Boat Writers International Writing Contest 2018 Winner: Boating Travel & Destination

Exciting news! This arrived in the mail this week!!

Heather Francis, Boat Writers International Writing Contest Winner, Travel & Destination


It seems appropriate that my submission was an article about Vanuatu, a place I have described as my “unicorn of the South Pacific”, as I had to wait 8 long years before we finally sailed into Port Villa Harbour. The wait, however, was certainly worth it. Vanuatu and it’s people captured our hearts.

Published in Cruising Helmsman, Black Sands, Black Magic; Vanuatu by Sail was described by judge Gary Beckett as, “A compelling, detailed and at times riveting first-hand account of the writer’s adventures cruising waters of the Vanuatu Islands chain.”

You can find the complete listing of winners for all 17 categories in the Boat Writers International Writing competition HERE.  (You’ll also find me under Seamanship, Rescue & Safety, Merit Award.)

And you can read my winning article Black Sands and Black Magic, Vanuatu by Sail  here.




El Nino and the Watermaker

Every year meteorological experts around the globe weight in on how they think the upcoming storm season will play out. Analyzing data such as sea surface temperatures, weather patterns and past weather events they are able to predict how many cyclones or hurricanes will occur. (Cyclones and hurricanes are both tropical revolving storms one occurring in the southern hemisphere, cyclones, and the other, hurricanes in the northern hemisphere.)

With the South Pacific cyclone season officially underway (beware the magic date on the calendar) there has been lots of chatter about this year being an El Nino year.

And a strong one at that. What does that mean?
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Expectations and Reflections

I realize this space has been pretty quiet for the last few weeks.

We’ve been moving a lot and there has been a fair amount of exploring; us trying to squeeze as much of Vanuatu in before we leave. And then there is the endless everyday-ness of living and travelling on a sailboat; equipment failures, provisioning, clearing out with government officials, doing laundry in a bucket by hand, watching weather, trying to arrange parts to be shipped to remote locations, stressing about arriving at a new anchorage without suitable light, keeping up with writing assignments. Such is the ebb and flow of life.

The problem is that there has been so much flow recently that during the ebb times I am content to sit watch the local fisherman paddle around in there dugout outrigger canoes or enjoy a quiet beer in the company of a sea turtle or a dugong. I have been content to be in the experience.

I also realize that even though we’ve spent almost 5 months in Vanuatu I haven’t written too much about the place.

The thing is I don’t know what to say yet.
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On Watch

I am writing to you from Port Resolution, our anchorage at the island of Tanna. Tanna, well known for Mt.Yasur, an active volcano, and delicious coffee grown on the island, is only 135NM south east of Efate. On paper that would be an easy overnighter on Kate. In the real world it took three days of hard sailing to get here.

The delay was a combination of things; light winds, contrary currents, shitty sea state, no winds at all, fresh winds, bad tack angles. The usual bunch of suspects for a windward passage really, but frustrating none the less. While we sailed back and forth, tacking almost back on our own track and making very little headway, I had some time to think. It occurred to me that many of you may not know much about what goes on onboard underway.

On Kate we stand a 24 hour watch. That means that regardless of the time of day or night, conditions, location or length of passage one of us is always awake and in the cockpit “watching.” We don’t rely on AIS or set radar alarms off shore so that we can both get a full night sleep. If I am seasick I don’t make Steve cover my watch I simply accept that I will be puking and try to get most of it over the rail. And most importantly we don’t sleep in the cockpit when we are supposed to be watching. Ever.

We prefer the classic 4 on, 4 off schedule and we keep the same hours on every trip. Here is what our watch schedule looks like;

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Strange Drums and the Banks Band in Port Vila

I have always been attracted to the beat of a drum.

In the sixth grade when we all had to pick an instrument to study at school I choose the drums. For the next seven years I played in the school band.  I was never particularly interested in the drum set, no teenage dreams of being the spunky drummer chick in the next hot indie rock band (it was the early 90’s). No, I preferred the boom of the kettle drums during a classical concerto or the complex driving rhythm of the solitary snare drum that anchored a traditional marching tune. I went on to explore the variety the percussion section had to offer; equally enjoying the musical complexity of the marimba and the staccato simplicity of the claves.

Throughout the South Pacific we’ve encountered music, most of it played on a beat up guitar, often strung with fishing line, or tapped out on a local drum. The designs of drums have varied; tall stand up drums with still furry goat skin stretched across them, plastic buckets inverted and sat upon, whole logs hollowed out through a long, narrow slit.

My ear has been tuned to the sounds percussion section.I have even been known to follow the beat of a distant drum across the anchorage and into a village in search of the instrument and it’s player. So imagine my surprise and excitement when I stumbled across a band visiting from the Banks Islands in town a few weeks ago.
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I swam with the tiger sharks and survived!

I am not big on New Years Eve, never have been. Maybe it is because in Canada where I grew up it arrives shortly after we see the darkest day of the year, hardly feeling celebratory. Also knowing that the coldest of winter weather is still to come and months will be spent trapped inside, wrapped up in bulky sweaters trying to keep warm (especially when you’re monthly rent doesn’t include the heat and hot water bill) doesn’t usually lend to making resolutions that last. So a few years ago I started making resolutions on my birthday, after all that is the beginning of MY year not just a day on a calendar.

This year I resolved to stop being bound by my fears, to force myself out of my comfort zone to do the everyday things that I avoid because I feel scared. I decided to start with scrubbing the hull.
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Galley Notes; Fermenting on a Small Sailboat

Steve has been away for almost 7 weeks and, as per usual, while he’s been gone I have been experimenting in the galley. This time I have been making sauerkraut, and some variations, using the process of natural fermentation.

I am a big fan of sauerkraut, always have been. Growing up in Nova Scotia it was sold in every grocery store. The best brand came in a waxed paper, square container, the same as milk was sold in. It had a red and white label and the ingredients list read cabbage and salt. That brand always had just a hint of sweetness and powerful sour kick, just like the perfect dill pickle. It was sold fresh and refrigerated, no preservatives, and once opened needed to be eaten, which was never a problem in my house. Although I like sauerkraut with sausages on cold winter nights, and on hotdogs in the summer, I like it best eaten straight out of the box; a cold, crunchy and satisfying snack.

Just after Steve left in June I thought I needed a project, and sauerkraut seemed a perfect fit; it needs daily attention but takes a couple weeks to mature. To my surprise the process of making sauerkraut is simple; finely chop cabbage, add salt and knead until cabbage is limp and sufficient water is released, firmly pack into a jar/crock/container and check on it daily. The magic just happens. 

Really, it IS that simple.


Chopping Cabbage


You Have to Get Your Hands Dirty

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Ground Breaking Event; Photographing Kastom Dancing in Vanuatu

In the South Pacific radio is still used as one of the main means of communicating with the local population. There is often death announcements, notices about power and water interruptions, flight information and, of course, weather bulletins. Local businesses use radio to advertise specials and promote services and if there is a local paper it usually provides the news that is read almost hourly. Although there is information that tourist might find useful, the audience for radio in the South Pacific is definitely the locals.

That’s why I make a point to listen in.

Last week I heard about the new cargo dock that is being constructed in Port Vila. It is a multimillion dollar project that is going to take almost two years to complete and will result in one of the most sophisticated, full computerized docks in the Southern Hemisphere. It took six years of negotiations between the Vanuatu government, Japanese and Australian investors and the Chief whose people own the land, amongst others, to reach an agreement. In celebration of the start of construction of the this much needed facility a ground breaking ceremony was planned and the local radio was covering the event. Continue reading

“You don’t know what you can do until you’ve done it, right?”

I recently had a virtual catch up with a dear friend of mine and she wrote that sentence in her letter. It jumped off the page at me.

She and her husband are working through the same problem that we are; trying to find a balance between the sailing life and working to fund that life. Except they have a kid, which I can only imagine adds so many more complications to things. She commented I was brave to be staying on the boat in the water, alone. She has a toddler and has spent several months as a “temporary single Mom” since he was born when her man is away working. I think she has beat in the bravery department hands down.

But I do believe in what she said; in life you need to constantly push and test yourself. These tests don’t have to be monumental, scary or record breaking, just doing something beyond your comfort zone is enough. You’re capable of more than you think. Way more.

I know, I have been testing the theory recently. Continue reading