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From CAT1 to CATastrophe: Sailing Shenanigans from NZ to Vanuatu Aboard November Rain

Updated: Jul 7




After months of preparation,(herding cats and eating elephants) we have finally departed New Zealand for Vanuatu aboard November Rain. Waiting for a weather window has been nail-biting, with a persistent low hovering in the Tasman, hanging around like a nasty cold sore before a first date. Our scheduled launch date of June 15th was pushed back as Captain Garry scanned the weather forecasts twice daily. Finally, a sliver of a window appeared on June 18th, which, while not ideal at the onset, promised better weather on the tail end of the journey. We feared that if we didn’t grab this window, we could be forced to remain in New Zealand for another three weeks or more, waiting for a better forecast. As our CAT1 survey expired on July 12th, we didn’t want to risk it, so decided to take the plunge.


5 people sitting
The Crew

Garry sent out the call to duty to our crew, and the gang quickly made their way up to Whangaroa, Victor by bus, while Dave caught a ride with Elmo and Elmo’s dad. The dad, though not traveling with us, surely wanted to inspect November Rain and size us up, ensuring it was safe enough for his son to disappear off into the wild blue yonder with a bunch of strangers.  Somehow, we either passed muster and he’s taken out a life insurance policy on Elmo.


Our crew comes from all walks of life, but they share in common a love of the sea and a passion for fishing. We connected with Victor, a 50-something Chinese-American on findacrew.org about 6 months ago. He’s married, a self-employed businessman from Northern California who has been traveling in search of the world’s best spearfishing sites and recently returned from the Azores.  He’s packed well, with 23 kgs of spearfishing gear, but only one change of clothes for a two-month stint. He’s brought along an electric shark shield and a futuristic underwater scooter that attaches to his arm and is the size of a patrolman’s flashlight. He’s also graciously gifted us some specialty Asian spices. We look forward to some real Chinese cooking but will pay close attention to Victor’s choice of ingredients as he’s already mentioned some interesting protein choices that he enjoys such as pelican, raw squid, bear paw, fish eye balls, and shag (cormorant).


Dave and Elmo are both Kiwis who answered the call on Facebook’s NZ Fishing Community Page. Dave, also married, in his 50’s, is a super-yacht captain with offshore experience who finds time to volunteer with the NZ Coast Guard. Dave is on a busman’s holiday and will be with us for about a month in Vanuatu. Elmo, the youngest of the three men, is in his late twenties and has tabled his real estate career for the moment to join us on an adventure. Elmo plans on crewingto Cairns, about 3 months. Elmo owns his own boat, as do our other two crew mates. Elmo has also brought spear gear, a drone, and enough clothes for him AND Victor.


four men at the helm station
Victor, Garry, Elmo and Dave getting oriented

Our first night aboard November Rain was at the marina in Whangaroa and it was all about orientation to the boat, bunk assignments, luggage storage, safety drills and getting to know one another. With five strangers setting off on an ocean journey, there has to be a lot of trust. There’s no better way to get familiar than to have all the guys sleeping in the close quarters of a bunk room. Our master cabin shares a thin wall, and we don’t make a habit of closing the door, so you quickly learn who is the snorer, the night owl, the nudist, the sleep talker, the thumb sucker. Victor is two of these things. His snoring was soft and social, but frequently peppered with loud outbursts of sleep talking, at several points, yowling and meowing out like a cat! He’s been warned he may be banished to the flybridge if he keeps it up.


The next morning, all itching to go and up early before dawn, we impatiently waited for the sunrise to depart. We motored our way down to Opua at 9 knots, where we were scheduled at 2 p.m. to clear out of of New Zealand. The beautiful morning soon turned foggy and we lost all visibility beyond 50 meters. It was a good opportunity for Garry to orient the crew to our radar systems.  AIS showed us other vessels in the nearby area, including a 70-meter boat towing a 13-meter game boat. They were heading to Fiji, as were most of the other vessels departing Opua today. Seems we will be alone on the way to Vanuatu.


Our first stop was the fuel jetty, where we took on 2,500 litres of fuel, topping up to our 5,000 litre capacity.  We expect to arrive in Lanekel, Tanna, Vanuatu with half-full tanks in about 5 days. The fuel pump’s hoses weren’t long enough to span the catamaran’s deck, so we had to spin the boat around to fill the port tanks, then submit our multiple diesel receipts to the marina office, where they would credit back the 15% GST. An unprinted receipt almost cost us $250, but the marina office’s nice lady was able to look up the bank charge and give us credit for the missing receipt.


We are heavily laden with food, gear, fuel, and enough people to sink our waterline to its limit. Garry’s purposely left the water tanks 1/2 empty and will fill them later with desalinated water, but only after we burn off the first few hundred litres of fuel. I’ve given fair warning to the crew that they need to start eating off the provisions to lighten our load, and laid out a big spread of cheeseburgers for lunch.


Next, a stop at the Customs office, where the Officer sternly matched our faces to our passports, remarking that Elmo had gained weight and Garry had gone grey since their passports were issued. They confirmed our CAT1 Compliance Certificate and rubber-stamped us out of the country. We were warned to go straight back to the boat, do not pass go, and exit the country immediately, which we did. We enjoyed to a nice roast pork dinner with potatoes au gratin, peas, gravy, and homemade apple sauce before we hit North Cape. 10 kgs out of the larder, but still in the crew’s guts, so no lighter yet.


Our first night was just awful, as we left North Cape, driving into a quartering headwind while waves quartered from behind us, a sea as confused as Donald Trump in a television news interview.


Elmo, who had drawn the shortest straw for the smaller top bunk, was given the first option on the night watch rotation and he chose the 7-9:30 pm shift. Rain squalls were coming through regularly, with thunder and lightning in the distance, but on the upside, the rain washed away the heavy salt spray away that was already beginning to cake the windscreen.


A yacht with AIS enabled appeared on the radar and Elmo woke Garry to consult on collision avoidance. Victor took the 9:30 to Midnight shift and woke Garry again, his interpretation of a large blob on the radar was worrying him, convinced we were going to run aground. Garry explained that the blob was a weather front, not an uncharted island. By now, both Victor and Elmo were queasy, offloading roast pork and applesauce, doing their part to lighten our ship’s load, one stomachful at a time. Garry finished Victor’s shift, then did his own Midnight to 2:30 am shift. Dave stood the next watch, and I enjoyed sunrise from the helm seat. We came within 1/2 mile of enormous tanker steaming to Singapore but passed safely behind them.


By 8 am, the wind and waves were starting to calm down and we were able to move around the boat once again using only single handholds. Victor claims to have slept well, and he’s the only one fresh-faced and bushy-tailed. The rest of us are sleep-deprived and bleary-eyed, cat-napping when we can.


game rods in front of sunset
Sunset

Lines were put in the water of day two, four 37-kg rods, towing an assortment of lures with blue marlin flavours. We don’t expect to catch much here out in the deep, but you never know, as Garry repeatedly tells me “There’s no fences out here”.  Yeah, I’ve heard that line a thousand times before, but he has fresh ears aboard, so he repeats it.


Our first major disaster happened not two hours after the words were issued “Knock on wood, that’s never happened before”. Then..it happened…exactly as if it were prophesied….. Elmo was at the helm, while the rest of the crew was snuggled in their bunks dreaming of cats (thanks to Victor’s prompting again). The bilge alarm went off, which in itself wasn’t unusual, but when it didn’t stop alarming after a couple of minutes, Garry got up to investigate. As he stepped over the bulkhead from the cabin into the saloon, he found himself standing ankle-deep in saltwater. Water was pouring over the door threshold from the head and there was 6’’ of water in the head. Apparently, the toilet pump had gotten stuck open, first filling the toilet’s holding tank, then overflowing onto the bathroom floor before finally breaching the door’s threshold and water-falling out into the saloon.


Marine Toilet
The head that made a mess

The flusher was immediately decommissioned and Garry and Dave got busy bailing out the mess. Water had found its way down into the port bilge and the bilge alarm continued to annoy us from time to time for the rest of the night while we tried to sleep with our heads under our blankets to avoid the stench. (I will continue to annoy Garry for the rest of his life as I had requested a new vacu-flush system during our last refit, but was vetoed in favour of the latest in fish-finding technology).


In the morning, Elmo and I swabbed the poop deck (disinfected the entire saloon with bleach), while the new Bissell steam cleaner proved its worth on soggy upholstery. We were still mopping up the port bilge when the starboard reel suddenly screamed off.


Elmo stepped up, donned the stand-up gear, and pulled in our first fish of the trip, a very small short-billed spearfish. We released it after a few photos, but I think Victor was disappointed that we didn’t harvest the spleen or eyeballs for some kind of exotic sushi.


fish
Short Billed Spearfish


Medical Officer’s Log, Star Date 21/06/2024: Although mild sea sickness continues to plague some, the crew shows no signs of typhoid, hepatitis, or cholera.  I am optimistic that we may have escaped the consequences of the Great Toilet Flood of 2024.  Will continue to monitor.


By day four, the water had warmed to 22 degrees C, and the woolies had been put away for good. Booby birds and flying fish began to appear, sporadically at first, then in numbers as the day wore on. The wind and the waves are in agreement, pushing us from behind for a comfortable ride. Garry has rigged up the Talica rods with divers and rapalas on 80lb braid, we are scheduled to hit our first reef in the early morning, a tiny sliver of rock at the bottom of Vanuatu’s 80+ island archipelago.


On day five, we trolled around a sea mount, which showed promise with bait and birds on the surface.  Victor was on the rotation when the starboard rigger went off.  It was his first game fish on stand up and he reeled in a small yellowfin tuna, which he promptly dispatched into an impromptu sashimi lunch. Dave hooked into a stinky barracuda, which was released at the side of the boat and I dropped a rainbow runner. Garry decided to move off the sea mount and closer to one of the islands and it was a decision that paid off.


Man fishing on boat
Victor on a yellow fin tuna


The action keeps on coming, with tuna after tuna, followed closely by shark after shark. In the end, we boated 6 1/2 tuna which we plan on sharing with the locals in Tanna. Elmo had a case of the dropsies and lost four in a row on the rod before we pulled him out of the rotation and then he proceeded to transfer that bad luck to dropping the next two as wireman.


Man  holding fish on boat
Elmo with the first of many


Woman holding yellowfin tuna
Lori struggles to lift the Yellow Fin Tuna

In the distance, one of the southernmost islands of Vanuatu charted as “Matthew”, appeared to have large areas of green against the rock face. We assumed it was vegetation, but as November Rain approached, we were surprised to see steam rising from vents, and the “vegetation” was actually bright yellow sulfur deposits (our noses confirmed it).  There wasn’t so much as a blade of grass, even the local sea birds seemed reticent to land on the rock. We had stumbled upon an active volcano!  National Geographic should be ringing any minute! However, not knowing the eruption history or risk to us was a bit disconcerting, and we hoped we weren’t going to find out firsthand about Mother Nature’s power.




On a sour note, our brand new, never-been-used Black Magic harness has disappeared, probably stolen away in last night's breeze. Maybe we call it a sacrifice to Madame Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire and volcanoes and hope for her mercy.


volano
Matthew Island, Vanuatu

Our cell phones automatically updated to the new local time, an hour’s difference, which meant sunset/sunrise were also an hour off. Garry updated our watch rotations to reflect the time shift.  Essentially, our body clocks were still on the same time, so it didn’t seem to matter that I was now up at 4 am, instead of 5 am.


In the morning,  the last night watch was over as we approached the island of Aneityum, also known as Mystery Island. It’s only another 50 miles to Tanna from there, where we will clear in into Vanuatu, and then it’s island hopping from here on out, anchoring in sheltered bays at night.


The sea has been lumpy, sleep sporadic and things are starting to fall apart. One of the alternators (recently reconditioned) has just failed, and we’ve been ordered to stop charging our electronic devices and avoid electric appliances. We’ve shut down the fridges, including the one with the 6 1/2 tuna. Five minutes later, Garry announced that we had lost steering, which is an ominous sign. Fortunately, we aren’t crossing the Cook Straight in a Passenger Ferry, and Garry’s paralleled the batteries to temporarily re-power the steering.



Man in boat's engine bay
Gazza changing out the alternator

We dropped anchor at Mystery Island for an hour to make repairs. Shutting off the diesel engines after 5 days is the sweetest sound or lack thereof. Garry got to work replacing the port side alternator with one of our spares, while Victor surgically removed the eyes of 6 tuna, promising eyeball soup for dinner. And you, dear reader, thought it was a joke…



man holding box of fish eyes
Victor and the tuna eyes


Nearing Tanna, we hooked into a large tuna and Dave got it close enough to the boat to witness the taxman taking his share. A large 12-foot tiger shark chopped off the tail but kindly left the head, giving Victor an extra pair of eyeballs for tonight’s soup.


man with fish
Tax man took his share of Dave's tuna

We rocked into the Lanekal Bay on Tanna right at sunset, dropped anchor.  And true to his threat, Victor cooked up his soup, and even Garry had a taste.  To be fair, it was delicious although only Elmo was game enough to eat the actual orbs.


Elmo redeemed himself by finding the lost Black Magic harness in his dive bag and all is perfect in our world tonight.


Guys eating soup
Soup Time


Sunset
Welcome to Vanuatu




soup
Fish Eye Soup

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Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Great blog Lori and what a memorable passage. When I saw CAT1 and Catastrophe I immediately thought of a CAT1 cyclone and thought the worst! Relief all round when I read on....maybe there will be a berth for me yet. A few years ago pre-Covid I did eat a whole Poulet fish (eyeballs and all) at the Wahoo Bar in Havana Harbour not too far from where you are now. Recommended but I reckon you might be having more than enough delicious fish meals. Looking forward to your next blog. Wishing you safe and enjoyable travel and great fishing. All the best. Mark (Wanganella's)

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Guest
Jun 28
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Hi Lori, what a great read!

Eyeball soup sounds umm.. interesting?! 🤢

Looking forward to more fantastic updates during your big adventure.

Cheers, Gill (Dave’s long-suffering, part-time wife!)

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Guest
Jun 24
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Outstanding writing mate, best wishes to you and Gaz for the trip. Please land a big blue for me. Cheers Jamie

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Guest
Jun 24

A very clever and funny blog Lori.

One blog down and many more to come; no eye balls please for this Westerner as I’ll stick with Garry and his diet.

Ah, ye ol’ toilet foot plunger lever reset, a rookie mistake!

Are you sourcing a new spare alternator over there?

Cheers,

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Guest
Jun 24
Replying to

A Vanuatu mate is in Oz at the moment and has organized to bring one over for us next week.

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Guest
Jun 23
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Awesome story! Look forward to many more, and following you on your amazing adventure. Matt, part of the Matuku crew.

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