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Swingin' on a Star
Ship's log for the circumnavigating Saint Francis 50 catamaran, "Swingin on a Star".
Underway for Fiji
10/18/2008, Pacific Ocean

Our night sail went well, although we are sailing dead down wind again. Our boat is just not set up for running. During the day we're ok if we can get the spinnaker up but typically a 2 meter swell will roll us enough to make any headsail collapse in light air. 135 degrees is about as deep as we can sail calmly. At 180 we can sail wing and wing but this again only works if the swell is coming the same way.

I'm not sure if I'm used to having crossed the date line yet. We went from UTC-11 in the Cook islands to UTC+13 in Tonga. Same time, different day, and slightly confusing. Fiji is UTC+12, so we'll gain an hour on the passage. It is also going to be strange crossing the 180th meridian. We have never sailed in the eastern hemisphere before. Hideko is better at the differences than I am due to the Japan phone call time calculations she used to make for calls from California.

We were in sight of the light at the south end of the Vava'u group from sunset until about 15 miles out. Nice to know some countries out here actually keep their charted lights operational. When we left Vava'u a New Zealand survey cutter was making some rounds. In retrospect Vava'u was a pretty easy place to sail in. Very protected water, few surprise reefs, most islands are steep to. Anchorages with good bottom composition are a little hard to find but you can't have everything I guess.

There is a low forming south of Fiji that is supposed to bend the wind to the NE. We have been waiting all day for this and the beam reach it will bring. Unfortunately we're still running dead down wind. We did get the overcast and gloom that the troughy tail of the low has spread across the area though.

We are struggling to keep up 6 knots but even so we should be at the Exploring Islands (entre to Fiji's reefy barrier and the Koro Sea) before noon tomorrow. This should allow us to clear the reefs and line up for Savusavu across open water be night fall. Fiji is really strict when it comes to clearance procedures and Curly advised us to go straight to Savusavu and to arrive during business hours! This is going to work out fine as we will likely get in early Monday morning at this rate (36 hours from now for the dateline challenged).

Leaving Tonga
10/17/2008, Nuku

We had an interesting day today. The sun was actually out which has been unusual while we have been here. That said I am beginning to think that the south islands are sunnier than Neiafu harbor. The larger land mass there seems to breed the dark gloom. We listened to the nets in the morning planning on a relaxing day of prepping the boat.

The Anzac net (the long range SSB cruisers net) is getting quite, with more and more boats arriving in NZ and AU, thence dropping away. We had found one other boat heading north a week ago but now they are NZ bound as well. So we are solo again. The local net was interesting as always with cruisers helping each other out with parts and expertise. After a bit of general traffic someone announced a yacht that had been lost a few days earlier on a reef in Fiji. The authorities had not responded to the yacht's mayday (they couldn't find fuel for their boat!) so a private catamaran rescued them 6 hours later. Everyone was fine but the yacht was lost.

This segued well into Curly's add for his cruising notes on Fiji. Curly is a 40 year resident of Fiji and has been involved in dive operations, heads the barometeric chamber in Suva, runs a yacht club in Savusavu and is working on a new cruising guide to Fiji with WGS84 waypoints. This last bit perked my ears up and I arranged to meet with Curly at noon in Neiafu. We were of course in Nuku, way outside the harbor. This was the longest ride I have ever taken in the dinghy. I greatly appreciated the seat and the 25 hp.

Curly is living on his massive concrete ketch (62' with a 19' beam!). He has tons of notes and waypoints from his years in Fiji and has just started (from what I can tell) to package the information into digestible bundles. I bought the Vava'u to Savusave bit. It came with a medium scale chart of the reefs and a detailed harbor chart, entry instructions and of course all of his waypoints. He says he does the route through the reefs at night most of the time.

Curly's notes say never trust one source of navigation aids and I never do. I compared the notes to my route on the Navionics charts and it was almost a match. I am very glad I purchased Curly's notes, regardless, because until talking to him I though this route would be too dangerous. Curly is a wealth of information however, and now that I have talked to someone who has actually made the crossing (several times at that) I am quite a bit more comfortable. We have no cruising guide for Fiji and 8-12 yachts are totally lost there every year. A good 200 yachts go aground yearly according to Curly.

Our original plan was to run north through Nanuku passage. There is a light on Walingilala island here to help with landfall. The Cornell World Cruising Routes book suggests this route as a more open and safe approach to Savusavu. It looks just that. Unfortunately the WCR waypoint for this passage is 9 miles from where it is described on my charts, and my charts match Curly's, so I am gaining faith in them. Even if it was where it was described, 5 miles east of the light, it would be between the island and Duff Reef, which Curly says claims an inordinate number of yachts each year. If you made for the WCR waypoint PS479 from Vava'u you would crash onto Duff Reef on my charts. I have not been there but Curly say the light has not worked in a long while and I would be very careful to take a route well north of the WCR waypoint and ensure good vis during the approach.

We are now back to taking the direct route. After a nice afternoon snorkel to check the bottom, props and all that, we circumnavigated Nuku with Roq before stowing the dink. At 5PMish Friday 10/17 (today) we will depart Vava'u for my "Katefage Isle N" waypoint (17 28.102S,178 40.748W), which agrees with Curly's. We should reach the entrance to the reefy bit at 8AMish Sunday 10/19 (Fiji date/time) and be through before sundown. We have a few steering waypoints to stay off all of the obstructions by 2.5nm (2nm being the usual max most reasonable charts are out) through the reefs but ultimately arrive at my "Vuna Point S" waypoint (17 04.476S,179 55.193E), which also agrees with Curly. We will hit the light late at night but the light here is out according to Curly. From here we head on to Lesiaceva point at 16 50.059S,179 14.650E for an early Monday morning arrival in Savusavu.

This has been one of the most challenging routes to work out with confidence and we will certainly be on our toes as we make way. I get the sense that things are only going to get more interesting as we proceed. We can't wait!

Saying goodbye to the Milk Run
10/16/2008, Neiafu

It was a sad day for us. We made our way into the Aquarium for lunch and a final internet session before our afternoon clear out. These days the coconut Milk run (the large procession of yachts making their way from Panama to New Zealand) turns south at Vava'u and make for NEw Zealand. We were heading west to Fiji.

At the cafe we saw the crews from Godspede, Ino, O'Vive, Honalee, Thulani, Kairos and others. We also talked to Independent Freedom and a few others on the radio. Some we would no doubt never see again. That said we hope to see them all again in another port along the way. After taking care of some last minute internet business and the very important forwarding of our mail we packed up and got ready to clear out.

The Aquarium had arranged for us to get fuel delivered by truck to the dock at 3PM so we tied up at fisheries around 2:30PM. After clearing out with Immigration, the port captain ($30 tongan), and customs we were allowed to fuel. Once fueled we had to return to the customs office with the receipt to get our clearance.

The sun was getting low when we left. We didn't wan to reach Fiji until morning on Monday. Fiji has very strict and comprehensive yacht clearance procedures, arriving outside of hours is not advised as high fees are charged for weekend clearance and sitting on the boat for a couple days with the Q flying is not allowed.

Our first attempt to park the boat did not work out. We tried to anchor near Malo Island in a large harbor on the way out of the Neiafu passage. There is one mooring here and a boat was on it. The bottom was 40 to 100 feet and the sun was way to low to allow any kind of color interpretation from the surface. We gave anchoring a try but after one fail set we headed for known territory (always a good idea when it is getting late).

We came just outside of the Neiafu exit and headed down to Nuku. The pleasant sandy island was waiting for us just as we had left it. We set the anchor in good holding sand and shut down to await our departure window.

Plumbing Fix
10/15/2008, Tonga

Sometime on the way to Niue we began to have a serious leak in our fresh water system. The starboard bilge pump was running pretty frequently any time we would leave the water pressure on. The culprit turned out to be a Whale type T fitting (a compression fitting that you just plug the pipe into with no crimps). This is a 15mm T fitting below the starboard aft cabin hanging locker. Not the easiest thing to get to. It has the main port water pump line coming in one side and the main starboard water pump line coming in the other. The T then feeds the hot water heater. It wasn't quite squirting but it was close. We went on a strict "turn off the water pressure" program as soon as we discovered the problem. I made a few half hearted attempts to remove the fitting but it was hard to get to and not budging. I didn't want to break it because I didn't have a replacement. As a stop gap I siliconed some duct tape (what else?) and taped it up to reduce the outflow.

The fitting is PVC and so are the two feed pipes. The hot water heater has a copper pipe however. I'm no expert but that copper pipe gets pretty hot and I doubt the PVC T is designed for metal pipe.

Dave from O'Vive came over to help me get a fix in place. Dave was not only wired in Neiafu but also traveling in company with a plumber! I had asked on the local cruisers net to see if anyone had what I needed. One boat set us up with some Ts. Cruisers are always ready to help and it is hard to believe the different spares you can come up with when tapping into a group of perhaps a hundred boats, such is the fleet in Vava'u this time of year.

Unfortunately the Ts were not the right type, although in a pinch we could have used them to make something work. After scouring the town to no avail, Jeramy on Thulani told us he had a T. We zipped over to Thulani, who was moored across the bay, and Jeramy had the exact part! After thanking him profusely we headed back to Swingin' on a Star.

I was expecting to work on the fix with Dave, but Dave does not mess around. He had the whole thing replaced before I could get him a screw driver. I think the solution is better than the original as well. Dave cut back the copper pipe and we now have a flexible hose connecting the copper to a PVC pipe stub fixed in the T. The other two PVC pipes were left unchanged. Now the PVC T has only PVC pipe in it and an isolator between it and the copper pipe as well. Hopefully this will last forever.

We re-pressurized the system and all was well. The old T has a nicked O Ring and may be reusable with a replacement O Ring. It was a long day and we really didn't do anything but bird dog the parts for the plumbing repair. It was well worth it to get the fix in though, many thanks to Dave and Jeramy! Not a moment too soon either because we are low on water and certainly aren't going to make water in the midst of 50 yachts...

During the day one of the local craftsmen stopped by the boat. He was a nice guy and had some pretty cool stuff. Hideko bought a nice basket that we are both pretty happy with.

The Aquarium
10/14/2008, Tonga

We had breakfast on the fisheries dock and then after Ino made way for the mooring field we followed. It can be tricky getting off of this dock if the wind in coming straight down the bay at you. HAve to watch for the fishermen with anchor lines way out front.

In the mooring field we picked up a ball that the Moorings Base quickly kicked us off of. We found a Beluga Diving mooring a little farther down that ran about 12 Tongan a day and we were finally setup in Tonga.

We made our first trip to town and tied up the dink at the Aquarium. This is perhaps the number one cruisers establishment in Neiafu. They will help you with anything and have good food three meals a day, a nice dock for the dinks, island tours, and a shop with some minimal books, charts, cruising guides and crafts. They also have internet service with supplied computers or Wifi that reaches the anchorage (barely). They will hook you up with a cab, beach BBQ, hold packages or just about anything else you can imagine. A great place for the sailors.

You will see almost everyone you know from the anchorage if you just hang around the Aquarium for a few hours. We spent a while just catching up with friends we had met and chatting.

We also had to arrange to ship the contents of our Saint Brendan's Isle mail box in Florida to the Copra Shed in Savusavu, Fiji. Our new ships documentation is in there and the old one expires on October 31st. The Coast Guard will not renew your docs prior to 30 days before the old one expires and they require you renew every year. This is a pretty big hassle for casual circumnavigators and I wish they would change the term to 2,3 or even 5 years like most other countries.

After a nice lunch and a brief tour of town we wrapped up for the day.

All Day Clear In
10/13/2008, Tonga

We got up this morning and prepared to clear into Tonga. While I always try to respect a country's official requirements, I have also learned to go with the flow. If the guy running things doesn't want to deal with you until Monday morning, should you arrive on the weekend, I find it best to oblige. It seems all officials will have a go at you if you set yourself up, but in the end most would rather you anchor out and fly the Q than take them away from their Sunday BBQ. You need to read the tea leaves carefully here however, because countries like French Polynesia and Fiji (from what I here), can get maniacal about the rules.

We took the dinghy in to the customs dock and tied up. Hideko waited aboard and I went to find the customs shed. There were no cruisers around as of yet and I asked to clear in. The official (whom I now believe to be the head honcho) asked where my boat was, so I told him. He did not like the, "on a mooring" answer one bit and demanded I immediately bring the boat to the customs dock. So off I went.

Now the customs dock in Neiafu is not like the Newport Marina. It is more like a third world container quay. In fact, it is a third world container quay. By the time we returned with the yacht it was Monday morning rush hour. Three yachts were rafted up on the protected side of the customs quay, two were rafted up at the fisheries dock, and another was tied up behind those two. The concrete walls of the main quay were towering over our toe rail, all the more so because the tide was still out. We made a pass at the long exposed side of the quay but the big black bumpers would have crushed our stanchions as we slammed underneath the overhang to the rhythm of the chop in the bay.

So we circled, waiting for someone to take off. Before long there were three yachts making the rounds like buzzards. Of course if I had come at this point the customs officer would have just cleared me in from the mooring, as he began to do with other yachts. Too late for that though, he would lose face if we were allowed to not tie up.

Margarita, a Farrier catamaran we had first met in Palmerston, and her raftee finally were released and the Fisheries dock opened up. This is the best of the three faces to choose from but the Fisheries folks charge you 13.50 Tongan for the privilege. Once on the dock our friends on Ino asked if they could raft on, so we helped them get secure and went in to the customs house as a pack.

We took care of agriculture (a copy of the vet certificate for Roq, forms and 23 Tongan) and then waited for the Customs guy. He wrapped up with the yacht he was working on and then put up the "out to lunch" sign. So we hit the ATM just up the street and waited for an hour until 13:30. We finally completed customs (forms, no fee) at around 14:30 and then headed to Immigration. Immigration is a ways down the street above the Development Bank and was more forms but no fee.

There is a nice farmers market right past customs with a good selection of fruits and vegetables and great prices. Hideko made good use of this on the way in and on the way out.

I finally returned to the boat at 3:30 PM and no one had even looked at her through binoculars. We certainly could have done all of this with the yacht on the mooring, saved a lot of time, some fuel, and avoided the dangers inherent in docking a plastic boat on a fairly rough concrete quay. Then a guy showed up from Health and asked to come aboard. Ah, so this is why they needed the boat here.

He gave me a form. I filled it out. He asked me to pay 30 Tongan. I did. He asked for a drink. I don't like it when officials do this kind of thing when on duty. I asked if he wanted a Coke or a Sprite. He said, "do you have beer?" On duty? Whatever, I gave him a beer hoping to get rid of him. I suppose you could always say no, but depending on how petty they are they could really create a lot of hassle if they wanted to. As it was he probably couldn't even tell you what color our boat was, much less whether there were any health issues.

Beer in hand the so called "Health Inspector" crossed over to Ino and gave them the same shtick. I always knew beer was healthy.

By the time we wrapped up it was pushing 4:30 in the afternoon. The Fisheries folks didn't care if we stayed the night since we had already paid the vig. The moorings are hotly contested here and it is not likely you'd find a free one at this hour. So we stayed.

I'm glad we did. We met a really cool fisherman named Albert who runs the Mahi Mahi. He gave us a lot of good pointers for fishing in the area.

As night feel Hideko and I made up a batch of chili and invited the Ino crew over for dinner. I whipped up some desert crepes and we did a bit of single malt tasting as well. It was a wonderful evening on the Tonga Fisheries dock.

10/12/2008, Tonga

We woke up in a beautiful anchorage this morning. This is the kind of place we really love to find cruising. After a lazy morning we made our way to the harbor to prepare for the Monday clear in. On the way we passed around A'a island. The south end of the island seems to be the home to a large group of bats. They are really interesting critters and watching them fly about is a real treat.

It is a goo 5 mile trip up into the very protected Neiafu harbor. The harbor is deep and anchoring is possible but not convenient. All of the best spots have mooring balls in them, as usual, so a mooring is best. We picked up a free mooring only to discover it was a Moorings charter mooring and they needed it free. Our second try seemed free but we couldn't find the owner on the VHF. Beluga diving are the #1 provider, but Aquarium cafe and Sailing Safaris also have some. We settled in, a little worried that someone would show up at sunset and ask us to leave.

The Orion charter catamaran came right to us around three in the afternoon but then went to the dock. Whew. Just as it got dark, after hours of no visits or hails on the radio we got a knock on the hull. Orion wanted their mooring. So off to the very end of the harbor we went. We found a mooring before we resorted to anchoring and all was well, though we could not find the owner.

It was a long day of anchor/mooring shuffling but we are all set and waiting for the sunrise to clear in and start exploring Vava'u.


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