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Family Cruising in Papua New Guinea

By Behan, SV Totem — last modified Sep 22, 2014 09:33 AM
Our family of five spent nearly three months travelling through Papua New Guinea between September and December 2012 aboard SV Totem. It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience – beautiful anchorages, fascinating culture, and friendly people!

Published: 2013-03-13 00:00:00
Countries: Papua New Guinea

This summary review is intended to help inform cruisers considering PNG as a destination: more information and stories are available on our blog (http://www.sailingtotem.com/tag/png will link to all the PNG posts). The basics at www.noonsite.com/Members/sue/R2012-08-31-5 are right on, although we disagree with their assessment that PNG is “not a family destination”. We found PNG to be a great destination for our family, with three children aged 8, 10 and 13. Security and safety are real concerns in PNG, but many islands are safe and friendly.

Routing

Departing from Bundaberg, Australia, our route through PNG was carefully chosen to keep us away from known trouble areas. It included: islands in the Louisiade Archipelago, then north and west via Budi Budi Atoll, Rabaul / Kokopo, Kavieng / New Hanover Island, Hermit Islands, Ninigo Atoll, and Vanimo (our only “mainland” PNG stop, required for paperwork to enter Indonesia).

To plan this route, we created a map of PNG, plotting places reported as good or dangerous. This information came from Noonsite reports, cruiser blogs, and interviews that we conducted with a number of cruisers that had spent time in PNG in recent years. We have made this map available online, and a quick look shows a pattern to the problem areas - more on this below in the security section.

Guides / Anchorages

Mud maps from out-of-print guides for the Louisiades are widely circulated among cruisers. They are of low quality but provide basic, better-than-nothing information. Landfalls of Paradise and IMRAY’s Southeast Asia guide both have some information, but limited to just a few places in Papua New Guinea. Cruisers should be comfortable going without a guidebook and using inaccurate charts as well as traversing unsurveyed areas.

Generalizing, most anchorages were of easy depth and bottom composition; bommies and excessive depth made a few more challenging.  

Weather

Once north of the vigorous Coral Sea and into Louisiades we had very little wind from September to December; most of our time underway was motor-sailing. Squalls are relatively frequent. Near more mountainous islands “bullet winds” (katabatic winds) were also frequent enough that you want to be sure the anchor is well set before going to sleep! Northwest monsoon season with wind / current from west across the top of New Guinea normally arrives in December. We were patient with weather and lucky with a weak monsoon season so that our westward trip was easy. It’s a good reminder that pilot charts reflect historical patterns, not weather forecasts.

Formalities

The only port of entry in Milne Bay Province (which includes the Louisiades) is in Alotau. We chose to skip Alotau, delaying official clearance into PNG because of safety concerns. After cruising PNG several weeks, we cleared in at Kokopo. This delayed clearance is common practice for cruisers in PNG; and although not officially sanctioned by PNG, customs officials had no concern over our delayed clearance.

Once cleared, cruisers are required to check in at immigration offices in major ports, such as Kokopo, Kavieng, Vanimo, etc. Coordinating entry with the Island Cruising Rally or the Louisiades Rally may be another option for clearance, since they bring officials out to an island to clear rally yachts. However, this help should be coordinated in advance and cannot be presumed, as rally officials allowed some non-rally yachts to clear but denied assistance to others.

Fuel

We purchased fuel in Rabaul and Kavieng for approx. US$1.50 / liter by the 200 liter drum. Smaller quantities increase the price significantly. In both places, Kina and US dollars were accepted for payment. Pre-filtering fuel is essential.

- Misima Island: some boats from Louisiades Rally (we did not participate) fueled in Misima and reported paying over $2 / liter.

- Rabaul: purchase from Island Petroleum via a rugged wharf at approx 4° 12.21S, 152° 09.82E. Purchases must be arranged and paid for at the company office (about 200 meters walk from the wharf) before trying to the wharf.

- Kavieng: fuel was arranged through the Nusa Lik resort. They brought drums alongside in their tender.

Provisioning and Supplies

Arrive well provisioned! Most of our stops were in minimally developed islands with no stores. There is no cash economy (and no stores or markets) in most of the islands, so trading was the only way to get fresh produce. Our blog contains detailed information about what was useful to bring for trading, and what we got in return (http://www.sailingtotem.com/2012/11/trading-in-louisiades-what-to-bring.html and several posts following this one outline PNG trading in detail).

In towns (we visited Kokopo, Rabaul, Kavieng, Vanimo), there are grocery stores with a surprising variety of packaged foods at somewhat inflated prices; these towns also have open markets with excellent and inexpensive produce. Both propane and a reasonably good sized hardware store were in Kokopo and Kavieng.

Cultural Courtesy

The FIRST thing upon anchoring near a village community is to ask permission from the village leader/chief. Failure to do is disrespectful and can lead to problems. It’s customary to bring a gift; fresh caught fish goes over very well.

Before the anchor is set many locals will swim or paddle out to meet you and trade, which is a good time to ask about the chief. Advice we were given which worked well was: Ask for their rules -is it OK to anchor there? Is it OK to fish in the lagoon? Etc. Then share rules you may have about your boat, such as no visitors after dark. It’s also a good time to discuss safety issues such as “rascals”, (people, mostly young males prone to theft or worse trouble) or crocodiles.

Often when walking in/near a village a guide is offered. We often decline, but someone would tag along anyway, which we realized was for their peace of mind. Some villages have sacred places you could unintentionally disturb; and others do it to ensure safety. Consider this an opportunity instead of a burden- make a friend, and learn about the place.

Show respect, dress appropriately (modestly), be open and, ask questions. At one island, police were asked to warn a bikini-clad cruiser sunbathing on deck that her attire was unacceptable to the village's sensibilities - don't be that cruiser! Women shouldn't wear shorts/tanks: skirts below the knee and tops that cover shoulders / tops of arms and do not show cleavage are much more appropriate and really not that hard to accomodate.

Try to learn a few words in the local dialect - it’s not hard and goes a long way toward building a bridge. As we got to know some locals well enough, they told us of how uncomfortable some cruisers make them feel because after arriving they kept locals at a distance. If you expect to visit their village, expect them to want to visit your boat. PNG is hands on cultural immersion, and we feel that effort put into sharing time with the locals goes a long way to feeling safe and welcome, as well as creating a lasting memorable experience.

Security

Our map created to show dangerous or friendly areas highlights a pattern: places with population centers and mining/logging/drilling operations tend to be hotspot for violence and theft. Conversely, islands without much populations and no industry tend to be reported as friendly and safe places to visit.

So, from this we:
- Skipped mainland PNG altogether, with the exception of our obligatory stop in Vanimo.
- Stayed away from any place with mining/logging/drilling operations.
- Always asked locals about “rascals” and safety. Since they benefit from our visit through trade and wish to encourage future visits, we believe open discussion about security and our concerns helped ensure no problems. We were told of two community meetings held specifically to ensure safety during our visit.
- Focused on visiting places with smaller villages rather than more of a town feeling.  A key difference is the pressure of the local clans in the smaller communities: they police their own backyard. In towns, people come from different areas and so do not have the same clan/family pressure to resist opportunistic theft.
- Trusted our instincts, if a place didn’t feel right, go with your gut and move on.

Other considerations:
- Locals coming to meet you upon arrival can arrive in large numbers making it feel intimidating. We found them to be very respectful, not bumping our boat with their canoe and waiting to be invited before coming aboard. When speaking with someone, others would wait patiently for their turn. Behavior different than this is suspect.
- When inviting people aboard, ask where they are from and be more mindful of people not from the local village.
- Besides having fascinating stories to tell, the elders command respect in a village. A rapport with them can be very beneficial.

The only places we encountered another cruising boat were in Rabaul (one) and Kavieng (two boats). If you’re looking for the less beaten path and some fascinating experiences, Papua New Guinea is the place to visit! Yes, there are challenges, but by using good information and common sense, cruisers can have as pleasant, safe, and memorable a visit to these beautiful islands as we did.

Behan - SV Totem

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