Passage to the Solomons

Alex Rust

11 October 2010 | En route to Honiara

We set sail out of Uraparapara at sunset so the red and pink clouds made the 2000 foot volcano rim surrounding us look as if it were errupting. To have anchored in the crator of an ancient volcano (check it on google earth 13’32.5S 167’20.5 E) and now be leaving out its only gates to the northwest was very ‘lord of the rings’ like. It would be a perfect spot for two huge stone statues of past kings.As light faded to darkness we were able to see flickering fires on the north side of the island and knew it was the cousins of our friends at whitesands of Cheif Nickelson’s clan.

We had planned on stopping at the Torres islands but with near perfect wind, no seas and current in our favor we were past them well before sunrise and so continued on toward the Solomons. I awoke the sound of “FISH!!” and came rushing on deck to find Isaac pulling in the biggest baracuda i had ever seen. I grabbed the rum and said a quick prayer as we took the specimen into the afterlife by drowning his gills with the sweet nector. Within minutes we had her filleted and on the frying pan for breakfast. While eating the delicious white flaky flesh I rememebered something about big baracuda having ciguatara (a desease tropical fish carry) but wasn’t worried because we weren’t close to a reef (usually only reef fish have ciguatara).

After the feed I pulled out a fishing guide and read up on baracuda to find that the larger baracuda (like the one we just ate) “were highly ciguatoxic and caused fatal cases in the Pacific (Bannerot p.336)”. Being out on passage several days sailing away from the nearest podunk island clinic knowing that all three on board had eatin a significant amount had me concerned. I read further into the matter and discovered the symptoms of “profound exhaustion, muscle pain, feeling of loose and painful teeth, visual disturbances, dialated pupils, slow reflexes, skin disorders on hands and feet, loss of hair and nails, reversal of cold and hot sensations, muscular paralysis, coma, and death from respiritory paralysis (Bannerot p.292)”, but also learned that if not fatal, symptoms would go away within a few months but sometimes lasted years. According the book symptoms would start within 3-6 hours. It had been one since we had eaten. I looked over at Isaac and Ben who were having such a good time, with the former practicing knot tying and the latter playing the harmonica. I didn’t want to ruin their day especially if it was their last. I decided to bear the burden of knowing and carefully monitor everyone throughout the day watching closely for symptoms but also knowing there would be nothing I could do if we all had it. Something that did give me comfort was the passage I read on tropical moray eels stating never to eat them due to toxicty. I remembered my brother Joe and I spearing a large one in Bora Bora and eating it with no ill effect. Maybe we’ll be ok this time too.

Alas eight hours had passed and we were all feeling fine and over that evenings sunset beer I broke the news. We all laughed and decided to use the next baracuda we caught as fish bate instead. Seas were less than a meter and we still had favorable wind and current and so I decided to catch some some sleep. Isaac awoke me around midnight concerned about an approaching light. When I got on deck I saw not just a light but what looked like a whole city of lights. Usually when I see a tanker or freighter ship in the distance within a few minutes of closely watching the vessel and its navigation lights I can determine a general idea of its heading and to some extent its speed and adjust course according, but after 20 minutes of watching these lights (one of which was a super bright rotating spotlight) I was confused – the vessel looked to be sitting still and directly in our path! I yelled at Isaac to shut off the autopilot as I grabbed the helm quickly jibing the foresail to avoid collision with the 200+ foot fishing boat that stood beam to our heading. We were now close enough to not only to see the 20 people scurrying about the well-lit deck with huge nets but also to hear the BULA! BULA! ring out our way. Aha, Fijians. Remembering a little Fijian I yelled back ‘Bula Bula Venaka!’ which sent the entire deck into an uproar being answered back in their native tounge in the middle of the dark Pacific by a bearded white man on a sailboat (the bright spotlight was now focused on us). They asked where I was from and when I said Amercica I heard a USA USA chant ring out. We were now close enough to the boat as we crossed their stern that we were holding conversation in normal voices and they invited us to tie up and come aboard but it was just as we sailed past and I yelled in reply ‘mothai'(goodbye in Fijian) as they now got smaller and smaller. I’ve been kicking myself ever since for not taking down sail and having a mid night mid Pacific kava session with some Fijian fishermen.

Around noon I noticed a descending thicket of greyness to our northwest and within a few minutes it was clear were going to cross paths. We were getting closer the Pacific Convergence Zone and this meant mores squalls and thunderstorms. The past couple days had given us 12 knots out of our rear starboard quarter (out of the southeast) and as we approached the system the wind went north and picked up to 25. Our autopilot kicked off and we put in a reef and I took the helm as our speed increased as I tried to stay with the systym as long as possible to take advantage of the winds . When the rain hit the visibility went down to less than 50 feet. I could barely see anything out past the bow and it felt like we were in a room made of walls of water. I tried to imagine what it would be like to naviagate with this rain if there were many other boats or even islands around, as I was soon to encounter many of both on the Asia approach.

The system passed and we now had much lighter. winds and so raised the spinnaker. It was the first time for both Isaac and Ben and as with anyone flying a spinnaker for the first time they were captivated for hours at its size and color (green with massive yellow star) as it carried the boat nicely along at 4 knots in 6 knots of wind.

The next day was another calm day so I took to bow projects on the deck Resealing a hatch, apoxying the dingy, and tightning the lifelines. While working at the bow a four foot purple tuna came and jumped out of the water almost within hands reach. Several minutes later there a dozen of these magical looking creatures swimming at the bow as dolphins would. They stayed for hours giving me plenty company and entertainment as I toiled. We are now surrounded by Solomon islands and I counted 8 just now but we still have another 50 miles to get to Honiara, the capital, to check in.

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