May/June is hot and dry in Tucson and supposedly the best season for glider pilots. Last year Mike missed out on most of the good flying weather; this year he opted to stay home and try for a few world records and compete in some soaring contests. So I left him to it and instead invited my sister Patty for a mini-cruise in Fiji.
A one-week visit to the boat is always a risk; it is easy enough to land at some faraway airport just about the time a tropical low weather system settles in and serves up rain and cloudy skies for days on end. On longer voyages we don’t really mind bad weather. It gives us a chance to hide away with a book or computer and not have a guilty conscience for enjoying such mundane activities half a world away from home. Regardless, Patty lucked out. A lingering rainy spell cleared out just before her arrival, and except for windy conditions we enjoyed perfect weather for her entire trip. While Mike was enduring 107 degree temps and smokey air blowing in from New Mexico’s huge wildfire, Patty and I were cruising the Yasawa Islands chain, enjoying balmy tropical breezes and crystal blue skies, with just enough clouds to make for breathtaking sunsets.
In a week’s time the AVATAR crew was able to offer a perfect microcosm of the best cruising has to offer, to wit: secluded tropical islands, turquoise water, snorkeling, hiking, kayaking, dinghy rides, beach combing, wine and hors d’oeuvres on the flying bridge at sunset, phosphorescence, star and Milky Way appreciation night, Rod’s home cooking and resort dining with Fijian entertainment.
Patty’s take on her experience? ”Thank you, thank you! It was one of the best times I have ever had. I definitely can see why you want to spend as much time as possible on the boat!”
Patty is a professional photographer, specializing in high school senior portraits. Usually we the photographers are conspicuously absent from any and all family photos, but this time around we traded back and forth with Patty’s point and shoot and just took some fun snapshots for the scrapbook!
Following is a quick photo tour of a few of the highlights. Click HERE for fullscreen.
It’s midnight and we are en route sailing westward from Fiji to Port Vila, the capital city of Vanuatu. We slipped quietly out of Port Denarau Marina at 5 a.m. Wednesday and are now some 200 nautical miles into our projected 525 nm voyage. Our original destination of Tanna Island has been scratched as the weather forecast is for windy conditions and Tanna offers no protected anchorages.
With three of us on board – Rod, Mayflor and myself – the watch schedule is two hours on, four hours off. I’ve been assigned the 6-8 and the 12-2 (both a.m. and p.m.) time slots so it will be my pleasure to oversee both sunrise and sunset. This evening’s twilight showed us a line of squalls ahead, a signal aboard a sailboat to reef the sails and prepare for sudden wind gusts and attendant excitement during the night. On AVATAR we just motor on, steady and comfortable, knowing that blustery conditions will have little effect.
As well as wind, we are sailing into and out of rain showers, and if I didn’t already know that from the mist on the windows and the damp conditions on the flying bridge (I’m inside AVATAR’s comfortable and dry salon/great room), the radar would remind me via the spattering of colorful speckles surrounding our position on its screen. In the black of night, the main instrument to monitor is the radar screen, looking out for that one steady bright green dot of light (among the myriad transient bright dots) that indicates another ship or boat sharing the ocean with us. There are other instruments to monitor: engine temperature, RPM, track and compass heading, but the radar takes precedence. Every 15 minutes or so a trip top sides is in order to visually scan the horizon for lights that would signify another boat. Another instrument, the depth sounder, stops reading in water this deep, but the electronic charts tell us there are nearly two miles of water between the bottom of our hull and the seabed!
There is a setting half moon dead ahead hiding in the broken clouds and AVATAR is sailing straight down a path of moonlight cast on the shiny black surface of the night sea. The perception is of great velocity, a rocket ship flying through outer space. The reality is that we are traveling at 10+ knots, a respectable speed for an ocean-going yacht but ashore it would invite honks from irritated drivers in a school zone! The squalls have been accompanied by confused seas and the boat has a pitching corkscrew motion as she works her way in and out of the steep swells. The dinnerware is clattering in the cupboards.
Rod is concerned that the stabilizers are in jeopardy. These are hydraulically controlled winglets attached to the hull below the waterline that actively work to smooth out the ride of the boat, dampening any tendency to pitch and roll. They are whining loudly under load in this sea and he worries one is overheating. If we have to shut them down our trip will become much more adventuresome. So far, however, they continue to do their job.
Between my night watch shifts I retire to my comfortable bed in the master cabin. Here my ear on the pillow is only a couple of feet away from the aluminum hull as it skates across the water. I hear the reassuringly steady thrum of the diesel engine, the slap of water against AVATAR’s underbelly, the swoosh of waves foaming along her sides. Periodically a wave smacks the side of the boat, sending a shower of salt spray over the deck. Sleep is light and semi-aware. Dreams are of sailing, Vanuatu and stabilizer repairmen!
Now it’s 6 a.m. and the moon has set, the storm clouds have cleared away, and the night sky is full of stars. They are starting to fade as the promise of dawn glows dimly on the horizon behind us. The stabilizers continue to do their job. The radar will no longer be needed for ship spotting, the ocean swells will immediately look smaller by light of day. The coffee pot will heat up, my watch will end, and I’ll transfer my attention to a good book for a few hours. This coming day, another night, and a third morning at sea still lie ahead before we make our arrival in Port Vila.
Epilogue: We arrived Port Vila on schedule. The stabilizers continued to function and we have determined via tech support that the problem lies with their ‘noise suppression’ system rather than the stabilizers themselves. The waves did NOT look smaller the next day – they looked enormous and we had some pretty rough seas most of that day. At noon the autopilot steering pump failed, causing complete loss of steering. AVATAR sailed in circles until we switched over to the backup system!
AVATAR is now berthed in Whangarei, New Zealand, and scheduled to be hauled out for refit on November 1. The 1,100 mile passage from Fiji to New Zealand is notoriously unpleasant as yachts depart tropical waters and head south into New Zealand’s stormy winter weather. Adding insult to injury, the wind direction is generally “uphill” causing the boats to pound uncomfortably straight into the oncoming waves. We did this passage aboard Raven our first season cruising, and Mike likens it to spending five days in a washing machine!
When Nick checked in via email after the first 24 hours passage out of Fiji, he wrote the following:
The 20 knots of SE wind yesterday has eased off to 10-12 knots of Easterly and is looking as though it will remain light for the next 3 days.
So much for weather forecasting, still not an exact science! After two days of relatively light conditions, instead of easing off as anticipated, the winds picked up. AVATAR and crew suffered through two + days (and nights) of force eight gale winds on the nose with gusting force nine (35 to 40 knots gusting to 49) and seas averaging five meters/16 feet!
There’s a silver lining in every cloud, and AVATAR’s designer Steve Dashew took this passage and details provided by an overseas telephone interview with Nick to obtain some realtime performance data. Steve has written a detailed account of his analysis that you may want to read at his SetSail blog, link below.
Meanwhile, to captain Nick and crew Danny, we’re glad you’re safe and sound. Kudos on a job well done!
AVATAR is headed to New Zealand for R&R and a bit of a facelift. Also it is nearly the official end of cruising season in Fiji. Cyclone season starts up soon and there will be a mass exodus of cruising yachts, many of them also heading to New Zealand to lay over for the season.
Nick and Danny left Denarau Marina yesterday, stopping by the Port of Lautoka to officially clear out of Fiji. They are now 152 nautical miles on their way with another 900 nautical miles or so to go. Apparently there was a significant delay in Lautoka as the customs officials had mislaid the stamp needed to officially finalize the departure paperwork!
If you have Google Earth you can click on the Google Earth link to see an interactive view AVATAR’s last posted position. This will download a .kml file to your downloads folder. Double click on it to open in Google Earth to get a “fly by” view of AVATAR’s last reported location. You’ll have to zoom out – there’s a lot of ocean out there!
Or just click on the photo for an enlarged static view.
Our last day in Fiji. The past several days have been gray and drizzly, encouraging us to view Fiji dry and cozy through the windows of AVATAR’s air conditioned great room. Mike and I have the boat to ourselves at the moment. Rod and Mayflor have taken a rental car and are off to the American Embassy in Suva, hopefully to obtain a visitor’s visa for Mayflor so they can come to Tucson for a visit this Christmas season!
A swell opportunity for last minute laundry, organizing drawers and cupboards, packing for home and stowing our onboard belongings for the passage to New Zealand next week. Mike and I fly home tonight and Rod and Mayflor head to the Philippines in a few days. Nick and Danny, our delivery crew, will clear out of Fiji and sail AVATAR 1000+ miles to New Zealand where the boat will spend the fall and winter (in New Zealand that would be spring and summer) at Circa Marine getting refitted with some extras that we missed out on as a result of being Hull #1. Some enticing additions, such as a second “get home” engine and a stern extension (which will make an awesome dive platform) are in the works, as well as a few warranty items and some other improvements to make a great boat even better.
When AVATAR is finished and better than new, Mike and I plan on cruising NZ’s North Island on our own next February. And for the adventure after that we’re sketching out plans to cruise Northern Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands with Rod and Mayflor back aboard.
But for now we’re in the most luxurious spot in all of Fiji. Denarau is a small island attached to the big island of Viti Levu near Nadi by a bridge that was damaged in the last hurricane and is currently undergoing repairs. Car traffic bottlenecks at the bridge as only a limited allotment of cars are allowed accross at one time, and busloads of tourists are ferried by taxis across the bridge before loading onto busses that are too heavy for the bridge to bear.
On the Nadi side of the bridge is typical big city Fiji. On the Denarau side it is a resort mecca. Gated communites of million dollar vacation homes crowd the waterfront. Five star resort properties stand shoulder to shoulder along the beach: Westin, Sheraton, Hilton, Radisson and more. A lush undulating golf course is landscaped with clusters of palms and tropical flowers and views of Viti Levu’s distant mountains. Tennis and racquetball courts are paved with manicured grass. At the marina has probably the best shopping mall in all of Fiji, with shops offering handicrafts, Fijian pearls, clothing, groceries, yachting supplies. An assortment of coffee shops, restaurants and bars line a deck overhanging the water.
Here at the marina we share dock space with a huge variety of boats, from cruisers like us to fishing boats, dinghies, work barges, and an assortment of tourist vessels such as high speed catamaran ferries or classic sailing ships. And then at the end of our pier are the Superyachts. The sailing yacht GEORGIA we have seen before over the years – a 48 metre (159’1″) sailboat with a mast over 200 feet tall, the largest sloop ever built at the time of her launch in 2000. Next to GEORGIA is the 50 metre (163’8″) motor yacht EXUMA launched in July 2010. She is an astonishing silvery gray motor vessel that looks more like a Boeing Dreamliner coming off the assembly line than a boat. The design was inspired by “the streamlined principles of sailboat hulls” and as a result actually shares a few features with AVATAR, including a narrow streamlined hull for efficiency, roll stabilizers for stability, and a plumb bow. After that the comparison pretty much comes to an end! Next to EXUMA is NOBLE HOUSE, a 54 metre (177′) motor yacht of more traditional design. All three yachts are available for charter – you too with some of your closest friends can sail Fiji. Prices for EXUMA are about US$250,000 per week! Most likely we will see these yachts again next trip as they also head to New Zealand to wait out cyclone season here in the South Pacific.
After a few days in Makogai we continued on our track west, first sailing 50 miles to an anchorage at Nanunu-i-Ra and the next day another 60 miles to the Yasawas, a chain of islands stretching some 90 km along the west coasts of Fiji’s two main islands. Resorts of the more basic type are scattered along the shores and serviced by the yellow Yasawa Flyer high speed catamaran that drops off and picks up the holiday traffic. Hollywood has been here – both Blue Lagoon (Brooke Shields) and Castaway (Tom Hanks) were filmed in the Yasawas. Did I mention that in 2005 Mel Gibson bought Mago Island in the northern Lau for US$15 million, one of the largest privately owned islands in the world?
Now we are on the dry side of Fiji and the volcanic hills are sparsely forested and covered with golden brown grasses as high as my head. I’m always grateful that these South Pacific islands have no poisonous critters (like rattlesnakes) to hide in the underbrush. We revisited some old favorite sites on the island of Naviti, hiking through the tall grass across to a shallow lagoon where a WWII plane is sunken in the shallows (the locals rescued the downed pilot), stopping by to say hello to the quite elderly Fijian at his nearby homestead. We intended to visit the giant rays that inhabit a channel near Manta Ray Island, but learned from a local that after a resort (named Mantaray Resort) was built, the rays left for less crowded waters.
AVATAR was quite popular with a school of squid at our anchorage off Naviti. Fifty or sixty lingered in the shadow of the hull, most likely attracted by the plentiful schools of small silvery blue minnows that also swirled in the water underneath the boat. Determined to photograph the squid, I made several snorkeling attempts by easing myself into the water off AVATAR’s stern, trying not to splash and startle them away.
The squid hang suspended in the water, all facing the same way, but one sudden movement and the entire school vanishes (swimming backwards) in the blink of an eye. I wait patiently (it helps to have a spotter aboard the boat), and they suddenly reappear at the fringe of my visibility. By drifting innocuously near them, trying hard not to move or even exhale noisily through my snorkel, I would eventually find myself floating in their midst.
However all their caution went out the window when Rod tossed a squid lure on a fishing line into the water. The lure was shaped like a little rubbery red prawn, apparently a big favorite of squid, and they went for it enthusiastically, completely disregarding me as they tried to grab hold of the lure with their tentacles. All my hours of sneaky stalking were wasted; now I had a squid feeding frenzy literally inches from my camera. The only downside was that just as I framed up a good shot Rod would jerk the line causing my subject to fly up out of the water (and viewfinder) onto the boat, splattering hull, deck, and Rod with black ink.
Epilogue: Calamari appetizers at cocktail hour while watching another lovely Fijian sunset.
We’ve been off the beaten track for the past week and out of data coverage as well, but now we’re working our way towards Denarau as our cruising winds down. Today we sailed to Mana Island and are “connected” once more. It is very conveniently pouring down rain in a brief squall, giving me an excuse to catch up on the computer.
From Savusavu we sailed west some 50 miles to Makogai, a small island cluster encircling a protected bay. The Fijian government operates a fishery on the island raising crops of giant clams and coral for seeding the reefs.
We dinghied to shore to check in and were told a sevusevu was required, so back to AVATAR to collect our second bundle of gift-wrapped kava. This sevusevu was a far cry from the formal ceremony in the Lau. Two employees pulled up a few chairs on the porch of the fishery office and invited us to sit. One accepted our kava bundle, mumbled three or four words max in Fijian, then looked up at us and said “OK”, by which we knew we were now invited guests free to anchor, swim, scuba dive, hike and otherwise enjoy the premises.
He did give us a tour of the giant clam incubation tanks, where tiny giants-to-be were only an inch or two long. In five years or so they will be the size of the clams in the photo above, and in ten years they can be measured end to end with outstretched arms. Their lips come in a variety of colors, from mottled creams and browns and blacks to irridescent peacock blues and emerald greens. Our Fijian guide told us the clams were incapable of slamming their shells shut because of the massive bulk of the flesh, but we declined to put that to a test with an arm or foot.
Mike and I spent an hour or so scuba diving with an assortment of the clams stored in shallow water off the fishery’s beach. I thought it would be a quick rather dull dive dedicated to snapping a photo or two for posterity, but instead it turned out to be a fun exercise in underwater composition.
In addition to the giant clam nursery, Makogai offered a wonderful underwater garden off a rocky point. We snorkeled there first and it was such an unexpectedly spectacular spot that the next day Mike and I took our scuba gear and dove it again with photography in mind. Reef fish refuse to follow instructions and smile for the camera; it takes a lot of wasted shots to get a fish in sharp focus and posed in the right spot! I take my camera whether I snorkel or dive, but the added complication of holding my breath and bobbing up to the surface after every burst of clicks definitely ups the challenge. Puttering around in full scuba gear in shallow water with plenty of sunlight gives me a chance to actually make an effort to apply some composition and technique.
We spent nearly two hours leisurely exploring in just a few meters of water until I was too cold to hold the camera steady! In addition to looking for scenic shots in the rich variety of coral and marine growth, we spent time coaxing a shy octopus out of a crevice, and I caught a few shots from below of waves breaking on the black rocks. We had more fun playing in the shallow water than we did on the “real” scuba dive on a wall on the main pass into Makogai’s bay.
The slideshow below includes the giant clams and some other underwater scenery from Makogai. Click on “options” at the lower right to play fullscreen.
One of our favorite destinations remembered from our 2006 Fijian cruise aboard Raven was Viani Bay, a quiet pastoral spot on Vanua Levu’s southeast corner, just across the Somosomo Strait from the island of Taveuni. Viani Bay is so secluded it is not even serviced by a road. Access is by boat (or maybe chartered seaplane) or a very long walk! In the morning the school children cross from one side of the bay to the other to attend school on the local version of a school bus.
And we had fond memories of Jack Fisher, a colorful local man well known amongst the yachties. It was a pleasure to see he was still there and up to his same old routine. Jack is a big jolly fellow, full of stories. He has set himself up as the resident dive guide for visiting yachts. His knowledge of local weather and water conditions and reef topography makes it a pleasure to have him join us for a morning of diving. The entire bay is populated with Fishers – Jack’s grandfather was a British (I think) sailor who bought the entire bay at the turn of the century. Jack would be 3/4 Fijian, but he speaks with an odd accent that must have a bit of the old country mixed in.
Jack’s son ferried him out to AVATAR at the pre-determined time; as soon as Jack climbed aboard we were off to visit the best dive sites along the Rainbow Reef: the White Wall, the Purple Wall, Fish Factory, Cabbage Patch, The Point; whatever the selection of the day. He guided us to the best anchorages, gave us detailed instructions for each dive, and manned our dinghy for us while we explored below the water – following our bubble trail and picking us up when we surfaced.
Rod’s girlfriend Mayflor is just learning to scuba dive this trip, so with Jack watching out it made it easy for all four of us to dive together, Rod supervising May, knowing AVATAR was securely anchored and our dive tender was tracking our underwater route. My favorite dive was the White Wall, a sheer wall festooned with soft white corals. Access is through a descending tunnel in limestone, lined with sea fans and ending in blue water on the sheer face of the wall at 20 meters or so – a great photo op. But another dive was a close second, along a shallow reef rich with soft corals and swarming with literally millions of small brightly colored fish. Mike laughed when I was attacked by a pair of clown fish – I must have been close to their nest because instead of tucking themselves safely in the tentacles of their anemone house, they came charging out at me in the blue water, darting right up to my face mask, too close to even focus.
For the past couple of days we’ve been hanging out in Savusavu, a sleepy little town stretched out along the shore of a placid bay and backed by a hilly landscape dripping with greenery. A popular hangout for yachts, there are maybe thirty or forty anchored here in the harbor at the moment. Most are active cruisers but some are derelicts, apparently abandoned, rusted and decaying with ferns growing out of the light fixtures.
Savusavu is small but with enough amenities to keep everyone entertained, including a yacht club and a squash club, restaurants and bars, shops and banks, a produce market and a handicrafts market, also a resident pearl farm and upscale pearl shop. The Rugby World Cup 2011 is playing on TV and everyone turned out yesterday afternoon to watch the Fiji-Samoa game (Samoa won). We met one cruising couple from Nogales, Arizona, and another American girl who has been sailing around and around the world for fifteen years non stop, including two trips to Antarctica, the coast of South America, Mexico, and the all the remote spots in the Pacific.
The weather has been grey for the past few days. I’ve been entertaining myself in the mornings with long photo kayaking expeditions sneaking up on the terns in the harbor. They perch on available channel markers, buoys and rafts. They are fairly well acclimated to boat traffic and I can approach really close by letting the kayak coast quietly towards them without benefit of paddling. Some of the youngsters are fully grown and feathered out, but can be identified by piteous squawking and posturing as they try to convince mom to share a meal. In the afternoons Mike and I stretch our legs by taking long walks along the coastal highway. Lunch and dinner are at the local cafes, giving the crew a break from cooking and dishwashing.
We’re off in the morning to Makogai Island with hopes of more awesome diving opportunities. Internet access will probably fade away for a few days, but we will see. Six years ago on our first visit to Fiji we spent a lot of time scouting out internet cafes and suffering through power outages and snail pace connections. Times have changed; now cellphone service is functional nearly everywhere and the internet blazes along at 3G speeds. We have a gadget installed on AVATAR called an Ericsson W35 Marine Pack which allows us to plug in any 3G data card from any country and create our own hot spot aboard the boat. Great invention!
Slideshow of tern photos below. Click on Options, lower right corner, to play flash based slideshow fullscreen.