Land of the long white cloud
25 November 2019
Bob & Lesley Carlisle
Wednesday 7th November: We’ve finally made it all the way to the Customs and Immigration Quay at Port Denerau, with fuel and water tanks filled, the larder replenished and ready to go; actually, the larder was quite sparse as New Zealand has a long list of things that can’t be imported – fresh fruit/veggies and meats in particular – so no point storing-up for much beyond the 10-12 days we expected the passage to take.
Unlike our more usual Tradewind passages heading generally west, the route to NZ takes us a thousand miles south, out of the Tradewind belt and into the very edge of the low//high pressure systems which circulate the globe in an unending succession, below the great capes. It was the requirement to mess with this potentially heavier weather, which seemingly since forever has had us saying: “No, we’re not going down to New Zealand.” Even today as we set sail, I’m still trying to recall what/why/when we changed our minds? Though lots of advice/local knowledge on how to deal with the weather systems has no doubt helped: Accepted wisdom seems to be that in a small/slow yacht, you will have to deal with one low pressure system, so ’time’ your passage so that you rather than it, chooses where you meet each other; north of latitude 30*S and just west of New Zealand saw us setting sail and aiming for ‘John’s Corner’ a notional point in the ocean at 30S/173E, some 350 miles NNW of Opua, our final destination.
We made reasonable progress for the first couple of days and we’d come up with a cunning plan, to run around the back/west end of a high pressure system where we could pick up the tail of a low-pressure trough and ride that down to at least 25S, perhaps even further (departure in Fiji was at about 18S and Opua’s at about 35S, so 17-degrees/1000 miles) where we should be able to run into the next system rolling through. We had of course missed the single flaw in our passage plan: What to do if we lose the wind from that low pressure trough? That’s what happened early on Saturday 9th; the trough had perhaps moved east faster than predicted, we’d set a course perhaps a little too far west to maximise our period in the trough? Whichever, the result was we were completely and utterly becalmed with no prospect of any wind where we were for at least a couple of days, and even further away than that to the south, so no point our burning precious diesel in ’chasing’ the wind and so it began:
Two days completely becalmed – we actually drifted NNW by about thirty-odd miles on a foul current – and the wind when it did finally arrive blew F2 from almost due south; as the alternative was to just keep drifting the wrong way, we hoisted sail and did the best we could: In the next 24-hours we covered eighty five miles, but for the most part were going across the wind and current, so by the end of it we were only fifteen miles further south. Progress remained dire, but we were at least going in the right direction.
Tuesday 13th: Finally got a decent ‘sailing breeze’ after the last few days we didn’t care that it came from a little too far south for comfort nor that it arrived along with some nasty seas rolling up from a southern ocean blow; we were on the move at least. It was frustrating though, having to reef/slow the boat down and ‘waste’ some of that precious wind once we started bouncing and slamming into those north-going seas; they were ‘boat-breakers’ though and our rule number one on offshore passages is ‘protect the boat’. Whilst sticking to the rule we worked the breeze as best we could and when we parted company with it come the weekend – does the wind only work Mon-Friday around here? - we’d clawed our way down to latitude 25S.
Becalmed once again, but via our own weather downloads, the weather reviewing/advising which John Boyle once again supplied us from the UK and messages from the boats just leaving Fiji, we knew there was once again, no wind to the south and what was due would appear from the north – still no point in our motoring anywhere. This second becalming was a little less frustrating, perhaps we were now just inured to it? Then again, by Monday morning we did get to move just a bit, albeit in a ‘hurry-up and wait’ sort of way: The winds were ’filling in’ from north of us – the bigger faster boats who’d just left Fiji yesterday and today were all making 150-180 miles a day in 15-20 knot winds! – we meanwhile would get 6-8 knots of breeze on the very southern edge of that same weather system, on which we’d edge steadily forward for 8-12 hours, until we had once again ‘outrun’ the wind and floated around for 8-12 hours whilst it caught us up once more. We’d hoped/expected to be arriving around now, but still have almost 500 miles to go!
We continued working the breezes as best we could, with John keeping a close eye on the weather further afield as we approached and finally passed below latitude 30S; we’d now reached the area where we didn’t want to be meeting any deep low pressure systems, the aim/intention being to cover this last 300 miles just as fast as we could; that in part was one of the reasons we’d been so reluctant to burn diesel without a positive gain earlier on, we wanted the ‘run for it under engine’ option available to us now; except of course, it didn’t work!
Weds 20th November: The wind picked-up a solid F4/5 southerly last night, we knew it was coming so just reefed well down and rode it out sailing back and forth across the wind and wicked seas that they’d kicked-up, we did get a bit further south, but not by much. Come this morning the wind had settled down to just F2/3, but it stayed resolutely from the south and now seemed the time to start that motor and just force our way south to Opua. We tried, but not for long: The wind had dropped substantially but not the seas, they were down a bit, but not to the extent that we’d have expected. In noting this anomaly in our next set of emails we discovered (albeit a bit late in the day) that southerly winds off New Zealand, even light ones, invariably kick-up nasty short, sharp, steep seas and that’s just what we had now, we could –after a fashion – sail into/across them, but if we tried to use the engine (Moon Rebel’s not a great boat under engine, especially into head winds or seas) we could barely make 1.5 knots and the motion made even me feel ill.
With the southerly winds/seas forecast to continue for a week (what happened to ‘weather systems across NZ are always on the move’?) we were at no immediate risk from a low-pressure ‘blow’ but neither could we make much progress; a couple of ‘experts’ even suggested that we bail out and instead sail west to Norfolk Island, but that was over 700 miles away and Opua, albeit up wind/sea/current was now barely 200M to the south. We decided to give it one more try and spent Wednesday and into Thursday working as hard as we’ve ever done, keeping the boat absolutely hard on the wind, carrying all the sail we safely could (it was still ‘sea state’ that dictated) and tacking back and forth to best suit any slight changes in wind direction; it was boy-racer stuff and thanks to finding a favourable current giving us negative leeway and holding us nearer to the rhumb line course, we managed to force ourselves a further 70M to the south. With less than 120 miles to make, we weren’t backing-off now!
We never found such a helpful current, but we continued working the winds as best we could, when the wind dropped right off for a period on Friday we got something from the engine – still too lumpy & bumpy directly into the short confused seas, so treated it like sailing and tacked across them. We didn’t make much progress, but got sufficient that by the time the wind returned in strength (F4/5) come the evening, instead of having to reef down/ride it out, as we had on Tuesday, we could close the New Zealand coast and get sufficient lee from that to keep punching forward.
Saturday 23rd November: Not more than an hour after dawn and the wind once more just stopped, not eased, faded, or settled, but just stopped like a tap had been turned off. Well wind-Gods, that’s just too little too late, we can see the entrance to the Bay of Islands, we’re close enough under the NZ shoreline that the seas can’t reach us – we needed to move offshore to clear the entrance shoals – and we still have loads of diesel left. Battered, bruised and absolutely knackered (both us and Moon Rebel) we dropped the sails and motored steadily into the Bay Of Islands and down the Veronica Channel to Opua, arriving at the Customs and Immigration Dock about 1235, almost exactly seventeen days after leaving the Fijian dock at Denerau.
Crossing the Atlantic (1900M) took us 18 days whilst the eastern Pacific (34 days/3600 miles)too, we also deemed ‘slow’ and ‘light winds’ passages, but 17-days for less than 1100 miles from Fiji to NZ sets a whole new standard for slow and this was the one where we were anticipating getting strong winds, perhaps even having to heave-to and sit out a gale! But in seventeen days, the wind never reached/exceeded 17 knots for even seventeen hours, indeed I suspect it didn’t blow F5 for even seven hours!
We had great plans for cleaning/preparing Moon Rebel for the rigorous New Zealand Department of Agriculture arrival inspection, but after almost five days of beating to windward we were just knackered and Moon Rebel too was showing the strain. We managed showers for ourselves and a quick clean-up and wipe around on Moon Rebel as we motored in, but by the time we arrived we still couldn’t have made a very impressive impression; not least with the fore-cabin cushions and bedding hauled out and tied down on deck to try and dry them out; perhaps unsurprisingly beating to windward in big seas has unearthed a few leaks we didn’t know that we had.
Whether we were cleaner than we thought – relatively at least, as I gather that we aren’t the only ‘damp and battered’ looking yacht to arrive in the last day or so – or perhaps the Officials just took pity on us, but the whole clearing-in exercise went without a hitch and took less than an hour, whereafter we moved a couple of miles back up the bay to anchor off the town Paihia (that’s Pie-Here) I guess that the half hour run back to Paihia wasn’t really necessary, but when we arrived in Northland NZ coming eastabout in 1988, our first stop was at a campground just north of Paihia, which we could see from the anchorage. A couple of celebratory beers, a can of cassoulet (it didn’t get confiscated?) and a handful of crackers, then we fell into our berths for a solid eighteen hours of sleep!
Finally leaving Fiji?
03 November 2019
Bob & Lesley Carlisle
AT LAST, AN ‘INTERESTING’ BUILDING IN THE PACIFIC ISLANDS!
Having checked-out and changed our minds for a second time in mid-October (A good job, as a couple of boats at least that went when we cancelled took a hammering en-route to NZ) we’ve spent the last few weeks floating around the west end of Fiji, but returning to Musket Cove each weekend to watch some of the Rugby World Cup matches. Watching England’s semi-final surrounded by over-confident Kiwi’s was a highlight and the final, surrounded by optimistic South Africans was the nadir c’est la vie, there’s no question that the best team on the day won both matches.
Fortunately there hasn’t been much in the way of decent weather for making passage to New Zealand this last couple of weeks, so it wasn’t necessary to have to decide between going and staying to watch the rugby, but now there seems to be a suitable window? We’ve once again submitted our departure paperwork and telephoned the local Customs and Immigration Officer to arrange a check-out inspection (after three attempts, we’re almost on first name terms!) so we should be good to go on Wednesday 6th November and are hoping to get there in 10 or 11 days, unless we slow down, stop, or even backtrack a bit. The current forecast is promising (winds a little too light perhaps?) for the whole passage, but given the passage’s length, the current forecast for the period when we'll be approaching NZ is little better than a guess and that's where the worst weather is likely to be encountered. We've been warned that not to go below latitude 30*S if it doesn’t look promising for covering the last 300-odd miles, wait until it improves rather than try racing it into New Zealand so that’s what we plan to do.
We are at least back up to full strength steering-wise: Under sail/offshore we try, indeed prefer to use The Lizard our Monitor windvane and whilst it’s worked perfectly since Tonga, it has broken twice on passages sine we reached the Pacific – it’s getting old and tired like Lesley – so we’ve had to call on Arthur our electronic autohelm to shoulder the load. A couple of weeks ago that too stopped working – perfect one day, completely dead the next, but being an electric motor controlled by a selection of electronic boxes, there wasn’t a lot we could do. After a couple of days of circuit testing, advised via the internet from an ‘expert’ in the USA, we confirmed that our problems were ‘probably’ in the control head and though we’ve been carrying two old/spare ones for years, neither of those worked either. Finding spares for a new/modern autohelm unit in Fiji wouldn’t be easy, but getting them for a 20+ year old one was a non-starter; it seemed we were going to have to sail to NZ reliant on the Lizard, hoping that it didn’t break and that we didn’t have too many light/no wind days when Arthur’s the only option – well, we can hand steer, but that smacks of hard work!
Just as we’d given up hope on any resolution, Colin & Than Tzin sailed back into Musket Cove and were surprised to see us: “I thought you two were enroute to New Zealand?” We told him of our weather window closing and subsequent autohelm troubles, to which Colin promptly replied: “I’ve got a spare 7002 control head and that should work with your system; I don’t want to sell it, but you’re welcome to borrow it and return it in New Zealand.” Result, three hours later we’d got it fitted, powered-up and commissioned, so all’s looking good once again; thanks again ‘Burmese Breeze’.
Monday 4th: Sat in Musket Cove, writing this at least, but otherwise we’re just sort of sitting around waiting for our departure. Normally we’d be checking all the boat’s systems ahead of departure, but having done so twice already, there’s not much left. Then there would be a few shopping expeditions to replenish the larder, but since there is a long list of stuff that we can’t take into New Zealand, there’s no point stocking-up on stuff that may get confiscated on arrival. I have given the hull another clean/scrape, but again, it’s only been a couple of weeks since I last did it, so less than an hour and that too was good to go. I guess it’s time to fall back on the tried and tested: I’ll wrap up and post this, then head ashore for a couple of beers.
Which way now?
16 October 2019
Bob & Lesley Carlisle
A MUCH NEEDED AND WELL EARNED BEER FOR THE BURMESE BREEZE RACING CREW.
2nd Sept: Having promised ourselves not to get 'bogged-down' as we had in Tonga and in French Polynesia, we still spent more than a week moored in Savusavu, though to be fair we weren't 'bogged down'; Vanua Levu and Savusavu in particular have been like a breath of fresh air. Better weather and not having streaming colds no doubt helped, but the hospitality and downright friendliness of the Fijians has been the key. We spent a day taking the local bus across the island to the main town of Labasa, which other than being bigger and hotter (no cooling sea-breeze) wasn't a lot different to Savusavu, though the Indian food was if anything even better! The scenery between the two towns though was spectacular, heading up almost immediately through tropical rainforest into the mountains which to a large extent were planted with softwood forestry, before dropping back down into the sugar-cane fields of the coastal plains.
It was the sugar cane which accounts for the high proportion of ethnic Indian & Chinese within Fiji, their forebears having come here as indentured labourers to work the cane plantations - the local Fijians wouldn't, seeing cane farming as too much like hard work. Sadly, whilst all Fijians seem friendly toward us, there does appear to be a good deal of friction between the ethnic Fijians and these immigrants, albeit that most have been Fijian for several generations - a lot like home in that respect. The reasoning too sounds very similar, with the Chinese/Indians being heavily into education and with a strong work ethic, they seem to hold most of the white-collar jobs and certainly own and run an overwhelming proportion of the businesses. The more laid back, island-time, Fijian-Fijians being employed by the Indians & Chinese in predominantly blue-collar/unskilled jobs - including harvesting the sugar-cane! - or working as civil servants; the ethnic Indians and Chinese might have the money, but the Fijians still have the votes!
We caught up with several yachts we knew from further back whilst in Savusavu, so lots of excuses to go ashore for meals out, or a few beers; as with Tonga the beer's pretty good and whilst no less expensive in the grocery stores than it was in French Polynesia, the price of beer over the bar's far less. Again, there's not a big alcohol-culture amongst the locals, but Savusavu had a 'Yacht Club' bar at the marina which not unexpectedly welcomed visiting yachties and just down the road was the 'Planters Club' which as you'd expect, started life as a haven for the European Gentleman Farmers back in the 18th Century and it too offered temporary membership to visiting yachties too; it's still a very genteel place for a game of billiards or to watch the sunset over a beer, rum punch or G&T, we visited several times.
Monday 9th September was a Public Holiday for Independence Day - Fiji is one of sixty-odd countries that 'officially celebrates' it's independence from Britain, so if the remaining twenty seven members of the EU choose to do so once we leave, that'll mean almost to half the countries of the world will have a 'Bog-Off Britain' Day. - so we got our marina bill paid and collected our cruising permit on the Saturday and set sail soon after first light on Sunday morning, aiming for the west end of Fiji. The winds were again a little livelier than we'd have liked in the beginning, but we couldn't wait for them to ease as we needed to cover about 50 miles and clear two reef-passes before dusk. The brisk winds and predominantly favourable tides had us achieving that easily and by 16:30 we were safely back into the deep/clear waters of 'Bligh Sound' which lies between the two main islands of Fiji. After that our sail-plan went the other way completely, with us hauling down virtually all the sails as we now didn't want to cover more than 40-45 miles and reach the reefs at the far side before sunrise. With flat water within what's effectively a giant lagoon and no need for speed, it was a very pleasant star-lit night.
Around 10:30 the following morning we arrived at Nanuyasewa Island, where the 1980s(?) Brooke Shields movie 'The Blue Lagoon' was apparently filmed, though whereabouts precisely I can't say; I don't recall ever actually watching the film and it seems that every holiday resort on Nanuyasewa seems to claim that it's in/on the prime filming location. The scenery and snorkelling were very pleasant, but the 5* resorts ashore weren't to our taste, so we soon headed slowly south through the Yasawa and Mamanuca Island Groups, aiming for the yachty centre of Musket Cove on Malalo Lailai Island. We did find and visit a couple of the more 'traditional' islands, taking part in Sevu Sevu ceremonies: Upon arrival at the island you head to shore with a gift of kava root which you present to the village chief, he then welcomes you, indeed I believe 'adopts' you for the duration of your stay and you're then welcome to wander anywhere you want on the village and that part of the island which it owns/controls; apparently you're even entitled without further invitation, to enter people's houses and even stay the night, though our British Reserve didn't allow for that. Sometime's the village chief will have someone prepare your gift of kava into the drink and share it with you, this we never had, in part it seems due to the kava root which we brought: Our kava was Tongan and that apparently has the reputation of being the very best & strongest, so it wasn't something to be 'wasted' on a couple of Papalagi.
Sky Bursters: Amongst all(?) the south Pacific Islanders - we never heard mention in French Poly. - the generic term for a foreigner is 'Papalagi' or similar, which stems from the arrival of the very first Europeans. Though the islanders knew from their oral histories that their own forefathers had sailed to the islands many generations earlier, it was by then held that nobody could cross the vast ocean which surrounded them. So, when the European ships arrived, to explain how they got there if the ocean was un-crossable, it was decided that they must've 'appeared out of the sky' and christened them Papalagi.
A good proportion (perhaps ½?) of the Yasawa & Mamanuca Islands seem to have a holiday resort of some sort on them and their operation shows the Fijian attitude to life: The resort land is leased from the village and that lease contract invariably includes clauses giving priority to the local islanders for jobs once the resort's operational. However, as each villager's share of those annual lease monies is sufficient to keep the family in corned beef and kava, few take up the opportunity of a job so most of the staff have to be shuttled in/out on the daily ferries. I find nothing wrong with their having that mind set - it's the Caribbean way too - but I feel it somewhat undermines their resentment the Indians/Chinese for usurping them economically; the ethnic Fijians in the main seem to want the money, but are not interested the work required to earn it?
20th Sept: We arrived at Musket Cove - the most 'resorty' island of them all? - during their regatta week, so amongst the various parties we got involved with, we did do a yacht race 'around the island'; not in Moon Rebel, but as crew for Colin & Thant Zin on Burmese Breeze whom we'd met back in Tonga. I don't know what place we actually achieved, but we did complete the course and given the number of yachts behind us and those we saw either drop out, start their engines or take a short-cut, I suspect we must've been about midway in the fleet of 40-odd starters; given the wind rarely reached ten knots and we were on a twenty tonne Halberg-Rassy, we were all quite pleased with our finish.
With the regatta parties over, we headed to the mainland (Viti Levu Island) in search of more 'authentic' Fiji and some decent Indian food - catering primarily to the package tour Papalagi, the fare at Musket Cove was a poor and very expensive version of what you might expect to find in NZ/Aus/USA - We also began the process of checking-out of Fiji. Whilst the islands have been our favourite by far in the Pacific, the time we lost weather-bound in French Poly is beginning to bite and we need to press on if we want to visit Vanua'tu and New Caledonia enroute to Australia and still arrive there ahead of the Cyclone Season Ah Cruising Plans: We got the paperwork done, but the wind's all but disappeared and there's no forecast of any returning in the short term at least; after a week on the mainland, we headed back to Musket Cove to wait for some wind, at least it was easy to get ashore in the evenings to watch the Rugby World Cup on TV.
Given the cost and difficulty of checking in/out of Vanua'tu, the 'just a few days' that we're likely to be able to stop-off meant it just wouldn't be worthwhile and as the light winds/unsettled weather extended, even visiting New Caledonia was looking like becoming a brief stop too. They're both island groups we particularly wanted to spend time in and to be honest we'd like to see more of Fiji too; we've already done the pre-arrival paperwork for us and the boat to go to Australia, but as the days went on, we began looking into alternatives. We could just stay in Fiji, but the Cyclone risk is high and storing Moon Rebel/flying back to he UK will be expensive, the other alternative, though we'd always said we wouldn't do it, is to sail down to New Zealand, from where we can return easily (OK, relatively easily, if we get a lucky break with the weather) to Fiji after the Cyclone season's over and then make our way leisurely through Vanuatu and New Caledonia. It seemed like a plan, so we began compiling and sending all the pre-arrival paperwork through to New Zealand's Border Control, so all options were open.
We saw the England/Argentina RWC game and due to a likely looking weather window closing, we were still there for the France match tht got called off due to their Typhoon (Hurricanes -Cyclones-Typhoons are all exactly the same animal but just different names - a circulating low pressure system. There was a small one (not big enough to get 'named') spun off the east coast of Australia about a week ago, indeed uncertainty as to where it was headed proved the final straw with regard to our sailing across to New Caledonia and instead begin to consider New Zealand. That said, the weather system continued tracking SE and is today battering the north end of NZ with 40-50 knot winds; I'm glad we're not there, but no doubt some of the yachts which recently left Fiji bound for NZ will get caught in it.
16th October: Well, we're back anchored off Denerau at the west end of Viti Levu once more, with little wind and the rain hammering down (a good job we went provision shopping yesterday) though the forecasts all promise things will be better tomorrow, which is when our latest check-out inspection from Fiji is booked for - this'll be the third attempt, we've cancelled the two previous inspections. Our paperwork states that our 'Intended next Port of Arrival' is Opua New Zealand, so in the first instance that's where we'll be pointing towards, though we still have the Australian pre-entry paperwork 'live', so if the weather does threaten to bite us, we can always bail out to Norfolk Island, or indeed even away west to New Caledonia.
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