October 1999 Port Villa, Vanuatu
Alvei and her crew have returned to Port Vila after 18 eventful days sailing amongst various islands to the North in Vanuatu. Here’s a look at what’s been happening since we left Lautoka
We made an 8-day passage from Lautoka, Fiji to Port Vila, Vanuatu with a crew of 12. Sailors being a rather superstitious lot, we were obliged to delay our departure from Fiji until after Friday the 13th. Leaving port on a Friday is, in itself, considered very bad luck. Sailing on Friday the 13th? Forget it. The next day brought fresh winds, and Alvei made great time sailing out of Fiji waters. Though these conditions didn’t last, we still managed to make decent time and were able to arrive in Vanuatu almost on schedule, give or take a day. Or two.
Along the way the crew collaborated on an epic, 13 verse sea shanty called ìEvan’s Privateers.î I was touched. Meanwhile, Adrian and Sandra showed great determination in landing game fish, and it paid off when Adrian pulled in two large Mahi Mahi in two straight days with only a hand line baited with flying fish.
Typical of many South Pacific destinations, Vanuatu doesn’t open its customs offices over the weekend. Arriving Saturday just before midnight, we decided to anchor outside the harbor, near the tiny island of Ifira, to relax and swim on the reef while waiting to check in on Monday. By the time we had cleared in Monday afternoon, the crew was itching for some shore leave, as evidenced by the trail of wild debauchery they left in their wake as they danced and partied around Port Vila well into the wee hours. Miraculously, the local authorities were never called in to deal with this rowdy mob, and everyone made it back to the boat unharmed, soon after sunrise the next day.
In Vila, we were joined by Mike from Australia, as well as Jamie from America and his English girlfriend, Kat. A British documentary film crew, working with the Vanuatu Cultural Center, approached us to see if we could get them to Southwest Bay on the island of Malakula, where they were to film three days of rituals and ceremonies performed by a local tribe called the Small Nambas. Everyone aboard Alvei would be allowed to join the film crew at the events.
It was the first time in nearly 65 years that many of these rituals had taken place, and rarely had outsiders been permitted to bear witness. So you can imagine our surprise (and that of the film crew) when we discovered more than twenty yachts at anchor in Southwest Bay, more than had ever been there before at one time. The yachties had all arranged to pay a local lodge owner so that they might attend the ceremonies, and it soon became evident that a few money-hungry entrepreneurs were attempting to turn a culturally significant event into something of a tourist sideshow.
The Alvei crew bore witness to a ritual involving the circumcision of several young boys, and their subsequent elevation to higher rankings within the Small Nambas. The name ìSmall Nambasî, by the way, refers to the penis sheaths worn by the men of the tribe. This sheath is basically a single banana leaf, wrapped over the male genitalia, and tucked into a bark belt. There is another, reputedly more hostile tribe on the island known as the Big Nambas, who also wear penis sheaths, only much bigger ones than those worn by the Small Nambas. Both tribes were once known for cannibalism, and though the official line is that their days of people-eating are over, some say they’ll still toss an unlucky chap into the pot from time to time.
The highlight of the ceremonies was a pig-killing ritual. I never went ashore; the idea of killing pigs does not appeal to me. I don’t even care for pork. I tend to make friends with most of the pigs I meet. They’re smarter than dogs. However, the crew said it was a fascinating event, so you’ll have to take their word for it.
Predictably, ill feelings did develop between the chiefs and a few yachties who treated the whole affair with the respect one might afford a bad troupe of street mimes. The yachties, perhaps not grasping the true significance of the event, grew restless and loud, and in a couple of embarrassing cases, even wandered into sacred areas ìtabuî to all outsiders. The chiefs presiding over the events were hardly amused, and though none of the yachties got eaten, it’ll be interesting to see how the Small Nambas deal with tourists at their ceremonies in the future.
One of our crew was, at that time, on the nearby island of Ambrym, filming atop a live volcano with a team from National Geographic, so once the dust had settled and all the pigs had been slaughtered, we set off to meet her.
Motoring out of the bay into a light westerly breeze we sounded the reef to steer around the south end of the island. The wind followed each of our course changes and grew in strength, from south, through east to north, staying right on the nose. The ability of this ship to generate head winds is often truly remarkable. At first we tried to motor-sail but still made little headway, and were eventually forced to drop our sails and go it by motor alone. The 54 mile passage turned into a 30 hour slog straight into the