Cruise: Bound for New Caledonia

New Caledonia. How can a place so close to Australia be so unfamiliar? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that its inhabitants speak a language that few Australians master. I was vaguely aware of the country as a place where francophiles went to hone their language skills. But until I started researching South Pacific sailing destinations four years ago, I knew very little.

Geographically, New Caledonia is one of four land masses that once comprised Australasia. It separated from Australia, along with Papua New Guinea and New Zealand, about one hundred million years ago, and is the third largest island in the Pacific. Politically, it is the closest part of France to Australia with French as the official language and croissants or pain au chocolat with cafe au lait as the official breakfast. It is also home to a vibrant Melanesian culture, the indigenous people (which make up 40% of the population) referring to themselves as Kanaks. The combination of French and Melanesian cultures is a delightful blend that can be found nowhere else on earth, which is reason enough to visit. The natural beauty, both above and below the water, is another reason. Finally, it takes only one week or less to sail from Australia. In contrast, New Zealand is twice as far and decidedly cooler.

In theory, you could sail to New Caledonia from anywhere on the Australian East Coast between Sydney and Mackay. In practice, however, you are limited to an official port, Southport (Gold Coast), being the most common. Most sailors allow seven days for the 700 nautical mile passage.

This would be Arriba’s first oceangoing passage and preparation took several months. Here, I’ll just cover the government requirements, not vessel preparation. There are many excellent articles on the latter topic, such as "Preparing Yourself and Your Boat” by Cruising World. Skip the following if you want to jump to the action or read this post for a complete description.

First, every Australian-owned vessel departing overseas must be a registered Australian vessel, which requires obtaining a registration certificate from the Australian Shipping Registration Office (SRO). Apart from being the official description of your vessel, this certificate documents a six-digit number known as an official number (ON). For peace of mind, allow two months to register your vessel. I only allowed five weeks and Arriba’s certificate was issued just one week prior to our planned departure, which was cutting it too fine. The ON is required for customs and the sooner you have it, the sooner you can start the customs process. The original registration certificate will need to be on board for inspection by customs. You’ll also need to show it to customs at your destination.

Second, when you sail away from Australian waters, even if you plan to return a couple of months later, technically, you are exporting your yacht overseas. If that sounds like excessive bureaucracy to you, then welcome to Australia! Most sailors employ a customs broker to do this, but I decided to learn about the process, do it myself, and save some money along the way.

Customs is handled by the Australian Border Force (ABF) and the process starts by completing an export declaration, using ABF Form B957. The trickiest part is knowing which Australian Harmonised Export Commodity Classification (AHECC) code to use. These are codes the Australian Bureau of Statistics uses to describe commodities which are derived from standard codes used by the World Customs Organisation. The code I used was AHECC 9902.10.20 (Non-cargo under own power). The codes that start with 99 are for commodities that are not being traded. Specify OP (Own Power) for export goods type. Apart from knowing the correct codes, you just need to be able to describe your vessel and its value and know where you're going. There are standard 5-letter codes for ports, e.g., NCNOU for New Caledonia, Noumea.

ABF Form B957a, known as the Export Declaration Supplementary Page, is not required providing everything on board is considered part of the yacht, which includes the tender.

First-time exporters also have to register as a customs client, by completing ABF Form B319. Because Arriba is owned by a company, I registered on behalf of the company, which matched the details for the registered agent on the SRO registration certificate.

Take your completed B957 and B319 forms and your SRO registration certificate to a customs counter in any state or territory, preferably well before you depart. You will then be issued an Export Declaration Number (EDN), which is valid for 12 months.

Important! You can only apply to depart once your EDN has been issued. Then simply email your smallcraft departure details to the ABF office at your port of departure, in our case When departing, there is no official ABF Form to fill in; any document with the required information will suffice (below). When arriving, however, ABF Form B333 (Smallcraft Arrival Report) is required.

ABF officers will come to your vessel and will need to sight the SRO registration certificate, passports, and all persons traveling. Note that if the skipper is not the owner and will not be departing with the vessel, then a letter from the owner giving the skipper authorization to take the vessel is required.

I booked our customs clearance for 09:30 on Saturday. Additional crew members Liam and Lindsay had joined Merri and me the previous evening and we enjoyed dinner at a local Indian restaurant, our last meal on terra firma for a while. Imagine our surprise then, when two ABF officers appeared at 07:30, keen to make an early start. After rousing two crew from their berths, we presented our passports and official papers. The officers were professional and friendly. The most memorable part of the conversation concerned Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs), which are scattered throughout the Coral Sea. Apparently, smugglers sometimes use FADs for drop-offs and pick-ups so we were told to give them a wide berth.

By 09:30, freshly showered and fuel tanks full, we bade farewell to the Southport Yacht Club. Once clear of the Gold Coast Seaway, we found a ten-knot breeze and started sailing with our main and gennaker. We averaged 5.8 knots through to midnight, covering 84 nautical miles in 16 ½ hours.

We were blessed with smooth sailing conditions. In fairness, I’d pored over PredictWind weather forecasts for days in advance to pick the best weather window. Arriba’s maximum range under motor in calm conditions is about 600 nautical miles, but headwinds and rough seas can make a huge dent in that range. I wanted favorable winds for at least the first half of our voyage and was not disappointed. Over the next 48 hours, we averaged 6.8 knots, covering a respectable 162 nautical miles each day. The only minor setback during this period was a small tear in the gennaker, which we promptly patched.

Liam inspecting the gennaker.

On our third day, shortly before sunrise, we passed the halfway point (top photo). Alas, the winds subsided and our average speed fell to 5.0 knots, as we eked out 120 nautical miles that day.

The following day, the wind returned and swung abaft so we furled the gennaker and sailed with just the mainsail. Averaging 6.2 knots, we covered 149 nautical miles in 24 hours.

Merri during a night watch.

For our fifth and final day at sea, we enjoyed our best run ever, averaging 7.35 knots and covering 143 nautical miles in 19 ½ hours. The mountains of Grand Terre first appeared at 15:00 and we passed through Passe de Dunbea 55 minutes later. We were now within the protected and flat waters of the New Caledonia Barrier Reef, enjoying sailing at its finest. In anticipation of landfall, I raised our yellow quarantine flag above the flag of our host country.

At 19:40, we dropped anchor in Baie de L’Orpheliant, a large bay within the city of Nouméa that is also home to Port Du Sud Marina. The bay was filled with yachts at anchor, but we claimed a space of our own without much difficulty.

Once secure, we toasted our arrival with Tasmanian Brut Rosé, as is tradition on Arriba. Suddenly, the night sky was illuminated by fireworks. Only then did we realize that we’d arrived on Bastille Day, the national holiday.
Fireworks over Nouméa 

We were now in a part of France, although over 16,000 km from Europe.


PS The story continues here.