioluminescent plankton is still blooming, all night.
The first day, Monday, is now dedicated to finding the other team on the island of Epi, 94 nautical miles away. They were supposed to take that one road and drive South, to the meeting point. That was unless the road was blocked by a landslide. Barely surprising.
15:45: We find the team, and quickly anchor at Folan after a break at Port-Quwimie and head to Tongoa.
This team is our contractor, members of the Vanuatu 2017 Pacific Mini-Games, willing to go to every single school, and advocate healthy lifestyle, responsible rubbish disposal and environment conservation. Hard to beat.
02:00: We are approaching Tonga Island. The lights of Ambrym, an island with two active volcanoes, each one of them hosting a raging lake of lava, are still visible. One more hour before my shifts end.
Tuesday morning, the team goes onshore to visit the first school after a short ride up the hill. The laughters, the attention and the sun are at their peaks. So much that the students are hiding from the beams under large leaves. Seven schools are here.
12:55: The anchor is up, we’re departing for Tongariki. The wind blows from the South West. Full traditional sail and full head sail up, what a hot day this is…
14:50: Anchoring in Tongariki – We will stay here for the night.
Here, the shore seems inaccessible from the vaka. There is nothing but laplap stones, explain more erected like the wall of a fortress. Johnny and myself jump from the vaka and swim toward that wall, waiting for the dingy. The crew manages to safely paddle the dingy between the waves, safe enough for us to grab them when a wave pushes them toward us. We lift them up, and off load the gifts for the school. Here we walk, a mere 200 ascension with toothbrushes for kids, nobody questions if it’s worth it. At the end of the day we all meet on top of the hill, at Coconak, a small village which magically landed on the pass between the two mountains of Tongariki, clear from both sides, thriving with smiles and local food. Not a single island of the Shepherds is hiding from us. They’re all here, floating on the ocean.
After enjoying, to excess, the locals’ generosity, providing fish, taro, laplap in a bucket for us to supper, we all go back to the vaka and fall on our backs, dreaming of tomorrow.
Today is Wednesday, the day is still young. 0530: The anchor is up. We depart from Tongariki to Buninga, wind is South West. Nice morning. Still fresh.
05:55: The vaka arrives at Buninga, the sister island. Indeed, the shore is not any better than the previous one, perhaps even steeper. Not without struggle, the crew manages to get the cargo and the team on shore. The first ones climb their way up and discover the village, carefully brooding the school of Senecol. The show is on and the message resounds in Buninga’s bamboo forest as the student sing Abu’s (the grandfather of the team) words.
10:00: We depart to Emae. Motoring with sails up, light wind. The days are now ideal.
12:19: Both sails are down as we arrive in Emae, the peanut-shaped island. We drop the anchor, once more, at Worarana for the rest of the day.
The day is hot and winds are constantly changing from South to South West, making the vaka swing around its anchorage. Sharks are sharing their kingdom with Napoleon wrasses and schools of rainbow runners. This pristine waters seem to hold a healthy ecosystem underneath us.
Adjay picks up some pieces of dead coral on the shore, white, immaculate, for the night apparently. I see them in the dingy as we drive back, I grab them, I toss them overboard. What the hell are these things doing in the dingy?
« No boss! That’s for fishing ». What? Sorry Adjay, I didn’t know.
A few remained, enough apparently. I see him attaching and tightening a hook around one of these. « Sure, good luck man », I though. I go back to the deck house to finish my watch there, where I struggle against my eyelids, definitely willing to close over my tired eyes.
23:45: Almost over, I hear a loud sound, something banging on the deck. I get out of the deck house, to find Adjay, surrounded by a dead tuna, cut in pieces as bait, a dozen of red mullets obviously caught by him by this technique and nothing but a 1,2m white-tip shark.
« You just caught a shark?! Wow! », I said
« I was just looking for the other fish », he said
« Let’s eat it », said a member of the Van2017 team.
« Apologies Adjay, your technique is wicked, but there is no way we’re eating a shark on this vaka», I replied.
« Johnny, get the hook while I hold it ».
Here we are, I thought, three dummies shoving our fingers in the mouth of a young shark to save him from a trap we set ourselves. Not much morals to be drawn from this story, but I never imagine my end of watch to be like this. It dived back into the depth as I dived into my bunk, warm and cosy, dry at last.
Thursday: Only Makira and Mataso are left to visit before going back to Port-vila. Two islands that everybody sees from the North coast of Efate but that nobody ever visit. How lucky were we.
05:30: Anchor is up. Nice morning, at this perfect tipping point between fresh and hot we depart for Makira.
06:30: Anchor down, North side of Makira. The sky is cloudy with a bit of rain. A good experience overall, a complete one. The waves on the North side waltz the dingy and the crew around before reaching the village of Makira. Compared to its shore, the village is flat, organized and welcoming. We all gather under a large sandalwood tree to hear the stories and learn about rubbish disposal.
10:35: The anchor is up. Standing by to put the main sail on our traditional rig; our destination is Mataso.
13:30: Mataso seems unreal. It is a long band of sand stuck between two mountains shaped like canines. A pod of dolphins has followed us to the Southern bay. They are katiaki, guardians of the sea. It is difficult to stay focused and get ready for the next school as we are all admiring their fishing techniques. We drop the anchor, my watch is over. I have to see them, I have to join them. My fins are on, they are still here, 400m away. I remember sprinting as fast as I could to reach them. To find them, fishing in a sphere-shaped school of fish. What a scary sight, seeing these adorable creatures, from a European point of view at least, going into frenzy, diving in at unimaginable speed, tearing rainbow runners apart, head from tail. I was torn apart myself between turning back and watching. I watched, I took no pictures. They would have been blurry anyway.
1605: We depart for Lelepa. The anchor is up. Light wind, full traditional sail.
On Friday we took our time to sail back to Port-vila. While everybody is happy to be back, every single one of us is also looking forward to the next province, the next adventure. Discovering the islands one by one felt like continuously opening Christmas gifts.
For us all, sailing, reconnecting with nature, with the ancient traditions, became highly addictive.