July 13, 2018
Packing away the try’sl and tidying the deck I find everything covered in a slurry of salt. I brush aside the large flakey scales of two flying fish that wedged themselves under the sail and were dried at sea. As at the end of all long passages we spend a day organizing and putting Tumbleweed back into a more comfortable shore mode, lines are coiled and stowed, the lifelines taken down, the dinghy pulled from the vee berth and dragged to deck, inflated and plopped in the water. Over the next few days as we open lockers we’ll pull out the dish towels and clothes that we used in our attempts to quiet the constant rattles and bangs at sea. It’s a pleasant, somewhat mindless set of tasks, the heat has begun to build and the sun is out, the wind near still, we’ve arrived at Savusavu after an 18 day passage from Opua that included a side visit to Minerva Reef. It feels so good to be still, to hear the birds calling from the shore and to see Pino on the mooring nearby and Alcyone at the dock.
Two weeks ago in Opua, our friends from Ponyo met us at the customs building for a last goodbye, we already miss our weekly visits to the farmer’s market with them and their great company. With our paperwork completed in advance we were cleared out with customs in 10 minutes. Certainly the easiest departure from a country with regards to bureaucracy. We had a few kiwi dollars left and went for one last leisurely cup of coffee at the marina cafe.
Tides rule the Opua marina, the current during the tidal exchange can be pretty swift and we’ve watched several vessels run into difficulty trying to maneuver when the current is flowing - bouncing along pilings and other boats. We readied Tumbleweed, watched for the waters to slack and made our way out to the Bay of Islands under clear skies and very light winds. The first day of a passage tends to be busy with working to get organized for sea, getting the boat into a groove, becoming reacquainted with long unused actions. We had not been sailing for 9 months, which seemed like such a distant memory. Before arriving in Opua we had been sailing pretty much continually for a couple of years, with time off at various ports for a few weeks here and there. But mostly on the move. I definitely felt rusty going forward to hoist the main and get us ready for sail.
As we left the sheltered waters of the inner bay and made our way out toward sea the waters became very confused and agitated. Waves from the sea met the outflow from the bay and the various streams and sources of water refracted around the islands and coastline creating a stretch of chaotic washing machine-like seas. At the mast I felt like I riding a hostile animal, tossing from side to side and bucking forward and back. I had made the mistake of making grilled cheese with roasted eggplant sandwiches for lunch and by the time I made my way back to the cockpit was having my first ever bout with, not really full on sea sickness, but certainly sea nausea. Douglas brought up a Transderm-Scop patch, two acupuncture wrist bands and a bag of ginger candy. The rest of the afternoon I felt off my game but by the next morning I was fine. My note to future self would be to not become such a landlubber, to avoid grilled cheese sandwiches that first day out, and maybe use a patch if I haven’t been sailing for ages.
In all other regards we had a pretty nice first day out. We had light and flukey winds so it took us awhile to break free of New Zealand, our first 24 hours out we made 95 miles. But we had a near full moon to join us on the night watch and that companionship and beauty those first nights at sea were powerful. The sea tops rendered into silvery brush strokes and the clouds lit by its reflection off the sea. It feels good to begin a passage, to watch as the land recedes and the planning and preparation stage moves astern. There is a magic to being on the open ocean that cuts through the rolling of the boat, the crashing and banging of gear yet to be wrapped and tamped down. We had yet to settle into our routines and still worked to get a sail configuration sorted that we were happy with but that first night went well and we were both content to be on the move.
There never seemed to be a perfect window for leaving New Zealand. Compared with our passage from Tonga at the end of last year it appeared that the forecasts were in a constant state of change and would change often from day to day or hold for a couple of days before shifting to something unpleasant. Heading south we had watched several favorable 10 day gaps unfold before we finally set sail. As we prepared to head north it was a challenge to find an extended period that was stable. It was the classic problem of either too much wind or not enough. We kept in touch with several friends who had gone on before us and most of them were forced to motor for days at a time, something we dearly wanted to avoid. Many also reported being hit by high winds and gear damaging squalls. An oft repeated story was that they would be sailing along under moderate winds when a squall with winds in the 40 knot range would blast along, a serious problem if all sails are up and not reefed. Torn sails, damaged rigging, broken gear were repeated. Along with the harrowing tales of rushing forward at night trying to reef a main or deal with a cranky headsail that refused to furl.
Team Tumbleweed has usually been conservative when it comes to sail plans and strategy. As the day winds down, while we still have light, we’ll talk about the weather forecast and a plan for the evening. If the forecast is stable, and we have clear skies and settled seas we’ll be a bit more ambitious but typically we tend to reef down at the end of the day. Many nights on this passage we were really happy that we had just our stays’l out when we were hit by a squall. We changed the stays’l from hanked on to a furler while in Opua and it was a welcome change. It handled the many squalls we went through on this passage and also helped with deploying or reefing the Genoa - heading downwind the stays’l would blanket the Genoa, making management much easier. On this passage many of the squalls were in the sustained high 20 knot range with gusting into the high 30’s regularly. The most wind I saw was gusting to 48 knots, although that is the instrument reading and it’s difficult to know how much of that is due to mast acceleration as we whipped through the seas - but it sure felt like a lot. The roar below decks and the brutal crashing of the seas is just so hard to convey. To the crew below, especially trying to sleep, it feels like the boat has been tee-boned by a freight train. The majority of the wave train would be aligned off our stern quarter and an occasional rogue would come roaring out of the darkness and crash into us. Tumbleweed would stumble and pause for a moment, then catch the winds and move forward crashing headlong into the night. In our bunk we would lift, hang for a moment in space, then drop down, again and again.
On deck is such a completely different experience than that below. Standing in the cockpit, hanging on to the stern rail, watching the night sky and the sea crashing on the bow, green water rushing along the decks, it is such a thrilling ride. At those times when we were hit by a rough sea it was a matter of holding on more tightly, watching the sail drift and then catch, and feeling awe at the power of the sea, and feeling content to be on a boat as sturdy as Tumbleweed. After a rough bout the off watch might poke their head up and ask if all was ok. The perception of how wild the ride was going was all about perspective. In the cockpit the one on watch was probably giddy with adrenaline, the one of us off watch and trying to sleep was probably getting ragged from not being able to sleep. After a few days we fell back to our routines and were able to get sleep off watch but for the first couple nights we struggled to get sleep.
Making our way north we checked the forecast twice a day and noted that strong winds and rough seas were being forecast for our arrival in Fiji. Minerva reef had been on our minds as an option if the weather allowed or dictated and it was starting to feel like the weather was suggesting Minerva would make for a nice stop over. We changed course and making our way eastward, jockeying the waves that were now crashing over the bow instead of off the stern quarter, and slowing a bit to time our arrival for morning light.
Minerva reef is a weird place. Surrounded by vast expanses of the south pacific, it is actually two sets of atolls, North Minerva, and South Minerva. It has been the site of utopian communities, numerous shipwrecks ( it is named for a whaleship that ran up on to the reef at South Minerva in the 1800's), ongoing squabbling between the Tongans (who have been given rights to oversee the atolls) and the Fijians (who have blown up navigation aids and want to control the fishing rights so that they can lease them to China - at least that is the gossip) and constant fishing ventures. North Minerva, where we were headed, has a reputation for being easier to enter and having an open lagoon - not cluttered with coral heads, with good anchoring all around the interior of the reef.
The sea depths climb from a little over 3,000 feet to the surface of the atoll in short order. After days of seeing no other boats or sight of land we first noted several boats on AIS, then a faint line of breaking sea on the atoll. Sailing to the pass we came up into the wind to drop our sails and I saw the water color change from the dark blue of safe deep sea to the emerald green shifting to a white line of foam signaling danger, for a heart pounding second I thought we were on our way toward an uncharted rock but realized it was two whales, one appearing to be a calf, lolling about, most liking feasting. It was one of those exciting moments where we were caught up in the task at hand, bringing in the main sail and furling our stays’l, and I was pointing out the whales and we were coming around to make our way to the pass, thrilled to be in such a magical place and yet focused on carrying on safely. In minutes we had moved past the whales and motored into the calm of the lagoon.
Our friends Ed and Fran on Aka were anchored at the far end of the lagoon. They have been here many times over their decades of cruising the south pacific. We walked the reef at low tide the next day and they showed us the remains of several wrecks and gave us a history course on the atoll. We were pretty keen on finding lobster and Ed was in and out of the reef edge with his spear, jabbing away at various crevices until a small shark started to get too curious. We came back empty handed that day but later Ed showed up with a massive lobster tail and collection of legs for us. The tail must have been around 2 pounds or more and the legs were massive. We boiled up the legs and had them as appetizers while I boiled the tail to serve with pasta. It was pretty over the top. I only served half of the tail meat and saved the other half for the next day’s lunch. We were surprised by how delicious and meaty the leg sections were. It was another example in a long list of kindnesses that Ed and Fran have shown us and other cruisers.
Later in the week we went out with Ed to another section of the reef, snorkeling over a couple of wrecks and spending hours hunting the edge of the reef for lobsters. Ed was fearless, and not a little crazy. Diving into crevices on the outer edge of the reef, grabbing ahold of the rocks as the waves washed in and over him, grabbing ahold of lobsters when he found them. A couple spooked out of their holes and sprinted between my legs in a blur for the open sea. He was able to collect two medium sized lobsters and two slipper lobsters, creatures that look like the tail section of a spiny lobster. At first I thought he was handing me just the tail sections and as I was trying to sort out in my mind how he was able to grab a lobster underwater and yank it’s tail off, the slipper lobster in my hand bucked and tried to escape. There was the crew from another boat with us and they had been trying pretty hard to get a lobster that afternoon, the skipper diving into the holes as manically as Ed. Ed let them take home the lobsters he’d harvested which I thought was a pretty nice gesture.
Stopping for a few days let us address a couple issues that had come up during the passage. Our port navigation light had burned out and we needed to pull apart the housing and try to find a way to get a light working. The housing is designed with a small hole at the base, which seems like either really poor design if you are a sailor, as the bow of the boat where the light is located constantly dips into the sea when offshore, or really great design if you are the manufacturer because you will have a constant stream of repeat business. We didn’t have the exact parts of course so there was some rummaging and jury rigging to sort out. In the end Douglas was able to wire in a pretty bright LED and we were back in business.
The other issue that came up was one that has been ongoing since we replaced our backstay adjuster. When we pump up the hydraulic adjuster, to give greater tension when under sail, the backstay will begin to twist. At first it was only a revolution or one and a half. But on this passage it was working its way up to 3 revolutions. With the SSB antenna running up the lower section of the backstay the twisting was pretty obvious. Our concern was that all that twisting and pressure can’t be good for the the fittings or cable. We rigged up a cross line that we threaded through the backstay adjuster, over to the stern arch and down to a turnbuckle we attached to the toe rail. That stopped the twisting and we’re working at sorting out what the problem could be. We are guessing it it the hydraulic backstay made by Navtec. We have a turnbuckle adjuster we can swap out and will probably do that shortly, then see if we can get the Navtec shipped back to the US.
For the rest of the days we spent at Minerva we mostly enjoyed how remote it was and how removed we felt from Opua and the preparations we had undertaken the past few months. It felt really nice to slow down and spend time reading, tinkering lightly on projects but not feeling we need to push. The location is beautiful and kind of dislocating. At one point I climbed the mast, to inspect the backstay fittings, and was taken by the beauty of the atoll. Ahead was a slim section of orange reef, inside of that was impossibly brilliant turquoise water, on the outside of the reef was a white line where the ocean met the atoll and then a deep rich blue that carried beyond the horizon. That day we had light winds and a steady wash from the ocean worked its way across the reef.
A weather window opened that looked to give us decent winds to complete our passage to Fiji and we made plans to depart. A catamaran that was in the lagoon had a rudder that had delaminated and were trying to make repairs. Ed is a capable boatwright/boatbuilder and had at one point worked on that catamaran for the previous owners. He has extensive experience with working with fiberglass and making such repairs so he volunteered to stay and lend them a hand. We had one other yacht mishap while we were there. A small ketch with 4 young Kiwi guys had trouble at the reef entrance, I believe they had been diving or fishing the pass when their engine gave out and the winds were too light for them to escape under sail. There was a somewhat stressed out call for assistance put out and several boats quickly made way to rescue them. By the time the first boat had arrived the ketch had an anchor out and was dragging back onto a coral head. The sun was setting as the several dinghies and couple of yachts were able to wrangle a tow line and pull the guys back to safety. Stressful.
The remainder of the passage to Fiji was uneventful, which is what we aim for! We had read reports from friends that they had been surprised by strong winds and abrupt squalls as they neared Fiji and we saw several as well. We reefed down at night, and put up as much sail as was comfortable during the day. We made pretty good time with a couple days averaging over 6 knots. The seas were a mixed bag, we had our share of confused and sloppy seas with the regular blast of some beast of a wave that would usually give us a good smack in the middle of the night. For the first couple days we did a lot of rocking side to side, a good core workout for sure, but it was nice to arrive and put that behind us.
A couple days out from Fiji we plotted our course and saw that we would be arriving close to the end of the day and did not want to arrive at the marina after dark. We reefed down further and tried to lose speed. But we had strong winds and even sailing under a reefed stays’l we were still making over 5 knots, bumping up to 6. On the last night as we sailed into the Koro sea and were considering heaving to as a way to arrive at daylight, the winds dropped and the seas calmed and we were able to glide along under a moonless sky. We picked up a few fishing vessels and one other sailboat that night, and could just pick out the silhouettes of small islands. We would get the occasional blast of warm, humid air, and the fragrance of land began to drift across the cockpit.
Dawn saw us approaching Vanua Levu and then making our way into Savusavu. We picked up a mooring around 9am and then went to work pulling the dinghy from the Vee berth and getting ready for the arrival of the Fijian arrival team. I went to shore to pick up the health officer who asked if I could also bring out the customs and immigration officers. I was dazed and hesitated, our dinghy is on the dainty side of tenders and the outboard had conked out and started with fits as I made my way to the dock. “Of course! Climb aboard! No problem! “ I mean, what could go wrong? Soon 3 ladies from the Fijian government had joined me, with big smiles, lots of laugher, many shrieks and a lot of talking in Fijian amongst themselves, we pushed off the dock and I tried to start the engine, which of course failed in the first few attempts. Eventually it caught, and we tooled at a regal pace back to Tumbleweed where Douglas was waiting somewhat fearfully. Dumping a boat load of government officials would probably be a negative first day experience. But the ladies were friendly and accommodating and we all set to work with the various documents, print outs, photos and emails that are a part of checking in to a foreign country. While they inspected the cabin I motored back to shore to pick up the bio security officer and soon there were 4 officials aboard. It was a nice welcome to the country, it all went smoothly and efficiently, with plenty of good humor. And no one ended up going for a swim.
Savusavu has been a fine place to check in to. We are at the Copra Shed marina, out on one of their moorings. They have been friendly, efficient and helpful with basic amenities and we feel pretty set for a while. There are a several decent restaurants in town, shops that carry the basic necessities, a large market with local fruits, veggies and of course, kava. We are still resting up from the passage and the preparations before leaving. Not sure where we’ll head next. Taveuni is looking attractive and we have several friends heading that way.