Our first ‘big’ boat was an eleven metre ketch in 2004, which we sailed around Moreton Bay. Then in 2006 we upgraded to a commercial ten metre Seawind which we ran in charter, sailing north to Bowen and south to Recherche Bay during our holidays.
As a commercial skipper and largely self-employed, it was a matter of planning the trips well in advance and getting the time-frames right.
Deciding to live aboard when the kids left home, we sold everything and upsized to a 2003 model 13m Belize. At 13 ton, she is a cruising catamaran, not a racing cat. But we had set our goals a bit higher than coastal cruising.
Several of our friends, including Noel and Jacky, Linda, Tony and Clare and Andre and Warren and Debbie to name a few, have gone offshore. Some even circumnavigated. Some twice!
We decided to start small: a trip to New Caledonia for three months. The write-ups looked good: closer than New Zealand; civilised in a kinda French way; has all the amenities you might need.
For those of you who have also thought about it, here is a guide of the hoops that have to be jumped through to get yourselves ready, the first crossing, landfall in Noumea and the first months in NewCal. Plus the getting-back bit.
Legal prep first: the boat has to have Australian registration.
This involves applying to the Australian Registry of Shipping, selecting a unique boat name, supplying the appropriate documentation and paying a fee of about AU$1500. This is a once-off fee. The boat becomes Australian for the duration of your ownership.
Because we had bought the yacht off an English-Australian who had bought it out as an English vessel, we had to get letters from the Small Ships Registry in UK saying that it was unencumbered and no longer a ‘British’ ship.
There are five or six different documents you need to provide: identification, statutory declarations, builder’s certificates, etc. The process took about three months. Then we received our ON number. This has to be carved in timber and affixed internally to the hull in a visible secure place and the screwheads burred out. If you have a wooden ship, feel free to carve the number somewhere visible.
Now is also the time to contact your insurance company and get an extension for three months so you are covered.
Now it is time to prep your yacht. Engineering and sails and spares and water and fuel and .. the list obviously goes on and on.
We had the winch rebuilt, purchased a new spare starter motor, waterpump, filters, belts, macerators, saltwater impellers, hoses, electrical, sailors palm and twine and the like. Along with this goes the tool kit to make sure you can swap out the offending part.
Some mechanical or engineering expertise helps, but it is all pretty simple stuff with a diesel. We also put new injectors in and had the old ones serviced as spares. If you are living aboard, or cruising frequently, you probably have this in hand anyway.
Our failures on the trip were a water-pump motor and a salt-water pump shaft leak. We have never had to use our sewing machine, but it is there just in case.
We also added a camping-sized twin tub washing machine, which was installed where one of the heads used to be. Invaluable in crowded marinas with a big walk to the amenities.
Preparing oneself for a long journey means taking a few coastal trips, some overnighters to ensure a degree of competence with the radar, AIS, radio etc. Also a few bad weather trips and bar crossings.
These provide the skills which set you apart from the landlubbers with a boat and a licence. If you have done a fair bit of east coast cruising, you would be up-to-date with your skills anyway.
Maybe a TAFE college or RYA course would be beneficial here, such as a Deckhand or Offshore skipper course.
A cautionary tale I can tell you about is that of some flat-landers (unfortunately Australian), who recently bought a boat on E-bay in Canada, flew over and left the dock the same day: no preparation, nothing. Twenty four hours later they were rescued and the boat was gone. True story!
It is infinitely more comfortable to have some crew aboard to share watches. Preferably someone who knows the pointy end from the blunt end and can ‘hand, reef and steer’.
Some may choose backpackers on a hitchhike trip with all the risk that involves. Upon our return to Oz, the Border Force people specifically asked if we had had anyone on board during our stay and pointedly mentioned “backpackers”.
Some pay professional crew. Some take family. We were lucky enough to have our mate Terry who did his dive instructor training with me last millennium. Terry races a Sydney 30 on Pittwater, has crossed the ‘bug dutch’ to ‘UnZud’, worked as a commercial skipper in Honiara and is completing his RYA offshore-skippers ticket. Perfect!
We provided food, accommodation, booze and a week aboard in NewCal. Terry provides the fish! Having the satellite phone aboard so he could phone Louise for her birthday, was the clincher.
Another mate Mark opted to sail over with us and fly back. He sails a 36 Easy out of the Broadwater.
By the way, this is important: NewCal immigration will not let you in on a one-way plane ticket, so you have to have your agent in NewCal organise an immigration letter about a month in advance, to enable your returning crew to get over on a one-way ticket.
Food prep will depend on your fridge space, diet, crew list and so-on. Allow also for the fact that, in New Caledonia, they will take any left-over fruit and vegetable but your Australian meat, cheese and so-on is fine.
Stock up on what you can, precook some easy meals for the crossing. A variety of teabags, biscuits and snacks for the watch crew are appreciated. Regarding customs, be advised that the last ten boats to enter NewCal, including us, did not have Customs come on board. After quarantine has left, Customs either turns up by 5pm or they do not. You can take your Q flag down and go ashore and get the police to stamp your passports.
We used the services of Noumea Yacht Services, who took our passports in for us. Cost $40 each, but it meant we could stay on board and get things done.
Weather preparation research will show you that the best time to visit New Caledonia is after the summer Lows have finished. This is said to be after the end of April. We chose to leave during the first week of May.
There are weather routing software systems available, we chose the services of Bob McDavitt a NZ forecaster who also does/did the routing for people like Jessica Watson and other racing teams. Once informed of your likely leave date and boats handling characteristics, known as your polar diagram, and for the princely sum of about NZ$85, Bob will email you a preferred leave date, waypoints, weather to be expected, alternate routes etc.
His wind forecasts for our crossing were never out by more than five knots and pressure never by more than two millibar.
If you text or sat-call him halfway, he will supply updates. Some people call it expensive. I call it “bloody good insurance”.
Check www.metbob.com for his free weekly forecast for the Pacific. The other positive is that Bob does not charge until after you arrive, so think of the enormous amount of cash you will save if you do not get there!
The crew, who turned up a month after us, had been warned of a south-easterly front with the coming high. A few cruisers left late and, as I write this in early June, they are out there copping 50kt while the east coast of Australia is dealing with 70kt with the first of the winter Lows.
For our return trip we chose to spend a few days in the Chesterfields. This allowed the next front to develop, so we copped it during the last two days of our return. Shoulda listened to the bob-o-gram!
You should email Customs about a week before leaving with a note to the effect that your vessel number such-and-such, with crew (names, DOB, passport numbers), will be leaving from wherever, roughly about such-and-such a date. You are only required to give 48 hours notice, but more is better.
We chose to leave from Southport Yacht club and the Customs crew (henceforth known as Border Force) will come down from Brissie for free and clear you out. Do not plan to leave on a Saturday or Sunday, or there is a fee.
Once you have notified them, you can obviously allow for last-minute changes for weather and crew changes etc. Our two officers turned up on time on Friday at 1300 with the paperwork, sat in the cockpit and wrote out our clearance and noted our passports.
They do not stamp passports anymore, all e-done. Having being ‘cleared out’, you are technically not allowed to stay. We had not watered-up and the kids were coming down for a farewell drink. The BFG people said they did not mind if we hung around for a bit, but if we were not underway by 1800, to let them know.
So we sat in the club bar until 1630 saying goodbye. It is a bit like the airport: once you are through the gate, you cannot just waltz back in!
Again, allowance will be made for bad weather, but you should have already allowed for this. Remember to get your clearance cert and fuel rebate voucher, to get your sales tax back on your fuel you bought that day.
When prepping your communications it is all about location, location, location. Are you halfway to NewCal, or arrived?
If you are in the middle of the Coral Sea, or any other area out of mobile range, you will need alternate comms. I picked up an Iridium 9555 satphone for $600 on E-bay, complete with big aerial and fittings. Then I went to the SatComm providers in Southport and 20 minutes later we have a satphone mobile number, which is just like my normal number.
Using it is going to cost us about $100 a month for the data I selected and more if we go over talking to the family from out there. I combined this with a further $350 purchase from X-gate who supply a WiFi unit which plugs in with mini-USB to your satphone.
This provides compressed access to website through your satphone for weather and email. Being compressed, it uses less data so costs less, about $150 for three months. It takes me about five minutes to plug in and dial up the weather for anywhere in the world. Available for i-thing, e-roid-thing or laptop. Predict Wind is the model being used.
Same for sending or receiving emails but keep them short: ascii only, no photos. Remember, we are talking security and weather here, not downloading the latest movie.
It took me a while to setup, but Rob from www.clientsatphone.com.au was available anytime to talk me through. Total hardware cost for satphone wifi: about $1100, or $2k brand new. Ongoing about $125 a month, but if you do not need it, don’t register it. Handy for offshore cruising.
another option is the Iridium Go, which allows four wifi ports on board for Facebook etc.
If you choose Thuraya-based systems be aware that the satellite runs out about Noumea. Thuraya is better for west-Oz and SE Asia, being Geostat. Iridium is LEO-based, low earth orbit, so there is one every hour or so and it is truly global.
Once in NewCal we attend the post office to get a local SIM for our Telstra mobile. Whoops, Telstra has locked it. So we rang Telstra: sorry, you have to go into a store to unlock that! So, the upshot is, do it before you go.
I am with Bigpond who advertise their ‘Travel pass’ option. Having called them we discovered that they do not offer it for travel to our nearest pacific neighbour, ie. NewCal. Great!
Even with wifi at Port Moselle Marina, we could not send emails from our Bigpond account. I have no idea why and neither does anybody else from Bigpond that I spoke to.
I do have global roaming so I could use my phone at AU$2 per minute, or text at $0.75 per SMS or $3 per megabyte of data. So check it out before you go! As the saying goes: “a stich in time is better than two in the bush”.
We decided to stick to the marina wifi for our g-mail and e-mails and Facebook uploads etc. We plan to come back to the marina once a fortnight or so anyway and wifi is included.
The Hotel at Kuto Beach on Ile des Pins has wifi for $12 and ours lasted a week. We could access it anchored 400m out in the bay.
The weather is suitable, Customs has cleared you, the family has had last drinks, so it is sails up and underway. Big moment.
The first night out we had Simba accompany us for five miles. The next 800 were up to us.
Once dinner and celebratory drinks are done, a watch is organised and off you go. We had trawlers and bulkies plying their trade offshore so a bit of a zig-zag for the first night.
Come daylight, and we are 75 mile offshore and heading 65° magnetic. Our forecast was for light winds, so if we got below a speed of five knots, a motor went on. Over the six days and six hours of our crossing, we burned 290 litres of diesel.
Crossing the Capel Banks halfway over, the water was 28° Celsius and flatter than a poo-carters hat, so we jumped off for a dip. Terry swam around the boat and this was with the sails up!
The sunsets for the first two nights are mind-blowing, with all the red dust over Australia adding to the usual sunset splendour. We spent many a minute sitting there, with a glass of wine, not saying a single word. Just staring! How’s the serenity?
With the weather actually obeying the forecast and with dying winds, we arrived a little early at Passe-de-Dumbea. I chanced burning the last of our diesel to get in at night.
The charts are good, the depths are plenty so, by 2100, we were anchored in the public mooring zone off the front of Port Moselle Marina enjoying our first night at anchor, the harbour lights and the fragrant aromas of the nickel refiney up the hill.
Forget sailing up-and-down all night off the pass. It is quicker and safer to get inside. As long as you know your lights you should not have a problem.
At 0830 next morning, I tune-up channel 67. The Port Marina can all speak English, if you talk slowly, and they will allocate you a berth for clearing in.
Be aware, learning some French will go a long way to getting on in town. We had made use of the services of the ‘Down under rally’ and their agent Herve, pronounced “Air-vay”.
The lovely quarantine lady took some details and our fruit and veg but left us our meat. Anything in cans was fine, as was mushrooms! Cheese was also OK.
Herve came and took our passports off to the Hotel de Gendarmerie for stamping and clearing in. Apparently, the ‘Hotel de Gendarmerie’ is not a place to go for a beer and a pie, unless you want to spend the night.
We waited patiently on board. During this time I figured how to wire-up the French 240V socket the marina gave me and found a male-male fitting for our hose to go into their female water point. Herve said if Customs do not turn up by 5 o-clock, you can take down your yellow flag and go ashore. So we did.
The first day-week-month
First things: a celebratory drink. Remember: it is a marina so FR$450 and $650 for beer and wine should not be a shock. About AU$6 and $8 per ounce.
The fruit and vegetable market is next to Port Moselle and starts around 0530. If you want fresh bread be quick. Lots of local fruit, but also imported Aussie apples and NZ supplies.
There is a money-machine at the markets, also meat, loud shirts and sarongs, island jewellery and associated knick-knacks. The fish-market has lobster for about $35 a kilo and all the other fish you could desire.
The marina charged us about FR$4250 a day, which is about AU$55. Cheaper than a lot of Aust. marinas. For this you get power, water, wifi, showers etc.
Allow for size, our 13m cat takes a big berth, so if you are smaller, you might save a franc or three. Again, going with the Port 2 Port Downunder Rally will save you 15 per cent and give you some perks and freebies.
Downtown Noumea is a 20 minute walk. Casino Johnston on the waterfront is a large supermarket with everything you need, including beer and wine.
Easy way to work out the exchange rate is to think in American cents: FR$1000 = 1000 US cents = US$10 = roughly AU$13, rate dependant. Casino Johnston takes Australian dollars, NZ dollars, Visa etc.
The Quartier Latin, five minutes from the marina, has some good local restaurants. Think AU$30 for the feed of the day and $40 for a bottle of French red. Feed for four with bottle of plonk, around $160.
Downtown in the main square there are beer bars, pizza, Chinese, Thai and so on. If you allow Australian prices plus about 20%, you cannot do wrong.
Le Petit café up on the hill needs a booking in advance, but again Herve can help out here. As Herve said to us “all things are possible – if you want a pink elephant in a white Cadillac, it might cost a bit more, but it can be done.”
The town is a mix, a combination. To us it is a slow-cooked and stirred version of ‘Paris meets Espiritu Santo’. Rich French in BMWs and Range Rovers and kanaks in Hyundais and Toyotas. Fashion and jewellery with security, next to Kanak stores selling cooking utensils and loud shirts. The old French Cathedral, the Maritime Musee. The town is worth a quiet stroll around.
Back at the marina, once watered and fuelled-up at about AU$1.20 per litre for diesel, you are free to head out and sample the delights of the lagoon, some 200 nautical miles of it.
Our highlights for the first four weeks include:
Ile aux Goelands, a bird sanctuary about eleven mile NW with blue water and coral.
Ilot Amedee, the lighthouse island 10 mile west. Moorings for free and a view. Watch for snakes, the Rayot Tricolor: black and white, blue and white, or red and white. Harmless seasnakes that come ashore to sunbake.
Recif Tabu, near Amadee is good for a snorkel.
Ile Mbo and Il MbeKouen, twelve mile NW with clear blue water and a reef with all-tide sandy beach.
Bai De Deama, Ouanghi. A big bay with a little marina in the corner. 25 mile NW of Noumea.
Ille Testard, the north side of the lagoon, up past Bai de Deama. Shells and sand.
Ile Isie, five mile past Testard. Lonely sandy beach, islanders BBQ shelters. Conch shells.
Ile Bailly in a fishing exclusion zone south of Noumea. Lovely beach.
Ile Ouen on the north side, 20 mile south of Noumea. Good shelter. Lovely beach walks and coconuts.
Baie du Carenage, up the end of Bay de Prony. Follow the north arm in the dinghy. Walk the last 200m to the little jetty. Thermal pool at 31.4°C, not quite body temperature, but lovely and quiet.
Kuto and Kanumera bays on Ille de Pins. White sand, hotels on the beach, coconuts.
Ille Moro with picnic tables, thatched roofs, shells and views.
Ille Kouama is a pristine reef, white sand. Sheltered anchorage.
That is it for now. I will be back with more after three months here.
Our intention is to go around Ile de Pines, up the west coast, over to the Loyalty Isles, back around Il de Pins and spend the remainder of our time in the lagoon, somewhere.