Looking back at… 2015

Following the many nice reactions on my e-mail update last year (again apologies for the long text!) I’ve decided to give you all some new reading material for this year! So lets start looking back at 2015 and what happened. And I will try to keep it shorter this time…

As you might have noticed, I switched from Dutch to English so I can address a slightly broader audience. You have also noticed that the update is a bit late for the festive season. This is due to a lack of internet access over the season (more on this later) and a dead MacBook so I have to borrow other laptops to type this (no Apple Stores in the South Pacific…).

Living in the beautiful Cook Islands

When I left you in my last e-mail update, I had just moved to Rarotonga, Cook Islands to work as a Dive Instructor there. In this update I already told you a lot and shared my first experiences, so for now just a small recap.
I loved living on Raro, it’s a beautiful island with extremely friendly people. I was lucky to have a colleague who turned out to be a great housemate and friend, and I also befriended an American instructor from another dive shop (we had a lot of common background and friends from Utila, Honduras), so this meant that within a short time there I was able to create a fun social life. Tourism is of course big on Raro, so there are enough restaurants and bars to entertain yourself. And it didn’t take long to also find the more `local`places to have a drink or two!

Rarotonga Cook island diving south pacific
Rarotonga BBQ Cook islands south pacific
diving rarotonga south pacific cook islands

With the Cooks being so far from the Netherlands, not many people made it all the way over here. But my brother Govert took on the challenge of traveling 24 hours halfway around the world to be on one of the last places in the world to celebrate New Year (Raro is very close to the International Date Line). He stayed for 2 weeks at the local backpackers hostel and seemed to have great time (I hardly saw him!) and he left the island with many new friends, good memories and a beautiful Polynesian tattoo…

Muri Rarotonga Cook Islands beach
Rarotonga cook islands diving south pacific

Working wise it was a very efficiently run dive shop, from which I learned a lot but made for some hard working days! I usually worked 5-6 days, doing a combination of try dives at local pools, introduction dives in the shallow lagoon or open water, guiding certfied divers and teaching dive courses. And of course in between ensuring that the boat and diving gear was prepared, keeping the shop clean, filling tanks etc.

On my days off I usually went to the beach, exploring new places or returning to old favorites for some good coffee and lunch, doing errands and shopping in the main town Avarua, and spending a lot of time on fixing my scooter which needed a bit more TLC than I anticipated. And did some Raro highlights as visiting the waterfall, doing the cross island trek, visiting the saturday market.

Rarotonga south pacific cross island walk

View at the highest point of the cross island trail in Rarotonga

Sailing away…

By mid May my visa was about to expire and I had to leave the Cooks. By that time I had decided I wanted to see a bit more of the South Pacific as it would be a waste to head back home and only see the Cooks in this faraway part of the world. And that if I were to fly to Auckland, Sydney or L.A. (the only international destinations from the Cooks) it would involve a lot of cost and backtracking to do so (air connections in the Pacific are limited and expensive).

So I decided to try to help out as crew on a passing yacht, which was a bit of challenge as it was still early in the season so not much yachts passing by, and Raro not being the most popular stop on the transpacific ‘coconut run’ (quite far south). With my visa expiry nearing I was getting a bit nervous but luckily the few weeks before I left some yachts started to appear in Avarua harbor.
After introducing myself to several yachts, a friendly elderly Englishman (but who lived in Australia most of his life) offered to take me aboard. He had bought a sailing boat (Westerly Corsair 36) in the UK and was sailing it to his home on Australia´s East coast. He had been on the road for about 2 years, most of it by himself.

Over a few beers at a Raro hotel we discussed our plans. My idea at this time was pretty open, try to see a bit more of the Pacific, and maybe pick up a diving job for a few months if one appeared in a nice location. I had a rough timeline to be back in the Netherlands around late August, to enjoy a bit of summer there and decide on future plans then. The skipper proposed we would sail to Tonga and then onward to Fiji where the boat would go in for some maintenance. Once there we would make up a new plan, or go our separate ways. This all fitted well with my plans, so now followed a few hectic days of buying provisions, packing, saying goodbyes, selling my scooter and finishing my work.

My first ocean crossing

So late April we raised anchor and headed due west for Tonga, about 7 days of sailing away. I wouldn`t call myself a sailor, but luckily had some sailing experience on Dutch lakes and some coastal sailing in Spain and Croatia, so knew the sailing basics and that I wasn`t prone to seasickness. Saying that, this first oceanic crossing was a quick learning curve.

sailing south pacific rarotonga cook islands tonga
sailing south pacific rarotonga cook islands tonga

Doing night watches at the helm (funnily I never thought of that…) which proved to be quite fatiguing after a few days with just two of us, and the psychological effect of seeing no land anymore were new experiences. Halfway through the trip we encountered more wind and waves than expected, we ripped our main sail, and the skipper fell and was unconscious for a while and quite dazed for a bit after that. At which point I realized I hardly knew how to operate his boat and didn`t have access to the navigation system (password protected laptop)…

A pacific paradise Kingdom

Luckily after all these learning experiences all went well and we arrived safely in Nuku’alofa, capital of the Kingdom of Tonga.

Tonga palace sailing south Pacific
tonga south pacific sailing
Tonga Tongatapu stonehenge south pacific sailing
Tonga beer South Pacific sailing

Here we spend about a week, doing some sightseeing, shopping and relaxing. I was also approached one night in a bar by a Dutch guy, who turned out to be the CEO of one of the local mobile operators. He heard through the island tam-tam that another Dutchman had appeared on the island and so we were drinking buddies in no time.

In this week we also made a plan to repair the ripped sail and we heard that the best place was in the northern island group of Vava’u of Tonga as this is a big sailing base. So we made our way up there, exploring the beautiful islands of the Ha’apai group along the way. In Vava’u we quickly found a sailmaker and made arrangements to have the sail repaired.

sailing south pacific tonga ha'apai
sailing south pacific tonga ha'apai
bike ha'apai sailing Tonga south pacific
Matafonua Lodge Ha'apai Tonga sailing south pacific

An unexpected opportunity

While in Vava’u I was having a nice cappucino and started chatting to the guy at the table next to me. He turned out to be a guest on a big 120 ft / 36 mt sailing boat I already noticed in the harbor. I mentioned I was a dive instructor, sort of on a slow way home, sort of on the lookout for a new job. He replied that the ship was looking for a temporary dive instructor so a few hours later I found myself having beers with the captain, having a look at the boat, and being offered a job for 3 months! After a sleeping a night on it, a few days later I started as dive instructor on the ship Infinity.

This is a expedition sailing ship owned by the German captain Clemens, who lives on the ship with his partner Sage and two young daughters Rhianne and Chloe. They have been sailing the Pacific and Asia for about 10 years, with a (volunteer) crew and guests visiting shorter term between 2 weeks and a few months. The ship explores remote islands, visiting local villages and cultures, doing watersports activities such as diving, freediving, surfing, kiteboarding or just going to the beach!

Tonga Vava'u sailing south pacific
Tonga sailing south pacific infinity expedition
Tonga South Pacific sailing diving Infinity
South Pacific sailing diving Infinity

Becoming a sailing gypsy

We started out by exploring Tonga a bit further, making several trips between Vava’u and Nuku’alofa. Quickly Clemens and me decided that we liked the way things were going and decided to extend my time on the ship, and so my plans to be in the Netherlands by late summer were slowly moved backwards again….
On the boat my work consists of course of running the dive operation, guiding and teaching dives, maintaining the dive gear next to the boat jobs such as sailing itself, navigating, cleaning and occasionally cooking (my skills in this area mean that I’m not scheduled for this too much…). Besides that I also help out with the communication (e-mail, Facebook, website, etc) and on day-to-day scheduling. So pretty cool, a lot of variety! And I really like the boat life, it’s a great way to see the world, sailing on the ocean is an ever interesting experience, and it is an awesome way to live together with people from all walks of life for a while.

Vava'u sailing South Pacific Infinity Expedition
Ha'apai Tonga sailing south pacific infinity expedition

Visiting Vanuatu

After a while in Tonga, seeing awesome things like a newborn volcanic island (less than a year old) and humpback whales, we sailed to Vanuatu with a few days stopover in Fiji. Vanuatu was hit hard by cyclone Pam early in 2015, and on some of the islands the devastation was still huge, but recovering. Other islands have hardly been touched. Vanuatu is a special country, a very strong local culture, beautiful Pacific island as you would imagine, and some epic volcanic action. We climbed two volcano’s, one on Ambrym and on Tanna island, both were something special. Bubbling ponds of lava, lava projectiles being thrown up hundreds of meters in the sky… a sight to remember for life

Vanuatu south pacific sailing Infinity Expedition
Ambrym Vanuatu volcano South Pacific sailing diving Infinity
Tanna Vanuatu South Pacific sailing diving Infinity
Vanuatu South Pacific sailing diving Infinity

And the kava (a Pacific specialty, a mildly intoxicating drink) is the strongest in Vanuatu, so we were sure to try some of that! We ended our Vanuatu trip in the Northern island of Espiritu Santo, where we did some great diving. In Santo you can find the wreck of the SS President Coolidge, a 1930’s luxury liner sunk (with loss of only two lives) after running on a friendly mine. It is one of the biggest easily accessible wrecks in the world so a great dive to have done!

Vanuatu south pacific Tanna Infinity Expedition
Tanna Vanuatu volcano South Pacific sailing diving Infinity

Discovering amazing Papua New Guinea

From Santo it was a 1.100 nautical mile sail to Papua New Guinea. After a brief stop on some of the remote outer islands with some of the best diving you’ll ever see, our first stop was Alotau in Milne Bay. We were there for the annual canoe festival, a great show of local culture and races of war and sailing canoes.

PNG Papua New Guinea Milne Bay Alotau Canoe Kundu festival
PNG Papua New Guinea Milne Bay Alotau Canoe Kundu festival

After a fews days watching this spectacle (we were actually part of the races, Infinity was designated as `turning buoy’ for some of the races) we made our way up North through PNG towards Rabaul. Along the way we stopped at some of the most beautiful and remote islands and reefs, and were met by some of the nicest people. In most islands as soon as we arrived, we were surrounded by friendly villagers in outrigger canoes wanting to trade, have a look at the boat, or just have a chat. Some of the warmest welcomes I ever encountered. For me PNG is for sure one of the most unique places I’ve been to in the world!

sailing pacific Papua New Guinea PNG diving

Warm welcome in Alcester Island

A little mishap at sea

From Rabaul we made a quick stop for some dives at the most Northern part of PNG, New Ireland, before starting our crossing to the Philippines. However, our first night at sea, the wind picked up strongly and in a gust broke our main mast. We suspect a fault in the material itself as the wind and waves were still well in our limits. After two days drifting at sea, cleaning up the mess enough to enable the ship to move again, we were able to motor back to Kavieng in New Ireland.

sailing south pacific
sailing south pacific
Sailing South pacific
sailing south pacific

There we needed a few more days to clean up and secure everything. After reviewing our options we decided to still go to the Philippines as there are better ship repair facilities there than in PNG. So after some refueling we started a 1.800 nautical mile motorsail to Cebu in the Philippines, with the remainders of the mast slung alongside the hull.

Swapping the Pacific for Asia

This was a smooth passage, although not the most exciting on the motor instead of sailing. Especially as we had wat turned our to be excellent sailing conditions! After 18 days at sea, including a swimming break on the equator, we arrived in Cebu City, Philippines, just in time to celebrate New Years there. After which we moved the ship to a wharf just north of the city, to start doing some regular maintenance and prepare for a 2-week Philippines trip that was fully booked out (and finally getting my MacBook fixed yeay!).
This trip went very well, everybody enjoyed but it was very hard work for the crew, including a lot of diving courses going on so kept me on my toes.

Sailing diving Cebu Malapascua Philippines
Sailing diving Cebu Malapascua Philippines
Sailing diving Cebu Malapascua Philippines

Right now we’re back at the wharf near Cebu, and we’re setting up the rest of our planned maintenance. To this we now have to add setting up a new mast, we are both looking for a new mast or repairing our damaged mast. Next to that there of course many other jobs, and we’re also planning and advertising our trips for 2016.

Sailing diving Cebu Malapascua Philippines
diving philippines cebu
diving Philippines Moalboal Cebu sailing south pacific

I myself am heading out to Bail late February and meeting family, my parents as part of their SE-Asia trip and my brother who is just coming to Bali. After that my plans are to head back to Infinity and rejoin till at least summer 2016 at which point I really have to visit the Netherlands again…

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