The weather fortunately was kind whilst on the hard and after 36 very full days, with only two off for rain, I was ready to go back into the water. In the meanwhile Ulla and Pelle flew back to Sweden, notifying me from Dubai that they had learned from fellow travellers that it was now possible to get Covid vaccinations in New Zealand. I called a fellow sailor who had access to a car and he secured us appointments for the next day.
Karin was keen that I sail with crew and she put me in touch with Donna from the Bay of Islands, who wanted to sail up to Fiji for family reasons. I suggested that she join me for the hop up the coast back to her home so that we could meet each other and she could get a glimpse of what was involved. Thus late in the afternoon of May 18, following my second Covid jab, we set sail down the Hatea River with darkness imminent.
Donna was a novice and I had warned her of the many large channel markers which we had to avoid over the next 10 miles. It was almost dark and whilst I had been in the saloon for a few seconds fetching a life vest, she spotted one about 20 metres dead ahead. She frantically swung the wheel to starboard, but it just spun ineffectually, being in automatic pilot mode. Sensing imminent panic I rushed up, stabbed the Standby button and manually steered away missing the marker by a few metres.
Approaching the commercial jetty a little later, I glanced behind to notice the brightly lit Pilot boat slowly approaching from astern, clearly intent on making contact. I went to the port sugar scoop and shouted a greeting. ‘How far are you going?’ he enquired. ‘Just down to Urqhuarts Bay’ was my reply. ‘Good’. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Because you don’t have any lights on!’ he politely replied. ‘Yikes!’ A glance up at the masthead confirmed this, so I switched on the deck level lights and shone a bright torch onto the sails for the two tugs coming up the river. Then we powered up both motors and sped across the channel as a large cement carrier was entering the river at 15 knots just ahead.
Preparing for Fiji
Upon arrival in the Bay of Islands I still had plenty to do whilst waiting for a weather window to sail to Fiji, and now added to the list new mast power cables and a new masthead light as it turned out to be badly corroded. I also continued to provision Moondust with as much as she could carry.
There was also the copious paperwork for leaving New Zealand and applying for permission to sail for Fiji under their Blue Lanes initiative which enables foreign yachts to visit. As required I retained an agent in Fiji and finally, after committing to the long awaited upcoming weather window, we drove down to Whangarei for our Covid nasal swab tests. These results, in the correct format, had to be submitted to Fiji within 36h of the test, to enable Fiji Health to process the application and give me permission to set sail within the 72h time limit from being swabbed. With these time deadlines this rather stressful clearance procedure was further complicated by a mix up with Donna’s surname which delayed the commencement of the testing of her sample.
Heading for Fiji
The passage to Fiji is about 1000nm and on average takes 8-10 days. I had been watching for a suitable weather with a fellow cruiser, Benno, for several weeks. Our objective was to leave New Zealand as a (usually stormy) low pressure system was passing. This would provide some decent wind and allow us to make as much progress as possible before running into the usual calm area of high pressure about half way to Fiji where the wind died until the trade winds blew in. Neither of us enjoy motoring and so were delighted when we spotted what appeared to be a perfect window, enabling us to leave on Sunday, 20th June, in 20-30 knots of NW wind which would slowly back to the west then south and finally blow from the south east quadrant for five or six days. This would power us through the usual wind ‘hole’ and into the SE trades.
Once offshore the wind and the seas picked up as predicted, so we headed NE and made good speed (6 to 8kts) even with a modest sail plan. As dusk was falling I noticed a change in Moondust’s motion and a glance at the autopilot told me we had a problem with our steering. The boat kept heading up into the wind and even with the autopilot showing full rudder deflection to starboard Moondust would not turn downwind. A glance at the steering in both back lazarettes indicated that all above water seemed to be fine which left me with the discomforting thought overnight that perhaps we had lost a rudder!
Steering problems again!
To ease the pressure on the remaining port steering I pulled down the mainsail and we only used the genoa that night, making reasonable speed, especially when the wind got up to 30kts. Then, as it got towards morning, the wind moderated to 20kts and backed towards the west, allowing us to turn more to the north and let out more genoa.
My second watch ended at 06h00 and after only three and a half hours of sleep I felt whacked. I hoisted the main again, pointlessly hoping the steering could cope, but had to drop it again. Then knowing I wouldn’t sleep, I followed up on an earlier thought in the starboard lazarette where, on closer inspection in decent light, I saw that the linkage between the rudder shaft and the hydraulic ram was broken. The identical problem, but on the opposite steering, to that we had experienced 200nm downwind of Tahiti! Luckily, this time we didn’t lose our hydraulic steering as well, so I only had to cope with one problem and we didn’t have to hand-steer.
As I was stripping out the broken parts it was wet and slippery underfoot on the sloping floor and Moondust was bouncing around in the large swells, a repeat of our earlier experience. This led me to wonder if the epoxy/glass fibre fitting I had made for the port side could be used upside down, as it was the mirror image of what was needed on starboard. Well, hooray, it worked and we were back sailing again!
An extract from an email sent to the family: ‘The steering linkage slipped on the rudder shaft at midnight on the 22nd and it took a while for me to wake up and then decide what to do. It was still blowing 20-25kt with 3m swells so it took a few hours to take down sails, strip off the fitting, line the tube that clamps onto the rudder shaft with folded-over waterproof 320 grit sandpaper so that the abrasive surfaces could grip both in and out, and then reassemble.
As we were getting underway I was using the port motor to assist a turn into the wind to help me hoist the mainsail, when we were blown sideways over the rear genoa sheet which had slipped overboard. Mistakes are always the captain’s fault and the only excuse he has in this case is fatigue and having to think for novice crew, which has an interesting effect on how (in)efficiently things get done. Being late and tired I hove to, switched on the anchor light and got a few hours of sleep before my unsuccessful frigid, early morning South Pacific swim, made impossible and downright hazardous by the swells and chop which bounced Moondust around like a cork. So we have one motor until things calm down a bit and the captain gets hot enough to swim again…
Now we are under way again with a one reef main and full genoa, wind of 20-25 knot @130 degrees starboard, doing about 6.5 to 7 knot speed over ground. I am sorry to have lost time and think I will regret it as we near Fiji. However, those forecast headwinds should be light and we go OK to windward in those conditions…’
Arriving in Fiji
Fortunately, with just two more stops for adjustments, the steering held up until Fiji, as did the wind until we only had 60nm to go. Then it dropped to a dead calm overnight, rising the next morning and lasting until we sailed in after dark to the quarantine anchorage off Denarau Island, using waypoints supplied by Benno to ensure safe navigation. After ten hectic days it was surreal to drop anchor and experience calm and quiet. It was a very boisterous passage; constant motion and noise with water roaring past the hulls, the occasional wave coming on board and the incessant sound of the wind.
The next day the Fijian navy boat arrived to log our details and complete the process of quarantine whilst at anchor. In the meanwhile, we were allowed to swim but not visit other yachts or go ashore. Our agent, Josephine Morris of Yacht Partners, kept us well informed and two days later the navy brought the health official on board to take our temperatures and nasal swabs. Three days later another health official came on board to issue our Pratique (health clearance). We then entered the marina briefly to complete the remaining entry formalities. Whilst entry to Fiji is unusually costly (about US$1000) cruisers are allowed to remain in the country for up to five years and explore this very extensive island group.
Free to enjoy beautiful Fiji
I walked down to a nearby supermarket to buy some fresh produce and was fortunate to pass by a welding firm who undertook to repair my broken steering linkage. I also decided to beef up my trusty epoxy fitting to serve as a future backup for both port and starboard rudders. Whilst waiting two days for this to be done I could see how one could get used to island life. The weather is ‘shorts and T-shirt’ balmy – but not too humid presently – and one only needs a sheet as a cover at night, even with the cabin hatch wide open to the stars above.
The quarantine anchorage off Denarau is very exposed and as soon as I was able, I made use of a gentle south easterly breeze and sailed the short hop west to Musket Cove where I was happy to tuck in behind a headland and shelter from what had become a breezy 20-25 knot wind.
After months of placid cruising it wasn’t easy to make the decision to leave the predictability and comfort of New Zealand and make the challenging passage north. Furthermore, once in Fiji, I had to get to grips with this extensive island group with its own unique weather and many reefs, not all of which are accurately charted. Thankfully I have a full set of satellite image charts for the area and this would partially make up for that extra set of eyes that Karin provided, seeking the safe passage ahead from a high vantage point on Moondust.
Circumnavigating on a small boat is not for those who wish for a predictable, placid or easy life. It is full of variety and challenge which constantly encourages, indeed obliges one to do new things, solve problems and master new skills.
Despite all the uncertainties the pandemic has created, arriving in Fiji, whilst daunting in some respects, feels very much the right thing to have done. I am greatly looking forward to exploring this beautiful island group with its friendly people and I also believe that Fiji will open its borders before New Zealand, thus giving Karin an opportunity to return to cruising life. At the moment there are no flights available from SA to Fiji until October, but we do hope that Fiji will open well before the end of the year.