10/23/2008, Vanua Levu
We dinghied over to the Copra Shed dock this morning to meet the guys going to work at the Cousteau resort. We left our dink and they gave us a ride out to the resort. We zipped out of the creek anchorage and along the coast, then, surprisingly, straight through the middle of the pearl oyster farm. Local knowledge never ceases to amaze.
The Cousteau resort has a nice dive boat. We were the only outsiders amongst the 8 resort guests. Our first stop was around Point Reef to a place just outside the barrier reef called Long Beach. Ashore there is a beach but you are dropped off about 20 meters from the reef in the open ocean. A short surface swim gets you over the reef. It is a nice dive and the reef is very alive. I think the variety of hard and soft corals in Fiji, and particularly the amount alive, is the best I have seen. I really enjoyed the dive even though the vis was not much better than 60 feet.
We returned to the resort after the first dive and Hideko decided to go ashore to relax and skip dive two. Hideko rarely does more than one dive in a day because she gets cold so easily. After a while on the dock a few new divers joined and we headed back out.
Dive two was at Dreadlocks, a site across the bay on a pair of pinnacles. These pinnacles are dotted throughout the west side of the bay and make for some seriously hazardous cruising unless you have a very shoal draft. Some rise up to 15 feet below the surface others are at the surface at low tide. The pinnacles were nice and even more lush then the first dive site.
As we made our way back to the dock after dive two I reflected on the fact that this was a dive operation run my Jacques Cousteau's son. There was no Marine Biology briefing, no suggestion that you shouldn't touch the coral, in fact other than the minimal entry exit instructions there was little briefing at all. While underwater I saw staff stand on the coral while posing for a photo (with mask and reg off for flair), I saw one diver with gloves on crawling over the coral, literally hand over hand, rather than swimming. There were no reprimands or suggestions. Disappointing.
We made a reservation for lunch to ensure a place at the table after our dives. Lunch was expensive for Fiji but reasonable most other places. The food was very good and they have a new menu everyday, so you won't get tired of the fare. The service is good at the resort and everyone is friendly. We had a fun day but we hope Jean Michelle will boost the environmental awareeness of his staff and guests in the future.
We had coffee this morning with Ian and Louise on Spirit of Ecstasy. We've been chasing each other through anchorages since Moorea. It was nice to finally spend some time with them. They are from South Africa and Ian used to run a business that supplied wood bits to Saint Francis.
Later in the day we had lunch at Surf and turn in the Copra Shed. This is an InoFijian spot with good food at a fair price. Later we had drinks with Joni from Lotus. Lotus is spending the cyclone season on a mooring in Savusavu.
Dolly, with her usual efficiency, secured our cruising permit today. This is required to leave your mooring where you clear in. Now we can actually go somewhere in Fiji. This is good because we are planning to move over to Latoka in the next few days to pick up our friend Margaret from the airport.
It was nice to sleep in after the three night passage from Vava'u to Savusavu. The anchorage is flat in almost any weather if you are in past the first few moorings. There is a cruisers net run by Curly's Bosun's Locker in the mornings at 8:00 but it is pretty quiet. You can get a good weather forecast though and every once in a while a boat will pipe up. The anchorage is so quiet and small that it seems you know almost everyone after a few days.
The Copra Shed has been a wonderful home base for us. When we went ashore to visit Dolly yesterday she gave us a wonderful briefing on everything we might need to know. They also received our DHL package with mail and what not from the US. The Copra shed has showers and they can arrange water at the dock or you can Jerry can it. There is no fuel dock here but is you need massive amounts they'll deliver to the dock. Otherwise you have to jerry can it from the station, which is very close to the dock. In addition to arranging your port clearance, fuel and other services, Dolly will get your cruising permit for you and of course rent you a mooring.
The Copra Shed has two rooms upstairs, a breakfast/lunch/dinner cafe and a nicer lunch/dinner place. They also have a yacht club bar and a small dock where the local charter sport fisher ties up. There is a great laundry service at the Copra Shed along with a car/scooter rental, air line agents, gift shop, real estate agent, and internet cafe copymat (with WIFI in the anchorage).
We rented a scooter today and explored while doing some errands. We too the road south to the Cousteau resort first. The road turns dirt right outside of town and it is a bumpy ride, but beautiful along the coast with lush trees and vegetation all around. The resort, owned by Jean Michele Cousteau (Jacques son) is very nice. It has a dark wood Micronesian theme with peaky pandana roofs. The beach is not white sand bu the place is right on the water with a great dock and there is coral everywhere. The resort is a little funny about outside visitors and would not serve us lunch. They indicated their size and the need to prepare food as needed. We decided to go on a dive with them (many of the best dives are too far out for a dinghy ride) and reserve a lunch spot Thursday.
We made our way back to town and through to the north side. It was a good trip to the hospital to pay our health bill. We also found that the town has a lot to offer and the hardware store even had our 15mm plumbing fittings! We stocked up.
Back at the Copra shed we met some of the resident cruisers and had a nice spicy pizza at the Captains Cafe before retiring to the big boat a short dinghy hop from the Copra Shed dock.
We had as nice a motor sail as a motor sail can be last night. We ran the port aux at around 1300 RPMs to make about 4.5 knots of way. This set our arrival in Savusavu at 08:30 local time, just when customs and other officials open for business. The authorities are rumored to be very strict here so we didn't want to anchor or tie up outside of biz hours.
The approach to Savusavu is pretty clear but as you get close to Point reef you need to stay wide of the light as the reef extends a bit farther out than the light's location. Once around the point you can cruise along the coast to the Savusavu harbor entrance.
Savusavu is a small town (though the second largest on Vanua Levu, which is the second largest island in Fiji). The harbor is situated inside a huge bay on the South coast of Vnua Levu. The harbor is deep and has a reef closing it off at the head and a long mangrove island with tall hills running along the north side. It is very protected and many yachts tie up to hurricane moorings here for the season. We considered this for a bit after arriving.
The harbor has some mud flats on the south side that bubble with hot springs. You can see the steam rising from the edge of the water along the coast. There are three mooring purveyors here. We chose to use the Copra Shed. Though I believe that the Bosun's Locker and the Marina can all provide similar services, we have been very happy with Dolly and the Copra Shed.
On approach we hailed Dolly, the GM of the Copra Shed, and she sent a gentleman to show us to a mooring in a skiff. They also ferried the officials out to our boat. Health came first and gave us a standard $33 Fijian ( about $20US) bill which we had to pay at the hospital (a fair hike on the other side of town). Customs and Immigration came next and had no fees but 6-8 pages of forms to fill out with valuable questions like what color is the bottom of your boat. Finally quarantine visited and charged us $20 fijian. The standard, "keep the dog on the boat or we'll kill it and charge you $500", message was received.
We are now allowed to go ashore but can not leave the mooring without clearing things with the Customs office. Fiji is in the ridiculous zone when it comes to formalities. Dolly applied for a cruising permit for us, which will allow us to visit the islands. We must give customs an itinerary for all travels though and we have to check in and out of all ports of entry should we travel to one. Once we decide to leave Fiji we have to clear out at a port of entry (in the middle of the islands) and then not stop anyway on our way out (which generally requires a dangerous reef transit which can not be made in daylight if you are going West along a direct path). It is clear that they have no ability to make constructive use of all of this data, nor the wherewithal to police the policies. We comply as always but the bureaucracy is remarkable.
That said the people that came to our boat were some of the most professional and civil I have ever met wearing an official's badge. No one asked us for beer or gifts and all were polite and courteous, respecting our boat and even helping us with the forms! The Fijians are currently second in a close race with the Niuians for nicest folks in the world in our book.
We were smelling bacon frying the whole time we were filling in forms. The aroma wafted out over the anchorage from the Captain's Cafe. As soon as we were permitted we made our way there and had a nice bacon and egg breakfast. It was wonderful with good coffee as well. They also do a good pizza and have a real pizza oven.
We spent the rest of the day exploring the town and getting local currency at the bank. We are looking forward to our week here!
10/19/2008, Koro Sea
We had a lovely night last night. The sailing has been calm and peaceful if not all that fast. The sky looked a little foreboding at the end of the day yesterday, with dense and complex layers of clouds forming. There is a low forming south of here so I was worried that we were entering thunderstorm territory. Other than one small shower that passed to starboard it was a perfect evening. The big excitement was having to jibe as the wind backed to the NE under the effect of the low pressure and a big commercial fishing boat that had a CPA (closest point of approach) of 0.25nm until we maneuvered. This was the first non yacht we have seen at sea since the Marquesas. We passed behind him astern a mile and a half off. I always worry passing behind these guys because the long liners often have lines out well over a mile. If we have crossed any they've all been 5 feet or more bellow sea level.
We have a little portable stereo that we bought in Panama that we play music on some nights. Hideko always has me load up a USB memory stick with all Beatles tunes for the stereo when she needs help staying awake. The first night out is always the roughest but Hideko was still listening to the Beatles last night. Hideko covers 8PM to 2AM and I cover 2AM to 8AM. I usually have a hard time getting to sleep at 8PM the first night, not to mention a hard time getting up at 2AM. The second night is no problem though, perhaps because I am tired after the first night, and then I am good for the rest of the passage.
We made landfall at about 9AM this morning, passing south of the Exploring Islands (close to the middle of the Eastern Lau Group in Fiji). The pass between Malevuvu and Katafage gives you a radar target on each side. The Katafage atoll (different but similar name on some charts) has a raised island on the west side and the Malevuvu atoll has two ship wrecks on the NE side that provide a pretty good return. The water is deep and the narrowest bit is 6nm wide. You can almost sail a rhumb line from the Vava'u entrance to the Savusavu entrance. One of the islands off to port (pictured) reminded me of King Kong's island.
Day two was about as sunny and pleasurable as can be, nice even wind on the beam and flat seas in the reef cluttered Koro Sea for the first part of the day. The Lau Group is quite lovely. There are high islands, atolls, raised limestone islands, reefs and sand spits. Too bad the Fiji government is so dysfunctional right now, it would be nice to stop at a few on the way through.
The sun has just set and the wind is falling apart as predicted. After wallowing along at 3 plus knots we fired up the port auxiliary and put the jib away. Given the forecast we will probably motor into Savusavu with an ETA of around 8AM, just when customs opens (tomorrow morning is Monday out here).
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).
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!