Sunday, December 15, 2013

Conclusion of 2013 Cruising Season

Anne breathing with her gills


Island school boys

Island school girls

Island airport

Little Rascal's Buckwheat?

Young weaver

Mahi Mahi for dinner

Our local guide

Asanvari Bay, Maewo Island

Our new country and its official seal


Another treat

Cape Brett hike, Whangamumu, NZ
As we write this, “Blue Rodeo” rests safely in her berth at the Town Basin Marina in Whangarei, New Zealand, about 100 miles north for Auckland.  Since leaving there last May, we sailed nearly 4,000 miles and visited the countries of Fiji, Vanuatu and New Caledonia.  When the sailing season began, we had good intentions to make frequent blog postings and keep our family and friends up to date with our travels.  Alas, we fell short of that goal and apologize if we’ve given any of you cause to worry that we’d been lost at sea or eaten by cannibals.  Some blame can be assigned to limited internet access in places we visited, especially Vanuatu.  The bulk however, falls on us for not having the discipline to make time for creatively describing our experiences and sorting through the hundreds of photos we’ve taken along the way.  Mark’s hopes of making some progress in his attempt at learning to play the guitar also suffered for the same reason.  Our cruising life often seems like we’re whirring around in the cogs of a perceptual motion machine with only rare moments of down time.  We admit that some cruising couples appear to have better figured-out how to pace themselves and, as the saying goes, “take time to smell the roses”.  In some ways, we admire them for that.  We however, seem to be driven harder by our quest for more adventures and our desire to see and do it all.  We are realistic enough to know that there simply is never enough time for everything, even though that rarely slows us down.  Knowing that life is short and that time seems to accelerate as we age, we intend to make the very best of this wonderful cruising experience while we can.  So, excuses aside, here’s a recap of what we been up to since our last blog posting.

As the memories of the incredibly beautiful beaches, jungle forests and undersea reefs that we’ve explored slowly begin to fade, those of some of the unique and interesting people we’ve met seem forever etched in our minds.  One such person was Ruben, chief of a small village on the island of Lelepa off the west coast of Efate, Vanuatu.  We, in company with our good friends Jon and Heather from the yacht “Evergreen” and Jan Bart and Monique from “Victory”, anchored in a lovely, small, coral-fringed bay there and found an amazing SCUBA dive spot nearby.  The spot featured great visibility, interesting topography, colorful soft corals and a few large, friendly fish.  Our three night stay at Lelepa was made special by our getting to know Ruben and his wife Nary.  They proved to be charming people and welcoming hosts.  They paddled to “Blue Rodeo” one morning, in their leaky dugout canoe, offering fruit and sea shells.  We invited them aboard and reciprocated with cookies and beverages.  Ruben impressed us with his fitness, his knowledge of the outside world and his excellent command of the English language.  This all seemed to make sense after he spoke with pride of his military service with multi-national forces from Australia and New Zealand.  We could only imagine what his return to relatively primitive island life would have been like after time abroad in the military.  When we exchanged heart-felt good byes, we promised to return someday for another visit with these warm and genuine people. 

With a forecast for poor weather associated with a fast- moving, low pressure system heading our way, we sailed a short distance to the Havannah Harbor, a large bay that offered more protection from strong winds and rough seas.  The plan worked well and during breaks in the stormy weather we had the unique opportunity to visit a splendid 165’ sailing yacht anchored nearby.  It was owned by a Dutch gentleman who had fallen on hard financial times. The yacht, which was now for sale, had been anchored there for about a year, under the care of a young local man named NIxon who was the son of a chief from the island of Maewo.  The man asked us for a dinghy ride to the yacht one day and invited us aboard for a tour.  The once magnificent yacht was showing its age and, although still in good shape, was seriously in need of refurbishment.  Apparently, finances were such that the owner couldn’t even afford to fuel it as it sat waiting for a buyer to come along.  It was certainly sad to see.

We continued our exploration of the islands of Vanuatu by sailing north to Cook’s Reef for an afternoon snorkel and on to the island of Emae.  From there, another day sail took us to the island of Tongoa where we would again find an incredible dive site on the north wall of an offshore reef.  While enroute to Tongoa, Jon from “Evergreen” caught a sizable fish and, after anchoring near the first village we spotted, went ashore to share some of it with the locals and ask permission of the chief to SCUBA dive in the area.  Soon, he had quite a crowd around him with the fish bits being happily accepted.  A representative of the chief informed Jon that our group was welcome to walk the island and dive on its reefs.  As a bit of background information, unlike in Fiji where a formal presentation of Kava root is made and a Sevusevu ceremony is performed upon first visiting an island, the chiefs of Vanuatu, who traditionally own both the land and nearby reefs, ask only that their permission be granted before visitors partake in activities in their domain.  Occasionally, a small fee for diving in the area (normally about $5 per person) is requested with the money going to help out the villagers.  A few days later, after diving a reef about 2 miles from the village, we had gone ashore for a hike and to seek out a famous wood carver.  We were, as usual, greeted by a number of friendly and helpful locals but, upon returning to our beached dinghies, encountered another group, including a chief who was unhappy that we’d dived on HIS reef without HIS permission.  This created a sense of confusion among us in knowing who really had authority over the areas we visited.  It seems that any cluster of three or four homes in an area might have someone considered to be a “chief”.  The reality is often that unless we asked specifically who the big chief was, and over what area he had authority, we were destined to step on someone’s toes and create somewhat of an uncomfortable incident. Well, such is the norm when interacting with other cultures.  Unintentional faux paus are inevitably made.  At least in the modern, post-missionary world, these inappropriate gaffs rarely result in the outsiders being boiled in a pot and eaten.

North of Tongoa Island, overnight stops were made at Revolieu and Lamen Bays on the island of Epi.  Both places provided enjoyable snorkeling and walking ashore but fell a bit short of the experiences we had at Tongoa.  Our desire to see and do it all kept us moving on to Awai Bay on the southeast end of sizeable Malekula Island.  This protected, shallow bay, out of sight of any villages, offered good snorkeling and, just out side its barrier reef, another excellent SCUBA dive location.  Shortly after anchoring there, we were visited by several locals in their dug out canoes.  One claimed to be the brother of a chief and, since his brother was away, extended permission for us to dive and explore the area.  This would later prove to be a misrepresentation creating a little friction with the real chief.  The other, a man named Tom, was quick and assertive in his insistence that we re-anchor at his village on Maskelyne Island about 4 miles away where he, for a fee, could guide us to the best dive spot, take us to see dugongs (the South Pacific version of manatees) and arrange for a traditional dance presentation.  Even though we were quite content to stay where we were, we, along with Jon and Heather, succumbed to his charms.  This proved to be a mistake and led to the most uncomfortable and disillusioning experience of our two months in Vanuatu.  Tom, was a likable guy who had lived for a while in the capital city of Port Vila.  He spoke English well and mentioned that he had a son in college there.  It was clear that Tom understood  better than most that tourists and visiting cruisers were “cash cows” and willing to pay to get a glimpse at HIS world.  What we found difficult to accept is that, instead of interacting with him and his villagers in a normal and natural way, everything seemed to be artificially arranged for us and we were expected to pay for it.  The search for the dugongs was a bust, even though we saw a few from a distance.  The water visibility in the bay where they were was poor which prevented us from swimming in their company and left us worrying more about what sharks might be lurking nearby.  His excellent dive site was just mediocre and the dance presentation, that we had no choice but to attend and pay for, was pretty sad.  Four dancers and a drummer, clad only in their traditional, “small Namba”, woven waist bands and penis sheaths, unenthusiastically did two dances which basically consisted of some foot stomping and waving of sticks.  After that, Mark and Jon were encouraged to participate, painted with mud and offered penis sheaths.  The guys willingly went along with it but opted to stay in their board shorts joking that the “small Namba” sheaths were inadequate for their more ample physical attributes.  The girls had fun though, watching the boys dance with the locals and shot both video and still photos to commemorate the event.  Anne couldn’t help but zoom-in on one of the dancers anatomical parts for the benefit of her girlfriends that had yet to have the experience.  We certainly had a few laughs about it later but agreed that the whole thing seemed contrived and less than authentic.  Later, on Tom and his chief’s insistence, we dinghied ashore for what was supposed to be a welcoming, kava drinking ceremony on our behalf.  In reality, a bunch of the village low lifes were sitting around a five gallon paint bucket full of kava provided by a gent that runs a kava bar of sorts on the island and we were expected to buy, not only a cup or two for ourselves, but a “round for the boys”.  It’s clear we were being taken advantage of.  If fact, we kept remembering Tom’s comment when we invited him aboard “Blue Rodeo” and he asked where we were from.  After telling him we were from the USA, he remarked, “ah...a very rich country”, implying that for us, money was never a worry.  This prompted us to joke with Jon and Heather that we needed to tell people that we were from some other country.  So, the Republic of Jabooblia was invented and Mark went so far as to draw and color the official seal of the country complete with its mottos, “Small but Perky” and “Not quite USA...not quite Canada”. 

Feeling a bit disturbed by our encounter with Tom at Maskelyne Island, we set sail the very next day for a few small islands further north up the east coast of Malekula.  Our memories of the uncomfortable experience were soon all but erased by our interaction with the genuinely friendly and forthright people we encountered at tiny Norsup Island.  Not only was the scenery there beautiful as can be, but the people quickly warmed our hearts while engaging us in curious, friendly conversation.  After giving one man, who seemed to have almost nothing, one of our fishing hand lines, Anne was so very touched when he returned the next morning with a beautiful, box conch shell for her.  She had given her gift expecting nothing in return.  His gift was so special in that it restored our faith in the genuine goodness of most people and their willingness to give as well as take. 

Wala Island was another memorable stop.  Jon had, once again, caught a good-sized fish while sailing between the islands and, after the hard work of cleaning and filleting it, kindly gave us enough for several delicious meals.  After socking-away a big chunk for themselves, he generously offered the rest of the fish to some of the local villagers that paddled out to our boats anchored just off shore.  Later, we took some of it ashore as a gift to the chief which immediately made our group of four very popular.  The village at Wala seemed more “upscale” than most that we’d visited so far in Vanuatu. The homes were better built, many constructed from cinder block and picnic areas with covered tables and benches lined the well-manicured shoreline.  There was even a modern floating dock providing easy access to the shore.  We were informed that a cruise ship stops there on a regular basis so the guests can have a traditional, unspoiled, cultural experience.  Alas, it was clearly evident that, although the village probably benefitted from the influx of tourist dollars, their traditional way of living was forever changed.  After a nice morning SCUBA dive off the island’s northeast reef, Mark and Jon went ashore to help out a villager who had approached us during our walk-about the day before.  His large, fiberglass, water catchment tank had sprung a leak and he asked if we could help with a repair.  Armed with fiberglass cloth, resin, rasps, sandpaper, paint brushes and mixing containers, the guys set out to tackle the job.  Their efforts drew a sizable crowd of spectators with a few also asking for help with their solar panels and storage batteries.  As some of the modern conveniences that we take for granted, like electricity for example, begin to reach these islanders, they are often faced with problems that they have neither the education or resources to solve.  As boaters, we know that the life expectancy of anything electrical in the marine environment can be very limited without proper care.  On the islands, we have seen expensive, gasoline-powered generators turned to rusty pieces of junk by the salt air and piles of 12 volt storage batteries rendered useless by abuse.  As is usually the case, education is the key and we can only hope that the efforts made by international organizations to provide better schooling for the children will improve their health, comfort and living conditions in the years to come.

Our next stop, Asanvari Bay on the Island of Maewo remains memorable for several reasons.  Not only were the surroundings “picture perfect” but the people so very friendly as well.  A few, with connections to the outside world had returned to their beautiful island and invested a great amount of time and effort in constructing a thatched-roof, open-air “yacht club” where visiting cruisers could congregate ashore for a social hour or bar-b-que.  One gentleman had landscaped a gorgeous piece of land at the base of a waterfall that emptied into the anchorage and constructed an outdoor bar for visitors.  Perhaps they are operating under the assumption that, “if you build it, they will come”.  Sadly, aside from our friends on “Evergreen”,  we were the only visitors and couldn’t help but feel that their ideas and improvements may never be appreciated.  In fact, we had been surprised that, while in Vanuatu, we had seen very few other cruisers.  Was this the norm or was it just different this season?  While some may feel that Vanuatu has less to offer than Tonga, Fiji or New Caledonia, we truly enjoyed our experiences there and look forward to returning next season. 

After an overnight at the island of Ambae for some snorkeling, it was on to the large island of Espiritu Santo and the town of Luganville.  It was there that the US military had a huge installation during WWII to defend the Solomon Islands just a few hundred miles to the north.  During the war, facilities, roads and airfields were built and hundreds of war ships often filled the harbors.  While there, we took time to snorkel on “Million Dollar Point” where, after the war, the US had dumped tons of materials and construction equipment into the sea when the government of Vanuatu declined to buy it for pennies on the dollar.  Although interesting, it was really just a pile of junk and not as inviting as the pristine reefs that we’d become accustomed to seeing.  Just a short distance along the coast from the point lies the wreck of the USS Calvin Cooledge, a 700+ foot cruise liner that was converted for troop transport and sank after hitting a friendly mine.  Local operators guide divers on the wreck and, due to the potential dangers, the authorities forbid anyone from diving there without using their services.  For that reason, we signed-up with of one of the most established dive operations in town and, along with Jon and Heather, did a SCUBA dive on the wreck.  Unfortunately, after having high expectations, we were rather disappointed due to limited visibility and our dive master’s unwillingness to appreciate our experience and skill levels.  Despite a pre-dive discussion about how all of us had been diving for years with hundreds of unsupervised dives in challenging conditions, he was unwilling to stray from his usual routine and had us heading for the surface with more than half of our air supplies remaining.  Even though we’d been as deep a 115’ for a short period of time, we were all operating well within our decompression safety margins and, in fact, wanted to linger even longer in the shallows to do more site seeing and allow even greater time to dissipate dissolved nitrogen in our bodies’ tissues and blood streams.  As we neared the end of the dive, our dive master actually exited the water before us and stomped-off, apparently upset that we chosen to enjoy a few more minutes in 12 feet of water studying some tiny, interesting creatures.  Afterwards, we all agreed how much more we enjoy discovering places on our own and the challenge that comes from seeing and doing things that few other divers get to do. 

Our stay in the Espiritu Santo area was rounded-out with numerous trips by dinghy to the town’s shops, markets and gas stations.  Ratua Island resort was also visited where we welcomed the opportunity to walk the island and enjoy a beer at the resort’s bar furnished with interesting, 200 year old furniture and carvings from the island of Bali.

With the cruising season about to end and the tropical cyclone season just beginning, our thoughts began to focus on our return to New Zealand for the southern hemisphere summer.  Sailing from the islands back to New Zealand usually involves days of close-hauled (windward) sailing and the likelihood of encountering a low pressure weather system with strong winds and high seas.  We decided that, even though we’d have little time to see much of the country this season, we’d first sail the 450 miles to New Caledonia to hopefully give us a better sailing angle and shorter passage to New Zealand.  All worked as planned but the passage to New Cal proved nastier and more uncomfortable than we’d expected.  Fairly strong winds and occasional periods of no wind and lumpy seas conspired to make the passage less than perfect.  Fortunately, after 3 days, we entered New Caledonia’s barrier reef and found comfortable sailing to an overnight anchorage at Baie de Prony and, the next morning, on to the town of Noumea.  While spending a week there waiting for a good weather window for the 900 mile passage to New Zealand, we enjoyed the pleasures of well-stocked grocery stores, fast internet and the company of cruising friends also preparing for passages.  Before long, it was time to go for it.  Final stowing of provisions and gear was done, “Blue Rodeo’s” fuel tanks were topped-off and pre-passage meals were prepared and frozen.  At that point, there was nothing left to do but guide our boat back out through a pass in the barrier reef and point the bow to the south.

 Unlike last year when we beat for days into gale force winds and broke out one of our dodger’s clear plastic windows from wave impact, there is very little to say about our passage to New Zealand.  During the 6 day, 8 hour trip, we sailed upwind almost the entire way finding conditions bumpy and uncomfortable but tolerable.  Anne suffered from her usual bouts of sea sickness and we both agreed that there are a lot of things we’d rather be doing than crossing oceans in a small sail boat.  Fortunately, the trip ended on a high note with perfect, beam reaching conditions down the east coast of New Zealand’s north island with “Blue Rodeo” knifing along in flat water at over 9 knots. Also fortunately, our memories (Mark’s at least) of the mid-passage discomfort pass quickly and, after a few days back on land, we (Mark at least) seem willing to do it all over again.

Arriving back in Opua, in the beautiful Bay of Islands, seemed a bit like a homecoming and when, a week later, we sailed back to our summer home in the marina in Whangarei, the familiarity of it all seemed ever so satisfying.  The uncertainly of adventure and pushing beyond the limits of what is known to us can be quite exciting and fulfilling but, we must admit that, the peace of mind and sense of relief that comes from coming home, wherever for a while that may be, is a great feeling indeed.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Vanuatu Part 2 Erromango and Efate

Working our way north from Vanuatu’s island of Tanna, we made an overnight stop at the island of Erromango where we stayed long enough to see some of the village and take a long hike to a high plateau where we found the island’s airport.  The grass runway sits in a jungle clearing and has a small, stone “terminal” building nearby which was boarded up when we were there.  Air Vanuatu flies commuter-type aircraft to most of Vanuatu’s islands several times per week even though, based on the limited tourism and rather primitive conditions in what most people live, it’s hard to imagine much demand for the service.  It’s quite conceivable that someone arriving by air would then walk 7 or 8 kilometers to a village or complete their journey in a leaky, hand-carved dugout canoe.  While the airport lacked the fences, security guards and metal detectors that we see at commercial airports in the US, the grass strip was recently mowed and, by Idaho, back country airport standards, would have been a piece of cake to land at.  Mark couldn’t help but imagine how different his job might have been had he flown for Air Vanuatu instead of American Airlines.

While in Vanuatu, we have been so impressed by the warm welcomes we receive from the friendly people we encounter.  We have not, in any way felt any concern for our safety or security.  Shortly after going ashore at Erromango though, with friends Jon and Heather from the yacht “Evergreen”, we watched two young men paddle their canoe toward “Blue Rodeo”, “Evergreen” and another boat, “Victory”, who was anchored near us.  From a distance, we watched the canoe disappear behind “Blue Rodeo” and could then see the canoe reappear with just one person aboard.  We stood in amazement wondering what they could be up to.  As is our routine, whenever we leave our boat, we close the hatches and lock it up but occasionally leave fishing or snorkeling gear in the cockpit.  Were they up to no good or was is just innocent curiosity?  I guess we’ll never know.  But later, we learned from friend Jon-Bart, who was aboard “Victory” at the time, that he yelled at the men saying that they were not allowed aboard without our permission.  It stands to reason that there are likely to be a few rascals within every group but we’ll continue to enjoy, what we feel, to be this safe and crime-free tropical paradise.

Port Vila, on the island of Efate is Vanuatu’s capital and biggest city.  It is also a popular port of call visiting cruise ships.  For these reasons, the town has pretty much everything one might need including an amazing fresh produce and craft market, several well-stocked grocery stores and dozens of assorted shops and restaurants.  Also, because it caters to the cruise ships, it has a number glitzy duty free stores in case a traveler might need a new Rolex watch or Louis Vuitton bag to go with their cheap bottles of Absolute vodka.  We small boat cruisers are often entertained by the spectacle of hundreds of pasty-white and overfed cruise ship passengers being disgorged from a ship and completely changing the dynamics of these rather small tropical towns.  As we did our errands and wondered about, we couldn’t help but notice how different our travel style was from those from the big ship.  We also took it as a bit of a compliment when merchants would remark to us: “ You are not from he cruise ship are you?”  What clues had we given them?  Was it that we appeared more healthy (we hope)?  Or, was it that we appeared more weathered and smelled a bit of diesel and mildew (we hope not)? 

After nearly a week in Vila where we re-provisioned and sampled a few of the local eateries, we sailed around to an anchorage on the west side of Efate near a recommended dive spot.  Our excellent dive there would be the first of many in the coming weeks that made feel so privileged to have the mobility and opportunity to visit these amazing spots that are well off the normal, beaten path.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Vanuatu Part 1

Except for some strong winds and sizable, short-period swells from aft our our beam that produced uncomfortable sea conditions, our passage to the Island of Anatom (also known as Aneithym), southern-most in Vanuatu’s 83 islands, was uneventful.  The anchorage there is in a bay off a small village and is protected by a nearby, uninhabited island and adjacent reefs.  It’s possible to begin the official customs and immigration clearing-in process there with the village’s policeman.  Once anchored, we quickly launched our dinghy and prepared to go ashore to do so but were informed by another cruising couple who were just returning to their boat that the officer had simply gone fishing and that we could check in the next day. The next morning, along with friends from the yachts “Evergreen” and “Victory”, we accomplished the task and exchanged currency to pay our fees at the tiny, one-room bank just down the path from the police station.

We had been told that the village’s primary school was always appreciative of donations of school supplies so we figured this would be a good place to drop-off some pads of paper, pencils and coloring books that we had aboard “Blue Rodeo”.  A friendly and helpful resident pointed us toward the school where we met a young man named Webster, the school’s head master.  He proved to be a warm and gentle person and, over the next few days, would serve as our guide in the area and escorted us along a multi-hour, jungle trek to a beautiful waterfall.  Our stay at Anatom quickly confirmed what we’ve heard about the Melanesians of Vanuatu.  While a bit more reserved than the Fijians, they are as sweet and warm as can be.

Before sailing on, we had the opportunity to do a nice SCUBA dive in the nearby reef pass and take more walks on shore.  Soon though, with many more islands to see, it was time to head for the island of Tanna, our next intended stop to the north.

Tanna is famous for its splendid natural beauty, fertile soil that produces world famous coffee and especially its accessible, active volcano.  After a pleasant day sail from Anatom, we anchored in Tanna’s beautiful bay known as Port Resolution.   Within minutes of anchoring, we were greeted by a friendly local who had paddled out from shore in a traditional dugout canoe accompanied by two, nearly-naked children.  After an introduction and some pleasant conversation, he asked if we had any “action” DVD movies that he could borrow.  We couldn’t help but chuckle inside a bit thinking about the way most islanders are living in simple, wood huts, without electricity and cooking on open fires yet probably gathering around this gentleman’s battery-powered DVD player to watch Bruce Willis, shoot’em-up movies.

Since the trip to Tana’s Mount Yasur volcano is considered a “must do” for visiting cruisers, we wasted no time in making arrangements for late afternoon transportation to the mountain the next day with a suggested stop at a “kastom” (traditional) village were we could see a dance presentation.  Before the trip, we had time to take a few long walks to explore the island’s nearby villages, beaches and dense forests.  Most residents continue to live in the most basic of homes made from natural materials but seem to have a sense of pride in their surroundings.  The pathways amongst the huts were sept daily with palm branches and the entire village appeared to be a lush garden.  Everywhere we walked, we were met with smiling faces and warm greetings even though few were truly conversant in english.  Dozens of local languages are spoken in Vanuatu’s remote areas but the most common language is Bislama which has a phonetic similarity to english.  Over the next few weeks we would chuckle a bit when we struggled to read and understand signs written in Bislama.  By sounding out the words and speaking quickly, we could often understand the meaning of what was written.  As friend Jon pointed out, it’s as if Bislama evolved from hearing english spoken without ever seeing any of it written.  A couple of examples are the following translations:  I want:  me wantem,  Where are you going?:   yu go wea?, and Thank you very much:  tank yu tumas.

The trip to the volcano proved to be somewhat of a physical challenge as our transportation was a FWD pickup truck with a couple of wooden planks for benches in the bed.  Along with Jon Bart and Monique from “Victory” and Jon and Heather from “Evergreen”, we climbed aboard and set off down the rough dirt road.  Due to the vehicle’s stiff suspension and the road’s irregular surface, our group spent the entire ride bouncing into the air while clinging to the truck’s uncovered canopy frame trying to minimize the trauma to our tender posteriors.  We couldn’t help but think about how this rivaled many of the amusement park thrill rides we’ve been on.

The stop for the dance presentation at the kastom village proved a welcome break from the pounding and was interesting but seemed too artificial and tourist oriented.  It’s clear that the people of Vanuatu are encouraging tourism and attracting the associated dollars by giving outsiders a glimpse at their beautiful islands and rather primitive, subsistence life style.  Unfortunately, the simple and unspoiled character of it all is a bit tainted.  We would all comment later that, although interesting, the dance presentation, with mens’ privates barely covered by a leaf held on by some woven material and women, bare breasted but with arms crossed over them, made us all feel rather uncomfortable.  We wished so much that we could just observe unnoticed the authentic, unique and fascinating cultural displays likes flies on a wall without being part of the tourist scene.

Just before sunset, we reached the parking area high on the slopes of volcanically active Mount Yasur and quickly scrambled a few hundred feet higher up a path to the viewing area on the crater rim.  With a cold, howling wind buffeting us about, we watched the spectacle as chunks of molten lava were ejected from the cauldron accompanied by loud rumbles and clouds of dark smoke.  While the currently level of activity is tame enough to allow safe viewing from such a close vantage point, we were all very impressed by seeing one of nature’s truly remarkable shows so up close and personal.  We continued to watch until well after dark before scurrying back to the truck for the brutal, hour-long ride back to the bay where our boats were anchored.  All in all, it was a very full day.

One more day was spent in Port Resolution before continuing our travels north.  As we prepared for the next leg, we couldn’t help but feel excitement from the thought of what new wonders we’d discover up ahead.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Passage to Vanuatu

Once the decision was made to include Vanuatu in this year’s cruising, we scrambled about gathering information about the area and headed toward the city of Lautoka on the west side of Fiji’s Viti Levu.  There we could do our last-minute provisioning and obtain the necessary, outbound clearance papers from the officials at Customs and Immigration.  On the way to Lautoka, we anchored for two days at lovely and peaceful Saweni Bay about 5 miles south of town.  This gave us time for additional passage preparation and to take a strenuous hike up a mountain not far from the anchorage.  The hike rewarded us with splendid views of the coastline, neighboring islands and interesting local flora.  The beautiful area is now part of Fiji’s national park system.  It is nice to know that the country is recognizing the importance of preserving some of its natural, pristine areas.  The trail head is at a small village located in the foothills and, as is usually the case, our hiking group, including friends from the yachts “Evergreen” and “Southern Cross”, were welcomed to the village with a kava ceremony. 

On the day of departure for our four-day passage to Vanuatu, we motored “Blue Rodeo” to the commercial harbor in Lautoka and went ashore to complete the clearing-out process.  It was all rather straight forward though painfully slow due to the official’s need to re-enter most of the information, that we’d supplied to them on arrival, back into their computer data base.  These formalities vary from country to country and, at best, can be a test of one’s patience.  Sometimes, they can result in a serious case of writer’s cramp.  After about an hour and a half, the process was completed and we were back aboard preparing to raise anchor.

Heading west from Fiji requires careful navigation in order to avoid the many poorly- charted reefs that extend for miles from Viti Levu.  We had been carefully watching weather forecasts for several days and were expecting boisterous wind and sea conditions once clear of the reefs.  In preparation, we raised our main sail only to its “double-reefed” point and set our staysail in order to sail comfortably in the forecast 25 knot winds.  As often happens, the actual conditions we experienced were a little more robust than forecast with a confused, wind-driven swell that sent us constantly rocking and rolling as we proceeded on course.  The first day or two of most passages can be a test of one’s fortitude as our bodies re-learn to live in the constantly moving, tilted and pitching environment.  Anne took her usual partial dose of Stugeron to help stave off motion sickness which left her in a near constant state of drowsiness.  As much as she hates the feeling, it’s preferable to being sick.  Mark usually does OK without meds but, by the evening of our first day at sea, he began to notice that something was not right in his gastro-intestinal region.  Within moments of first being aware of the discomfort, he found himself making a mad dash to “Blue Rodeo’s” toilet where he would spend a lot of time that night in considerable distress.  He would later learn that friend Jon, from the yacht “Evergreen” that was also underway, was experiencing similar misery at almost exactly the same time.  Since they’d both consumed ample amounts of kava at the village ceremony the day before, we couldn’t help but make the connection.  Kava is produced by using bare hands to wring and squeeze the powdered yanqona root through, what looks like a discarded, dirty t-shirt, into water from a questionable source.  It’s a wonder that more people aren’t left with a case of, as Mark would call it, the “Fiji Foxtrot” (a la Aztec Two Step or Montazuma’s Revenge in Mexico). 
Since there was really nothing to do but continue sailing toward Vanuatu, Mark made the best of the situation with Anne giving him ample time to rest between watches.  It was though, almost 36 hours after first noticing the symptoms before he was able to stomach anything more than a few sips of water or ginger ale and a couple of spoon-fulls of rice. He couldn’t help but think what an effective weight loss program this was.  With all of the fad diet books making fortunes for their authors, he decided that he should also write one.  It would include the following simple instructions:  1 - Drink two large cups of Fijian kava.  2 - Go to sea in a small vessel in 30 to 35 knots of wind with 12 foot, breaking seas.  3 - Stay near the toilet. 

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Mamanucas and Yasawas

Our two week romp thru the Mamanuca and Yasawa island groups proved to be great fun.  Lying in the lee of Fiji’s large island of Viti Levu, these islands frequently offer more sunshine and drier weather than the windward islands to the east and south and, weather-wise, we were not disappointed.

Our first stop was Mana Island Lagoon, entered through a twisting and narrow but well-marked pass, where our guests Carol and Bevin were able to book a SCUBA dive with a resort dive operation.  While they headed out with their group, we set out to do a dive on our own and ended up at the same site.  Later, back at Blue Rodeo, we were able to share stories of the underwater scenery and sea life that we’d observed.

The following day, a pleasant sail brought us to beautiful Nalauwaki Bay at the north end of Waya Island.  Once the anchor was down, we dingied ashore in the company of friends from the yachts Victory and Evergreen where, upon landing, were greeted by a representative of the nearby village.  As luck would have it, a traditional, sevusevu kava ceremony and dance presentation had been scheduled for guests from a resort across the island and we were encouraged to attend.  This proved to be great fun and an opportunity for Carol and Bevin to experience the friendliness and warmth of Fijians.  As is custom, we all sat cross legged on woven mats while half-coconut cups of the numbing grog was passed around.  Smiles were everywhere as we awkwardly tried to learn the appropriate hand clapping sequences associated with the acceptance and drinking of the kava.  After the ceremony, a group of the villagers, both young and old, enthusiastically sang and danced for us.  We couldn’t help but feel glad to be visiting a village like this in modern, post-missionary times.  Not too long ago, a warm welcome like we received would, more likely,  have been due to the local’s desire to make a main course of us for their evening meal.  After the presentation, our group hiked a short distance over the island to a charming resort where we shared “sun downer” cocktails much more to our liking than kava.

Knowing that the two week period we had with our visiting friends was far too short to see all of this part of Fiji, we focused on hitting a few of the recommend high points.  The next stop was an area known as the Blue Lagoon for its incredible water color and made famous as the location where the Brook Shields movie of the same name was filmed many years ago.  We were not disappointed by the magnificent scenery, clear water and colorful reefs where we snorkeled.  While anchored off one of the islands, we did a cross-island hike that took us to a tiny cluster of homes on the north side, one containing a small bakery and coffee house known as Lu’s.  When we approached, we were warmly greeted and ushered inside where our group sampled some of the yummy baked goods and quenched our thirsts with coconut water sipped directly through small holes, chopped by machete, in the tops of the green nuts.  We have learned, what the native peoples have known for years, that the coconut water is not only delicious but is far better for rehydration than any of the commercially marketed sports drinks we buy back home.  After our visit with Lu and her husband Alfred, we walked back to where our boats were anchored via a beautiful beach, taking the opportunity to collect a few shells along the way.

Sadly, our time to explore these islands was rapidly flying by and, before we were ready, it was time to turn back to the south and head for a spot among several islands known to be frequently large Manta Rays.  Once settled at anchor off Drawaqa Island, we set out by dinghy to  search for the magnificent creatures.  Our efforts were reward and we all got a chance to do a little swimming with them but were disappointed by the area’s water clarity.  Never the less, it is always such a thrill to get “up close and personal” with these huge, powerful animals.  The next few days in the area proved to be very special,  filled with lots of water time snorkeling a protected reef in front of the “back packer-style” Manta Bay Resort.  The resort’s covered picnic tables proved to be perfect place to compare notes about what we’d seen underwater while sharing wood-fired pizzas from their outdoor kitchen.

Before sailing the final leg back to Musket Cove, where Carol and Bevin would begin their travels back to Seattle, we stopped at Navadra Island and anchored for a night off one of the prettiest spots we’ve seen anywhere in Fiji.  The rugged landscape was fringed by volcanic rock outcroppings and pristine, white sand beaches.  The water color and clarity was amazing and we all spent hours in the water exploring the nearby reefs.  The water was so inviting in fact that, after dinner, Mark and Bevin even went out with their hand-held flashlights for some night snorkeling.  While the guys snorkeled, Anne and Carol were entertained by a deadly poisonous, baby sea snake that seemed to want to use our dinghy bow line and our transom swim step as a place to rest for the night.  Fortunately, the mouths of these creatures are so small that is nearly impossible for them to bite a human.  Never the less, we don’t care to share our living space with them and prefer to watch them from a safe distance.

When time came to leave the next day, we are all wishing we could just stay in that amazing spot for weeks.  Ah, such is the cruising life!  As much as we try to live free from time constraints and schedules, the need to travel within the limitations of the seasons, weather windows, visas, provisioning and refueling venues and, of course, social commitments keeps us moving along at a pace we can’t always control.  We tell people we meet that we are trying to be better cruisers and never have schedules or make plans in advance.  With that goal in mind and a nod to serendipity, we have how chosen to include the islands of Vanuatu in this year’s cruising itinerary.  Instead of lots of advance planning, making the decision to “just go” adds an extra level of wonder and excitement to the adventure.  So, in just a few days time, it’s off to the land of indigenous Melanesians, erupting volcanos and rich WWII history.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

West Side of Viti Levu

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With our auxiliary motor back in operation and ”Blue Rodeo” refueled and restocked with fresh food, we departed Suva and began sailing west along the southern shore of Fijiʼs island of Viti Levu toward a group of smaller islands know as the Mamanucas and Yasawas. Lying in the lee of the much larger island, these islands are known for reliably sunny weather and are where most of Fijiʼs resorts are located. Our plan was to be anchored at popular Musket Cove on the island of Malolo Lailai a few days before the arrival of friends from Seattle who would, after two nights at an exclusive resort on nearby Tokoriki Island, spend the remainder of their two week vacation “roughing-it” with us aboard our boat.
On the way to Musket Cove, we had time to stop at Likuri Island, now known as Robinson Crusoe Island, where the quaint resort there puts on what is supposed to be one of Fijiʼs best traditional dance shows. Two days were spent anchored off the island. The resort is very yacht friendly and a one dollar per person fee granted us life time membership to the Robinson Crusoe Yacht Club and use of the resort facilities. The evening dance presentation followed a scrumptious buffet dinner and featured a fire walking demonstration and an enthusiastic display of talent and acrobatics. The finale was human pyramid of traditionally-clothed young men deftly juggling flaming torches. We, along with several boat loads of visitors brought to the island for the evening, really enjoyed the show.
From Likuri Island, it was on to Musket Cove passing the famous surf resort islands of Tavarua and Namotu. Sailing past the iconic surf spot of Cloud Break, we were treated to a water-side view of surfers dropping into overhead-height waves breaking over the jagged and shallow coral reef. Markʼs desire to anchor “Blue Rodeo”, jump aboard his surf board and paddle in to join them was, fortunately, tempered by his knowledge that this surf break was for experts only and well above his skill and fitness level. The sight did rekindle his desire to find the perfect surf spot where he could get some wave riding time and give Anne a chance to add that to her water sports repertoire.
When cruisers talk about yacht friendly resorts, Musket Cove Marina and Resort always gets top marks. Itʼs hard to imagine a more comfortable and welcoming place. Built on the small island of Malolo Lailai by a former cruiser, the facility offers dozens of moorings for rent in addition to a long, floating dock where yachts can tie up “Mediterranean” style with an anchor set off the bow and sterns secured to the dock. There are shower and laundry facilities, a well stocked grocery market and an amazing outdoor bar with bar-b-ques and picnic table seating. Every evening, the wood fire grills are lit and cruisers gather to cook food that they have brought ashore and socialize with friends while enjoying the sunset over the anchorage. Itʼs easy to see why some cruisers “swallow the hook” here and linger for most of the cruising season.
Although our plan had been to sail “Blue Rodeo” about 12 miles north of Malolo Lailai Island to Tokoriki Island to rendezvous with friends Carol and Bevin, overcast and showery weather conspired against us. Since the reef strewn waters in the area are
poorly charted, without “local knowledge”, travel by boat is safe only during periods of good light and visibility. Fortunately, our friends were able combine a morning snorkel excursion aboard their resortʼs skiff with a drop-off at our boat in Musket Cove. They arrived sporting big smiles and bearing an extra duffel bag stuffed full of boat parts and miscellaneous items that we, and several other cruising friends, had requested from the States. It was a bit like Christmas morning as we gathered and distributed the treasures they brought.
With Carol and Bevin aboard, we settled into the “vacation mode” and put our boat chores on the back burner. Soon, weʼd be off the explore the Mamanuca and Yasawa Islands.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Ono Island and Suva, Viti Levu



Fulaga is easily a place where one could linger for many weeks but, with a lot more places to see and the cruising season steadily moving ahead, we chose an appropriate time to exit the lagoon’s narrow reef pass and begin the overnight sail to the island of Kadavu, about 170 miles to the west-northwest.  We were excited about exploring the island and, especially, diving several spots on its famous Great Astrolabe Reef named after the French sailing vessel that was wrecked there in the 1800s.  Our intent had been to enter a bay on the northeastern side near Naigoro Pass, a place we hoped to dive.  From there, other anchorages could be accessed between Kadavu Island and a cluster of smaller islands to its north. Unfortunately, grey, overcast skies, scattered rain showers and poor visibility nixed that plan by compromising our ability to safely navigate visually within the coral reefs.  With both our paper and electronic charts lacking accurate detail, we certainly didn’t want to experience the same fate as the Astrolabe.  Instead, we altered course to enter the reef and island group through a wider gap and proceed down the west side to a lovely and protected anchorage called Nabouwalu Bay on Ono Island.  There, we would reconnect with several other boats of cruising friends and share their company over what would be a rather rainy and windy week.

Since a small village is located at Nabouwalu Bay, our group of new arrivals went ashore the first afternoon with our bundles of yanqona root to meet the chief and make a sevusevu.  As usual, the villagers were welcoming and exceptionally friendly.  As more boats arrived to sit out the spell of inclement weather, the residents expressed amazement at having never seen so many in their bay (as many as eleven) and that the anchor lights at night seemed to them like a constellation of stars.

One of the high points of our visit to Ono was a hike across the beautiful island to another coastal village and a small resort run by an expat German couple.  When our group of thirsty hikers showed up unannounced at the two-bungalow resort, the owner was quick to invite us into her parlor, decorated with antique furniture, and provide us with complimentary cold drinks.  We would later learn the a stay in one of the resort’s bungalows cost $2,500 per night.  That sure made us appreciate our floating accommodations that allow us to move about and enjoy the same scenery at a far more modest price.  While hiking back across the island, we were befriended by a quite little dog that followed us for more that an hour.  Anne worried that it might not find its way home but was, upon reaching the village near our anchorage, surprised to hear one of the locals remark rather causally that it was their dog, named “Striker”, and that he’d been gone for two months.  Another high point was sharing a delicious, traditional lovo (earth oven) cooked meal with several of the villagers one afternoon.  Most of the small and rather poor Fijian villages have learned that funds can be obtained for village improvements by putting on these feasts for visitors and we were all happy to help with their efforts by paying for the meal in the form of a donation.

The low point of the stay at Ono was a problem with Blue Rodeo’s diesel, auxiliary motor that powers our reverse osmosis water maker, refrigeration compressor and high-output alternator.   Over the course of about two weeks, we noticed that the 22 horse power engine was a little down on power and beginning to emit a fair amount to soot and black smoke when under load.  Mark began the trouble shooting with checking the air cleaner, the replacement of fuel filters, fuel lift pump and finally, replacement of the fuel injectors.  Unfortunately none of these steps made any improvement in the little engine’s condition.  Without the use of this motor, we were left with no ability to make fresh water from sea water and our ability to run our refrigeration system was greatly compromised.  With no refrigeration, we’d have no choice but to give away most of our season’s supply of frozen meat that Anne had so carefully shopped and stocked aboard in New Zealand.  While we continued to trouble shoot the problem, cruising friends were  quick to offer advice and assistance.  Sandy and Rankin, from “Gypsea Heart”,  really saved the day by providing us with 5 gallon jug after jug of fresh water from there own supply to keep us going until we could fix the problem.  Finally, we were forced to head for Suva, Fiji’s largest city where we knew we could find the resources to accomplish more serious repairs if necessary.

Suva is a fairly large, and modern city with high-rise buildings and hundreds of shops and markets.  It also has bustling, crowded sidewalks and lots of vehicle traffic, things we had not experienced for many weeks in the outer islands.  Despite the negatives, we  enjoyed seeing the town, sampling several restaurants, touring it’s South Pacific Museum and doing a rain forest hike on the outskirts of town.  Anchoring in the area offers the option of being among the commercial ships in Suva Harbor or in a quiet bay, near the town of Lami, about 5 miles to the west of the city.  We chose the latter as we’d been warned by another cruising couple that they somehow had a rat come aboard while anchored near the assorted rusty ships in the main harbor and struggled for days with the rather disgusting task of eliminating the furry, knawing stow-away. 

During the first few days in the Suva area, Mark’s primary focus was restoring the operation of our auxiliary motor.  His efforts were finally rewarded when, upon removing the engine’s exhaust mixing elbow, he discovered a carbon blockage serious enough to prevent the exhaust gasses from flowing without producing back pressure in the combustion chambers.  Several hours of dirty scraping and reaming of the passages restored proper flow and brought the engine back to life. What a relief!  Without the ability to make water, he’d been making trip after trip to shore to fill our water jugs and lug them back to pour into Blue Rodeo’s water tanks. We’d also been running our main engine to recharge our batteries and provide enough electrical power to run our secondary, 110 volt AC refrigeration system from our DC to AC inverter, something that is not very healthy for the engine or refrigeration system.

With the auxiliary motor problems solved, our last few days in Suva were spent re-provisioning and refueling for the coming weeks.  Bags and bags of supplies were purchased and transported by taxi to a small park near our anchorage where we would load them into our dinghy for the trip to Blue Rodeo.  Refueling involved similar steps with our four-five-gallon jerry cans.  Mark would walk to the nearest filling station, about a mile away, with the empties and return by taxi with the full containers.  Anne would meet him with the dinghy, and the fuel would be shuttled back to the boat where it was poured through a filter into our tanks.  This messy and exhausting process was accomplished four times before our tanks and extra containers were full.  Thankfully, were are able to do most of our traveling by sail power and a major refueling like this is necessary only a few times each cruising season. 

Sometimes our friends may wonder what we we do to keep busy while cruising.  With the diving, snorkeling, hiking, exploring, socializing, research and planning, laundry, meal preparation, navigating, provisioning, boat maintenance and repairs...and, of course, blog writing there never seems to be enough hours in the day.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Fulaga Island Part 2

Donning village attire

Cave climb

Anne with cave containing human remains

Remains from days of warfare and cannabalism

Village child

Village from above

Dinghy on beach

Secluded beach walk

Natural arch

Happy hour dinghy raft-up in lagoon
The remainder of our nearly two-week stay at remote Fulaga Island proved to be full of daily activities from dawn to dusk.  The long, narrow reef pass proved to be a wonderful snorkeling and SCUBA diving spot with opportunities to see big fish, sharks and amazing coral formations.  Timing the currents was important though as the tidal changes produced variations in water clarity and flow that would vary dramatically.  When the current was flowing out and emptying the lagoon, underwater visibility suffered.  During the peak of the incoming tide, clear ocean water brought better visibility and more big fish.  It also provided a magic carpet-like flying experience.  After taking our dinghies to the outside of the reef, we would drop in and be propelled like a group of flying super heros trough the pass while watching the amazing scenery go by beneath us. What fun!   Smaller passes between Fulaga’s inner and outer lagoons also provided interesting places to play in the current and see some beautiful topography. 

One day, we, long with other cruiser friends went ashore and walked to the village where we arranged for several young men and a woman to guide us through the dense jungle to the top of the island’s highest peak where we were treated to spectacular views of the area.  Along the way, we explored several caves that had, for centuries, been used by the islanders for shelter from storms and hostile invaders.  One cave even contained a pile of moss-covered, human skulls and bones dating back to the days of inter-tribal warfare and cannibalism.  It made us glad that we were visiting these people in 2013 and not 150 years ago when we might have ended up as the main course for a village evening meal.  In contrast to days past, when we returned to the village after our hike, our whole group was treated to a complimentary lunch of fish and fried rice served to us as while we sat on a woven mat in the shade of large tree.  These friendly and humble people were incredibly generous and quick to share anything that they had.

During one of our expeditions by dinghy, we visited a sandy beach that stretched for miles.  While exercising our legs, we scoured the beach for interesting shells.  Anne’s efforts rewarded her with a beautiful Chambered Nautilus shell in nearly perfect condition.  She was thrilled to add the rather rare, deep sea-dwelling specimen to her collection.

Our surroundings while anchored in the lagoon at Fulaga were idyllic but the weather was a little less so.  Located on the windward edge of the island group, Fulaga sees no protection from winds from the south and east.  While there, several days of strong winds and rain showers limited our outdoor activities.  We did take advantage though of all of the best days to get out and explore.  On one of the clear but windy afternoons, a group of us dinghied to the outside of the main reef pass to do a group SCUBA dive.  The plan was to dive in two shifts with half the group wrangling dinghies while the others dived and then trade duties for the second shift.  As the first group began gearing-up in their dinghies, while being buffeted by the strong winds and tossed about by the choppy seas, friends Ken and Beth drifted too close to a portion of the reef and were flipped over by a breaking wave.  They were both thrown into the water, just feet from there engine’s rotating propeller, and all of their gear, including two expensive underwater cameras, was scattered in the surf zone over the jagged coral reef.  Immediately realizing the seriousness of the situation, those of us nearby quickly leaped into action.  Rankin from “Gypsea Heart” maneuvered his dinghy as close as he dared and swooped Beth from the churning white water.  Mark, along with Derek from “Idyle Island” and Jon from “Evergreen” hurriedly swam though the breaking waves to Ken whose was doing his best to wrestle with the overturned dinghy that was being held in the worst possibly area by its anchor that had logged in the reef during the mishap.  While being continually  bounced off the jagged, coral bottom and pummeled by the incessant, breaking waves, the guys managed to right the dinghy and recover almost all of the lost gear.  While they worked, the girls carefully maneuvered the other dinghies out of harms way assisting where they could.  When the ordeal was finally over, the group had time to reflect on how dangerous the situation had been.  For Ken and Beth, it could have had life threatening consequences.  Needless to say, they were truly grateful for the assistance rendered.   Ken would later comment, while hosting a “thank you” happy hour aboard their yacht, “Eagle’s Wings”, that the village-like community of cruisers is comprised of  some of the most helpful, resourceful, and giving folks that he has ever known.  We certainly agree his sentiments.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Fulaga, Southern Lau, Fiji

Anne on lookout...entering Fulaga lagoon

Dozens of beautiful "cup cake" islets

Local fisherman on outrigger canoe

Mark in sulu

Anne with villagers

Kava 

Mark drinking kava

School yard rugby

Anne, Beth and Sandy with school girls

Locally made kava bowl with simple tools

Anne with new friend

Friendly school kids

Simple canoe

Simple canoe paddler
One of our goals for cruising in Fiji this season was to visit the remote southeastern portion of the archipelago known as the Lau Group.  Until recently, this area has been off limits to foreign visitors and the small islands that run in a chain from north to south offer a glimpse at simple village life and spectacular scenery both above and below the ocean’s surface.  Since the islands lie more than 100 miles to windward of Savusavu, the most eastern port at which vessels can officially clear into the country, many cruising boats, will no doubt, continue to skip this area as it usually requires considerable upwind  bashing into the southeast trade winds to get there.  So, while enjoying the scenery and fantatasic scuba diving at Viani Bay on the east side of Vanua Levu, we watched daily for a weather window that would allow us to sail southeast to the island of Fulaga in comfortable conditions.  When the window presented itself, we wasted no time in heading off on the overnight passage with friends on the catamaran “Gypsy Heart” following close behind.  Our plan worked fairly well despite having inconsistent winds that required motoring much of the way.  Twenty eight hours after leaving Viani Bay, we found ourselves off the narrow reef pass entrance into Fulaga’s lagoon.  Conditions could not have been better for our entrance with sunny skies, calm winds, and a slack current just prior to the morning’s high tide.  With Anne on the bow carefully watching the shallow coral borders of the narrow pass and Mark steering while tracking from waypoint to waypoint on our electronic navigation display, we made it safely into the lagoon and breathed a sigh of relief.  At that point, we had our first opportunity to take in the majestic scenery around us.  Inside the atoll’s outer reef lies the L shaped island of Fulaga and dozens of small cupcake or mushroom-shaped islets all covered with palm trees and vibrant green vegetation. Each islet is so beautifully decorated that they seemed the work of professional gardeners.  We then motored through the glassy water to a protected nook that served as an anchorage closest to the main village.  It was there that we rendezvoused with friends Sandy and Rankin from “Gypsy Heart”.  We were soon joined by Ken and Beth, from the yacht “Eagles Wings”, who had also made the passage down from the northwest.

 A short while later, our group took dinghies ashore carrying cameras and wrapped bundles of Yagona root that we would present to the village chief in what was to be our first experience in a traditional Sevusevu ceremony.  A significant aspect of Fijian culture is that the lands and waters of these islands belong to the villagers and that in order to be welcomed, and to make use of any of the above, an offering of Yagona root should be made.  The plant, from the pepper family, is ground by the villagers into a fine powder and mixed with water to make Kava, a grog like concoction that has both ceremonial and recreational importance.  Once ashore, the women in our group covered their arms and donned sulus (wrap around, shin-length skirts) in order to comply with the local “dress codes”.  The guys wore either long pants or sulus, as is the standard for men.  We were also advised that hats, backpacks and sunglasses were not to be worn in the village.  It seems that these customs date back to the days of intertribal warfare and the associated cannibalism.  Apparently, strangers who approached wearing anything that protected the heads and backs or anything that masked their eyes were greeted with the utmost suspicion.    Approaching the village, we were greeted by several friendly residents who happily escorted us to the home of the chief where we were properly introduced and asked to sit cross legged on a large woven mat surrounding a large wooden bowl filled with the dirty dish water-like Kava.  A number of villagers were in attendance including one of the school teachers.  Our arrival seemed to coincide with a normal end of the day Kava drinking session.  So, the chiefs right hand man welcomed us with Fijian prayers and, one by one, passed to us half coconut shells of the drink.  As tradition goes, the recipient is to clap once before drinking the liquid in one gulp and three times after.  Having tried Kava in Tonga, we knew to expect the numbing effect on our lips and tongue and that, due to the taste, gulping was indeed better than sipping.  We asked many questions and were told much about the villager’s life on the island.  Their village, with 80 inhabitants was the largest of three.  A supply ship comes once each month, weather permitting, to bring basic supplies to the villages.  Otherwise, they subsist on harvesting food from the sea and growing a few basic starchy crops.  During our two week stay at Fulaga, we would be overwhelmed by the friendliness of these people and their willingness to share any of their modest provisions.  After the ceremony, we took a walking tour of the village taking time to visit the school where young boys played rugby on a dirt courtyard and adorable, uniformed school girls followed us about with wide eyes and huge smiles.  It was clear that they have had little interaction with foreign visitors and we felt a bit like celebrities.  On our way back to our boats, we met many more of the villagers who stopped what they were doing, walked toward us offering their greeting of “Bula Bula” while extending their hands for a handshake.  That evening, while back on our boats in the scenic, peaceful anchorage, we had time to thoroughly reflect on the day’s experience and felt fortunate, humbled and rather honored to have had the kind of reception that we enjoyed that afternoon.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Savausavu, Namena Island and Viani Bay

Copra Shed Marina Docks and Moorings

Savusavu Town Market

Savusavu Market

Moored Yachts and Local Boaters


Adorable Kids

Anne with Fresh Produce

Yagona Root for Sevusevu (Kava Ceremonies)

Anne's Magnificent Carved Turtle Bowl

Savusavu Sunset

Viani Bay "School Bus"

Anne and Friend Alicia with Local Guide Jack Fisher
Towing Dinghies to Reef Dive Site

Grocery Run to Taveuni Island
Our ten days in Savusavu seemed to fly by.  While Mark attended to the never-ending “fix-it” list aboard “Blue Rodeo”.  Anne ferried loads of laundry ashore and explored the town with cruiser girlfriends getting familiar with store inventories and restocking our supply of fresh fruits and vegetables for the next leg of our trip.  One evening, friend Lisa, from the catamaran “Orcinius”, celebrated her 50th birthday at our favorite restaurant with the company of about a dozen of our cruising friends.  Also while there, a group of us got together with an ex-pat American, local cruising guru named “Curly” who is quite the character and looks a bit like a tropical Santa Claus with long white hair and beard to match.  His years of cruising Fiji’s waters make him an authority on the area and, for a small fee, shares the detailed information in the form of a seminar with each year’s crop of new arrivals.

While our Savusavu stay proved pleasant in most ways, one evening was filled with the kind of excitement and drama that we always hope to avoid.  While watching a DVD movie, snug and dry below decks in “Blue Rodeo” cabin, we noted the sounds and motion caused by a rain squall that had descended over the harbor.  Safely, so we thought, attached to a permanently anchored mooring block, we felt little concern as the wind gusts shrieked through our rigging and relief that we’d chosen not to go ashore by dinghy for dinner that night.  While our boat yawed back and forth and tugged at it’s mooring lines, we continued to enjoy our movie figuring that as was well until we felt a bit of a crunch and began heeling over a few degrees to starboard.  What was happening...had someone hit us?  Springing from the cabin into the darkness, howling winds and driving rain, we struggled to access the situation.  Blinded by the rain and light from the buildings ashore, Mark soon realized that we were no longer where we had been moored and, upon joining him topside, Anne exclaimed that she recognized a nearby boat as one that had been moored hundreds of yards downwind of us.  We had dragged our mooring through the crowded field of boats, narrowly missing several and ended up aground on a shoal near the harbor entrance.  At that time, there was no point wondering why but only time for immediate action to save “Blue Rodeo” from damage.  Mark quickly put out a call on the emergency VHF radio channel and, within minutes, a dozen of our fellow cruisers were speeding through the storm toward us to lend a hand.
For the next 30 minutes, a coordinated effort, hampered by the sever conditions, allowed us to maneuver free of the shoal and tie up to a vacant mooring that was spotted just three boat lengths to windward.  Too many words would be required to describe the combined efforts of all involved but everyone pitched-in to insure a successful outcome.  Wow...what and experience!  It was later determined that none of the mooring lines had failed but that the strength of the wind had simply caused us to drag our inadequately-sized mooring block.  We have always felt a bit uncomfortable using pre-established moorings, as opposed to anchoring, as one has to place a lot of faith in someone else’s equipment.  Unfortunately, due to small crowded harbors or areas with water too deep to anchor, moorings are sometimes the only choice.

Our next stop after leaving Savusavu was the small island of Namena about 20 miles to the sourhwest that is surrounded by an extensive barrier reef and lagoon.  We shared the anchorage there with friends Richard and Ali from the yacht “Vulcan Spirt”.  Our three days there included snorkeling near shore in an area where giant clams, nearly three feet across, are being nurtured and protected by a conservation group.  We also SCUBA dived two of the deep reef passes (openings) where we had a chance to see a splendid assortment of colorful soft corals and bigger fish including some inquisitive Grey and White Tip Reef sharks.  Before leaving, we made a mental note that we’d love to return to this place for more diving in the future.

From Namena, it was on to Viani Bay back on the east end of the island of Vanua Levu. 
The bay sits adjacent to the famous Rainbow Reef where, bordering the Somo Somo Strait, some of the world’s-best dive sites are located.  Viani Bay is also home to a gregarious local gentleman named Jack Fisher who lives with his family in a very modest home along it’s shore.  He is known for his hospitality and his service of escorting groups of divers out to the reef’s best dive sites.  Each day, he rows his aluminum skiff out to the anchored yachts and organizes trips to the reef for diving and snorkeling.  Since navigating the reef-strewn waters is challenging and anchoring in the best dive locations is nearly impossible due to currents and water depth, his service is invaluable.  His fee is just $10 Fijian (about $5.50 USD) per person.  Typically, one sailing yacht will offer to serve as “mother ship”, with Jack at the helm, taking as many divers as possible and towing multiple dinghies loaded with SCUBA equipment. Over the course of the two weeks we spent there, we volunteered “Blue Rodeo” three times as did many of our friends with their vessels.  In the short period of time, we did nearly a dozen dives and were rewarded with splendid sights along the reef’s walls.  Due to the strait’s strong currents that change directions several times daily, proper timing is important in order to see the area’s soft corals in all of their splendor.  When the currents increase the flow of the nutrient-rich water, the colorful soft corals inflate their branches to gather the microscopic food particles as they pass buy.  At times, the coral coverings of the reef’s sides are so complete that two of the sites are known among the international diving community as the “Purple Wall” and “White Wall”.  Diving among these incredible formations proved to be a 3-dimensional treat for the senses.

While our entire season could have easily be spent diving the reefs near Viani Bay,  our goal had always been to sail further southeast into the remote and relatively primitive Lau Group of Fiji’s islands.  The area has, until recently, been off-limits to foreign visitors so, going there was an opportunity to experience unspoiled Fijian village life and see sights that few outsiders have ever seen.  So, when the weather cooperated to allow us to make the 180 mile trip without bashing into the normal prevailing trade winds, we jumped at the chance.  After an early morning departure, we were soon making way toward the southernmost island of Fulaga in hopes of arriving in time to enter it’s lagoon’s narrow reef pass with slack currents during the next morning’s high tide.  Once again, new adventure awaited us.