Tuesday, June 18, 2013

New Zealand to Fiji

South Minerva Reef Lobsters

Anne with her Yellowfin Tuna

Every fall, the small port of Opua, in New Zealand’s Bay of Islands, is a popular “jumping-off” point for vessels heading north to the tropical islands.  When we sailed “Blue Rodeo” there during the last week in April, we were immediately impressed by the harbor’s spirit and energy level.  New Zealand’s Island Cruising Association was just completing a week of activities and seminars for participants in a rally that it was leading to Tonga and various other island destinations and boats were arriving from all points.  We were pleased to see many familiar faces of cruisers that we met during our Pacific crossing last year.  Within no time, we were caught up in the excitement (and hard work) of preparing ourselves and our boat for the upcoming passage.  Each day was spent finishing boat projects, studying weather forecasts, and provisioning.  Evenings often included socializing and dinner with sailing friends, new and old, at the harbor’s cruising club.  Mark and friend Craig from the catamaran “Goto Go” have May birthdays, just one day apart, so our huge group enjoyed a combined birthday celebration, complete with chocolate caramel cake there one evening.

The passage from New Zealand to Savusavu, Fiji requires an ocean crossing of approximately 1150 miles.  An alternate crossing can include a stop at the Minerva Reefs along the way.  Due to the potential for nasty weather in the area, all sailors take this trip quite seriously.  Early winter cold fronts and low pressure systems can rapidly sweep across the waters just north of New Zealand producing high winds and large seas.  Further north, with the tropical cyclone season just ending, late season low pressure systems can still pack a serious wallop.  Most cruisers vividly remember the infamous “Queens Birthday Storm” of June 1994 where the unpredicted formation of a deep and rapidly expanding low pressure system along this route produced 50 to 60 knot winds and 40 to 50 foot seas.  Many cruising boats found themselves in a life or death struggle in the severe conditions.  In the end, 8 boats were lost or abandoned and, tragically, 3 lives were lost despite New Zealand’s largest-ever search and rescue effort.  So, several times daily while in Opua, we would analyze weather forecasts from all of the available sources, share it with other cruisers and play the “When Do You Think We Should Go Game”.  The term “analysis paralysis” if often used to describe the feeling but eventually, weather windows present themselves and decisions to set sail are made. 

On May 8th we completed the customs and immigration clearing out process, cast off our dock lines, and pointed “Blue Rodeo’s” bow towards Fiji.  A forecast for westerly winds of up to about 20 knots proved accurate and soon, we were flying along on a beam reach rapidly putting miles under our keel.  During the first few days of the passage, sea conditions were moderate, with swell and wind chop of less than 6 feet, but we both struggled to reacquire our “sea legs”.  Our mostly land based life during the last 6 month had left us a bit unaccustomed to all of the motion.  Even though using medication for motion sickness,  Anne fought to control her nausea and Mark, who normally can handle just about anything, even felt considerably less than perfect.  Despite the uncomfortable conditions, we were pleased by our progress, having sailed 210 miles in the first 24 hrs and almost 400 in the first 48.  We were rapidly sailing away from the cool air and water around New Zealand and knew that soon, we would be able to shed our layers of insulation and be back to standing night watches in T-shirts and board shorts. 
When we departed, we anticipated the need to sail west of a straight line to Fiji in order to avoid a slow moving, low pressure system that was likely to form in our path.  We stuck with that plan but, on day 3, found the weather deteriorating and experienced frequent, heavy rain squalls, strong winds and confused seas.  Each morning we would use our satellite  phone and it’s email capability to obtain weather updates and reassess our strategy.  As we soldiered on in uncomfortable conditions with the boat healing at 15-20 degrees and lurching about unpredictably, we were happy that Anne had pre-cooked meals for the passage and dinner preparation was as simple as throwing a bowl in the microwave oven for a minute or two.  Simple that is, if you can imagine trying to maintain your balance using one hand to hold on while bowls, utensils and hot food made every attempt to escape your grasp and fly across the galley. 

With less than 500 miles remaining to Fiji, but receiving a forecast for unfavorable winds for the remainder of the passage, we made the decision to turn east and sail 230 miles to South Minerva Reef.  Weather forecasts indicated that we might luck out and be able to stay there for a week or more and enjoy nearly perfect conditions for snorkeling and diving.  With that decision made, “Blue Rodeo’s” course was altered, sails re-trimmed to wing on wing (main sail to one side and jib poled-out to the other) and began surfing the, now following seas, toward Minerva.  The next 24 hours provided much more comfortable sailing conditions and soon we were navigating through the reef pass into the lagoon at South Minerva where we found two other boats already at anchor. 

The next 6 days were spent in this truly unique place, hundreds of miles from the nearest land but protected by a circling reef.  On our trip from Tonga to New Zealand last November, we had stopped briefly at North Minerva Reef but were chased out by an approaching storm. This time, the weather was more cooperative and we were able to spend 9 days anchored in the protection of the two reefs, snorkeling in the crystal clear water and sharing a lobster feast with other cruising friends (courtesy of Alfredo, from the vessel “On Verra”, who had captured 6 large lobster among the caverns and crashing waves on the outer reef).  While the weather was good overall, our small group of cruisers experienced one hell of a storm one night with thunder and lightening to rival anything we had ever seen.  Lightening bolts struck nearby, thunder boomed and wind gusts shrieked through our rigging.  In most conditions, South Minerva’s reef offers adequate protection from ocean swells but this storm turned the lagoon into a washing machine-like basin of rough water.  Several boats nearby us had anchors break free from the sandy bottom sending them dragging toward the jagged coral reef.  The violent motion caused another’s anchor chain to jump from the teeth of its windlass sending all of it out, only to be stopped when a shackle at the very end jammed in the stainless steel deck pipe.  Luck was on their side as, had it parted completely, they would have surely ended up on the reef.  Fortunately, the storm’s fury passed in about 2 hours and we were able to sleep well for the remainder of the night.  It was just another example how this cruising life isn’t always about sipping cocktails while watching the sun set over another tropical island. 

After a few days, we began to see a forecast for suitable weather for the remainder of our passage to Fiji and set out one morning on what would be an easy and enjoyable three-day sail to Savusavu.  On day two, Anne's fishing efforts produced a hook-up with a nice Yellowfin Tuna.  The fish gave her quite a fight but, while Mark handled the sailing, she managed to reel it in.  Thirty minutes later, several meals-worth of delicious tuna fillets were packed-away in our freezer.

 Moderate winds from the southeast pushed us comfortably along until the early hours of the last morning when, just 35 miles from our destination, the wind quit completely.  At that point, we fired up “Blue Rodeo’s” trusty diesel engine and adjusted our speed so as to arrive in Savusavu at dawn.  A short while later, we were securely tied to a mooring at the Copra Shed Marina, just a short distance from the small town.  Once again, we felt the enormous satisfaction, and some relief, at having successfully and safely completed another long ocean passage.  As evidenced by the lush greenery all around, the fragrant smells and the air thick with moisture, we were clearly back in the tropics.

Over the next few hours we did our best to make “Blue Rodeo” ship shape and completed the clearing-in process with government officials that were shuttled to the boat by marina staff.  We found all of these folks to be exceptionally friendly and welcoming and, despite getting writers cramp from filling out form after form,  found the whole process rather painless and somewhat entertaining.  Wow...we were in Fiji!!

1 comment:

  1. Awesome little Yellow Fin! And what beautiful Coral Reef. Glad to see you having such fun.