A Sail into Fantasy

A NZ based weather guru predicted a NE breeze for the coming days, a perfect angle for dashing to Vanua Balavu in the northern Lau group. We needed a month’s worth of provisions to make that journey worthwhile, as the few stores in the villages of this extensive island are often out of stock of even the most basic supplies. Taveuni’s northeastern tip would give us easy access to the basics, and it would be a good jumping off point for Vanua Balavu, so, with Mr. Perkins passing each test we gave him, we ventured out of Naqaiqai Creek and headed for Taveuni.

Not sure whether we could fully trust Mr. Perkins, our plan was to sail every mile possible, reserving him for tight spots and anchoring. Out we beat into a 15-20 knot breeze, tacking our way around reefs and into the clear water between Vanua Levu (Fiji’s biggest island) and the garden island. Soon we encountered wind against current, and we were pounding into a short, steep chop. Along the coast of Taveuni we saw boats gaily motoring in the flat calm nearshore waters, going dead to windward. But we persevered under sail and were elated to feel Anthea alive once more. The sky was blue, the air clean, and our spirits were soaring as we headed onwards to more cruising, rather than retreating to mechanics and machine shops in Nadi.

A quick check of the forecast underway showed the wind shutting down rather than backing to the NE. It was Saturday and we still had several hours of sailing before reaching the anchorage. We soon realized that our only window for sailing to Vanua Balavu was Sunday afternoon to Monday morning: 15-18 knots of ESE breeze was forecast, diminishing to 10 knots closer to the isles of the Lau group. We needed the fresh breeze to power us through the predicted 2 meter combined swell and wind waves at the beginning of the journey, so while others saw a weather window for a 4 a.m. departure on Monday, in 8-10 knots of wind and a slightly diminished sea state, we knew that a forecast of 8-10 knots of wind strength could easily diminish to 5 knots or less. That is fine wind for a flat sail to windward, but totally inadequate for keeping the sails filled while the boat bashes up and slides down the waves.

Mark fortunately recalled that the shops on Taveuni only open after 3 p.m. on Sunday – too late for us to provision, depart and get through the pass in the reef with daylight. So, while pointing high, we entered full rush mode and made lists, gathered bags, egg carriers and the wallet, unearthed dinghy wheels, pins and oars, untied two diesel jerry cans and one for gas, and raced for the anchorage. We made good time once out of the current, and even paused to rescue a fender that had not been properly tied on after water play around Anthea in the creek. As soon as the anchor was down, we powered into even higher gear: after untying the dinghy and attaching the halyard on Hektor’s bridle, Devon heaved the halyard with vigorous hauls on the line while I cinched the slack on the winch and Mark guided Hektor over the life lines; a quick switch to the main halyard on the dinghy engine, this time with Mark guiding the engine down while I stabilized Hektor and Devon hoisted and lowered the halyard. We dumped all items into the dinghy, and off Mark and Devon went to provision before the shops closed, while I cleaned the fridge and started preparing the boat for an overnight journey.

In an hour and a half Devon and Mark were racing back, thanks to our new friend Mani, a kava farmer, taxi driver, and jack of all trades, who was there to meet Mark and Anson at the beach and shepherd them from store to store. With Anthea’s crew all back aboard, and the first half of Sunday to prepare the boat, we dialed back our frenetic speed to normal once again. The next morning we made steady progress transforming Anthea from a day cruiser to an overnight passage maker. Sea bunks were cleared, jack lines attached for safely venturing forward of the cockpit in a rough sea, life jackets inspected, tethers unearthed, and our windpilot re-rigged with lines to the wheel (all by ourselves, without Q to guide us).

We had expected to tack our away along the islands just east of Taveuni, but the wind filled in as a southeasterly breeze, and we pointed straight and true along our course. Several boats sought shelter at beautiful Matagi anchorage, planning to depart for Vanua Balavu once the wind died down. We passed their tranquil anchorage and headed for the pass between Laclau Island (one of the most elite resorts in the world, owned by the founder of Red Bull, and decidedly not cruiser friendly), and the barrier reef to its east. Had we full faith in Mr. Perkins we would have simply furled the jib and motored to windward, against a current and through the ½ mile wide and mile long pass. But we had daylight to spare, and, more importantly, no desire to have Mr. Perkins run away mid pass. So we tacked, and tacked, and tacked again, gaining ground each time, but nothing like our usual sweet angles to windward. The breaking waves along the reef were easy to see, and there were only a few lurking dangers, so we managed to make it through, our nerves mostly intact, and set out on our first 15 mile leg to the south, where the forecasts reported quieter seas.

With some trepidation we lowered the Wind Pilot’s rudder, attached the vane, and made the lines fast to the wheel. With a double reefed main and jib, Anthea was balanced as could be, and “Windy” steered true. A few minor adjustments and we were set for the gusts and lulls. Anson said it would be good for us to rig Windy, as we’d have to wean ourselves from his rigging expertise at some point. Success was sweet – we only had to reference the manual once, and we even incorporated new blocks to reduce chafe.

Freed from the helm we rejoiced in the conditions – a bit bumpy, but totally manageable. I had prepared dinner earlier at anchor, so a quick dash below was all that was needed to enjoy dinner at sea under the darkening sky. It was a “pinch me” moment. We weren’t sure if this windward passage would be comfortable enough, for 2 meter swells, although small for this part of the Pacific, are generally uncomfortable to beat into. And 18 knots exceeded by 3 knots that cruiser’s adage of gentle persons’ passages to windward. But Anthea was built for upwind ocean races, so she settled into her keel and pointed us true, the wind vane following every back and veer of the wind, while we marveled at our good fortune.

Devon stood the first four hours of watch, calling us up to help tack as planned to avoid outlying islets and take advantage of the protection their reefs afforded. I stood watch next, and by the time Mark was called up we had arrived at a pausing point. We needed good daylight for the pass, so Mark’s watch consisted of heaving to in a reef free section of sea and keeping us away from the outlying islands. Devon and I slept blissfully below until dawn, when we set sail for the pass while there was still wind. Rain squalls came and went as we waited for visibility to improve, once more heaving to. Even as we stalled our progress to wait for light illuminating sharp coral reefs, we were fully protected from the seas, so other than the dreaded transit of the pass, with Mr. Perkin’s help of course, all went better than we ever imagined.

We followed our friend Diego’s track into an anchorage just a mile inside the reef, and around two small points of land. Long fingers of coral jutted from each point, difficult to see in the morning light, so we ventured slowly forward and into the shelter of a small round cove. It wasn’t fully protected from the swell that crashed upon the barrier reef, for at high tide waves stalled on the coral and then regrouped to roll gently inside this round basin. But it was the most exquisite anchorage we had ever seen. We felt as if we had journeyed into the landscape of a fantasy novel.

Here uplifted coral peaks were eroded by the sea to form mushroom islets dotting turquoise coves, their stems supporting whimsically shaped mounds, some tall and thin, others squat, and occasional ones so perfectly proportioned that we stared in disbelief. Miraculously, plants covered these sharp limestone remnants of ancient coral, roots burrowing into every crevice in pursuit of life. Even the smallest islets had trees competing to find footholds, their trunks, weathered and gnarled by the wind, twisted in natural bonsai forms. Decorating the undercut limestone stems were bulbous red and black globs called gossans, formed from iron and manganese, more mobile elements that precipitated out and dripped down over the millennia. Beyond the coves, lapis water met soaring cliffs, their heights covered in lush forests.

Kayaking in and among these islets, we wound our way around and back into hidden coves with magical pools. Some inlets took us into mangrove forests (one filled with fruit bats, reminding us of Naqaiqai Creek), others opened into broader bays. Small white beaches with soft sand appeared around corners, dotted by a palm tree or two and edged by the forest-covered spiky limestone ground. Small caves channeled water in and through, with one large enough to enter and land in a world of stalagtites and stalagmites.

We soaked up the awe and wonder, spending days in the magical Bay of Islands after a brief detour to Daliconi village to present kava for the sevusevu ceremony. In this fantasy landscape we rested, slowed down and filled up our souls once more until another trough of low pressure sent us around the corner into Bavatu Harbor. There we hiked to the top of a hill with a stupendous view of the outlying islands, the barrier reef, and the Bay of Islands. Kim
PS I hope to be able to upload photos to give you more of a taste of this exquisite part of our journey.

One thought on “A Sail into Fantasy

  1. I always feel a special excitement when I see there is a new post on Sail On. I usually see these new posts first thing in the morning, when I check my emails. So here I am sitting in my comfortable office chair with a cup of Peet’s, a true armchair admirer.
    Kim thank you for the wonderful descriptions of the sea and land and plus your interactions with the local folks. Thanks for sharing your sense of wonder and beauty as you fly with the wind…I look forward to the photos.

    Like

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