It’s come to Yr. Hmbl. Skpr.’s attention that it’s been awhile since the crew enjoyed a team building exercise and it wouldn’t it be better off the boat? Escape Velocity was wobbling a bit with this unusual north west swell. What better way to build team pride and efficiency than to have a spot of kayak paddling across the pass to explore Mystery Island. Yours Truly was disabused of that notion tout de suite and in very firm language caught the mood of crew who announced that our conveyance would be via motorized inflatable RIB. Ah, we have one of those, warming to the idea immediately. We launched Cat Nip and approached the massive shiny-pants aluminum pier. The concept was to check out all of the preparations the Islanders would undoubtedly be making to ensure maximum profit from the cruise ship that would show up tomorrow.
The cruise ship showed up early and suddenly the island came alive with music and dancing and souvenirs and pale determined vacationers soaking up what little sun showed up that day. Just as suddenly the ship bolted at sun down and disappeared like they stole something.
While Jack alternately rewrote The Big Book of Swear Words and scratched his head to problem solve our broken thruhull, I tried to connect with the usual sources of boat parts. No go. Our brand new SIM card was not going to let me access a website, and would barely send or receive email. We had returned to the days of dial-up data speeds and sometimes not even that. But a tiny message on top of the tiny phone screen told me I have free Facebook. Great, I thought, I’ll message a few friends and ask for help. But Facebook messaging didn’t work either, just the regular newsfeed. Ok, then, we go public. I posted our problem as a status update and asked for advice. I initially failed to specify that it was the exhaust thruhull that broke, not the intake, setting off worries that we were taking on water and prompting breathless warnings that we needed to beach the boat and plug the hole. Once I cleared that up, two Manta whisperers suggested almost simultaneously the fix that Jack had already thought of, modified by the fact that the hose itself wouldn’t actually fit through the hole.
So immediate problem solved, we still wanted to get a new thruhull installed because we’re not comfortable relying on a jury-rig all the way to Australia. We were overwhelmed with offers from cruising friends to send a part to us from the States, from Fiji, New Zealand and Australia. But since we couldn’t get to a website to arrange payment, we asked if it was possible for our friends on Rehua to see if one was available in New Caledonia. They’ll be sailing up to Vanuatu in a couple of weeks and we could just pay them directly, if they have the time. On the day they planned to check out of the country, Seathan made a special trip to the chandleries and, miracle of miracles, found us a thruhull. This is the second time Seathan pulled our asses out of the fire, the first time in Tonga when he generously “lent” us seals and bearings for our leaky raw water pump, making our long passage to New Zealand leak-free. It took us months to find replacements to return to him because we neglected to save the old seals and bearings to show to the parts stores and had to spend many hours trying to find cross-reference numbers that anyone recognized. Lesson learned: save the old parts.
But I digress. With EV fixed and a new thruhull on the way, Jack and I turned to the hardest part of the break, the cleanup. We faced a similar one years ago on a friend’s boat we’d borrowed for a long weekend sail in the Chesapeake Bay. The exhaust system must have been on its last legs and gave up the ghost while we were motoring at low speed through the pass at Tilghman Island. The engine was in the center of the boat under a badly gasketed cover and the entire cabin filled up with oily exhaust and carbon monoxide, not just a mess, but a dangerous health hazard as well. We lived, but we spent the rest of the weekend scrubbing the sooty mess from every surface of the boat. Apparently our effort didn’t pass muster because the owner pretty much never spoke to us again. I know how he feels.
Luckily in our case the mess was largely contained in the engine room under our bed, but a fine soot did leak out onto every surface of our bedroom, which as luck would have it, I had just spent a few days deep cleaning. For the next three days we degreased and scrubbed and vacuumed and wiped.
It’s tough to be in a magical place and have to spend time head down, nose to the grindstone, but in the end we feel lucky that our problem was fairly easily solved, and of course grateful for the cruisers who instantly pitched in with advice, encouragement and offers of help. We’re especially thankful to Di and Bruce on Toucan, our communications clearinghouse, and to Seathan and Audrie on Rehua, our personal sag-wagon crew. Together they are guardian angels and we’re proud to call them friends.
I may have pushed it too far. I was busy photographing the tidy village life ashore in Aneityum when Marce said, “That about covers it.” I was of two minds. I’d gone over and over in my mind the sequence of events leading up to our automatic engine shutdown. Of course it was at the worst possible moment of the night before. Then again they never quit at a convenient time, do they? Marce calls this muffler talk, but I have a plan. That plan always involves busted knuckles and oil. In Mexico they have a saying that mixing blood and oil is good luck. I’m not so sure about that but I was betting on an overheating problem so the first order of business when we get back to Escape Velocity is to bump the key just to reassure myself that nothing had seized up. It’s great to have two engines.
She was purring away before I could take my hand away from the key. Nothing obviously wrong on further inspection. Oil and coolant levels were good with no evidence of water where it shouldn’t be but lots of evidence of smoke and soot in our cabin. In El Salvador I had installed a raw-water impeller quick-inspection cover called a Speedseal on both engines. Aha, one impeller vane was cracked and about to break off. A problem easily rectified. It may be a contributor but there must be more going on to overheat that badly. There’s nothing for it but to start her up and watch. She started right up and ran perfectly but a lot of water was running down each side of the engine. I shut it down and followed the exhaust, closely inspecting every inch all the way to the impossibly tiny space far in the stern where the anti-siphon exhaust loop should be. No loop. The hose isn’t even connected to the exhaust thru-hull fitting. Just a lot of sunshine where a fat hose should be. Closer inspection revealed a piece of broken hose barb from the exhaust thru-hull fitting still clamped inside the exhaust hose. Nobody carries a spare exhaust thru-hull fitting. At least I don’t.
However, within the first week of owning Escape Velocity I replaced all of the exhaust hoses and while at the chandlery I saw a piece of heavy fiberglass tube the perfect size to fit our new exhaust hose and I thought that in a pinch I might fashion an exhaust hose join someday. Someday has arrived. Hose clamped to the tube, it now fit through the smaller hole in the hull with lots of 5200 and a hose clamp on the outside.
Now who do we know and where are they? It’s a bad time to only have 2g edge cell service. Then again, it’s never a good time for 2g.
Vanuatu, like most island groups in the South Pacific, lies roughly along a line running southeast to northwest. That means if you want to visit the southern islands you want to hit them first because the trade winds generally blow from the southeast. Fiji insists you clear Customs at ports of entry well to the north, so you’re forced to sail nearly 200 miles past one of the most desirable destinations, the unique Falaga. We waited for weeks for a weather window that would take us back south against the prevailing winds and seas to the island we had sailed so close to on our way up from New Zealand, but for us, and for many Fiji visitors, it never happened and we had to reluctantly scratch Falaga off our to-see list, something we’ll always regret.
Vanautu’s official ports of entry are also well north of the southernmost island but they’ve made a small concession, allowing entry at Aneityum with prior written permission and an additional fee. We requested permission and after four tries finally got an official letter granting it.
The morning after our night entry into the anchorage we hailed Customs on the VHF radio but the only response we got was from a nearby yacht who told us Customs doesn’t have a radio but would come to the boat in their own time, probably later in the morning. All we could do was wait onboard and hope they came soon. After 3-1/2 days at sea we were eager to get ashore, stretch our legs and get a local SIM card for the phone so we could access the internet and retrieve our email.
By and by we were visited by a friendly local in a beautiful newly-crafted outrigger. We had a long conversation during which we mentioned we were waiting for Customs to come clear us in. After a while he paddled away but returned not long after to tell us Customs didn’t have a boat that day and said we should meet them ashore. Our new friend Jesse pointed to a spot across the anchorage where we could land and ask someone to guide us to the guesthouse where the Customs and Immigration officers were staying.
We dinghied in, pulled the boat up on the beach and followed a man along a path to a small house where, without a word, he pointed toward an open doorway and then disappeared. Inside we found the Customs and Immigration officers, here temporarily in anticipation of the arrival in a few days of two cruise ships. We filled out the usual paperwork, paid some fees, and were granted permission to take down our Q flag. We need to complete the entry procedure when we get to Port Vila in a couple of weeks but at least for now, we’re legal.
The yacht we’d spoken to earlier told us to ask for “Esta” ashore and she’d sell us a SIM card. We asked the Customs man where to find her and he told us there was another shop right next door where we could also get a SIM card. Ok, I said, but thinking the other yacht had already scope it out, asked again where Esta was. “She’s Samoan,” he said, I thought just by way of conversation.
We found Esta by wandering down the beach and asking anyone we met along the way. She was supervising a gathering of women and children, most of whom were sitting on the ground eating food served on broad leaves. She told us it was a women’s day of prayer and we’d arrived at lunchtime. I said we were after a SIM card and offered to come back later, but instead she offered me a leaf laden with cassava and pumpkin cooked in coconut milk, while Jack darted away before she could give him some. When she asked if he didn’t want to eat too, I leaned forward and whispered, “He’s a picky eater.” She nodded knowingly, and glanced in his direction. He’d suddenly found something about a nearby tree very interesting. Smooth.
Esta told her helpers she was taking us to the shop to get us a SIM card and as we followed her further down the beach she told us she was indeed Samoan and that she’d married a man from Aneityum who worked on the cruise ships — I think that’s what she said — and that they had traveled all over the Pacific before retiring back here. Like many Pacific Islanders she has grown children in New Zealand, Australia and elsewhere because eventually they leave for higher education and better opportunities.
Her shop is surprisingly well-stocked but we didn’t want to keep her from the prayer gathering any longer than necessary and quickly completed our transaction. On the way back along the beach she told us her name was actually Marinessa but that the nuns in Apia where she went to school decided she would be called Esther instead because they felt she embodied the qualities of the biblical Esther. “But it’s not my name,” she said solemnly, and I could see that she felt something had been taken away from her a long time ago and that it still grates. “Marinessa,” I repeated. “It’s a pretty name.”
We said goodbye and returned to Escape Velocity, eager to get the SIM card installed and check email. Jack wanted to get started on diagnosing the port engine, too, assuming an overheating issue and a relatively easy fix. The weather was fine. More exploration of the island could wait for another day.
Back on board, after getting the phone up and running, and while Jack was making his usual engine work grumbling noises below, it dawned on me that the Customs man may have told me that “Esta” was Samoan by way of encouraging us to patronize a Vanuatan rather than someone he considered an outsider. I have much to learn.
True confession. At my age Yours Truly is no surfer dude but I’ve seen a surfer film or two, and even read a few books. It’s a strange culture and it seems to attract some real characters like that Doc who traveled around to all the famous surf spots in a bus with like nine kids and an amazingly compliant wife who he says changed his life when she taught him how to give good head. I don’t know, I guess it couldn’t hurt, but my point is that they have names for all of these surf spots and here in Fiji we kept hearing about something called “Cloud Break”. While strolling through the tourist shops of Denarau one soft quiet evening I saw it. Cloudbreak! It’s a tee-shirt, surf, beach, resort wear shop that featured a small round table table filled with $9 Fiji, all cotton, loss leader tees just inside the front door. Always on the lookout for trendy tees at a discount I breezed in. Mine is done up in Escape Velocity blue with FIJI emblazoned, in Helvetica, appropriately across the chest.
But that’s not my point. My point is that only after checking out of Fiji at Lautoka and running into friends at Saweni Bay did Yours Truly learn that the only decent pass through the formidable reef protecting Viti Levu was right up close and personal to Cloudbreak. Aha! It’s a surf wave and the shop is named after it. At a certain point, dear Escapees, even I get the picture. I just dummied up. No need to open my mouth and confirm what they’re probably already thinking.
Looking over the chart it seemed that Navula Pass was just another serpentine pass around a break in the reef. In reality it was frightful, awesome, and mysterious, all at the same time and although the size of the surf was huge I still didn’t get this Cloudbreak business until we rounded the first turn to starboard. We were up close to this monster when just ahead I could feel a huge comber impact the reef, through my feet, sending a curtain of spray straight up into the air, like a mammoth calliope playing a bad-ass gothic chord which magically turned into a straight line of puffy white clouds hanging suspended far above the break. The break makes clouds! They shimmered there in the sparkling noonday sunshine for quite a while, strung end to end, like puffy iridescent cannoli, before the next roller pounded the reef. Remarkable. I noticed an aluminum jonboat idling off to the side, I guess to pickup what’s left if things go pear-shaped at Cloudbreak.
Yr. Hmbl. Skpr. was fully occupied at the time giving low priority to photography.
The massive surf was a precursor to the seastate we would have to face on our way to Aneityum, Vanuatu, home of Mystery Island, for at least the first couple of days but we’d have 20 knots of wind more or less in the right direction. It was rough enough to put Marce out of commission for a while but we made good progress pounding through the huge washer machine waves, some of the biggest waves I’ve ever sailed through. But it’s still good to be on a passage again. We knew that the wind would steadily drop for the next few days so our philosophy is to make hay while you can.
It can get lonely out here in the briny blue Pacific. One lone frigate bird and a booby fought over the same bits of flotsam for an afternoon but eventually the frigate flew away and the booby spent an hour finding a way to land on EV’s pitching lifelines to spend the night crapping all over the skipper’s decks. Boobies are a social bunch.
At 0300 with the beautiful harvest moon hidden behind cloud cover, loom from a large well-lit ship came over the horizon but without response to my radio calls we managed to pass port-to-port about a half mile apart. On the third night grave digger’s watch, that’s Yours Truly’s, the wind dropped and we began to motor sail.
At 1600 Marce won the toaster again with a hearty LAND HO! somehow picking out the faint outlines of Aneityum from the wall of cloud cover that seems to conspire to hide any land mass out on the ocean. No need to hurry, there’s at least ten more hours of motoring. And that would still require exacting navigation around the reefs of Mystery Island at around 2am. But a least we have that full moon to light our way.
As we approached our last tricky turn into the pass, I punched a 70-degree turn to starboard into the autopilot and at that moment the moon disappeared behind some dark clouds. I turned around to see what happened to our light, muttering something that starts with effing and was confronted with near total darkness. When I turned back to check on our 70-degree turn, the chart plotter showed that the autopilot had overshot the turn by some forty odd degrees. Could have been operator error.
Nervously scanning the darkness ahead, we might as well have been in outer space. No visual references, just the pounding surf and a chart plotter that swears we’re heading back toward Mystery Island instead of around its reef. That’s when the engine alarm sounded with flashing lights, and the port engine shut down automatically. I started the starboard engine and with a noticeably elevated heart rate, brought Escape Velocity back to the magenta course line and the harvest moon finally peeked out from behind the clouds.
Two yachts were peacefully bobbing at anchor in the moonlight as we slipped into the anchorage. I was wrung out. I’m sure it was really beautiful in the half-moon bay but just having the hook down was beautiful enough for me. Tomorrow will be soon enough to diagnose the engine problem. I need some sleep.
We’ve been patiently waiting for a weather window for our nearly 500-mile passage to Vanuatu, the next country on this year’s itinerary, but this area of the South Pacific continues to throw us sporty winds and big seas, conditions we like to avoid if we can. We spent quality time with friends in Musket Cove, then Denarau, another touristy area, and managed to get all our ducks in a row for the coming months. But Denarau Marina had no berths or moorings available and the anchorage is rolly and uncomfortable for half of each day. We said another sad goodbye to Bruce and Di of Toucan and motored in flat calm back to Saweni Bay for a few more days to wait for the waves outside to settle before heading out to sea.
We no sooner had the anchor down than Jack said he could hear chanting and drumming on the beach, and what’s more, we could see a couple of buses that didn’t look like city buses. We dropped the dinghy in the water, grabbed the camera and putted in to investigate. As we got closer we could see it was a Hindu celebration of some kind and I slipped out of the dinghy and waded to shore while Jack stayed onboard.
I found this group of young men and asked the one with the earphone what the occasion was. He told about how the Indian population arrived in the 19th century mostly as indentured servants and were separated from their culture, but that now they are bringing many of their most treasured Hindu rituals to Fiji. Today was Ganesh Chaturthi, when they offer their prayers to Ganesh, the god of knowledge, that every new activity will be completed without obstacles. I asked if it would be ok for us to take photos and visit the various groups who continued to arrive at the beach by bus and he said we were welcome.
I reported this back to Jack who was by now fending off an onslaught of boys who wanted to climb into the dinghy and go for a ride. These were obviously kids from inland not used to being at the seaside. Jack and I towed the dinghy down the beach out of the way and secured it, then returned to the increasingly crowded celebration.
We were witnessing groups from many temples arriving together at the beach and setting up temporary shrines with clay statues of Ganesh, then praying and dancing around the shrine. As with most Hindu rituals, there was incense and offerings of plates of food and flowers. We could tell that some groups were well off, with huge and elaborate statues and shrines and expensive clothing. Others were more modestly dressed with smaller Ganeshes. But all were equally devout and full of joy. Some of the groups played music or chanted and before long we were in the midst of a cacophony of drumming and wailing horns and singing.
Part of the celebration involves brightly colored paint powders and Jack and I were daubed by a joyful passerby.
As each group finished their prayers the statue of Ganesh was loaded on a boat and as many people as possible climbed aboard for the ride out in the bay while the rest watched and sang from the beach.
Out on the water there was more chanting and singing, then Ganesh was tossed overboard where the plaster will dissolve and the prayers he holds will be released and travel to the sea and be answered. After the statue the people tossed in more offerings of flowers.
We watched at least a dozen groups come to the beach, perform their worship and immerse their Ganesh, first from the shore, then from the deck of Escape Velocity, until finally by sundown the cove was quiet again and only the flowers remained to show that something remarkable had happened, and that we were lucky enough to be there to experience it.
My head was whipping about like some demented, crazed life-size bobblehead painted to look like a cruising sailor, trapped in seats better used for squeezing information out of long-legged foreigners. Even turned sideways my femur was jammed into the opulent backside of the classically proportioned Fijian woman seated in front who, I trust, was on her way to Nandi to buy a more generous cut of panties. Next time I’ll bring flowers. Two vortexes of dust and gravel rose behind the brightly painted midsize bus. This was not some chicken bus in the wilds of El Salvador. It even had clear plastic seat covers over the bright red plastic upholstery on the legless seats.
It all started well enough, except for the no legs part, when we quickly found the bus stop at the Port Denaru waterfront shops. Yes, the driver goes to Nadi, yes it’s only one Fiji dollar, and you pay on the way off the bus. However, instead of exiting the car park he reentered the Port Denaru complex and spent the next forty-five minutes wandering around and through the community of resorts that carpets this large security-gated peninsula, stopping at every hotel and resort. No matter, we Escapees were on a mission and we’ve found that this concentrates our focus and steels our resolve to where we usually return with the goods. What goods you ask? We needed 80,000 in Vanuatu currency before we get to the entry port in Port Vila, Vanuatu, and that’s only available at the Denaru airport bank which may or may not have VT currency when we arrive, which puts us on a legless bus, bouncing down an unpaved country road with my knees up some poor woman’s butt.
Of course we had no clue as to where we were and at a certain point the bus stopped and carefully turned around and headed back towards what we hoped would turn out to be the paved road to Nadi. Finally we saw evidence of a town and then a bus terminal. Stepping off the last stair of the bus I wasn’t sure my cramped legs were going to hold my weight. Ever helpful Fijians gathered around us and soon the concensus seemed to be that we were seated in the bus to the airport. We’ve heard that the airport was easy to miss so they gave us many landmarks to watch out for. Heavy sigh of relief from Yours Truly! Marce checked in with an email from friends outlining the do’s and don’ts of airport foreign cash exchange. OH MY GOD! Jack get off the bus- get off the bus now! We’d forgotten our passports, boat papers and a few other things I know nothing about.
Rather than endure another intimate encounter with a total stranger I voted for a look-see around town just to try to get a little circulation back into my knees. Nice large market all selling the same six items for the identical price, a New World Super Market, and a music store with the best stock of harmoniums I’ve ever seen. Sales girl says that you can’t start or end a Hindu hymn without an Harmonium, a fact which I’m sure makes Harmonium manufacturers smile every day.
Ok, new strings for Marce’s Backpacker guitar, check, some fresh vegetables, check, two bags of stuff from the New World, check. VT80,000…fail.
It took a half hour to get through Nadi on the $1 knee-in-butt-bus but once out of town the trip went faster than the circuitous route it took coming up. Back in Port Denerau, a stop at the ice cream store put everything in perspective and I smiled at M and agreed that we’d learned a lot today.
Next day, passports and boat papers in hand, we caught the dollar bus after it had wandered around the Port Denerau resorts and we were off like a flash. We didn’t even turn off the paved road this time. At the bus terminal in Nadi we knew where the airport-bound buses were and soon we were reciting the landmarks leading up to the airport bus stop. No one mentioned the possibility of the airport access road being blocked by a narrow gage sugar cane train.
Entering the airport grounds we were wondering where the airport bank might be found and in true Fijian fashion, help appeared and in no time we were talking to the teller who had to run upstairs to get the Vanuatu currency. Job well done, we were back in Nadi at the bus terminal when Yours Truly was informed that we would tour another Hindu Temple. It’s what you do in Nadi…apparently. I don’t believe I’ve mentioned that Fijians and Indians don’t feel especially warm and fuzzy about each other so after an Indian couple finished giving us directions a Fijian woman ran out to check on us. Nice…in a way. The Sri Sivasubramaniya Swami Temple, let’s agree to call it “the Temple,” was as you would expect; lots of arms, blue skin, trunks, all the colors used indiscriminately, and many rules about clothes, mostly.
It’s come to my attention that skirts are not my best look but did they have to take my shoes just to walk around outside?
I mean it’s a messy religion, they spill a lot of stuff. I secretly think that our goal all along was the vegetarian canteen but you know I’m a team player, I smiled and said nothing. Marce purred.
Back at the bus terminal we ran into the Toucans while loading into the torture chamber dollar bus. This time, at the Port Denarau waterfront, we all stopped for ice cream.
Moving day found us sailing through the same reef-infested waters we saw from the top of Viti Rock. Armed with photos from outer space and our very sketchy charts, we picked our way around and through the worst of them even while under sail, but in the wind shadow behind Viti Levu, the “big island” or as Fijians call it “the mainland,” the breeze died completely. Leaving a cosmetic jib up we motored south right past Mana Island where we’ve heard the current iteration of Survivor is being shot. Jeff Probst not in evidence.
Passing this completely uncharted sand island that Rehua explored, you enter the inside passage through Lana Reef which protects Malolo Island and where you find the legendary cruiser friendly Musket Cove Yacht Club.
We aren’t used to the activity, the buzz, the people. They even have a store where you can go in and buy things like BBQ chips and ice cream.
The cruiser tiki bar has a happy hour…well it’s not really happy but as long as it’s not full price count me in. I have my standards.
While waiting for a weather window to Vanuatu maybe hanging out at a resort isn’t so bad.