The Ladies of the Church of the Hermit Islands


Saturday 5 September 2015

Rising to a windless dawn Adina motored off leaving little Ungalik Island behind, people getting in their dugouts paddling to school or heading out to tend to their gardens on the mainland. An hour later, still motoring, our navigation instruments all went blank. They were powered up but with no data, so no depth, no wind, no boat speed, no course over ground etc. We do the dummies guide favourite and turn the power off and on. Nothing. Fortunately we have backup navigation charts on our laptop and iPad and always duplicate our routes onto those. With our GPS plugged in to the laptop we can navigate our way ahead. This is the first time we’ve had to resort to our backups and we duly start to fire them up. Luckily all of a sudden the instruments start supplying data again. We’re back on course, it’s all a bit mysterious and we’re puzzled why it happened.

We motor along waiting for the promised wind which according to our forecast will arrive at 10am. Spot on it arrives and we start to get the sails out. The wind is just forward of the beam and Adina loves a bit of an upwind romp. We’re off, although the seas are sloppy and coming from the beam making our lives a little uncomfortable.

Adina continues to romp along happily doing eight to ten knots which is good going for a twenty-one tonne boat. Our fishing luck is in too and we land a nice yellowfin tuna, which is Susie’s favourite eating, and a mahi mahi which is Tom’s favourite fish. But with the awkward sea state we only just manage to gut them leaving filleting for another day.

Throughout the night we keep on at a good pace even having reefed down to less sail. Come day break we realise we yet again have to apply the brakes so we can time our arrival for the sun to be in the best position to enter the pass to make our way into the Hermit Islands lagoon. It’s so frustrating but we have no choice and Adina is left with barely a slither of genoa and main sail out. We pass Manus Island, a little notorious for its refugee detention centre, and opt to stay well clear of its coast.

Another overnight at sea and the winds built to between twenty-five and thirty knots. Our planned destination to the north east of the Hermit islands is not looking good with big waves around us so we alter course choosing to come in on the north side instead.

The pass is fairly straight forward and we head to the main village on Luf Island. The local village sits at ground level between two small hills. Covered in beach sand and grass you can walk from one side of the village to the other in about three minutes at a slow pace, which is the right pace in the Pacific.

The Hermits are notorious for a lack of good anchoring spots – all of the picturesque islands are surrounded by coral reef which drops off rapidly into the depths. We don’t know anyone who has anchored to the north of the village but a friend had heard it can been done. We’ve picked two potential spots using satellite images but they are very small. We motor around exploring and eventually two men row out in a dugout. They can show us where to anchor using our masks and snorkels to see below the surface. They find us a small spot on the edge of the reef. We inch our way in, right up to the reef edge, dropping the anchor when they say ‘Go!’ and reversing fast to get away from the coral. Of course the anchor drags and it’s another two attempts before we get it to hold. Tom dives in and confirms what we suspected, the anchor is simply wedged behind a piece of reef. Not the best but to be expected here. So we get a separate ten metres of anchor chain and secure it around a large coral head and run a rope from it back to Adina. Now we can sleep soundly as the wind blows keeping us off the reef.

We pass the first day talking to a few dugouts and taking a short walk in the village. We discover the islanders are Seventh Day Adventists which means tomorrow being Saturday is the day of rest. A message comes out from the ladies of the church asking if we would like to attend church the next day and join them for kai-kai lunch afterwards. So Saturday morning we don our Sunday best and head in. No-one had told us the service would last three hours but to be fair it’s enjoyable with lots of singing, a break for group bible studies and children trying to sneak looks and smile at the ‘white skins’, as they like to call us. At lunch afterwards the ladies ask Susie to sing some of the hymns in their books as they don’t know the tunes and are keen to expand their repertoire.

The Hermit Islands don’t get supply boats visiting and are reliant on going to Manus Island, a day trip away in their seven metre long banana boats powered by an outboard engine. Not an easy trip in open seas. As our village guide says to us “Yes, we risk our lives, we have no choice”. So we agree to bring in a bunch of goodies to trade the next day as the ladies of the church are not for paddling out to the boat.

We while away time snorkelling on some wonderfully pristine coral reef – full of fish and all sorts of clams in different colours. We even spot a live giant clam, something neither of us have seen before. The Hermit islands are gorgeous scattered islands entirely unoccupied other than this island, Luf, surrounded by white sandy beaches, coconut palms, clear water and underneath the seas a treasure chest of different types of fish. We see turtles on the surface, fish chasing fish. These really are the most beautiful islands we’ve seen in a long time and can only think to ourselves this must have been what Bora-Bora was like fifty years ago. And there’s nowhere to put an airport.

We venture in with goodies for the ladies of the church who have visited their gardens. Each lady has put a large bowl containing the goods they want to trade. The Hermit Islanders produce quite simply the world’s juiciest, sweetest pineapples and they are large. We scoop them all up, about eight of them, and bag any chicken eggs, some bananas and mangoes. They in turn want clothes, washing powder and small bottles of perfume which we put into the bowls we take the produce from. We get chatting and they bemoan the fact they just cannot earn any income being stranded on an island with no commercial output, the copra and seashell trade having ceased a long time ago. We tell them about other countries and villages where people have set up a little restaurant for visiting yachts or make handicrafts to sell – it’s not going to make them wealthy but every penny helps.

Off we go for a walk up the hill accompanied by two boys who guide us. On top they climb coconut trees and bring us huge fresh coconuts for drinking. After an hour we head back to the village to discover the ladies of the church have been discussing our ideas and have got busy. Very busy – they are cooking local food that they would serve in a restaurant ready for us to try. They bring out baskets that are being woven for food to be served in. The handicrafts they have are out too and they want to know if they are items they could sell so they can make more to have a selection ready for the next yachts. We often hear villagers saying they want to do this and that but all too often it’s a case of words and little action. Not these ladies, they are positively fired up.

The food will only be ready later so we invite them to come over to the boat even though ladies of the church don’t normally go out in dugouts. Over they come, dressed up, clearly not used to dugouts and they’ve brought food for us. We entertain them and show them the handicrafts we’ve acquired on our trip, giving them some final trades as a thank you for the food. A lovely final evening and we wish the ladies of the church all the best with their future ventures, we know they will succeed and the next visiting yacht is in for a treat.

Upping anchor we move a short distance to another tricky anchorage so we can swim with manta rays in the aptly named Manta Ray Pass. And it doesn’t disappoint as we snorkel and see one within minutes and get to follow four of them gracefully swimming around, as curious about us as we are about them. We spend our last few days preparing Adina for her next voyage and enjoying some snorkelling and a picnic on yet another perfect beach.

But there’s a fly in the ointment. Preparing our route, our navigation systems have gone down again. Again there is power but no data. Of course the instruction manual is of no help and we can’t figure it out. Most concerning is that we have no depth information, a vital piece of data when sailing in the Pacific islands with their lagoons and often shallow passes. We do have a good old fashioned lead line to measure depth but that is going to be tedious and time consuming. Baffled, we turn to our electronics guru friend in London, Gareth Wear. While we’re asleep he contacts the USA and when we wake he has ideas for us. Start pulling out the plugs to the instruments is the advice, one at a time. Seems odd to us but after an hour of trying things, we pull out the wind vane instrument and voila, the rest of the instruments come to life! Still baffles us, but Gareth is our hero and now while we have no information on wind direction and strength and will have to use our noses and ears, we have charts and depth data. Much relief, thank you Gareth!

We were desperate to spend more time exploring the Hermits and walk more of the beaches scattered with hermit crabs but an overnight sail away were the Ninigo Islands where the Ninigo Islands traditional canoe race was to be held. From days with ladies of the church we were off to watch men sweating away and pitting their skills against each other to see who could race a traditional sailing outrigger fastest. Those ladies of the church would probably give anything to cook up a proper sago meal for them after their endeavours on the water.

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One response to “The Ladies of the Church of the Hermit Islands

  1. Wendy 'n Ces says:

    Apologies for not having been in touch for many months – life has somehow got in the way. Have just spent hours (literally) catching up on your experiences this year and have been both exhausted and enthralled imagining the events you so colourfully describe. Whilst the typhoon and your ‘rescue’ missions thereafter are emotional, your regular descriptions of idyllic islands and their resourceful residents remain our favourites. Hope you have seen the last of your navigational instruments ‘blips’ and do not have to resort to calling ‘mark twain’ or whatever for hours on end! Now that we have once again become hooked, we shall regularly be checking your blog. Wendy is just getting the ingredients together to make the Christmas cake. We shall send you two ‘virtual slices’, the real thing will have to await a year or so for your return to Blightey. A bientot.
    Wendy ‘n Ces