Following my arrival in Fiji from New Zealand and the completion of onboard quarantine at the end of June 2021, I was keen to sail away from the exposed anchorage off the main island of Viti Levu, out to the smaller islands to the west. Just as well I did, for later I learned that if I had stayed in there for more than 72 hours after clearing in, I would not have been able to move on because of Covid restrictions.
Being in the wind shadow area of the main island, I sailed 9 miles with just a zephyr of breeze out to Musket Cove, where I spent several days before catching intermittent puffs of wind to sail further north west up the Mamanuca Island chain and into the Yasawas.
In the Yasawas, the pass at Drawaqa Island provided a great experience. When the tidal current flowed west through this narrow channel, I motored by dinghy until I found the manta rays feeding near the surface in water made cloudy with plankton and then jumped in to swim near these placid, gentle giants. They move surprisingly quickly however, hoovering up the clouds of microorganisms with their wide mouths and it took considerable effort to keep up to film them.
The true purpose of my move north west was to explore these beautiful surroundings whilst waiting for a weather window when the wind would be favourable to sail south east, against the direction of the prevailing trade winds, about 200 miles down to the remote Southern Lau Islands on the fringe of the Fiji group. These were highly recommended by our friends Ulla and Pelle of s/v Loupan.
Anchored at Blue Lagoon, I organised a taxi boat delivery of fresh produce from ‘Farm Boy’ on Viti Levu, for the wind was forecast to swing to a westerly quadrant. Perfect to sail east across the top of the Fiji island group to Vanua Balavu and its beautiful islands, where I could spend time whilst again waiting for suitable weather to be able to sail south east.
First solo night passage
This would be my first passage of any appreciable distance since arriving in Fiji and I felt some trepidation being a novice solo sailor, for I had not yet gotten to grips with sailing overnight, the profusion of reefs and the necessity to time any passage for maximum visibility into any shallow water, with the sun shining either from above or behind. Further, I was planning to sail east into the rising sun early the next morning which meant that I would immediately be breaking this golden rule. To mitigate this, the evening before leaving I put the computer in the dinghy and created a track on the satellite chart that I could follow which would avoid the immediate dangers.
Hence I got out of the shallows safely, but the forecast wind was late in arriving which was going to make it difficult to reach my overnight anchorage at Yadua Island in daylight. I was comforted by the fact that I had an excellent satellite image of the narrow channel as well as a reliable track of a sailor’s previous entry. Furthermore, this pass was on the east side of the island and would be protected from the 20 knot wind and accompanying swell that was expected. Thus comforted, I set about breaking another golden rule, for the second time that day!
A bump aground at night
It was pitch black but calm when I arrived off the long but narrow pass (50 m wide at the entrance) and it was now decision time. My options were to either sail up and down all night without any rest, outside the entrance, between the reefs in what I hoped would be safe, deep water or attempt an entry. Given the conditions and taking everything into consideration, the latter option made more sense to me, so I dropped the sails and started both motors. The computer displayed the satellite chart with the true boat position relative to the clear image of the edges of the coral a few metres on either side of Moondust’s intended position on the established safe track. This was my primary display on which I had to rely. I was also using two other displays (one being backup) showing the commercial Navionics chart, where occasionally Moondust had in the past appeared to be sailing on land because of the poor accuracy of the underlying map. However, the chart plotter was important as it displayed an equally accurate boat position and direction, even if not correctly referenced to the map of land, rocks etc.
I decided to creep in at 1 knot as I was concerned that there may be steel or concrete channel markers ahead and it wasn’t feasible to shine a light forward from the helm position because its bright reflection would blind and further disorient me and prevent me from seeing the instruments which were set on their lowest light display level.
It was like driving a vehicle with all the windows blacked out, using its GPS to steer by, except I had to keep glancing between my two displays. As I started to make the left hand turn into the channel I realised that going so slowly may be safest, but made steering by rudder difficult, so instead I cycled the throttles between ahead and astern on both engines to turn the boat. Almost immediately things got very confusing as the boat icon on the computer showed Moondust pointing the wrong way to enter the channel.
Whilst making what appeared to be the correct adjustment to the course for entry I felt bumping on the starboard side and the motor stalled. A flash of the torch confirmed that I had run aground, with coral clearly visible just below the surface. Fearful that I had damaged the starboard prop I shut down the port engine whilst I took stock. I noticed that the direction icon on the primary computer display was pointing in a different direction to that of the chart plotter because we were stopped and realised that this would also apply when the boat was moving very slowly.
Lesson learned, I re-started the port motor and Moondust easily floated free with the assistance of the wind. By now I realised that to go in the right direction I could ONLY use the direction icon on the chart plotter to steer Moondust and ONLY the boat’s position on the computer to keep her on the established track, regardless of where that boat direction icon pointed. Complicated and extremely confusing, especially after a long day! Following an hour of cautious progress, I edged in the six hundred metres to my intended anchorage and on my second attempt anchored Moondust securely for the night.
Safe arrival at Vanua Balavu
Next morning the most challenging part of the passage lay ahead as I had to thread my way through the reef strewn area that lay to the north and east of Yadua Island. Until I gained an appreciation of Fiji’s underwater topography as well as some experience of sailing in this area it was not easy to plan a course through this maze. However, by midday I had learned enough to know how to wind my way through the passes in the reefs and made my way to deep water before nightfall, so that I could complete the 160 mile passage overnight to Vanua Balavu. The forecast westerly wind kept its promise and I made excellent speed, entering the island’s northern pass through the reef around 10:00 the next day.
Learning from Whatsapp that a group of cruisers had planned a sheep BBQ that afternoon I sailed directly to Bavatu Harbour, partook of the feast and met some interesting folks before falling sound asleep for 12 hours by early evening.
This island group is very picturesque, receiving more rainfall than islands in the drier north west. The vegetation is lush and verdant and I moved around to various anchorages, including the Bay of Islands area, to see as much as I could in the 27 days that I had to wait for the next weather window. I was able to go ashore freely to walk and run on the farm, as well as climb trees to try to find an internet signal. Whilst doing this I met universally friendly farm hands and fishermen.
I also dived to inspect the damage from my grounding and unsurprisingly discovered that two blades of the starboard propeller were broken. By securing the necessary tools with cord, I was able to replace it underwater with a spare that I had on board.
Hoping that my weather window for Fulaga would soon materialise, I moved to Avea Island on the north side of the main island where I did some long swims and started to get fit again. I met Senatiki, (‘Call me Tiki’ he said) a youngish, very pleasant, smiley Fijian with a fast boat and four young kids. He did a shop for me at a nearby village and the ice being broken, the next morning he brought me homemade doughnuts (vetkoek) for my breakfast, a large squash, some white carrot-like root plant and sweet plantains. I reciprocated with banana bread and gave him the 130m throw line that the South Islander had jettisoned after our abortive attempts to link up downwind of Tahiti.
Heading for Fulaga
From Avea Island, intending to try to make use of the long awaited but marginal weather window of ESE wind, I set sail across the lagoon for Thikombia-i-lau island, tacking into the teeth of a 20 knot south east breeze which was unpleasant. However, having made that leg I was spared doing it the next morning when all I had to do was sail out of the pass through the reef and be on my way in clear ocean.
On arrival the light was still good enough to see the plentiful coral heads amongst the small patches of much hoped for sand. Trying to find a suitable spot to drop the hook is challenging enough with two people in these areas, so being alone I was dashing up and down from helm to bimini top, searching for a spot that would be safe for the night with the steady breeze forecast from the east.
My second attempt was successful as confirmed with a swim and I was hopeful to get some good rest before the next overnighter. However, in the early hours the chain wrapped around a coral head just below the bow and started to emit an alarming grinding noise, jerking the bows down. Not being conducive to sleep, I went up on deck at 04:00, hauled in 20 m of chain and attached two floats at intervals to it and let it out again, which sorted out the problem.