By Mike and Devala Robinson, Oyster 46, Sea Rover
In one bay off New Zealand’s Barrier Island, we hosted a larger than usual gathering for 17 people onboard Sea Rover then we all moved on to an Oyster 56 for a sit down meal. A great way to start our sailing season!
This pleasant evening was followed by a couple of weeks cruising around that well-kept Kiwi secret, the Hauraki Gulf, in our opinion much better than the Bay of Islands. Then on to Opua, near the top of North Island, where we joined up with the many other cruisers planning to head north to avoid the Southern Hemisphere winter. A time for renewing friendships with cruisers we met last year as we sailed through the Pacific, and for preparing for another season in what we have learnt to call ‘the islands’.
Like everyone else in Opua, we sat and waited for the weather, mindful of the potential dangers of merely hoping that a threatened low might not hit. It always does! When the weather ‘window’ finally came we set off for Fiji, approximately 1,100 miles north. The passage was largely uneventful, we say largely, there was one incident. We were happily batting along beam reaching in force 5-6, Sea Rover as ever rock solid and a pleasure to sail. Then at 17.25 (I know that because I had just switched on the SSB to speak to another boat) and in the fading light BANG! The genoa, up until now well reefed, suddenly deployed to its full 140% glory, not what you want in a force 6. The line on the furling mechanism had just snapped, particularly galling as we had fitted a new line before leaving New Zealand.
Mike was having a nap and I woke him gently with the words “Houston we have a problem”. There then followed two hours as darkness fell and Mike rigged the old furling line. Behind those simple lines was the reality of Mike kneeling in the bow of the boat with waves crashing over him as I tried to hold the helm head to wind to allow him to turn the furling mechanism. After some time we got it moving, but in the dark Mike wasn’t confident he had done this successfully and we decided not to risk it like this overnight. So that left only one thing to do, drop the genoa – ha ha!
We vaguely remember such manoeuvres from sail training before the days of self-furling mechanisms but our genoa is a brute and there was a real danger of it landing in the drink, at which point hauling it back aboard, full of water and in the dark, would have been no joke. Still we got it down and lashed to the deck with sail ties. What we should have done next was pause, catch our breath and check the storm jib was properly rigged before hoisting it (it was on the foredeck as we had used it in earnest through the worst of a low a couple of days before). But we didn’t wait. We quickly hoisted up the jib, only to find the sheets thrashing and flogging around the mast, they caught in my lifeline and I was stranded at the mast being beaten up by the lines. Mike had to rescue me, getting thwacked several times very viciously in the process, we had to drop the jib and then undo the ‘knitting’ that the sheets had become and re-hoist it.
We heard of far worse experiences on the sail north to the islands and even before we arrived safely in Suva, Oyster Customer Services were preparing to send spare parts for our damaged furling mechanism. They have never failed to get parts to us, making us wonder why we are carrying just so many spares in this harsh salt environment. The formalities of clearing in were simpler than we had been led to expect, even if we had to get used to the fact that the guy from health and safety was wearing a pinstriped skirt (or sula). We soon became surprisingly used to seeing policemen, the armed forces and many of the men and boys we met wearing sulas.
Armed with paper charts lent by fellow cruisers, we set about navigating our way through coral reefs as we cruised around the main islands of Fiji (Viti Levu and Vanua Levu) and the smaller islands in the north east corner of Fiji. Until now we had been impressed by the accuracy of our Navionics charts, even in many remote parts of French Polynesia. Not so in Fiji where local sailors talk of SNAGS – Satellite Navigation Assisted Groundings! Whilst the charting of the land was good, its position was often ‘out’ and it was not unusual to find ourselves sailing over areas which our electronic charts clearly showed as terra firma! We found it safer to use the electronic charts more like paper charts and once again we used the radar overlay function to assess the disparity between our charted position and reality! Such navigation near land mixes old and new, conning from the bow, verified waypoints from trusted other cruisers and good old-fashioned pilotage. Nice to know we hadn’t forgotten all our old skills and even in the 21st Century’s world of electronics they were still coming in useful. Fiji is definitely not a place to sail around in poor visibility and we frequently found ourselves having to slow down Sea Rover, to time arrivals so the sun was high enough to safely navigate the coral strewn channels.
It would be all too easy to spend your time just with other cruisers, and great fun though that is, we still hope to improve our sketchy knowledge of the diverse peoples and cultures of the vast South Pacific. Admittedly this is a challenge when English is at best a second or third language for most of the people we meet and our ‘other languages’ are pretty lamentable. Sea Rover is beginning to have an eclectic collection of books on missionaries, cannibals and cultures and we’ve both become inveterate museum goers in an attempt to understand more about where we are and the impacts of the early European visitors. The ‘rewards’ for the effort of making time to go ashore and meet local people have been some priceless moments and lasting memories. Two people who come to mind from our cruise in Fiji’s waters are Joseph and Malau.
Joseph aged early to mid-twenties lives with his brother and younger cousin on a remote atoll, Naqelelevu, in the far north-eastern corner of Fiji’s territorial waters. We enjoyed a beach barbeque with them one evening during our stay, anchored off their settlement, or at least what is left of it after last year’s cyclone.
These young men make a living collecting and preserving sea cucumbers, which are highly prized by the Chinese and Japanese markets. When they have a decent load and can get a lift from passing fishermen they head off to the island of Taveuni to sell their catch – for good prices, anything from 15 to 60 Fijian dollars per kilo (not bad when many employed local people earn between 10 – 25 Fijian dollars a day). We thought that they would then immediately go out ‘on the town’; a bit of bingeing on drink and grog etc much like many youngsters of their age. Not at all, as Joseph says “We take our money to the bank, we have a card to buy the provisions we need, yes we have some fun and drinks but we are saving our money so we don’t have to work when we are old”.
Pension planning in the Pacific! We wondered how many 20-somethings we know in the UK are doing the same?
Then at the other end of the age spectrum there is Malau, 63 and living in a simple hut of coconut branches and leaves on a remote island with very few possessions (and even fewer teeth). To reach him we conned our way through the two passes in the skirting coral reefs that bound Albert Cove on the north west of Rabi Island. When we took the dinghy ashore, empty handed, he generously gave us coconuts and lemons and was clearly pleased to see us and chat in broken English. It was easy to think of Malau as a simple man with no choices, living in poverty. That stereotype was confounded when we learnt that he had lived and worked in the airport several hundred miles away, in his own country Tuvalu, he could get by in four languages and had chosen, in his old age, to live simply on the beach, with a few pigs, his garden providing fruit and vegetables and the sea providing fish. He was, he said repeatedly, “free”. He, like us, had made a lifestyle choice and change. Whilst he was very grateful for the few things we left him, we realised that he had chosen the ‘Good Life’ and was clearly very happy with his choice.
And this cruising life is just that – a life change (and choice), not a holiday. We worry that sounds a bit precious but for so many of our family and friends what we are doing seems like one long jolly jaunt, sailing off into the sunset. We often reflect that everything that made us fall in love with Sea Rover, needs polishing, maintaining and servicing and yet we too plead guilty to showing only the glamour. Like any change of lifestyle there is all the behind the scenes hard work. Friends of ours who set off on a circumnavigation in the ‘90s would often say that at least we understood what they were doing. We thought we did, but now older and wiser we realise we didn’t appreciate just how time-consuming it could be. Perhaps we missed those bits in the articles we read before we set off!
The generosity and willingness to help out in the sailing community is another constant surprise. It extends from the high-quality information passed on willingly, exchanging waypoints for difficult channels or favourite anchorages over a drink, to helping out when in dire need, like cruisers we barely knew filling our water tanks when our generator wasn’t working last year and we couldn’t make water. It is a world so unlike the one we were used to ashore in our busy lives in London, where the road from acquaintance to friend was much slower. The cruising community is in some ways akin to a village or neighbourhood and, like good neighbours you are willing to help each other out. But at sea, where so many of us are so far from home, it seems the willingness and friendship comes more quickly.
Of course it wouldn’t be the same if we didn’t have a wedding to go to. This year, as last, it was the wedding of two other cruisers, Isabelle and Brian on their Oyster 56 Wasabi with whom we had become friends since sharing haul-out facilities in New Zealand. So from shared travel lift to shared moments in life, we made our way to Musket Cove resort in the Mamanuccas Islands, south west Fiji.
Even though it is primarily a hotel they make ‘yachties’ very welcome, so much so they have a yacht club (of which we are now members) and allow full access to all the resort’s facilities. On one level Musket Cove could be any tropical resort, but the difference is the staff. Within 24 hours they knew our names, which drinks to serve us (we weren’t spending that much time at the bar – honest) and the boat name for the bar tab. It was explained to us that because Fijians have such large extended families they are used to memorising people, faces, names and connections even after only a short time together; the result is that you are made to feel special.
After two months of great cruising we set off westwards, back into the south-east trades heading for Vanuatu, some 500 hundred miles away. Amazing how quickly you forget the ‘rock and roll’ of downwind sailing and the need to stuff kitchen towels, socks, anything into cupboards to stop that annoying ‘chink’ or ‘clunk’ that keeps you awake far more than the weather. Winds were a stiff force 6 and the seas were boisterous after several days of rougher conditions. Sea Rover took it in her stride, as always. We forget the number of times we’ve been so grateful for such a well-built boat, combined with her weight and a beam of over four metres, she is rock solid in all sorts of weather. She more than repays the days spent on maintenance and servicing on the principle of ‘look after the boat and she will look after you’.
The next bit will be difficult, Vanuatu warrants a whole article all on its own and it was truly fascinating. We are learning to plan our sailing not only around seasons and prevailing winds but also around what is happening in the places we are visiting and in Vanuatu we ended up becoming festival groupies as we sailed between Malekula, Ambrym and Vanua Lava enjoying the tremendous spectacle of the different photogenic kastom festivals, each island with its own traditions, costumes and dances.
There were other places we might have 'ticked off' if we had rushed more, but we continually find the adage of ‘less is more’ holds true. The festival in Labo in South West Bay, Malekula was very special as they were installing (if that is the correct term) two new chiefs, one the first Kastom chief ever in that village and the second man was replacing an aged chief who had become too frail to fulfil his duties. We felt privileged to be there.
The following day two local people, Willy and Simeon, took us on a walk to see their gardens. We, of course, think of a garden as something you step into out of the back door, but not here. Here you are talking about an hour’s hike up a hillside on narrow muddy tracks, often machete in hand to clear the way. We stopped at the old chief’s house and were shown into a traditional hut where the chief sat in the dark on homemade matting, his elderly wife close by. Willy interpreted for us and the chief was clearly delighted to see us, his eyes twinkled and he grasped our hands, unwilling to let go. When we gave him our simple gifts of rice, sugar and salt he immediately invited us to eat with him. We declined saying we hadn’t come to be a burden and, wishing him well, went on our way. Towards the end of our walk we were led to a clearing in the hillside where a fire had been lit and beside it, on banana leaves, a meal had been prepared for us – coconuts, bananas, taro and island cabbage that had been cooked in bamboo, all at the chief’s behest. Just one of the very many, special things that have happened to us when we have chosen to spend time with local people we have met along the way. Again new acquaintances and people we will search out next time we are here.
But we also have a conundrum. We are welcomed into people’s villages and homes and so it feels right to reciprocate and welcome them aboard Sea Rover, which we have done on many occasions in anchorages where we feel comfortable. However, we were struck by Mamu, a young girl who had been our guide, explaining the dances and their significance at one festival. When we dinghied her out to our boat, after looking around she announced she didn’t want to go home. It was a joke but there was an edge to it. Had we sown the seeds of discontent, showing her a life she couldn’t have, a life she will see more of as satellite dishes are beginning to appear in some, once remote, villages? Inviting people into our home still feels ‘right’ and something we will continue to do. It certainly seemed appreciated and those who came out enjoyed the interaction with the boats anchored off shore.
Our conversations with him were fascinating, ranging from his liaison role with the police on the issues of domestic violence (apparently a real problem within Melanesian society) to how he saw the future of Kastom. For many citizens of Vanuatu – ni-Van as they are known – Kastom is an essential part of their national identity. This is particularly the case in rural areas, but these traditions are increasingly threatened by development – both good and bad – and Vanuatu appeared to us to be at a crux where much that is now authentic could soon become merely a tourist spectacle. Graham appeared to appreciate what was at stake and that there are no easy answers, certainly not the glib ones we heard from some we met.
Once again we were sad to be moving on, leaving ‘yachtie’ friends and new acquaintances ashore, as we prepared to sail the 1,200 miles to Australia. Our life has become one of constant farewells, the wave good bye and the salutation of “See you down the track”, one of sincere hope but not always expectation. Vanuatu is a country, which has enthralled us and we promise ourselves that we will return before reluctantly leaving the South Pacific.
So as we headed for Australia, looking forward to Christmas and New Year in Sydney and meeting up with cruising friends (our floating village in the South Pacific!) we were reminded that we were headed for the country that once spawned the TV soap ‘Neighbours’ with the cheesy but apposite theme tune extolling ‘... when good neighbours become good friends’. We can’t help but think that may well sum up one of many special aspects of our cruising life.