Arriving in Fiji: Sailing into Suva Harbour and anchoring under sail
08 July 2018 | Suva Harbour
[This photo of SCOOTS sailing through the pass was taken by our friend, Alison, from the yacht Tregoning, anchored in a nearby cove.]
After a night of fast sailing, SCOOTS was within a few hours of Suva as the sun rose. When Eric got up at 7 am after his second off-watch, we sat in the cockpit, sipping coffee and making plans for sailing into Suva Harbour and anchoring under sail. When we arrived at the entrance to Suva Harbour, we'd have to sail through the mile-long pass in the reef to reach the bay. Once in the bay, we'd have to turn right and head across the bay (into the prevailing wind) for at least a mile and a half to reach anchoring depths. We'd have one chance to drop the anchor; if it didn't hold, and we had to pull it up and reset for any reason, things could get ugly: we can drop the anchor without using much power, but we'd need a lot of juice to pull it back up (usually provided by Yanmar the Magnificent, who, you may remember, isn't working at the moment), so in this case we'd need to start the generator to provide the necessary power to pull the anchor up AND we'd have to raise the sails again and try to sail off and start over. NOT a good scenario. Hence the One Chance: we'd just have to do it perfectly.
There were lots of variables to consider: What would the wind speed and direction be, in the passage and in the bay? Which sails should we have up? Where and when should we take the main down, put the staysail up, take the jib down? Would we have to tack across the bay to the anchorage? When should we put the lazy jacks up, to catch the lowered main? Could we get upwind far enough to reach a place that was shallow enough to anchor? How many boats would be in the area where we hoped to anchor? Could we anchor where (1) no big boats might drag down on us in a blow, and (2) we wouldn't drag down on anyone? (Suva Harbour is notorious for its collection of dilapidated steel fishing boats that occasionally go on walkabout, creating havoc.) Would we be able to anchor on our first – and only – attempt?
We made plans for each possibility that we could think of, talked through them, made changes – understanding all the time that our plans might have to change as the conditions did. We came up with as many “what if” scenarios as we could think of, so we wouldn't have to improvise in the moment. We talked through the details of anchoring, so that when we dropped the anchor, we'd have a good chance of having it grab the first time.
We finally decided – after watching the wind direction for awhile – that the wind in the bay would probably be coming from nearly due East. The pass into the bay faced due North, so that wouldn't be a problem, but the anchorage was East of that. Straight upwind. We certainly might need to tack. For this possibility, we decided to sail in with the mainsail and the staysail, both of which can be easily tacked. At the moment, as we closed with shore, we were sailing with the double-reefed main and jib. Before we entered the pass, we'd need to furl the jib and pull out the staysail.
Approaching shore, we rolled side to side in the large waves and did our best to keep a course aimed at the pass. I was worried that the waves might push us toward the reef, but when we finally got close enough to be behind the edge of the reef, the waves subsided, their energy scrubbed away by crashing onto the unyielding coral. In this calmer water, we furled the jib and let out the staysail. Eric took the helm, and steered us toward the opening of the pass. I took a position near the winch holding the main sheet, ready to adjust it as necessary. The wind was blowing 25 knots, as it had been for the past several days.
As Eric steered us into the pass, the wind, accelerated by funneling along the shoreline, ramped up to nearly 30 knots. Propelled by all this wind on her beam, SCOOTS heeled over and raced through the pass at 8 knots. Eric held our course, straight up the middle of the pass, occasionally asking me to check the rudder angle (indicating how much play was still left in the steering), and if it was really high, asked me to let out the main a bit to ease the weather helm (the tendency of sailboats to turn up into the wind when overpowered).
It took us about ten minutes to navigate the pass, but once inside the bay, we checked for two things: (1) wind direction and speed, and (2) number and placement of boats in our intended anchorage. It turned out that the wind in the bay had just enough South in it that if Eric sailed at just the right angle, we wouldn't have to tack, and at 17 knots, there was plenty of wind to work with. One tugboat was anchored in the general vicinity of where we wanted to drop our anchor, but other than that, it was all clear.
For the next several minutes, relying on skills and instincts developed over several decades of sailing, Eric sailed a virtual knife edge of wind angle, keeping SCOOTS just enough off the wind to keep her moving along – at a much slower speed now – and enough on the wind to head toward the anchorage a mile and a half away across the bay. The depth, beginning at about 140 feet, slowly decreased as we sailed across the bay, and we breathed a sigh of relief when the muddy bottom was 60 feet beneath us, a reasonable depth for anchoring. When we got close to the place that we wanted to drop anchor, and were sure now that we wouldn't need to tack, I put up the lazy jacks and readied the anchor for a quick drop by deploying it just over the end of the anchor roller. Then we waited as SCOOTS crept slowly along, slowly bleeding off speed.
When SCOOTS slowed to almost a stop, I dropped the anchor into the water part of the way, gauging our forward velocity by the wake created by the chain. A few seconds later, as Eric dropped the main and furled the staysail, and SCOOTS coasted to a stop, I fed out more anchor chain as fast as it would go – 60 feet is a long way down. When the wind caught the bow and pushed it downwind, the chain was already playing out. When we had 120 feet (two depths' worth) out, I stopped dropping chain and waited. We both cheered as the bow, which had been sweeping downwind, stopped abruptly as the anchor caught in the thick mud of the bottom. We let out more chain in a couple of deployments until we had 270 feet (about 4½ depths' worth) out, and watched as SCOOTS' bow slowly came up into the wind, and stayed there. We put on the snubber (a rope tied between the chain and the boat that acts as a shock absorber), bumped fists and called it good. Our GPS track over the next couple of hours confirmed that our anchor had caught and was firmly attached to the bottom of Suva Harbour.
Mission accomplished, we cracked open our arrival beers and enjoyed them while sitting in the blissfully level and dry cockpit. We were back in Fiji at last. And the weather was perfect.
PS. I found out later, while we were talking about the events of the day, that Eric had had a bit of trouble with the sails. According to Eric, “When we headed up and you went forward to start dropping the anchor, I let the main halyard go [to drop the mainsail]. It came down part of the way and then stopped; the halyard had a tangle in it, in the cockpit. I cleared the tangle and ran forward to pull the mainsail down, but it stopped again. So I ran back to the cockpit and cleared another snag in the halyard. When I ran back on deck to pull the mainsail down the rest of the way, I noticed that the staysail had backwinded, to I ran back to the cockpit, let the sheet go, furled the staysail and then went back on deck and pulled the mainsail down the rest of the way and tied it down.”
Focused as I was on setting the anchor, I'd had no idea that any of this craziness was going on behind me. When Eric showed up at my side on the bow, I just assumed that he'd dropped the main and furled the staysail, no problem. I kind of wish, now, that someone had perched a drone over our boat and made a video of all that. It would be really funny to watch. :)