Illywhacker - Townsville to Gizo


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Author Peter Aston
Date 1997
Map Ref Coral Sea

A letter written to sailing friends in Townsville that indicates a tenuous start to our adventures aboard illywhacker

Another letter from the Solomons - life improves

Townsville to PNG, August 1997

Hi Guys,

This letter comes to you from a roly anchorage at Misima (PNG). We stopped here to pick up an engine oil seal which is due any day now from Paul in Townsville. We will clear PNG Customs here and head to Gizo in a few days. Misima is fairly typical of the islands we stopped at, there are real signs of a drought in progress. No rain since cyclone Justin and none due with el Ninio for some time. We are already into our second water tank and just hope there is some at Gizo. The island village people where we stopped were great but had nothing to trade but white sand and incredibly blue water bursting with fish.. none of whom saw their way clear to attach themselves to my hook! Probably not a good time to visit, we may need a desalinator quick, so might get one from West Marine when at Gizo.

I have mixed feelings about this cruising. I just hate it when the weather comes up rough and love it when we’re at a perfect anchorage or sailing on smooth seas. It was always thus I suppose but I have much less reserves now in terms of strength and stress-coping capability. The trip across from Townsville was a real test and it will take many months of paradise to attempt the next leg.

On departing Magnetic island, the bottom was muddy so I turned on the engine-driven pump to hose the chain and anchor for the first time since I “reconditioned” it. It had seized and resulted in the pulley ripping from the front of the engine, taking the generator and freezer belts with it and spraying oil everywhere. That took several hours to patch up and the oil seal was damaged in the process, but it was such a nice day that we took off once again.

The first day or so the seas were OK and we sailed well in about 12 knots of breeze. Then the wind came up from the East and we found ourselves working to windward in 20 -25 knots into a big SE swell and local wind-waves. The boat sails quite well but there were waves washing the deck frequently for the first time in it’s life and many of them went down my patented dorade vents and into the forward cabin. Also, the tubes I have from the stern for air exhaust seemed to suck up water and gallons ended up in the galley. Then the deck boxes leaked into the saloon. We spent hours stuffing rags everywhere in terrible conditions until I was exhausted.

For some reason both the genset and inverter/charger refused to charge and I was reluctant to run the main engine due to the broken oil seal so the batteries ran low and only the wind generator kept them alive. It was literally screaming in the wind and pumping in the amps but unfortunately when we decided to drop the main, the topping lift caught in the blades and demolished them.

The trip took 5 days for the 578nm to the closest of the Louisiades since we spent some time sailing at only 2-3 knots to prevent water ingress and maintain some level of comfort. We were very glad to anchor at Duchateau Island but it too was rolly and the next day we anchored behind Panasea island.

That was perfect….no people, brilliant turquoise lagoon, large island and smooth water - haleleujah! There I managed to restore everything to working order except the oil-seal and even for that I fabricated a drip ring which at least concentrated the spray into a puddle for collection, which is not too bad.

So given time and good conditions I can cope I think but am reluctant to venture out again to test the boat and myself. The trip to Gizo may be another test, I’ll let you know! It would be so much easier to sail back to Aus and live comfortably in a marina but after a few months in paradise things may look different! Lyndall as usual is a tower of strength and is all for on, on.

Hope you are all well.
Peter and Lyndall

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PNG to Gizo, Solomon Islands, September 1997

Here is a letter written on Tuesday 23 Sept 1997 largely by Lyndall to the kids with bits added by me to let them know we were safely in Gizo, Solomon Islands Western Province..

We had a rough trip from Townsville to the Louisiades in PNG with water coming in everywhere and me swearing never to go to sea again. But after 3 great weeks there, despite a serious drought, we felt adventurous enough to press on….

At last the Solomons!. After another, even more nightmarish trip than the one from Townsville to PNG we are now in a great cruising area and at present plan to stay here for a few months. We are planning to use e-mail or letters only for a while as telephoning is too expensive. We’re looking forward to receiving a radio e-mail from you some time. I’ll send you one first so you will see the reply format.

10 days ago we were in the roly anchorage of Misima waiting for the weather to clear. We had done a bus trip to the northern part of the island with a delightful local chap who knew some people we did and saw lots of little villages with sago palms, cocoa, and children who waved and smiled everywhere we went calling out “Dim Dims” the pidgin word for white man. The next day we went across to the local market and then up to the school cultural festival where there was much dancing in colourful grass skirts and local handicrafts on display to buy. 

Unfortunately when we got back our crew Paul and Christine suddenly realised that they had to meet their plane here in Gizo on Wednesday and could not change it at Misima so after some discussion and grave misgivings from Peter and I we set sail on Sunday morning into horrendous conditions believing that the fine weather was only hours away - What a big mistake. Still we made the decision and really had to keep going. The seas were very rough and we still had many of the previous leaks which disappointed Peter and I and many of our CD’s got wet though surprisingly there has been less damage than we expected. Still so disheartening for Peter but it can all be fixed and I think it showed us just how vulnerable we both are although the boat overall performed very well and we never felt in danger of our lives as it is fundamentally very solid and sailed very well despite the odd wave crashing over the top. The side clear curtains were fantastic at keeping us warm and mostly dry, also the new softer cockpit cushions added to some comfort although I used one when off duty to “sleep” on the navigators cabin floor at Peter’s feet who could manage to climb into the bunk in a rough sea - impossible for me. Our Stugeron (favourite seasickness tabs) kept us going after a fashion and Paul was the only one to have a few technicolour yawns.

On the last night on my watch we saw a strobe light flashing from a wooden raft and went over to look expecting to find a lost fisherman but it turned out to be a fishing raft which the fisheries department here put out to attract fish - so it was really with some relief not to have had to contend with a body. Still it was interesting that we found that even in a rough sea and night time that we could bring the boat round under sail and felt we could have retrieved someone had they been in the water - something we had thought would probably be near impossible - so have decided to have our personal strobe worn by the person on watch. Arrived at the entrance to Gizo harbour around midnight and the winds had lightened considerably and with full moonlight were able to negotiate through the reef into a thankfully safe harbour next to the town. We have now cleared customs and Paul and Christine were able to cancel their flights and had an extra week, leaving today for Sydney and London. They have had a number of charter dives and as they are serious scuba people and underwater photographers they left happy. Meanwhile Peter and I have been to the market which I’ve enjoyed but other groceries are extremely basic and am glad I did such a big stock up in Townsville. 

After our first day here a yacht came in from the outer islands and turned out to be friends Ron and Brenda (Karaka) from our Larnaca, Cyprus days in 1982 so yesterday Peter and I went over for morning tea whilst they marked our charts with all the good places to go. They have been coming up here for the last four years and just love it so that has cheered us up and hopefully we can do a few anchorages with them. The drought is affecting the Solomons as well as PNG - it hasn’t rained here significantly now for three months but we have been able to get fresh water in drums and in a few days will sail to another anchorage on the north coast of Kolombangara Island where there is fresh water piped to a jetty. Peter though is negotiating for a water-maker to be sent from USA as I hate being low on water. Last night we dined at PT109 restaurant named after John F Kennedy’s war exploits - he was run down within sight of this anchorage and was able to swim two miles to another island where he was rescued by some coast watchers. There are 3 quonset huts on shore housing refugees from Bouganville here in Gizo, they just sit and watch but are always friendly. All people here seem to be well spoken and friendly, it’s great.

A few days after we arrived we heard a strange noise on deck and discovered the mast step had shattered. It was an alloy casting in a pivot arrangement which dropped the mast 25mm and caused the rigging to go slack. The serious pounding we suffered at sea had weakened it but why it waited until we were in port to go I don’t know. We were devastated as there are VERY few facilities at Gizo. However, our friends from our past lives had a Kiwi mate anchored at a nearby island who was a boatbuilder and between the 3 of us we fixed it! In a quiet cove we tied their 2 boats on either side of illywhacker and hoisted the mast enough to reassemble the cracked casting, support it with some local hardwood and wrap fibreglass around it. It took 2 days and the job looks very professional. It should last until the next time the mast is removed. The spirit of cruising! Click here for a more detailed story of the mast step reconstruction.


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