Everyone keeps asking and so I decided to write about my experience of travelling from Vila to Santo by ship. I did this in January 2009, stopping at Epi and Ambrym en route.
In Vila, I did not know when the L/C Brisk was sailing and their office phone was always busy. I might have enquired at the Vanuatu Tourism Office, but I didn't think of that. I wouldn't expect the VTO to know much about Ambrym and ships, they seem to be focussed mainly on Vila, Efate and SHEFA province (in that order). I walked down the the wharf near the house market to make enquiries. This is where the small, rough ships berth. The M/V Saratoka was departing for Epi in the evening. I returned to my motel, packed my bags and waited until the afternoon.
Back at the wharf, I paid my fare to Lamen Bay (4500 Vatu) and sat down to wait some more. The Saratoka is a small timber boat and passengers sit on the deck. The weather was fine and I was not concerned about her run-down state. We departed in the evening and it was not long before I sensed something was wrong - the bilge pump was not working. Off Devil's Point, at about 2100h, the captain announced we would have to return to Port Vila. The ship's owner would get a new pump from a Chinese store, first thing in the morning. The L/C Brisk passed us in the night as we turned around.
I did not want to spend another night in Vila and waste Vatu on accommodation. At the wharf, I asked the captain if I may sleep on the boat. He said it was fine and offered his bunk in the wheelhouse; he was going to sleep with family in town. So I slept on the waterfront in Port Vila, with a nice view to Iririki, where the well-off tourists stay. In the middle of the night there were heavy showers and the roof over the forward deck leaked. Two of the Sarotoka's crew came in to the wheelhouse, one on the bunk above me and the other on the floor below.
I was surprised at the crew's efficiency in the morning. A new pump was procured and we were on our way again around 0800h. The Saratoka does not have a proper bilge pump. They use cheap Chinese pumps that run on 240 volts and a small generator to power the pump (one more thing that could fail).
The daytime cruise to Epi was smooth and uneventful. The Saratoka has a new engine and she runs well. We reached Cape Foreland at dusk and dropped off some cartons somewhere in the dark before proceeding to Lamen Bay. On Tuesday night and 12 hours late, the Saratoka dropped anchor at Lamen Bay. I went ashore and wandered off in the dark towards Tasso's. I spent a week on Epi and was back in Lamen Bay on Sunday.
On Monday morning, the Brisk returned on her next voyage to Santo and opened her mouth on the beach near Epi Island High School. There was one more white person onboard, a young German geologist, going to Ambrym to participate in some volcano research. He was travelling with some equipment, overnight on the Brisk, a hard bench to sit on and nowhere to sleep. For some people, it's an adventure. Lamen Bay to Craig Cove takes only a few hours by ship. I made a mistake by not visiting the captain to pay my fare and another in being honest! I found the Supercargo before disembarking, he was busy and quickly took 2000 Vatu; the fare should have been 1000 Vatu! I didn't get a receipt and I'm sure the Supercargo kept the money for himself.
I spent two weeks on Ambrym, one week was not enough and then I had to wait for the Brisk to come back. The Brisk did come back, on schedule, at midday on Tuesday and dropped her ramp on the stones at Craig Cove. I wished to go to Baravet on Pentecost but my tourist visa was running out. I would go direct to Santo and had bought some coconuts and food at the market in Craig Cove for the overnight voyage.
The Brisk passed around west Ambrym in the afternoon, beaching at Ranon and Olal in the north. Crossing over to south Pentecost, it rained and the sea was a bit rough. Through the night, the Brisk passed along west Pentecost and serviced many passages on this long island. There were plenty of passengers onboard and nowhere to sleep on the main deck. I found a place to sleep on top, outside and on a stack of plywood sheets. I was lucky to have a pandanus mat, a gift from Nikaura village. I slept lightly for a while and then the crew woke me up to remove some plywood sheets. I slept some more, until it rained. The rain was very light at first but annoying. Heavier rain and wind followed and there was no space to shelter downstairs. I sat in front the wheelhouse with an old man, under a narrow overhang and we held up my mat to block the rain. The rain passed but my mat and the deck were now wet. I tried to sleep sitting down.
The weather was fine on Wednesday morning as we sailed into Lolowai. Next the Brisk passed around west Ambae and put a truck ashore at Devil's Rock. Mid-afternoon, the Brisk cruised into the "canal" on Santo. She landed at Melcoffee and the boys put up a makeshift barrier with drums and timber and they checked tickets. On the islands it appears that people come and go almost as they please and the Supercargo was very lax in checking tickets and cargo. This time I had a genuine ticket, purchased from the wheelhouse for 4200 Vatu, Ambrym to Santo.
Marine Consultancy Services was one of the first companies in Vanuatu to operate a reliable shipping service. Now they have two ships, the L/C Brisk and the L/C Tina-1. These two run in opposite directions, servicing Ambae, Pentecost, Ambrym and Epi.
Don't bother asking Marine Consultancy Services about passenger bookings, island shipping doesn't work like that. All you need to know is the ships schedule and turn up at the wharf or passage a couple hours early.