Travelogue 9: Fiji (20 Oct 09)
My last travelogue ended with us setting sail from Asau in independent Samoa for Fiji. Little did we know that we would be on the edge of disaster, that of the terrible tsunami that hit both Samoas on the first of October.
Our deepest condolences to the Samoan people, all of whom we found kind and hospitable. Samoa, including American Samoa, has been one of my very favorite places on this trip, and to hear about it devastated by waves and flood is saddening. We would not have known at the time the disaster occurred had not family and friends inundated us with warnings and requests for info about our whereabouts and condition. All three of us appreciate very much the concern so many people showed.
But to return to the chronology of the trip, we had a glorious sail from Asau with fresh steady winds abeam so that we were on a broad reach and experienced some of the best sailing of the entire trip. This boat, Anna, is a thoroughbred among sailboats, able to cut through the water at better than half the wind speed. At 15 knots of wind we do a steady 9 knots boat speed with full main and genoa, at 17 knots of wind we do 10 and at 20 knots we do 12. And that is not peak boat speeds, but steady, hour-after-hour speeds. Peak speeds are even higher: one day on that leg we recorded a maximum wind speed of 24.2 knots and a maximum boat speed of 16.0 knots. Chris White’s brilliant design of this model, an Atlantic 57, is really a stroke of genius, with an eye towards both comfort and speed, and Alwoplast, the Chilean boatbuilder, has done a world-class job in making Chris’ design a reality, with strong but amazingly fair hulls and exceptional finish work. All problems we have had with the boat have been equipment failures caused by suppliers and by neither the design nor the construction, and yet both Chris and Alwoplast has been truly outstanding in their post-launch support. I honestly think, and my crew agrees, that this boat has to be at the very pinnacle of boat design and construction, and that anyone interested in a cruising boat of this size for non-Arctic cruising would be unwise to select anything else.
I am very fortunate to be doing what I am doing on such a wonderful vessel with such a great crew.
I am also very fortunate that our timing was good in leaving Samoa. We were at sea – I was still asleep after my midnight to 4:00 a.m. watch – when the tsunami passed by us as barely a ripple. Reviewing the charts (we didn’t have the chartplotter running at the time to record our track) I estimate we were in 6000 to 9000 feet and possibly up to 13,000 feet of water at the time, so there was no especially discernible wave at all. John was on watch at the time and noticed nothing. It is interesting that the night before, sometime before midnight when Glen was on watch, we were hit by a short series of unusual and relatively large and confused waves that threw us around a bit, even waking me up, but the timing is not right for the earthquake and resultant tsunami that occurred the next morning.
An interesting aside concerning the tsunami: Days after the event we were talking with a divemaster at a dive shop in Fiji and told him about the high temperatures in Samoan waters -- temperatures that exceeded 91 deg. Fahrenheit (32.8 Celsius) – and he said that he had never heard of such high temperatures, that they were most unusual, and perhaps they were a harbinger of the earthquake to come, and heat was being released into the sea from the nearby fault line. I have no idea about the validity of his theory. I will have to research seawater temperature as an indicator of seismic activity when I can get on the internet someday. And have nothing else to do . . . .
Had we been in independent Samoa when the tsunami hit we would have been unscathed, I think, as we were only on the northern coasts of both ‘Upolu and Savai’i, the two large islands of that country, and the tsunami came from the south. I sent an email message to a Samoan who worked in the main harbor at Apia, the capital, on ‘Upolu and he responded that the marina where we had been was not affected nor was anything along the north coast.
It would have been a far different case had we been tied up to the wharf in Pago Pago, American Samoa, where we spent several days. I will let another cruiser who experienced the tsunami along the wharf where we were tied up aboard Anna explain what happened in his own words:
“This morning (six hrs ago) we were shaken awake by an earthquake
which seemed to have no end! We were aboard Gallivanter and tied
side-to a big concrete dock in the heart of Pago Pago, American
Samoa. And after living up & down the California coast, I knew this
was no minor tremor.
After the rude awakening, Cath & I walked across the dock and
chatted with a few of our fellow sailors, one of whom said that he's
just done a Google search on "recent earthquakes" and said that it
measured-in at 8.1 and the epicenter was only 120 miles distant.
We returned to Gallivanter and I turned on our laptop and searched
the same website. Sure enough there it was... "8.1 earthquake -
American Samoa - 20 minutes ago". I clicked on the "Show Map" option
and noticed the epicenter was located south west of Pago Pago...
which is located on the southern side of the island.
Just as I was considering the ramifications of that little fact...
all hell started breaking loose! Our boat was on the move! My first
reaction was to start the engine and dash up on deck to see what was
going on. I witnessed the water around us was rapidly dropping!
Rapidly! In a blink of an eye, we were on the bottom and the boat
was falling away from the dock! Three of our big dock lines popped
and we fell right over into the mud - the entire basin we had been
floating in only moments ago had completely drained! People were
Next - the water came flooding back in at an even more alarming rate
and the next thing I knew we were floating directly above the dock!
Over the concrete slab and drifting toward a young lady we knew
(from another boat) who was desperately hugging a power pole and up
to her chin in swirling water! I told Cath to cut the two remaining
dock lines with our serrated bread knife and to be quick about it!
Right as I put the boat into gear, we were somehow washed back off
the dock and into the basin as I advance to full throttle and we
accelerated through a floating debris field of floating docks, fuel
drums, sinking boats, a shipping container and a barnacle encrusted
wreck all of which were spinning in the torrent of rapidly dropping
sea level. It was absolute mayhem! As we steered out toward the deep
water in the center of the harbor I looked over my shoulder and saw
what appeared to be a waterfall pouring off the dock and shore
beyond. Not one of the dozen vessels remained at the dock. All were
underway in a matter of seconds... with or without crews aboard.
We motored around in the middle of the harbor watching the waves of
floods & ebbs while wondering about after-shocks and our fellow
cruising sailors. As we passed one of our neighbors she shouted to
us that her husband had been washed off the dock as they were trying
to get away. She was alone and seriously concerned. Other boats
broke free from their moorings and anchors in the initial seismic
waves and many were driven ashore, or driven under by loose tuna
After about three hours, we felt it was finally safe enough to
return to the dock. All we had were lengths of old line and we were
short a couple fenders. We were the first to go in and we started
un-tangling lines and helping others get back along side the
concrete dock. All of the store-fronts along the water are
destroyed, roving mobs of kids can be seen looting, the fence around
the dock is gone, every boat on stands in a nearby boatyard were
washed away. Big fishing boats are now in parking lots across the
street. Absolute destruction is seen everywhere along the shore.
Phones and power are down but we got back online right away and I
immediately went back to the recent earthquakes website to see if
things have been calming down in the center of the earth. A number
of aftershocks as strong as 6.0 have been recorded over the past few
hours - but thankfully no more wave action has been noticed. We've
been making Skype calls to our families and letting others use the
computer as well to phone home.
Online news reports say that the earthquake lasted three minutes and
the highest flood rose 25 ft above normal! There are 20 confirmed
deaths... including our neighbor who was swept off the dock. Most
fatalities occured in and around the harbor where we live. Boats are
battered and nerves are fried. One friend wound-up on his boat
nearly 1000 feet away from the water after breaking from his anchor
and sailing right down Main St. taking power & telephone wires down
with his mast! Some people lost everything... including their lives.
We came through remarkably well with only minor damage sustained to
our toe rail when the dock lines parted and to our fender basket
which was the only point of contact with that drifting wreck. I
never felt any jarring loads while we were hurtling around above &
below the concrete dock, so I believe our hull, keel & rudder
suffered no dammage from the wildest boat ride I've ever been on.
We're all okay... and very lucky.
Those people were extraordinarily lucky. Had we still been tied up at that wharf, I assume we would have suffered major boat damage in the best of cases, and potentially much worse.
Even had we been at sea near the initial earthquake that caused the tsunami, we would have at least been quite frightened, I think. Here is what an acquaintance of ours, a singlehander from Canada, e-mailed about his experience:
Left Asau the day before the big force 8 earthquake and tsunami, and headed for Nuitoputapu in the northern Tongan group. I was approx 100/ 150 miles from the
earthquake centre and the effect on Kyogle [his boat] was a bit scary. She started shaking as if you were driving a car with all the wheels about to fall off. I assumed that I had major trouble with my transmission system so stopped the engine and stopped the prop shaft from turning... still shaking...checked the sails to see if they were flapping madly.... No problems there. The shaking stops and then restarts for a short while longer.
Of course to worry about what could have been is rather a useless exercise, but learning lessons from the experience of others is not. Now I realize that if I experience the tremors of an earthquake or otherwise learn of one, I should move the boat to the deepest water possible, away from other vessels and avoid placing the boat downwind of potential debris.
And within ten days of the terrible Samoan tsunami, we had just the opportunity to put our newfound knowledge to use.
But I am jumping ahead of myself, so first, a little about Fiji.
Although there are over 300 islands in Fiji, the vast bulk of the population are on the two largest, Viti Levu (“Fiji” is a corruption of “Viti”), the largest and most populous island, and Vanua Levu, where we made landfall after a three-day passage from Samoa. On the latter island is a wonderful large and beautiful bay, Savasavu Bay, with a town of the same name at the head that is an official port of entry and where we spent several enjoyable days on a rented mooring ($8.00 per day).
There are two main ethnic groups: the native Fijians who are of Melanesian stock, similar to Polynesians but darker with kinkier hair, and the Fiji-Indians, brought over from India in the late 1800s and early 1900s by the British to work on sugar plantations. There are also a large number of Chinese shopkeepers, omnipresent throughout the world, and a smattering of ex-pats, mostly British. Although a democracy, Fiji has seen a series of military coups over the last twenty-odd years as the predominantly native military has prevented the Fiji-Indians from taking over the government in elections, especially since their percentage of the population rivaled that of the natives. The last coup occurred in April. Subsequent to the first coup many Fiji-Indians have emigrated and the percentage of natives now is clearly higher than that of the Fiji-Indians. In our experience there was no hostility between the two groups, but they do not seem to intermarry as readily as Americans, for instance, or other groups.
The native Fijians speak their native language and English, are Christian, and some of the men wear what the Samoans call a lavalava, but the Fijians call something I else that I never could quite grasp. The Fiji-Indians speak Fiji-Hindu as well as Fijian and English, are mostly Hindu with a large minority of Moslems, and many of the women wear orange saris and pounds of bangles and sport a dot between their eyes.
One day in a rent car we drove about two hours from Savusavu across Vanua Levu to a largely Indian town, Labasa (pronounced Lam-basa), with about 30,000 people where there is a large sugar mill. It was sugar cane harvesting time and the roads were full of trucks hauling cane to the mill. Also at the mill was a narrow gauge railway that ran directly from the fields. It was led by a locomotive that must have had no more than a 100-hp engine that pulled about twenty small cars stacked high with cane. It almost appeared as if it belonged in an amusement park.
It was a Saturday – market day – and all the villagers from nearby had come to town. The main retail street was packed and their farmers and fish market was bursting with all sorts of people – natives and Indians – hawking their produce and catch. We ate at a great working-class restaurant – I had lamb curry – and walked and shopped a bit, especially at the farmers and fish market. At the back of the market men set around and drank kava, which was probably the single most predominant product sold in the market.
Later we drove out into the country to see what most of us Westerners would consider a garishly decorated Hindu temple named Naag Mandir which is dedicated to the Cobra God and is built around a large rock, something like 15 feet high and 20 feet wide, that reminds people of a coiled cobra. The main building has giant seven-headed cobras painted on the front walls with a small statue of a pair of normal single-headed cobras over a window sill, and there are bright flags waving, and the name of the temple is painted in large letters above the seven-headed cobras. The complex is built on a hillside and most is painted in red and yellow and has lots of curves in an Asian design and a complicated roof. It is quite a sight. The worshippers believe that the rock in the main building is capable of growing and supposedly have had to enlarge the temple a couple of times because of it. Now they pray that the rock will not continue to grow, because they do not have funds to expand. And you know what? The rock is not growing, so their prayers have been answered! Worshippers bring bananas and coconut milk and leave them at the foot of the rock, as well as light candles. They walk around the rock three times and each time ring hefty bells hung from the ceiling, one on either side, about a note apart in sound. And they pray with folded hands, kneeling on the floor – we watched two women, one of whom gave us the information I pass along here. And the Cobra God, in his wisdom, answers their prayers by keeping the rock from growing.
I often wonder at the nonsense people believe in the name of religion, but I think the Cobra God may well take the cake. The rock is a crock.
The drive to Labasa was across a mountain range – most of the Fijian islands are mountainous – and through lush rainforest and pine plantations. We passed through many villages and saw native Fijians in their fields with oxen pulling harrows over the rich soil, and people walking everywhere alongside the road, waving at the few cars passing by, all very Third World. Their homes are quite modest but not at all unique like the Samoan fale, just a simple wooden rectangle on piers a couple of feet off the ground with a low-pitched corrugated roof. (Later in villages isolated on islands, without roads, we did notice thatched-roof buildings.) But both in Savusavu and Labasa, and all the way in between, we noticed few churches, again unlike Samoa.
The next day back in Savusavu, however, John and I did attend services at a native Assembly of God on a side street where I had been invited by a wonderfully kind man named Aseri who worked for the company we rented the mooring from. Most of the men wore black lavalavas and dress shirts, some with jacket and tie, and looked very stylish, but unlike in Polynesia, the women were hatless and rather lackluster in dress. The preacher – a very animated one – welcomed John and me and the congregation gave us a standing ovation, to our great surprise and embarrassment. They were all wonderfully friendly, and I guess I haven’t shaken as many hands since I ran for office as County Attorney. The sermon was in Fijian but the singing was all in English – it was all contemporary Christian music from America -- accompanied by a four-piece electrified band. So that’s it – no more trying out churches to hear acappella singing of local songs and instead having to endure loud electrified renditions of Christian pop. The choir in Aitutaki was fantastic but everything since has been a big disappointment. I found ringing a bell to the Cobra God more interesting.
In Savusavu we ran into several cruisers we had met earlier and had a night out with them at a bar and an Indian restaurant. We also met some great Italians, Massimo and Fabio, older guys like us cruising without their wives. And John and Glen went one night to the Planters Club where all the ex-pats were celebrating something with a big band and dance, and where John and Glen swear they saw many beautiful women, which I find hard to believe based on the ladies I saw in town. And the sunsets at our mooring, looking out across Savusavu Bay towards a jagged mountain chain, were some of the best we have ever experienced.
We tried snorkeling but the wind was up and the bay choppy. The corals looked great but there were no large fish, the larger edible ones constantly harvested. After a few days in Savusavu we moved and anchored near the Cousteau resort up the bay, operated by Jacques’ son, because we heard there was excellent snorkeling but again we were disappointed by poor visibility and lack of fish. Also there appeared to be a lot of sediment covering the coral. We asked a grad student in marine biology we met at the Cousteau restaurant that night and she said the sediment is a result of the resort developers removing all the mangroves to make a beach.
We then checked out of Savusavu – if near a port of entry in Fiji you have to check in with the Fiji Customs department even though remaining within the country – and sailed and motored over to the large island of Viti Levu, wending our way through numerous reefs but having a magnificent sail across the couple of large open areas. It took twelve hours to reach our next anchorage. The next day we largely motored through a maze of reefs until we anchored outside Vuda (pronounced Vund-da) Point marina on the outskirts of Lautoka, a city on the west coast. After 7500 nm our main halyard had chafed badly and we needed to replace it, so went to the chandlery at Vuda Point, but did not tie up in the marina where the breeze would be blocked and we would be chock-a-block with other boats and be amid tens of other cruisers.
The morning after arriving at Vuda Point we took a taxi into Lautoka – it cost $7 one way – to check in with Customs, with the taxi waiting for us. On our return to the vehicle, the taxidriver, Abdul, told us he had bad news: he had been listening to the radio and, due to an earthquake (Richter scale 8.0) off Vanuatu (about 450 nm away) a tsunami warning for Fiji had been issued with an ETA -- Estimated Time of Arrival -- of the first wave in about 45 minutes. Holy smokes, all three of us thought, not again! Abdul then rushed us back to the marina through hectic traffic even though he informed us his wife was at their home near the waterfront – he easily could have left us stranded at Customs and gone to his wife but he told us he would wait, and by George he did. On arrival at the marina about fifteen minutes later we jumped into our dinghy, raced to our boat, loaded the dinghy, hauled the anchor, and headed to high water. (We were anchored in about 30 feet of water, close to shore.) Listening to our radio we heard that the warning had been re-classified from moderate to high. We gunned Anna with both engines, doing about 10 knots an hour, stripped the decks of unnecessary gear, and for the first time ever put on our life jackets as we headed to the deepest water around. Soon the radio announced that the ETA of the first wave had been pushed back about 50 minutes, so we hovered in the deepest spot we could find -- 140 ft. -- amid several small islands and scanned the horizon with binoculars, expecting to see at any moment giant waves crashing over the islands and shoals. But just minutes before the ETA, the radio announced that the warning was cancelled.
We then sailed back to the anchorage while Glen cooked lunch – centered around pieces of a giant five-foot long wahoo we caught the day before – which we eagerly ate, and soon we dropped the anchor without engine power, using only a headsail. Then we napped.
Another day, another tsunami. I wonder if this isn’t like after 9-11 when everyone was expecting another big terrorist hit – everyone is tsunami shy, that’s for certain. But there have been, I must admit, a lot of underwater earthquakes recently in this part of the world.
Had a tsunami hit, we would have been in as good a spot as possible within the confines of that island-strewn, relatively shallow area Lautoka and Vuda Point, and we were otherwise well prepared. In fact, we were so prepared, we were rather disappointed the tsunami failed to materialize, although we would not wish destruction of any sort on these fine people.
With time fast elapsing before we must leave for New Zealand, we wanted to spend as much of our remaining time in tropical Fiji snorkeling and spearfishing and perhaps scuba diving so we tried to find anchorages in the outlying islands amenable to those purposes. We sailed past a well-known marina and resort, Musket Cove, off Malolo Lailai island, and found it crowded with literally hundreds of people on beaches and reefs, jet skis zooming about and kids even being pulled on large inflatable bananas, so went to the next island, Malolo, and anchored in a bay off a private island. There we had a grand time for a day in water that was 85.6 degrees snorkeling and fruitlessly spearfishing, with hardly anything big enough to take. But after our second night there we woke up and found our starboard stern resting against a coral head, the wind having switched direction. Luckily we had anticipated the potential problem after reviewing the forecast and put out a second anchor from the other stern which had just enough slack in it to allow Anna to barely touch, but not become stuck, on the coral so we fairly easily moved away and then sailed to another island in the Yasawa group, Naviti. Our charts for that area were not very detailed, and in a light drizzle with darkened skies that prevented us from clearly differentiating water color we ran through a patch of shoals not shown on the charts and scraped along on our mini-keels, the bottom of the daggerboards making a slight schreeching sound. Our depthfinder read 2.7 feet, our record for skinny water. But we plowed on through that patch and anchored nearby. Anna kissing coral twice in a day – another record not to be proud of.
It rained for a couple of days and the winds blew pretty hard and so we just hunkered down and stayed in our boat, reading and doing chores. One day a couple of twelve-year-old boys rowed out in a kayak and we invited them aboard and showed them around the boat, and gave them some chocolate cake John had baked. Later they returned with a third boy and about a dozen fresh coconuts. We gave them more cake and fruit juice and they ran about and hollered like normal kids their age, were fascinated by everything, including a flyswatter, and finally we told them we wanted to nap and they needed to leave. They spoke a little English, and were named Mika, Bill, and Saski, or something like that, and were polite and friendly, real good kids. They were from the three villages on the bay that have a total population of about 250, are accessible only by boat, and appear not to have a power plant, judging by the lack of lights at night. There were some thatched roofs on some of the structures. We never went ashore because if we had it would have necessitated taking a present to the head man/chief and go through a kava-drinking ceremony called sevusevu, and then we would be the object of too much attention by the villagers. The hassle just to stroll around a couple of minutes was not worth it to us.
Later, though, at another anchorage we did go through with it, although the chief skipped the kava drinking and, after we presented him with his gift of ground kava (they prefer the actual kava root but we had none), he clapped three times and then welcomed us to his community and gave us permission to swim and snorkel and scuba dive in the bay and walk around the village and hike the hills. The position of chief is hereditary, and this one – Abraham he told us to call him – was the fourth generation. He has no sons and his successor will be his nephew. The ceremony of sevusevu, which on first impression appears to be an act of supplication to local authority, also involves the community granting protection to visitors, so is really a bilateral transaction for the mutual benefit of all.
The village was fairly primitive, with no roads and only walking trails, and many thatched-roofed reed homes with dirt floors, a cooking fire in the middle and the occupants lying around on mats. The people were very friendly, however, and we bought some fruit and land crabs from them, and exchanged a gallon of gasoline for some coconuts. It was very incongruent to me but many of these people who lived so traditionally and so close to nature also had cellphones. Once I was with about a half dozen waiting for some papayas to be delivered, sitting crosslegged on a mat in the shade of a tree where they had just eaten, the crockery in a bucket, a fat woman opposite me pounding cassava in a pan with a piece of metal bar, and three of them had cellphones.
We anchored for a week, ten days, or something like that – the days blend together so – in the Yasawa island chain and snorkeled and hiked all the while in fairly fresh winds and overcast, occasionally rainy skies. The wind was so fresh, as a matter of fact, that it blew our US flag off its staff at the stern even though it was attached by two stout split rings. The highlight of our stay in this region was a magnificent snorkel trip in a lagoon inside a cave on Sawa-i-Lau island. The lagoon was small but the ceiling of the cave was high, maybe 100 feet, partially open so that there was abundant natural light, and had two side caves reached only by swimming through underwater openings into dark caves where the only light was reflected off the bottom at the opening. It was a magical experience: the wind howling outside, us lounging in peaceful waters amid uniquely formed rocks, some in quite thin layers with smooth rounded edges, sunbeams piercing the main lagoon to the bottom as we floated effortlessly and stared transfixed by the beauty, and then there was the sensory deprivation of the dark caves in absolutely still water. It was the most unique environment we have encountered on the entire trip.
In the only other boat present at that anchorage we encountered old friends, an American and a Welshman, whom we had met back in Samoa and had spent several days and evenings with in several places since. We buddied up again and later, just for a change of pace, we switched crews a bit so that the Welshman came aboard Anna – he had never sailed aboard a catamaran – and I crewed on the other boat, a full keel traditional sailboat with tiller steering, a Alajuela 38 named Vindsång, which means Windsong in Norwegian, the heritage of the owner, Glen G. (not to be confused with Kiwi Glen on our boat), originally from Minnesota. We mis-estimated the distance to the planned anchorage and the wind died, and while Anna was able to reach the anchorage by 7:00 p.m., at 11:30, Glen G. and I were still wending our way through dangerous reefs without the aid of any navigational markers or even moonlight, depending solely on Glen G. reading his GPS and then plotting our position on a paper chart (he has no chartplotter), then calling out to me at the helm directions like “starboard 30 degrees”. I mostly steered with my feet and stood as high as I could and scanned each side with a spotlight, which was mostly useless because there were no markers to look for and the reefs were just below the water. Ultimately, and unfortunately, we ran aground on a small bit of coral reef that projected out into the passage to our anchorage, not more than a mile away. We had some good luck, however, as we ran aground at precisely low tide, so we just laid down in the cockpit and slept and two hours later we floated free. We then moved a couple of hundred feet and anchored and slept until sunrise when we moved to the anchorage just around a 180 deg. corner.
The next several days we spent on a mooring (about $8 a night) off the Musket Cove Resort which Kiwis and Aussies in particular frequent. The winds blew from 15 to 25 knots the whole time but we nevertheless loaded up our dinghy with all five of us – three from Anna and two from Vindsång – and towed Vindsång’s dinghy with our all scuba gear and went for several quite pleasant dives about four miles away. It was a rough ride there against the wind and we had to bale the dinghy out constantly but the effort was worth it, as this was our last chance before moving to the chilly waters of New Zealand. There was also a rather boring cruiser’s cook-your-own buffet at a bar at the resort where I ran into a nice Swedish couple I had met in Savusavu. We enjoyed more grilling out on our aft deck and listening to music aboard our own boat. Glen and the Welshman really enjoyed spending time off their much more cramped boat.
I write stuck still at Musket Cove, waiting for a forecast that offers us the chance to sail to New Zealand. The common wisdom in past years is that one needs to be in New Zealand by the first of November, when cyclone season officially starts here, but this year is an El Niño year, and therefore unconventional.
I love Fiji, the country and its people, and would like to stay here much longer. I heartily recommend both Samoa and Fiji to those looking for wonderful and unique locales for special vacations.
Our log reads 7670 nm, and we need about 1200 to reach New Zealand.