Thursday, June 27, 2019

Passage to Vulaga (Lau group, Fiji)

[Kyle]We knew the sail from Namena to Vulaga was going to be a long one. The best weather window I could find was one where the headwinds were light and a little to one side of direct.

Tropic birds, sunsets and (eventually) the Island we seek

We left Namena just before dusk and pinched as close to the wind as we could. The seas were mild, so not uncomfortable. We were able to sail about five hours on each port tack between one-hour starboard tacks.

That worked for the first half. Then the wind picked up and turned dead against us. We now had two reefs in each sail and were bashing into wave and current. Our progress was about twenty miles toward Vulaga per six-hour watch. The wind was forecast to build to storm force after our arrival and there was nowhere downwind to run that offered protection and a chance to resume our push to Vulaga when it had passed. Our best choice was to hunker down and hope to get to the protection of Vulaga’s lagoon before it hit.

It took us a day longer to get there than I had originally estimated and we arrived just as the wind started getting bad. Even though it’s only 185 miles from Namena, we sailed more than twice that through the water to get here, only twenty miles less than the sail from Tonga.

As soon as we entered the pass, which is so easy to see that it looks like a strip of black asphalt between two concrete sidewalks, all of our offshore drama ended abruptly.

Suddenly, we were gliding through this turquoise lagoon studded with wildly sculpted islets of rock and coral. Every now and then, a few of the bigger ones would be connected with a strip of the most perfectly brilliant yellow sand. Ow! This place is so pretty, it hurts.

Oh my, what a place - totally worth all that tacking.

[Maryanne]The whole passage we ate bananas and papayas (called paw-paws here) for breakfast, lunch and snacks; we had a lot of fruit from Namena to get through! Once again we crossed the longitude line that divides east and west on the globe which is kind-a cool except for one of our apps (OvitalMaps) insists that we scroll all the way around the world to get from one side to the other. Vulaga (pronounced Fu-Langa) has only been open to cruisers for a few years, and in the days before GPS and satellite imagery it would have been a nerve-wracking type of journey indeed. We are so happy to be here. It was a hard slog and most people transit through Lau from North to South, we wanted to get the hard slog part over with so our plan is to spend some time in Vulaga and then amble north through some of the other islands here in Lau.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Namena Reef and Marine Reserve

[Kyle]From Savusavu, we motored the short distance to the Cousteau Resort at the entrance to Savusavu Bay. The resort sounds like it would be a wonderful place to spend a week or so. We and five other boats just used it as a pretty place to park for the night before moving on.

Overnight anchored off the Cousteau Resort (and a quick snorkel about)

Just after we got the anchor down, a boat called Oyster Reach called on the radio and invited us for sundowners. Maryanne had chatted with them while I was out collecting the kava (back in Savusavu). Once we climbed aboard, I recognized Ian. On the day before we left New Zealand's Marsden Cove marina for the sail to Chile, we were waiting in the marina lounge for my Birthday pizza delivery. Ian was also there, very excited about having figured out a way to buy a boat that generally would be way out of his range. He was to be signing the papers that very day. Oysters are beautiful, multi-million dollar boats. Ian and his partner Cindy had made their careers out of crewing aboard them and finally found somebody who cared more about selling the boat to a worthy owner than making all of his money back. He and Cindy were still pinching themselves at their good fortune. Their boat is beautiful.

In the morning, all of the boats anchored at Cousteau’s pulled up anchor within the same hour and gradually diverged to their destinations. We headed about 25 miles to the southwest toward the marine reserve at Namena Island.

On the southwest corner of the island, they have a single mooring ball for visitors (first come, first served). The anchorage is steep and with lots of coral, so we were hoping to find it empty, although not expecting it, since it’s close to Savusavu and a good distance to stop on the way to many places.

Approaching the pass, we saw what looked like a big motor yacht with a crazy long radio antenna milling around. Once we got up next to it, we would see that the antenna was in fact a mast for flying a boomless sail like a jib. We could also see that it was a livaboard dive boat that did multi-day tours. Perhaps they fly some sail on long downwind legs to save fuel or perhaps they also market sailing tours so they can raise the jib for effect.

Once we got close to Namena and could see that there were no other boats where the mooring was reported. We were hoping the dive boat wouldn’t race over and beat us to it. We needn’t have worried. While we crossed the lagoon, they milled around, stopping here and there on the reef to disgorge guests for their time at that spot.

After picking up the mooring, and checking it really was secure, we had to cross to the northeast side of the island to get to the reserve office, where we needed to pay our fees for the tag that would indicate we had permission to swim in the reserve.

There was supposed to be two trails to the other side, one along the shore and one along the spine of the island. Cyclone Winston had wiped both out in 2016, so our only option was to pick our way along the former shore route.

It turned out to be a horrible jumble of big boulders and deep, soft sand. We quickly realized this wasn’t going to be a quick walk and calculated a turnaround time that would get us back to Begonia by dark. We made it with about thirty minutes to spare.

First trip ashore - plenty of red-footed boobies, brown boobies, and frigate birds

We met the three caretakers, bought our tags. They were suspiciously numbered 001 and 002 for the year. During our time there, we saw several boats enter the reserve, stop for a bit and then leave without coming to the reserve office. They currently have no launch, so no way to chase down trespassers. They seemed surprised to see us when we announced we had come to pay. We asked to have a look around. We were shown the grounds, which they were slowly cleaning up, and one of the two bungalows that had been rebuilt after Winston. Our host then insisted that we take some fruit home with is. The resort had extensive plantations, but no guests, so fruit was in abundance. I accepted only a fraction of what was offered on the basis that it was a long walk home and a bag of succulent fruit gets heavier by the mile. We had enough to last us for a week but the guy kept saying we could come back tomorrow if we needed more.

When tomorrow came, our original plan of swimming the reefs on our corner of the island morphed into a circumnavigation of the island with the dinghy punctuated by as many snorkeling stops as we liked.

Snorkel all around the Island - and Kyle even found an Octopus

We found a few spots on the windward side, but the water was a bit too surfy and churned up to be ideal. Back at the resort pier, we tied up and walked up the hill to see the guys. They gave us the run of the place, so we took the time to have a leisurely stroll of the resort grounds. It looked like it must have been really nice in its day. Now, most of the bungalows had been flattened to their foundations. Only a little cleanup of the grounds had occurred since then.

The story we heard (not from the park guys) was that when Winston was approaching, the owner had the resort guests evacuated by helicopter. That would have been fine, except that he didn’t return for his staff. Some of them had to tie themselves to trees to keep from being blown off of the island during the cyclone. When a boat finally did come to collect them, nothing was left and they were making do in the rubble. This put a sour taste in the Fijians mouths about the owner. Word is all of his rebuild permit applications are getting lost down a very deep hole.

Another trip ashore (and more fruit to take back to the boat in time for sunset!)

As we were leaving, we were offered ripe fruit from any of the trees we could see. As I was busy explaining that we could not possibly eat that much, another huge pile of freshly cut fruit grew at my feet. We carried all that we could lift to the top of the hill and then went down to look at the beach. When we returned, the pile was gone, but an even bigger pile was sitting on the pier by the dinghy. Once it was loaded up, we could barely find room for ourselves as we straddled piles of papaya and bananas.

We left the mooring ball in the morning and took Begonia over to a shallow spot along the fringing reef for some snorkeling on the outside. We found loads of colorful corals, a handful of sharks and a few sea turtles, all of whom bolted if they thought we were even looking at them. We swam past cliffs and canyons that disappeared into the black depths below, all while being followed by big schools of fish who dove and soared with the topography. To top it all off, when we were done, that mooring ball was still there for our taking, which made for a more restful night than being in the surf near the reef.

Snorkelling at the outer reef (and pass)

[Maryanne] A bit about Namena - Namena is a protected marine reserve, which includes a small island surrounded by a fringing reef - justting out like a big thumb (or alternative appenage) from the bottom of Vanua Levu into the Koro Sea. You need to purchase a permit tag to snorkel/dive within the reserve. You can purchase this from the office in Savasavu (currently in the Waitui Marina), but when we went there they were sold out so we were told to just buy them once we got to the island ($20FJD per person). Until recently the island was an active top dive resort, but after the 2016 Cyclone Winston all the accomodations were destroyed and there have been no guest since. The north pier has been rebuilt recently (a bit smaller) although at low tide it is hard to climb from your dinghy up to the dock until they add a ramp or stairs. A couple of the guest lodges have been repaired/re-built (pretty cool to visit), but still no infrastructure for guests as of yet. Along with a vollyball net, we even came across a few rusty old frisbee-golf targets (so bring your frisbee if you visit).

Namena Island and reef dive/snorkel spots - from Namena Island Resort

We were told much of the reef was damaged as a result of the cyclone and the Giant Clam site is no longer what it once was. For anyone following - we found this reef map useful along with information about each dive site from the Namena Island Resort website. We clearly could have spent a lot longer just at this one area - but we were keen to make it to the Lau group so we just spent 2 days snorkelling there before moving on.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Savusavu (Vanua Levu Island, Fiji)

[Kyle]Once we had received our clearance, we went ashore for all of the usual shore stuff. We didn’t have much provisioning to do as we were pretty stocked up from Neiafu and New Zealand before that. We dropped off our laundry, reconnected with a few other boats we hadn’t seen for a while and had a few meals out.

One of the last ones we had was a night out with the Ross family (from the caramaran Muse) at a Korean restaurant (Grace Kitchen) that had been recommended to us by everyone we met that had been there. It was A-mazing! I ordered a spicy dish that came out actually spicy and we had an incredible dessert called a Snow. The description on the menu kind of implied it was an overpriced snow cone. I ordered the red bean version because it seemed most in keeping with the Asian theme. We used to get red bean buns in Chinatown when we were in Oakland and I always liked them there.

It took them so long to make it that I thought they forgot our order. I mean, how long does it take to drizzle some red bean flavored syrup on a snow cone anyway?

Okay, I’m a jerk. I was wrong. What came to the table was clearly something that had taken a lot of time and care to prepare. It was a big bowl filled with a thick slush suffused with coconut cream, a little lemon and a few other flavors I couldn’t identify. It was topped with a generous blob of sweet red bean paste covered in pistachios and shaved coconut meat. There was a bunch of other stuff in there as well. The whole thing was a masterpiece of low key sweetness and mouth-pleasing textures. The most amazing thing was that it contained no chocolate whatsoever. Ordinarily, I would be opposed to such things on moral grounds. I think I may have found my new favorite dessert, beating out a whole raft of other things with names like Decadent Triple-Chocolate Insanity, Explosion, etc. Then it’s blah, blah, blah, blah…prunes. Prunes are a terrible dessert.

The awful thing is I probably won’t be able to find the “snow” as readily as all of the chocolate desserts in all of the world’s Chili’s and Chili’s knock-offs. Sigh…

Savusavu, and both types of Fiji flags - the red one is the official 'maritime' courtesy flag, but everyone actually uses the pale blue one which matches the country flag

There are plenty of opportunities to purchase stuff in Savusavu (From a coal fired iron, to Kava roots, to a sula/wrap-around-skirt for Kyle, and a 'snow' desert - all while enjoying the views.

During dinner, as we and the Muse gang recounted the days in the week since we had last seen them in Tonga, I told Phil about my day and my concern over the water situation.

I asked Pretti, the marina manager about their water. She repeated what the Health guy had said that it was potable, but should not be taken after rains.

”How soon after? Days? Hours?” She wasn’t sure, but seemed to feel that it was alright now. I told her that I got the impression from the Health guy that it may not be okay just yet. She seemed surprised by this and agreed to call him over as soon as he was done clearing his next boat.

When I spoke to him, he said the water was perfectly safe to put in our tanks. We’re using it for washing, right?

“And drinking”, I said

“Oh, you should be fine, then.”

Good! But then he would finish off by saying something like, “Just take normal precautions, like boiling it” at the end, almost as an afterthought. We’re not going to boil all of the water in our tanks.

”So it’s NOT safe to drink?”

”No, no, perfectly safe…..just use a filter.”

”For the contamination?”, I asked.

”No, just for the chlorine, but I wouldn’t drink it.”

”You wouldn’t drink it?”

”I would drink it because I’m used to it, but you probably shouldn’t drink it.”

”Okay, but CAN I drink it?”

”Yes, of course, but you may want to boil it, though you don’t have to, but you should, even though it’s not necessary, but you really should, especially after rains.”

I relayed all of this to Pretti. She said they don’t use the city water during rains. They use a big tank they keep filled from when it has not been raining. She told us we could fill our jugs from the tank if we weren’t comfortable using the hose.

”Yes, please! Oh, thank you, thank you!” Running back and forth in the dinghy with jugs is not nearly as convenient as using a hose, but I may thank myself later for that.

As we were filling our first jug, the nice laundry lady ran up and told us that the tank water was only for when it was raining, we should just use the hose. We told her about our concerns, to which she responded by filling a big, white mug full of hose water to show that it was clean and safe now. The hose water was safe.

Okay. It was going to be a while before we could refill our tanks and there was no way we could last until then with the water we had, so we decided to roll the dice with it and fill our jugs with tap water. Oh, how I wish we had saved all of that rainwater. We could have put two months worth into our tanks in an hour.

So here’s where Phil comes in. After hearing the whole story and seeing us fill our jugs from the hose, he decides he just can’t let us put that water into our tanks. Muse has a watermaker (desalinator), so they fill their tanks from the sea. Once their water is turned from salt to fresh, they then filter it with carbon filters before it goes into their tanks. He went home and then got their big filter, an electric pump and all of the wiring necessary to plug it into a 12V socket and came over to Begonia. Now we had a system that would filter all of our jug water as it was being pumped into our tanks. Brilliant! He told us to get it back to him whenever we were done.

The problem was that Muse was leaving in the morning. Phil made a point of saying there was no rush, but overhearing his conversations with his wife and kids, it really seemed like it would be better for them to leave as early as possible. I decided we couldn’t be responsible for delaying them, so I needed to get all of our water that night.

It took seven round trips to the tap in the dinghy. I finally got the last of our water at 1:30am, but we could now last through our whole stay in Fiji and Muse could leave on time. Maryanne graciously agreed to get up early to hand off Muse’s system to them as they left Savusavu the next morning.

the following morning, after collecting our neatly folded laundry from the nice lady at the marina, we returned to Grace Kitchen, a mere eighteen hours after we left, where I ordered the exact same meal I had had the night before. Well, almost. This time, I ordered the large snow instead of the medium one. I just knew Maryanne was going to steal a bit every time I looked away, even though it’s MINE, so I needed extra. The whole repeat meal was no less incredible than the one the night before and I made a point of slowly savoring each bite. Magnificent!

Next on the list was kava. The drinking of kava and the ceremony around it is an important part of Fijian culture. When going to a new village, visitors are expected to first go to the Chief, introduce oneself and present a gift of kava root in exchange for his blessing. This ceremony is called sevusevu. The Chief’s blessing effectively makes the visitor a de facto member of the village. It hasn’t been that long since not being a member of the village meant you were soon to be surrounded by cassava, breadfruit and papaya as part of a big feast. Maryanne and I were planning on visiting many villages in Fiji, so we needed a lot of kava.

Kava is normally sold in bunches, each the customary size for sevusevu. The bunches are wrapped in newspaper and ribbon and look like a bouquet of sticks. None of the vendors in the market had enough bouquets for our month in the boonies, so we had to pre-order the requisite amount the previous day for pickup today.

I guess most people ordinarily buy one or two of these things at a time and then buy more for their next visit. We needed nine. Nine is beyond the number where the bundles can be tucked in with other shopping or hidden in a shirt. I ended up with a bag in each hand, the kava tips sticking out like the tentacles of a dried octopus.

Walking down the streets of Savusavu with a bag of kava root in each hand is like walking through downtown Santa Cruz with a case of beer under each arm. Suddenly, I’m everybody’s best friend. People were constantly coming up to me and asking me where I got it and how much I paid.

When we got it back it back to the boat we found a place inside out of the sun. We were told to hang the bundles, but the only place we could do that is in the cockpit. Leaving nine bundles of kava in the cockpit would be like leaving a bail of weed on your front porch. Not gonna happen. That stuff’s expensive. We quickly learned that although kava doesn’t have a detectable smell in the market, in the enclosed cabin, it wasn’t long before we had a whole hull that smelled of the stuff. The smell isn’t pharmacological, but it’s also not pleasant if you’re not that into kava. It’s like having an open bag of stale yard mulch aboard.

Weighed down with as much water as we could carry and reeking of kava, we were off to the wilds of Fiji.

{Maryanne}Our stop in Savusavu was really all about getting our paperwork done. We needed to clear into the country and then wait for our cruising permit to be approved. During that time we did chores (with a quick trip to the Gardens). We should have also visited the hot springs in the town, but somehow that just didn't get done (something for next time).

Visiting Flora Tropical Gardens - a pleasant way to see a huge variety of palm trees