Sitting in the beautiful bay, commonly known as the Blue Lagoon, where this article was started, it proved more difficult to write than any of the previous ones. The primary reason was that Fiji had so much to offer and this was the first country, since commencing our circumnavigation, to which we had returned. Needless to say, there was, therefore, so much to write about. In the interest of brevity we have combined both visits.
Fiji revealed herself to us slowly. What was staggering at first was the vastness of the islands, particularly the two main islands of Vanua Levu and Viti Levu. We sailed hundreds of miles to get from the southeast corner of the one island to the southwest corner of the other. Couple that with the extensive bus journeys we made to see the more remote spots and we can say we were certainly getting a taste of Fiji, after only two weeks. This included the fact that there aren't too many island nations that produce as much as Fiji does and it wasn’t uncommon, that in one sitting, everything we ordered was locally manufactured, from the bottled water to the coffee and sugar.
It is fair to say, that although we loved Samoa and felt that we had left our hearts behind when we sailed out of Apia, Fiji and it’s welcoming, friendly, beautiful people, definitely captured what was left, to the extent that, if there was a place on earth where we both would want to live after our sailing adventures are over, it is Fiji. It is difficult to articulate all the reasons why, but the evening before we set sail for New Zealand, as our 2016 sailing season came to a close, and while standing on the beach to watch the sun set, we experienced an unexpected degree of sadness. This was the telltale signs. For us, Fiji was a lovely surprise as we had not planned on visiting here in 2016 and had, therefore, done very little research prior to our arrival. We hope that once you have read this article, we will have succeeded in giving our readers a sense of what we had experienced there.
On 18 September 2016 we weighed anchor and set sail from Tonga. Fortunately, heading a little more north again meant slightly warmer weather, which was an improvement on the dreadful weather we had experienced in Tonga. Having to break out the winter woollies while in Tonga had made it difficult to believe we were actually sailing in the Tropics.
In the early hours of Monday, 19 September 2016, we sailed into the territorial waters of Fiji via the Lakeba Passage and, with daybreak, enjoyed the sights of the Lau Group of Islands. Since yachts are not permitted to stop at these islands en route to a Port of Entry, we had to continue on to our destination of Savusavu on the island of Vanua Levu, where we expected to arrive early the next morning.
We did, however, get to enjoy our first champagne sail in the South Pacific across the Koro Sea, in light winds, beautiful flat seas, under blue, sunny skies and gennaker flying; a well earned treat having sailed so many nautical miles! Overnight we also sailed from the Western Hemisphere to the Eastern Hemisphere, where we'll remain until our Atlantic crossing, having crossed the 180° meridian and the geographical date line. With Nina (Lynda and Steve) for company we made our way to Nakama Creek, enjoying the beautiful scenery and lovely homes along the shoreline. We also passed Cousteau Island Resort, which we had hoped to visit, but found out later it was closed to outside visitors.
Once we were informed of the correct clearing in process for yachts coming from Tonga specifically, due to the presence of chikengunya there, we anchored off and awaited the officials. After Paw Paw was fumigated, we were allowed to proceed to our allocated mooring ball just off Nawi Island, following which customs and immigration visited us to complete the rest of the process. It was extremely efficient and professional. Before we knew it, it was time for a nap, a hot shower and a reconnaissance in quick succession. We did, however, have a somewhat surreal feeling about arriving in Fiji as it was the "end of the line", the "last stop" of our 2016 sailing season before heading to New Zealand for the cyclone season, after sailing 10,733NM, just over a third of the way around the world. Unbelievable!
When we returned to Fiji six months later we found this same efficient, friendly process when we cleared in at Vuda Marina on Viti Levu Island. The wonderful welcome we received from the manager, Adam and the staff at Vuda Marina, not to mention the two stiff gin and tonics that were presented to us by Adam after our passage from hell, will, forever, remain in our memories. With Elaine in floods of tears, we were truly relieved to have arrived safe and sound after our ordeal of the previous 36 hours.
The Fijian islands, comprising a total of 332 islands and islets, of which Vanua Levu and Viti Levu are the largest, is populated with two ethnic groups, Melanesian and Indian. The latter communities dominate the big towns, and particularly those on the north coast at the centre of the sugar industry. They are all descendants from the imported labour brought in by the then British authorities to develop the sugar fields.
The Fijian-Indians have a natural sense of business that the indigenous Fijians lack and their prosperity has precipitated tensions and unrest between the two communities over the years, erupting in coups and causing a change to their constitution, where no Fijian-Indian may hold a political position. This act, considered discriminatory, resulted in Fiji having to leave the Commonwealth.
The outer islands where the Indian community has not penetrated are maintained on traditional cultures and customs. As such, there are strict guidelines for cruising yachts, including a rigid standard of dress and behaviour when visiting the island villages. This could include a formal ceremony called “sevusevu”, where “kava” roots are presented to the elder chief for his blessing to visit the island. It is considered taboo not to adhere, similar to pitching your tent in someone's backyard without their permission.
English is the first language used when Fijian races first interact, reflecting Fiji's colonial history, but, at heart, Fiji is a multi-lingual society. The iTaukei are the traditional landowners or descendants of Fiji's first settlers, with three hundred different dialects. There are also many of the languages of India, albeit a local form, as well as Cantonese, Mandarin, Samoan and Tongan spoken. English, iTaukei and Hindu are compulsory languages that are taught in schools, making the majority of Fijian's partly tri-lingual.
Visitors are often confused, which included ourselves, as to why the pronunciation of some words vs. its spelling is completely different. For example, the town that we visited for Elaine's physiotherapy sessions is called Nadi, but pronounced Nandi, since a "d" in iTaukei is pronounced as "nd". Similarly, "g" is "ng", "b" is "mb" and the Mamanuca Islands, where we spent a lot of time, is pronounced Mamanutha Islands, to mention a few. That said, there are three words that one learns very soon after arriving in Fiji: "Bula" meaning "hello" being the very first word, since everyone, and we mean everyone, greets everyone else, and we mean greets everyone they encounter throughout the day or night. Then there's "vinaka" for "thank you" and "moce" for "goodbye". Add the huge smile that goes with the "bula" greeting you receive and you cannot help but feel totally welcome!
After the decision was taken to head south to New Zealand for the southern hemisphere’s cyclone season, we knew getting there and back was going to be a challenge, given the treacherous stretch of ocean that we had to cross. It’s a stretch of ocean where yachts have been lost and, indeed, lives. We had always known that this part of the globe was notorious for the bad weather, where yachts have to pick their way through the unfavourable weather systems that constantly migrate across the south-western Pacific Ocean. On hindsight, it’s fair to say, we should have gone north, but our rationale to head south to New Zealand instead, considered the fact that this is a very popular hurricane destination, with numerous yachts doing the circuit annually and, as long as we were prepared, treating it just like every other passage we have undertaken, we would prevail. We already had an idea of what the specifics of the passage would be like, given the challenges we had already experienced on the passage from Samoa to Tonga, since the direction we would be heading in was similar. The phrase:”running the gauntlet” would prove to be a fair description of our passages to and from New Zealand.
So, having done all our research thoroughly and feeling prepared, we left Fiji. It was, of course, no surprise then, when transiting Navula Passage on 24th October 2016, that we encounter high winds and seas. With average boat speeds of 7.5-8.5 Kts we hoped the winds would last for as long as possible before we hit the "doughnut hole" in the middle of the high pressure system that was positioned between Fiji and New Zealand. Fortunately they did, and, although the weather settled down a few days later, we were still able to enjoy average boat speeds of 8 Kts in the decent winds supplied by Mother Nature.
Unfortunately, however, at the start of the passage, we’d made the decision to follow some ill-advice to head west towards 30ºS 173ºE. On our third day out we realised this was a bad strategy, given that the westerly winds previously forecasted were now expected to be southerly, becoming easterly the closer we got to New Zealand. This resulted in us having to make a major course correction and head due south in order to regain our easterly component, which basically cost us at least 100NM, not to mention, precious time. That also meant that we were now close-hauling. Fortunately the seas were relatively flat with only a large rolling south-easterly swell which made this, normally unpleasant point of sail, a little easier. We did, however, know that these conditions would not last and we weren’t disappointed. In the blink of an eye, the wind direction changed from easterly to south-easterly and the sea developed a short, steep chop, causing us to slam and bounce around. After reefing further and altering course again, we were no longer able to head south, but more south, south-west, which was not ideal. With roughly 220NM to go, we were looking forward to" land ahoy" having altered course again to accommodate the strong counter current we started to experience every night.
Prior to this passage we had also taken the decision to sail Paw Paw more aggressively in order to keep our speed up and get to Opua ahead of a wave of unpleasant south-westerly gales. We knew, of course, that this strategy would have some consequences. In particular, we would have to make sail changes immediately to get the best out of the conditions as they fluctuated and we would motor-sail or motor as needed. This was different to previous passages in that we normally postponed sail changes to coincide with watch changes and we barely used the motors unless we started to “bob”.
While the strategy was successful, it meant making numerous sail changes throughout the day and night and switching the motors on and off like light bulbs as conditions warranted, leaving us both suffering from a degree of sleep deprivation, but more so for Elaine apparently. It was on this passage that we had another first on Paw Paw. Roy woke Elaine for the last of the night watches, but while making an early morning cup of tea for us, he wondered why she was taking so long to come up to the saloon. On further investigations he found her fast asleep; after being woken up initially she had simply turned over and gone right back to sleep. Needless to say she was absolutely mortified when Roy had to wake her a second time! While we took every opportunity to catch up on sleep, eat well and stay warm as the temperatures dropped with each degree that we sailed south, this passage had clearly taken its toll.