Cormorant in Vanuatu               

Cruising seasons 2003, 2004, 2005, and 2006

Where is Vanuatu?


Back when we were in school, Vanuatu was known as the New Hebrides, but in 1980 when the islands became independent of the condominium government run jointly by Britain and France, they became known as VANUATU.  This map gives some reference points which may be more familiar.  More information is available at

"Flavors" of Vanuatu 

You might remember several years ago  when we were in the San Blas Islands of Panama from Dec. 1999 to the end of Feb. 2000.  Every email started with "another page out of National Geographic".  Well, here we are again in a different issue, a different story, but the same feeling.  Vanuatu, outside of the two cities of Port Vila and Luganville, is not yet even an emerging nation in the international sense--it is separate islands with traditional cultures which are just beginning to form provincial and national ties.  It is a nation very poor in material wealth but with a rich culture and wonderful people, who call themselves the ni-Vanuatu (people of Vanuatu).  To give a flavor of the experience, here are a few exerpts from emails we sent at the time:

First visit to Asanvari--the village which will become our Vanuatu "home":

We sailed from Lolowai on Ambae Island (the Bali Hai of the book and musical "South Pacific") on Sunday, arriving at Asanvari on Maewo Island in the late morning.   Ambae is a provincial capital and has roads and pick-up truck taxis.  In Asanvari, there are no roads, no vehicles, no regular ferry or supply ship.  We anchored among 4 boats already here, just where we could see and hear the waterfall running right into the bay.  Around 2 in the afternoon, a man in a dugout canoe with outrigger--the normal sea transport here--came up to the boat.  He said his name was Nixon, so we recognized from having read our cruising  guide that he was the son of Chief Nelson here.  He was coming to see if we wanted to have dinner at the Asanvari Yacht Club.  As we were talking, he said we would hear their string band perform, since they were practicing for a festival.  So we cleaned up, Jane put on her long, loose dress (knees are always covered here for  women--the "mother hubbard" is standard dress), Harry found his ukelele (his birthday gift back in 1998 which he has never been able to learn to play) and off we went to shore.  We were early on purpose since we wanted to see if we could get someone to tune the ukelele and show us how to play it.  We turned out to be quite a hit!  Chief Nelson himself tuned it and patiently taught us some basic chords.  Then he started to play it, and the next thing we knew another man was playing it, and then another, and then another.  Amazing music came out of that box which had been silent so long.  It was used in the performance after dinner and it sounded so good we suggested they use it for the festival competition.  Their own ukelele was carved out of some very heavy wood, with wooden pegs for tuning.  It sounded nice, but a little more like a banjo than our ukelele and it wouldn't stay in tune as well.

During the dinner, we found out that the whole willage was leaving the next day to go to a 3 day provincial festival about 7 miles by water (and a long 2 day walk by path along precipitous hills), and three of the cruising boats were taking Chief Nelson and the village.  We declined, since we had not yet explored Asanvari, but things have a way of changing...During the dinner, the generator quit and we had to finish by lantern.  Harry went for a look and said he could fix it the next day, and immediately the chief told his son Nixon (who was part of the string band, the choir, and some of the special performances) that he would have to stay behind to help  Harry.  He looked very disappointed but not a word of protest was made.  Evidently the chief's word is law.  Later though, Nixon and Harry talked and we agreed to stay on Monday to fix the generator and then take those left behind up early Tuesday morning.  It was wonderful for us to have the day in the almost empty village to get to know the people better, so by the time we had them on our boat we knew their names and they were comfortable with us.  In general, the ni-Vanuatu are rather shy.  They smile and laugh a lot, but in the three days we were fairly close with them, we heard no voices raised in anger--and no rowdy misbehaving children either!  When we returned, the village put on a custom dance for us, and the following day prepared a special feast with the whole village in attendance to thank the cruisers for the transportation to the festival.  They killed two pigs--Nixon offered to cook a dog for Harry, but received no encouragement!

Other islands of Vanuatu 

We continued to have the most fantastic time in Vanuatu, spending time in a few places rather than only a day in lots of places.  Asanvari, on Maewo, was an absolute highlight. 

Pentecost Island

At Loltong on Pentecost, there just happened to be a confirmation ceremony at the local Catholic church when we were there.  Again, fascinating.  It was another purely local event and we could see very little Catholicism in it.  The men dressed custom and did custom dancing with the older men and women dancing in an opposite circle outside them.  The "devil" appeared dressed in custom dress with a green beard and halloween mask.  They had to "catch" him with a hook and then defeat him.  The boys being confirmed stood holding up beautiful mats woven by their aunties while some important person walked around each one three times.  

 Pentecost is the island that is known for the custom of "land diving".  It is like bungy jumping but instead of a multi-fiber bungy cord calibrated for stretch and strength, they build platforms and dive off with vines tied around their ankles.  They actually hit the ground--but they do dig up the soil first to make it softer.  The diving only happens April to June, when the vines are stretchy, so we didn't see it.  But we anchored at Homo Bay, which is the place visitors come to see it.  There, Harry and Joe on Dream Catcher fixed Chief Willie's outboard engine and VCR, so they cooked a feast for us and even gave each of the women a basket.  It is wonderful to be in these places where 2 or 3 boats are a "crowd" and there are no land tourists at all.  There is no regular island ferry service and accommodations on land are basic to say the least.

Ambrym Island

Ambrym is know as the island of black magic, and it does have a sort of eerie feeling about it.  From nearby islands the red glow of its active volcanoes lights the sky.  Every August, the people of the northeastern part of the island put on a three day festival called "Back to my Roots".  It was absolutely fantastic when we attended in 2004.  Foreign guests were "honored" and we all sat on logs around a clearing.  The local custom chief led the dancing, and we saw most of the dances performed by men and women for special events.  One was a grade-taking for two men moving from one level of chief to the next.  We were horrified to see the men standing atop a rickety platform of bamboo, jumping and dodging as the men on the ground threw rocks and cocoanuts at them.  Evidently if one fell off or was hurt he wouldn't qualify!   Luckily, as you will read later, Harry did not have to do this.  When Harry asked about it, Chief Nelson said "don't worry about it--those men are crazy!"  The most famous dance on Ambrym is the Rom dance, and this photo shows the heads worn by the central figures in the dance.

Malecula Island

We missed Malecula in 2003, but in 2004 we spent quite a bit of time there in several different anchorages.  The Maskelyne Islands on the south end are mostly reef and mangrove anchorages.  Port Sandwich is well protected from any weather, but all the guide books and the locals say not to swim there--sharks killed a cruiser child there several years ago.  Our favorite anchorage was Banam Bay, which puts on another custom dance for visitors.  Malecula has a rather warlike history, and it was the last island on which cannibalism was recorded--as recently as 1969.   Makes you think...  The people are divided into two mains tribes which evidently fought most of the time.  They are called the Big Nambas and the Small Nambas.  Since a namba is a penis sheath, part of their custom dress, you can imagine the rest.  

Espiritu Santo

On our first visit, the one thing Harry most wanted to do in Vanuatu was to visit the island of Espiritu Santo where his Uncle Frank served in the US Army in WWII.  While he was working on wiping out mosquitoes so the troops wouldn't get malaria and yellow fever, he also bought or bargained for a boar's tusk grown into a perfect circle, which he gave to Harry as a baby gift.  The tusk is the national symbol of Vanuatu and the local beer is called "Tusker".  Even today most families  will keep a "tusker" pig.  In order to allow the tusk to grow in a circle they have to pull out the upper teeth.  Then the boar has to be kept tied up so he doesn't get in fights, and he has to be hand fed mash since he doesn't have functioning teeth.  The resulting tusks are still a form of money and prestige.  Harry's tusk is held in reverence here and has given Harry extra prestige--removed from Vanuatu and given to Harry at his birth, and then returned to Vanuatu with Harry later.  He wore it at his 60th birthday party, given by the village of Asanvari, and also at his adoption and chief making ceremonies.  More on those later.  

Santo is the location of most of the WWII sites in Vanuatu.  The town of Luganville, the second largest town in all of Vanuatu, now has about 7000 people and is a tiny, sleepy place.  From 1942 to late 1944 there were 100,000 allied troops.  It is hard to imagine the impact that must have made on people still wearing custom dress and living very basic lives.  On our tour, we drove down 2 old runways (there were 4 airfields.  The allies learned from Pearl Harbor not to put all the planes in one place), climbed a watch tower built to look out for Japanese fighters, and saw remains of wrecked planes in all sorts of places.  We even saw the house where Mitchener wrote "Tales of the South Pacific" and the house next to it, still standing also, which was the brothel "Bloody Mary's".  

Ambae, Epi, Efate, Tanna

Ambae is "Bali Hai"; Epi is the place where we swam with dugongs; Efate is the location of the largest city and capital, Port Vila; and Tanna is the home of the most accessible active volcano in the world.  We also visited all these islands and had a wonderful time in each, but there are still more stories to tell so we will have to skip the details.

2004  Asanvari --  We build the village boat;  Harry gets malaria; Harry is adopted and becomes a first level chief 


Asanvari village gets a village boat and motor--and Harry gets malaria

We arrived here on August 8.  It turns out that our arrival was expected:  fellow cruisers had assured Chief Nelson and family that we were on our way.  A big warm welcome awaited us on shore, and the effects of the devastating cyclone earlier in the year were painfully obvious.  The villagers were noticeably thinner, and the chief looked terrible.  Most of their crops had been ruined by the high winds and salt spray, and fish stocks had not yet returned to normal.  Chief Nelson had recently returned home from a six month hospitalization for diabetes, and to compound his woes, he returned home to find a wreck of a boat that had been purchased sight-unseen.  The boat had been laid up on shore for six years, and rainwater and dry rot had taken a severe toll.  Other cruisers had begun repairs and had replaced one plywood panel in the bottom.  Two gaping holes remained in the bow, which we began work on immediately.  It quickly became obvious that we had insufficient epoxy resin and fiberglass cloth to complete the hull repairs, much less to even begin on the interior of the hull.  As we had to renew our cruising permit in Luganville on Espiritu Santo Island, 62 miles to the west, we agreed to purchase the materials while there and then return to Asanvari to continue work on the boat.  We arrived in Luganville on August 22, to learn that Goddy, the chief's eldest son (and headmaster of the local school) was on his way to Luganville on another cruising sailboat to attend to two cavity-ridden teeth.  We shopped all day Monday for boat supplies and groceries for ourselves and the village.  We even visited the maritime college where the boat was built to see if we could buy some materials from them--no materials to spare, they said, so back to town we went.  Goddy joined us on Thursday evening.  He was an easy guest, which was fortunate as he stayed with us until September 2.  On Saturday night, August 28, Harry began to feel very bad--maybe flu coming on:  chills, fever, shakes, sweats.  On Sunday it was worse.  On Monday morning we went to the hospital (the second largest in Vanuatu) where they did a blood test for malaria.  As it was negative, the diagnosis was flu.  We spent the remainder of the day in town purchasing 100 kilograms of baker's flour (that's 220 pounds), boat stuff, and 36 kilograms of rice, etc, etc.  On Tuesday morning Harry was worse, and during that night his fever had risen to 104.  Back to the hospital on Wednesday morning where they ordered a full blood workup.  It was positive, and they issued the drugs appropriate for the type of malaria indicated by the blood analyzer.  Goddy had some health training and had much experience with malaria.  He told us exactly what to expect during the treatment and recovery process, which was very reassuring.  We learned that the incubation period for malaria can vary greatly:  five to forty days to two months or more.  Not much help in trying to identify where Harry might have become infected.  The good news was that although the type he had was bad, it was not the incurable or brain type. 

Harry was well enough to travel on September 5, and we arrived back at Asanvari on September 6 to learn that his birthday party was already organized for the next day (his actual birthday).  And what a party it was:  the villagers made a huge banner across the entrance to the yacht club, wishing me happy birthday and long life;  the interior of the club was decorated with flowers and balloons; they had even made a birthday card for me;  twenty cruisers brought pot-luck dishes; the villagers roasted a pig and yams in the traditional earth oven; a huge quantity of bread was baked (used up a good part of the 100kgs of flour that we delivered);  large quantities of rice, vegetables, etc.  My special dinner was the largest coconut crab in existence.  Jane and I ate until we couldn't manage another bite, and couldn't finish even half of it.  We didn't even try one bite of the pig.  Chief Nelson gave the welcoming speech, and his son Nixon (the yacht club chef, who had borrowed my soldering pen before we left for Luganville) presented me with a carved model of an outrigger canoe upon which he had burned my name and SY Cormorant.  Jane was presented with a basket with her name woven into it.  The string band played and sang "Happy Birthday" with many verses.  Jane had baked three pound cakes (my all-time favorite), and after I blew out the candles, served a piece to everyone present.  The string band played on and on, and everyone danced and had a good time.  I wore my boar's tusk, given to me by my Uncle Frank Haight, who obtained it on Espiritu Santo while there in the U.S. Army in 1944.

The next day work resumed on the boat.  For the first several days I could only work a few hours.  A week later I was putting in a full day.  Jane did all the epoxy and fiberglass work.  On September 10 the hull was completed and antifouled, and the next morning the boat was turned right side up.  We missed this exercise: it was done by the school children--very small and many of them, early in the morning before school started.  All the frames were cracked at the keel;  a dozen plates had to be cut and epoxied over the new hull sections.  Discouraged to say the least, we tore into the work with a vengeance.  As usual, Chief Nelson was the first to begin work and the last to quit each day.  We soon discovered that the first two frames had live termite infestations--a major disappointment.  I tore out the frames and began building new ones while Jane treated all of the surrounding wood with clorox to kill any remaining termites.  She fiberglassed the forward deck and cabin top, side decks, frames, etc.  The chief and villagers were busy sanding, scraping, and painting in the meantime.  Chief Nelson and I carefully determined the location of the eyebolt for the motor safety line, drilled the holes through the transom, and installed it.  Jane took one look at it and said "Are you sure that the motor will clear it?"  Careful measurement confirmed that we had a big problem!  Humbly relocated, we epoxied the eyebolt into its proper location.  Finally, we were finished on September 16, and the interior painting could begin.  The christening and launching date was announced by Chief Nelson to be the following Monday morning at
7:30.  We came ashore early to take pictures of the school children lifting the boat, turning it on its side to fit through the yacht club entrance, and then carrying it down to the beach.  Jane and Eileen, Chief Nelson's wife, chanted "I name this vessel Mahlon Boy of Asanvari", and sprinkled the bow with water from a wine bottle, decorated with ribbons.  We all joined hands around the boat and asked God to bless the boat and all who put to sea in her and to return them safely home.  With a big cheer, the children again lifted the boat and carried it down the beach into the water.  It was a beautiful sight to behold.  The weather was perfect.  The boat floated perfectly on its lines.  The children then carried the new 25 horsepower Yamaha outboard motor, still in its crate down to the water's edge, where we fitted it to the transom.  With Chief Nelson at the helm, we set out on the sea trial.

Harry's account of his adoption and of becoming a chief

Chief Nelson's uncle had died unexpectedly, over on Pentecost Island, about 12 miles to the south.  He wanted to travel to Pentecost to be with his 85 year old mother, but was reluctant to leave the boat work.  The ritual of mourning here involves "making a fire".  The extended family gathers at the nakamal (village council house), prayers are said for the dead, food cooked communally, and parcelled out to be eaten at home.  The important days of mourning are the day after the death, days five, ten and one hundred.  I was summoned to the nakamal on Tuesday afternoon to attend (or so I thought) the mourning ceremony.  Goddy took me aside and advised me that his father had decided to adopt me into the family:  they had lost one family member and now they would add one.  He also briefed me on what I was expected to say and do.  Seated in a chair in front of the nakamal, Goddy and I faced Chief Nelson and Chief Richard, while other male members of the village sat around us.  The women sat in a straight line about fifty feet away, facing away from us at an angle.  The mourning ceremony was first:  Chief Nelson gave a long speech in the local language about the loss of his uncle, and then called out a man's name.  The man came forward, made three slow circles around both chiefs and then placed his hands on their backs briefly, then returned to his seat.  This went on several times.  More speech and several women were called forward to circle the chiefs and touch their backs.  All were very sad and solemn and the women were weeping.  Chief Nelson then told me in English that the mourning ceremony was complete and now he would perform the adoption ceremony.  Because of the help that I had given the village last year and again this year, he felt that I had earned a place in his family, etc. etc.  He would now be my father as my birth father was dead, and his sons would be my brothers.  I was called forward, made my three circles around the two chiefs, laid on hands on their backs, and then was presented a very large woven mat.  After I returned to my seat, Chief Nelson told me that the mat was the old currency of Vanuatu, and was used for births, marriages (bride price), and also as a shroud to wrap the dead.  The mat was mine to keep for life, and that I was to bring it to the nakamal on every visit, and also to bring it ashore when I visited other villages, so that the people would recognize my status.  Much happiness and hand shaking all around.  Then Chief Nelson announced that the adoption was complete and they would return to their mourning.  Goddy and I remained in our chairs.  The chief entered the nakamal and began wailing, crying lamentations and sobbing.  The women had moved into the women's side of the nakamal, and they joined in the ruckus, which went on for about fifteen minutes.  After all went quiet, Goddy signaled that we could leave.  Chief Nelson then came out of the nakamal, and invited me to join him inside.  We sat together while several of the men prepared kava, the traditional drink made of the roots of a variety of pepper plant.  It has a stupifying effect in quantity, and the first symptoms are a numbing of the lips and tongue.  The chief knew that I didn't like to drink it, but urged me to have some for the occasion.  I obliged him, of course.  He told me all about my mat:  it was made ten to twenty years ago in the highlands of Pentecost Island, where they are made to sell, even to this day.  If I was ever in trouble and needed assistance, I need only put my mat on my head, and any family member would be obligated to drop everything and come to my aid;  the reverse also applied:  I was obligated to come to the aid of any family member in trouble.  While we were talking, the women had prepared the food (roast pig, yams, and sweet potatoes) and had parceled out the food for each family.  (They cook communally, but take the food to their homes to eat in family groups.)  I was presented with a coconut frond woven basket full of food to take back to Cormorant.  What a day!  Jane was very disappointed in not having been witness to the ceremony.


The afternoon of the boat launch a big party was to be held at the yacht club.  Goddy took me aside and advised me that his father had decided that today was the day that I would kill the pig:  I would become a chief of the first grade and be given a custom name!  I was speechless--I had no idea that this was planned.  Jane was invited to attend with her camera.  Goddy again briefed me on what to do and say.  Wearing my boar's tusk, I brought my mat to the namakal, where I removed my hat.  One of the villagers handed me a hatchet and brought me to the pig, which was hobbled.  He steadied the pig with his foot, and I gave the pig three whacks in the forehead with the flat end of the hatchet.  I called out "Chief Nelson moah!" and he emerged from the nakamal carrying another mat which his wife unfolded.  She placed one end over my head while she laid out the rest of it like a train behind me.  The chief then announced that I would now be known as "Tahri Liu Langi" which means "chief who overcomes the wind".  Again, much handshaking and happiness all around.  That afternoon, the launching party started at three o'clock.  The chief presided with a speech thanking all cruisers for their help with the boat project, and specifically Jane and me for our part in it.  Then he announced that a special custom dance would be performed for me:  the pig-killing dance.  He took my hand and we circled the dancers, hopping to the beat (or as best as I could!)  The cruisers brought pot luck dishes; the villagers roasted a pig and vegetables, the string band played and everyone danced the afternoon away.  

Soon, it was time to head back to New Zealand before cyclone season.  Tears were shed all around, but we knew we would be back at least one more time. 





June to September 2006--the season of the Micro Hydro Electric Project 

In fact, we returned two more times.  After the 2004 season, while we were back in New Zealand, Harry got busy researching micro hydro electric systems.  The village had only a small gasoline generator, and it was frequently not working.  And with the cost of gasoline in Vanuatu and the difficulty of getting a barrel in a place with no roads and no regular freight boat, 24 hour hydro power seemed like a good idea.  The problem was money and logistics.  Harry got to work on both, and our friend John Caldwell, an engineer in Auckland, helped get the grant (applicants have to be citizens of New Zealand) and was invaluable in the design, procurement, and the challenges of shipping.

With a grant for $20,000 New Zealand dollars from the Pacific Development and Conservation Fund--a New Zealand government fund established with the money from the French government given as reparations for the sinking of the Greenpeace vessel Rainbow Warrior in Auckland harbour--Harry and John Caldwell have designed a micro hydroelectric project for Asanvari.  John designed and maintains a web page about the project.  It has LOTS of photos and  all the details. Follow this link to get all the details.

Since all the project details are there on the link, including most of our emails written at the time,  I will just add a few notes here about special parts and friends.  One of the things we did was plan to leave the village a few things besides the power which might be fun.  Plywood for concrete forms became a regulation size ping-pong table, and other pieces of plywood became frames for sand drawing.  These were a big hit with people from all the surrounding villages.  During a party, as the band played and people danced, there was a dense crowd around the table with the sand.  Older people were drawing their traditional pictures and telling the story to the group.  Then younger people would learn the simple patterns, and in turn, they taught others.  One day we needed to convert Australian dollars to Vanuatu vatu, and Gody, the schoolmaster, used the sand tray as "paper", writing the numbers in sand.  In a place without paper, we learned that pencils for children were not good gifts.  This was much better.

As you have read on the polari website, Michel and Vicki on Niege d'ete were a fantastic help on the project.  They arrived at Asanvari the same day we did, and only left after the power was turned on, some seven weeks later.  Vicki made a DVD of the project as well as a music DVD for the local Revo string band.  Needless to say, she was popular!  Michel did all the fiberglass work for the project, but he also found time to make a low tech grinding wheel which the men could use to sharpen the knives they all carry into the bush. 

Jane's favorite "extra" was the sink she and Harry  built for the women of the village.  Of course, Chief Nelson had to be convinced it was for the cruisers before he would consent to the use of the sink that we found sitting in a corner of the yacht club.  Jane asked Vivian, Nixon's wife (right in the photo), where she liked to do her laundry.  Without hesitation, she led us to a beautiful site just at the edge of the beach where a water pipe lay kinked in the sand--the kink was the shut-off valve!  So there, in the shade of a large tree, we put in concrete posts and built a wooden frame for the sink.  PVC pipe and ball valves should last a long time, and once we finally found drain plugs to fit, the project was complete.  Jane had to "inaugurate" its use, but soon we had a chalk sign up in the yacht club where Vivian offered washing at 300 vatu per bag.  For the first time, she was making her own money, saving it to pay for her daughter's school fees.  Her sister-in-law Agnes (left in photo) has a son in secondary school, so Vivian passed some of the work to her.  Sharing is a way of life here, and a model for us all.  Now the women can do their laundry standing up, instead of down on all fours in the sand.

We had fantastic parties for the "let there be light" day (see the polari site for details) and for our farewells.  Here are a few more photos:

Nisha, Nixon and Vivian's daughter, at the "Light  is On" party.  On the right, our good friends Janet and Ken Slagle on the yacht Aquila, helped in the installation of the project, as well as keeping our spirits up.  We met them in Tonga in 2000 and then saw them in many more anchorages in New Zealand and the islands from then on.  In April 2007 we were together at Scarborough in Australia, and then we shared more anchorages and more fun all the way to Darwin.  After helping us in every possible way once we had the medical scare in Darwin, they sailed west for South Africa.  They are there now (Dec. 2007) and will continue west in the new year.  We miss them, but for sure we will meet again in an "anchorage" of one kind or another in the future.

We met Canadians Michel and Vicki by chance, when we were heading to the dock in Port Vila in our dinghy.  There sat Niege d'ete, another Corbin 39!  Of course we met, we shared stories, and soon they decided to sail at the same time we did, straight for Asanvari.  They were on a fast trip through Vanuatu in order to cruise Indonesia in 2006.  Instead, they stayed in Asanvari, became a part of the project and the village, and ended up with only one month on their permit for Indonesia.  So the fast part ended up later, but we couldn't have done without their help, and we made some good friends.  As I write this now, they are three boats down the dock from us at One 15 Marina in Singapore.



Finally, it had to end and so we said farewell.  The night before, we had partied with all the lights blazing.  At midnight, we looked out, and there were still one or two lights showing through the trees.  For sure the future will bring changes to Asanvari and to all of Vanuatu.  We feel privileged that we were able to be a part of bringing a little bit of that future to them.  We only hope that they will manage the changes well and keep the strengths which are part of their culture.  A final image here, a much older Chief Nelson, standing beside his beloved village boat. 

 We will always remember..