Tall tales and true (Vanuatu by tall ship) Published in Sydney Morning Herald, October 23, 2010 
Melanie Ball signs up as a crew member on a sailing adventure to Vanuatu's remote northern islands.



The sky is a swathe of black velvet, the sea a lumpy, inky blue and my knuckles are white, so firm is my grip on the wooden wheel as I steer Soren Larsen into the night. I am concentrating hard, too, rarely taking my gaze from the compass, a brass-encased beauty, on the 44 metres of oak and iron under my control. It is exhilarating being at the helm on only the second night of an 18-day tall-ship journey through Vanuatu's northern islands. Slightly unnerving, too, despite the captain's close supervision. An hour later I am on lookout, jacket zipped to my chin and knees flexing with the roller-coaster ride. I shelter behind the forward hatch but it gives little protection when a wave falls over the bow, diluting my hot chocolate. Relieved of lookout duty, I go aft wet but not cold, because the wind is warm.


Two days ago, I knew only port (left) from starboard. During the next fortnight, I will haul clewlines, brace yards, loose coarse gaskets, furl a jib, coil sheets and discover that a belay pin makes a handy lime smasher and ice crusher for rum punch. My education will be almost painless.

Built in Denmark in 1949, Soren Larsen traded around Europe for more than 20 years. Restored and re-rigged as a 19th-century brigantine, a two-master with square foresails, it then starred in The Onedin Line, The French Lieutenant's Woman and Shackleton; in 1988, it was the flagship for the Australian bicentenary First Fleet re-enactment.

Based in New Zealand, this beautiful Cape Horner spends May to November sailing a squiggly Auckland-to-Auckland loop through Pacific island nations and Sydney. With me on the north Vanuatu leg are 11 permanent crew and 19 voyage (paying) crew from Perth to Poland. Born on the Isle of Man but a long-time resident of New Zealand's Bay of Islands, Captain Jim Cottier has sailed most of his 76 years and fits his at-sea sarongs even better than his in-port whites.

We spend much of the first day in Luganville Harbour, on Espiritu Santo, familiarising ourselves with the ship and testing our safety harnesses on the rigging. I reach the yard (wooden spar) supporting the coarse (lowest square sail) but lose my nerve trying to mount the futtock platform, which I rename.

Going north from here, our first night sail puts us in the island group that Captain William Bligh named, for botanist Joseph Banks, after sailing his longboat through in 1789 after the Bounty mutiny. We are warmly welcomed to the Banks Islands, first in Sola, the provincial administrative headquarters on Vanua Lava, and then on tiny Ra Island, 12 kilometres north-east. Men playing guitar, ukulele, tea-chest bass, tambourine and drums sing "got to dance" songs about beautiful Vanuatu as we wade through Ra's warm shallows, and women drape frangipani leis around our necks before we reach dry land. Also waiting ashore is Father Luke Dini, with whom we stroll along the beach and inland to grassy ground ringed with ancestral figures carved from tree ferns.

Our hosts have written a special kastom (tribal) dance for us and grass-skirted men and women, and Father Dini's four-year-old grandson, Dimitri, stomp and shuffle to split-drum rhythms. But we are most looking forward to act two. Returning to the beach, we eat fish salads and taro cakes and sip coconut milk through plant stems until the dancers reappear. Now striped black and white, with a leaf gripped between their teeth, they approach along the water line to strut and pose. A fertility and coming-of-age dance unique to the north, the "snake dance" attracts the whole village and everyone laughs when Soren crew are inevitably brought into the show. Gripped by a hand that leaves black fingerprints on my arm, I do a poor imitation of the surprisingly complicated foot shuffle. A real banded sea krait visits us at anchor that night, off neighbouring Mota Lava Island, a silver squiggle in the blue depths transforming into a metre of beautiful black-and-white stripes as it surfaces off Soren's midship rail.

Midships is our classroom and open-air dining room at anchor (meals and "smokos" are served in shifts in the galley under sail). Here, Cottier demonstrates knots and draws on the deck with chalk to explain the physics of tacking and anchoring and the art of navigation. "The knowledge in that man's head would fill three hard drives," one voyager says. One afternoon, Cottier gives a talk about a navigational instrument little changed in centuries. I miss most of it, photographing square-rigger angles and shadows, and arrive as he returns the ship's institution-grey modern sextant to the chart room. In his hands when he emerges again, however, is his own 1917 brass model.

Soren Larsen has GPS but Cottier laments the modern reliance on satellite technology because he prefers "real" navigation to "just joining the dots". He says GPS gives people lacking the wherewithal the means to visit dangerously remote places. By a combination of sextant and GPS - and keeping the island starboard - we navigate clockwise around Vanua Lava to Waterfall Bay on day six, where Chief Kerely speaks of his people's desire to look after visitors, because they might one day repay in kind. Villagers then sing a welcome song, written to God Save the Queen, and Kerely's wife puts hibiscus behind our ears.

The "twin" waterfalls pour from a cliff and we spend the afternoon, and much of the next day, cooling off in the plunge pool and washing clothes and hair in the rapids running to sea. Some of us walk to the top of the falls, via verdant kava and tobacco crops and a set of rounded stones with which our guide's ancestors influenced the weather.

Runabouts and outriggers bring a hand of bananas, a basket of pamplemousse (grapefruit) and rolled greens to the ship on the second morning. Someone different owns each offering, so payment, in goods rather than money, is slow; they spend hours on deck picking through our trade goods of clothes, quilt covers, beach towels and shoes.

Another day of sailing, deck scrubbing, brass polishing and making baggywrinkles, which protect sails from chafing, brings us to Ureparapara in darkness. We have just anchored in the heart of this breached volcano when Chief Nicholson, who is Father Dini's nephew, comes aboard with the program for our much-anticipated visit to Lesereplag village. Bushwalks are first, with five of us making the steep, muddy two-hour ascent up the caldera for an aerial view of the Soren almost encircled by land. Back at sea level, we watch men in spectacular bird and fish headdresses perform kastom dances. Then four women take centre stage in a river pool, making extraordinary music with their hands in the water as a woman sings on the bank. It's soccer time now but someone has to get a ball from the ship, so we wade in for a spontaneous water-music lesson. Enthusiastic slapping and scooping fails to reproduce any of the sounds our instructors make but everyone laughs at our splashing and we squelch back to the others for Lesereplag v Soren Larsen. The soccer pitch is rough and villagers have to make up our numbers but never has a game been more vigorously contested. Our Californian deckhand delights the crowd by doing cartwheels to celebrate our first goal. Another goal gives us a 2-2 draw.

After a quick turnaround back on the ship, party night kicks off with an announcement that kava is available for 50 vatu (60ยข) a shell. Rashness overriding vivid memory, I lift a half-coconut but I am gagging before it is empty.The fun continues with a delicious spread of manioc, yam, chicken, breadfruit, leaf-wrapped fish and rice and music from the Slave String Band. Opening with a song about Soren Larsen, their string-slapping sound soon has brown hands in white and bare feet shuffling beside sandals.

Next night we motor out of Ureparapara's arms and into trade winds that fill our sails and take us north to Vanuatu's Torres Islands.Visitors, especially foreign, are rare this far from Port Vila and a posse of women and children greets us on Loh Island. Essentially, however, the next three days are about eating crabs and snorkelling in ridiculously blue water off beaches lined with coconut palms a hammock's length apart.

Our return to Luganville starts with our longest non-stop sail, the ship's bell and conch-shell calls to meals marking three rounds of watches. Our route is an elongated "Z". Day 17 brings near-perfect conditions and I take every chance to haul and coil as we tack through sunshine to protected anchorage two hours from Luganville. The evening's joint birthday bash for two permanent crew doubles as our end-of-expedition party. The full-moon revelry is worthy of brigands returned from a raid, though rum makes way for sambuca.

I never make it over the futtock deck but I do venture out on a yard again before disembarking. My white-knuckled clinging to the coarse helps more assured aerialists produce the neatest harbour-stowed sails Soren Larsen has ever worn.

FAST FACTS
Melanie Ball travelled courtesy of Air Vanuatu and the Vanuatu Tourism Office.
Soren Larsen no longer cruises the Pacific.


This text is copyright and cannot be used in any way without the written permission of Melanie Ball.

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