October 20, 2018
Vuda Point Marina, Fiji
Frangipani blossoms, white edged with a delicate yellow, are one of the most powerful of the fragrances in the tropics. This morning as I walked the grounds of the marina the air was sweet with their scent mixing with the all that is in blossom and growing around the property, washed clean from last night’s rain. The scent of Frangipani already a reminder of our visit to Fulaga where our hosts Mere and John had a Frangipani tree outside their home.
Nestled in amongst a collection of mostly blue water cruising yachts we are at Vuda Point Marina, one of the great crossroads of the pacific. Each year sailors traveling the South Pacific decide how to address the cyclone season, the months between November to April. The vast majority will head south, either for New Zealand or via Vanuatu and New Caledonia for Australia. A few will stay in Fiji, there are reinforced moorings at some marinas, at Vuda the basin moorings are designed to be cyclone strength, and there are pit moorings as well, large trenches lined with car tires that yachts can be settled into. Yachts heading around the world through Indonesia will most likely have left already. A small group will head north to wait out the cyclone season in the Marshall Islands, that is the group we are traveling with. And of that group, a few will continue on to Japan early next year, our cohorts.
There is a sense of anticipation around the marina, final preparations are underway, crews are clearing out, people are climbing masts for last inspections, gear is stowed below, final repairs addressed. The sail between Fiji and New Zealand is one of the great passages in the pacific. Waiting for a good weather window is vital for a pleasant passage. Getting it wrong can be unpleasant or outright dangerous, so when a good weather window opens up there is a wave of boats heading out together. Yesterday 28 boats cleared out of Vuda and Denerau, today it was announced on the radio net that 8 boats plan on checking out today from Vuda. Yachts can also clear out of several other ports around Fiji, with this weather window there will likely be a lot of boats heading south over the next couple of days.
Vuda has been a good spot to settle in, deal with a few repairs and plan our passage north for the Marshall islands and Japan. There are a couple of small towns nearby where we can resupply and there are tradespeople who can help us with projects above our skill set. Our Watermaker was leaking and we had tried tightening all the connections but were not able to fix it, we had the local Spectra representative work on it and he replaced all the gaskets and gave it an overhaul, so we should be good to go with fresh water until we are back in seattle.
Boats have been moving in and out of the marina the past few days, checking in to provision and fuel up, then clearing out a few days later, off for Vanuatu or New Zealand. Walking around the marina gives us a chance to see the type of boats that have been making their way across the pacific. It is an interesting collection of various configurations that have succeeded in surviving this challenging environment. Always something new to learn and the crews are happy to talk about their yachts. It’s a friendly, supportive environment, lots of information being shared and crews lending a hand when needed to their neighbors.
This will be our final port in Fiji, we intend to wrap up projects and provisioning over the next week and to be ready for a good weather window. Tumbleweed is in good shape, we’ve had time to go over most fo the systems and address the majority of outstanding issues. The remaining projects and maintenance we will address over the next couple of weeks. Provisioning is well underway and live below decks is a bit chaotic as we work to stow supplies we think we’ll need over the next few months. Although we will be able to resupply in the Marshall Islands we’ve been told there is not much selection. One nice thing about the Marshall Islands is that as a US protectorate we can have packages shipped to us at the cost of normal US postal rates. That is really appealing to Team Tumbleweed.
Between our last post from Taveuni and arriving here at Vuda we spent several weeks visiting Fulaga, one of my favorite places we’ve visited in this entire adventure.
Fulaga, in the southern Lau island group, is one of the most remote islands of the some 330 that make up Fiji. It is an overnight sail from Taveuni with good conditions and the ideal conditions we experienced don’t happen often. We caught a lucky break and had a nice passage from Taveuni to Fulaga. We had waypoints from a couple of sources as well as a Google map overlay we used with Open CPN. The pass is narrow and has a dogleg on the lagoon side, it was helpful to have good light, calm seas and waypoints. We swam the pass a few days later and could see that there was not much room for error. We also timed our entry for slack tide, current can be strong during the tide exchange. We entered around 10 in the morning with excellent conditions, sun over our shoulder, waters calm, and were struck by the beauty of the circling islands and the inner lagoon. Fulaga appears to be a classic atoll, there is a circling reef, a large lagoon and a few small islands along the outer reef. But it is uplifted limestone and over time has worn down creating some beautiful islets across the lagoon. Water has gnawed away at the base where sea meets rock and in the right light appear to hover over the water. The island and little islets with their thin cover of soil do not encourage plant growth, the rocks are sharp and jagged and covered mostly with small palms and plants with long root systems hanging in the air. It’s all very Dr Seussian and made for great exploring by kayak.
Our friends on SV Me Too met us in the open waters of the lagoon in their dinghy and led us back to a snug anchorage surrounded by islets, where we anchored in 15 feet of water over white sand. During our visit we were well sheltered by all the islets and sand bars. The anchorage is a short walk through jungle to the main village where we needed to perform Sevusevu with the chief. Clay and Jill, of SV Me Too, along with Giles and Sarah on Rouser, gave us the tour to the village and introduced us to the village headman. The chief had recently died so our introduction and gift of kava was straightforward. Savusavu is the act of presenting a gift and asking permission to anchor and visit an island. Visitors, sailors as well as Fijians not from the village, will bring a bundle of kava that has been prepared for just this ritual and easily purchased at all the markets.
Although Fulaga is lightly visited they have a well organized system for cruisers. The sevusevu ritual is that the guest presents the chief with a bundle of kava and ask for permission to visit the island. The chief can accept the request by accepting the bundle of kava, and will grant permission to visit, swim in their waters, fish in the lagoon, enjoy the privileges of a guest. The village also requests a visitors fee of $50 Fijian per boat, about $25usd, as a visiting fee. There was a ledger to sign in the amount that we were “donating” along with some of our details. We were boat 79 visiting for the year. Considering most boats cruise with 2 people aboard, that is a pretty small number of visitors for a year. It is such a reasonable, small fee, and the village could certainly use the fees. I’ve read complaints of the practice on a few sites and find it hard to understand why anyone would begrudge a village such a small gift. The people are giving us access to something so amazing, and are opening up their lives to us outsiders in a way that is so much more intimate and personal than any of us sailors could imagine doing back home. Imagine if a car pulled up to my driveway and a family strolled up to the door and asked if they could camp out on my lawn for a few weeks or months, and that they would join any celebrations or rituals we had such as birthday parties or weddings, and they would share fruit from my trees and ask me questions about my life all day, I would need a lot more that $25 to sign up for the deal.
Many of the islands that are destinations for cruisers us a host system of some sort, where each boat is assigned to a family. In some places that connection sounds like a drag, where it can be clingy and the host family is connected to the yacht crew every moment they are ashore. I sort of dreaded having a host family for the first time. But at Fulaga, and probably at most other islands it makes sense. Our hosts were Mere and John, she is the kindergarten teacher and went to school in Suva. They were very kind to us and were available when we needed assistance or to answer questions but otherwise left us to sort out our own program. For people in the village it relieves the burden of having to second guess the needs of their visitors and for feeling a sense of obligation to help every yacht that visited. It also spreads around the benefits of connecting with a passing crew, people tend to give gifts to the families they connect with. In some islands in the pacific we’ve read that there is a sort of mad dash to reach new boats first and “claim” them for a single family, causing all sorts of grief if a yacht comes to shore and tries to deal with another family. At Fulaga there was none of that, the headman organized Mere and John as our hosts, and whenever we met with someone else from the village they asked how we were doing and if we needed anything. It was an exceedingly gracious experience.
Several days after we arrived the village put on a ceremony for the crew of a super yacht that was returning after a visit the year before. The owners of the yacht had donated $6,000 Fijian to the village school with some of the money ear marked for the the village general fund. They had returned with more presents and a large Yanmar generator for the school. The ceremony gathered most of the residents of the island, all three villages, around 150 people. The villagers had set up a pavilion, covered in flowers and vines to provide shade, and a long table for the feast. First there were a couple of short speeches, singing and dance performances by the children, a group of young men performed a dance with spears acting out what I assumed were tales of hunting and war. The crews of the few other yachts were invited to the festivities and the feast. There was lobster, crab, fish cooked many ways, among them a type of poisson cru that was delicious, taro, sweet potatoes. Platter after platter of what I would assume were special occasion preparations. It was delicious and I was struck with the generosity of the whole experience.
Partway through the meal the sky opened and it began to pour in that way that only seems to happen in the tropics. Gallons ran off the tarp and people of the village gathered around us, propping up the tarp and doing their best to keep us dry. People were smiling, laughing, happy that it was raining, they had not had rain for some time and it was welcomed, adding joy to the celebration.
After the feast the owners of the super yacht gave a short speech and announced they were donating $30, 000 to the village to build a community center, and also handed out all sorts of various things to the people in the village. A guitar, various electronics, fuel cans, clothes. There was a large kava bowl set up in the pavilion and servings were passed around to the men and guests. I stayed for a couple of hours and then made my way back to Tumbleweed. Douglas had remained aboard, with a forecast for strong weather we thought it best to have one person keeping an eye on the boat. We need not have worried, weeks later when we pulled up the anchor it was stuck so hard in the fine sand that we need to use the engine to assist in breaking free.
A few boats a year visit Fulanga and decide to spend the whole season there, several months. It is easy to understand the attraction. There are not many places on earth like this remote island and as tourism grows in Fiji the way of life there is bound to change. For now there is a monthly supply ship, slow internet via satellite at the school, or villagers can walk up to the top of a small hill for light cell phone coverage, families come in large numbers during the Christmas season and children go to high school in Suva, the nation’s capitol, so the people are not completely cut off. But it is a pace of life and a quality of life that I think many of us hold as an inspiring fantasy of why we want to sail to the islands of the south pacific. Time moves at a different pace than back home in the US, weeks drifted by, we began to plot our schedule from Fiji to Japan and realized it was time to get on the move. We felt we could have easily spent several more weeks in Fulaga, and probably should have. But all too soon it was time to up anchor and move along.
Mere and John invited us for a kava session and prepared a nice meal for us. John does the cooking and had prepared several dishes that were cooked in the lovo, over a fire. Everything had this amazing underlying flavor of smoke. Roasted sweet potatoes, taro, liberal use of coconut. Salt, smoke, sweetness. Really nice. We sat with them in their home and drank kava as neighbors and relatives came to visit. People would walk in, take a place on the floor and drink kava, joining in to answer questions or ask them. One relative was a master carver and when we asked about a drum we had seen for sale at the area where the men carve, he walked out and found it for us. We bought a drum and a kava bowl from him. They had a big fundraiser to attend that night for the school, we made a donation and then walked back through the jungle a last time to Tumbleweed.
The next day we finalized a few tasks on board and prepared for out passage to the west coast of Viti Levu. We had a fine weather window and a full moon to keep us company. We had an excellent, swift passage across the Koro sea. The timing was a bit wonky, we needed to leave late in the day for the best conditions to exit the Fulaga pass, but that would set our timing off for a daylight entry to the pass at the south end of Viti Levu. We blasted along for the first two days of the passage then reefed down heavily to slow our arrival to Viti Levu. We arrived in the morning and made our way through in line with several freighters making their way north with us and timing around a few freighters passing south. Busy pass in the morning.
Before arriving at Vuda we spent a week at Musket Cove on the small island of Malolo Lailai. There is a mooring field, a marina and a few resorts around the island. The resort at Musket Cove, where we rented a mooring, has a little grocery store where we were able to buy fresh fruit, vegetables and basic supplies. There is also a bar on the beach with bbq grills that can be rented cheaply. The bar supplies plates, cutlery, and does the dishes for a few dollars. We met with friends a few times and cooked there, it was a nice option to meet up off the boat and pass along the chore of cleaning up. Malolo Lailai island has a nice set of reefs a few minutes by dinghy from our mooring. We found octopi, schools of squid and many pipe fish, a relative of the seahorse that looks like one has been straightened out, but keeping the distinctive head and ribbing along the body. The reef is close to the surface and the days we swam there the water was very calm, the waters fairly clear but there was some sediment floating in from over the reef.
Musket Cove and the area in the lagoon is an easy place to grab a mooring and catch up with friends, to slip back into society a bit. It was beautiful and nice to go ashore and walk the island and it was nice to get together with friends off of several boats who happened to all be there at the same time. After tranquil Fulaga it was an abrupt shock to be surrounded by yachts, with a high speed ferry running between the mainland and the marina, and small planes coming in to deliver guests to the marinas at the island.
A week ago we negotiated the narrow, shallow passage into the Vuda Point marina, inside the basin we were directed to follow a small tender that would help us into a berth. The marina is a snug basin where the boats “Med Moor” in a circle, that is they tie off to shore either bow or stern in with lines running from the other end of the boat to lines that are anchored in the middle of the basin. The man driving the tender sped across the basin where he started talking with a couple on a catamaran, were we supposed to dock next to the catamaran? Our marina contact, on shore, waved us off that notion, he directed us to go straight ahead. Straight ahead was a Swedish couple who had decided that this moment, with winds puffing up to 15 knots, would be a great time to hoist and admire their vast main sail, which as one images, was causing the boat to shift into the narrow path we were directed toward. We drifted forward, the man on the tender continued to ignore us as he chatted away with mr. and mrs. catamaran, the swedes admired their sail, I began to comment in my outside voice that this was probably a really bad time to hoist one’s mainsail particularly if you didn’t want your new neighbors to ram your yacht. I also, wisely in hindsight, made the call to abort the landing and circle around the small basin for another approach. Each yacht is tied to shore with two bow lines, while running off each stern are two lines that the driver of the tender will connect to lines tied underwater but kept available with little floats attached. Maneuvering in the basin requires keeping an eye out for these dozens of little floats plus whatever other miscellaneous lines are in the water. As we swung around for the second approach the tender driver was able to pull himself away from mr and mrs catamaran and the swedes decided they’d had enough time to admire their sail, the wind eased and clocked northward and their yacht bobbed gently aside. We lined up and drifted in past the various floating lines, handing off stern lines to the man in the tender, and lines off the bow to a man on shore, and were soon at rest.
The folks at Vuda have done this many times, they don’t seem to get too excited. Yes, an occasional yacht will wrap a line in their prop, we watched that happen a couple days later. But for the most part the boats arrive in little to now wind and are gently nudged in amongst the other boats. There are no docks or piers, so the boats are constantly on the move with the tides, rising and and falling through out the day. Sometimes we have to climb several feet down to Tumbleweed, other times we hand our things up onto the deck. We’ve learned to have a light line to pull the bow over to the small platform where we can step off to go ashore. Some people use a wood plank to walk over but that seems sketchy.
We have docked Tumbleweed at night, in cross currents, with high sidewinds, along rotting docks with broken cleats, we’ve been into marinas where the fairways were frighteningly skinny, and times where the depth at low tide had us squeaking along. We have had real marina drama. Vuda was pretty easy by comparison, yet every time I enter a new marina I still feel my adrenaline climb. Fear of the unknown I guess. Two days later folks on a yacht we know entered the marina and managed to wrap one of the float lines around their prop. They ended up putting on diving gear and going over the side to deal with it. Maybe the adrenaline was justified.
Vuda marina will be our base until we head north. Our plan is to sail for Tuvalu by the end of October, stopping for a visit if the weather allows, or keep on trucking for Tarawa in Kiribati. We’d like to be in the Marshall Islands by December. Before we leave we have a bit more provisioning to deal with. Our water maker is out for repairs but should be back later today. We need to change the O-rings on one of the fuel injectors on the generator, we had hoped to have a few parts shipped in but the people we dealt with dropped the ball and never ordered them from their supplier, so it looks like we are going to punt on that one. Plus the usual odd and assorted to tend to. Nothing that will keep us here if we can’t deal with it before the Marshall islands. Adding more 12volt fans throughout the boat might become an emergency issue, word on the street is that the Marshall Islands are “hotter than the gates of hell”.
We’ve really enjoyed our time in Fiji, as with our visits to all the other countries in the Pacific we wish we had more time. It is easy to understand why people travel back and forth between New Zealand and Fiji for years. There is so much to explore, this is a wonderful country with kind, friendly people, we’ll miss it.
Fiji marks something like the rounding of a corner on our way back to Seattle. Although we plan on taking another year to make our way back to Seattle, it seems like we were outbound across the Pacific and making for New Zealand and are now inbound for Seattle. That said, we are really looking forward to exploring all the islands between here and Japan, the history of the area north of here, particularly the history of World War Two is pretty rich. And Japan looms large in our plans, we are ready for a year of Japanese food.