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Thursday, September 15, 2016

Vanuatu > Tanna’s Bucket & Chuck It “Express”


The boat left of One People, m/v Lawilin was my ride from Port Vila, Efate, to Lenakel, Tanna Vanuatu and back.
Never could get a un-occluded photo of her in Port Vila.
My mission:  Vanuatu – Port Vila Efate, to Lenakel, Tanna and back, cheaply....

When we neglected to do our homework* on the most logical sailing path through Vanuatu, we found ourselves facing a choice between a nasty 100+ mile upwind battle to Tanna, or giving it a miss.  “But Tanna’s Mt. Yasur volcano is legendary, a “don’t miss” of nearly all the sights seen from fellow cruisers on this track,” I whined.  “It’s the one thing I want to do here in Vanuatu, more than anything else.”

*Highly recommend chasing down the free yachting guide, .pdf of “All Ports Lead to Vanuatu” which does an excellent job not only of anchorages, but also how best to take advantage of the trade for your cruising through Vanuatu, as well as tons of other great info.  Embarrassingly, we read it after we’d arranged to meet Wayne’s folks in Port Vila, Efate, Vanuatu’s capital city, where high winds kept us Efate-bound.  Wayne’s folks paid a small fortune – about $420 each -- to make a long day trip flight to Tanna to see the volcano, and were thrilled with it. 


The majority of m/v Lawilin's cargo was assembly-line tossed hand to hand aboard and ashore.  Port Vila, Vanuatu.
Passengers were neither thrown nor craned aboard, but made a deft hop up as the boat bobbed.
Wayne, graciously, suggested I make the trip on my own, as it was far more important to me than to him, and with only one of us going, it would save some money.

Many volcano visitors were not so lucky when they arrived at the Mt. Yasur…. The wind made a visit there unbearable.  Or the clouds occluded the view.  Or key viewing areas were closed off because that day the volcano was too active there.

M/V Lawilin's captain, Johnny, checks the passengers in
by roll call.  Port Vila, Vanuatu.
I didn’t want to pop for a day trip and get disappointed.  And I wanted to make the trip as cheap as possible, especially given I was going and Wayne was not due in part to frugality.

The cheapest I could get an overnight tour from Port Vila to Tanna / Mt. Yasur was $500.  That might or might not include a ride to the airport, and back, but did include meals, lodging, Tanna transport and park/guide fees

I figured an enterprising and independent traveler such as myself could put my own package together cheaper.  I also made a point of checking weather forecasts; I couldn’t predict volcanic activity but at least I could pick a clear day with favorable or minimal prevailing winds.
Unseen to our left is the dock.  To our aft, another merchant vessel.  To our right, vessel One People.  M/V Lawilin is wedged!
Port Vila, Vanuatu.
The guy in this skiff, whose job it is to assist with our departure, is too busy chatting on his cell phone whilst we pull out.
The guy on the other side of the rail was so close I could've kissed him.  We hit his boat twice before exiting.  Port Vila, Vanuatu.

After M/V Lawilin pulled out, you wonder how we could've fit to the right of the boat on the left and behind the boat in the middle!
Port Vila, Vanuatu.
To my dismay, if I could not get a flight for less than $285 and that was if there was a seat – most were full. Discounts of 10-20% were available to tourists who flew into Vanuatu, but when I said I sailed in and could show my boat check-in paperwork and passport and asked for a “tourist discount,” the Air Vanuatu personnel just shook their heads from side to side and laughed at me.  Add the plane fare, Efate airport transport both ways ($20 total), food (relatively cheap, $15 or less for dinner), lodging (wide range from $10/camping to $100+), $75 park/guide fee and $50-$100 for Tanna airport and back transport, and suddenly the tour was a better deal.

Vanuatu Ferry, docked at Port Vila, Efate.  It didn't leave for another week and half for Tanna.
The ferry was cheaper, $60 each way, but it wasn’t leaving until the 18th. Wayne was chomping at the bit to sail to New Caledonia, and a good weather window for that beckoned.  The sooner I went to Tanna and returned, the better. Given that, I didn’t bother looking into when the ferry was returning.

“Why don’t you kill two ‘bucket list’ birds with one stone, and look into taking a supplies boat to Tanna?” Wayne suggested.

Wayne knew that ever since we went to Bahamas Great Inagua, I’ve wanted to return there. Wayne did not.   Thus, I became enchanted with the idea of taking the mail boats – aka small freighter supply ships – there.  That’s how the locals traveled island to island.  I knew calling it “low frills” was an understatement, but was intrigued with the idea of traveling “3rd class postage.”

"Did they have life boats?" asked Wayne.
Uhhh, I saw this box aboard for life jackets....
Little did I know when I made it my “bucket list” to ride the local “mail boat” it would "feature" “bucket and chuck it” “lavatories.”  Technically, yes, there was a flush toilet, only, the evidence it no longer flushed was disgustingly apparent. Yes, I expected the toilet to be appalling, but that was worse than even I anticipated!

Mail boats are not something you’ll find on Trip Advisor, or at the tourist offices, or even online, generally. 

When I asked Lemara at Yachting World about them, explaining that no, it was not the ferry but the supplies boats I was considering, her eyes got wide, she flushed and covered her mouth with her hands, no doubt suppressing a giggle.  I laughed at her expression, and assured her I did not expect it to be a comfortable ride, and was well aware it was not “normal” for tourists to consider it.  “Ask at the docks,” she suggested.

I made my way down to the docks, amidst the mud, and cacophonous din of hammers clanging on metal. 

After several false starts, I found a boat, the m/v Lawilin, going to Tanna a few days hence, there for two days, before returning, $45 each way.  It was an overnight passage each way.  “We leave after church; be here by 1 o’clock,” I was told. 

Perfect! All I needed was Wayne’s buy-in; I’d already checked the weather (including the sea state) and it looked promising and would get me back in time for the weather window Wayne was considering for departing to New Caledonia.  Plus, two days there gave me some margin for upping the odds of seeing the volcano in optimal viewing conditions.  Yassur View Bungalows were close by the volcano, and I could camp there for $10 a night, cook some of my own meals and treat myself to one of their island food dinners.

Wayne was supportive; everything was in place.  I loaded my backpack with our tent, sleeping back, some easily prepared food, inflatable air mattress and some trade goods / gifts for the locals (lollies, tea, fabric).

Not wanting to risk missing the boat, I arrived at noon.  And waited.  And waited.  And waited, afraid to go too far lest the boat leave without me as I had no clear clues to tell when they were ready to go. I did make sure to find out when they were leaving Tanna, and from where.  Turns out Lawilin was returning the day after arriving.  Ah well, I’d already checked the weather, it looked promising for volcano viewing,  and figured Wayne would be glad to have me back a day sooner.

Another m/v Lawilin passenger.  Not sure how
this fellow passenger rated his own "bunk."
Hog-tied passenger aboard m/v Lawilin.

Considering there was one hog-tied pig and another caged one as fellow passengers, I fully expected the ride to be “an experience.”

We finally left after 4 pm, literally bumping our way out from between the two boats on each side of us, wedging us against the dock.  The guy in a skiff who was supposed to guide the process was too busy chatting on his cell phone to notice our troubles and guide or assist until we were already out.

Metal open stairs led to horse-shoe shaped passenger area behind the captain’s area.  There were benches framed all the sides, with solid metal to the tops of the benches.  The area above them was open, with slicker fabric that could be dropped down or rolled up.  The floor was diamond pattern corrugated metal. 

There were about forty passengers, most prominent among them a group of Presbyterian parsons making their way back home to Tanna after a series of island-to-island church meetings.  With all that ministerial presence, surely God was on our side for this passage!  Not surprisingly, I was the only non-local aboard, and the only Caucasian.  Nevertheless, we’ve found the Ni-Van to be unfailingly friendly, and the passengers were no exception.

Before long, Parson Isaac, who lived in White Sands, “very near the volcano” invited me to spend the night with him and his family.  They would accompany me to the volcano.  I’d hoped to get a better sense of what Ni-Van life was like, so happily took him up on his offer.  More about that in a future post.

Winds were 20+ knots, and seas were 2 meters (~6’) “in our face;” expected per the weather forecast.  Lawilin was rolly, sometimes more, sometimes less than our boat in similar conditions.  The difference is there was little to grab onto in the very wide open passenger area.  There were the benches and there overhead metal bars on the cabin top I could grab with fully up-stretched arms if on tiptoe.

Wisely, I'd popped a Bonine (anti-sea sickness tablet with minimal side effects, which works well for me) prior to departure.  Others could've really used one - there was much retching, mostly but not entirely aimed overboard.

The ladies in their traditional Ni-Van "Mother Hubbard" dresses spread their pandanus mats over m/v Lawilin's metal floor.
As the passengers settled in, they spread pandanus mats across the floor. Shortly after, those who chose to sleep there instead on the benches, lay down.  Out came the blankets and sarongs used as blankets, pillows, and a flat fruit punch bottle rather ingeniously used as a pillow.  One preacher claimed the best bench corner the entire passage; apparently selfless suffering was not part of his personal credo.

Foolishly, I'd brought along a small "throw" blanket in anticipation, and a down jacket in a cinched bag to use as my pillow.  The passenger area was cool enough I wore the down jacket instead; no pillow.  Unfortunately, my backpack, with the sleeping bag and other jackets was checked in as luggage. Fortunately, pandanus mats were large and their owners willing to share their "pad."

With forty passengers, the sleeping area was akin to a chaste orgy.  We gently collided with each other in the rolls, and received light kicks, etc. from REM sleep.  "It's ok," laughed one Ni-Van who thumped me several times, pointing.  "My wife's just right over there."

I also discovered Ni-Vans hork - a lot - everywhere - unapologetically.  Ick!

Finally, about 20 hours later, at half past noon, we arrived in the dusty town of Lenakel.

Lenakel dock, Tanna Vanuatu.  M/V Lawilin is the ship on the right.
The next morning, I was back, killing hour after hour, in short hops, returning back to the boat to be sure to be aboard by departure.  It left at 4:15 pm.  At least this time the wind and waves would be in our favor, making for a quicker and hopefully less rolly passage.

One of the few times I saw cargo move on or off via crane, rather than by hand.  Lenakel, Tanna, Vanuatu.
Wiser on the way back,  my carry-on included my sleeping bag, warm enough for me to use my down jacket as a pillow, with a windbreaker to don as needed when not ensconced in my bag.  I also deliberately and successfully dehydrated myself to avoid "the bucket."  I brought simple to eat "hand food" only.

This time there were half the passengers, though sweet spot I'd hoped to snag was already claimed by a piglet, tied into the corner under a bench.  The pandanus mats were less plentiful; I laid my sleeping bag directly on the hard metal floor.  

These men's briefs hung from the passenger cabin roof rafters both 
While the waves weren't bashing the front of the boat this time, they did smack the side, making the boat roll side-to-side with great frequency.  To the great guffawing amusement of the bench-sprawlers, those of us on the floor periodically slid side-to-side in a pile, then back again.  One "slider" maintained a haughty look of indignity at the raucous laughter.  I thought it was pretty darned funny myself, even if each time it woke me as I played human dominoes.

Thanks to following winds and mostly following seas, the return trip took only about 16 hours, pulling in at 9 am.  I was the first passenger off with luggage!

Didn't see this horned fellow passenger until after disembarking in Port Vila, Vanuatu.  He had quite a lot to say about the trip!
An even more frugal cruising friend who'd considered taking the trip with me asked, "Did you have cabin?  A bunk? Did they serve any food?  Did they serve any coffee or tea?  Did you see the volcano?  Was it awesome?"  No, no, no and no, yes and yes were the answers as I plunged into the tale.

More to the point, "Was it worth spending four days, most of it waiting around, for one hour at the volcano?" queried Wayne.

My answer?  Yes. 

Nonetheless, as Parson Loughman, summarized, sagely, "People who have money... fly." 

My net cost?  Approximately $300.  Breakdown in USD (less about 7%):

  • $3 round trip bus fare from Yachting World to m/v Lawilin
  • $90 round trip passage on m/v Lawilin
  • $25 for food including bottled water, an excellent lunch for $3.50 and $16 of powdered milk (left as a gift with my hosts)
  • $15 transport from Lenakel, Tanna to White Sands
  • $40 transport from  White Sands to Mt. Yasur and back
  • $75 park fee
  • $15 transport from White Sands to Lenakel 
  • $35 in printed, laminated photos as a thank you gift to my Tanna hosts
  • $4 postage of gift from Port Vila to Tanna
Vanuatu:  Island of Tanna.  Lenakel is #6.  Efate is two islands
up from where Tanna is circled in yellow.  Map courtesy of
All Ports Lead to Vanuatu.
Location Location
While I went to Tanna Sunday, September 13, returning Wednesday the16, 2016.  Wayne and Journey remained at Yachting World mooring S17.44.750 E168.18.729) in Vanuatu’s Port Vila.  We're getting ready for the next weather window to sail to New Caledonia, likely this Saturday, September 17, 2016.  There’s still a few more Fiji posts to catch up on, as well as lots of Vanuatu posts to catch up on.

Cruising by the Numbers
  • Our August 2016 sail from Fiji to Vanuatu was 525 miles.
  • We cruised just under 440 miles in Fiji, between late May and early August.  
  • Our May 2016 sail from New Zealand to Fiji was 1090 miles.
  • December 2015 - May 2016 if we weren't cruising New Zealand or hunkering, we were making massive road trips from New Zealand's tip to its tail.
  • From December 2014 - November 2015 we sailed from Northern Florida's Atlantic side to New Zealand, over 10,000 miles, with more than a few stops in between.
  • Prior to that we sailed from St. Lucia to Florida and also spent a season cruising the Bahamas.

Up Next
After Vanuatu, New Caledonia.  After New Caledonia, Australia, by December 2016 (but probably earlier).  There, we plan to sell our boat, and go back to work, somewhere.