On the morning of my departure for the Southern Lau Islands thankfully the anchor came up from amongst the coral heads easily and with one reef in the main, I set sail for the passage through the fringing reef. Once clear of the island I found the wind was just south of east, meaning I would have wind forward of the beam all the way. However, having waited 27 days for these less than perfect conditions I was determined to go ahead.
Shortly afterwards I heard the chink of steel on steel and glancing up, saw that the bungee cord on the starboard fishing line was stretched to its limit and a big blue dorado was jumping and thrashing from side to side. Slowing the boat, I gathered the things needed to land it, but possibly being foul hooked, somehow it just slipped the triple hook and swam off.
The overnight passage was straightforward with about 15 knots of wind. That night, or rather early next morning, I finally tired of playing my uke, having worn through the skin on a finger and decided to catnap, after being alert and on my feet since departure. I managed about an hour of broken rest when it started to get light, then brewed some coffee, went out and was dismayed to see that the mainsail was showing a very full ‘belly’, caused by the reefing line at the clew (rear bottom corner) of the sail parting in the night.
Fortunately, there was a second reefing line rigged and my speed picked up with a properly set sail. By now it was 08:00 and the entrance to Fulaga was just six miles away, but directly up wind and up current. It took me three and a half hours to sail my way to just off the entrance pass, where I dropped sail and started both engines; happy that I had thoroughly tested them for fuel air blocks after the servicing I had done at Avea Island. I felt that I needed full manoeuvrability for my first effort at negotiating that pass which is only 50m wide and quite shallow – around five metres at places – with coral heads in the channel showing clearly. I had a route marked out on the satellite chart and after the first 300 metres or so, where I cautiously crawled my way in, straddling the obstructions, I finally anchored at midday in 4m of crystal clear water over sand off the village landing.
Fulaga has its own unique character and beauty
Fulanga is amongst the most beautiful places that I have visited and one of my highlights of the voyage thus far. It has an enclosed, shallow, clear, turquoise lagoon, plenty of small undercut ‘mushroom’ islands, with an 80m high encircling wooded perimeter around the greater island, which is about 8 km across. It was not easy at first to move around on my own and I had to motor until I had established routes on the satellite chart. There is no commercial tourism here and the only visitors are yachties. The the local villagers are very friendly and keen to trade produce for staples, of which I had intentionally laid in stock in Vanua Balavu. However, no amount I could carry would suffice the needs here as the supply barge had neglected them for months. Everyone wanted flour, sugar (yes please sugar!) and rice.
After several days, waiting for a sniffle to pass, I went ashore to make my sevesevu to the Chief, when I presented my kava root, paid the F$50 anchoring fee to remain as long as I wanted, and got the chief’s permission to enjoy their island.
I met Humberto, the famous Dutchman (from Spain) who, after two circumnavigations has spent about ten years in this lagoon on his South African built catamaran. He has been made very welcome by the local folks, following all his assistance with technical issues and even has his own plot of land to grow vegetables. Recently he moved his 95 year old Mum aboard from her old age home in Holland and she was happily able to spend the final years of her life with him.
I spent some time interacting with the other yachties there, sorted out a faulty navigation light caused by a section of corroded electrical cable and then beached Moondust to clean her hull. However, a little bit of work can go a long way in this environment, so with the essentials done, I moved closer to the passage through the reef, from where I was able to fish and swim easily.
I heard on the VHF that the Navy boat had arrived and hoping to buy pre-mixed dinghy fuel, I sailed over to the village, where the Navy guys, along with Customs, came up in their rubber duck to check Moondust for the presence of any prohibited species. Once done, I asked them if I could buy some fuel. ‘No problem, just give us a container’. So I siphoned 25l of diesel into my tank and sent that container to get filled. When the fuel was delivered I asked how much I owed. ‘No charge’ he said!
A fishing feast!
With plenty of fuel, I was able to fully explore the pass, although it took some time to learn how best to do this safely, as with the out flowing tide quite large standing waves build up at its entrance. I had also learnt that it was more productive to fish on a rising tide. After losing fish on light tackle, I resolved to only use the heavy Moondust hand trolling lines, ideal for fishing in the confines of the pass.
I would go by dinghy to the pass just before low tide from my nearby anchorage, nestled in shallow water amongst small islands, and then, towing the dinghy by its tether, I would snorkel the three hundred metres or so out of the pass, seeing beautiful corals and colourful fish on the way. At one point I would pass ‘grouper alley’ where I could always see these large brown fish several metres below on the floor of the pass, ever alert to my presence and prepared to rocket off to their cave at any instant.
It’s about 20-30 m deep outside the entrance of the pass and the crystal clear water is usually teeming; big schools of large pelagic fish, as well as reef fish patrolling the depths, mostly near the sea bed. I only saw a few reef sharks – mostly white tips, although there was an individual of another variety, about three metres long who thankfully was intent on his own business.
Once the tide started to rise I would climb on board, start the motor and put out one or two hand trolling lines. All these lines had razor sharp triple hooks on them and I had amazing success catching about a dozen pan sized fish in my time there including Giant Trevally, Tuna, Red Sea Bass, Spanish Mackerel, Dog Tooth Tuna and Barracuda.
Once I had my quota for the day, which was largely based on the amount of cleaning work to follow, if I had the energy, I would motor upwind some distance on the outside of the fringing reef, jump in the water and snorkel back, just out of the surf along the edge of the reef, then through the pass and back to Moondust. After about 350m from the entrance of the pass the drift in on the current ended and the hard work of swimming the dinghy to Moondust began, upwind and across current at times. The warm shower and hot coffee once on board were always welcome.
Once I was through the pass and about to swim around a small island to head for Moondust when a huge Giant Trevally suddenly materialised within a metre of me, not appearing to be the least intimidated. He paused and took a good look at me with his big, bright eyes, and deciding there was nothing edible there, sheared off to keep looking for his dinner. WOW!!
With the possibility of Karin being able to get a flight out to Fiji and needing a visa extension and some dental work done, I decided to head across to Ogea Island, just eight miles away, before heading back to civilisation. Very different to Fulaga, Ogea is surrounded by a deep channel between the island and its fringing reef; the fishing is even better there than at Fulaga. I learnt from one young islander that he went out to the reef passes at night with a torch and his spear gun, searching for huge red sea bass in their caves. Once speared they hastily hoist them into their boat before the ‘sharks with the black stripes’ (Tiger sharks!!) arrived.
I anchored a couple of kilometres away and went across to the reef and through one of the passes in the dinghy as the tide rose. Then I trolled up and down outside the lagoon in the most impossibly clear water imaginable, watching as the invisible energy from hitherto non-existent swells rose under me before they crested lazily and broke on the reef a few metres away. A good haul of Bonito, Giant Trevally and Tuna saw my freezer fully re-stocked in two days, signalling time to return to Fulaga to bid farewell to friends before sailing to Savusavu, one hundred and ninety sea miles away, on the southern side of Vanua Levu.
After seven weeks in the Southern Lau, a good breeze blew me north west, where immediately after arrival, amazingly, I was able to put Karin into teleconference contact with my agent Jo, to sort out the final details of the complicated Covid protocol she needed to follow in South Africa to enable her to enter Fiji. Due to no internet I was unaware that this approval was imminent, or would have sailed direct to Denarau from Fulaga and saved myself another two hundred mile all-nighter a few days later.