Tidal Flow: The Ebb and Flood of Two Months in Vanuatu

Our intention this trip was to keep the posts shorter and more frequent, this seemed a great plan until we realized how sparse Internet connection is in Vanuatu. The only available connection that we have found is in the main towns of Port Vila and Luganville and as Atea has just cleared customs; we are feeling an urgent need to share some of our experiences.

Vanuatu is comprised of a chain 83 islands (69 of which are inhabited) and in its backbone lies a line of volcanoes which are separated from neighbouring countries by the Pacific Ocean and the Coral Sea. The land here is lush, fertilized by the rich volcanic soil, offering a pristine deep forest that blankets the land. Villages are speckled throughout the foliage, buried from view deep within its organic green layers.

Geology and sociology have had a significant impact in the cultural isolation inherent in ni-Van society. The geological makeup separating each individual island by a deep ocean pass was one reason for the lack of inter-island exchange; the second significant factor was the common practice of cannibalism. With the stakes high, few were wiling to take on these risks in order to meet the neighbours. As a result, inter-island exchange was near non-existent and each island community developed independently from each other until missionaries turned dining on human flesh a taboo practice. You can feel this distinction in each island and it makes each stop an adventurous new discovery.

In reflecting on our time in Vanuatu, we summarize the experience into a short list of lowlights and highlights, our ebb and flood of travel experiences. On the low side we include the list of ailments, injuries and breakages collected whilst in Vanuatu waters of which all four of us (Atea as fourth) are included. As follows:

The first incident occurred when Kia became almost totally crippled after her back went out whilst lifting our healthy – but heavy – baby boy. Bedbound and in serious pain, we celebrated her birthday with a heavy dose of painkillers, anti-inflammatories and muscle relaxants. With the help of this medicinal trifecta and slow, cautious movements we nursed her back to heath and mobility. The upside of this was a take-over from John as main parent and an increase in John’s tasks (other than those that require nipples); as a result, the bond between father and son strengthened and Kia’s boys developed a deeper connection through the process.

The next incident involved a serious breakage to Atea’ rig. The forestay fitting parted at the top of the mast, a major disability in boat terms, and potentially a crippling one had we been going to windward at the time if the break. As fortune had it, we were on a downwind sail and were able to set a temporary mast support, furl the genoa and sail for safe anchorage. Safe in the short term however stuck long term. The broken component was a very specific part of the mast rigging and we were an ocean away from a suitable replacement. We got in touch with a rigging expert in NZ to identify and supply a replacement part for the one that had failed, but because of unreliable interisland mail and obstructive customs officials we were up against another obstacle. The network of individuals involved in connecting us to this particular critical freight became a highlight event. In sum, Greg posted our requirements on Facebook and we were immediately connected to three parties leaving for Vanuatu within the week. Another friend, Emma, collected the part and gave it to friends heading to Port Vila, an island town 300 miles south of our location. We organized with a sales rep at Air Vanuatu an intricate handover from a cargo agent in Port Vila to a stewardess on a flight north, who carried the pint-sized parcel in her hand luggage. From there, we connected with a customer service agent at the airport in Luganville who – by miracle – placed the package in our hands. Kia kissed the woman a half dozen times and headed for home, six hours later, by hitching a ride into a packed tourist van to a petrol station then onward on the back of a lorry with six locals and their assortment of belongings in the dark of the night… but that’s another story.

The next lowlight was John’s infected ankle. What started as a minor blister from a wetsuit boot developed into a fully septic and painfully swollen ankle – a very common injury in the tropics, and one that can be difficult to heal in moist conditions. To be told “avoid water” whilst traveling through foreign waters by boat in the tropics…. For God’s sake, get real! We were again blessed with the generosity of strangers who directed us to the hospital to seek out a specific doctor – who turned out to be a nurse – who directed us to the appropriate parties at a fraction of the standard cost. In a “two-for-one” deal Kia received an x-ray for a chest infection she’d been harbouring for a few weeks, a penicillin butt jab for John’s infected ankle and associated medications. The doctor, a Cuban national, was pleased to entertain Kia’s poor attempts at Spanish when general understanding failed in Bislama and French. We were skeptic that we were being treated for the right conditions given the language debauchery, however a few weeks saw medical improvements and so we carry on with Captain and Admiral restored to a respectable standard of health.

A final entry in this litany of woes is Braca’s metamorphosis from “Angel Baby” by day into “Hell Child” at night. Even parents as proud as we are must admit that our darling son, as adorable in the day as he has ever been, is going through a difficult phase at night. Braca’s physical health is strong and he has sailed (pardon the pun) through these weeks with smiles and laughter, more than his parents at times, and oh, what we’d all give for a full nights sleep. But then we did sign up to the world of infanthood and the blessings Braca brings far exceed these minor discomforts. And of blessings, gifts and marvels, Braca has provided us with many. Since our departure from New Zealand, Braca has gained four teeth top and bottom and sprouted a healthy head of white-blond hair. He has added M’s to his babble for an incessant muttering of “mamamama ma mama,” learned a relatively pathetic crawl and a very competent upright stand. We are now handholding him as he takes brazen steps forward and we all get our exercise in laps around the deck. He is developing a healthy passion for the water in the form of a deck water nozzle, plastic spa-pool, and turtle kicks in the ocean shallows.

He is also learning to be quite accepting of strangers. Young and old, men and women alike show delight when they see our little white boy. Braca is constantly whisked from our arms and taken away by these friendly and family-loving people. While a little disconcerting the first time, we’ve adjusted to losing sight of our son upon arrival at any given village. He’s accrued a lifetime supply of kisses and has a healthy start in the world knowing that he is well doted on by family and stranger alike. Villagers will pinch his cheeks or his thighs and call him “fatty, fatty” to whom I proudly display his routund belly and bulging legs. Fortunately he is too young for a complex and intrigued by the cluster of faces that crowd him.

On the subject of locals, the men deserve a mention for their physique as magnificent athletes. Both men and women alike gape at the hard-bodied men and you can see where they get a solid reputation as warriors. You can also imagine a healthy reputation as lovers when you see the men dressed in the traditional garb of vines and leaves. We visited the island of the Big Mambas and Little Mambas, thus named because of the size of a man’s mamba (penis sheath). John was not averse to visiting the tribes of the “Little Mamba’s” where the penis is wound up in a scrap of leaf tied by a vine around the waist. Despite Kia’s interest, however, a visit to the tribes of the “Big Mambas” was not on the skipper’s itinerary.

While in many Pacific island nations the traditional dugouts have been replaced by fiberglass hulled boats and roaring outboard motors, traditional outriggers dominate the shores of Vanuatu. Men silently paddle up in their outriggers, toddlers underfoot, welcoming us to new bays and offering local produce or a morning’s catch for trade. It is always a pleasant exchange and has often led to invites into the community or their company on deck for an afternoon exchange.

We have also been made welcome ashore within the villages. The ni-Van’s are very friendly, hospitable people and we’ve delighted in the opportunities we’ve had with them. In several island’s we’ve been privy to local dancing and traditional feasts, a local pig invariably served as main course (whose screeches and bellows were loudly broadcasted only a few hours before). We’ve had a unique exchange whereby we were ‘adopted’ into the community by a local family, who offered gifts of woven baskets and homegrown produce. Our ‘sister’ worked at the dispensary and took us on a tour of the clinic; a run down unit in the middle of the bush with little on offer but a rusted metal bed in a overheated cement room and a maternity unit that held stale air, a torn and wilted mosquito net and a cold-metal bassinette for the newly arrived.

Onward in our list of highlights, we’ve been pointed in the direction of human skull and crossbones, the sacrifice unclarified of origin – local dispute, a debt paid, or the last nosy cruiser – and went on a wild hunt for the horrid remains. We were repeatedly reassured that we’d found the site, a secluded bat filled cave tucked up in a small coastal cove, but on clarification the remains have been finally put to rest beneath the sandy surface.

We’ve witnessed the audacious custom of land-diving, unique to Pentecost Island, where men dive from a 60-foot tower to be arrested only inches from the ground by vines strapped to their feet, their head touching the ground in a blessing for the earth and good yam harvest. Another highlight in the category of local custom is the “Water Dancers” of the Banks – grass skirted women who stand waist deep in the ocean and make a tune and beat using only the seawater they are standing in. Who would have thought that water could be whipped, pounded, flicked, scattered and beaten to produce a percussive masterpiece.

We’ve hiked to glistening waterfalls, swam in blue-hole water pools, glided down fresh water rapids – bare rumped and wide-eyed. Of salt-water treasures, we’ve been privy to some fantastic dive sites, namely the world famous “President Coolidge” and “Million Dollar Point.” The Coolidge is a luxury liner that was sunk by an allied-mine during World War II and still well preserved. We were guided through her innards and buzzed with excitement as we floated through ghostly halls and holds, over bombs and ballrooms. Million Dollar Point is an underwater scrapyard from the end of the WWII effort, created when departing US forces left tanks heaped on planes, heaped on ships and jeeps and trucks – all stockpiled at the waters edge on a white sandy beach.

Also worth comment when mentioning deep-sea treasures are the living beasts within the sea. Dugong, also known as manatee, have approached us while on paddleboard and given send-off as we’ve cautiously edged our way through shallow passes. We’ve swum with sea turtle and been surrounded by shimmering reef fish, and even had a five-foot shark take our lure. We were about to wrestle the shark to retrieve our lure on a salvage mission before the line broke – a fortunate event for our intact digits. We’ve dined on delicious tuna, wahoo and fresh lobster – either caught on Atea or delivered to the boat by locals for a trifling sum. Kia’s even been slapped in the face by a acrobatic squid breaking the water’s surface for a quick French kiss in passing.

We’ve sat on the rim of an active volcano and listened to the deep rumble and the firework display of spewing lava – apparently the closest you can get anywhere in the world. I am not sure which was more awe inspiring: Being that close to the boiling pit or the audacious drive up and down the mountain to get there. The drive was an adventure in itself, the truck expertly maneuvered through muddy ruts, near drop-offs and sheer cliffs. Braca and Kia were given the front seat for some false-sense of security while the corralled passengers in the bed of the truck dodged tree branches and held on with white knuckles. The driver became alarmed when we passed two tourists on the side of the road, then settled and made an interesting comment: “It is okay. They will be safe. White people are safe here in Tanna. The Chief told us that they are taboo. ” Well, at least we won’t be served up as dinner in this spot!
And of course, we can’t conclude this entry without mention of Atea and her champion efforts this season. While our cruise last year was plagued by fuel and mechanical issues, Atea has been going well this year and the recent refit seems to have been money well spent. We are well stocked up and living in comfort onboard, aside from the occasional craving of decadent luxuries. The decision to join a rally has provided us with the support and camaraderie that we hoped for, and the group of cruising boats with us provides varied and interesting company. Baby sitters when we need it, drinking buddies when the sun gets over the yardarm and familiar faces around us as we get further and further from our families and home.

And so we conclude our experiences – both good and ‘compromised’ – from our stay in Vanuatu. We’ve recently paid our dues and said farewell to the custom’s officials and so from here we enter the realm of illegal immigrant as we continue our journey northward. For the next two weeks we will unofficially be sailing through Vanuatu waters, stopping in the northernmost group of islands in the Torba Province as we head for the Solomon Islands. As of this morning, our GPS went on the blink and the backlighting has failed us, a significant obstacle in that it renders the screen unreadable. John’s foot continues to seep and Atea continues to weep rust stains down her bow. That said, the sun is shining, the water is clear and warm and we enjoy each day filled with the delight of new possibilities and the potential for unexpected adventures. Stay tuned for our next list of high’s and low’s.

Solomon’s – here we come! Know of anyone heading that way? We’re keen to get replacement GPS brought up in some hand luggage….

Baby Onboard: Braca’s First Ocean Passage

What makes this particular passage of interest to most is the little mini crew member affectionately referred to as “Powder Monkey.” In the 1800’s, Powder Monkey was the term used on war ships for the young boys who ran gunpowder from storeroom to gunnery. While we are void of powder stores and the machinery that requires it, our youngest qualifies as he is fast learning how to scurry about our ship, albeit on his belly.

As all parents know, there are small and large fears that lurk in the recesses of our minds when it comes to our offspring. As wardens of their welfare, it is easy to consume oneself with the “what if’s” of happenstance. While we have marched forward with determination to see our cruising lifestyle continue, it wasn’t without some trepidation that we watched land fade from sight. My biggest fear was seasickness as dehydration in an infant would be a major issue. Given there is 1,000 miles ahead of us on this trip, there would be no fast solution if Braca became ill. My second concern was knocks, bumps and falls, as the last thing a boat at sea offers is a stable surface. I’m sure a different set of parents would have a different list of concerns, but these were my two big contenders when it came to my son’s safety.

I am pleased to say that we’ve come through the other side after confronting these fears to no ill effect. Braca was unfazed by Atea’s osculating surfaces and fair seas left managing him on Atea a rather stress-free affair.

We sped along at 8 knots in quartering seas during our first 24-hours, putting 183 miles behind us in one day. It was a fast sail, and our biggest test during this passage was Braca’s ability to handle the seas. He was, fortunately, the only to appear unaffected. Even myself, yet to be seasick, felt queasy in the big rollers that slopped over our stern side. My number one fear was quelled in the first day – if that didn’t shake him, nothing would.

Fortunately, the rest of the trip has been remarkable from a mother’s protective eye. We’ve had wind on all fronts, so not always ideal from a sailor’s standpoint. The initial southwesterly wind that swept us forward eased mid-passage and turned toward the north finally swinging back around to the west on the fifth day. Though we were the last of the fleet depart Opua by several hours, we’ve quickly made good of the weather and positioned ourselves in the middle of the fleet. We cast our jerseys and woollies on the second day, enjoying the warmth of the tropics as we gained headway north. And so, my second fear was thus appeased by the amicable weather.

Life onboard a ship with an infant requires certain alterations. We’ve baby-proofed the interior so that Braca has a safe spot forward, mid-ship and aft. Our aft quarter bunk has a lee-cloth that turns captain’s quarters into a queen-sized playpen. We have a mosquito-proof baby tent that doubles as his cot that takes up half of the pilot berth, the other side a nappy changing table. In the saloon we have a porta-seat attached to the table, a reclining chair that is cushioned in place on the floor, and swabs that turn the side of the settees into padded walls for a safe tummy-time zone. In the cockpit we have a baby-seat come commander’s chair, and washboards that turn the cockpit floor into a kid-friendly zone. Every locker, drawer, and cabinet is stuffed to the brim with a sizeable collection of baby toys, and the bookshelf holds its own section of Dr. Zeus and Harry MacLary. Add in the stroller tied on deck, a baby backpack stowed forward and the nappies hanging on a line in the cockpit and we’ve fully transformed Atea into a Plunket-approved ship.

Cleaning nappies was a question often asked, and we’ve come up with a workable solution. Soiled cloth nappies are tossed into a mesh bag that is permanently fixed to the aft rail. We hang the nappies over the side for an initial rinse cycle, then they go into a bucket for a fresh water wash. The nappies are cleaner than any of the washing machines we’ve used ashore, which is particularly beneficial as they’ve turned into a permanent fixture in the cockpit, hanging like Christmas garland above our heads.

While Braca isn’t able to give an indication of his particular like or dislike for ocean sailing, he has certainly shown no signs of discomfort or disturbance. Life continues on Atea much as it did in the marina, with the addition of his father as another constant playmate. The added noise of rushing water, the occasional drum of the engine, the constant clatter of the drawers as they open and close to the sway of boat, the pots and pans that randomly rattle about don’t seem to bother him. Surprisingly, he has continued to develop his mobility while at sea, starting to add knees into his forward propulsion and learning, slowing, to crawl. He has also sprouted three upper teeth during the passage so his smile is starting to look less of an infant and more of a toddler, and of course with it, the shock of an occasional bite.

As I finish this we are 50 miles south of Aneityum, just visible on the horizon. We are sailing along at 6.5-7.0 knots, and will be in just before dusk at this rate. We will conclude our passage north from New Zealand in a few more hours and set our anchor down on new shores. Tonight we will celebrate – a toast to the 1,000 nautical miles of ocean behind us and to the first of many islands to come.

Tonight we will also celebrate the completion of Braca’s first ocean passage on his seven-month birthday, Thursday 17th of May.

Opua – A Chaotic Pause

All good trips are best started with great comedy. At least, that’s one way to look at the week spent in Opua. Others might say different, choosing to look at oneself as the fool, but why burden ourselves with such an image when we can claim the character of jester instead?

Opua was intended to be a short, inconsequential stay between leaving Auckland and leaving New Zealand – idle time we expected to spend chumming with fellow cruisers in the ICA rally.  “Rush rush” – the chaos leading up to our departure from Auckland. “Wait” – the pause in Opua while the fleet gathered for the joint departure north.

Our first few days we were kicking ourselves for the mad rush out of Auckland. The ICA itinerary for the week in Opua left a lot of gaps to be filled. As the weather wasn’t going to allow us to depart on our intended date, scheduled events were pushed back and the first few days in Opua were empty ones, filled with our last indulgences: flat-whites and chocolate brownies, last minute tidy-up items on Atea, and a slow lull-about the marina and its premises. Rush rush wait………

The tides turned for us on Thursday, and things got hectic. That morning we filled our tank with duty free diesel, pumping 800 litres into the tank before we noticed diesel pouring into the bilge. Atea was purchased without a fuel gauge so we had a sight-glass professionally installed over the summer to end the continual guesswork and the constant risk of running empty. We were marking the new glass in increments, so we were fortunate to have the floorboards up and were able to see the leakage in the bilge. Had this not been the case, we’d have filled the tank to capacity and sailed off towards the blue horizon, only to realize a few days out that the entire contents had leaked into the bottom of our boat and we were to spend another passage north without a running engine and a repeat of last year’s fiasco.

The following day Atea was put up on the hard, and tucked into the Opua boatyard for her repairs. Fortunately a colleague of John’s had invited us to dinner the previous evening and when Rachael and Blake heard of the change in our living situation we were invited to stay as long as we needed. Being sailors, they understood that a boat in the yard is not inhabitable. A boat in the yard would mean a climb up a ladder while balancing infant on hip, his naps continuously disrupted by electric hand tools, a boat filled with toxic diesel fumes, and a cabin dismantled to allow access the belly of the boat.  We owe  them great thanks for sparing us that particular inconvenience. We’d already confiscated their car keys on arrival, and not two hours after arriving for dinner we confiscated their house keys as well and stayed for a week. Their gracious hospitality was heaven-sent and turned a fiasco into a mini-holiday for Braca and I, and relief to John that we didn’t have to negotiate a boat repair around the needs of our child.

Blake and Rachael – if you read this – again, thank you. Not only for saving our a*%$, but for offering your friendship. I so enjoyed our week together; evening meals and late night banter was such a treat for both of us… not to mention all the indulgences that came along with our stay..

While Braca and I were enjoying life ashore, John was spending full days working in the boatyard. Atea was lifted out on Friday, 4May, then he and a local engineer drained the diesel out, dismantled the cabin floor to access the tank, found the leak (due to an incorrectly installed sight glass), put the tank top back in place, refilled the tank and we were lifted back into the water on Wednesday evening. The departure of the fleet had been pushed back to Thursday morning and we worked hard to get Atea ready to sail with the fleet.

After a very expensive week in Opua, we were finally on our way at 12:00PM on Thursday, 10 May. The weather reports in our favour, we set sail as the last boat in our fleet of fifteen and pointed our ships bows towards her next destination: Aneityum, Vanuatu.

Captain’s Log:

I enjoyed staying with Blake and Rach, but my god, other than that, having the boat ashore in Opua was an expensive fiasco.

Just like last year (when lack of a $5 washer gave us fuel/water problems all trip), this sight-glass repair was one where a small error cost us a huge amount of hassle and money to put right.  If the original installer had put the sight-glass 1 inch lower it would have been perfect, but being 1 inch too high it was above the upper level of the tank and therefore a leak waiting to happen.  It was such an unnecessary expense.

As Kia has said above, the best thing about this whole business is that we discovered it before we departed – being at sea to find all your diesel has leaked into the bilge would not have been a good moment.

I must confess though, there was one comic episode in the diesel saga which was entirely our own error. During the repair, we’d pumped all our diesel into a portable tank on wheels beside the boat.  When the time came to refill Atea’s tank from the portable one, the temporary tank had emptied so quickly that we jumped to the wrong conclusion that all out diesel had been thieved whilst in storage in the yard.  I was in the foulest of moods, bemoaning the Northland locals as we went back to Caltex to buy another 700 litres of diesel – well, it made their day at least.

Back at the yard, we started filling again, and soon discovered the location of Atea’s missing diesel – it was already safely in the ships tank, which was now very full (which is why the level didn’t show on the glass).   I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, so chose to laugh at my own stupidity.

After reselling the extra diesel at a significant loss, I was done with Opua.  Let’s get going north, let’s get sailing.  As always, it’s a huge relief to drop the dock lines, head out of the channel and put the bows to the open ocean.

At a Turtle’s Pace

We are at the start of our second season on Atea, and so time to get the fingers tapping and some of the stories of recent activity recorded. After the conclusion of our first expedition in September 2011, we settled our waterlogged roots in Bayswater Marina, Auckland, for a Kiwi summer as we charted new territory as a fledgling family.

We were graced with six full months ashore amongst our whanau and I feel such gratitude for our friends and family who’ve turned Braca’s arrival into such a spectacular celebration, and for the support in making our transition into parenthood a smooth and joyous one.  Thank you for all the generosity, the fun, the love, and the connection. In parting, I already look forward to our return!

As the kiwi season turns to autumn, the days get shorter and the nights colder, we prepare for our journey north. Prior to the pace of preparations hitting it’s apex, Braca and I packed our bags and headed for the States, leaving John to do the hard labour. Again, it is my firm belief that most wouldn’t be able to accomplish what John has been able to pull together to get Atea ready for the demands of our upcoming season. Over the past several months John would cast suit as a PM during the day and don grubby garb in the evening as PM on his own personal campaign: Readying Atea for the 2012 season, and whatever lay ahead for us beyond that.

My return to New Zealand was planned around a 1st May departure from Auckland to meet up with the ICA, a rally of cruising boats heading through several island groups together. Braca and I returned to a flurry of final preparations and farewell parties and then the three of us set sail four days later for the Bay of Islands to meet up with the group. Caught half way with poor weather and an unknown amount of diesel in the tank, we sheltered at Kawau and began our feeling of a mad rush to wait. Through the next few days we kept chanting the mantra, “Rush Rush Rush Wait.” We rushed out of Auckland to wait out the weather in Kawau, then rushed up to Opua to find ourselves waiting again. We’d left in a mad dash to arrive in Opua on the dates specified by the ICA to find little activity and another delay in departure due to weather conditions. Rush rush wait. Our intended departure from Opua to Anatom, Vanuatu was planned for the 5th of May, pushed back to the 9th of May, and currently set for the 10th of May. Due to certain unforeseen and unfortunate circumstances, we may not even make that timeline. Stay tuned.

Skippers Notes – “Why is a ship called ‘She?’”

So if Atea needed a quiet summer to rest and recuperate – she got it. Not so my wallet though, and it seemed that our budget for boat work needed to be continually revised upwards.

Firstly, there was the maintenance identified during the trip south – salt water in the diesel meant the injectors and fuel tank needed cleaning, and a valve was installed to prevent future water ingress. The genoa roller furler needed replacement, and the BBQ (washed overboard on the way south) needed repair.

With those vitals taken care of, we turned our attention to enhancements identified during the previous season. The cockpit was often too hot, so we put in a hatch for ventilation. The batteries took a hammering and discharged very quickly, so we replaced those with new ones. Continuing on the electrics, we made a serious upgrade to the solar panels. The new ones are not only ample for our power needs, but we received an added benefit as it casts a significant amount of shade over the aft deck where we spend much of the time.

Since the little stowaway is now out of the oven and increasingly active we’ve installed a travel cot and tie downs, and seemingly every drawer I open is filled with toys to keep the boy entertained. We also have a 30-meter roll of safety netting to install later in the passage. Since Braca is just beginning to crawl, we must tie the netting around the guard rails before he learns to move too fast. To keep the grandparents (and other interested parties) informed of Braca and Atea’s progress we upgraded the electronics so that we have the ability to send and receive emails at sea, which will also allow us to update our position on the blog daily.

To keep the adults entertained, we added a new stereo and cockpit speakers, so can now crank up the sounds and frighten off the seagulls. Santa provided a clever new VHF radio, so hopefully our cruising colleagues can hear us too. Legislation in Singapore waters requires us to have an AIS transponder… another $800 gone. The alternator needed reconditioning, the mainsail has been serviced, the water pumps needed replacement and so the list goes on. Those who own boats will understand this, and the old adage of “a boat is a hole in the water into which you pour money” has never seemed more apt.

And finally, in the week before departure, we’ve carried onboard six vast shopping trolleys of stores – aiming to have all the basics for a seven-month voyage. Unlike last year, we are also well stocked up with grog. The tins, bottles and bags have finally disappeared into lockers, bilges and other secret stowages, and I think we’re ready. With all this weight of food, fuel, water and wine, Atea is lower in the water, but I think she is in good shape and her systems are enhanced to keep the three of us in safety and comfort. It’s time to go. Time to stop spending money, and start sailing.

Post script: We found a leak in the diesel tank five days after leaving Auckland, so Atea is in the boatyard for repairs. I am reminded of the following quote: “Why is a ship called ‘She’? Because it’s not the initial cost that breaks you, it’s the upkeep.” We are feeling this acutely and hope there are no more delays before departure.

Baby Braca Tai

Our little stowaway has finally come on scene! Born on 17 October, 2011, he greeted us at 8:10AM at 3.4kg/7lb10oz and 20 inches. Welcome our little powder monkey!

Click here to see the first few months of this little sailor’s life.

Friends and Fanfare

If I am to break down our time in Fiji into stages, I see three distinct segments. The first was as sailors within the cruising route, the second as intrepid explorers on the cultural route, and the third as tourists enjoying the “postcard Fijian experience.” All three are worth their weight in gold – or for a more nautical expression, worth their weight in salt – for what each allowed us to experience.

And so, we spent our final weeks in the company of good friends, based in Musket Cove and exploring the Mamanukas in more detail. Our first impression of this chain had been one of dismay, far from the explorative travel we were hoping for. However, on closer examination we found it to be a charming collection of anchorages, once away from the resort hubs. We experienced some of our best diving here, some stunning scenery, remote islands and a few scattered villages. We spent a wonderful couple of weeks discovering these pearls, as well as simply kicking our feet up poolside and indulging in all the luxuries of resort accommodations.

We had two sets of friends join us during our final days in Fiji. I comically define them as the “child haters” and “child lovers,” though both an exaggeration in descriptive label. This was because, after a season of travel where I was pretty isolated from feedback and influence concerning my pregnancy, I now shared time with friends who were both curious and interested in our child-to-be. This brought with it resolution on feeling blessed to get the experience of motherhood, and fear of the demand of what that actually required.

Where our first guests had made the active decision that having children was not a course they would choose, the second were enjoying their second year of parenthood. Our so-called “child haters” highlighted all the things around us that would limit us, demand of us, exclude us from. Ironically, this solidified for me the feeling that I had done all that I wanted to do without children, and this next step in life would be my next big learning curve – my next big adventure. Now, they weren’t really child haters per say, and to be fair Dena and I spent a number of wonderful moments talking theoretically about children and motherhood. It was the first time for me in all of my pregnancy that I had an outlet for these discussions, and I cherished it. It was good female bonding as well as time spent thinking in depth about a world I know nothing about. Alice’s tunnel – I am about to tumble through! I truly hope it is a Wonderland.

Our second visitors, following directly after Nick and Dena, were our “child lovers,” who were bringing their two year old to give us a taste of reality! Now, I do have to say up front that Max is one of the easiest children I have met, adorable, well tempered and in what I am sure most would say, a parent’s dream child. So, with that stated, I still felt exhausted watching the amount of energy it took to occupy the curiosities of a toddler… and to keep up with such a bundle of energy. There were a few moments when I looked at John and said, “I can’t do this!! I’m exhausted already and we aren’t doing any of the work!!!” – that, after ranting at length on the blessing and beauty of parenthood a week prior!

The time spent with both couples was wonderful, parenthood apprehensions aside. We got to explore some new territory, find some of the most beautiful corals and bump through vibrant schools of reef fish, watch sunsets over some of the most glorious remote islands and skip along long stretches of white sand beaches without sight of another human form. And then we indulged in the complete opposite; body messages, coconut cocktails, infinity pools, fresh seafood, entertainment that required nothing of us than to kick back and enjoy. It was the perfect conclusion to our cruising season– spent with good friends surrounded by luxury and indulgence.

John and I felt that we had experienced a wonderful mix during our time in the South Pacific islands. We were now prepared to return Atea to home base and welcome the next phase of our relationship, and our next adventure.

One last story before I conclude Atea’s 2011 South Pacific voyage. I stayed in Fiji four days after Atea’s departure for New Zealand so that I could help provision and prepare Atea for the delivery trip. We had accepted a request by a German backpacker to join on the passage south, and so a few days before departure we brought Toby onboard as crew for the delivery. That way John had a second onboard to help with shifts, Toby had a ride south, and I could escape passage duty guilt-free knowing that John had a second pair of hands. As we said our farewells, John’s last words to me were: “Stay safe while I am gone – and make sure you make it to the airport on time!”

Well, I’ve never been one to follow someone else’s command.

After their departure, I checked into a seaside hotel and prepared to relax and pamper myself through my last few days in Fiji. I looked quite the sight. A solo pregnant woman didn’t quite fit the ideal picture. I am sure the rumours amongst the staff and guests circulated – an abandoned woman left in her final stages of pregnancy. How sad. The poor woman. How miserable she must feel….

One day passed and I defaulted on my promise to John. “Stay safe.” Right. In the late afternoon I took a walk around the neighbourhood to get a bit of exercise and was attacked by a stray dog. Charged by three, one decided to break the “stand-off” and lunged for my ankle, puncturing my skin with his four canines. My first was response was incredulous – “what do you think you are doing, you stupid dog?!?!” That quickly turned to panic as the dog made a second lunge. This time I screamed at the top of my lungs, “GET YOUR F@#*ING DOG INDOORS!” F@#*ING F@#* F@#* F@#*!!!

The shriek brought neigbhours to my rescue. As they scattered the mangy mob I hobbled down the street to safety, tucking into a bush to inspect my wounds. I had blood pouring from ankle to foot and throbbing pain mixed with panic – rabies? Just what could this mean at this stage in my pregnancy? Was the baby okay – forget the foot!

I spent several hours at the hospital, a jab of tetanus in my butt and medications to stop infection. To pull some good from the event, I got a pregnancy checkup confirming all was well with bubs in the belly.

I chose to fly two weeks after the airlines cut off for pregnant women. The rules dictated that I would not be permitted to fly five weeks before my due date; I’d book for three weeks prior. Hell, what fun is life if you don’t push the limits?! Regardless, I felt I was running a stroke of bad luck and I didn’t want that to carry through to check in. So, I told my story to the doctor and with a little nudge and wink, asked if she could write me a “doctor’s note.” Now, in New Zealand or America I wouldn’t dare suggest it with fear of lawsuits and legal ethics binding doctors tight. But hey, this was the islands – and rules tend to be a little more negotiable. We plotted an acceptable term, and I walked out with a punctured butt, a bandaged foot, and a doc’s note that said that I was 32 weeks pregnant. I received my “get out jail free” card, and I was getting on that flight to New Zealand!!

Skippers Diary – Fiji to NZ Delivery

Day 1 – Just outside Musket Reefs, Log reading 20 miles, distance to run 1250 miles, wind SSE 15 knots

After all the hassle of custom’s and provisioning and fueling and checking weather and preparing crew and filling water, of packing up the boat and stacking the dinghy on deck and all the other preps that go into a departure, it is always such a relief when the ship’s bow is heading for open ocean and all you have to do is sail. I feel this every time I put to sea, but today is tinged with a new feeling; sadness and emptiness.  Kia is not here and I miss her already.  Despite all the logic about her not being onboard and going home safely by plane, it just doesn’t feel right to not have her with me. I feel like a part of me is missing.

The exit from the Fiji waters was pleasant. We sailed out of a narrow channel about an hour before dusk, and the boat was going well under full sail and a 15 knot beam reach. There was a kiter enjoying the evening, in the same spot Nick and I were kiting only 10 days ago, so it’s a fond farewall to Fiji as we head out into the open ocean and the first night.

Days 2 and 3 – first 300 miles, distance to run 950 miles, wind SSE 20 knots

I’m writing this later since I was in no state for diarising over the first 48 hours. Both Toby and I have been seasick, eating nothing and very low energy.  Watch handovers have been literally a time for handing the bucket over and exchanging little else. It wasn’t until the end of Day 3 that either of us were able to keep any food down, but noodle soup and crackers and water are gradually becoming attractive and staying down where they should.

Atea, however has been sailing strongly – the winds that have made for rough seas and clenched stomachs have given the boat a good boost. We’ve been sailing at 6 to 7 knots under staysail and reefed main only, with 20 to 25 knot winds fine on the port bow.

More worrisome, however, is that water now appearing in the fresh fuel that we purchased just before leaving. This has to be removed at the filters and I’ve spent a few unpleasant moments tending to this in a hot heaving engine room. After the saga of water contamination on the trip up to Tonga I’m damned if we’re going to have the same problem here. We will just keep on bleeding the water out at the filter until it runs clear.

I miss Kia and wish she was here to look after me.

Day 4 – Log reading 380 miles, distance to run 900 miles, wind variable

The day started well, with a 3 sail beam reach and Atea charging along at over 7 knots across seas that seem to be easing. We’ve both had Weetbix for breakfast, and my body is feeling fitter and stronger again.

Mid-morning – as the wind continued to rise I’ve had to take in the genoa since I’m worried about the state of the roller bearings. Our speed has dropped from over 8 knots to 6.5, but although this is slower, it’s safer and ocean passages are about getting boat and crew there in one piece.  This is why I’ve never been interested in ocean racing –  it seems like two incompatible activities to me.

PM – the good moring has turned to a very poor PM.  The wind gradually moved further and further to the south so that we have been left with a SW 25 to contend with. I expected some bad winds, but not so soon and not so far north. Real slow. Auckland seems a very long way away at 3 knots.

Day 5 – Log reading 450 miles,  900 miles to run, wind SW 10 knots

Midnight – ugh, more fuel problems and the filters were full of water when I checked. We’ve had the motor on to try to keep some progress against these F**%^ king headwinds. I hate these situations.  It teaches you patience, and some might say its beneficial. I bet none of those people have been here crashing up and down for 24 hours.

I’m very tired since I have to check the fuel filters every hour. Every now and then I find one of the little notes Kia left around the boat. Such sweet little comments, they make my heart leap and I smile. But like an addict without my drugs I’m soon wanting the real thing. I don’t wish she was here with me; I wish we were both somewhere else.

Both headfurlers seem to be u/s.  We had to unroll the staysail manually and I’m worried about how to manage those sails when we get into the strong winds that we will surely encounter near NZ. On a sailboat there are so many little things to keep track of,  how much simpler would it be if someone else was looking after all these items? Next trip I’m going to be at 40,000 ft with a Gin and Tonic.

Day 6 – Log reading 550 miles, distance to run – 650, wind variable

We spoke with NZ radio last night to pass over a position report and listen for any updated weather comments. They told us that favourable winds were coming and we’ve just persevered all night as the headwinds gradually faded away. We’re left with a calm and have been motoring across it for 24 hours now.  I don’t mind burning up all that dodgy Fiji diesel and most of the water seems to have come out of it now.

With the calm has come sunshine and a general chance to catch up. We are half way, and have had coffee and omelette, a morning shower and a pleasurable day. I’ve rerun the main reefing lines so that we can put in the 3rd reef if needed in the strong winds that I know await us further south. It’s nice today and I love it out here.  Tempted to stop for a swim.  We needed this little break, even if it is ‘the calm before the storm.’

Day 7 – Log Reading 670 miles, distance to run – 520, wind Wly 20 knots

Well, it was the calm before the storm and we’ve been in some thick weather for 24 hours now. The wind started building from the NW by late PM, and we were moving along at a good speed by midnight. The wind has built further to 20-25 knots from the west and we reefed down to match, finally getting some good fast progress to the south and bringing Atea closer to loved ones.

At about 7AM today we passed through the front of this system – 30 knots of westerly winds and heavy rain; I was out to take in the 3rd reef and got soaked and cold. Tiring as this might be, it’s nothing compared to the task we had to do two hours later. I had to climb the mast – this is a dangerous task at sea in these conditions – but it had to be done since the running backstay had popped out and without it we cannot set our small headsail.

We hove-to so that the boat was as stable as possible and I put on my kitesurfing helmet and impact-vest on for bodily protection (designed to absorb shock and impact when  kiting stunts go wrong). If the climb went wrong and I was thown loose of the mast, the chance of injury would be very high and could end in cuts, bruises or worse.  In the end, the task went relatively easily. I reached the top without too much problem and refitted the stay whilst clinging on tightly as the mast gyrated wildly in the rough seas. With the mast now properly supported, we could set our small staysail which is our best heavy weather sail and roll up the genoa.

Rolling up the genoa was not so simple either. My earlier worries about the furler bearings were well founded,  and the furler is now u/s so I had to go to the end of the bowsprit to roll up the sail by hand. There will be no more use of this sail until we can repair the furler in Auckland. After having been to the top of the mast and out on the tip of the bowsprit,  it was only fitting that we should have one more drama at the other end of the boat. To finish off this morning with one final drama, the BBQ had been swept off by rough seas and was dragging along in our wake, held only by the gas hose. Luckily Toby was able to save it and lash it on board again.  Another job for the repair list when we get in – we can’t have a good Kiwi summer without a functioning BBQ.

All day we’ve been sailing along in sunshine but very strong westerly winds. Looking out to sea, one sees line after line of white rollers and heaving seas. Atea is riding well and we’re making good progress, but it’s a sobering sight to see such a vast ocean and endless array of breakers all coming our way. Toby is learning quickly and becoming a very helpful person to have on board, but he did admit to being a little scared last night and I can understand why. For my part I’m not scared, but I do feel vulnerable and it feels as if we’re being tested by the elements. I just want my boat to hold up without any more breakages, my body to keep warm, strong and uninjured, and my spirit to give me patience and courage to get through this.  I am very glad Kia is not here and also glad that I am getting closer to her with every mile.

Day 8 and 9 – Log reading 900 miles, distance remaining 400, wind Wly 25 knots

Groundhog days – still blowing 20-25 from the west, still bouncing our way south, still hanging on, doing our watches and passing the time. Changed the trash bin tray today – is that as exciting as its going to get?

I’ve been reporting to Russell Radio every evening with our position, course and speed.  They give us an expected weather for the next 24 hours, but today they also had a message from Kia.  She’s in Auckland (good news since we were worried about getting on the flight in her 9th month), and the ultrasound went well.  Bubba is healthy and, most importantly, “still in the oven.” Little titbits of news like this make me happy and sad at the same time. Good to hear from her, but it makes me want to be there rather than bouncing about out here.

The winds eased a little to the west which has made our­ progress southward pick up pace and we’re doing 5 to 6 knots straight down the line. It’s bouncy and cold but sunny. Things are getting quite wet below and we’ll need a good few drying days when we get in (Auckland in the spring?? Huh!!).

Toby has grown into this – he is standing a good watch, putting in and taking out reefs, and an asset to have on board. He says he loves the “great learning experience” but he keeps asking when we will see land; I think is as keen as I am to reach Auckland.

Day 10 – Log reading 1050, distance to go 180 miles, wind SW 20 knots

Major blow today – the engine has stopped. I’m 95% certain that it is the water in the fuel that has been nagging us since the last fuel fill. I could kill those Vuda point suppliers who gave us this dodgy diesel, such a waste of money – not to mention the extra stress and hassle. The only good news from our previous fuel woes (see “All for a $5 Washer”) is that I’ve learnt a lot about water in the fuel and I’m pretty sure that I can fix it and get Lucy running again. However, I need to have flat water before I’m going to get too far into that job. It is another unwanted complication for our last 24 hours.

The good news is that our progress is holding strong. We are now 45 miles east of North Cape and should make landfall on Cape Brett tonight. Then it’s just 120 miles down the coast to Auckland, things should be calmer as we get closer in so I’ll try to get the engine going then.

Soon I will be in cellphone range – can’t wait to ring her!

Day 11 – Log reading 1300, distance to run 50 miles, wind Wly 15 knots

This will be the last entry since we are only 2 hours out of Auckland.  We’ve been in the shelter of NZ for the last 24 hours, and man o’ man does it make a difference to the sea state and the level of comfort on board. Toby and I are washed, dressed in dry clothes and waiting to get ashore.

I had to empty about 100 litres of murky water out of the fuel tank and clean/prime all the filters, but the engine is running again. We hand-steered last night through a calm moonlit night down past the Northlandcoast – quiet, beautiful, but my god its cold. This morning the sail across Bream Bay was glorious with 15 knots wind on the beam, 3 sails set, and Atea romping home at top speed. Dolphins played under our bowsprit – the very same welcome that I had on my first entry to NZ, by sail, nearly 20 years ago. I love NZ, and returning to this country is always a pleasure, always makes me feel at home, and always makes me appreciate the beauty of life and realise how lucky I am.

Re-reading this log, it paints a fairly gloomy picture – seasickness, headwinds, cold, rain, boredom, frustration, mechanical failures, crashing waves, dampness, etc. In truth, when we realised that we’d have to return to NZ at the tail-end of winter, we expected a tough voyage and were even told “Don’t do it – leave the boat in Fiji and wait until December.” In recompense for the low moments are the times when you stand on the deck of your yacht approaching landfall, knowing that she and you have done everything that was asked for.  I’m bursting with pride at this tough little ship – she has taken a beating from the weather, but she has fought her way to safe harbour; she has protected her crew and delivered them safely to their loved ones without mishap. She deserves to rest in quiet harbour, to dry out, and enjoy a calm summer in preparation for next year’s adventure.

Who Pilots Ships

Who pilots ships knows all a man can know of beauty,

And his eyes may close in death and be content.

There is no wind to blow whiter than foam white wind,

And no winds breath sweeter than tropic wind.

There is no star that throbs with cold white fire as north stars do.

No golden moon path lovlier than the far path burning on the sea when the dusk is blue.

There is no rain so swift, as rain that flies in bright battalions with a storm begun

No song that shakes the heart, like amber cries of gulls with wings turned yellow in the sun.

Who pilots ships, when life’s last heart beat stop, has drained the cup of beauty drop by drop.

Welcome to Kia Island

I write this at the helm, surrounded by a calm rippling ocean and a soft ocean breeze. I am on a short watch, just after daybreak, giving John rest after his all-night sentinel.While he was supposed to wake me when he tired to swap post for pillow, he pulled a nine-hour watch so that I could sleep and “grow bubba.” Either pregnancy is his excuse to spoil me, or I am going to bear the yoke next season to make up for all this special treatment. Getting pampered is so addictive.

This morning is a good one for pondering on the experiences of our three-week circumnavigation of Vanua Levu. I woke at 6AM to a stunning blood red horizon. As the sharp colour faded into a light blue sky, a brilliant rainbow unfolded itself ahead of us from port to starboard.We sailed through the arch filled with awe at the stunning seascape before us. Such earthly beauty gives cause to pause, pull into ones reverie and absorb the spiritual inspired by the van der Helst masterpiece held before you.

The pictures taken do not capture the beauty of this trip; they are far from reflecting any of nature’s masterpieces we’ve had the privilege of viewing. I don’t say this because a photo is never as accurate as the eye. I say this because it hasn’t been in the scenery that we have been so in awe, but in the wonderful people we have met and the cultural experiences we have been honoured with.

Vanua Levu is one of two main islands in Fiji. It is second in size to Viti Levu which lies across the Koro Sea to the southeast. What makes Vanua Levu unique is the paucity of tourist infrastructure and a slow pace of life – my ideal travel destination. It presents lush, unspoiled tropical beauty with a spattering of traditional villages set on beaches surrounded by verdant forest and coconut plantations… a world away from the hub of activity in Western Fiji.

When we first unfolded the chart of Fiji, John noticed Kia Island north of Vanua Levu. We both laughed at the idea of my own personal oasis but it was a long way off our route and a significant distance upwind and so we didn’t count it into our itinerary. After running into another yachtie who spoke of Kia as a highlight, off the standard cruising route and away from the tourist hub, we thought a visit to “me” was a must.

A few weeks later our calendar became free and we decided to go for it.  We both felt that we’d not yet found our Fijian Shangri La. Whilst the Yasawas and Mamancas were pleasant, they were well populated with westerners and we wanted to get a feel for an authentic Fijian experience. Vanua Levu and the surrounding islands offered this — no more fancy resorts and Fijian wait staff, no more tanning tourists and traveling yachties. We wanted real Fiji.  We wanted something special. We wanted “Welcome to Kia Island.”

To get there, it was going to be 500-mile round trip. First east to Vanua Levu, then nor-northeast around the island, and finally a run along the top west to Kia and connecting back into the far north of the Yasawas.  A wide circle, but it was well worth the trip.

As we made our way around the mainland and stopped in the outer islands we got our taste of culture, of community, of the traditional Fijian way of life. Every port of call held a new welcome and a new invite. Each stop holds a very special memory, thanks to the genuine hospitality of the local islanders to whom we owe nothing but gratitude for their warmth and welcome. I will cut short to some of our more favourite experiences in route, and share some of the moments that made this particular journey so special for us.

To start this trip we needed food for ourselves, fuel for Atea and an updated travel visa for the areas we intended to visit. We are able to buy fruit and vegetables in town and a few of the villages, but Atea’s thirst for fuel is much less frequently satisfied. She gulps 1000 litres of diesel at each sitting and is a huge demand on our budget, so thankfully our stops for a refill are usually two months apart.

We like Lautoka but this time chose to anchor on a little island off the mainland and take a dinghy ride ashore. Rather than arrive into the dockyards, this time we pulled into a mangrove-lined bay, surrounded by local houses. We asked a family if we could come ashore and were warmly greeted, and after introductions and pleasantries one child from the cluster of children escorted us through the village into town.

We were greeted by the community as we walked by local houses with vigorous waves from children standing in doorways, clusters of women weaving mats or shredding cassava on their lawns or men taking turns pounding yaquona by the dirt road. We did our shopping at the market and after a wander through town with our arms full of fruit-filled bags, we wove our way back to our dinghy. It may have been a simple errand, but the encounters along the way made the ordinary act of grocery shopping a memorable event.

Our first few days were a bit of a slog, heading east and into the tradewinds. The main islands are fringed by a surrounding reef and we chose an inside route which made for calm sailing but called for our constant vigilance as we winded our way through the coral-strewn pass. After two days we were free of the reef and could ease sheets and relax on an exceptional day sail across the Koro Sea between Viti Levu and Vanua Levu.

Stepping ashore from our paddleboards onto the dock, we were greeted by laughing kids, all enjoying the simple pastime of kids everywhere – jumping into the water again and again and again. They were thrilled at being invited to play with our paddleboards, again showing the universal attraction between children and the sea.

While watching the games, we got chatting with a local couple who invited back to their house to enjoy a kava ceremony (the local grog) and a spread of home-cooked food. It was such a treat for us to enjoy the comforts of home after the many months in the tight confines of a salon and galley.

Five days after leaving Lautoka we finally arrived at the port of entry on Vanua Levu, the sleepy little town of Savu Savu on the southern side of the mainland. Here we checked into Fiji customs to register our arrival and intended route, whereby we named all possible ports of call as there are severe penalties for being caught off your reported schedule. The town held the feel of the colonial era – waterfront bars, affordable prices, gentle climate and plenty of white faces, many of whom were cruisers a few decades ago who dropped anchor and neglected to raise it again, those who arrived and stayed – John and I just might turn into one of them – it is that kind of place.

Pressing eastward from Savu Savu, we arrived at the island of Taveuni and stopped at the quaint village of Somo Somo for Sunday church. Christianity is strong throughout Polynesia on Sundays the villages are always quiet except for the beautiful singing that echo’s out from every church. We’d gone ashore to see this very integral part of island life and bathe our ears in the beautifully harmonized hymns. We were lurking in the back row enjoying the service when the pastor spotted us and accommodated us by giving half the sermon in halting English. No more day dreaming or sly gestures to the rambunctious kids amongst us; we had to pay attention and nod sagely at his relevant points, our reprieve coming when he resumed his table-thumping sermon in Fijian. Church in Polynesia is not an experience to be missed. So much so, in fact, that we attended two different services at same day. I can still hear the ringing of the choir in my ears.

After Somo Somo we headed to the northern tip of Taveuni to Matei. Here we based ourselves for some inland exploration and took a local bus around the island to the national park. We wandered up the mountainside to view waterfalls and swim in the refreshing water. It was bizarre to swim in salt-free pools, free from the taste of salt in your mouth and sting of spray in your eyes.

Our next stop was Katherine Bay on Rabi Island. This island is unique as it is a resettlement community of Micronesians originally from Banaba, in the Kiribati island chain. In the early 1900’s the British mined Banaba clean of its natural phosphate resource, resulting in the ruin of the island by over-mining and foreign settlement. Following WWII the British purchased Rabi, paid through the islander’s own funds, and 2000 Banabans were relocated. The islanders still hold to their traditions and culture, and while Fijians have merged into the culture through work and marriage, they adhere to the Banaban way of life.

Timing in travel can make the difference between average and exceptional. We arrived at Baukonikai village during a week of celebration to honour the return of the village preacher. There were two preachers, husband and wife, and the wife had been assigned to another village for the past three years. After petitioning she was permitted to return to her home village, an event that signaled the occasion before us. We were invited to join in the celebration, and thus we did.

The following afternoon we wandered into church during an honorary lunch with the village elders and we were immediately ushered over to join the feast. Sitting with this select group, we were treated as guests and participated in the rituals. We spent long hours in the meeting hall afterwards with one of the elders, a retired man of the church, and were able to learn a diverse account of the island, its people and its history.

We were asked on our departure to return for evening service, dinner and festivities. There is much that stands out in those evening hours. When we heard the “bells toll” – a stick beat against a hollowed out tree trunk – we made our way to the church. The whole community was so welcoming; it felt like a homecoming amongst strangers. The pews are split into two, with men gathering on the left and women to the right. I made my way down the aisles and was signaled by the guest of honour to come and join her. She guided me through the service and held up her hymnbook for us to share, and so I diligently followed along with my best attempt at the local dialect in song. John had no such guidance but chose to join in the male chorus and sang with gusto.

Afterwards, we were ushered to the meeting hall where an array of food was spread out in the centre of the room. Here the elders, the two preachers and ourselves were seated for the meal. As we did so, the community sat at the entrance in a large group and sang throughout dinner. It was a guess as to what each of the plates held, but the food was delicious. My favourite custom at mealtime was the application of talcum powder to potentially offensive areas of the human body.

At lunch I had quite the surprise, as I had been the first to experience this particular “refreshment.” When I sat down to join the elders earlier that day, a woman came up behind me, raised my arm and applied a generous dose to my armpit. I was quite relieved when John was likewise doused. Now, at dinnertime, the same ritual was repeated, this time with the accompaniment of a bottle of perfume. My neck was showered in the white powder, which cascaded down my chest and belly, then assaulted with a liberal spray of acrid perfume. Fortunately, we were all included in this ritual so it wasn’t only John and me sitting there looking like volcanic ash victims.

Three claps in unison released us from dinner, we got up and the food was passed over to all the men, women and children who sat waiting in the wings for their disbursement of leftovers. After everyone satiated their appetites, the preacher was dressed up for a fun and comic dance, signifying the arrival of the original Banabana residents to the island. Afterwards, five woman draped in leaves and crowned with flowers spent the remainder of the evening in dance. The first was in Fijian-style, the remaining in beautiful Banaban form.After so many church events in succession, I feel a primal need to do something quite devious.

The other highlight to our stay here was precipitated by a fellow yachtie who shared the bay with us. Hauke, from yacht Serendipity, had been given schoolbooks by friends to disburse as appropriate, so we joined him in bringing these ashore. As we rowed to shore the children gathered and so we passed out books to eager hands, eyes filled with curiosity. I was very impressed with how well mannered they were, none pushing or shoving, some looking after those who had not yet received their goods. Once collected, they brought them to the teacher who came out with a bundle in hand and invited us into the classroom. We played with the children (ages three-five), read to them, and shared a wonderful afternoon.

One child came up and gave me a coconut; I found out that her mother was there and only had two, one for each of them, and the little four-year old had wanted me to have hers. The generosity of spirit at such a young age will ever impress.

I have seen that selfless sharing many times during our stay here, indicating that possessions are not hoarded but shared amongst each other. There is much to be learned in the lessons brought through travel. I did drink that coconut, but perhaps I should have brought it home to share within my own community. I’ll have to work on that lesson.

Onward to our next stop in route, the gold at the end of this particular rainbow: Kia Island. Perhaps it is fitting that this island has been my favourite out of all the Fijian stops we have made. My affinity for the place is a combination of its natural beauty in both land and sea, as well as the incredible warmth of its people.

To get there, we did a 24-hour passage through a moonlit night, and rolled toward Kia in the late morning. The surrounding reef provided platform for fishermen with hand-lines, and local boats scattered off the shoal. As we made our entrance through the pass, we caught a great surprise as, one-by-one, spear-fishermen popped up on either stern. I am often out on the bowsprit on watch for coral heads, however this is the first time that I have been on lookout for human bodies. They would pop up and wave, welcoming us in. Our arrival, apparently, was an exciting occasion for all.

Kia gets an average of one boat a month during the cruising season. Given a handful of boats visit a year, the arrival of our vessel was cause for much excitement amongst the locals. We had visitors to our boat on dropping anchor asking for an invite to board, kids running up and down the beach hollering and waiving, curious faces peeping out from huts along the shoreline. We made our way in to give sevusevu and while this can be a routine process in many of the villages in the Yasawas, it was treated with celebration on Kia. We offered our yaqona and after speech and acceptance were asked if we wanted to share in the grog. We were given coconuts to sip on as the kava was prepared, and we introduced ourselves to villagers as they arrived. Every time we greeted one another there would be a flurry of conversation at the mention of my name, and much laughter. Introducing myself as Kia in Kia made for a great icebreaker.

After we shared a bowl of kava we were hosted around the grounds by Anna, a twenty-year old woman who had returned from her studies the previous year and spoke excellent English. She and a tribe of kids wandered around the village with us and took us to one of the neighbouring villages. Before departing we invited Anna to have breakfast with us onboard in the following morning.

The next day, we were woken at 8:00AM by knocking on the hull and outside laughter. Anna and a friend of hers had a reprieve from fishing for the day and were dropped off by family on their way out to the reef. After breakfast we came ashore for a hike over the mountain and visited a village on the other side of the island. Anna was our escort, flanked once again by a flock of children. We spent a wonderful day hiking and wandering around the island, playing on the beach and hiking around the rocky shores. We were to head out in the late afternoon, but before we bid our farewell we were invited to share tea and pancakes with some of the local women. 

We said our farewell, the children helped pull our dinghy into the water and two of them walked us out until the water was neck high. Once onboard, the waves and cheers continued as we pulled anchor and set out through the pass.

If anyplace has captured my heart, it is the people of Kia. A piece of Kia was left on Kia – now, how more appropriate could that be? That evening we sailed another 24 hours back to the northern tip of the Yasawa Islands. We completed our circumnavigation of Vanua Levu, and found what we had been looking for. With travel appetites satiated, we now look forward to the remaining three weeks in Fiji. This next period will be filled with the arrival of good friends from New Zealand and Australia. After a healthy dose of the local, we now look forward to the social.

BULA! The official greeting of Fiji

As we have been remiss since our departure from Tonga, we thought it time to stop and reflect on the passage over and our past month in Fiji.

Our passage here was a varied one. The forecast before departure wasn’t ideal, but we were keen to move on and thought we would try our luck. The first two days consisted of light winds but we had reasonable progress, aided by our diesel engine, Ms. Lucy.  Conditions turned on our third day and we ran into a very strong southerly front. For eighteen hours we suffered the southerly winds and rain, with an average of 30 – 35 knots and a few gusts of over 40 – 50 k’s.  In landlubber language, f*&king strong winds! Stronger than either John so I have experienced in prior passages. Rather than battling the conditions, we reduced our canvas to a reefed staysail and fell away to the north. Whilst it was a total rollercoaster ride as we crept up mountainous swells and disappeared into the trough, skipper and vessel are superbly competent and we safely navigated through gale force winds and mighty sea swells. In these conditions we operated as a good team; John looks after the boat and I look after the skipper.

Wind eased the following day and our last two days saw the best weather, and our best runs: 166 miles in one day, even with a conservative sail configuration. I cannot aptly express the satisfaction one gets watching the miles clock down and the boat whistle through the water. These last days provided stunning conditions and we glided Atea through the fringing easterly reefs into safe harbor on the southwestern side of Viti Levu. After five days at sea and 560 miles behind us, we drew into our port of call: Lauotoka.

Lautoka is one of the three ports of entry into Fiji and one of the main cities on the mainland. After clearing customs, applying for a cruising permit, we were free to roam the town and explore. As our fortune had it, we arrived on the opening day of a large carnival that was touring throughout Fiji. Had we not landed on this particular weekend there may have little on offer in the city; however, the festivities offered brought much entertainment and excitement to our short stay.

Fiji has a relatively equal mix of Indian and Fijian populations; as we wandered through the fairgrounds this mix of culture was evident. What struck us most was being submerged in the hip city culture after two months in the quiet, remote Tongan islands. Here, the bands boomed, clusters of men and women roamed around by the dozens, hip teens gossiped in their circles and parent roamed toting sleepy toddlers on their hips. We had entered a totally different world.

As we started to experience what was on offer around us, there was much to muse on and much to offer continuous entertainment. Initially John and I spent our time near front stage, enjoying the humour of a third-rate presenter who ran events: bands, a dance completion, a beauty contest, a wearable-arts show, and the like. I can still hear him welcoming the beauty queens to the stage, “and contestant number 5, with her hair in a barrette, wearing a black dress with shiny bangles on her wrists and magic shoes on her feet…” Other than the random “magic” comment added as a twist, there is nothing like a presenter stating the obvious! But it was kind for kind and presenter and contestant on equal ground, as when she was asked, “If you were granted one wish, what would it be?” the answer came, “I’d ask for a really long nap.”

Collecting treats as we passed the ice cream, shaved-ice, caramel popcorn booths, we finally made it to the long line of food stalls – we couldn’t wait for a break from our galley and a taste of local cuisine. However, there was much left to be desired after we passed the last of the stalls – every single one offered the exact duplicate of the one previous. After the simple selection of barbecued beef and mixed vegetables, we ventured off toward the crys spewing forth from spinning bodies and whirling seats of whizzing, creaking, groaning fair rides. We decided to join the chaos and, daring fate, selected the worlds largest, fastest, and ricketiest ferris wheel – my piercing scream must still be echoing through the deserted fairgrounds.

The main islands consist of two large mountainous islands, Viti Levu and Vanua Levu, each canvased with tropical rain forests, rolling hills, and dense vegetation. City centres sprawl with shops filled with plastic trinkets, electronic supplies and budget fashion – none seem to offer anything specifically different from the other. The Indian influence is strong here, and there seems an equal distribution of Indian and Fijian population all cohabitating on equal terms despite the frequent government battles (though at a guess this distribution is representative of the mainland and not the surrounding island groups).

Local infrastructure functions for the locals and does not cater to the tourist. Internet cafes are few and far between, and you have to hunt through town to find a computer shop that offers internet services. As we wandered around it was obvious that this is not where foreigners spend their time, evident in the merchandise displayed in shop windows and the paucity of foreign faces. For yachties, most of the interest lies in the surrounding island groups which lie to the north, east and west of the mainland. So far we have spent our time in two of these groups, the more touristy Mamamucas and the quieter Yasawas.

After a few days sorting out logistics, we were ready to explore the islands that we’d battled 500 miles of open ocean to get to. It was not, on first sight, anything that we’d imagined. We slipped away from the mainland and headed for the Mamamukas, a southern-most chain of islands west of Viti Levu. Much to our surprise each island was packed with the burnt flesh of newly arrived tourists, basking beside chlorine pools or elbow up to the beach bar awaiting their next cocktail. It seemed on sight the very antithesis of what a cruising experience should be; done away with the remote, unspoiled isles, these seemed to offer the exact opposite: Bars and beach bungalows sprawling along the length of the island. Every island was home to a dedicated resort, not a local village or longboat in sight.

Don’t fight ‘em, join ‘em — and join them we did. We snuck into resorts with our sarongs, sun hats and credit cards, laid poolside with our novels and joined the line at the bar for an order of mai tai’s and lemon juice.  And I can’t say I minded one bit! While embedded in the cater-to-tourist trade, I do confess that it was quite a treat to rag-gab with the tourists and be a part of the not-so-ethnic experience. It provided a great change of scene and allowed us the feeling of “holiday” from our extended holiday.

We made our way to Musket Cove, famous to yachties and holiday-makers alike. Our experience here was made dear by connecting with a friend who was spending the season in Fiji, as well as the other sailors we met. Of particular note during our time here was a Fourth of July celebration – cruiser style. I’d brought sparklers from New Zealand which were

passed amongst the group, and some of the other cruisers brought expired emergency flares…60% of which didn’t work. But they did the trick, and we all ooh’ed and aww’ed as the red flares dropped from the sky, detonated by men with dangling cigarette butts from bottom lip.  Our friend Kurt brought in the American flag accompanied by an American-flag printed oven mitt, adding to the general fanfare of the night.

Musket Cove is an easy spot for any cruiser to get lost in. Come for a day and you stay a week, come for a week and you’ll find yourself there several months later. It boasts some of the best surfing sites globally, just released from private control in 2010, and some excellent sand bars that rise out at low tide offering a great kite-surfing spot and some excellent snorkeling. We, as you do, fell into the trap and stayed much longer than anticipated, enjoying the social atmosphere and the aquatic wonders.

We had a forced departure as we had to get back to the mainland to pick up a friend, Lizzie, who was joining us for ten days in the islands. After collecting her at Nadi (the city closest to the airport), we headed north to the Yasawas.

The Yasawas are a group of twenty islands that stretch north of the Mamumkas. Until a decade ago this island group was isolated and visited by only the intrepid traveler, leaving it unspoiled by tourism and unaffected by resort development.  A daily ferry has opened this area up to tourism, and had significant effect on accessibility to the islands.

Large resorts have not started developments here, but the area has responded to the change and now offers basic bures and upmarket villas hidden amongst the palms. These have not overrun local villages, and the Yasawas still offer sight and feel of the ethnic way of life.

Here locals depend on agriculture and fishing for their livelihoods and longboats as the main mode of transport. There are no roads on any of the islands, and not a car, scooter or bike in sight. Dirt paths provide access to different villages, and wind their way haphazardly through the islands. Pigs abound as a main source of meat, and the occasional cow for meat and dairy.

Most villages have a preschool of sorts, every island a school that is shared amongst the local villages, and to attend high school the youth have to move to the mainland for their education.  School is mandatory and the government fines a family if a child is taken out of school early. As a result commuting or dormitory living is common and starts at a very early age.

For the yachtie, custom is to offer savu savu if anchored off the villages on any of the islands. This tradition involves a gift offered to the chief for permission to stay on local ground, and in exchange travelers are offered protection for the duration of their stay. The most common gift offered is yaqona, the root which is used to make kava – the local grog. It is made by emptying the ground root into an old sock, or the like, and squeezing water through the fine powder until the liquid looks of dirty mud in colour.  The taste is in kind, and the narcotic has a drowsy, numbing effect.

This tradition is a good way to get entrance into the village, and Fijians are natural hosts. You are lead by a villager to the chieftain or chieftess of the village to give your offering, and after a quick ceremony of clapping and chanting, you are welcomed as a guest and made to feel so. This often leads to an invite for lunch or an afternoon tea, a lime leaf in hot water.

While this time of year boasts of consistent trade winds and settled weather, we’ve seen the variety during the month of July. Unsettled wind conditions combined with unreliable anchorages has made many a night less than ideal.

However there are many events that stand out and many memorable experiences to provide the balance. Along our route north through the Yasawas we dove for (but haven’t found yet) manta ray; snorkeled some fantastic reefs and played in a undersea playground hosting a rainbow of different corals and curious, playful fish; hiked through rivers and rock beds through mountains and played amongst its peaks; found a WWII Spitfire in 2 meters of water (though on sight we agreed it was more the remains of a miniature toy airplane); and gabbed with local fishermen who stopped mid-catch to banter in the afternoon heat (Fijians exude friendly warmth and welcome).

One of our favourite anchorages in the Yasawas is the Blue Lagoon, fantasy of many a boy in the 80s (not for the stunning setting, but for the petite jeune fils Brooke Shields). Our love of the area was based not on a Hollywood film but for the wonderful kiting it offered. We saw many boats come and go, however Atea stayed snuggly tucked in at anchor as we spent our afternoons under kite and board.

At seven and a half months pregnant, this was to be my final swansong. Given I needed John at hand to get my feet into the straps as I couldn’t reach the board, the call for an end date was well overdue. What added this spot to our favour was the nearby resort, hosting 12 quiet bures tucked into the hillside. Here we socialized with the guests and connected with several of the cruisers we’d met along the way.

One incidence was an invite onto a 100 foot super yacht for lunch, fully catered and waited on by the staff. We managed to make an impression of our own, however, by coming over on our paddleboards. On departure the coin flipped and we seemed the rich and famous as the enthused owner clicked the camera as we bid our farewell.

It was also a great haven from a provisioning perspective. We’d managed to get an occasional banana or pawpaw along the way when making savu savu in previous villages, but here a local had seen the opportunity and turned his family subsistence farm into a farm offering a variety to the nearby backpackers and villas. This was extended to yachties, and the experience was one of my favourites. We made our way in at high tide and navigated through mangroves up a creek. We were greeted by the family and were taken into the valley where we selected fruits and veg from the selection offered – freshly picked for a fraction of the cost paid at the markets. We were freed of our canned provisions and ate in what felt like pure decadence – to look in our stores and have a selection to choose from – ahhh, what a sight!!

Another favourite was when we were invited into a local home to watch a rugby match. We’d come the week before however reception didn’t work so we spent the afternoon drinking kava and yarning the time away. By the following week the reception was recovered, just in time to watch Fiji play New Zealand. It was a hoot – four of us in the living room with twenty-two Fijian rugby fans, a kava bowl sitting in amongst the group. Whilst the score ended 60 – 17 in the All Blacks favour, there was unleashed enthusiasm when the Fijian made a goal. For the first time I wished for an All Blacks loss, just to hear the craze from our patriotic hosts.

Without drabbing on too long (already done, but if you’ve made it this far thanks so much for your interest) – a conclusion and summary. This past month has been a full one, and while quite a different experience from Tonga, a treasure of the South Pacific all the same.

For those of you who are invested in the little stowaway traveling with us, all continues to go well. I’ve just survived one bout of food poisoning, but other than that our diet has been good and activity continues to increase (along with the belly size!). I’ve seen two midwives while here, each concluding that all fares well.

And for now, that’s it from Yacht Atea. Over and out.

Staircase to Paradise

What do you say when you leave one group islands that have registered top of the A List, only to discover the next group far supersedes? Just how far will we climb on this staircase to paradise?

We have spent the last two weeks cruising through the Ha’apai Islands, Tonga’s central group. Every one of the islands we have hit (a small smattering of the 61 that make up the archipelago) look like they have been prepared for a photo shoot. Not one island pales to its neighbour, sitting quietly amongst swaying coconut palms and dense green foliage, fringed with white sand beaches and dotted by coral reef. What make these isles so unique is the paucity of other sailboats, the pristine reefs, the friendliness of the locals and the quaintness of the villages.

Not that we ran into many villages during our stay – most of the islands we visited were isolated havens of tropical bliss. Only seventeen of the Ha’apai Islands are inhabited, and of those we visited four. The locals are very pleasant, upholding the name “Friendly Islands” attributed to this area by Captain Cook in 1777. Villages are surrounded by a fence, intended to keep the pigs in – not out. Inside these villages are houses lined with neat gardens, several churches for different denominations (Ha’afeva had five churches to support the 200 island inhabitants). One could purchase a variety of goods at the main port of Pangai; but otherwise the only supply was directly through the locals, most of whom were more interested in trade than money – snorkel and fins are the hot commodity, but rope, line and tackle could also be exchanged for lobster and fruit. Locals will often invite you into their home to socialize over lunch, and they will smile, wave, and stop to exchange a few pleasantries in passing. It is easy to feel welcomed here, and a short stay will find a traveler quickly accepted.

That is, when there is a village to accept you. Most of our time was spent in what we coined the “Naked Isles” (photos exempt!), a term first attributed to the area by John and Kia in 2011. Not because the islanders are fond of the display of bare flesh – typical garb for women is covered shoulders and long wraps over legs, often under the traditional ta’ovala (waistmats made of woven pandanus) – but when you have entire island groups that leave you the sole king of the domain, why be constrained by social custom?

It has been absolutely incredible to spend time in these islands, completely removed from other inhabitants or travelers and free to explore and play and relax to our hearts content. For both John and I, this has felt like the pearl of the cruising experience, as it is rare to find a place in the world so void of human contact, hidden from the exploitation of tourism and free from the ravages of society.

This lack of traffic was most notable in the corals that surrounded the islands. The Ha’apai’s have some of the most prolific, colourful and healthy corals we have ever seen, filled with a variety of reef fish dodging around in their assorted schools. In addition, we sighted turtle, schools of dolphin, and a very healthy – and fortunately content – seven foot shark. Humpback frequent this region during the winter season, July – September, however we are a month early and don’t count on a sighting during our time here.

As for life on the boat, we have fully settled into a lifestyle of self-sufficiency. As there are very few markets to re-provision, we are reliant on our stores and the planning prior to departure. Neither of us bakers by habit, we’ve been testing our creativity of making bread without white flour. Fortunately I had inspiration in Auckland for gluten-free bread and added to stock a number of random flour option – rice flour, potato starch flour, tapioca flour, chickpea flour, sorghum flour…. What we wouldn’t do for good ‘ol plain white flour! But at least we have options. Options that usually yield bread bricks, but worth the experimentation regardless.

On the topic of food, I am rounding up to seven months through my pregnancy and fortunately still craving-free. John, being the bigger foodie, could probably catalogue his cravings – ice cream, chocolate, sugared biscuits, café lattes, bacon, and of course, gluten-filled plain white flour.

I, on the other hand, am enjoying what we do have – which is fresh tuna at will. I do not fancy myself a competent fisherman, and John even less (he claims a fondness for the eating of, not the capturing of, fish), however the Ha’apai’s could easily give a false sense of accomplishment. It takes no more than dipping a lure in the water to get a strike, and then a quick haul in of an evening’s meal. Tuna has always been my eye-fillet of seafood options, and so it is almost unbelievable when we toss in hook and call out, “just another tuna!” as if we’d just pulled up a can of corned beef.

I am feeling pretty lucky that the pregnancy has gone trouble-free. So far the only inconvenience is getting out of the bunk. My energy is up and whilst growing, the belly isn’t much of an obstacle yet. I am getting the satisfaction of more activity, knowing with every kick that all is well in the womb. Chronically cold-blooded, it has been entertaining that I finally have my own furnace to keep my temperature up – and so when John complains of a night chill I bask in my own radiant heat.

So, as I look at the rungs we’ve just climbed these past few weeks on our “staircase to paradise,” there is nothing but awe that we feel. The world around us is breathtakingly beautiful and the life we are living filled with appreciation for all that we have: a sound boat, a fantastic cruising ground, and a loving partnership.

I can hear my mother’s mantra, “live in gratitude,” the problem is knowing just where to start.