I’m sure this has happened to you too. You’re in a good place, happy, content, at peace with life, with plenty of fun things to do should you feel like doing something. For us I suppose being treated like honored guests would be a mitigating factor. Suddenly, way back, deep in the subconscious, a feeling of disquiet. Not yet a formed thought, but still, a rising threat to contentment. Anchored just fifty meters off of Sau Bay Fiji Retreat, Carol and Nigel have created the perfect velvet-lined trap for the weary traveler.
Say yes to one
O hear me, Dear Escapees, the temptation to just stay put, in the friendly lap of luxury, is overpowering. But Fiji covers a lot of ocean and we fought so hard just to get here.
And let the other one ride
I’m going out on a limb and blaming the Toucans for breaking the spell first. This morning’s French press coffee on the veranda would be our last; they were headed back to Savusavu to welcome good friends on Rehua just in from a rough passage out of New Zealand.
It’s not often easy
We Escapees reluctantly winched in our chain and anchor from the depths of Sau Bay and were off to discover Fiji. We find the combination of terrible charts, reefs, bommies, and numerous uncharted areas in Fiji tend to keep us on our guard, producing stress even out in the middle of a deep channel. We chose a nice open bay on Kioa Island for an overnighter but found reefs and bommies as soon as the water was shallow enough for our anchor to find the bottom. The chart had no name or sign of a settlement for this pretty bay. It was a sunny but airless morning anchor lift. We followed another yacht out of No Name Bay to wend our way up the reef-strewn passage to stunning Albert Bay on Rabi Island. We even set Escape Velocity’s jib for a spot of sailing but Marce had an unlucky bloody pinch from the camber spar as we were taking it down and now our lovely new sail is baptized in blood. I did my best to wash it off.
It’s not often kind
Once again the reef protecting Albert Cove didn’t match the charts but by now we Escapees have become adept at reading the water and we slid into the peaceful bay with just a few bommies, anchoring in 65 feet of crystal clear water. We lug around 275ft. of 10mm chain but our usual comfort level of 5:1 anchor rode to depth ratio just isn’t practical in these waters. So our shiny pants fancy color fishfinder showed a flat sandy bottom surface on the screen and that’ll have to do.
As soon as we finished anchoring we heard a radio call from the same yacht that we shared last night’s anchorage with. They were wondering if we could help them do the sevusevu ceremony here because we could all see two thatched houses tucked back in the palms. Asking permission to anchor in their bay is the normal protocol. We knew that Rabi Island was repopulated by i-Kiribati whose government, in a bold stroke of magical thinking, long ago sold the phosphate mining rights on Banaba Island to the Brits. Turns out Banaba was mostly phosphate and when the phosphate was gone, so was most of the island. So the Brits bought Rabi Island from Fiji and relocated the population of Banaba here about 1945. That means chances are these folks are probably not Fijian but they probably still like kava. We grabbed our wrapped and beribboned kava roots, gathered crew from our harbor neighbors and picked our way through the reefs to the half moon shaped sandy white beach.
Welcome, welcome was the first thing we heard. Soon we were sitting on a beautiful woven pandanus mat sharing stories with Maria and Joe with cute little naked babies running around, chickens, pigs, and coconut hounds. The grandmother was sitting in the middle of a stack of palm fronds weaving eighty new roof panels to replace the damage cyclone Winston had done. They talked about their lives and agreed to do sevusevu after dinner. We brought super glue to fix Joe’s rubber flippers and some plastic containers and empty jars for food storage and they gave us a few very scarce bananas, which we knew, after cyclone Winston, was a real sacrifice.
Not as formal as Fijian ceremonies but Joe pounds a good kava and I’m not sure but I think Yours Truly is now the chief of Albert Cove!
Our single sideband radio, the thing we use for boat-to-boat communications and weather information while underway stopped working a few days out from New Zealand. This is not just an inconvenience but a safety issue as well. If we had suffered an emergency out in the open ocean, we could easily summon help via satellite phone and our new Delorme Inreach or as a last resort our emergency beacon, but a radio is the best way to contact nearby yachts or ships for more immediate help. For the next few weeks I spent part of every single day trying to troubleshoot it, getting Jack to inspect and renew all the cables and connections, testing various frequencies at different times, asking for advice on online forums and generally researching what could possibly have cause a perfectly good system to suddenly stop functioning. Nothing worked, and in addition to my worry about losing the radio, I grew frustrated with myself that I can’t fix it.
As the days and weeks ticked by and we continued to sit in the friendly but murky waters of Savusavu, EV’s newly antifouled bottom gathered the usual slime and other sea growth that accumulates on a boat that sits still for too long. Cleaning the bottom is Jack’s least favorite thing to do, and we began the push-pull dance we fall into when there’s a boat job to be done but no firm deadline.
We’ve been in the company of Toucan and as divers they were itching to get to clear waters and some of the world famous reefs people come to Fiji for. Diving is something Jack and I talked about for years, but somehow we let dive certification slip past us as we worked and saved and prepared for a life at sea. Bruce, as it turns out, is not only a diver but a dive instructor, and he generously offered to teach us and arrange certification. The more we talked about it, the more it became clear that Jack lost interest. That left me ambivalent because while I’m still interested, not doing it together takes a lot of the fun out of it. Of course we don’t have to do everything together, but I would certainly be less inclined to go diving without him rather than snorkel together. Sharing the experiences we have is one of the most rewarding aspects of our adventure, and choosing a divergent path somehow doesn’t feel right.
Bruce and Di are a perceptive lot and gently encouraged me to forge ahead anyway. I dutifully studied the training materials, sat with Bruce while he patiently talked me through dive tables and introduced the gear. I practiced assembling and testing the equipment, and then it was time to get in the water for my first practical lesson.
I consider myself a fairly graceful person but strapping into a bulky BCD and donning a heavy tank instantly makes you feel like a beached whale. It’s been a long time since I learned a new physical skill and my brain struggled to adjust to new sensations. After a few short exercises Bruce pointed toward deeper water and it was time to actually go down.
As soon as I was under water my ears began to pound, and Bruce motioned for me to equalize the pressure. It’s a technique I use even when driving in mountains or flying because I always have trouble with changes in elevation. I tried and tried, but my ears started hurting like crazy, and while I felt totally comfortable breathing with the regulator, the pain in my ears gave me a little bit of panic. Bruce helped me resurface and we abandoned the lesson, and for the rest of the day I struggled to get my ears back to normal. I went over this in my mind for hours, days. Was my ambivalence trying to give me an out? Are my ears too damaged from repeated ear infections as a kid? Or am I just too stupid to learn a new skill? Bruce gently urged me to practice the equalizing techniques but without trying to dive again I won’t know if my ears — or I — can manage.
While this was happening, our washer broke. Yes, having a washer onboard is a luxury most yachts of our size don’t have, but we do and I love it. I can wash clothes any time the sun shines because it runs off our batteries charged by solar panels. But the washer is 18 years old, installed in the boat when it was built, and we knew that one day it would cease to work. Of course any appliance is usually fixable, but when Jack and Bruce pulled it out of its installed location so Jack could troubleshoot, the bottom of the case crumbled away with rust. It seems the case was being held together by a thick coat of paint and once that was breached the bottom 3-4 inches of case just turned to dust. Jack dutifully tested the appropriate parts and we’re pretty sure he identified the culprit, but even if we had the replacement part, the now seriously compromised cabinet would have to be either welded or rebuilt with new material. Replacing the washer with a new one is probably impossible because the unit was placed inside the boat before the deck was installed and the doorways are too narrow to get it out and get a new one in. What’s more, we’re in the part of the world where mains power is 220v but our boat is North American 110v. Jack and Bruce wrestled the now completely defunct washer back into place and I have to resign myself to either schlepping laundry ashore and paying to wash it, or washing everything by hand in buckets.
I was not happy.
I haven’t seen my family in 19 months and I miss them desperately.
I miss old friends and rarely hear from them anymore.
I turn 65 next month.
The radio is broken and I can’t fix it.
The washer is dead and Jack can’t fix it.
I failed my first scuba lesson.
The wind is relentlessly keeping us from sailing to the top priority place we hope to visit while we’re in Fiji.
Life is not going well.
Ever the optimists, Bruce and Di convinced us to join them in the Sau Bay dive boat for a trip to rainbow reef. They would be diving an area they hadn’t visited yet and the boat would drop Jack and me at a fine snorkeling area called the cabbage patch. I was in no mood but they wouldn’t take no for an answer. “You should,” they said.
Dive boat drivers like to go fast and we pounded out to the reef. I got crankier as my still-sensitive back took a beating. We dropped Bruce and Di and the dive master off, then the driver took Jack and me to the cabbage patch. As soon as we got in the water my mask filled up. This is a mask I’ve been using successfully for years and now suddenly today every time I put my head in the water it leaked. I adjusted, reseated, tried again. I’d get 20-30 seconds in — ooh, pretty coral! — then glub, glub, choke, mask off, try again — look at the fish! — gurgle gurgle, choke, mask off, try again. I could feel all the stresses of the previous couple of days coming to a head. Meanwhile Jack happily pointed this way and that, getting further and further from me, as I felt buffeted by the considerable swell, struggling with a leaky mask, wondering what the hell is going on with me. I felt defeated on all fronts.
Jack swam back over to me just as my frustration came to a head and I ripped my mask off, slammed it on the water and wailed, “Normal people can do this! It’s just not my fucking sport!” I was in tears, sputtering just a meter or so above stunning live soft corals and an impressive array of colorful fish. How could I be this unhappy in such a beautiful place?
Jack had the good sense to keep his mouth shut and let me rage. So much was bubbling up to the surface and my tears mixed with the salty sea as I tread water in borrowed fins, letting the bottled up tension flow out of me.
Eventually the dive boat came back for us and we climbed aboard. I pasted a smile on my face and held up pretty well until Jack felt the need to share my meltdown with the others. When he relayed my ultimate outburst – “This is not my fucking sport!” — they all cracked up and Bruce dubbed it the winning line of the week, and even I had to laugh. I was cold, cranky and frustrated with problems that still aren’t solved, and it’ll still be a long time before I see my family again. But there was a rainbow in the sky above rainbow reef, and Bruce took one look at my mask and pronounced it the wrong type for my face, and there will be drinks ashore at Sau Bay when we get back and maybe life isn’t so bad after all.
It pays to have well-connected friends. After a few days of Viani Bay and the prospect of a run of weather not conducive to diving or snorkeling, we followed Toucan around the corner to Sau Bay Fiji Retreat, a secluded little resort owned by Bruce’s former colleague Nigel and his wife Carol.
The buildings are so sheltered, tucked among the trees and gardens, that it wasn’t until we dinghied ashore that we saw the main lodge housing the restaurant, bar and lounge with a wide welcoming veranda shaded by a huge old tree. Carol welcomed us with coffee and cookies, and soon we were invited to lunch, then dinner, and thus began nearly a week of easy living in a boutique getaway. It’s the kind of intimate resort where you get to know the other guests, and where the staff cheerfully anticipate your needs and desires before you even have a chance to think of them.
Jack and I aren’t generally resort people, but this experience may change that. We stayed on our boats but Nigel and Carol gave us the run of the place and welcome yachties. They plan to install moorings, which will take the worry out of anchoring in a deep bay. There’s a reef right at their doorstep for snorkeling, kayaks to paddle the bay, a masseuse, a resident dive master and dive boat for exploring the world famous Rainbow Reef about 15 minutes away. For working people needing a relaxing break from stressful lives it’s the perfect decompression zone. For us it was days of enjoyable conversation with interesting people and fabulous meals in an elegant natural setting. Jack and I especially appreciated the art and artifacts that decorate the rooms, the comfy furniture to spend lazy afternoons, and the cocktail hours plumbing Nigel’s and Carol’s local knowledge of all things Fiji.
The clear water gave Jack the opportunity to do his least favorite job, scraping the marine growth off Escape Velocity’s bottom.
Sometimes we spend days on the boat without touching land. Di from Toucan and I felt the need to stretch our legs while the menfolk sorted out some boat chores. Our path lead us past the local school where everyone was more than happy to pose for photos.
These young men pointed us toward the path up the hill where we were reminded of unused muscles that definitely needed a workout.
Once over the ridge we followed the trail through beautiful forest land, but I’m struck once again by the lack of little forest creatures that populate our native land, Pennsylvania. In these woods there’s no rustling in the undergrowth signaling squirrels or chipmunks, no startled deer suddenly bolting up a hillside, no red fox crossing the path. No raccoons, no bears, no opossums. I do miss that, but there are birds at least, and the ever-present breeze and the sound of the sea beyond.
At the end of the beach is a beautiful compound built by an American man and his Singaporean wife. The husband died not long ago, and the property is now up for sale. The owner, Jemina, graciously showed us around the completely self contained operation, run on solar with a bit of a generator boost every few weeks. There’s a big workshop full of tools and materials and still some work going on, getting the buildings ready for sale. It can all be yours for $1.6 million Fijian.
Lying to a mooring ball just off Savusavu, Fiji, which is up Nakama Creek, it’s hard to imagine bashing into 25kts of wind and waves but that’s what has been going on out in the Koro sea lately. Tomorrow the weather gods have promised light winds from the wrong direction but it should allow us to sneak up the Somosomo Strait to some of the world’s most legendary diving reefs. But first we want to stage Escape Velocity at Lesiaceva Point just off the remnants of Jean-Michel Cousteau’s resort, which was hammered in cyclone Winston. Careful anchoring techniques are called for in most Fijian waters because of bommies, which are columns or pillars of coral and reefs that raise up out of the depths posing obvious danger to the boat, anchor and chain. The usual techniques are to tie floats to the anchor chain and deploy an anchor marker. We’ve been using our “shiny pants” twin scope fish finder which shows the bottom under the boat and displays its density in a cheerful palette of colors. What Yours Truly is trying to say is that we look for a flat spot to anchor in. There are other worries to add to the fun in Fiji, like the charts which have very little detail and are often just plain wrong.
So where was I, dear Escapees?
Oh yes, it was a short, sunny afternoon motor down the creek into calm waters at JMCs torn-up resort where we found work proceeding at a Fijian pace. So good so far.
The following morning the anchor reluctantly came up with the sun and we were off in company with five other boats. Now I’m not saying we were first out but when the weather gods smile, you roll with it. The passage up this beautiful coast is about 50 miles with several alternate anchorages on the way in case the sun isn’t giving us good visibility of the bottom. As we approached Viani Bay we overheard two boats on the VHF radio talking about a shortcut through the protective reef. Normally I would never try this but it’s getting late and if two monohulls can get through surely EV could as well. The problem was they were about an hour ahead of us, somewhere off in the haze. They both had their AIS system broadcasting so we thought we could plot their passage through the reef and put waypoints on our chart plotter. By the time we arrived at the waypoint for the shortcut, the surface was roiling about the reef. With sweaty palms I had to correct for the feints and slides as we were pushed about but no harm no foul except for my heart rate.
Turning into the bay I glanced down at the fancy color fish finder which was lit up with a rainbow of psychedelic colors, looking for all the world like a light show at a Grateful Dead concert. I froze when I realized the colors went right up to the surface! Surely that can’t be right. Slowly the rainbows coalesced into long curved vertical spikes, pillars, and columns all reaching up towards the surface. Cautiously EV drew a track on the chart plotter that looked like the scribbles of a preschool child. Too deep, too many bommies, too close to a reef. Finally in a Goldielocks moment the fish finder flashed flat at 60 feet. Splash! Close enough. The anchor held, although the float, tied to the anchor with seventy five feet of line, never showed up on the surface.
We found life here in the northeast corner of Viani Bay to be rolly and a little too exposed to the Pacific swell. Our friends on Toucan were a quarter mile away, tucked far back into the northwest corner of the bay. They were on one of two mooring balls managed by a classic Pacific third generation Fijian guy named Jack; round, thick, tattooed and mustachioed, wearing a beat-up straw hat as he rowed out to show us a good spot to anchor. He sat facing forward in his small old jonboat, dipping one oar at a time into the water with the most economic stroke I’ve ever seen. He was not in a rush. I guess you’d have to call Jack a dive guide. For ten dollars a head he’ll ride on your boat and guide you to good dive spots out on the reef. His humble house is nestled back in the trees and some say it actually is a tree house.
We watched yachts and even superyachts come and go, carefully sniffing around the bommies, searching for someplace safe to anchor. Every morning a boat passed by with a load of school kids, laughing and joking and like kids everywhere just goofing around on the “school bus.”
Having sundowners on EV with the Toucans one evening we all realized that we had pushed the pause button in this beautiful bay without a care in the world, but it was time for a spot of exploring. Fiji, after all, is a big place.
Di on Toucan arranged a car and driver for us and Full Circle to spend a day touring the island of Vanua Levu. It’s a big island, about 100 miles long and 25 miles wide, so our “tour” amounted to driving over the central mountains to the large town of Labasa on the northern shore with only a few stops. But they were good ones.
Our first stop, after a very long drive (we cruisers aren’t used to sitting still for that long!) was the Naag Mandir Temple, which houses the sacred cobra rock. The Rock is said to cure sickness, and Hindus from all over the world visit to pray and place offerings of fruit, flowers and milk at its base. They say the rock is growing, and they’ve had to raise the roof four times since the 1950s to accommodate the growth. The priest kindly allowed us to stand in the corner while he guided a family in their ritual and offered prayers for them.
Labasa is a large town and we only had time to explore the huge market. After cyclone Winston there isn’t much fruit available but look at this gorgeous abundance of vegetables. We will not starve in Fiji. I can’t imagine anyone could.
Our driver wanted us to visit a waterfall, but every bit of land in Fiji is owned by someone, and that means we must ask permission from the owner in the traditional Fijian way, by presenting kava, or yagona, to the village chief and formally making our request. We six were led to an open shelter where we sat on a bench. The chief was summoned and David of Full Circle presented our bundle of kava. The chief spoke a welcome and a blessing, the women who hosted us clapped twice, then three times, and we were told we’d been given permission to walk through the village, and to hike to the waterfall.
The village was lovely, tidy and well-cared-for. We were allowed to walk around and take photos, and everyone we asked happily posed for us.
The plan was set. It would be the Toucans, actually with guest crew Geoff, so tonight let’s agree to call them the Threecans, the Full Circles and Escapees off to find the “Carnival” and with any luck at all, a little Savusavu night life. Its the PM version of the No Crime/No Drugs festival. As dusk closed in on Savusavu we made our way to the Copra Shed Dingy dock, tied up and followed the crowd shuffling to the festival grounds, dark by this time, but we could see the lights of an old Ferris wheel powered by a smoking one lung diesel engine, and a brightly lit, two story vinyl inflatable “bouncy castle” slide. Later I would swear that the Ferris wheel was leaning a little.
The police band, already playing up on a large stage at the far end of the festival grounds, had set aside their sousaphones and trumpets for electric guitars, keyboards, drums and a large sound system. They even featured a female singer who made up for what she lacked in stature with girth and pipes!
I kept a close eye on that Ferris wheel which seemed to go faster and faster as the night wore on. Was it wobbling? Like the possible track of a hurricane, I plotted its luckless path of destruction if the worst should happen. My favorite part was the dozens of vendors gathered cheek by jowl around the periphery, all barbecuing lamb, pork, chicken and fish in the dark. For six Fiji dollars ($3 US) you get meat, sausage, boiled taro, and salad piled on top! Unfortunately in Fiji this is considered finger food. Well, in a certain sense, I suppose everything could be finger food. It just depends on your tolerance for greasy sticky fingers out in public.
While trying to grab a few photos of the band Marce wandered to the back stage area and found a few band members tuning up with kava served in a white plastic bucket. She beat a hasty retreat. No harm no foul. More screams from the terrified Ferris wheel customers who are revolving so fast now that there’s a kind of Doppler effect as they whiz by. The band demonstrated their range from reggae to Abba.
Next up was the very popular goat raffle. I’ve nothing to add to this except to say thankfully we didn’t win.
The Ferris Wheel operator is involved deep in conversation with a friend ignoring the groaning wheel which is slowly gathering speed and we move a little farther away on the grassy field. Behind us the screams intensify.
Finally I hear the old one lung diesel sputter in protest and the operator grabs the huge break lever which allows the creaking wheel to slowly spin down. Definitely leaning, but it’s past cruisers midnight, we have a walk and a dinghy ride still to do so it’s time to go. Stumbling across the dark open field Fijian families are still going strong.