Circumnavigating Grande Terre: Koumac to Ile Ducos

September 24, 2009 1500pm: Thursday did not quite go according to plan. The Koumac marina was supposed to have a berth for us – but did not. So Wednesday night we anchored in Anse de Koumac, the lovely bay west of the marina (no internet of course, though we did sniff the iNet wifi signal briefly).

Thursday morning at 0800 we took Allegro into the little marina to see if there were any viable options for Adagio. In short, no – the harbor master offered us the fuel dock for three days, but it is really too small for Adagio, and is designed more for the work boats that better handle being banged against a concrete wharf.

While scouting the marina we met Patrick and his boys who had just finished their early morning water skiing (ski nautique). Patrick is very interested in Adagio, as he has a Catana 41-ft catamaran being delivered the end of September. Patrick kindly offered us a lift to the north country fair (Foire de Koumac et du Nord), so we were off.

We spent several hours exploring the annual country fair and rodeo of the Far North of the country. There were horses of all the main breeds being shown, cattle, wood carvers, beautiful orchids for sale, wonderful produce, and one man had even carved ostrich eggs for sale (remarkable – see the photo gallery). We felt as if we were in Texas, as everyone was wearing a Stetson cowboy hat and boots. We saw some of the Quarter Horse judging – very impressive.

During our fair tour the wind came up out of the west, which turned our anchorage into a lee shore. So we hiked back to Adagio to make sure she was not dragging up on the rocks (no, all OK for now, but not a safe anchorage for winds from the SW, W or NW).

To assess whether we had to move we downloaded a small weather model plus the Meteo France text forecast – both via Saildocs over Sailmail via HF radio.The outlook was that tomorrow afternoon the SE trades will come in with a vengeance, followed on Sunday by a cold front with shifting and strong winds. We concluded that the westerlies most likely would persist through the night – giving us a good shot at missing out on the expected head-sea bashing that is often demanded of those who circumnavigate counter-clockwise.

By then it was 1400 so we scampered around getting ready for sea so we could get out through the reef before sunset, then make on offshore overnight passage towards Noumea, and back inside the barrier reef after dawn – hopefully before the strong southeasterlies kick back in. We are now offshore, sailing southeast for Pass d’Ouarai. We hope to make the pass by mid morning so we will have light to eyeball navigate around the reefs and find a safe anchorage.

On departure we had enough wind for a nice sail under reacher, then the wind speed dropped to 8kn so we gave the reacher some help from the port engine. Four hours south of Koumac the wind died completely. So we are now motoring until the wind returns. The sea is flat calm, no wind, and no swell.

We are not complaining about the lack of wind. These conditions are MUCH nicer than beating into the normal 15 to 25 kn southeast trade winds.

September 25, 2009 0100am: A brilliant, starry night, with undulating seas reflecting the starlight and sparkling with phosphorescence. Steve took the night watch from 7 PM to midnight, and I am on watch from midnight until 5 AM. Steve said that the setting crescent moon was something to see, becoming more and more golden as it set. Rising in the east I see upside down Orion, Taurus the bull and the Pleiades. Sirius, the Dog star, is so bright that it is casting a streak of reflected light across the water. The Southern Cross is always the first constellation we see at night, with the “pushing” stars, Alpha and Beta Centaurus, above it in the sky.

All is well. All is calm. All is starry. The water is full of phosphorescence where ADAGIO disturbs the smooth surface.

September 25, 2009 0920am: We just caught a lovely, small yellowfin tuna. Just the right size, enough for three meals for the two of us. A non-obvious advantage of the smaller fish is that they can be cleaned in the galley, which makes for much less mess than blood all over the starboard transom area.

September 25, 2009 1100am: When we arrived at our approach waypoint for Pass d’Ouarai around 0800 the seas were still flat – so we decided to “press on” for the next pass south – another 16 nm or 2.5 hours. 30 minutes later it began to rain, then the wind began to increase from the SE, soon measuring 17 to 21 kn on the B&G. We again evaluated “turn back” or “press on”, concluding we should exploit the still-flat- water as the seas could not build to a developed trade wind state in 2 hours.

We are entering Pass Saint-Vincent in about 15 minutes. The conditions are grey, rain, wind SE 20kn. The reef pass is about one-half mile wide, so an entry is possible so long as the GPS system stays online. There are no leads, no major navigation marks. The extensive reefs both port and starboard are completely submerged now. It is nearly high tide, so there are no radar returns from either the reef or reef break. There is some small visible ascattered reef break on the starboard reef, but nothing on the port hand, and no breaks defining the channel. The chart shows a wreck on the starboard reef, and there was a BIG wreck high on the Passe D’Isie which we had just passed.

We don’t like “pure instrument landings”, but we judged this one to be safe as there is radar-visible Ile Tenia to port. Steve has worked out a safe passage through the reef – delimited by two radar ranges off this small island. Both our radar and electronic chart are showing a mid-pass safe range circle of 1.25 nm and a danger range circle of 1.50 nm (more would be too close to the starboard reef). So even if the GPS and our computers pack up we can find the 60 meter deep channel by radar alone.

At 1125 am we are mid-way through the reef pass, headed for a very well-protected anchorage on the north side of Ile Ducos. Splinter’s Apprentice had noted this spot, Baie des Mostiques, in their briefing for Adagio — with the comforting comment “No mossies!”. At 1250 pm our SPADE anchor is down in 7 meters of sandy mud. After testing our set with both engines at 1500 rpm we conclude we are very well “stuck” and ready to tuck into the fresh sashimi Dorothy is making from the tuna we caught this morning.

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