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Sailing the Pacific
Suva, Fiji

Suva market

We arrived at Suva in Fiji during the yacht club's sunday afternoon yacht race. We accidentally ended up anchored right in the middle of one of their short legs near the finish line and had boats coming as close as they dared to us to cut the corner. The state of some of the boats did not inspire confidence in me and i was hoping that no sudden gust of wind would turn any of them on to a collision course with us.

After the officials came to our boat the nexy day to clear us in ( and bonded our 3 litres of alcohol!) we were free to go and explore Suva. It was the biggest city we had seen since Papeete in Tahiti. It was great to have supermarkets with more than one selection of each product, a ginormous fruit and vegetable market ( about half an acre!), shops where you can buy just about anything, and some great Indian food.

Everyone is very friendly in Fiji and greet you with a cheery 'Bula', even the prisoners at the detention centre across the road from the yacht club. We'd heard some bad press about Fiji before we arrived but soon learnt that things aren't quite as reported in the press and in parliament.
Most people we spoke to seemed quite upbeat about their country.
The political situation is stable and Commodore Banimarama seems quite popular and is doing what needs to be done to get the country back on track: weeding out corruption, completing public works projects, stamping out crime, looking after the citizens of Fiji. Once the processes are in place, then they can think about elections. It's working, and they don't need Australia telling them what they ought to be doing. It is still a developing country and the general population find the cost of living relatively high ( even though we find it quite cheap). Their wages are something like $5-6 and hour on average. I think they will improve gradually. There is a lot of potential. Probably best if they are supported by nations like Australia.
Enough politics though.

I got some stainless steel work done and after having no luck getting our starter motor repaired, ordered a new one from the US and started tracking it's slow progress to Fiji. Let it be known though, that despite being $300-500 dollars cheaper, the US postal service (USPS) is no slower than the big specialised couriers like UPS and Fedex!

Again we met friends, new and old. Like David, a singlehander on a beautiful Bowman 48 with a great attitude to life; Ed and Fi on Sula, young Aussies who had spent a year working on aid projects in Tonga and who we spent an afternoon with helping them learn to fly their spinnaker; Michael and Jodie on Savannah and their lovely cat Logan who reminded us so much of ours; and Ed and Ellen on Entre'act who are making another cruise after their earlier one, 30 years before. They gave us a DVD of their earlier cruise which covered the Carribean, Atlantic and Europe. It has turned in to one of my favourite films. A masterpiece on a micro budget. A photo essay with words and self-composed music.

A sail training ship was also in port, the Picton Castle. We were invited to go onboard for a tour one evening and had a most interesting time. The ship was built around 1929 and has been refitted as a sailing square rigged ship. It is on a circumnavigation, having started on the east coast of the US. They have a professional crew and a paying crew of about 50 who come for adventure, experience and to learn age old skills. They were making some new sails in teh yacht club while we were there and i was glad that I didn't have to make sails out of 14oz canvas, but even more glad that I didn't have to hand sew some of the other sails like we saw onboard that had taken them three weeks to complete.

Engine-less Sailing

Neiafu Harbour, Vava'u, Tonga,waiting for customs clearance.

While in Tonga, the starter motor for our engine finally gave up the ghost. It had been getting harder and harder to turn the engine over and eventually the starter would not crank at all. When i took it apart it was obvious what the problem was: it was burnt out and breaking up inside. It was soon clear that it would take several weeks to get a replacement of one sort or another, so it was pure sailing for us from then on.

It was actually much more fun, peaceful and a good learning experience. For instance, I was never exactly sure just how you were meant to sail up on the anchor in order to retrieve it. After experimenting with mainsail only, headsail only, combinations of the two, steering or not steering, we became quite adept at the procedure. Turns out you can use any combination of sails but usually some headsail helps. We let the boat sail out to one side as far as the anchor chain would allow; tack the boat, or let it tack itself; then pull in as much chain as we could while the boat was heading off to the extent of the chain on the other tack, and so on until we sailed past the anchor and pulled it out of the seabed. The trick is in not sailing too slowly or not letting the boat get up enough momentum ( if the chain is getting too short) and also in not sailing too fast and past the anchor. Moderation in everything!

Similarily, we learnt to drop anchor and dig it in under sail. Again, getting just the right speed was important. Too much sail and too fast meant a runaway chain. Scary. Too little speed and the anchor wouldn't be sure to dig in. Usually, we would sail through the anchorage and pick our spot, approach from upwind, drop the mainsail and turn to run downwind over the spot where we wanted to place our anchor, have just enough headsail out to give us the right momentum, lower the anchor and feed out the chain as Isabelle rolled up the headsail, I'd then snub off the chain at the scope we wanted and as the anchor bit Isabelle would swing the bow to the side the anchor chain was coming off. By the time the boat was around head to wind we would have the anchor nicely dug in.
It was also very satisfying to be able to do all this under sail and we regarded with a little pity, the other boats that always resorted to their engines for the same operations, feeling that they were missing out on something.

We resolved to sail on to Fiji and finally sort our starter motor problems there, where there are more services. We had to wait several days for the weather to settle a bit but then we had a rather pleasant sail, especially the last two days of the three day passage, in conditions that reminded me of the way the first days of spring feel when at home.


Time for a sundowner.

Beveride Reef to Tonga, a little over 300 miles.

We had quite a rip to go through as we negotiated the pass to leave Beveridge, but managed to find a relatively clear lane more to one side.
We had about 20 to 25 knots of wind behind us most of the way and gusts to over 30 on the second day with some of the more impressive waves we have seen to go along with it.

We had the mainsail double reefed and this was all fine except that the upper part of the sail occassionaly got caught behind the side stay that holds up the mast. That third, windy, wavy morning, Isabelle was asleep below and the sail was caught as described. All it would take to fix it was a little gybe to get the wind on the other side of the sail and then back again. All was going to plan when a wave hit the boat at the critical moment of the gybe and flung the boat around broadside to the waves and wind and tipped us suddenly. I looked below just in time to see poor, asleep Isabelle flung right out of her bunk, clear across the boat to the bunk on the other side without so much as touching the floor.
What a rude awakening. She sat there rather stunned for a while.

We arrived at Tonga in the middle of the night and spent the early hours hove to outside the sheltered harbour as it was much too dark to navigate by eye, with rain squalls added, and we were also unsure of the accuracy of the charts compared to the GPS. Turns out we were wise to not trust the GPs as there is quite a discrepancy between charted position and GPS position in Tonga. About 0.2 of a nautical mile. Enough to put you ashore in a narrow pass.

The part of Tonga we had arrived at was the Vava'u group. A beautiful group of many, many islands and anchorages without very many coral dangers. The anchorages were tranquil and close to the wooded shores. It was unusual for us to hear birds singing in the trees while we sat at anchor. Something we had not heard for about seven months!

The Tongans are very friendly people and we enjoyed our four week stay there. Some of our highlights were: Fish and Chips (for the first time since leaving home!) and being able to eat out at reasonable prices for the first time since the Galapagos, snorkelling over the best coral we had seen all trip, hearing whales under water, Isabelle's swim with the whales as detailed in another post as is Mariner's Cave, catching up with friends we have made along the way, and making new ones, enjoying the peaceful anchorages and sundowners on the beach.

Climbing the Mast

Not quite the conditions when climbing the mast as this post relates.

It's been a long time since I updated you all about our travels since Beveridge Reef way back in August, ( Isabelle's been doing all the work) so I'll try to add a few posts in the next couple of days to fill you in from my side. James

At Palmerston Atoll, it had been a stormy day and everyone was feeling a little uncomfortable on the moorings there, where we were positioned outside and quite close to the fringing reef. The wind was always threatening to turn onshore to, a dangerous situation. Finally it did turn onshore and as our bow started digging under the waves as it tugged on the mooring, we decided it was time to depart. Five other boats did the same, leaving only one remaining who had only just arrived.

After it had just turned dusk, which also means night as there is hardly any twighlight in the tropics, our headsail suddenly started falling down. When we brought it all the way to the deck we could see that a shackle pin had fallen out, leaving the halyard and attached swivel at the masthead and the sail on the deck. With 500 miles to go to the next port and being unsure if the weather would get worse, I decided I should go up the mast while it was 'relatively' calm to fix the problem right then. It does not take very much movement at the deck to make a lot of movement once you are even half way up the mast. Even with the mainsail still up to steady the boat it was a nasty ascent. Try to imagine clinging to a narrow stick while some giant waves and flicks it around attempting to dislodge you, and you will get an idea what it is like to try to hang on. I made my way slowly to the top secured in our Bosun's Chair as Isabelle took up the slack on the halyard that it was attached to. My fingers sought out the gaps between the mainsail and the mast as i reached around, bear hugging the mast.

At last i reached the top and realised i had not brought a spare line to attach to the halyard so we could simply haul it down. Short of going all the way down and back up again ( not very desirable) my only solution was to go down via the forestay and take the swivel with me. Should be ok...
Turned out to be not so ok as each time the boat pitched on a wave it would make me do a lap around the forestay, first one way and then the other, like some evil fairground ride. I arrived on deck shaking and with grazed thighs and arms from trying to hang on, but we were able to hoist sail again.

I now have great admiration for all those brave people I've read about who have had to climb masts at sea, usually when it's rougher, a taller mast and even on their own.

Farming the Black Pearl

Inside the Black-Lipped Oyster, the black, slimy part is the lip

Although we are now in Fiji, I have been meaning to write a more detailed post on the process of farming the Black Pearl. I'm doing a little overland travel and nestled in a cheap but lovely hotel, I've finally found the time to write the post. Here it is.

"Every woman wants a string of pearls... Isn't that right Isabelle?" Peter asked me outside a pearl shop in Fakarava. I thought for a moment, not wanting to be just like 'every woman' but I had to answer "I don't know about every woman, but I do."

Why do many women want pearls? I have no idea, but I can tell you why I am happy that I have some.

Jamie and I were anchored in Kauehi's Lagoon. The first thing that hits you about the Tuamotus is how remote and desolate the islands are. Not much grows on the atolls except for coconut palms. The people in the Tuamotus have two main sources of wealth- copra; which is rancid coconut meat used to make coconut oil for perfumes, cosmetics and cooking oil and the other is the Black Pearl.

We both wanted to see how black pearls are made and went asking around town. Soon enough we met a family who were in the pearl business and agreed to take us out the next day to visit the farm and see how they graft pearls.

Different coloured buoys mark pearls which are in various stages of growth

The start of every workday begins with a dive for oysters

Arrou is the eldest son and best grafter in the family. He has been grafting for over 10 years. He was a stock bloke with dark skin and tattoos. We met him at his office, a rickety old weatherboard shed on stilts in the water.

Wedging the host shell open

He took an oyster and wedged it open with a metal clamp, explaining to us that a Black Pearl is called a Black Pearl not because of the colour of the pearl but because it is made by a Black-Lipped Oyster. A black pearl can be green, purple, black, white, silver or gold depending on the depth the pearl is farmed at. But most of the time, a healthy black pearl will be very dark in colour compared with white or pink pearls which are farmed in Australia, China and Japan.

He then took a different oyster and pried it open completely, looking at the colour of the shell inside. "bad colour" he said in English and put the oyster aside. He opened another one and said "good colour". I couldn't tell the difference. He proceeded to slice off the black lip of the oyster, sliced the bottom part of the lip off the black part and cut it into tiny little pieces. "Very Important" he assured us.

Arrou slices the lip ready to place it in an oyster with a shell nucleus

Arrou turned his attention to the oyster that was wedged open. He took a small, round marble type thing, "shell nucleus, Mississippi" he said and with the help of a serious looking piece of surgical equipment he made a neat incision in the body of the oyster before delicately placing the nucleus and the piece of oyster-lip inside. We now understood that by placing a piece of lip inside a host oyster, you could transfer any colour you wanted to start growing around the shell nucleus and that together, these would become your pearl.

He told us that this pearl would be checked every six months but only after two years would it reach a decent size. Once that oyster had made the first pearl successfully, a new and slightly larger shell nucleus would be inserted and the process would begin all over again. This would happen until the oyster became too tired to produce any more pearls. One oyster can make up to four pearls before it becomes too tired and this is reflected in the quality of the pearls. One oyster cannot make two pearls at the same time.

Shell nucleus from the Mississippi and three Black Pearls

The majority of pearls that are made are not the perfectly round ones you see in shops, rather there is a variety of shapes. There are baroques, which have rings around them creating an un-even surface, there are raindrops, and there are Geshi, which are tiny misshaped ones that look like little shiny meteorites (my favourites). Very rarely you will get a smooth round one with good lustre (reflective quality), this is why the round ones are worth more even though they are the most boring ones.

Nui, one of Arrou's work mates told us that the price of pearls has dropped in the past two years due to an influx of mass-produced pearls from China and Japan to international markets.

On an average work day, Arrou and his two mates graft up to four hundred pearls. Seeing them dive for the oysters, clean them off then check for pearls, you do come to appreciate how much work they put in and how long it would take to create a string of perfectly round pearls of the same quality, size and colour.


The next day we went out to the farm again to see how the pearls were removed once ready. We took along some friends who had just arrived. At the end of the visit we did some serious pearl trading which was heaps of fun. We took fishing lures, hooks and alcohol all of which are hard to get in such remote places. We had a really good time bargaining and both sides were happy at the end of the day.

First pearl of the day

Derek asking how many pearls the 'big lure' is worth

Not only that but the myth of the Tahitian Pearl was busted. I would guess that most 'Tahitian Pearls' are actually farmed in the Tuamotus. They should be called the 'Tuamotan Pearl'.

So to answer Peter's question, Yes, I do want some pearls. But what is more important than the fact that they are pretty and shiny is that they help me remember that I was there, in one of the remotest places on earth and I met a pearl farmer who showed me how they were created, who gave me Black Pearls for Rum and Gin and fishing gear and it was a great experience. I felt like a real pirate!

15/09/2010, Vava'u, Tonga

When I saw a woman on some travel show swimming with Whales in Tonga in 2005, I knew it was something I wanted to do. In the confusion of wondering what to do after high school, I even remember writing an email to 'Whale Swim Adventures' asking for a job with them doing anything. I was even willing to scrub toilets. I never got a reply.

As luck would have it, I arrived in Tonga during Whale season five years after I sent that email.

When Lynn from La Graciosa said she had met this nice guy called Dave who does the whale swims and she could organise for us to go out the next day, I said I'd love to. Jamie decided not to come as he had stuff to do.

We left bright and early the next day and I was positive we would have a good swim. As the hours wore on I became a little frustrated. It seemed that none of the whales wanted to play with us, they all dove down when the saw us coming. Dave said he thought there might even be a submarine in the area causing the Whales some distress.

It was still a nice day. Dave told us some very interesting thing about whales- for example that the males of one Island group all sing the same song. Their song is extremely complex with not only separate notes but also chords. Their song this year goes for about 12 to 13 minutes and they often repeat it over and over again. There is a man in Tonga studying the Humpback whales here and a few weeks ago he took a recording device down 25 meters to where a male was singing. He was within 10 meters of the whale and his recording device was picking up the song at 160 decibels. Our eardrums burst at 180.
The female whales have to guard their Calves against not only sharks and other ocean predators but also against some other males. To provide more protection, often a nursemaid whale is swimming with a mother and Calf.
Anyway, as the day was coming to a close, I became a little disappointed but I thought 'Well at least I have tried. I can't say to myself that I didn't try to swim with them.' Dave also looked a little upset that we didn't get a chance to go for a swim and he wanted to stay out 'Just a little longer'.

Just as we were about to give up, we heard a whale spout behind us and we turned around to see a surfaced calf. We slowly followed it so as not to frighten it and eventually we were close enough to jump in. We all slipped quietly into the deep blue water and began to swim in the direction of the cub. Dave was ahead and he put his arm up to signal that he had found the Whale. As I approached, I saw the mother. She was sitting about 10 meters down. She was huge, majestic, incredulously beautiful. Then just to put the icing on the cake, a little head popped up from behind the mother and we got full view of the calf a new born 2 tonne baby. The baby turned towards us then surfaced 4 or 5 meters away from. We could see every detail on its body, its long fins, the remora hanging off it's stomach. Then it swam back down and gave it's mum a nudge.
What happened next was the best part. Both mother and baby slowly turned around and rose to face us. Us looking at them and them sensing us with their sonar, determining our shapes, acknowledging us. Then, gracefully, they slowly turned and swam away. Needless to say, we all came out of the water with smiles stretching from ear to ear.

That night, I lay in bed for hours, replaying every moment from when we jumped into the water, trying to remember as much as I could so that I will never forget it.

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'Twenty years from now you will be more dissapointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.' -Mark Twain