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


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.