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.
|Arriba at Wé 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.
|Cliffs of Jokin.
|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.
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.
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.
|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.
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.