Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Denied entry to port due to fear of H1N1 flu

On Saturday, May 16, we received an email from the our new weather router in Australia telling us that a LOW pressure system is likely to form in the Coral Sea between New Caledonia and Australia and last maybe until May 23; so his recommendation was for us to get over to New Caledonia before this system formed and moved in our direction. It was just as well because the wind at Port Resolution had changed to the north and the bay was becoming pretty rolly. Figured we might as well be at sea because we couldn’t sleep at anchor with the increasing swell rolling into the bay. So on Sunday morning at 0730 we weighed anchor and set off.

Our initial destination was the port town of We on Lifou Island in the Loyalty Islands, about 160 miles west of Port Resolution on Tanna Island in Vanuatu. Boats can clear in with Customs at Marina de We via fax to Port Moselle and then have 3 days to get to Port Moselle at New Caledonia to finish clearing in with Immigration and Quarantine. says you have 7 days but that is not correct; you have only 3 days.

We departed Port Resolution and went south beneath Tanna Island and turned west; and were immediately greeted by a large pod of porpoises. They didn’t play with the bow wake like porpoises normally do. These guys swam straight at the side of the boat and turned around and swam straight southeast. Maybe they were trying to tell us to change course because it turned out that we should have followed the porpoises. This passage was doomed from the beginning.

By the time we reached the western edge of Tanna Island we were hit by the first rain squall – high winds and lots of rain. This was the first of several and our overnight passage was lively. It was rough and we could not point far enough south as we would have liked, but at least we sailed all night instead of having to motor. Shortly after daybreak we turned on the engine and motor-sailed southward towards the entrance to the port of We. We were greeted by one of those full rainbows over the sea.

As we were lining up for the entrance to the port the Marina de We hailed us on the VHF radio and informed us that we should not enter the port. The port was closed to all vessels arriving from outside New Caledonia or the Loyalty Islands because they feared contamination by the H1N1 flu virus. This seemed a little extreme to me since they still accept arrivals by airplane passengers and those people are far more likely to spread the virus than us slow-moving yachties. But there obviously is no room for discussion in this matter. If the port control tells you not to enter and to turn around and head back out to sea, then that is exactly what you must do. He instructed us to proceed directly to Port Moselle at Noumea, New Caledonia; and that we would be met by a Quarantine inspector and our health verified. Well, okay; if you say so.

We turned around and headed towards New Caledonia – directly into 20 knot winds that rapidly increased to 33 knots. The strong winds were directly on our nose so there was no way to sail or even motor-sail. We tried pointing off to try to motor-sail but to zig-zag in order to motor-sail would have more than doubled the distance we needed to travel. So we resigned ourselves to motoring the entire 111 NM distance pointed directly into the high winds and directly into large rough stacked seas. This truly was a miserable trip. Normally I do the first 8-hour night watch from 1800 to 0200 and Bill does the second 6-hour night watch from 0200 to 0800. For the first time since we started cruising we were not able to follow this watch schedule. It was simply too exhausting to sit at the helm or in the cockpit very long. I did the first watch from 1800 to 2215. Then Bill took over from 2215 to midnight. Then we rotated 2 hour shifts for the rest of the night. The boat was rolling and twisting so badly that by morning all muscles in our bodies felt worn out. Sometimes the bow would be raised way up and then slam down with a loud bang; reminded me of a whale broaching and slamming back down into the sea. This pounding was brutal. Other times the bow would be pitched through a wave and a couple feet of water would come pouring over the deck back all the way back to the mast. We powered the engine 600 rpm higher than we normally would do, and still could not go faster than 2 or 3 knots. A completely miserable 24 hours. And we are doing this because the weather router says this will AVOID the upcoming bad weather. If this is the better weather then I don’t ever want to experience what he calls bad weather.

Eventually we did reach the southern tip of New Caledonia and turned west. Once we were inside the reefs conditions improved dramatically. Not having to fight our way directly into the stacked seas made a huge difference in comfort level. By the time we had crossed the bottom end of New Caledonia (with the wind on our beam instead of on our nose!!) and turned northward up the western side the weather improved to become a beautiful day. By the time we arrived in Port Moselle at 1500 the sun was shining and the breezes were gentle. What a difference!!!

We had previously contacted Noumea Yacht Services by email to act as our agent in Noumea. When we were turned away from the port at We, we emailed Eva Dumas at Noumea Yacht Services ( to notify her of our new arrival date. Eva did a marvelous job. We would recommend her highly and we are very, very glad that we utilized her services. Eva arranged a marina slip for us and met us at the dock with the Immigration officials, and she even took our dock lines as we backed into the berth! She handled all our paperwork and questions with the officials, speaking in French to them and speaking English in to us. I don’t know how we would have managed this clearance by ourselves since we don’t speak the language and the Immigration men only spoke a couple words of English. Eva, you ROCK!

Then the Quarantine official arrived --- wearing heavy-duty face mask and surgical gloves, which she did not remove until she was well away from our boat after finishing our clearance. There were health questions and she removed the few remaining fresh produce items and the eggs. She allowed us to keep all meat and poultry in the freezer because it came from New Zealand. The laws state that all meat will be removed, regardless of origin; but she said meat from New Zealand was okay. She also let us keep all cheese and butter and yogurt. That was a relief. We really did not want to throw out all the perfectly good food. There is a strange rule here regarding Customs. Once you are cleared in by Immigration and Quarantine, then Customs has only 2 hours to arrive to inspect your boat. If they do not come within 2 hours, then you take down the yellow Q flag and consider yourself cleared in. Customs never showed up, so we removed the Q flag at the appropriate time.

Didn’t plan to come to Noumea, but here we are. There is a holiday on Thursday. The officials are taking a 4-day holiday and boats will not be allowed to clear out until Monday. So we know we will be here at least that long.

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