Square Rig and Sea Snakes

It’s like a scene in a pirate movie: blue sky backlights a montage of masts and wind-filled sails; the helmsman has a sea-salt’s silver beard and all-seeing eyes; and brooms brushing the deck timbers beat an arrhythmic soundtrack as we near land.

Yet we are greeted not as raiders but as old and new friends when we wade through Ra Island’s warm shallows. Floral-shirted musicians sing of beautiful Vanuatu as women place frangipani leis around our necks – and they keep singing as Father Luke Dini leads us past beached outrigger canoes to homely Paradise Bungalows resort for fish salad, taro cakes and coconut water slurped from young shells.

The ‘sea snake dance’, which is unique to these northern Vanuatu islands, is one of the archipelago’s most spectacular kastom, or tribal, dances, and villagers join us on the beach for a performance celebrating our visit. Painted black and white like the banded sea kraits that hunt in these waters, men and boys do a percussive shuffle around the sand, stopping mid-stride to stare wide-eyed.

One of the dancers is Father Dini’s four-year-old grandson, and watching Dimitri and other youngsters splashing in the lazy tidal wash as sunset gilds the sky tempts me to remain here in paradise rather than returning to our 44.2-metre home of oak, iroko, walnut, elm and fir.

Built in Denmark from 1948 to1949, Søren Larsen traded around Europe until well into the 1970s. Restored and re-rigged as a 19th-century brigantine, the square rigger starred on screen and television in The Onedin Line, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, The Count of Monte Cristo and Shackleton, and was the flagship on the Australian Bicentenary First Fleet Re-enactment voyage.

These days, Søren Larsen summers in New Zealand waters, then sails an Auckland-to-Auckland winter loop via various Pacific nations and Sydney. This six-month journey is divided into 10 legs of between 10 and 32 nights; I have signed up for the 17-night North Banks Islands itinerary, departing from Luganville on Espiritu Santo.

My co-adventurers consist of 11 (of the usual 12) permanent crew and 18 ‘voyage crew’ (paying passengers). Susanne has come to Vanuatu from Germany for her fifth Søren Larsen expedition – her fourth with Captain Jim Cottier, who has worked at sea for most of his 76 years.

“The knowledge in that man’s head would fill three hard drives,” says voyager Eric, after Jim explains to us novices how to navigate by sextant. “Using a GPS is just joining the dots,” contends Jim.

Diesel engine, electricity and map-room electronics aside, Søren Larsen embodies the tall-ship era, and physical luxuries are limited. The wooden doors off the main saloon open into windowless two- and four-berth bunk rooms. And the ship does not just groan evocatively on lumpy seas: she shudders, grinds and screeches as if she’s tearing herself to pieces. Remarkably, I can soon sleep through the violent sound and motion.

This voyage is as much about experiencing traditional sailing as it is about exploring remote parts of Vanuatu. Going aloft or out on the bowsprit is voluntary – even wearing the requisite safety harness, I am too scared to climb beyond the coarse yard – but it’s all hands on deck to haul on halyards and clew lines to set sails.

Everyone is assigned a four-hour watch, during which you trim sails, take the timber-and-polished-brass wheel and stand lookout – everyone, that is, except cooks Will and Beth, who are busy baking bread and biscuits and cooking steaks and curries. Watch bell and conch-shell calls to meals mark our time at sea.

But we have plenty of shore time, too. At Waterfall Bay, our next stop after Ra Island, we spend hours cooling off under the twin cascades that give the bay its name, drying off for a lobster lunch in palm leaf-walled Sasara Twin Waterfall Yacht Club.

Ureparapara is the setting for our best dry-land fun, and we glide between this massive breached volcano’s 300-metre headlands after a delightful all-day sail.

Chief Nicholson’s program for our visit to Leserebla village begins with a walk: around the shore to a bat cave or steeply up to the crater rim. It’s a slippery, muddy one-to-two-hour climb (depending on your fitness) to overlook the island and our almost land-locked ship, and no easier coming down again, but our guides make the journey with shoeless nonchalance.

Ureparapara men don splendid headdresses for kastom dancing, bringing to life a porcupine, a squawking bird and a flying fish, while the women make water music. Thigh-deep in the village stream, four accompany a singer by moving their hands and forearms in different ways through the water. Eager to have a go we wade in, but despite repeated demonstrations, we produce only splashes that leave everyone laughing.

Next on the itinerary is our visit’s ‘feature event’, the annual Leserebla v Søren Larsen soccer match, which I attend still dripping. The pitch is lumpy and we need villagers to complete our team, but the crowd-pulling game is energetic and good-humoured, and the final score is a satisfying two-all draw. From here, we will sail to Vanuatu’s northernmost Torres Islands, where we’ll laze on palm-lined beaches and snorkel with angelfish and Moorish idols before heading south to Luganville. But first we farewell Ureparapara with a beach party.

There’s a feast: manioc, chicken, breadfruit, fish rolled in greens, banana and pawpaw salad – and kava, for about 60 cents a shell – but I get my kicks from the Slave String Band. Their songs, including one about Søren Larsen, bring the tall-ship crew and villagers together in a mass of dust-raising sandals and bare feet that elongates into a conga line when the band sings ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’.

Now, it’s like a scene from a Saturday matinee movie.

Words and photo: Melanie Ball