the last 30 days

30 days in Fiji

We were lazy writers during our final 30 days in Fiji, not posting to this blog while we enjoyed our final moments of the cruise to its fullest. For those readers who relied on us for a break from Trumpland, we offer our sincere apologies! We’re back in our home in Arcata now, unpacking boxes and settling into our reality ashore, but happy to tell the tale of those final days. This post is overly long – you’ll be able to parse it out over several sessions of reading if you need to keep the escape going a bit longer!

After the first spell of epic kiteboarding, we journeyed to Savusavu, a thriving waterfront town on Vanua Levu, the north island’s, southern shore. The bustling farmers’ market was bursting with fresh vegetables and fruits, tables of kava, freezers of fish, and mounds of spices and snacks. Ethnic Fijians and Indo Fijians sold side by side and eyed each other’s produce for the freshest chilis, ripest papayas and largest bundles of greens. Provisioning here was a journey into daily lives, with our Hindi cracking open doors for a brief glance into a farming family’s life.

In Savusavu we met up with Diego and Marina on Meccetroy, who were picking up Franca and Francesca, friends from Rome. With provisioning complete and laundry blissfully washed and dried ashore, we all set sail towards Viani Bay to snorkel Rainbow Reef. The wind was blowing a steady 20 knots, whipping up the sea state into a short, steep chop. We sailed a mile off the reef, trimmed the sails for a close reach and pounded into a miserable sea state. While Anthea performed admirably and kept up good speed, Mark and Devon were feeling a bit green, so we welcomed Diego’s call to put in at the nearest sheltered anchorage.

We sailed towards Galo Galo passage then started Mr. Perkins as we prepared to enter the passage between the breaking waves on the reef. Diego went in first, and our anxiety grew as we watched him enter the narrow pass, spray flying to each side, and then saw him make a quick jog to the west to avoid some uncharted hazard. He radioed once inside the pass and we followed, with Anson on the bow, Devon in relay position at the shrouds, Mark at the helm, and me on the chart. With no other anchorage nearby, we steeled ourselves and ventured forward. It was terrifying to willfully venture close to coral after our recent mishap, and this time the stakes were higher: if we were to hit this reef, the waves and wind would thrash Anthea mercilessly with no hope of a self-rescue. We considered sailing away and spending the night at sea, but the view of Meccetroy, now sitting in flat water just on the other side of the pass, called us forward. The visibility was excellent, and with our full crew, the risks were lowered. We ventured in, nerves frayed and tensions high, made the dogleg, and soon were motoring into a narrow creek in flat water. We anchored in line with Meccetroy, executing a three point turn to avoid the shallow banks of the creek draining salt lake. I did an admirable job of not thinking about the next day’s exit, for once following the adage to not “borrow trouble.” We rested, slept, and found the exit the next morning to be blissfully low drama, as the wind had died down in the night, reducing the swell. We exited with the waves gently crashing against the reef, the channel more visible in the calm conditions. Mark and I both vowed to never visit this anchorage again.

The next day we sailed in sweet winds and calmer seas to reach Viani Bay. Here we joined a Fijian man and a German woman at their new eco-dive resort for a night of kava drinking, music and a potluck. Our snorkeling on the reef, arranged by them, was exquisite, filling our hearts with ecstatic joy as we finally saw flourishing hard coral colonies, graced with purple, pink and orange anthias. Anson will fix the link to the video from his free-dive on this site, where you’ll be able to see coral in all its glory, including the ancient cabbage patch coral spared from Cyclone Winston’s fury.
The winds rose again as a high, high pressure system travelled eastward below Fiji. Viani Bay was getting rocky, so we sailed around the corner to a mangrove laden entrance to Naqaiqai creek, known to be a local cyclone hole. Here we journeyed in our dinghies up the tidal creek to offer kava to the family with rights to the land and waters. This ritual offering is called sevusevu, and provides the community with the opportunity to accept, negotiate with, or reject those who offer kava in this way. The extended family offered us a gracious welcome and showed us around their homestead, complete with a lily pond in full bloom. We stayed longer than intended and hauled the dinghies down the muddy channel before roaring off to Anthea. The day was hot, the water flat, and Anson and Devon organized an afternoon of wakeboarding around our boats. Diego offered up his dinghy with a 15 hp engine, and they were tearing up the water.

The snorkeling nearby was only mediocre, and 30 knot winds were predicted for three days, so once again we up anchored, made a quick anchoring stop near the northern end of Taveuni island to re-provision, then tacked our way to a protected anchorage at Qamea island. Our chart showed an entrance for dinghies only, but Diego had satellite charts and other cruisers’ experiences to guide him into another tight entrance. This time we were on the leeward side of the island, so the waters were calm and Diego (who had motored the rhumb line while we tacked) graciously came out in his dinghy to guide us in through the pass. Tucked inside in calm waters, Anson and Devon jumped into our dinghy and managed to wakeboard with our puny 8 hp outboard.

The next morning we dinghied to the village and offered kava to Moses, the headman. Moses’s grandfather was a victim/survivor of the slave labor trade (also known as blackbirding) from the Solomon Islands, brought to Fiji to cut sugar cane. His descendants now farm on the island of Qamea, raise pigs, fish, and manage their lives through interweaving subsistence and cash economies. With permission from Moses, we spent several days hiking around the island and, with the winds still howling, made a plan to go with George in his skiff with a 50 hp outboard through reef-strewn passage to the island of Taveuni for a day of exploration in Bouma National Park.

We had following winds and seas for our morning departure, so the twenty-minute ride in the skiff seemed quite reasonable. George arranged for a four-wheel drive vehicle to take us to the park. We paid the fee, which provided compensation to the communities who had given up other uses of the land for the park, and set out for the three waterfalls and swimming pools. The path was beautifully maintained by the community, with ample plantings of hibiscus and other flowering shrubs edging the trail. We passed the first two falls quickly, hoping to swim at the third, and most beautiful, fall before other hikers arrived. Our plan payed off, and we arrived at a lovely waterfall flowing into a picturesque pool. The water was refreshingly cool as we swam up-current to the base of the falls and then drifted back to the shore. We had just emerged from our peaceful and private swim when a local resort escorted a horde of tourists for their very different way of engaging with the space. Inspired by their Fijian tour guide, who climbed to the top of the fall, walked on a tree limb overhanging the pool and dove 25 feet down, loud, young tourists began throwing themselves off every ledge and rock. Needless to say, we packed and fled, happy to escape without needing to use our wilderness medical training.
While our hike and swim was delightfully peaceful, the return trip in the open skiff was a white-knuckle affair. George piled us into the boat, blasted through the wavelets in the protected landing site and powered into the sustained 25-30 knot winds. Once beyond the barrier reef we were faced with 1.5 to 2 meter waves and spray flying everywhere. George used his hand like a windshield wiper, clearing the spray from his eyes just in time to judge the need to speed or slow, to head into the wave or veer off and slide down. His expert handling of the boat and intimate local knowledge of the pass between the islands of Taveuni and Qamea, was all that stood between us and potential disaster. When we finally entered the protected waters of Qamea, the tension released as we laughed and congratulated George for his extraordinary handling of the boat.

The winds finally died down to a steady 20, so we sailed back to the tip of Taveuni island for another truly epic kiteboarding adventure. We had four days of kiteboarding heaven for Anson and Devon and good skill progression for Mark. I became the photographer/videographer and enjoyed playing with Luisa (age 12) and her friends from the nearby village. This large flat water spot on the northern tip of Taveuni, protected by reef but open to the trades, and with an extensive sandspit at low tide, is kiteboarding heaven. In the first three days of kiting, Devon mastered the art of kiting upwind, learned the trick of going toeside, and began “hotdogging” and playing with the wavelets. Mark and I sat and watched the ballet of kites in the sky, beaming with joy as we watched Devon turn into an independent kiter and catch up with his big brother. Mark had a number of successful runs, improved his form, and was on the cusp of kiting upwind. Look for the video link soon (but don’t look for Mark; I may never live down the fact that I deleted a video of him in bad lighting to capture the boys in the afternoon glow).

When the trades died down we booked an early morning taxi (4:30 a.m.) to De Voeux Peak on Taveuni for a day of birding. We arrived to dripping rain and not a bird in sight. Although we had a wet beginning, our two local guides soon helped us identify and photograph parrots, lorikeets, loris, warblers, barking doves, many colored doves, fantails, kingfishers, white eyes, and the elusive orange dove. With the sun finally shining and the birds flitting, we spent most of our time along the road for easily walking and viewing. Our side trips through the muddy bush, slipping backwards and sideways while pushing vines and branches aside, payed off with an incredibly viewing of the much sought after orange dove.

When the trades died down, we started heading back towards the Lomaviti group of islands, where we hoped to enjoy more beautiful snorkeling. We sailed to the end of Taveuni, picked up a mooring at Paradise Bay, then sailed the next day to Koro Island. Here we enjoyed several days at Dere Bay in a development devastated by Winston. One of the free-holding areas of Fiji, foreigners (including Clint Eastwood) bought up lots and threw up houses, most of which were not up to Fiji’s excellent building codes. When Winston slammed through, many houses were leveled and the small resort damaged. But the forest has survived, and so have the birds. Once ashore we spotted parrots, doves, parrotfinches, lorkeets and kingfishers in the evening light. Here we enjoyed several days of birding, and we took a hike to a waterfall along “dead toad road,” so named by us for the thousands of flat toads along the road that bisects the island from east to west.

The snorkeling in Dere Bay was interesting, but not stunningly beautiful. Along the inner reef, small, hard corals, growing several inches a year, were making a comeback after Winston. If we humans can just do our part, the coral, which is inherently resilient, will thrive once again.

After a belated anniversary celebration of one night in a cottage while Anson and Devon watched over Anthea onboard, we set off for Levuka, on the island of Ovalau, to meet back up with Diego and Marina. We had a beautiful downwind sail, concluding with a spin run when the wind diminished. Just before we arrived at the pass, with the sun setting and the spin up, we caught a 10kg yellow-tail tuna. A few moments of chaos and mayhem later, we had the spin down, the fish gaffed and aboard the boat, with a pint of tequila in its gills to sedate it before the beheading (Anson got a bit carried away with the liquor). Having visited Levuka before, and with excellent leading lights through the large pass, our night time arrival was fairly stress-free.

The next day we had a “flat as” motor to Gau Island, our hopes for another spin run dashed. But our visit to Somosomo village with Diego and Marina was an extraordinary journey into contemporary life on one Fijian island. Once again, we brought an offering of kava with us when we landed ashore, and Tom, in his role as spokesman, welcomed us and facilitated the offering to the chief of the village (in this case the second eldest of the chiefly clan of the village, as the elder chief was attending a district meeting). Tom explained to the chief that we had come by yacht and were from California, Brazil and Italy; he shared our desire to hike around the island and to snorkel the reef, and then he slid the kava across the floor to the chief, who picked it up and accepted us into the community. The chief shared that sometimes people on yachts will stay in their bay for one week without ever coming ashore and offering the root of the kava (yaqona) for sevusevu. By offering yaqona we were asking permission to traverse the community-owned and managed land and reef ecosystems; those who enter without offering are trespassing – the equivalent of someone walking into your house, or camping in your yard without permission.

The coming and going of people from village to town/city and back is reminiscent of lifestyles we witnessed in the Marquesas, with those returning to village life describing a sense of freedom from the tyranny of the dollar and a fully commodified lifestyle.

Tom spent a full day with us, generously answering questions about the landscape, his life and work on Viti Levu and Ovalau, his return to Somosomo and six years as village headman, and his position as one of the spokesman clan members in his community. He accompanied us on our hike up to the ridge and down to the next bay, offering information about farming life, medicinal plants, and traditional ecological knowledge. He showed us which vine’s leaves can produce a juice for lessening the pain of a stingray wound, which vine to feed pigs to increase fertility, and which tree leaf helps with stomach disorders, including ciguetarra (reef fish poisoning). While resting by the water’s edge at the bay, he wove a stout basket with an integrated handle from a coconut palm frond, and filled it with cassava for us to take back to our boat homes.

I asked if he had ever seen the film titled, “The Land Has Eyes” written (and directed?) by the famous Fijian (Rotuman) playwright and academic Vilsoni Hereniko. Tom knew the film and resonated with this its message, saying that our offering of sevusevu protected the community because the land has eyes; when the chief accepted our offering of yaquna, he explained, the land “saw” this, because the chief is of the land. When others come and start hiking across the land without sevusevu, someone in the community or the interloper will get hurt. He spoke about missionaries killed on Viti Levu whose families to this day are cursed, despite formal apologies and rituals of reconciliation, because the land has eyes. He then spoke of his own relatives killed when, as missionaries, they traveled to Papua New Guinea to spread Christianity.

Diego asked Tom whether life was better before European missionaries arrived, and Tom’s face transformed into a shocked scowl. He regained composure quickly and assured us that missionaries brought peace to Fiji and stopped the incessant wars and violence. His explanation resonates with so much of the literature of Oceania which represents Christianity as ushering in the era of light and banishing the era of darkness. Christianity is almost universally embraced by indigenous Fijians and has become indigenized to the extent that its arrival was believed to be foretold by legends and seers. But Christianity itself is contested and complex, evident in the proliferation of denominations and churches competing for souls to save, most striking in small villages supporting two or more churches. Epeli Hau’ófa is the rare soul who, himself the child of Tongan missionaries, makes fun of the Christian competition in Oceania and humorously suggests other paths forward. Tom, however, is with the majority, a devout Christian who interweaves a belief in the power of god and prayer with a view of the land as living and connected to his people.

We set sail the next day for Viti Levu, a way station anchorage on our way to the island of Beqa (Mbengga). The wind was up the following morning, spurring us forward on a lively reach. When the wind died, the four of us leapt into action and raised the spinnaker for another light air reach to the pass. Meccetroy sailed side by side, so perhaps we’ll post a video they took of Anthea in her glory.

The next day brought steady rain. This was supposed to be our day to enjoy the famed snorkeling of Mbennga (most famous for its shark dives), but weather intervened. The radar showed that the only rain in Fiji was right where we were, so we moped and watched movies below. This meant that our final snorkel of our trip was at Gao, where the fish were beautiful, but the coral struggling to regrow.

The clock was ticking on the end of our cruise and we had a date for a haul out at Vuda Marina. We set sail from Mbennga and milked the conditions for all they were worth. We were sailing in the Mbennga Passage, known for gusty winds, so as the wind came up, the spin came down. When the wind diminished to under the wedding vow limit of 20 knots, the spin went up. Three times we raised and doused the spin, flying towards Navula pass towards Momi Bay. The 70 mile passage soon over, we traversed the pass and sailed into the anchorage just after dark.

Our dawn motor to the marina was solemn; the cruise was over, only work remained. We were faced with the repair of the bottom and then the daunting task of putting a boat to bed for 10 months in the tropics. We were glum, but we rallied to do the needful.

We were nervous about the haulout – would the damage from the reef be worse than we surmised from the water? But soon our fears were allayed as Anthea was lifted out of the water and placed on the hardstands. The damage was all easily fixable, and nothing structural. Every person who walked by shared their story of grounding on a reef, so we felt in good company as we removed paint around the wounded areas, cracked off loose fairing, and prepared surfaces for repair. Our month of work on the bottom of the boat in Opua had given us the knowledge and the materials to fix the boat ourselves. Filling and fairing was followed by priming and painting, and soon Anthea was healed again and ready for the cyclone pit.

We moved into a cottage for the final 5 days of mind-numbing work. While the cyclone pits provide maximum protection against storms by lowering the keel and rudder into custom dug trench in the ground, we had to protect the boat from uv, mildew and insects. We cleaned and waxed the mast and hull, polished the rigging, stripped all the sails, canvas, halyards and running rigging from the boat. Every line was washed and dried, every locker emptied and wiped with a vinegar cloth, along with every surface below, all the food given away, the anchor chain washed, the bilge cleaned and dried, Mr. Perkins put to bed (oil changed, coolant run through the raw water system, oil poured in the cylinders through the injector holes, water lift exhaust reservoir drained), the dinghy washed, dried, lubed and stowed, the dinghy engine serviced and de-salted, the teak decks cleaned and sealed, and the toe rail coated with Owatrol marine oil. Then the four of us turned 50 meters of greenhouse cloth into a custom cover for Anthea, all in one long day of team work. The final act was to put out ant and cockroach powder and spray a small bit of poison in and around the boat. The packing job for the flight was challenging as well, trying to stuff our lives into only one checked bag per person plus one extra for the kiting gear. Writing this now, I am amazed that we accomplished so much in such a short period of time.

Our landing was made soft by a loving reception by family in Monterey. We visited with our dearest friends/family in the Bay Area and are now unpacking our home in Arcata, soon to see our near and dear here as well.

Anson is looking forward to departing for the Yacht and Powercraft Design course at Southampton Solent University in a few short weeks; Devon is excited to see friends, return to his cello, and switch from home schooling to high school. Mark and I are delighted to support them, happy to see friends/family/colleagues, but more than ready to sail again. That will have to wait until next May, when we return to Fiji for more fabulous cruising in the tropics. So for now the vision is work, cruise Fiji, work, repeat.

2 thoughts on “the last 30 days

  1. Whew- I am exhausted after reading this, even after hearing all the words from your own lips when we held you in our arms in Monterey. What a wonderful 18 months you had – hurrah for all the learned skills and attention to details that kept the four of you safe and Anthea put to bed. Much love, Nana

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  2. Wow, as always, I’m so moved to read the accounts of joyful play, close calls, and hard, hard work. I, for one, am glad to have you back on this continent for a while.

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