Sunday 12 July 2015


The ratchet on our big Penn reel screams as the strong monofilament line is stripped off at high speed. The rod arcs in its holder and the fish makes its first run. In our wake I see the distinctive bill of the famous blue Marlin, the king of game fish, thrashing in the water trying to throw the hook.

An hour later and this huge beast is now close to the boat, seemingly spent by the fight and we prepare to bring it on board when suddenly it dives beneath us with such power that I have to let it run again, deep under our hull. We are not sure where the fish is for a minute; then on our port side there is a burst of spray, only twenty-five metres from the boat, where this blue and silver torpedo, maybe two metres long, leaps from the sea, its dorsal fin a fluorescent blue fan across its back. It shakes its bill in the air before plunging back under the waves and it is gone, our fragile equipment no match for the power and determination of this majestic fish.

It has been another blustery night and we have been sailing slowly across the Tongan Channel to Fiji so as not to arrive at the pass in the reef before daylight. We shelter from the swell behind one of the outer islands until dawn and then make our way towards the entrance. It is a wide pass into the atoll but we are cautious because the electronic charts of Fiji are notoriously inaccurate and despite sailing in open water our chart plotter shows us in the middle of a reef.  Fiji is a group of 133 islands and we are making landfall at Vanua Balavu in the Lau Group on the eastern approach to the archipelago.

The reason for the charting issues in Fiji is that when these charts were originally surveyed, the reference coordinates, or datum point, was inaccurate, maybe taken using a sextant, and therefore all the soundings are out by that same amount. Relative to the datum point the charts are good, but with our highly precise modern GPS instruments that can position us anywhere on the earth’s surface to within 5 metres, we need to make some adjustments. This is known as GPS Offset and is slightly disconcerting. On our plotters we offset the chart from its surveyed position so that it lines up with a known point on the shore. In our case the offset is a quarter of a mile to the west – a huge margin of error in navigational terms. What complicates this even further is that the offset varies in different parts of the islands so more then ever its important to have multiple navigation methods and to use the most reliable of all: the human eyeball. But even for that to be effective we need daylight, Polaroid sunglasses and the sun high in the sky above us so that we can see the reefs that lurk just below the surface.

We begin our approach in a small convoy following the boats ahead of us through the pass and into the anchorage.  As we enter the pass our chart plotter still thinks we are on the reef and I haven’t trusted it in these waters ever since. I do however have an app on my iPad called iSailor that uses different cartography and this proves highly accurate, although its slightly unnerving relying on a consumer device like an iPad as our primary navigation tool. During our stay in Fiji, the combination of iSailor and Google Earth proves to be the most reliable permutation, combining the theory of the surveyed electronic chart with the reality of aerial photography; I would recommend this to anyone planning to navigate these difficult waters. We anchor off the town of Lomaloma and wait for the customs and immigration officers to clear us in. I act as taxi driver for the afternoon, ferrying the officials from boat to boat in the chop of the anchorage until finally it is our turn and we are authorised to enter the Fiji Islands.   Our first visit ashore is at the little yacht club where we witness our first Sevusevu ceremony, the word meaning gift in Fijian.

Kava is a pepper crop of the western Pacific and the main ingredient of a long-standing ritual in Polynesia.  The Kava roots are crushed to produce a drink that has sedative and anaesthetic properties and is used in a ceremony called Sevusevu to welcome outsiders to islands in the region.  When we arrive at the yacht club the villagers are sitting cross-legged on the grass in front of a large steel cooking pot filled with water. Only fifty years ago this might have been a cannibal cooking pot but today we are invited to sit opposite them – men cross-legged, women legs together to one side – and the ceremony begins. First the Kava is presented to the chief who hands it to the village elders to prepare the potion. The roots are crushed and wrapped in a cloth immersed in water and wrung out by hand, extracting the potent juices from the fibre. This is repeated solemnly in silence until the water takes on the appearance of a muddy puddle that is ladled into polished coconut shells and offered to the visitors, the most senior first. The recipient claps his hands once and is then handed a bowl of liquid that is downed in one gulp followed by three more claps. Kava is then passed around all those present and the ceremony complete, we are welcomed to the island and given permission to swim and explore ashore. This ritual isn’t simply a show for the tourists. In most of the Fijian islands visitors are expected to find the local headman of the village and to do Sevusevu as a mark of respect before going ashore, or even swimming off the beach.  The aspect of Kava bemoaned by many is that the men drink large quantities every evening as they sit companionably around the Kava bowl and are unable to start work until the sedative properties have worn off, often not until lunch time the following day.

Vanua Balavu is beautiful, even in the rain, but we have to press on to the larger island of Vanua Levu to collect Jamie and Lucie who are flying out to join us for their university summer holiday.  We arrive in Savu Savu and provision up with all-important local SIM cards for mobile phones, limes for the Dark and Stormy cocktails and bunches of Kava strapped to the guard-rail so that we are prepared to do Sevusevu on our travels. What strikes me is the number of Indians in Fiji; first brought here by the British as farm workers, they now account for fifty per cent of the population and browsing through the market stalls we could easily be in a provincial town in India. We ask for limes and are handed huge green fruit, larger than lemons.  “Chota wallah nay hai?” – don’t you have any small ones? -  I ask in the Hindi from my childhood in India, and this brings a smile of surprise and a tilt of the head from the woman in the Sari who is serving us. Lucie and Jamie’s first night on board is spent watching a film in the cosy saloon on Juno while the rain and wind lashes down on deck – I suspect not quite what they had in mind when planning a holiday in Fiji. With a break in the weather we set sail to the Nameena reef, a marine park famous for its scuba diving where we dive on a huge coral pinnacle, 25 metres high and alive with the most colourful coral we have yet seen. The forecast is for more wind in the coming days so after our dive we up anchor and head inside the reef system on the southern coast of Vanua Levu and fly along the coast at high speed in flat water and 35 knots of wind, just reaching the shelter of the mangroves in Bua Bay before the light fails and the jagged reefs disappear from sight under the waves.

After a night at anchor we set off again in very strong winds, heading west again, dead downwind towards the famous Yasawa Group of islands where we plan to spend the next ten days.  Due to the weather conditions we break the journey at the island of Yadua, entering the bay on the west coast in 40-knot gusts, passing through the horns of the coral at low water, the pass only a few boat lengths wide. The sun is high so we can easily see the reef but with the wind gusting at gale force strengths I veer 90 metres of chain in 6 metres of water and still I set the anchor alarm on my ipad which goes off every few hours as we swing at anchor.  The following day dawns windy again but bright and sunny and I keep anchor watch on Juno while Caroline, Andrew, Jamie and Lucie set off clutching a bundle of Kava roots to find the village head man to make our Sevusevu.

By early afternoon Andrews radios me to say that they are almost back on the beach after a long and arduous walk to the village but that Caroline has had an accident and has suffered a bad cut to her leg. I pick them up off the beach in the dinghy and I am alarmed to see Caroline’s leg bandaged with a scarf and her training shoe covered in blood. Back on the boat we inspect her wound; it is a deep gash, about three inches long and obviously in need of stitches. We have all the drugs and equipment to be able to anesthetise and stich her on board but common sense quickly prevails and we decide to get her to hospital. Heading back upwind to Savu Savu in these conditions would be very difficult so instead we decide to go downwind to the Yasawa Islands where a fast catamaran called the Yasawa Flyer, runs daily through the islands and back to Denarau Marina near the town of Nadi.  The nearest stop for the ferry is at the Blue Lagoon, made famous for being the location of the film with the same name starring Brooke Shields, every school-boy’s seventies pinup. I call our agent David at Fiji Yacht help and he agrees that this is the best course of action and he arranges for a car to collect Caroline at the ferry terminal to take her to the clinic and then to a hotel for the night.  The only issue is that the Ferry leaves the Blue Lagoon at 1pm, around sixty miles west, so that means leaving the anchorage at 4am in the pitch black and finding our way out through the reef. We give Caroline antibiotics and painkillers and have an early night.

My alarm goes off at 3.30 am. The wind has abated and the sea is calm in the bay but the sky is overcast with no moon and no ambient light whatsoever. The chain rumbles in the silence as the windlass retrieves the anchor and we head for the pass. Fortunately on our way in to the anchorage I recorded out track on our iSailor app, so in theory all we have to do is to retrace our track and all should be well.  My remaining concern is that we are now entirely dependent on the tiny GPS chip in the ipad; designed to approximate our location in central London but not for guiding a yacht through the reefs in the dead of night with only metres to spare. To make matters worse it is high tide and with the tidal range here only about a metre, there is just enough water to disguise the reefs but not enough to allow any room for error.  With everyone on deck, torches scanning the water, we motor slowly towards the narrow pass, my eyes glued to the ipad screen and the dotted line showing our digital track though the reef.  As we near the pass our senses are heightened by the pitch dark, straining our ears for the sound of water breaking on the reef, but all is quiet and we slip slowly through the treacherous coral heads and out into open water.

The Flyer does the milk run every day, bringing supplies and tourists to the resorts tucked away in the beautiful Yasawa islands. To avoid the need for a dock at every port of call, the Flyer just switches off its engines and drifts in the lagoon while long boats, water taxis and dinghies like ours motor alongside and passengers leap aboard.  There is just enough time for the exchange of goods and human cargo before the Flyer powers up and away to its next stop along the route. I wave goodbye to Caroline and return to Juno on anchor watch as the wind is still gusting strongly. The following day is Sunday, so Jamie, Lucie and even the atheist Andrew go to the local church while I once again keep watch. At midday Caroline is back on the Flyer, stitched but tired from her ordeal. There is a small resort on the beach at the Blue Lagoon with a handful of guests and a few yachties from the other three boats at anchor.  It is my birthday, and after dinner the restaurant staff and the band sing the most melodious rendition of Happy Birthday with Polynesian harmonies, accompanied by guitars and ukuleles. Everyone in the restaurant gets a slice of birthday cake and joins us for a Polynesian conga around the tables.  We stay for a few days in the lovely setting of the Blue Lagoon then head south to the island of Naviti where Jamie and Lucie snorkel with manta rays who come to feed in a pass at the south of the island. We anchor overnight on the island of Waya and then motor-sail 35 miles into the wind to the mainland where we have booked a berth at Denarau Marina to make the repairs to our mainsail furler.

Denarau marina is plush with the best facilities we have seen since the Mediterranean.  These facilities attract the superyachts that come here from New Zealand seeking winter sunshine and there is a line of these huge boats ranged alongside us on the pontoon including Dragonfly, owned by Sergei Brin, one of the founders of Google. The manifest extravagance of this high tech leviathan bristling with antennae and swarming with comely uniformed crew, brings home to me that never before in the history of mankind has it been possible for two young men to create such vast wealth in so short a time. An Internet business that didn’t exist 15 years ago is now one of the most valuable companies in the world and the founders, still in their thirties, acquire super yachts as their playthings.  However we are here not to ogle the hardware but to repair our mast and Andy from Pentagram arrives at 7am to start work.  

In order to repair the furler, first we have to disconnect the boom and tie it off to one side, remove the gooseneck that connects the boom to the mast, and then extract the hydraulic gearbox from the mast to give us access to the foil. We slide the luff foil onto the deck, cut it and splice in the new section, securing it with rivets. While we have the gooseneck open we also replace the hydraulic pipes and the top swivel on the furler with a new more robust model. Andy is quite amazing, able to turn his hand to anything. Critically for me, his attention to detail and the quality of his workmanship is impressive and after two days the furler is again fully functional.  In Denarau we also take the opportunity to deep clean the boat and Arpi brings no less than 6 Fijian cleaners who spend two days on their hands and knees polishing the hull, the deck, the coamings and the stainless fittings; all the time chatting, laughing and joking with each other. The last remaining issue (for now) is our chart plotter that has died on us, but by coincidence our good friend Mervyn has a spare one in his garage in the UK that he has sent to us by Fedex. By cannibalising both machines we are able to create one working plotter and by the time we reach Musket Cove Juno is again fully operational and looking better than new.

While in Fiji we have made the firm decision to take a break from the World ARC in Australia. We have found the pace of the rally quite relentless and we need some time off the boat to recharge before heading off again. This was always our plan but in the last six months we have made great friends across the fleet and the prospect of waving goodbye to them in Queensland is very sad although I am sure that we will keep in touch. As we cross the 180 degree meridian and our chart plotter switches from West to East, we are very literally on the other side of the world from Greenwich and it will be good to fly back to the UK in August and catch up with friends and family at home before setting off again. Cruise the barrier reef in the Autumn, maybe New Zealand for the European winter (by 747) and then sail to Thailand on Juno in the spring. A freighter picks up yachts in Phuket and carries them through the dangerous Somali waters and the Suez Canal, depositing them at the port of Marmaris in Turkey. Not a silly idea.

For our last few days at the beautiful resort of Musket Cove, the sun shines, the wind abates and we are reminded of the pictures of Fiji from the guide books. Sadly, Lucie leaves us to fly back to the UK, but despite the weather she seems to have enjoyed her holiday enormously, always smiling and always looking for that elusive cloudless sky while we hear the news from home, of London bathing in a heat wave.  Its definitely time to head North, back towards the equator, and we start the leg to Vanuatu in brilliant sunshine, ghosting over the start line before setting our spinnaker which draws us gently out to sea towards the island of Tanna, four hundred miles to the West.

1 comment:

  1. Lovely reading, full of descriptions, as always. I shall miss them when you arrive.