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Pacific Odyssey 2010/2011
Follow the Larsens from Seattle to Australia and back.
Third World Blues

Aaahhh, "Night Watch." The kids are nestled in their beds, the dishes are put away and the boat is quiet except for the sound of water rushing along her sides and the occasional knocking sound of an errant wave wacking the hull. The auto-pilot is squeaking as usual, but at least it isn't broken as Eric fixed it again this afternoon. It is funny how we become fixated on a random point in the open ocean: in just 15 nautical miles we get to make a 20 degree turn. At that point we still have 196 miles to go, but in the scheme of a roughly 700 mile trip, this little turn is nothing short of a significant milestone. What excitement!

We have had a very smooth passage so far, departing Fiji aside, we have had no weather to speak of and shouldn't before we are nestled safely in the harbor. We sailed dead downwind for 36 hours straight, "wing on wing." This phrase describes how the main sail is let out on one side of the boat, held in position by tension between the mainsheet and a preventer (so it doesn't gybe) and the headsail is poled out on the opposite side. Think butterfly wings or a spatchcocked chicken. It is often a fussy point of sail, you don't want either sail to get backwinded, but with a steady enough wind (we had 12-17 kts) and calm enough seas (9-12 foot swells but 10-12 seconds apart) it can be quite comfortable. I must give Eric full credit for suggesting that was how we'd keep to our course line and I did protest because it takes a while to set it all up right, but that has been the ticket to staying on track.

I've been a little more relaxed on this passage - relatively speaking - and we are moving along nicely toward our goal. Because this was going to be a bit longer passage than we've had for a while (6 days), Eric agreed to my commissioning a voyage forecast (approx $45) from Bob McDavitt the official "Weather Ambassador" for New Zealand. Bob is also the South Pacific sailor's weather guru and sends out a weekly synopsis to the fleet. Sometimes he talks about weather like Alan Greenspan talks about the economy, but his voyage forecast has been quite accessible and helpful. It gives me great comfort to hear from a weather forecaster that we should have no significant weather issues on the passage. Eric was reluctant (we have so much free weather info at our disposal already), but I asked him to consider it a gift, say. a 13th wedding anniversary gift, and that way he'd be getting off rather inexpensively. Who wants a voyage forecast for their anniversary? The lady who got the new toilet for her birthday! Tonight we pass within 16 miles of Aneityum, or Anatom, the southern most island in the country of Vanuatu (van-WAH-tu). We won't sail into Vanuatu because the checkin port is a few islands up and quite a bit further North than we have time for, but I can see it on the radar now and it is so tantalizingly close. Instead, we may fly end up flying to Vanuatu from Noumea. Seems a shame to be so close and just miss it.

We have left Fiji far behind and are now more than halfway to Noumea, New Caledonia. I blogged a while back that Fiji was becoming my favorite place. That was premature - Savu Savu is a lovely port and I could eat Indian food every day of my life, but the rest of the country gave me the third-world blues by the time we were checking out and heading to sea. It's the little things that add up. For example, I went shopping twice to provision for this passage. The first time I had a full cart and by the time I was up next in line the power went out so the check out machines didn't work. Some people just parked themselves to wait it out. I didn't have the patience to sit and sweat in a store while my perishables began to perish before I even paid for them. The second time I went to provision I had a cart full again and when I got to the front of the line, the computer system shut down. That time I was determined to leave with the goods I needed. I spotted a lady working behind the liquor counter, a caged-in box with a little window very similar to liquor store checkouts in Chicago. She apparently worked off a different system so her checkout machine still functioned. One by one I passed my items, a full week's worth of groceries, through the little window so she could scan them and hand them back to me. That incident by itself could be a funny story, but add it up with the 50 other things that happened and it starts to get anyone down.

Eric wrote a bit about how we had to check out from Lautoka, 20 some miles NE of Musket Cove. Musket Cove was just a couple miles from the passage we'd eventually be taking through the reef as we left, but according to the immigration rules, we had to travel to Lautoka first and travel an extra 40 miles back and forth, just to check out. Then, once we checked out, we had to leave immediately; no going back to Musket Cove to spend the night and prepare for our passage. Anchoring in front of the Lautoka wharf was a messy affair. There are two busy factories at work 24 hours a day, one makes molasses from the sugar cane harvest and the other makes wood chips. Combine a burnt sugar smell with a very fine black soot that falls on the boat when the wind shifts a certain way and you really want to move out of there. "Thanks for visiting Fiji, please come again soon."

However, as I consider these annoyances while on night watch, I realize why customs and immigration in a small island country can get persnickety. As we left Fiji, the winds were howling (30 plus kts) and the waves were in a lather. By the time night fell we turned on the radar and noticed two other boats near us, the freighter Maersk Fukuoka and a smaller sailing vessel single-handed by a Swede Eric had met in customs. We heard the Fukuoka hailing Lautoka port control on the VHF, they were requesting their compulsory pilot boat so they could head into port. I hailed the sailing vessel to say hi and commiserate about the conditions and to ask where he was headed. He answered that eventually he'd see us in Noumea, but he was going to first stop off at Aneityum, Vanuatu for a couple days. He wasn't going to sail up to Port Vila to check-in officially. Another boat we met in Fiji planned to stop in the Ile des Pins of New Caledonia without checking in, as they lacked visas. That got me thinking about small island nations welcoming hundreds of boats to their shores year after year. Some visitors seem to ignore the rules and have little respect for sovereignty. After a while, one can begin to appreciate how the rules evolve. It only takes one person to make it a pain for everyone else.

En route to Noumea

The wind and seas settled after the first night. We now have lighter winds of 12-15 kt and fairly flat seas. We have been sailing wing on wing most of the time. This is the first leg where the seas have been calm enough to do that for a substantial amount of time. The ride is pretty smooth, though slower than we anticipated. It may take us an extra day to Noumea but that is a small price for the comfort.

Leaving Fiji

After stops and starts over weather and with clearing out we are leaving Fiji today for New Caledonia. Immigration through us for a loop as they require us to leave the country within one hour of clearing out. The more publicized customs regulations allow boats to stay for 24 hours. (The other cruiser in the office was surprised as well.) Unlike other countries we have visited, Immigration does not allow boats to clear out before they close for the night, and leave early in next morning. We thought we might clear out, anchor another night near a pass in the reef after clearing out and take advantage of the typical morning calm to transit the reef.

We are trying a new weather router on this leg. We had been reviewing weather files on our own and watching a storm swell of 3-4 meters, coming up out of the Tasman Sea. We were thinking of delaying our departure, but this could mean traveling back and forth to Lautoka to clear out, as Lautoka is not a very pleasant place to stay. (It is very industrial, with steady sugarcane burning. In the morning our boat was covered with cinders, which we understand is common.) Early Thursday we received a forecast, indicating that while the swell was large it is well spaced, making for a comfortable ride. Winds were forecast for 18-25 kts, very manageable, so we decided to make a quick departure Thursday morning.

As we approached Navula Pass the winds were 25 kts, and we could see large breakers on both sides of the half mile gap. Half a mile is a fairly wide pass, but it still gets the heart rate up to see the large breakers to either side of the boat and know that a current runs across the pass, setting the boat toward the reef. We approached with both the headsail and staysail double reefed, and the engine on as a precaution. Despite the current we had great control and power and passed through without incident. For me, it was fun sailing. Christine was a bit unnerved - she is ready to be done with the passages.

We entered the open ocean just after 3:00 PM, finding 4 plus meter waves, confused by the nearby land and reefs, It was a very bumpy ride for the first four hours. The winds built to 29 kts, with gusts to 33 kts, more than we expected. The wind stayed high until near nearly midnight, when it started to abate. By 4:00 AM the wind was down to 20 kts. Per the forecast, conditions should continue to improve, and our ride should smooth out as we approach Noumea. I hope for Christine's sake the forecasts are correct.

No Complacency
09/21/2010, Lautoka

Today we made the run from Musket Cove back to Lautoka to clear out. Tomorrow we will come back this way, through a break in the reef surrounding western Fiji called Navula Pass, and on to New Caledonia. Unfortunately Fiji is not very flexible with clearance, we can't clear out then stop at any more islands.

On the one hand, today's should be an easy run, 20 nm back along a course we have traveled. The sun makes the reefs visible around 9:00 AM, but as we had a previous track in our GPS to follow we could start earlier and make sure we had enough time in Lautoka to provision and clear out.

As we approached the second turn out of Musket Cove, I saw that a ketch which left just before us had stopped near the turn. At first I thought he might have anchored out away from the other boats, perhaps to dive, but as we got closer I grew concerned: it was a strange place to stop. I followed my track and stayed clear of the boat, and as I drew nearer I could see the green water of the shallow reef on both sides, and the churning of water behind the boat as the skipper tried to power off the reef. We circled nearby and hailed the skipper on the radio, but he did not answer. We got closer and Christine called to him, he held up his arms indicating he needed assistance, but there was not much we could do directly as we could not get very close without risking our own boat. He needed assistance from a shallow draft power boat. We radioed the Marina and both local resorts, but as it was only 7:30, we did not get an answer. After our third call another boat on anchor responded, and we explained the situation. The skipper said he would dinghy into the marina and organize assistance. We continued to try to communicate with the grounded skipper, but he was not responding to us at all. He continued to try to motor off. His dinghy was in the water but it did not look like he had set a kedge. Our dinghy was aboard and tied down, we couldn't launch it without returning to the harbor and anchoring, more appropriate help was on the way.

Soon we received a call from the skipper helping from the marina: it might be an hour or more until a boat could come assist, and the tide was falling. The grounded skipper then broke in, providing detail on his situation. We circled back to make sure the grounded skipper stayed safe. A few minutes after we returned, a dinghy came out, took a line and begin trying to pull the boat off. It was soon joined by a trawler. They had attached a line to a halyard at the top of the mast. By using leverage and pulling the boat partially onto its side, they could reduce the depth of the keel, and hopefully slide it off. We thought we could hear grinding as they tried this, but the boat did not free. Soon we received another radio call: the boat could not be freed on this tide, they would have to wait several hours for the tide to come back up. They released us, and with sadness we continued to Lautoka.

I think the boat grounded within a couple of hours and a foot or two of the earlier high. Judging by their position had likely been at full speed and run up onto the reef with a lot of momentum. It would not be easy to free, even at the next high. As we continued we heard a frantic search for truck tires in an attempt to brace the boat and minimize damage at low tide as the afternoon winds came up.

We had several more reefs to pass on the route to Lautoka, and we kept a careful watch. As we passed Vunda Point and and approached Saweni Bay, Christine thought a boat near shore was listing. As we approached we realized it was another boat aground. This one had struck between two coral heads near shore. It had clearly been there for a few hours, as it was listing badly with the still receding tide. We approached as close as we dared and called out, but there was no answer. A dinghy was tied to it, but anyone aboard should have heard us. There were other boats anchored not far away, so we think they had already received assistance.

It was quite a shock to see two freshly grounded boats in one day. As I have mentioned before, sailing in Fiji is tricky. The reefs are often not exactly where the chart plotter says. In fact, to enter Musket Cove, I had to follow my eyes and the local marks, sailing directly over what my plotter though was shallow water. Entering at mid day we could clearly see the shallow reefs. Christine was often stationed at the bow looking out, with me at the helm. I think the ketch was a single hander.

I have entered the approximate location of the first grounded boat in this blog. Via the Google Earth utility you can see the reef he hit. The second boat was near 17 deg 38.0 minutes S, 177 deg 23.17 minutes E.

P.S. The next day as we were leaving Fiji, the second boat had been cleared of the reef. The first boat appeared from a distance to still on the reef. I think he grounded hard, and after 24 hours on the reef with some high winds, it is possible that the boat will be beyond repair. A real tragedy for the owner. Fortunately it appeared that no one was injured.

We will stay diligent in our remaining time at sea.

Scuba Diving
Sophie Larsen

Hi everyone! This entry is about yesterday, when I went scuba diving.

In the morning, I went to the dive shop to listen to the rules of scuba diving. After that lecture I went with the divemaster and another beginner to scuba dive near the docks. We had to practice things like taking our regulators off, letting it swing in back of us, and retrieving it again.

In the afternoon, my Dad and I went with a dive group out to a location called Monkey Wall. When I tried to get in the water, I had to have help because altogether the gear weighed 50 or 60 pounds. Once I was in the water, I descended on the anchor line to the bottom, about 10 meters(30 ft.)down. The coral down there was amazing. Reds, yellows, and oranges were everywhere. I saw a beautiful blue and yellow striped fish, and some purplish blue parrot fish. All the life down there was amazing, and I didn't need to come up for a breath.

Scuba diving yesterday was really fun!

09/18/2010, Musket Cove, Fiji

I am writing this from the Musket Cove Resort, poolside.

The night we entered was the final night of regatta week, with a local roast pig dinner, island dancers, and music. The feast provided a nice reception. Sailing along the north coast of Viti Lev gaining beach access was not that easy. We brought our yagoni (kava) to offer to the chiefs, but at the end of a day of sailing, tracking down local officials to ask for beach access was more than we were up for. Thirty to forty years ago, when cruising was starting and there were fewer boats you could trade for many things, such as fruit and vegetables. Cruisers used to write about entering bays and canoes coming out to meet them. Now, with hundreds of boats coming through the main tracks each year those days are gone. For the more adventurous who go farther off the beaten, and well charted, tracks, trading may still exist. With three kids in tow,that is not us on this trip. Besides the added effort and challenge, we are less likely to encounter kids in such remote anchorages, and socialization of our kids helps keep mom and dad sane.

We have also found on the trip that often where we get the best beach and snorkeling access is when we anchor off a resort. These are not massive complexes like the Grand Wailea on Maui, but often small, family run establishments with a few fales or rooms, a pool, and a small dining area. More like Faulty Towers, sometimes complete with some entertaining staff behavior. (I am sure we cruisers reciprocate with our own antics.) I think there may be some selection bias involved as well: villages with nice beaches welcoming yachts and foreign visitors open resorts, while villages reluctant for contact, perhaps wishing to preserve their culture, do not.

Musket Cove is a little larger, reminding me a bit of Kauai in the 80s. Here they welcome the cruiser to use the large pools with rocks for the kids to climb on, and there are quite a few kids for ours to play with. There is a nice mix of boat kids and children on holiday from Australia and New Zealand. There is also laundry, a grocery, snack bars, and a couple of restaurants. We have Internet access for planning our next leg, communicating with Yacht brokers, and researching Australia. Yesterday I went diving. Today Sophie took a discover scuba class in the morning and will do a 12 meter reef dive with me in the afternoon. (One drawback of our smaller boat is that I have no room for tanks or dive gear.) Life is pretty easy here and we are having fun.

This may not be "real" cruising, but our goal was to spend time with the kids, each other, and have fun. When we are in anchorages without other kids around, we end up on duty 24x7. Today, our kids are in the pool playing with new friends while I write my blog, and Christine reads her book. I have no guilt... another cruising boat has been here for two months!

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Who: Eric, Christine and family
Port: Seattle, Washington
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