Monday, July 31, 2017

Passage to Fiji

As you’ve read in earlier posts, we’ve had lots of consternation about sailing to Fiji. We’ve had friends lose their boat on a reef in Fiji and a New Zealand yacht was lost on one of the outlaying islands while transiting to Fiji all within the last month, so we were a bit on edge about the passage. 

Screen shot from Ovitalmap showing our boat (the blue arrow) in Suva harbor.
Since most of the charts of Fiji are outdated and inaccurate, the key to navigation is to use KAP files (essentially Google Earth satellite photos that are geo-referenced with GPS coordinates). I spent a lot of time (as Internet was available) in Tonga collecting KAP files from various sources on the web. We have three navigation programs:  Maxsea, Ovitalmap on the iPad, and OpenCPN, so I figured we were about as prepared as we’d ever be and planned a Friday departure on July 21st.

After our debacle of getting caught in the storm approaching Tonga, we were super careful about our weather window, picking a four-day period where the GRIB files (graphic computer generated maps of predicted wind speeds) showed winds in the range of 7 to 14 knots.  That seemed to give us a fighting chance of a safe passage.

On Friday we checked out of Tongan Customs and filled up with $2.20 /gal. subsidized diesel fuel (the cheapest anywhere in our six years of cruising). We had had a problem changing the oil in our engine when our Reverso oil change pump bit the dust, but our friend Franklin offered to come over with his hand pumped oil extractor. Even though it took almost an hour to pump out all the old oil it gave me great piece of mind to know we were OK for the next 125 hours of engine run time.

We left Neiafu around 3:00 pm and headed out to sea in a nice 12 - 14 knot breeze on the beam. We quickly settled into our passage mode alternating three hour watches throughout the night. We had decided to take the longer (by five hours) northern route via Nanuku Passage as it avoided a lot of the islands and reefs on the more southerly direct route to Savusavu.  

For the first three days we didn’t see much of anything except the inky blue South Pacific Ocean all the way to the horizon.  Although we’re used to it now, it can be a little unnerving when you realize how far away from anything you are during South Pacific passages. You’ve got to have a lot of faith in your boat and your own abilities.

Since we’d passed into the Fiji region we lost another hour of time and we had a bit of problem trying to figure out the ZULU Greenwich time used by the GRIB files with the day and hour ahead status of Fiji.  

By the evening of the third day the wind had lightened considerable so we ended up motor sailing the rest of the way.  As usual, you can ascertain the locale of the islands by the low overhanging clouds.  We slowly sailed down the southern side of Taveuni Island and later the main island of Vanua Levu heading southwest. We then rounded Passage Point and motored around a very long reef that protects the entrance to Savusavu Bay. It certainly gave us a lot of respect for the reefs we been forewarned about in Fiji. This one went on forever. We then motored back northeast into the picturesque small inlet of Savusavu.
Copra Shed Marina in Suvasuva.
A quick call to Copra Shed Marina gave us instructions to land at the Customs dock, a 20 ft. dock that was ill fitted to a 44 ft. boat. Eventually the Health, Customs, Immigration, and BioSecurity officials came aboard the boat and cleared us. The only problem was we were boxed tightly between boats, and with the wind direction we couldn’t back up or go forward. Finally some nice Aussies assisted us, and with help from a dive boat that had just pulled in 90 degrees in front of us, “walked” our bow line around to get us out into the main fairway. 

The mooring field at Suvasuva with the city in the background.
The smoke on the shore is actually volcanic stream raising from a vent.
The moorage area is very tight and consists of only mooring balls, but with help from Bubba from the Copra Shed Marina we got tied up and had a chance to let out our collective breaths of relief.

The woman on the left is wearing the traditional sulu.
Savusavu is about as idyllic a moorage as one can wish for in the South Pacific. A short dingy ride to the Copra Shed dock, then about 100 yards up the street was a large and very well stocked Morris Hedstrom (M-H) grocery store. After perusing what was available, we beelined it to the local phone store and got a Vodaphone data SIM for my iPhone and a Digicell voice SIM for Meryl’s phone. Internet is very good and extremely cheap in Fiji compared to the rest of the South Pacific and we were ready to reap the windfall. Unfortunately, my iPhone battery was just about dead and Meryl had a defective charging port so she couldn’t charge her phone. So our next job was to find an electronics repair shop by the name of Ozzi’s. We met Ozzi and he was very helpful and said he could fix our phones, but it would take a couple of weeks to get the parts shipped in. Ugh.
Drinks at the Copra Shed Marina. Flying Cloud is straight ahead.
Meryl enjoying our $2.50 fish and chips at Waitui Marina.
We ran into the Aussie couple (Karen and Paul off GIGI) that had helped us dock the boat and they gave us the run down on good restaurants and other stuff in Savusavu. They sent us down the road to the Waitui Marina (which looks like it is about to fall into the water) for some good fish and chips priced at $2.50. It was then we knew we were going to love Fiji.

The local market was well stocked and the vendors very friendly.

It was the yearly Primary School Day and all the school kids were down at the city park.
We marveled at the Fijian men wearing the traditional black or dark grey sulu (wrapped skirt) around their waist. Fijians, like the Tongans, are a god-fearing and conservative people. The women wear brightly colored Polynesian print dresses and sulus, however, and always have a big smile on their face and a welcoming “bula” (hello) whenever you make eye contact.
The bus to Labasa.
The view back across the bay to Savusavu.
A typical Fijian village in the interior of the island.
A couple of days later we decided to take a two-hour road trip to Labasa, an old sugar cane milling town over the mountains and on the north side of Vanua Levu. For $3.50 each way we were told the Labasa bus was the best tour of inland Vanua Levu you could get. The bus was packed with Fijians and the radio was blasting, but at least it was nice music. We were amazed by the size of the inland mountains, and the vast jungle the makes up most of the interior of the island. One the home of fierce cannibals and warriors, many European sailing ships avoided these waters at all cost. Now the Fijians are among the most helpful, friendly and honest people we’ve met in our world travels.

The goal in Labasa, the second largest city in Fiji, was to find a cell phone repair place. And tried we did, but after visiting about six phone stores we realized that anything to be fixed had to be shipped to Suva and it took about two weeks. We did find a delightful little local lunch place called Cafe Delight where we had a delicious Indian curry for lunch. We stopped at a curious Indian store called Bargain Box that had everything under the sun at ridiculous prices. We bought school supplies and balloons for the kids on the outlaying islands we planned to visit later in the month.

Stopping to fill the water bottles in a mountain stream.
A passenger buying some veggies for the bus driver.
Another stop to change the engine oil and check the brakes.

The bus ride back was more interesting. I got one of the last seats, next to a huge Fijian who offered me one quarter of the seat (he was filling the rest) with the support bar poking into the small of my back. We also had a new driver who liked the music even louder (if that was possible) than the first driver, and made the bus ride his personal pick-up route. Just outside of Labasa we stopped when a kid ran up to the bus with some packages, then we stopped and he had one of the passengers run over to a stand to get him a cold drink, then we stopped to get some veggies, then we stopped at a roadside spring where about seven passengers got out to refill their water bottles, and finally we stopped at the maintenance shop where I swear they changed the engine oil and checked the brakes. 

We finally made it home, a little worse for the wear but rich in another of life’s experiences.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

A Fond Farewell to Tonga

As the allotted time on our visas dwindled down, we still had two activities on our Tongan bucket list:  swimming with the whales and the Botanical Gardens.

The whales start migrating up to Tonga in June, with the Type A whales arriving first around the first two weeks of July. That’s why we extended our stay so long. It’s a little of a crap shoot since you want a light wind/small wave day with good weather for underwater visibility. Finding that type of day in Tonga is just about impossible, however. 

We finally settled on July 10th hoping the weather would calm down a bit. We got light winds and fairly calm seas, so that was a winner. After waiting at the dock for about 45 minutes for some Italians who were supposed to go with us, the guide decided to take off without them. That was great with us since it meant more whale watching time. After 30 minutes of high speed motor boating to get to the whale watching area we got a call on the VHF to come back and get the Italians, who had shown up at the dock at 9:15 am compared to the scheduled 8:00 am report time.  To say we gave them icy stares is an understatement. They didn’t apologize, just said something about it didn’t look like a good day to go when they woke up. US/Italian relations were set back about 100 years that day.

The humpback whales begin migrating to their breeding and calving grounds in Tonga around June, with the first whales arriving in late June to early July. August is the prime whale watching month.
Once we got to the whale watching area the guide (on the roof top) and the driver begin scanning for the telltale signs of whales:  a white plume of exhaled breath in the air. It didn’t take long for us to spot our first whales, they were frolicking off the port bow. The technique is to sidle the boat up to within 100 feet of the whales and then observe their behavior. Sometimes they just dive and pop up 1/4 mile away. The guide said we’re essentially looking for “friendly whales” (sounded good to me). We all suited up in our shorty wet suits, masks, and fins. I noticed the Italians moving towards the back of the boat and realized they were just going to jump in. Since you can only have four in the water at a time (Tongan rules) the guide said clearly to the Italians:  I’m going to take Meryl and Walter first, then they will get out of the water and you four will get in. Naturally the minute Meryl and I jumped in I noticed the Italians following right behind us. So much for the rules. They continued to be obstinate for the whole trip, but the whale swimming made up for everything.

We followed one group of three males chasing a female. The guide called this a “heat run.” The largest of the males would roll sideways on the smaller whales who got too close to the female. I guess size does mater. Anyway, they never slowed down so they weren’t a good group for us to swim with.

Meryl and I finally got a chance to get in with two humpback males who were sitting about 30 ft. down on the bottom. As we swam over them, they slowly came to the surface and swam just ahead of us. I was on my own heat run and kicked hard to keep up but at some point they slowed down and I almost crashed into the last male, who didn’t like me that close and gave a big whomp with his tail that turned the water into a zillion little bubbles and flipped me aside. I had all this on GoPro but found I’d hit the Stills button in my excitement instead of the Video button. Oh, well, it was still the experience of a lifetime.

During our first visit we enjoyed a delicious fish and chips lunch while gazing out over 'Ene'io Beach.

The shallow area extends quite a distance out to the reef. This is one of Vava'u's favorite swimming beaches.
The last item on our bucket list was to visit the famed Botanical Gardens at 'Ene’io Beach. We had courageously rented mountain bikes one day and rode the 14 miles out to the gardens. Unfortunately we picked both a hot day and a road with the most hills, but it was still a great ride. We had a very  nice fish and chips lunch and talked with Haniteli Fa'anuna, the former Directory of Agriculture for Tonga. He told us the gardens feature over 3,600 examples from 100 plant families and 500 plant species.
Haniteli Fa'anuna, the founder of the 'Ene'io Botanical Gardens.
Haniteli has an interesting background, including being given the original 8 acres for the park when he was only 8 years old, and his striving for a better education which included a degree in Horticulture from the University of Hawaii. Most interesting, he married a young surfer girl while in Hawaii and had three children with her. He was taken by her dedication to surfing and physical fitness. While he didn't know it at the time, she was the oldest daughter of the famous Vic Tanny, founder of the modern fitness club concept in the US. At the time quite a wealthy man, Tanny later sold some of his clubs that went on to become Bally Fitness Centers. It's a small world, as they say.
Haniteli explains the medicinal purposes of many of the plants found in his gardens.
This is the plaque when Haniteli opened the park with the Queen in attendance.
On July 18th we took a cab back to the Botanical Gardens, and along with a nice Australian couple, did a 2 1/2 hour tour of the 22 acres that make up the botanical park. Haniteli proudly told us that Tongans are required to plant 200 coconut trees on their property and he fondly remembered his dad digging the holes and Haniteli planting the coconuts.
Haniteli "sells" the right to have a street named after you in the park. Koyama Avenue is named after a famous Japanese horticulturist who didn't belief Haniteli had as large a collection (which all has to be identified and cataloged) in his gardens.

You can tell how much Haniteli loves the Gardens by how animated he gets when describing the various plants in his collection.
When Mel Gibson (who owns an island in Fiji) sent his son to learn all about vanilla propagation, he ended up buying an avenue for the Gibson Family.
At the time we visited there were few flowering plants, so this beautiful ginger plant really stood out.
As we walked through the gardens he showed us 20 different types of palms, and detailed the medicinal properties of various plants such as aloe. We also liked the spice trees such as allspice, and the nono tree whose fruit has a wealth of medicinal properties. He showed us how they plant vanilla so it wraps around another plant for support, and how they have to hand pollinate the vanilla plants for them to reproduce. All in all a great day and a wonderful finish to our stay in Tonga.

We’re now getting the boat ready for the 4-day, 180 mile passage to Fiji. We are very sad to be leaving Tonga and all the great friends we’ve made while here, especially Franklin, Telia and her family, Calvin at the Aquarium Restaurant, Bear and Char at Falaleu Deli, Barry and Cindy at Hunga Haven, and finally, Mr. Everything:  Greg at the Tropicana Restaurant who provided us with computer time, filled our gas bottles, rented us bikes, sold charts, and made a great hamburger. 

Thanks guys, it’s been great.

Friday, July 7, 2017

The King and I

The King comes back to Vava’u every year on July 4th to celebrate his birthday.  We had waited by the roadstead for his processional when he arrived, but it was delayed from 10:00 am to 11:00 am to 1:00 pm. When we finally got back to the road after a short break his car just whizzed by, despite all the school children lining the road. 

Then later in the week at Hunga Lagoon he was supposed to show up to talk about new fishing zones that were recently establish to help preserve the local fish stocks. It was kind of a lousy day weather wise, but we waited. Still no King.

An example of the various Tongan handicrafts.
The woven floor mats are a speciality of the Tongans, but the real functional items are the woven waist bands that Tongans wear to show respect (much like Westerners wearing a tie).
The fishing grounds around Tonga are rich in mahi mahi, tuna, skipjack, snapper and other types of fish.
These are actually yams, a staple of the Tongan diet.
So on July 7th we headed up to the high school sports field where the annual Agricultural Show was scheduled, we figured the King had to attend. We had a fun time walking around looked at all the vegetable, fruit, and fish displays from the various islands and villages. It was kind of like a very low key version of the Puyallup Fair. A bit later we saw several police vehicles enter the school grounds with blue lights flashing so we quickly got some seats near the offical dais with representatives from the Chinese and Japanese governments.  Sure enough, a white Toyota Land Cruiser pulled up and out stepped the King Tupo VI. Like his father, he is very well liked by the people and has even abdicated some royal responsibilities like land ownership and a representative government to the people.

King Tupo IV arrives at the fair grounds.
Everyone loves the King.
We sat and listened to long speeches in Tongan about agriculture, etc., and got in position for when the King would tour the grounds. It was funny for me as a former professional photographer who has photographed five Kings worldwide (and battled with their security people for the privilege), to meet the Tongan version of security. I was really pushing it to get very close to the Royal Dias when a Tongan policeman came over and very apologetically asked me to move back a bit. He was almost embarrassed in his request and I had to say to him “Hey, man, it’s cool. I understand you are just doing your job” as I slowly retreated.” Tongans hate confrontation and are very kind and polite to palangis (white people).

King Tupo VI tours the fairground with his various Ministers and officials.
The King showed a genuine interest in all the displays, and the feeling was mutual with the thousands of Tongans.
The Army guy on the right kept an eye on me all the way around the displays. These guys don't seem to come in a small or medium size, everyone is built like a football tackle.
I spent the next 30 minutes slowly walking backward (like in my old photo days) taking pictures of the crowd as the King stopped at each booth and talked to the people. Several older women actually prostrated themselves in front of the King yelling “God save the King” in Tongan. So amazing to be in a country where the people actually like the ruling class.

The Royal Corps of Musicians.

The Royal Dias with the King's son was just to the right of where we were sitting.
That night we and a thousand Tongans attended a Military Tattoo near the Army headquarters by town. Once again we were seated near the King’s Dias (except his son attended in his absence) and watched a throughly entertaining display of both local high school and military bands. The Tongans really like band music and the bands were quite good. 

The Royal Engineers made short work of disassembling the two jeeps.
The highlight of the evening was when the Royal Engineers played out a scenario of two jeeps in a combat situation having to cross a deep river. The engineers drove in the jeeps, disassembled them all the way down to the engine blocks and carried all the parts across “the river” where they were reassembled. Except they couldn’t get one jeep restarted, but with 10 huge Tongans they simply pushed it down the road.

The crowd favorites where the Royal Navy Special Forces team attacking a mock freighter where bad guys were holding hostages.
The next demonstration was the Royal Navy Special Forces pretending they were rescuing hostages held by bad guys on a freighter.  I thought they did a great job but the Tongans laughed at everything. Maybe it’s because the Tongans are such a peaceful and fun loving people that this aggressive activity seemed incongruous to them.

Anyway it was a wonderful experience and we throughly enjoyed ourselves.