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A visit at the white lady

von | Okt 18, 2023 | English, Pazifik, Vanuatu

Espiritu Santo was the last island I visited in Vanuatu. I anchored off a resort in Luganville, the only „town“ on the island and the second largest in the country.  Besides some other yachts, MANURIKI, a beautiful white steel ketch from Australia and her crew Sarah and Josi were moored here, too.

We had already met a few weeks earlier on Efate and got along great! It happens rarely enough to meet young cruisers.  – We had a lot to tell and laugh, could recognize each other in the stories of the other! While I see myself on the way home again, the two had just left for their trip without fixed destinations and timelines!

On our two yachts, the chores on the TO-DO list had added up and needed that had to be worked off. Doing so in the humid heat, it was good to know that just a few meters next door someone is also busy tinkering, swearing and sweating. – „A problem shared is a problem halved!“. At the end of the day we rewarded ourselves.

My list kind of looked like this:

  • Rebuild autopilot mount and weld to stern pulpit.
  • Sew sails
  • Re-seal windlass bolts & tank filler
  • Fill up diesel & water tanks
  • Prepare boat for crossing
Left: WASA alongside some dodgy dock for welding opperations; Right: Gluing and sewing the sails back together

Again and again, it suprises me how incredibly long even the smallest things on a boat can take! Here as an example, filling up the diesel tank:

In Luganville there is neither a marina nor a boat refueling station for yachts like WASA.  The boats fishing boats, or the ferry can be filled at the ferry dock conveniently and directly by tank truck. – But that would be for me, with my missing 60 liters to full (half tank), a little too much of a good thing.

Sarah and Josi also had to fill up their tanks. We joined forces and borrowed empty diesel canisters from the sailors around us. Shortly after noon, we made our way to the next gas station:

From the beach we first went across a swamp (Someone was sure it’ll be a shortcut 😉). I almost lost one of my flip flops in the mud, then we reached a dirt road and finally the main road, which we followed until we arrived at the first gas station.

„One refill, please! – Eight times 20 liters, please!“. „Oh what? – you can’t pay with credit card here – cash only.“  

Never mind! – We just extended our walk to the ATM at the other end of town. – We almost forgot the money in the machine, had a stopover in the ice cream place and almost got run over by a truck. – and we were already back and could pay.

Our jerry cans were already prepared in the corner and the staff was kind enough to drive us back to the anchorage with all our fuel.

Once arrived, the only thing left to do was to carry the jerry cans 300 meters across the resort to the beach, heave them into the dinghy, heave them onto the boat, and gravity fill them into the boat tanks. Clean up. Bring back jerry cans – Done! – Day over, time for a beer.

In order to have a little break off work, Sarah and Josi dug three folding bikes out of their cubbyhole and we made an effort to cycle almost 20 kilometers to the so-called „Blue Holes“. A bike ride through bright sunshine and pouring rain!

The Blue Holes are freshwater pools, just a few minutes from the coast, and like that already in the middle of the forest. We were lucky! – Just as we arrived the last visitors left and we had the whole place to ourselves:

Although the sky was gray, the water in the pool was as blue as I had ever seen before! The bathing area was bordered with beautiful flowers and shrubs and on a far protruding branch there was a swing rope.

We swung and splashed like little kids and were happy to swim in fresh water again for a change and to wash off the exhaustments of the day and the weeks of seawater showers. We only stopped when we started to shiver and the low sun reminded us of the way home.

My second „Santo – Highlight“ – an early birthday present to myself, was the dive at the sunken American troop carrier SS President Coolidge.

During the Second World War, Espirito Santo was the hub for all Pacific missions of the Allied forces. There are two possible entrances leading into the bay off Luganville, which were always alternately blocked with mines to keep enemies away.

This journey is my dream! If you want to support me and keep the journey going, please feel free to invite me for a symbolic dinner!

Thank you so much!

On October 26, 1942, the captain of the cruise liner, which was converted into a troop carrier, was informed too late about the changed position of the mines. With over 5000 soldiers and several tons of tanks, guns and equipment on board, the SS President Coolidge ran into two of the sea mines. The explosions ripped huge holes into the hull – the Coolidge was due to sinking!

To save his men, the captain gave full throttle and steered the ship onto the reef, just in front of the actual landing site. Except for one sailor who did not survive the explosions and one officer who was saving his men until the end, all 5000 sailors on bord survived!

Just after the evacuation, the 200-meter-long ship slid backwards down the reef and now lies at a depth of 20 to 80 meters. Today it is considered the largest and most accessible  diving wreck in the world.

The old landing place. In the distance: one of the two mined entries to the bay of Luganville

I was looking forward to diving in the Coolidge, but at the same time I had a lot of respect for it! With a depth of over 56 meters, the planned dive to the „White Lady“ exceeded all my previous experience.

I was very pleased when a friend put me in touch with Oskar and Peter, who are in the process of opening a dive resort and turned out to be very competent guides. Already during preliminary discussions, I was told that there would only be four of us diving. One guide for each “student”!

The first dive was meant to be something like a quality check: Peter wanted to make sure that my technique, bouyancy and air consumption were good enough for the actual dive. At up to 35 meters we dove first through the first and second cargo holes and then through a narrow gap into the third hold of the ship. It looked like a shaken junk room, full of tanks, tracked vehicles, guns, plates, bottles – all kinds of stuff! Outside the cones of our flashlights, it was pitch black in the wreck.

The time during our three-hour break on the beach we spend with a campfire, barbeque and a little nap. Then it was time to plan the actual dive: The „White Lady“ is a relic from the cruiseship time of the SS President Coolidge and hangs somewhere in the saloon or reception room above the fireplace.

I can’t remember the exact position that very well anymore. The ship is lying sideways on the bottom, and I was, besides navigating myself, quite busy not to bump into something or to get stuck anywhere in the narrow corridors.

At 45 meters depth we finally reached the lady, and I gave her a full hearted and also the deepest kiss of my life!

I was taking very good care about my breathing. Like that, at this point my tank was still quite full and so Oska and I dived around a few more corners and hatches into the crew quarters and showers. – a funny sighting: As the ship is laying on its side one looks sideways towards the toilet seat, but still looks onto it from the top.

Suddenly, the water started to get more and more murky. As we had discussed earlier, we left the wreck and dove along the outside of the hull, past the big machine gun, back into shallower water. Here, we were bound to wait and watch some little fishies: Our computers requested us to have a decompression stop of about 10 Minutes. We didn’t need to use the “prony – bottle” ( another spare dive tank, in case we would run low on air while waiting )we had placed there earlier, and after a total of 50 minutes we cheered at each other, amazed by the successful dive!

WOW! With the volcano hikes and the Coolidge dive, I had completed my bucket list for Vanuatu with bravura and could now concentrate endorphin-filled light-footed on the final preparations for my departure towards Indonesia.