Cruise: Loyalty Islands, New Caledonia

The Loyalty Islands (Iles Loyauté) – the name alone is practically an invitation to visit. The islands were named by the British in recognition of the friendliness and charm of the indigenous Melanesian and Polynesian peoples, who had preceded them by thousands of years. Idyllic scenes of beautiful islands and pristine coral waters offered additional allure. From the moment we started planning our New Caledonia sailing trip, we knew that the Loyalties would be part of the itinerary.

Our passage to the Loyalties started from Baie Ouie on Grande Terre, where we awoke to calm winds and light drizzle. I’d timed our 10:45 departure assuming we’d sail 122 nautical miles at 6 knots and make landfall on the island of Lifou around sunrise the following day.

Once we passed Île Ouen we picked up a 22-knot south-south easterly on our beam. Even under doubly-reefed main and jib, Arriba was racing along at 9 knots and it soon became apparent that we would reach our destination in the middle of the night. So rather than push on, at 15:35, we jibed and altered our course for Yaté on the southeast coast of Grande Terre, which we reached at 17:00. This anchorage, while indicated on charts, is not mentioned in any of the New Caledonia cruising guides. I highly recommend it though, as it is the perfect departure point when sailing from Grand Terre to Lifou.

Music drifting across the bay was enticing but on this occasion the land did not tempt us. The ocean once again sustained us: yesterday’s tuna catch combined with another we’d caught today went into fish tacos served with a zesty Mexican red-cabbage coleslaw. With tomorrow’s winds forecast in the 25 to 30 knot range, we anticipated a quick ride to Lifou.

We departed at 06:04 and, as soon as we cleared the river mouth, we set the doubly-reefed main. Inside the barrier reef, with only 18 knot winds and messy seas, initially we eked out a modest 6 knots. A few hours later, when the forecast 25-knot winds kicked in, our boat speed jumped to 9 knots and hardly abated. The 3m following seas further pushed us along, further adding to the exhilaration. We pulled into Marina de Wé at 18:19, docking at our pre-assigned berth (booked by the friendly folks at Port Moselle Marina). We had covered the 113 nautical miles in just over 12 hours, averaging 8.7 knots - a day-sailing record for our trip.

The following morning, a gentle “Bonjour!” floated aboard. Louis, la Capitainerie (the marina manager), had come down to the dock to greet us. Merri and I followed him ashore to do the necessary paperwork. Her French would come in very handy, as Louis’s command of English was largely limited to waving his Android phone while pointing at Google Translate. Then, in a repeat of our arrival in Nouméa, we all went our separate ways. Being confined to within 11m of your crew for multiple days tends to induce such rapid dispersals.
Arriba at Wé Marina.

Wé is the administrative center of Lifou and hugs the shore of Baie Chateaubriand with the marina located at its southeastern corner. It is highly advisable to make this your first port of call in the Loyalties. French law and Kanak tribal customs co-exist in the Loyalties, but it is the latter that is to be most respected. Outside of Wé, it is essential to consult with local tribal leaders, preferably le chef (the chief), before anchoring for the night. There is a tradition of paying respect by offering small gifts, known as coutume (custom). We’d brought fabrics from home for this purpose, which we combined with a ₣1,000 note. Any thoughtful token will do, though. Meeting le chef is a great opportunity to learn from the locals and, at times, we felt like anthropologists. Be sure to ask if there are any areas that are sacred or carry taboos. Out of respect, we also swapped our French tricolor flag for the Kanak flag during the time we were in the Loyalties, a gesture that was noted and appreciated.

Chateaubriand Bay.

Wé is just like any other marina and does not require coutume. Well, not quite like any other, as I’d never seen a marina with such crystal clear water. Merri and I walked the length of the bay, taking a break at the beachside Hotel Drehu for café au lait on the way back, and later going for a swim. That night we enjoyed good Thai food at Le Siam, only a block from the marina.

Deux café au lait.

The next day, Merri and I went shopping at the local magazin
(shop). There was no fresh fruit nor any vegetables, so we settled for canned chickpeas and fresh baguettes. The former is a versatile item in any boat pantry, lentils being another. We visited la Capitainerie one last time, before departing at 10:30. Forty minutes later we passed Pointe de Chateaubriand and were sailing at 6.8 knots in 14-knot winds.

At 14:52, we anchored in the southerly anchorage at Baie de Jokin in 16m of water, the first of many stunning anchorages that we had entirely to ourselves. Merri and I took the dinghy ashore and climbed the steps hewn into cliffs up to the small clifftop village of Jokin. We had some interesting conversations, asking “Où est le Chef?” (Where is the chief?) One young man replied, “C’est moi” (It’s me), before breaking into a huge grin and pointing us in the right direction. It turned out that the real chief was away but we met his lovely wife, Lonyel, who invited us back for a traditional lunch the next day.

Cliffs of Jokin.

After a very rainy night, the skies finally cleared around 10:00 am, in time to go ashore for our lunch. We snorkeled after lunch, which required swimming about 100m to some nearby bommies in shallower water, abundant in fish life. We spent a second night relaxing at anchor at Jokin, rather than moving late in the day.

Lunch at Jokin.

Merri and Lonyel.

Thursday brought another cloudy morning but no rain. We weighed anchor at 06:52 and thirty minutes later we raised the main and gennaker and motor-sailed in 8-knot winds. At 10:02 we anchored at Baie de Jinek to snorkel. Merri and I were the first into the water and, at my urging, we swam towards the rocky headland (Cap de Easo). Hailing from temperate waters, I naturally gravitate to such rocky reefs for snorkeling. My choice of location was a mistake as we got caught in a strong current flowing around the point. With Merri paddling just to stay in place, I started swimming back to the boat to fetch the dinghy. Progress was excruciatingly slow and in the end Liam, who was coming from the shore, returned to the boat and fetched the dinghy before I could. After picking up Merri and me, we all went to the main snorkeling area, at the head of the cove closer to shore. The snorkeling was superb and Jinek Bay’s “open-air aquarium” description is very apt.

When snorkeling in a new place, it’s a good idea to have the dinghy ready to go. I also advise against everyone jumping in the water at the same time, as tempting as it is to explore a new spot.

Next, we sailed to the township of Xepenehe (pronounced sheh-peh-neh-heh). We found the grand estate of le chef and offered coutume, who reciprocated in kind. We later learned that it is unusual for chiefs to reciprocate, so we must have done something right. I’ll give credit to Merri who did 90% of the talking. This chief had blue eyes, being the grandson of an Irishman. We mentioned to him that we were heading to the island of Ouvéa and he suggested that we pay a visit to the local gendarmerie to notify them of our plans. There was strife on Ouvéa in 2019 when a tourist charter boat disrespected the locals by fishing without permission. A standoff ensued resulting in guns being fired, although fortunately no-one was hurt. Since then, Ouvéa has been considered off-limits to visiting yachts. The gendarmerie informed us, however, that there were no special restrictions and that we should just exercise the usual care.

Note: We received conflicting information about whether we could enter the Loyalties and, in particular, Ouvéa. I recommend that visitors make their own independent enquiries before embarking on a trip.

Ouvéa is considered the heart of the Kanak pro-independence movement. In 1988, pro-independence Kanak militants attacked a police station on Ouvéa, taking the gendarmes hostage. Pro-independence sentiment still runs very strong but I suspect this is more of an issue for French nationals, than for outsiders. We felt welcome everywhere.

Since 2020, charter boats have not been permitted to sail to any of the Loyalty Islands. As a result, the islands are almost devoid of visiting yachts. We saw only one other yacht during our time there. For now, it is BYOB (Bring Your Own Boat).

Some French language skills are essential and finding le chef can require perseverance. There are no signs pointing to their residence, so you’ll need to be able to ask around and understand responses.

Walking back to the boat, we noticed whales breaching in the bay, so at 15:56 we set out to take a closer look. Once within about 200m we killed the engine and drifted. We had a frollicking Humpback whale and her calf all to ourselves for about twenty minutes. In the meantime, Liam had spotted a nearby beach – Plage de Kiki. There was no mention of this beach as anchorage in any of my cruising guides but reviews for the beach itself were gushing. We anchored over sand in 5m and were rewarded with one of the prettiest beaches we have ever seen – anywhere.

Kiki Beach.

The following day we weighed anchor at 04:55 and motored out in calm conditions. Ninety minutes later, we set our course for Cap Rossel (314°T) on Ouvéa. The winds remained fickle and we continued to motor until 12:22, when we passed the cape, Ouvéa’s northernmost point. Finally, 10-knot wind from the southeast kicked in and we raised the main, sailing at 6 knots.

Approaching St Joseph.

At 15:54 and 55.5 nautical miles later, we were anchored in 3m over sand directly offshore from the hamlet of St Joseph, with its distinctive red-roofed church. Merri and I went ashore in search of le chef. We were warmly welcomed by a group of people mingling by the shore, who were very interested in our arrival. The dual blow of a global pandemic and local strife had reduced visiting yachties to a trickle. Indeed, New Caledonia as a whole had only opened up to cruising yachts two months earlier. It turned out that le chef was recently deceased but we found a female relative who gratefully accepted coutume in his place. We were also invited to attend a fête the next day.

St Joseph Church.

Fête at St Joseph.

St Joseph.

The fête was a highlight of our time on Ouvéa. Everyone was so friendly and the kids, in particular, were very interested in us. We were treated to a local speciality of Ouvéan yams with sardines and lemon juice. No one wanted us to leave and, in retrospect, I wish we could have lingered. Nevertheless, at the urging of the skipper (moi) we got underway at 12:45 and relocated to Fayaoue, 14 nautical miles to the south. We went ashore and visited the church and the general store. I made the mistake of asking for wine at the store, only to be greeted with strange looks. No alcohol is sold on Ouvéa outside of resorts. Fayauoe did not have the pull of St Joseph, so we continued on to Lekiny for the night.

We anchored directly in front of the Hôtel Paradis d'Ouvéa, where we went ashore for happy hour. Wandering around the fancy resort seemed rather surreal to me and I was very happy to be back on board for dinner.

Sunday brought another fine day with few clouds. I was keen to snorkel around Île Gee, which falls under the rule of le chef du Mouly. By 09:45 we were anchored offshore from the township of Mouly. The chief was at a wedding but we found his son who was very helpful. He explained that Île Gee was sacred and he requested that we not go ashore and that we limit our time there to two hours.

By 14:18, we were anchored in 16m on the southwest side of Île Gee (20°40.376’S 166°22.157’E), which was as close to the coral reef as we could approach safely. We then took the dinghy the remaining 100m or so. Two hours of snorkeling passed very quickly. The nearby beach beckoned – bright white sand surrounded by luxurious vegetation – but we respected the wishes of the chief’s son.

At 16:15, we were underway again, headed for Passe de Yaté. Our seven days in the Loyalties was really just a taste of these captivating islands. I felt sure that we would return again one day.


PS The story continues here.