More than enough 

Like a scene from The Deer Hunter…well, without the revolver or Christopher Walken and the white headband, we sat tailor seat in a circle around the only source of light for what seemed like forever. We had tied an LED torch to a wire hanging down from a ceiling crossbeam which moved with every breath of breeze, playing its unearthly light on our faces and our friends from Rehua, the Mayor, the irrepressible Lucy and a constantly revolving cast of characters. 

We gathered here during a brief break in the rain after picking our way in our dinghies through the profound darkness, around and through the reef protecting the village of Namara. Dark really doesn’t do this level of blackness justice. Earlier we’d seen solar panels stacked in the back of the community center but it seems they lack mounting hardware, batteries, wire, and probably things they haven’t even discovered yet. So for now, when the sun goes down it’s lights out.

We were invited to watch the men pound the kava root into powder but as we stumbled towards the kava pounding place closely following the person immediately in front of us, we met the men with the kava bowl heading back to the kava drinking place. Back we stumbled. Much mumbling, and what can only be called squishing of an old sock in a plastic bowl filled with what I hoped was clean water and pounded kava inside the sock. Clapping ensued and once again Yours Truly was served first which I guess makes me chief for a day, but no toaster as a prize. One clap to accept and three after with a little numbness as a parting gift.

Between rounds, I asked Lucy if there was a path up to the top of the rocky monoliths that surround this beautiful bay. Her eyes lit up and she said she could be our guide but you have to start from the other side of the island, across from Phantom Rock. Plans were hatched while we stumbled back to the beach and launched our dinks. 

The following morning had other ideas with blustery overcast weather. Just as we were about to abort, Seathan from Rehua pulled up and said, “let’s go for it.” That’s all we needed and soon we were blasting along the reef strewn coast, not something Marce’s back tolerates very well, 4 miles around Wayasewa point into Phantom bay where we eventually found the Wayalailai Resort where Lucy said the hike up to the summit started. 

It was a beautiful, locally-owned resort but once again everyone wanted to be our guide. We started to climb and in my humble but deadly accurate opinion I found it tough but doable. Locals said it would take an hour to summit and 45 minutes to come back down. I applied the Kiwi conversion factor and found the elapsed time should be more like 3 hours. 

About half way up Marce found a beautiful sit down viewing spot and encouraged us to carry on while she quietly appreciated nature, alone with her thoughts.

With renewed enthusiasm we five gave chase and struggled up the rest of the climb. Lucy had told us that her ancestral home village was high up on the mountain so they could see any raiders coming during cannibal times.

It was simply too dangerous to live at the beach so they would fish and harvest at the beach and then head up to their village where they could keep a good look out. Near the top we came upon a grassy plateau with massive boulders strewn about and this scarred concave table like rock with notches carved all the way to the top of an adjacent palm tree.

Sacred ground I’d say. A profound hush came over us thrill seekers when we put it all together with what Lucy had said earlier.

Pushing on, our reward was this magnificent 360 degree view.

On the way back our sea weary legs started to shake in protest but we made it back down while the bemused staff snickered at our 3 hour plus time. After a restorative lunch it was back in the dinks for a good bash around the corner to Escape Velocity. 

So, dear Escapees, just getting there was adventure enough but finding the remnants of the ancient high plateau village and then the 360 degree view of the Yasawas group made it more like three adventures in one day. More than enough for Yours Truly.

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The view from the back porch

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South to Namara

As soon as the weather cleared we left the Blue Lagoon and motor sailed south to Manta Ray Bay. That’s not its real name but it’s what everyone calls it because at the pass between two islands rays gather to feed after high tide. We’d seen this phenomenon in Hanemoenoa Bay in the Marquesas and swam with the rays there but we weren’t about to turn down another experience. Unfortunately, on the day we arrived high tide was too late in the day, and by next morning’s high tide the clouds had moved in again and the wind kicked up so we abandoned the idea and left the pass to the local resort launches packed with tourists. 

We sailed further south around Waya Island, the tallest of the Yasawa Group with a profile reminiscent of Ua Pou in the Marquesas, and anchored off its little brother, Wayasewa Island. 

We dinghied ashore in the company of the Rehua crew to offer our kava to the mayor and ask permission to anchor here. As we approached the shore five or six tiny children waded out to pull our dinghies in. We were concerned for their safety but they’ve obviously done this before and we raised the outboards and let them at it. These kids are strong!

We were greeted by local resident Lucy and followed her into the village to the home of the mayor, where we all sat on a mat and offered our two bundles of kava. 

Check out the enormous and stunning tapa hanging on the wall. The mayor spoke at some length, which was then translated by Lucy in about two sentences. We were welcomed and given permission to visit the village, anchor in the bay, fish and swim in the waters. Then Lucy took us through the village to the school, which at this time of day was in session.

The library made me sad and I wish that we could have brought boxes of books to them. Some cruisers do, but they presumably have bigger boats than we do. 

As always, the kids were happy to pose for photos and giggled when we showed them their faces on the camera screen. 

When we got to the classroom for the older children the teacher told us a little about the school and the kids sang us a few songs with beautiful harmony, and two boys performed a lively dance, making it clear they enjoyed this interruption to their school day. We thanked them all, and Lucy led us past the school office and the prominently displayed donation box where both boats made a contribution. 

Inevitably we were taken to the community hall where the village women had gathered to display their handicrafts, mostly jewelry made from shells and beads they buy on the mainland. 

We ended with a lesson in trumpet shell blowing which Lucy found quite amusing. Before we returned to the boats we accepted their invitation to come back that evening to drink kava. 

From Escape Velocity we watched some of the school kids make their way along the rocky shore to their own village further down the bay. And after lunch we went ashore again for a bit of beachcombing until the clouds moved in and we had to get back to EV to close the hatches. Wouldn’t you know, just as we were about to dinghy in for kava the heavens opened up and we wondered if we’d be able to find our way back to the beach in the dark and pouring rain. While Seathan on Rehua kept an eye on the radar map for a break in the clouds, we hunkered down and waited.


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Got cake?

With unrelenting dreary weather we knew we’d have to create our own sunshine for my birthday. Jack made a reservation at the resort restaurant and we were glad the crew of Rehua joined us. It’s always fun to be around a family with young children because they inject a shot of energy into any gathering. Dinner was nice but the real surprise was afterwards, when the entire staff and the musicians paraded out with a birthday cake and sang a Fijian rendition of Happy Birthday. Thanks to my darling Jack for arranging it. 

We were visited by a young couple who had come to Fiji for a “commitment ceremony” — I guess that’s a thing — and they also had a big cake, a piece of which they sent over to us. After we had our cake there was so much left over that we asked the waiter to divide it 1/3 -2/3, wrap the smaller piece for us and the larger piece for Rehua. The larger piece of cake never made it back to the table. When I asked about it, it turns out the waiter had misunderstood and sent it to the party with the commitment couple who already had a cake and must have wondered why we sent them ours. Oops. He slumped away and returned a few minutes later with a large piece of the commitment cake for Rehua to take home. So after a lot of cake swapping, we all got enough cake to take home for breakfast. 

While all this was happening Ivan, the chef and owner of the resort, came over to wish me a happy birthday and bought us a round of drinks. He also shared his dietary tips: he doesn’t eat much but does enjoy about ten beers during the day. I guess it’s working for him. 

It was still overcast the next day but at least the rain had stopped so we scrambled up the hill to a path we heard would lead to a tea house on the other side of the island. We passed the new solar array being installed, one of many we encountered throughout Fiji. Present weather notwithstanding Fiji enjoys intense sunlight and the government and business are investing heavily to bring cheap and reliable power to remote areas. 

Our path led us through this man’s yard and we stopped to chat for a few minutes. Everyone we meet wants to know our names, where we come from, how long we’ve been in Fiji and how long we’re staying. They also remember us and we’re always greeted on subsequent meeting by name. We can’t remember a more welcoming place than Fiji. 

We met Lo of tea house fame at the top of the hill but she told us she’d been ill and her niece would be taking care of us. We ordered tea and the recommended chocolate cake, which was moist and delicious and made, we were told, with coconut milk instead of butter and eggs. We passed on more shell jewelry and I had to talk Jack out of spending a large chunk of our dwindling cash on a huge trumpet shell but we did add something to the school donation box. This area, like everywhere in Fiji, was hard hit by cyclone Winston and they’re doing their best to rebuild. 


Lo’s niece showed us a low-tide shortcut back to the resort but we opted to go overland the way we came. After all, we have to work off all that cake. The sun finally peeked out and we got a glimpse of what Brooke Shields’ Blue Lagoon looks like in better weather. Just another stunning Fiji location. 

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No Problem

From your humble skippers prospective, I was staring into the abyss of a double whammy in massive proportions. We woke up in a heavy mist with totally overcast sky. The decks were covered in black sooty ash from the cane field burn off over night. We were facing three days of bad weather in a crappy anchorage. Marce looked at me and flatly stated that she wouldn’t be spending her birthday in Lautoka with filthy decks in the rain. Point well taken. 

Under pressure, Dear Escapees, I may have overreached. I blurted out,” how about the Blue Lagoon?” Consulting the charts we realized that we’d have to go through large green reefy masses that would make a birthday celebration in the Blue Lagoon a bit of a reach. Marce got that look in her eye, which at first, I felt was a good thing because rather than hearing the daily birthday whinging of,”my birthday’s going to suck again, isn’t it Jack?” she can concentrate on her alchemy of electronic gadgets, sheer doggedness and cruiser scuttlebutt to make a route to the Blue Lagoon. 

In fairness there have been 26 birthdays since we met and they haven’t been all bad but Marce claims that it’s just an astrological low point in her yearly biorhythm and it’s not all my fault. I think of it like a grumpy three o’clock afternoon slump every August. So, the problem is with the stars. I…I don’t judge.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. The plan, as best I can understand it, is to zig zag around the islets and reefs of the Bligh Waters to the east side of Turtle Island, intentionally crossing over about a mile of reef, a solid block of green color on the chart, and sail around the corner to the Blue Lagoon. Anchor. Celebrate. Bob’s your uncle.

This was never open to debate even after it started to rain…heavily. We were committed. Not a good place to be with a sail plan this dicey, but with a patchwork of satellite Google earth photos, waypoints gleaned from cruiser blogs, and guesswork using extreme zoom on Navionics charts, she made it happen. 

While piloting us through the Bligh Waters Marce even baked everything bagels from scratch, and in her spare time, read Captain Bligh’s logbook out loud about being set upon and chased through these very same waters for miles by “Feejee” cannibals in two catamaran sailing canoes, sporting more outlandish hairstyles than any three episodes of Soul Train.



You can show me all the photos from outer space you want, but turning onto that final reef was a real moment of truth and trust for me. Our first disappointment came when the six promised guide posts didn’t appear but then again the depth sounder never even got close. There was a heavy sigh of relief as soon as we crossed into the deep water of the Blue Lagoon. We anchored in a downpour. We even made it in for happy hour at the Boat House. And I still have a whole day to arrange a birthday celebration. No problem. 

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Lautoka

Lautoka is Fiji’s second largest city and we were up for a little city time after weeks of remote anchorages and dwindling supplies. The thing is, despite it being the main shipping port for the country’s sugar, Lautoka is not particularly yacht friendly. We scanned the waterfront with binoculars from the deck of Escape Velocity but couldn’t find an obvious place to land a dinghy and ended up stopping at a nearby yacht on our way ashore to ask where to go. We were directed to a corner of the commercial port where the pilot boat docks and tied the dinghy to the rusty railing of a set of crumbling concrete steps rising out of the dirty, oily water. We were warned to toss out an anchor to keep the dinghy from being swept under a bridge when ships cause a surge in the harbor. Not a good start to our first urban adventure in a while.

We walked through the gates of the port, past a phalanx of security guards and down a long dusty road lined with sugar cane trucks for about a mile to the city. We needed food, of course, but we were also looking for a camera. Ours has gradually been molting little trim bits leaving the surfaces you grip when shooting gummy with glue residue. Taking photos now requires a complicated tangle of digital dexterity to avoid getting slimed with unremovable sticky goo. 

We asked a couple of young men for directions to the market and they offered to walk us there. Along the way we passed a row of electronics shops that we could check for a camera later. 

The market was huge and dark inside but every vendor seemed to have the same variety of vegetables and no fruit except for expensive imported apples. We eventually found a small bunch of bananas that we paid a premium for but because of  the cyclone there’s been so little fruit anywhere we’re happy to find anything at all. 

Inevitably Jack was drawn to the Golden Arches, the first we’ve seen since Tahiti. The prices weren’t as bad as we’d expected and we soon found out why. The items were smaller than stateside, presumably to keep the price down, but given the American penchant for super sizing, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. I had a veggie wrap that at first seemed tiny but actually was just right. 

We ducked into a supermarket for cereal and flour and couldn’t help but note how different the shelves look as we make our way across the pacific. 

On our way back to the boat we stopped into a couple of electronics stores but only one had any cameras and none were in the price and quality range we are looking for. I guess we’ll just have to make do with gooey fingers every time we take a picture. 

With rain threatening again and facing a long walk back to the dinghy we abandoned our hope for a cold beer and a good meal ashore and made our way back to Escape Velocity to hunker down for the next few days of bad weather. At least we have some bananas. 

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Skipper’s prerogative

I like waking up to an easy day. I find it’s better if it’s sunny and not rolly all night, but easy is good. No need to rush about at the crack of dawn, stowing things, entering waypoints, and basically prepping Escape Velocity for a passage. Today’s goal includes zig zagging through the intercostal reef passage just off Ovalau Island and maybe an hour of offshore sailing to crest the top of Naigani Island around the northern reefs to nestle into a semi protected bay called, and I kid you not, Delaitovutovu. Caution and attentive skippering for maybe twenty miles, but not much derring-do. I may have mentioned how sketchy the charts are around here so leaving conservative margins is the order of the day. Well, that and gazing down into the ocean wondering but trying not to imagine.

Another yacht had already anchored in the bay but we were able to wiggle inside of the big monohull and dropped anchor 30 meters off the beach. Soon we were picking our way through the extensive reef in Cat Nip looking for a spot of serious beachcombing. Even in this isolated place the effects of cyclone Winston can still be seen.

 

Up with the sun, and up with the anchor chain came a fifty foot log jammed between the hulls. All my usual strategies failed to faze this thing. We had ropes tied every which way trying to take some pressure off the chain wrap, raised and lowered the chain, but the log was too long, too heavy to manipulate. I decided to cut. Note to self: a roughcut saw would be helpful. It took about an hour with a hack saw and it was past time to make tracks. 

We described a circuitous route motor-sailing through and around the inside passage to Nananu-I-thake and anchored in a beautiful bay with the same yacht that we spent last night with.

The anchor came up without accessories this time and we were off zigging on a long run through the islets and reefs to Vitogo bay just shy of the commercial city of Lautoka. Vitogo Bay was rural all right, with massive cane field fires burning at dusk. It was a sight so familiar to us from our time spent in El Salvador. All alone in the middle of this massive bay, we knew what we’d face in the morning. Surprisingly the decks weren’t too sooty but the weather was so we motored the couple of miles over to Lautoka and dropped anchor opposite the town near a resort on Bekanai Island in amongst a few yachts that look like they’ve been here far too long. Intuitively Yours Truly immediately picked up the vibe and made the call for a nap while waiting for better dinghy weather. Lautoka can wait.


 

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Moving on 

Cruising in tropical waters means squeezing as much as possible into a short amount of time before we have to get out of the cyclone belt for six months to wait out the dangerous season. Fiji’s weather has been quite challenging, forcing us to wait here and there for the opportunity to move to our next destination, and often causing us to change our plans based on where we can reasonably get to and how much time is left. We were lucky to get to Vanua Balavu in the northern Lau Group but as the time ticked away we abandoned our plan to get all the way to Fulaga in the southern Lau Group. It was a huge disappointment but as we keep telling ourselves, we can’t go everywhere. “You could spend a lifetime exploring (fill-in-the-blank)” is an often-heard phrase among cruisers referring to nearly every place on earth, from the Chesapeake Bay to the Caribbean to any given area of the South Pacific. And many people do. We’ve met cruisers who are on their fourth or fifth or sixth season in Fiji, and even some who’ve settled here permanently. It’s that nice. But for us, we’re just trying to maximize our experience and still allow time for Vanuatu and New Caledonia before we have to seek refuge again for cyclone season. 

So no Fulaga for us. The problem, of course, is weather. Once again we had to settle for less than ideal conditions and leave Vanua Balavu for what we knew would be an uncomfortable overnight passage across the Koro Sea. The windlass up button repair only set us back about 45 minutes so we left just a little behind schedule, which turned out to be a good thing. The wind wasn’t bad but the seastate, ever the bugaboo, made it a lumpy stomach churner. We reduced sail from the beginning and still sailed so fast that we were afraid we’d arrive at the reef pass to the island of Ovalau before dawn. But as we got closer to our destination, the old capital city of Levuka, the seas slammed us so hard that we were often stopped in our tracks and struggled to make the last few miles against the waves. 

Finally we could see the pass but the charted range markers eluded us and we had to rely on the acuracy of the charts, Google Earth and our eyes. The pass is wide and we made it safely through and anchored behind a monohull rolling with sickening frequency in the swell. 

We chose this destination at the last minute for several reasons. First and foremost, Levuka has recently been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site for being “a rare example of a late colonial port town that was influenced in its development by the indigenous community which continued to outnumber the European settlers.” Unfortunately, what we saw once we dinghied ashore in the chop and tied up to the Customs dock bore little resemblance to the charming village depicted in the photos on the UNESCO site. The town, like much of Fiji, was badly damaged by cyclone Winston in February 2016 and despite obvious rebuilding work being done, rubble, trash and blue tarps dominate the landscape. The people seem less cheerful and friendly here than we’ve experienced elsewhere in Fiji, and we can’t blame them if they’re disheartened by what happened to their town. 

We visited the tiny museum housing a few artifacts recovered from shipwrecks and some fascinating historical photos, then strolled the town in search of the other reason we came, fresh food to restock our dwindling supply. There’s no farmers market in Levuka and there were few vegetables and no fresh fruits available except a couple of sad and expensive apples imported from New Zealand. 

The wind picked up and the sun never showed its face but we walked the length of the town and climbed the hill for the postcard view.

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Back in town we peeked in the Royal Hotel, the oldest hotel in the South Pacific still operating. You can almost imagine Somerset Maugham or Mark Twain enjoying a tipple in the lobby. They didn’t, but it’s still a lovely window into another time.

 

We hoped for a people-watching perch at a sidewalk table of a cozy bar but settled for giant passionfruit ice cream cones before the wind chased us back to Escape Velocity in time to beat a rain shower. We spent a rolly night glad we came but sad for Levuka and hoping they get some help in rebuilding and restoring the town.  

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The reluctant mechanic 

Ok, I admit it. Yours Truly doesn’t like the fix-it again-Jack quality to this cruising thing. I’m better at networking and finding the right guy to go to. Maybe you know the guy. He isn’t happy until he’s covered in grease and oil and with a grin on his face, has just found something else that needs some attention. Well on this boat, I’m the guy, albeit sans grin. Most jobs that don’t stop us from actually sailing get DR’ed. Deferred Repair. 

Now, dear Escapees, I freely admit that I’ve been nursing a certain button that, while not critical to sail, it is crucial when trying to leave an anchorage. But I think we can all agree that opening up a critical can of worms, the windlass up button for instance, when the anchor is buried down on the bottom of the Bay of Islands is just not done. Better left when tied to a dock or a mooring. I mean there’s absolutely no one here. Ah dear readers, my hand was forced. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve been coaxing the anchor-up button to life by applying deft, experienced pressure and torque in surprising and unusual ways, just so, and holding my breath, which seemed to help, but this morning of all mornings, nothing. Nerves are always a little jangly before a rough passage and I’d say crossing the Koro sea again qualifies. I held my breath ’til I turned purple while furiously trying to find the correct magical sequence of button pushes. 

Not today Paco.

This leads me to my hard and fast number one, no excuses, rule. Never, ever try to fix anything with a spring in it. Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A guy we used to sail with decides to repair a 12-volt power plug while we are under sail. He cuts one of those damn blister packs open with a knife and before he can reach in, out pops a spring, BOING, making good contact with the teak cockpit coaming, BOING and I don’t think he even had time to utter one deeply satisfying swear word before it did a one and a half gainer PLOP into the ocean. He looked back at the plug and with one sure motion the whole thing was together on the bottom of the ocean. He knew that nothing works without its spring. 

It turns out that all clues to our button’s failure-to-launch points to the contacts within the switch. With steely reserve I check the terminals on the outside of the switch which serves not one but two purposes; it keeps me away from the springy bits inside and I look busy while avoiding the springy bits inside. Yeah I know, I’m good at this. It didn’t take long before my lack of progress was noticed. I smiled my best dead man walking shrug and started unscrewing the two most innocent looking screws, hoping that the switch would come off and I could pull it out where I might get a look at it. Mind you I’m hanging upside down out on the foredeck with just enough space to squeeze my head and one arm through the hatch opening. It’s not unusual, for us boat mechanics. It’s like the missionary position in the Kama Sutra. Basic stuff. 

So where was I? Oh yeah, it’s a hatch that is carefully organized and packed with, well…what we mariners call boat crap. I actually can tell you exactly what’s in there but let’s go back to the windlass switch. The next sound we hear after unscrewing the two not so innocent screws is several plastic bits hitting the bottom of the locker and — wait for it –a spring bouncing and rebounding god knows where. With my mind racing through possible workarounds it occurs to me that it may be time to refile the forward locker. 

Out came:

One pair of heavy duty neoprene gloves.

One huge rusty chain jam clearing screwdriver.

One wash down hose with plastic nozzle.

One aluminum clutch tensioning bar.

One longish length of 5/8″ line, too good to throw away.

One very long length of thick, liberally knotted streaming line.

One anchor float with line.

One 35# Bruce anchor.

Clearing all that out revealed the 1-inch hole in the bottom of the locker. 

THERE’S A HOLE IN THE BOTTOM OF THE LOCKER! Of course there’s a hole in the bottom of the locker. The bits were nowhere to be found. 

I carefully extracted first my arm, then my head out of the dark locker and said,”That could have gone better.” Marce dove in with a flashlight and found a couple black plastic bits a thick washer that I’d discarded and two springs! 

Is it comforting to know that someone has made the same mistake before me? Amazing, but of course I’ll have to take apart the previously functioning down button to have a clue how all this stuff goes together to make an up button. After all, I assured her, I know how to do it now so I guess that makes me the go-to guy for all your windlass button needs.

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Time waits for no man

How do you describe the indescribable? Oh I can try but I certainly can’t do the Bay of Islands justice. It’s mysterious, cheeky in the way the undercut mushroom islets blend into the porous rocky, scrub covered background of the hills behind until you practically paddle into one. It takes your breath away. You have to explore every nook and cranny because many times when giving up on a meander just one paddle stroke more reveals a hidden grotto or an under water cave or a shallow, seemingly glowing white sand private swimming hole that you enter, ducking through a hole in a huge rock face. Of course it’s teeming with fish of all descriptions but the array of colorful coral under the crystal clear water must be seen to be believed. Several evenings our little cul du sac anchorage was invaded by silvery squid in the hundreds moving back and forth in perfect synchronicity. You could see them looking up at us with those big bright eyes but when a predator got too close they churned up the water making a tremendous roar.  

Nine days is not enough, but time waits for no man.

Rain moved in for a day and we filled up the water tank.

A local tourguide asked if his clients could borrow some masks so they could explore one of the nearby swim-in caves. We gladly lent them our spares.


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