Our Trip to Fiji
31 May 2014 | Musket Cove Yacht Club, Fiji
The passage north from New Zealand to Fiji has a reputation to be one of the hardest in the world…. potentially even worse than from Tonga to New Zealand because the weather is difficult to forecast accurately and often changes abruptly. In past years vessels and crews have been challenged by Mother Nature with unexpected storms (some named and some not) causing heavy weather and damage. In some years boats and crews have even been lost. So we being experienced and cautious spent a great deal of effort to line up our ducks before we left. We even rigged our sea anchor so that it could be deployed from the cockpit.
I wasn’t aware of how this trip has been hanging over my head but now having completed the journey I feel great relief and joy for our successful and safe passage.
In the weeks prior to our departure, many loose ends had to be tied up. We bought a car when we arrived that was sold. A time consuming project. We discovered that it was a buyer’s market and the later a cruiser waited to sell an automobile the more at risk he was for getting far less for the vehicle than expected. We were fortunate to have started somewhat early and eventually sold our car for a reasonable price. Once the car was gone we became dependent on our friends who still had vehicles to get to the neighboring towns to provision. It seemed that every time we went shopping we bought more and more and the boat went down further and further. We found a butcher that took our order, packaged the meat, vacuum sealed it, and froze it for us. What a convenience!
Filling up on diesel was critical as sometime there is little wind and vessels must motor as much as they can maybe a thousand miles at times. Affluent sailors usually prefer to make the passage in light winds even if it means motoring than leaving in heavy weather, sailing and possibly getting pasted! We carry 230 gallons of fuel and we were almost empty. New Zealand allows boats to buy duty free fuel but only after they have received their departure papers. The duty is 15 percent and is included at the fuel dock pump Since many boats leave at the same time, It usually is a circus trying to get in line to get fuel. However, We discovered the NZ department of Transportation has a quirky system. When you buy gasoline on the road, the price includes tax but when you buy diesel, the price does not include tax. Diesel powered car owners for some reason pay their road tax based on their mileage separately. It is therefore very economical to jerry can diesel if you have wheels. That required about a day of work but was well worthwhile.
With the diesel taken care of, I then turned my attention to our immigration problem. Our visa expired on May 5th and unless we left before May 5th we would have to extend our visa. Not a small task or cheap task. I reasoned that international law would not allow NZ to push us out into bad weather so we chose to do nothing except keep up a dialog and an email trail with the immigration officials. Since there was a rally of about 20 sailboats that wanted to leave for points north at the same time we wanted to it was easy to document that the weather was not considered safe to leave until they left.
NZ loves rules and despite being told repeatedly to extend our visa for six months (when we needed maybe 5 days) we simply refused suspecting that there would be no significant consequences! The officials continually repeated the party line but didn’t know quite what to do when we continued to defy their recommendations. Over time, a more senior official was consulted. They finally gave up and then admitted that weather delays happen frequently. They gave us a month to wait for satisfactory weather. But we would be illegals during that period! Of course we then asked what would that mean for us and we were told that they would take no actions against us. Voilla! Problem solved.
Starting May 1s, the end of cyclone season, our boat insurance cyclone zone exclusion rider expires. To maintain our insurance we could not leave until that date.
Some of you know we repeatedly postponed our departure for reasons of weather. The weather charts are complex here. Not only do weather systems spin in the opposite direction from the northern hemisphere but they are continuously forming off of Australia (highs) and the Coral Sea to Fiji (lows). New systems usually form every 5 to 8 days at this time of year and when and where the lows and highs are contiguous they form a squash zone of high winds, squalls and heave seas. Sometimes the lows continue to deepen to become tropical storms or cyclones despite being out of the official cyclone season. Everyone listens to weather nets, downloads weather charts, and participates in weather seminars. Everyone is attuned to who thinks what but as a skipper one must decide individually when to leave. You have SSB nets, professional web sites and professionals that charge for routing individuals for the trip. It’s a weather culture charged with repressed anxiety.
Since the trip is 1200 miles and takes usually no less than ten days one cannot hope to do the passage in only one weather system and you can’t know for sure what the second system will bring. However, when going to Fiji there is an option to travel to Minerva Reef. This is an atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean where one can seek refuge and on the trip to NZ last spring was useful to us since we stopped to do some critical repairs there. It is off the rhumb line to Fiji by about a day but since it is 780 miles from NZ one can make the passage in a little as five to six days. Our plan was to head to Minerva Reef and decide before we enter whether to seek refuge or carry on to Fiji.
Our trip was postponed twice and we were very dispirited! Nothing like trying to sleep the night before you are supposed to leave and then have to cancel out. While we were waiting, a new weather window popped up unexpectedly catching the rally fleet unprepared to leave immediately as many boats were cruising as they waited in the Bay of Islands. We decided to leave impromptu and take advantage of the favorable winds which were predicted to die off in the following two days. We hoped to avoid motoring. So we left with only two other boats about 2 days ahead of the fleet. This turned out to be a fine decision since we saw no traffic (to avoid) for the entire passage. For the next 5 days at sea we had great winds, a beam reach with 15 to 20 knots and boat speed of 7 knots plus. By the time we reached Minerva Reef, a new low had formed and we were advised that it would move towards Minerva Reef and hit us in about 2 to 3 days. Our choice was therefore made for us and we proceeded to anchor in Minerva Reef on a beautiful day happy that we had such a fine passage without use of our engine. It didn’t last though. We were the only vessel there for several hours and had the atoll all to ourselves. Since the wind was forecast to come from the east, we anchored directly behind the reef in the eastern quadrant.
The next day we were hit unexpectedly by a line squall with 45 knots from the South which blew us parallel the reef. We swung too close for comfort. Rather than setting a second anchor I felt it necessary to move even though it meant raising our anchor in the middle of the maelstrom. Not a good choice! It was an experience,
that we never wish to do again. I underestimated the force of the wind. It was so great that even with full power of 80 HP we couldn’t create enough headway to round up into the wind. We were fighting 3 to 4 foot waves in the lagoon. When the boat yawed the chain flew off the windlass gypsy (sprocket). Only using an anchor hook on deck could we keep the chain from going over-board. We had to take in the chain in stages. We raised maybe 20 feet of anchor chain and then snubbed the chain to protect the windlass as the wind blew us off. After we rounded up again into the wind we were then able to power directly forward to reduce the forces on the windlass and repeat the procedure. The next problem was that when our anchor lost it’s set we needed to be heading away from the reef because turning around towards the reef would be dicey. We did this and with relief we powered our way to safety and re-anchored with lots of scope.
Twentyseven boats found their way to Minerva Reef in before and during of the storm and we all rode out the blow without a single boat dragging anchor. We were stuck for 3 days during the bad weather but all was well.
Everyone then went back to focusing on the weather forecast to complete our trips. Most of us left as soon as the seas settled down. Our remaining 430 miles was crossed again with great winds and relatively easy sailing. After heaving to for several hours outside the pass we entered Fijian waters and worked our way through customs.
One interesting experience: After the storm most of the cruisers went onto the reef at low tide to socialize and have a beer. One senior cruiser took his crew in to explore the reef an hour before dusk and then on the way back to his boat his outboard engine died. Fortunately, he had a handheld VHF radio and called for help but almost everyone was off their boats and socializing. His radio reception was terrible and you couldn’t determine much of what he was saying or where he had drifted. One person did hear his request for help but there was a long lag time before others were enlisted for the rescue. Many of us didn’t have our dinghies in the water and the outboards were stored on the rail. Standing on the aft cabin with binoculars I was just able to pick his dinghy out from the whitecaps maybe 1½ miles downwind. By the time he was rescued the sun was setting. All of us have read about these types of emergencies but it is very easy to get lackadaisical. This fellow didn’t have either an anchor or flares in the dingy to signal for help and was just plain lucky. Another half hour and he would have been lost.
We had such nice winds that we arrived outside of the pass into Fiji too early at night and then hove-to to wait for sunrise. Neither of us slept well as the boat motion was wild and noisy. We came in the pass just after sunrise. It turned out to be the worst time as during our entrance through the pass the navigational lights on the range markers turned off because of the daylight leaving inadequate light to actually see the range markers. Our GPS took us right in. We expected to be at our destination by 1000 but that was not to be. We were told that our papers were incomplete and that we needed to check in an hour north or our destination. We jumped through all kinds of hoops to get through customs and immigration without paying overtime fees of 200 dollars or so and were absolutely beat by the time we got back to the marina at 1500 hours. Once the boat was secured, we fell asleep at 1700 hours and didn’t wake up for 10 to 12 hours! I haven’t been able to do that for twenty years!
All is well. Our friends were waiting, the marina in wonderful and we are happy to be here.
From the Captain of Always Saturday