Professional Skipper – March 2003 issue     back to articles menu

“Want your own piece of Paradise…?”

Vanuatu. The rainy season. I alternate between being steamed in the rain showers, and then baked in the sunshine. My book has curled up at the edges. My fags won’t smoke properly. They drive on the wrong side of the bloody road and there are no speed limits. I can’t log on to clear email. Even the slightest scratch of the skin has to be covered or is instantly invaded by persistent and very cunning flies. The ground trembles at least once a week from earthquakes, and cyclones happen here, too. What would it be like to be permanently based here? Actually, I think I could handle it.

Yours truly was despatched to Vanuatu (protesting loudly of course) by one of my clients on a work assignment. It just so happens that my partner in life and our 5-year-old were required on voyage as baggage handlers, and since there are only two flights a week from NZ, you can only get in or out on either a Wednesday or a Saturday. Bloody inconvenient, when the assignment only required a couple of hours work on the Sunday morning. Having only just arrived back in NZ after a very rare and genuine holiday in Rarotonga, I already had a respectable tan and so didn’t have to go through the usual ‘pakeha pinking process’. Whilst here, and with our fearsome Editor’s deadline looming large in my mind (well, muttering plaintively in the background anyway), I decided to paint a picture, for those who have ever considered it, of one particular Charter Operator in Port Vila, Vanuatu.

The name of the operation is Meridian Charters; the name of the vessel is Caraid. She is a 17.37m Mizzen Stay Sail Ketch, with a beam of 5.18m and draws 2.06m. Built by Kroll Brothers and launched in 1950 at western Port Bay Victoria, she is all no-nonsense bluff shoulders, solid Kauri construction and a counter stern, converted for charter work. Built for Cray fishing, her current part-owner, George Airey, bought her in 1973 still working as a Cray boat, and worked her that way until getting bored with the whole thing and setting sail for Vanuatu. 5 years ago she underwent an internal refit in Rosewood. Burbling away downstairs is a Scania DL straight 6, accompanied by a Lister to provide electrical power. Apart from ripping out the hold and converting for human habitation, Caraid is to all external appearances still the original Cray boat design – small wheelhouse sited right aft and good clear space forward, with a solid chunky bowsprit leading the way. The wheelhouse is air-conditioned, which tells me George has his priorities right. So George part-owns and drives the boat, while Meridian Charters part-owns the boat and brings in the business, a partnership that clearly works quite well. John and Sue Kerr (Meridian Charters) are offering both the business and its 51% share in Caraid for sale at $A380,000 so if you’re interested contact John at - but don’t hold me to accuracy on the dollars – several wines had gone by at that point.

MV Caraid

I did two short trips on her, a ‘sunset cruise’ and a morning snorkel trip. The Sunset cruise was a hit with everyone I spoke to (all part of my client’s conference group) with about 40 people aboard being regaled with non-stop music, Tusker (local) beer and several very nice French wines “yes, I’ll have another – good grief there must be a hole in the glass, yes, another thank you, oh, another? Fank you, ver’ nishe”  accompanied by club sandwiches and nibbles and dips, all very civilised. Ishmael was our guitarist and lead vocalist (with 40 slightly inebriated kiwis making up the backing vocals), and - all power to him – he kept playing and singing for the whole two-hour trip without repeating himself once. Included were the usual Kiwi favourites and of course the obligatory Pokarekareana. A pleasant way to spend a couple of hours sightseeing around the outer harbour, although to be honest I don’t remember a lot of it, can’t think why, seems to have shlipped my mind. I spent a lot of that time chatting with Skipper and part owner George, a ready conversationalist, and found that compliance and legislative issues were remarkably similar to that of a Charter operator in NZ.  Just change the labels and the currency.

The Toredo worm is as much a menace here as anywhere else, and the annual slipping is George’s opportunity to bring death to any worm impolite enough to have made it’s home in Caraid’s hull, George’s description of his treatment methods including red-hot wire insertion, compressed air blast, and finally an injection of some lethally-toxic substance, followed by a plug and five coats of anti-foul. He sounded quite passionate about it, and I couldn’t help but notice the similar way he described his treatment of unruly passengers… it seems that in Vanuatu at least, the Master’s powers are absolute. I have seen the jail here in Port Vila and I would not recommend a sojourn there.

Embarkation on Caraid is by flat-bottom punt from the ‘ferry terminal’, and if I have one vivid memory of that night it was the same punt jammed with about thirty very merry kiwis, all standing and jammed in like sardines, the boats sides coming up only to mid-calf, with perhaps six inches of freeboard, departing ship’s side to gales of laughter and singing, disappearing visibly but not audibly into the darkness (they all made it, but I’m sure MSA staff would have had convulsions watching it). Being of faint heart – or a sailor’s caution – I waited for the return trip.

The snorkel trip… well, it was my first ‘organised’ snorkel trip. I’m very much the novice (although I can float OK in a nose-down attitude), and I’m happy as long as I can still stand up. Our Editor may remember an occasion when he tried to teach me to scuba dive off a boat in 40 feet of murky water in Islington Bay (Rangitoto) in mid-winter with near zero visibility and only one set of gear. He geared me up, and sent me down to hang off the bottom rung of the dive ladder (about a metre underwater), which I clung to with an iron grip, certain that if I let go with all this weight on me I would sink and embed myself with Titanic force in the mud, never to be seen again. Then he came down in a shower of bubbles and made face-and-hand signals at me. If you know what Keith’s face looks like inside a mask you’ll know why I cracked up laughing, which forced the end of the lesson. ‘Nuff said. So as a serious snorkeller I’m a bit of a waste of space. Having said that, Caraid’s full keel was nice to look at and the prop was clean. As for the coral reef, I must say that if one were expecting white coral with lots of plant life, one would have been disappointed. The sea-lice made for an unpleasant time too. But those two elements, like the weather, are a wee bit outside of your mortal Charter operator to influence. The coral suffered hugely from a cyclone the year before, and was brown and barren. At nearby Hideaway Island, touted as one of ‘the’ places to snorkel, guests couldn’t even swim in the sea because of the lice, except those who had wetsuits, and even then they were being bitten around the mouth. Plenty of fish though, conditioned to assemble in the area each morning at 1030 for a free feed. Shore side at the snorkelling spot, the facilities were basic, very crude, very clean and tidy, and functional. I was so impressed with the ‘loo, I took a photo of it. Two ‘commodes’ and a shower!

Rest rooms, Vanuatu style

After snorkelling, the guides take those wanting to go on a 20-minute bush walk. I declined – it was searingly hot, the Punter is not biologically optimised for walking great distances and, let’s face it, bush looks the same anywhere in the world. To the Greenie, I’m a Heathen, I know. What I found interesting was the concept of water rights – those owning coastal land also own the rights to the water and anything that lives or happens in it to a distance of 200m out. The snorkelling spot was clearly marked with stakes so that one didn’t impolitely snorkel through privately owned water.

So there you have it. Apart from the fact that the whole thing is sited 3000km North of NZ, the Meridian Charters/Caraid enterprise is remarkably familiar, and similar in its set-up and operation to any tourist charter operation in NZ.

As a finale – on the aircraft on the way home, she-who-must-be-obeyed remarked wonderingly that, considering the number of people at Le Meridien Hotel who had gone down with nasty gastro-intestinal bugs, the Punter hadn’t suffered a similar fate given my historic susceptibility to any bugs floating around. Guess what. We forgot about ‘incubation periods’. And guess what. I’m writing this from my bed, wherein I have shivered, trembled and spasmed for the last 3 days. I have also been inspected, injected, prodded, probed and sampled. Ah, the Tropics… Paradise.

Carpe Diem

Steve Punter ANZIM, Dip Bus (PMER), FHRINZ
Staff Training Associates Ltd, Auckland, New Zealand.
© Steve Punter 2002 All rights reserved by the author.                                                                                                                       back to articles menu