Papua New Guinea - Louisiade Archipelago
Geoff Gowing took his 18-metre yacht on a 1300-nautical mile return passage from Cairns Australia, across the Coral Sea to the Louisiade Archipelago of Papua New Guinea, and got a close look at the far side of Asia
The Louisiade Archipelago is a string of coral islands that trail off the eastern coast of Papua New Guinea out into the Solomon Sea. Most of these islands are populated by Papua New Guinean natives who are typically English-speaking, educated, and friendly. They lead a classic idyllic tropical island lifestyle, living in coconut palm thatched single room houses built on stilts or ground supports. They live at a near subsistence level.
Money is not very important here, and on many of the islands the locals have little use for the Kina (the currency of Papua New Guinea, with one Kina roughly equal to 40 US cents) as there is no store nearby in which to spend it. The local people fish and cultivate produce, such as bananas, paw-paw (a local fruit), coconuts, sweet potato and taro. They also keep chickens and sometimes pigs. Some of them dive for beche-de-mer (sea cucumbers) and dry them together with shark fins for the Asian market. But they are paid very little for all their hard work diving and fishing, so it is not really a sustainable income and is rather just a little bit of cash to purchase some essentials from mainland Papua New Guinea, whenever someone from the island can get there. At this stage, the people of the Louisiade Archipelago have yet to be exploited by the tourism industry, so it is refreshing to encounter friendly, happy people who seem to enjoy living in simple conditions with relatively few material aspirations.
Bartering with visiting yachts and the occasional powerboat provides a welcome boost. Power boats are usually limited by their range, but a passage-making boat like Andante (a 55-foot Fleming) is an extended range vessel so we were able to make the whole passage without having to refuel – we arrived back in Australia with over 1000 litres of fuel onboard.
We took with us all sorts of goods for bartering: knives, machetes, hammers, fishhooks and line, clothing, rice, pens, pencils and books. These things we exchanged for fruit and vegetables from their hillside gardens, and also some handmade artifacts.
On most occasions we were also able to help supplement their food supplies with fish we had caught when moving from island to island. As we had caught the fish (usually Spanish Mackerel, Tuna or King Snapper) in their own local waters we would hand them over to the local people as a gesture of goodwill – it was always much appreciated. Often, they would return with gifts of coconuts or bananas.
Compared with their dugout canoes and outrigger canoes with lateen sails called lakatois, our Fleming 55 was a source of great interest and admiration to the locals. Being men of the sea, they were always very appreciative and understood the beautiful seaworthy lines of Andante. The engine room was a source of great fascination, and they were certainly very impressed with us having crossed the Coral Sea to visit them.
The 500-nautical mile passage across the Coral Sea, with the prevailing 25-35 knot trade winds from the Southeast on the starboard beam gave us with two to three metre seas. This was one of the more challenging passages for Andante and crew. Over three days of sailing with waves at this angle had the stabilisers working at their limit most of the time. Without them, the passage would have been very uncomfortable and would have required waiting for the trade winds to moderate before starting out. Both this leg and the return run back to Australia were in identical conditions.
Wherever we anchored in the Louisiade Archipelago, the swim platform soon had children on board just watching us go about our day. Except in very special circumstances, we did not allow them beyond the transom because of the numbers. These children were always well-behaved, and they would often bring shells or produce with them to barter for a pencil or a book. They also happened to be very canny barterers, and on many occasions I am sure we paid too much for a cowry shell or a hens egg – but it was always good fun and an enjoyable encounter.
Such things as ice from the icemaker or a drink of water from the onboard watermaker were very much a novelty, while a stamp on the arm with the ship’s stamp was a tattoo to be worn with pride around their island. The kids were all very well behaved, whenever we needed space we only had to tell them that it was time for them to leave and they would go back to shore in their pint-sized canoes, returning later with more shells or coconuts to trade.
On a couple of occasions, we had some of the elders and their family from various villages on board for afternoon tea and in some cases, an evening meal. They all had had a missionary education, which made it a pleasure and a delight to have them aboard as our guests. On one occasion the island representative and his family prepared a meal for us in appreciation of our visit, subsequent friendship and support to his island. This meal we also had onboard Andante.
The meal was a chicken coconut curry prepared from the slowest rooster on the island that still must have taken three days to catch, a fish curry with local spinach and taro root and local chilli and spices. We provided the rice because it is not grown in the Louisiades and so not readily available locally. The curry had a unique smoky flavour as a result of it being cooked in open pots over a coconut husk fueled fire, making for a unique gourmet meal. You won’t get that at a Michelin-starred restaurant.
For sailors, the journey is relatively easy from Cairns, with a beam reach from the Southeast Trade winds each way (the journey to the Louisiades is on a northeasterly track), with the breeze sometimes on the aft quarter to give you a good spinnaker run. The region is well charted and the charts are accurate, although some of the ‘bommies’ (coral heads) appear to have moved since they were charted so, as always, care needs to be taken when near the fringing reefs. In addition, there are a number of books written by other cruisers with mud maps of various anchorages.
The region is constantly bathed in five to 15 knot tropical breezes, with plenty of sun. The afternoons are often punctuated by a refreshing rainshower. The temperature is mostly in the mid to high 20s.
The local people are friendly and extremely hospitable. They will often come out in their canoes to help guide you in through their surrounding reef if you wait outside.
Local protocol and politeness requires that you ask permission to go ashore on each island. Visitors should note that all things on any island are owned by somebody, so it is not there for the taking (shells, coconuts etc.).
Customs and quarantine formalities are easily managed both in and out of each country. Be aware though that your vessel must be an Australian Registered Ship.
This voyage being our first venture out of Australian waters in Andante made it one of our epic voyages. As with all passages preparation is essential and we are preparing now for our next adventure.
The Louisiade Archipelago, though beautiful and very much untouched, also remains a more remote destination for yachtsmen. However, there are some options for boaters wanting to explore the islands without committing to a long journey. For sailors or motoryacht enthusiasts wanting to enjoy a cruise-in-company to the Louisiade Archipelago, there is the Louisiades Rally coming up in September 2011. The rally programme starts in September 12 and continues until October 17, with stops at various islands along the way.
For those wishing to skip the preparations and just get there in style, there is a charter yacht, Bleu-de-Nimes, available. This yacht is a converted ex-British Navy boat, now outfitted to a very high degree with the best amenities and toys, including kit for Scuba diving and tenders for exploring bays and inlets. The Bleu-de-Nimes normally schedules charters in the Southwest Pacific from April until November. www.bleu-de-nimes.com
The New Zealand-based yacht charter agency 37 South can also help to arrange a luxury charter in the Louisiade, as they have plenty of yachts on tap in the South Pacific. www.37south.co.nz
Finally, for those wanting to take their own superyachts to the Louisiade Archipeligo, there are two superyacht support agencies that offer regional support.
Asia Pacific Superyachts www.asia-pacific-superyachts.com
Indo Yacht Support www.indoyachtsupport.com