Discovering the disaster after the cyclone Winston's passage on Vanua Balavu, Fiji

Take Off
Jörgen Wennberg
Sat 11 Jun 2016 14:25
17.17 S
178.59 W 

We left Tonga on the 8th of June and sailed for 2 nights to the most Eastern archipelago of Fiji, the Lau Group. Most of the World ARC boats waited for a few days before leaving as the weather forecast predicted pretty heavy winds. However we were 4 boats leaving together: Into The Blue, Spirit, Mearra Nieida and Take Off. As the wind was blowing over 30 knots we decided to take 2 reefs on the main sail and only half a jib. This was our sail setting all the way to Fiji, sailing in 6-9 knots of speed in quite a choppy sea and big swells. The nights were pretty rocky and we did not get much sleep. However it went really fast!


We spent a few rewarding passages letting Helmer do the job.

Others were very wet turning into cold.


On the 9th of June early morning the wind was blowing up to 31 knots. The waves were coming and going rolling Take Off pretty hard. This was when we got the message from Spirit that the shaft of their propeller had loosened from its transmission giving way to a huge leakage into the boat! Luckily they quickly managed to plug the whole (approx 4cm in diameter!). However they had now no motor. We decided then that we will tow in Spirit to Vanua Balavu. As we approached this Easterly part of Fiji, the wind and the waves were getting worse realising that we would not be able to tow in Spirit, risking to brake the sheets and the cleats and more severely having Spirit with no motor in the archipelago of Vanua Balavu.

On the 10th of June, before arriving in Vanua Balavu, Spirit decided to head straight to Savusavu, the closest marina where they could be hauled out. Into The Blue being closest to them followed in case of emergency. The entrance of Vanua Balavu, the Tonga pass, was dramatic with very high waves and a strong current leaving us unmovable at one spot and rain pouring down. Although we had full speed with the motor, we got nowhere. Frustrating how we had no power over Mother Nature! We stopped at the first island we saw just to take shelter, take a rest, change to dry clothes, try to get warm and have lunch. The last 48 hours had been quite hectic, sleepless and wet. Behind Mearra Nieida on the right picture, our first impression of the cyclone Winston's passage: trees torn down and stripped from their leaves.


On the map below you see the left arrow showing Savusavu and the right arrow showing Vanua Balavu.

Approaching Lomaloma we realised that none of our charts were accurate. Luckily we managed to eyeball a reef just ahead of us! Now we approached very slowly and carefully and anchored outside of Lomaloma by noon. As soon as we had anchored the authorities came out to our boat: 3 people, the ARC’s agent, the Immigration and the Health of Quarantine. Now we were checked-in in Fiji and immediately got our sailing permit for Fiji. The World ARC had organised this so well. All other yachts have to check in in Savusavu, missing on being able to visit the Lau Group and Vanua Balavu as you don’t want to sail upwind back Easterly. The World ARC had managed to negotiate for the customs to fly out to Vanua Balavu in order to check us in. This is why we are part of the World ARC ;-).

Before heading ashore we all had a well deserved shower! 


The day after the weather cleared and we could now see more clearly the disaster on land the cyclone Winston had left behind after hitting Fiji and especially the Eastern part on the 20th of February. 


This cyclone was a catergoy 5, blowing up to 270 km/h for 5 hours! Imagine putting your head outside of the car speeding at 270 km/h?!  It was a Saturday morning between 3h00 - 8h00. At first the cyclone was predicted to be a category 2 or 3. However the more it approached, the stronger it got and people were nowhere prepared for this strength. They had no shelter than their homes. Fiji had never experienced such a strong cyclone! Some were lucky, other less.

We got ashore and the first Fijian people we met were the 2 policemen Lie and Ben. They asked us if we wanted to have a tour of the island… in their police car. Sure! And what a disaster we met. Every where were palm trees fallen down like matches or totally stripped from leaves and coconuts.


Picture to the left: The supermaket. Picture to the right: Ben’s house in Lomaloma. Many houses had ended up like this: roof, walls, all interior … everything had blown away only leaving the toilet intact.


The hospital and the road to Lie’s village from Lomaloma.



We came to Lie’s village called Mualevu and the police station operating for the whole of Vanua Balavu. Picture to the left: the police station. Picture to the right: Lie’s house. The family had hidden in the bathroom for the whole time. They were lucky as their home only got the roofs from the inside damaged. 


Alex and Inez playing with Lie’s 5 children! The picture to the right shows the house below Lie’s house with only the bathroom left. The rest is blown away.


Driving back to Lomaloma we passed these women by the beach among the fallen trees. We were taken by the Fijian’s being very friendly, smiling and showing continuous hope of life considering what they had gone through.



This girl came up to Inez showing her a little chicken. Inez wanted so badly to bring it on board…