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.

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!!

Thursday, June 6, 2013

New Zealand 2012-2013

As we write this, we are sitting in “Blue Rodeo’s” cockpit on a tranquil morning moored off the small town of Savusavu, Fiji.  We are back in the full-time cruising and adventuring mode after 6 months in New Zealand.  Our “off season”  in new Zealand seemed to fly by as our time was consumed by a two-month trip home to the States to visit family and friends and, upon our return, a seemingly endless stream of boat projects that required all of Mark’s focus and energy.  Sadly, our plans to do some extensive land travel, camping and hiking had to be postponed until next season when, after six months in Fiji, we’ll return to New Zealand where we’ll again base “Blue Rodeo” for the Austral summer (tropical cyclone season).

Despite the hard work making improvements to our boat, we greatly enjoyed our time in New Zealand and see why many cruisers return year after year.  After making landfall in Opua, in the North Island’s lovely “Bay of Islands”,  we sailed about a hundred miles south to a bay and river mouth leading 8 miles inland to the small city of Whangarie where the charming Town Basin Marina is located, right in the heart of the city.  Navigation from the open ocean up the river is straight forward via a well buoyed channel but, for vessels like ours with a fairly deep draft, must be made at high tide to avoid numerous shallow areas.  Due to our arrival a bit ahead of schedule and our impatience to reach our destination, we found ourselves tip-toeing along through some of the river’s shallow sections with just inches of water between our keel and the soft mud bottom.  At one point as the river took a lazy bend to the right, we found ourselves slowed to a stop as we touched bottom.  We were in the center of the marked channel but, as we would find out later, transit of that area required hugging the southern shore just a few boat widths from the river bank.  The incident was without any real drama as we knew the tide was still rising and, with the application of some serious reverse thrust, we floated free and were able to proceed via a different line.  An hour later, we were securely tied up in our marina slip and breathing sighs of relief.

We found Whangarei to be a perfect place to base “Blue Rodeo”.  The town has all of the shopping and dining venues that one could want and is a hub for the North Island’s marine industry with numerous boat yards, chandleries and resources all within a small radius.  Added bonuses were a beautiful swimming pool complex across the street from the marina and a system of hiking trails in the nearby forest that provided a pleasant place to exercise and attempt to burn off the calories consumed in the towns many interesting eateries.

Since boats are always a work in progress, “Blue Rodeo” being no exception, while in Whangarei, we took the opportunity to take advantage of the convenient resources and make some improvements to the vessel.  The biggest of which was the modification of our cockpit’s fiberglass top (dodger) to allow the addition of one half inch thick, heat formed, clear acrylic window panels to replace to original, semi-rigid, removable ones.  While sailing through rough weather from Tonga to New Zealand, we had one of the forward panels broken out by wave impact and sought a solution to the problem of ever having that happen again.  We were so very fortunate to connect with a local craftsman named Steve Eichler who was heartily recommended by friends Ken and Beth from the sailing vessel “Eagle’s Wings”.  The project was quite involved requiring the fiberglass fabrication of window frames and bonding flanges and a mold from which the acrylic panels were produced.  The end result was a work of art and a valuable upgrade to our boat.  Smaller projects, too numerous to mention, kept Mark busy from sunup to sundown and “Blue Rodeo” in a nearly constant, construction zone state of disarray.  With the interior often so cluttered with boxes of tools and boat parts, leaving nearly nowhere to even sit down, Anne busied herself with daily hikes with girlfriends and frequent provisioning recon trips to Whangarei’s many markets.   As the weeks passed, evening time was taken to socialize with our many cruising friends who had chosen to summer-over in the area but our hopes of land touring evaporated.  On a positive note though, we managed to accomplish most of the big items on our project list and expect minimal boat work next year which will free us up for seeing more of New Zealand’s natural beauty.

As our May 1st estimated departure date approached, we continued to scramble to get everything done.  Mark’s 43 item “to do” list was whittled down, even though he continued to add more items daily.  Finally, with most chores done, we left Whangarei and headed back up the coast to Opua, our jumping-off point for Fiji, stopping to enjoy two nights at a lovely anchorage along the way.  We both remarked that it felt so wonderful to be away from the dock and back in open water.  Although many people use their boats as waterfront “condos”, being back underway reminded us of how much we cherish the experience of really using our fine vessel as the designer intended.