Ship's Log               s/v Uliad 


 

September 1:

 

     Kathleen arrived back on Uliad yesterday, surprising us by catching an earlier flight.  This worked out to my advantage, because all day whenever she noticed anything out of place or imperfectly clean I could say, "Oh yeah, I was just starting to do that when you called us on the radio."  Kath arrived with several bags of presents from the good ol' USA and also with my brother who is joining us for a two week vacation.

    It's amazing how many "necessities" stack up that you just can't get anywhere in this part of the world.  Her goodie bag included two new handheld VHF radios to replace one that has died and one that was lost at sea.  Also a new digital camera to replace hers that quit working after only 9 months.  (OK, I'm going to say it, Olympus sucks, at least as far as their claims for being waterproof go.  We're going with another Pentax Optio, another of which has worked flawlessly on Uliad for over 3 years.)  There were new books and magazines to read, a couple of awesome new dive lights (the Pacific Lobsters only come out at night y'know) and for Emmett, a set of scuba gear to be presented as an early Christmas present before we go diving later this week.  My brother Mike also brought me a new heat exchanger for the generator.  Three months ago a tube in the original heat exchanger started to leak and I had to make a "jungle repair" by plugging the holes of the leaky tube with wood plugs made from a chopstick.  It worked and I've kept the generator running.  Nonetheless it will be a load off my mind to have a proper repair done as soon as I get up the ambition to climb down into the engine hole and change out the old one.

     Savu Savu is a collection of buildings along a narrow river-mouth harbor that takes about 15 minutes to walk from one end to the other.  In the daytime, it turns into quite the hub of commerce though with buses bringing people from all over this large island to and from the market and shops.  You can get a great meal of Indian curry or Chinese fried rice for $3.  The farmer's market is large and filled with tropical fruits, fresh vegetables, and big sacks of exotic Indian spices.  The fresh fish market is in back to the left and the handicrafts are to the right.  The north end of town seems to be the men's section:  it has the auto parts stores, the hardware stores, and the kava bars.  Kava, you'll recall is the ground up root of a pepper bush that is brewed into a mildy intoxicating beverage that looks like water from a mud puddle.  We ended up buying a bunch of powdered kava at the market not because we've acquired a taste for the stuff...it turns out that when strangers come to a more remote island or traditional community, politeness demands that they bring a gift of kava to the village chief.  Fiji once was called "The Cannibal Islands", probably because of the early explorers and missionaries not showing up with proper gifts of kava, so we're not taking any chances.

 

 

September 4:

    We took advantage of a day of flat calm weather to turn what would usually be a hard upwind beat into a long, dull motorboat ride to get to the island of Taveuni.  There is a reef off this island called Rainbow Reef and it's famous among scuba divers for its rich, pristine walls of soft corals in every imaginable color.  Mike had been studying his guidebooks before arriving and he listed a dive on Rainbow Reef to be his top priority while here.  We anchored barely a hundred yards away from "Jewel Bubble Divers" shop and signed up for their next trip.  But when we woke up the next morning, the skies were cloudy and rain was falling.  Nobody was too excited about diving in that weather so we called the dive shop and postponed for a day and everyone went back to bed.  Emmett and Uncle Mike went out later for a practice dive beneath the boat and Em had no trouble getting his new scuba gear to work.

   The following day, the dive boat stopped by Uliad to pick us up with our gear and we met Hiram, our divemaster. I think we made the right choice in postponing as the skies were now sunny, promising much better light down deep to see the coral reefs with.  We spent the rest of the morning on Rainbow Reef going through two tanks of air each looking at all the corals and tropical fish.  On the way home, we asked Hiram about local taxis that might take us to the nearby national park the next day and Hiram quickly offered to drive us all there himself!  The dive shop was closed on Saturdays so Hiram had nothing else to do all day, so we figured why not pay him instead of some other taxi driver?

    He showed up right on time despite another day of rainy weather.  This time we were glad to have a little rain as hiking in a tropical jungle on a hot, sunny day can be pretty suffocating.  We drove along the coast with Hiram commenting the whole way on the things we were seeing out the windows of his truck.  Soon we arrived at the trailhead to the Tavoro waterfalls.  This trail begins along the edge of a field of coconut, taro, and banana and then takes you to three different waterfalls, each more picturesque than the last.  (The first of these falls is featured in the movie Return to the Blue Lagoon which I hear is pretty bad, so instead of having to rent it, here's a photo so you can see what it looks like:

Swimming at the waterfallThe "Blue Lagoon II" movie waterfallAnother lovely waterfall on Taveuni

    The first waterfall is achieved after an easy 10 minute walk, but the next two require navigating through steep, muddy trails and across a rope bridge over the river.  It was a great adventure and we eventually made it to the topmost waterfall with Emmett and Mike making a point of swimming in each pool along the way.

    On the way back to town, we stopped at a little coffee shop along side the road that we had noticed.  But when we walked up to the building, I thought we had made a mistake.  The sign by the road said: "Audrey's Coffee & Pastries" but the shop itself was Audrey's private residence.  Audrey herself appeared on the porch and explained that the porch was the place for guests to enjoy their coffee while looking out at a commanding view of the reefs and islets north of Taveuni.  She listed the various beverages and cakes she had available and we placed our orders while sinking into the deep, comfy cushions of her deck chairs.

     Audrey is an elderly Californian who years ago bought some property here.  When her husband left her, she ended up finishing the place herself, making ends meet by selling baked goods.  She's a delightful lady, and seems to have struck the perfect balance with her business of bringing in just enough customers so she doesn't get lonely, but not so many that she wears herself out.  An iced coffee and a rich slice of chocolate cake on Audrey's porch is my idea of paradise.

Audrey serves up cake, coffee, and KahluaThe view from Audrey's front porch

    As soon as we all were settled in and devouring our orders, Audrey returned with what looked like an unlabelled champagne bottle and a fistful of cordial glasses.  "Who'd like to try my homemade Kahlua?" she asked while immediately pouring out glasses to let us know that it wasn't really a question.  "C'mon, you're on vacation!" she encouraged the reluctant.  And you know, the stuff was every bit as good as the chocolate cake.  So we ended up spending the next hour on Audrey's porch hearing her stories and sipping her Kahlua (which she strong-armed each of us into having another glass or two) before climbing back into Hiram's truck for the ride back to Uliad.  But not before I got Audrey to give up her Kahlua recipie!

 

September 7:

     Sailing is all about the weather, and all about compromises.  Our most recent example was that the weather was expected to turn very windy the day after our hike to the waterfall.  So I had to present the crew with the compromises:  either we leave right away while the weather's nice, or we hike to the waterfall and get stuck in Taveuni for three more days...OR we sail in 25 knots of wind on the beam to our next destination.  Mike chose door #3 and was rewarded with seasickness and very rough weather for our 8 hour sail to the island of Koro.  The next compromise being that rough, windy weather usually makes for a fast passage.  So by mid afternoon we were navigating our way through the reef pass and seeking shelter behind the island.

      We spent most of the day with our starboard rail in the water travelling 8 or 9 knots through breaking seas, so it was at exciting and fast at least.  After taking a few minutes to catch our breath from the wild ride, we headed into the little village on shore to present our "sevu sevu".  We had forgotten that it was Sunday.  And we had forgotten that in the South Pacific, Sunday church services go on ALL DAY LONG.  So even at 4 pm, we ended up waiting around about a half hour for church to be over before the village chief could receive us and our ceremonial gift of Kava.

      We were eventually led to a simple shack with woven mats on the floor where an elderly gentleman was sitting cross legged.  It was explained that the village chief was in Suva and this was his brother who would fill in for the sevu sevu ceremony.  We sat down and introduced ourselves, pulled our kava out of the bag and set it in front of him.  The  chief's brother then rattled off a few lines from memory, clapped his hands a couple times and that was that.  Our interpreter explained that we were now welcome guests in the village and could wander as we pleased. 

      We were shown the big church, the general layout of the village, and invited to come back tomorrow and hike to their waterfall.  Having seen plenty the day before, nobody was in much of a mood to see another waterfall, but we didn't want to be rude.  We said maybe and left it at that. 

      As the sun sank low, we could hear a bell clanging at the edge of town and wondered what that was about.  We wandered over to find a group of men pounding kava root in a sort of iron crucible.  They would stand in a group of 4 or 5 men around this pot, fill it with dried kava root, and then take turns pounding it with a big 6 foot long steel pole.  Each guy would pound the pole downward to pulverize the root, then tap the edge of the iron pot on the way back up to give a little clang, then pass the pole to the next guy in the circle.  We took a few photos and started chatting and were soon invited to join in the kava drinking that evening.  But the sun was going down and we were pretty tired from the sail, so we begged to postpone a day and headed back to Uliad before dark.

Pounding kava root on Koro islandEmmett tries his hand at pounding the kava

     By the next morning, we decided that kava drinking and another waterfall hike were not enough to keep our attention here, so we set sail again in the windy seas to keep working our way toward the western side of the Fiji islands where it is said all the nice beaches are. 

 

 

September 10:

     We ended up sailing through 28 knots of wind for two more days to get to Lautoka on the western end of the main island of Fiji.  Here I needed to present myself to customs again and it was here that I realized that Kathleen's passport was missing.  Fortunately, the customs office didn't need to see her passport again, but  I hurried back to Uliad and tore through every drawer and locker that it could have been left...nothing.  Then I retraced my steps and figured it had to have been left at the Immigration Office in Savu Savu when I was signing Kathleen back on the Uliad crew list.  A phone call there revealed that yes, they had her passport and now we just have to figure out how to get it back.

     Lautoka is a big town and one immediately realizes on approach why.  This town is all about sugar.  There are trucks and railways bringing huge loads of sugar cane from the countryside to the sugar mill here.  The cane is pressed and boiled down to make sugar.  The molasses is distilled into rum next door.  And the leftover cane trash is burned in a huge smokestack where the black ash can rain down on the boats in the harbor when the wind is right.  Ugh!

      We did enjoy the huge farmers market here and stocked up on a whole bunch of fresh fruit, veggies, herbs, eggs and whatnot before we head out to the islands.  A liter of fresh squeezed mandarin orange juice costs $2 here.  Yum.  We also picked up a bottle of the local rum to try, although I think they should give me one free for all the ash on my deck.

 

September 12:

     I wish I could say we had a better system for planning our route through Fiji.  When we were ready to leave Lautoka, we pretty much looked at the map in our Lonely Planet Guide and said, "Mana Island sounds nice, and we could be there before dark, why don't we check that out."  So we sailed to Mana island and spent most of the fading daylight trying to find a safe spot to anchor along the north shore.  The trouble was that the seabed sloped steeply from really deep to too shallow and wherever the depth was just right, there was a coral head or two nearby for us to swing into.  We finally found a marginally acceptable spot just as the sun was kissing the horizon and decided to make do.

     Further reading in the guidebook revealed that there were two dive shops on Mana island.  We called one to get directions and were told they were on the opposite side of the island.  So Mike and I went exploring in the dinghy to find it and discovered a big protected lagoon all along the south shore that seemed the perfect place to anchor.  Only the pass was narrow and winding and looked to be a challenge to navigate safely.  After scouting it out in the dinghy, I decided that we could do it, but only with the sun overhead and at slack tide, which it happened to be right then. 

Entering the reef pass at Mana Island

     We raced back to Uliad and quickly got underway and came through the pass with no difficulty.  We anchored in a nice clay bottom with plenty of swinging room and life was great again.  Tomorrow we go scuba diving again!

 

September 15:

     Tonga had made us a bit soft, literally.  With all the socializing we did in town, and a limited number of nice beaches to swim or get exercise, we had started suffering from "Tonga Tummy".  It is caused by inactivity combined with a starchy, high calorie diet, and is primarily manifest by an enlarging waistline. This morning I looked down and realized that Tonga Tummy is rapidly melting away with all of the diving and snorkeling we've been doing on the amazing reefs here.  In addition, it's so hot that one has little appetite for anything but cool beverages anyway. 

     Besides the dive shops, there is an upscale family resort and a rundown backpacker's hostel on shore here.  We went into the latter's bar & restaurant the other night to see the "island dance night" show which was predictably tacky.  Three Fijians (one dressed in no less than a coconut bra...I thought they only sold those to tourists) did a few dances in front of the bar, then led everyone outside where they could safely perform the "fire dance".  This was flashy and exciting, especially when one guy briefly set his leg on fire.  Then it was back inside to show everyone how to do what can only be described as the Fiji macarena.  Mind you a group of drunken Japanese youth had already been joining in with the other dances already, but now everyone was supposed to do so.  Maybe I'm starting to get too old.

Fiji dance show on Mana islandMike & Steve join the kava circle

    In the far end of the building we found a quiet corner where a group of Fijian men were gathered around a kava bowl.  They must have sensed our exasperation and invited us to partake of the calming effect of kava with them.  Mike got his first taste of the stuff and declared it to taste like dirty novocaine.  The island, we learned, was owned collectively by a local village.  The resorts in this area are all on leased land or owned directly by Fijians.  By law, their lands can't be sold off, which makes a lot of sense to me to protect the futures of these islanders.  We were soon invited to sail over and visit the main village.

    Even at a lowly backpacker's hostel, the workers here try hard...they're out on the beach singing to greet every new guest arriving by boat, they're serving free juice to folks standing in line, and they're throwing silly little parties like this every night of the week.  I couldn't help but think that if the whole place was owned by some international hotel chain, that the service would probably by chilly if not surly as it is in so many big island resorts.

    Maybe it was the kava, but the cheesy dance show soon faded into memory, an amazing sky full of stars came out, and we made our way back to Uliad, floating peacefully in the lagoon pleasantly apart from the youthful revelry on the beach. 

 

September 17:

     We eventually had to take Mike back to the airport to fly home to reality.  We anchored near to Vuda Point Marina where we were met on the dock by Mohammed the taxi driver.  Mohammed proved to be so friendly, helpful, and enthusiastic about his job that we got his phone number and had him take us back shopping again a few days later.  As we were saying goodbye to Mike at the airport, Mohammed's enthusiasm got the best of him and he jumped out of his car and ran over to shake Mike's hand and wish him a good trip, too!

     I shouldn't be surprised by this.  One can't meet eyes with any Fijian on the street, in a store, anywhere without their face lighting up and saying a hearty "Bula!" to you.  I know that Tonga is supposed to be the friendly islands, but so far Fiji seems far friendlier.  So two days later we were back in the same taxi heading to the same airport.  We had made arrangements for some friends in Savu Savu to pick up Kathleen's passport and give it to another sailor who would be arriving at the airport here on her way back to Australia.  The pick up went off without a hitch and now Kathleen has her passport back and I have stopped walking around with my tail between my legs over the issue.  I've often wondered what would happen if you lost your passport abroad--you can't board an airplane without one after all.  I imagined stiff interrogation by US embassy staff or perhaps some temporary one way document home whereupon I'd have to sit and wait for weeks to get a replacement.  And what if it happened somewhere there was no US embassy?  Fortunately for us, we don't have to find out. 

     After stocking up on groceries, our last stop on the way back to the marina was the Vonu Beer brewery, which we only happened to notice by a sign on the road.  Every little country in the world seems to have their own local brew.  They usually all taste the same to me:  a light budweiser-like lager.  Fiji Bitters is the big local brand here with the same non-descript taste.  Anyway, while my brother was here, he found young upstart Vonu Beer with a cute turtle label and it's refreshingly different--more a hoppy IPA style beer.  Their billboard says: "Pure Fiji Water...turned into beer."

    So we pulled into the brewery thinking maybe we could find Mike a Fiji beer T-shirt for a Christmas gift.  The place turned out to be a warehouse full of stainless steel vats, kegs, and cases of beer with no sort of retail outlet.  I explained how we loved their beer and was there please anywhere we could find a Vonu T-shirt or hat or something?  Nope.  They've only been around for a year and all they sold was beer so far.  I bought a case straight from the source and one of the workers must have felt bad for me and my unrewarded brand loyalty.  She walked over and gave me one of those neck lanyards to hang your name badge at work that was emblazoned with the Vona Beer logo.

     So Mike got home and within a day had found that the company does indeed have a Vonu Beer website where one can buy T-shirts but so far they haven't told anyone in Fiji about it. 

 

September 18:

     Today is an anniversary of sorts...it was three years ago today that I left my regular job and we all climbed in our car and drove to Uliad to start a new life.  Looking back it has been everything I've hoped for:  adventure, fun, togetherness, closeness to nature, less stress...  Oh we have our days now and then when we think how much easier it would be right now with a house, a job, and a predictable routine, but for the vast majority of our time we feel truly blessed to have the life we do.

     We left the main island to sail this morning to a place called Musket Cove on an island called Malolo Lailai.  The resort here really welcomes yachts with open arms, offering a small marina & fuel dock, a grocery store, free use of the pool, and nightly barbecues where they even provide plates & silverware for everyone.  We had resisted coming here up until now because they were having their annual race week.  We imagined the place filled with noisy, partying crowds and decided that quiet pristine beaches sounded nicer. 

    Our arrival coincided with a birthday party for Emmett's friend Stuart from Gallivanter.  Based upon the number of parents at the party complaining of hangovers, our estimation of the race week revelry was correct, but everything seems to have calmed down now.  We met a number of new boats, and also caught up with Gallivanter and Animos whom we last saw in Tonga.  While the kids were all playing party games, the main topic of conversation among adults lately is the approaching end of the sailing season here.  The cyclone season begins in a few months so everyone is now formulating plans to move south to New Zealand or Australia, or north across the equator to places like the Marshall Islands.  For our part, we've decided to make the thousand mile jump to New Zealand next month, where we'll lay up Uliad and fly home again to enjoy another winter in the USA.  Whenever I start feeling sorry for myself about the long sail ahead, I just remind myself how many people are sailing north, with plans to keep going all the way to Hawaii, and then back to the west coast.  Now THAT'S a long trip! 

     

 

 

September 23:

 

     As we suspected, Musket Cove is the sort of place where it's easy to settle in and stay for a long time.  Cruisers often have an uneasy relationship with the luxury beach resorts throughout the tropics.  Most places are happy to have you spend money in their bar, but would otherwise prefer you be invisible to the paying guests.  Musket Cove is one of the rare places that goes out of its way to welcome sailors--offering not only moorings and a small marina, but free use of their pool, their barbecues, their garbage, their showers...almost everything on the resort short of the guest rooms.  For the first few days I kept walking around thinking, "really?" and expecting someone to chase me off.  I'm not sure what the resort stands to gain from us using their facilities all the time, but perhaps we provide interesting local color for the paying guests.

The marina at Musket Cove ResortEmmett and friends at the pool--Musket Cove

     So Emmett and his friends from other boats have been spending every afternoon in the pool and Kathleen booked herself an appointment at the resort spa.  We've been getting ahead on homeschool lessons and aside from that...not too much.  Days and days passed with little to show for it but contented looks on our faces.

    I was reminded yesterday why you should only travel in daylight hours here.  I looked out the hatch to see a yacht hard aground with a falling tide.  It looked like they tried to sail off at dawn straight into the morning light that reflects off the water.  So he never saw the reef that lay in his path until it was too late.  A number of us went out to check on him and after an embarassing day, he backed off without difficulty when the tide came back in.  So remember:  when in Fiji, don't wake up at dawn with ambitious plans.  We have no trouble following that rule.

yacht aground near Musket Cove

    A few days ago we got word that my aunt and godmother had died after a long protracted battle with cancer.  This was not unexpected but still put a sudden damper on our blissful pace here.  With a major international airport only a day's sail away, I had every intention to find a quick flight home for the funeral, only to find only a few seats left at astronomical prices had any hope of getting me there on time.  It was a harsh realization of just how far away we are here.  In a world of instant communication by email and cell phone, it seemed hard to believe.  So for the past couple of nights, I've been having my own little sunset memorial for my aunt Janice--wishing her farewell and godspeed and thinking good memories as the Fijian sun falls in a great blaze of color into the dark seas out beyond the reef.

   

September 25:

     We finally got ourselves out of Musket Cove to go exploring.  There is a long chain of small islands to the north called the Yasawa Islands and we'd heard tales of fewer people and lovelier beaches the farther north you go.  But on the day we left, there was a big swell running offshore...waves left over from some big storm in the Southern Ocean.  Musket Cove lies behind several layers of protecting offshore reefs and once those were no longer in the way, Uliad started to roll.  A glance at the chart and the clock told us that we didn't have too many options for a well protected anchorage that night.  So we tucked back inside the reef at Mana Island where we'd been before and slept soundly.

    The following day, with the swell easing off, we sailed up to a little island called Monuriki.  This is the place where Tom Hanks filmed the movie "Cast Away" a decade ago.  Now the problem for Fiji was that there is already another island near here that is home to the Castaway Island Resort, so if you ask to see Castaway Island, you'll be taken there.  When talking to tourists, the Fijians refer to Monuriki as "Tom Hanks Island".  There is a brisk business of shuttling people out for the afternoon to walk around on tiny Tom Hanks Island.

     Now we had just watched the movie on DVD a week or two ago, so I can tell you that it still looks just like in the movie.  Tom's little home made wind sock still flutters in the breeze...there's the lagoon where he speared fish...there's that big cliff...here's where the FedEx packages washed ashore.   But I couldn't help but survey the place and think, "Tom, if only you would have launched your raft from the other side of this point here, you wouldn't have had to make that dangerous paddle over the reef.  And if only you would've looked to the northeast, you can clearly see an island with a village only a few miles away... "

 

September 28:

     We continued our journey north through the Yasawas the following day.  Our goal was to find a place near the island of Naviti where it is said that large numbers of manta rays gather every year.  Kathleen was particularly keen on swimming with the manta rays.  I didn't know exactly where this place was, though.  As we approached Naviti, we came through a narrow pass between two islands and over a shallow sand bank.  After zig-zagging our way through the pass, it ocurred to both of us that, "Wow, that was a beautiful little spot we just passed by."  So we turned around and decided to go back and anchor for the night there.

      A tiny resort sat on one shore, which turned out to be the "Manta Ray Island Resort".  We had a great snorkel over pristine reefs with tropical fish thick as clouds.  Later, we went ashore to ask about the rays and after buying a cold beer at the bar, I was sad to learn that the manta rays had left for the year.  They come every year in May to the nearby bay and leave in September.  It had now been two weeks since anyone had seen one. 

     But all in all, we weren't too disappointed.  As I sipped my beer, I started thinking about what would make the hypothetically perfect yacht anchorage... For me, it would have to be well protected from waves & swell, but breezy enough to keep the wind generator spinning.  Really clear water, preferably over a flat sandy bottom in oh, let's say 10 to 25 feet deep.  There should be great snorkeling nearby and a nice beach to play on.  And if there happened to be a little beach bar nearby where one could sit in the shade and order up a cold one in the late afternoon, that would do it.

    This was it...the perfect little spot.  We ended up staying for three days anchored in that narrow pass, my only (minor) annoyance being the tidal current that would reverse direction every 5 hours and 50 minutes.  The anchor holding was great in the sandy bottom, so I wasn't worried about us breaking loose.  The problem was that after living on a boat for so long, I find that I can sleep in all kinds of bouncy movement of our bunk.  On the other hand, if that movement changes slightly, I'm suddenly awake with an odd feeling that something's not quite right.  So every night in the middle of the night when Uliad swung around to point the other direction, I'd wake up, look out the hatch, glance at the tide clock, and then go back to bed. 

Emmett practicing his skim-boarding

   

 

September 29:

    One thing I didn't expect from Fiji was all the "backpacker's resorts" here.  Fiji sounds like such a far off, exotic place to us Americans that I had this image of it being a place for only the ultra rich or perhaps splurging honeymooners.  There are plenty of top-end resorts, too, but also plenty of cheap ones.  But it turns out that Fiji is a short, inexpensive flight for New Zealanders, Australians, and Asians so there are lots of little places for budget travellers here.  I guess it makes sense that it would be much easier for a village to come up with the capital to build a dormitory and buy a few kayaks to start their own budget resort that it would be to create a luxury getaway.

     So here at Manta Ray Island, as on Mana Island, and plenty of other places, there's a steady stream of young twentysomethings sunning themselves by day and partying by night.  There's a high speed catamaran that runs up and down the island chain each day and every little resort loads up their skiff with luggage and people and goes out to deep water to wait for the ferry to come.  By the numbers that come and go each day, I think the plan must be to move to another backpacker's resort every few days and work your way through the islands.  This all sounds like a recipie for a loud, spring-break-style bacchanalia, but it's actually pretty quiet and low key out here at night, which suits us just fine. 

 

 

                                                                                                                                   

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