Journal 19 - Reef Often...Fiji


LAT  : 17 deg 35 min    LONG: 177 deg 76 min

The only downside to an idyllic anchorage is having to leave it.  We reluctantly poked
our bow out from the thick green headlands of Tonga into the turbulence of the
Pacific and pointed west towards Fiji.
We left in the company of s/v King Harald, a hardened Aussie cruiser manned by
husband & wife Lynnette and John who were winding up year seven of their
circumnavigation.  This was the first time we had traveled in close company since the
Baja Ha Ha rally a year ago, and we thoroughly enjoyed it.  We were in VHF range
for the first day but as they pulled ahead we switched to Hi Frequency radio skeds at
noon – just enough contact to know someone else was out there but not enough to
be a nuisance.

The passage to Fiji is fraught with reefs that are a legacy of the “ring of fire”.  Whilst
the sea surface offers different faces depending on the weather, the true fascination
of the Pacific lies in it’s sea floor: ….

“nowhere on Earth is there more evidence of the powerful processes that continually
reshape the planet than in and around the Pacific Ocean’s broad blue belly.  Where
continents and oceanic plates collide, there is a volcanically active necklace of deep
ocean trenches aptly called the Ring of Fire. There, the thin seafloor crust is
swallowed under adjacent landmasses….the volcanic action is robust along the
spreading centers of the Pacific’s seafloor plates – the ocean floor is an ever-
changing system and the Pacific seafloor is still spreading, quite rapidly.”
…………………….. National Geographic Atlas of the Sea

The real-estate between Tonga and Fiji requires detailed and constant attention:
aged volcanoes have sprouted reefs and formed intricate and threatening obstacles
on the westerly passage that require the sailor’s full attention.  Fiji is a navigational
nightmare and we ended up with 23 enroute waypoints for the 500 miles – 20 more
than the 2,500 mile hop across the Pacific!!

Our first day out was uncomfortable to say the least.  The prior windy days had
kicked up the seas and the ride was rough.  We had rigged conservatively with only
headsail and mizzen deployed, leaving the main folded and tied.  This sail
configuration keeps the boat balanced front and back and renders her much easier
to manage in higher winds and a seaway – our winds for the first 36 hours were
between 25 and 30 knots and radio traffic with King Harald confirmed they too were
having a rough time of it.  We snacked for dinner, opting not to deal with the galley
under such circumstances and in fact, did not engage with it at all for 48 hours.   The
following day proved more sedate, with winds in the 20-25 knot range, but we kept
the mainsail down as the seas were still big.  As conditions normalized, we got back
into the swing of passage-making and started to enjoy the fast pace we were
making.  On calculating our second day mileage we were amazed to find that we had
sailed our fastest day ever:  a 160 mile day – with no mainsail!!!!
Once again, the “old girl” had impressed us!  Shame on us for thinking she was a
slow boat!

The seas abated to a moderate swell after 48 hours and we found ourselves on the
eastern edge of  Fiji’s Lau group… a raggedy arc of small and widely dispersed
islands, they offered up three passes through to the main seaway of Fiji.  We opted –
against the advice of a well known veteran cruiser – to take the central Oneata
Pass.  Our decision was based on the parameters that it was daylight, the wind had
lightened to 10 knots, we were both on lookout and we had radar up.  A tense 20
miles led us through the 3 mile gap between two reefs.   Under the ideal conditions
we felt the risks were warranted, saving us 100 miles on the alternate circuitous
route.  We had no problems, despite the fact that neither reef appeared on radar…..
the seas and winds had calmed, generating no surface turbulence, thus making the
reefs impossible to see.  We had no issues and made rapid way on through an
assortment of other islands to our “DP” waypoint below Suva.

North and west of the Lau islands are several other Fijian island groups comprising
its total of 300 islands, all of which are purported to be wonderful cruising grounds.  
Had we more time, we would have loved to have explored the region but our goal of
reaching Noumea by November 1st was looming and we had to make some hard
decisions regarding what would come off the cruising list: Fiji took the brunt of that –
we hope we can return some day.   It was during this passage that we passed from
the western hemisphere to the eastern by way of crossing the 180 degree meridian
of longitude – a major milestone for us, and we have the appropriate champagne
bottle tagged for future celebration.

Three days into the passage, the winds had dropped almost entirely, making it
unnecessary to put up the main – for a different reason.  The sail slats in light air on a
dead downwind or even broad reach course when the wind is lighter than 5 knots.   It’
s better for the sail simply to keep it down and turn on the engine – that we did,
primarily for course accuracy in the reef areas and also to ensure we made landfall
at daybreak and were able to manage our reef approaches with the right amount of

Our “DP” waypoint stands for Decision Point. We have put several of these in on
routes when we were not absolutely definite about course.  This DP was south of
Suva, Fiji’s capital.   We had heard is was interesting and lively, but photos depicted
a busy, industrial port that was somewhat overwhelming and having no real need for
that, we changed course for “west” again and started to passage around the main
island of Viti Levu about 5 miles offshore, with an intent to make landfall at the city of
Lautoka on its western side.  We slowed the boat in the early hours of the morning
and timed the arrival from the ocean into the barrier reef for just after daybreak.  It
was wide open, marked by a large light structure on the edge of the reef and we
powered through, with King Harald about one mile astern.  The boat motion
immediately stabilized inside the reef and we were in flat water again, with a gentle 6
knot breeze to guide us into Lautoka.

First impressions always count for a lot and the first impression of Fiji was of
agriculture!  Gone were the lush rich jungles of prior islands – here were softly
rounded hills denuded of much natural growth but green and even with the fields of
sugarcane and vegetable crops.  Dust rose in light clouds from farm machinery and
small clouds of smoke blossomed here and there from the cane burning activities.  It
was handsome but not pretty and certainly not overwhelmingly beautiful.  As we
motored from the pass through the 20 miles or so of lagoon, small islets – more like
the postcard scenarios, appeared, and we looked longingly at our destination island,
Malolo Lai Lai, as we by-passed it enroute to the official check-in point at Lautoka.  
On first impression, that city (town?) of 50,000 people is probably the most
unattractive piece of real estate we have seen so far!  Fuel tanks, industrial plants,
big rusty buildings lined the waterfront.  Most significant was the Fiji Sugar Company’
s plant and conveyer that was actively tipping processed cane into the holds of an
unattractive ship.   Formalities completed after several hours, both we and King
Harald opted to stay put in the anchorage and catch up on sleep after an arrival beer.

The following morning we were dismayed to find the entire boat surface covered with
sticky black soot that the sugar loader had delivered on the night breeze.   This was
the motivator to “get out of Dodge” and find our way to a more more desirable
location…..but we felt at least a cursory visit to town was warranted and we
subsequently found a willing taxi driver who dropped us at the bank.

Once again, first impressions stick.  Lautoka was rambling, dirty, funky but more than
anything else, interesting.  This was the first time we’d come face to face with
anything but Polynesian and Melanesian peoples.  Here, Indians abounded.  Brought
to Fiji originally by the British to work the sugar plantations, they have settled for
generations and now constitute a major part of the population.  The Indian culture is
overwhelmingly colourful and it was a wonderful to see women in saris again.  In fact
the dress code for women was delightfully varied, from the neat conservative school
uniforms, through the western “hip” jeans & t-shirt, to the flowery Christian missionary
dresses, and the traditional Indian sari.  But always hems to below the knee!  We
found ourselves browsing the shops and marveling at the reasonable prices for
fabrics, saris and shirts.  

The most wonderful experience, though, was it’s central market: doubling as a bus
station, the rambling sheds housed dozens of fruit, vegetable and spice vendors.  It
was noisy and bright with abundant produce piled high in colourful mounds.  Hessian
bags filled with bold coloured spices like paprika and turmeric completed the
sensory experience and the place smelled and sounded just like a real market
should.  Fish and egg vendors were thriving, prices were incredibly low (compared to
French Polynesia) and kava root vendors vied with each other  – it was great!  We
brought as much fruit as we could carry and returned to the boat delighted with our
day out.  Open central markets are a wonderful thing for people, families and
merchants and we believe cities that have forsaken them for the sterile environs of
the flouro lit supermarket have lost a great deal.

We were in Lautoka less than 24 hours but nevertheless sought out conversations
with vendors and taxi drivers on Fiji’s issues.  Both Melanesians and Indians were
eager to talk about their uneasy relationship: sparing you a complete political
dissertation here (details of which are readily available on websites and history  
books), there is now an uneasy peace between the two groups.  The racial
turbulence of the last few decades has reduced the dignity of both factions, slowed
the economy and left Fiji with an unenviable record of racial discrimination.  Fiji
gained independence from Britain in 1987, but it has been a reluctant republic.  
Racial tension between Indians and Melanesians, the occasional coups, a failing
economy, open discrimination and other associated bad behavior, brought about the
ousting of Fiji from the British Commonwealth.  The one uniting factor is that both
Melanesians and Indians want the British back, not as a colonial power but in the
form of re-admittance to the Commonwealth (which now operates both as a values
system and a trading block). This desire for some connection with “the mother
country” is clearly demonstrated by the fact that their flag still retains Britain’s Union
Jack (after nearly 20 years of independence!) and their currency sports Queen Liz’s
head on every coin and note.  They firmly believe Fiji will be more stable under the
guiding hand of the British.  Some compromise has been reached within Fiji by the
appointment of both a Prime Minister and a President, one Indian and the other
Melanesian, but Britain will only consider Fiji’s re-admission after a sustained period
of “good behavior” on the human rights and equality front.   Additionally, other issues
are being reviewed now with a view to more flexibility.   Either way, the majority of
Fijians know they have to solve the problem and truly become a “one country two
people” entity.  Their major income is still tourism. Tourists are spoilt for choice in the
South Pacific and will avoid a destination like the plague if there’s even a hint of
unrest.  Should Fiji’s tourism dollar shrink, that leaves only the sugar industry to
provide foreign exchange, insufficient to support a first-world standard of living.  We
hope they make it.

Australia is helping out significantly in that it provides most of the legal infrastructure
(all Supreme Court judges and most legal practitioners are Australian), plus it trains
Fiji’s medical community from the Royal Melbourne College of Surgeons and almost
totally funds the Suva Medical School.  

We weighed anchor, eager to escape another night of the sugar city’s sticky soot
and motored for several hours across the lagoon to the small island of Malolo Lai
Lai.  They say “if you haven’t hit a reef in Fiji, you haven’t sailed”!  Well, we didn’t hit
it, but we did end up on top of it with only a few feet of water between our bottom and
the coral of the reef!  Unlike French Polynesia, Fiji’s navigational markings are
dubious at best.  Many are missing, most are damaged and there is little control over
locals who plant or move posts on reefs, or “borrow” them to mark their own fish
traps.  Subsequently, a combination of a late reef entry, a due west course (meaning
we had the sun in our eyes and reflecting off the water), a set of nav marks that weren’
t where they should be, we ended up in the wrong place!   Luckily we were able to
reverse out but in doing so, ran over several lines that were connected to a lobster
trap we hadn’t spotted on the way in…very fortunately, these didn’t foul the prop and
we eventually found the deeper channel but not after a good deal of consternation.  
Additionally, to aid reef entry, we had referred to a cruising guide for Fiji that we hadn’
t used before.  Whilst it had been written by a very well qualified person, the
presentation and order of information was confusing – we must have re-read the
instructions ten times over, and still couldn’t figure it out!!  Not a little unsettled by this
experience, we eventually wound our way through the reef and isolated shoals to
come to rest in a pretty bay called Musket Cove.  We had a beer, let the high blood
pressure subside and started to relax.

What a great place this was!  A low-cost mooring ball, crystal clear water, a small
group of international cruising boats amongst whom we found some old friends and
a world class hotel facility!  Nowhere have we seen the cruising community blended
so well with the resort community.  More often than not, the boat people stare at the
folks on the beach relaxing on their bungalow balconies, or swinging in their
hammocks, and we’re sure the hotel folks stare out at the yachties and wonder what
it’s like to live on a boat.   Here, due to the fact the resort manager is an ex-cruiser,
the boating community is automatically considered part of the resort and treated
accordingly – everything is on a tab – no cash is asked for.  Cruisers have full use of
the pool, restaurants, spa, beach hammocks and all resort facilities.  There is a large
palapa on the beach and each evening, the hotel staff lights the barbeques for the
yachties.  Cruisers come in with raw/marinated food & salads to mingle and cook
together.  The hotel provides the tables, plates, cutlery, all condiments and does the
washing up.  All drinks are a reasonable $3 Fijian ($1.50 US) and the atmosphere is
fun and convivial.  The resort guests join in (the hotel also provides a BBQ pack for a
reasonable price) and there’s much merry-making as hotel guests ask “what’s is like,
ya know, being on that boat all the time?!”  “where have you been?... Don’t you get
bored?... Don’t you get scared? How do you….cook? wash? Etc etc etc…..”….. we
had some wonderful evenings with other boats and hotel guests.  

We were also gratified to find, during one of these cruiser dinners, that each and
every boat in Musket Cove had tangled with the reef on entry, and in most cases, hit
it!   We laughed when we found out we were all using the same cruising guide and
collectively decided to “deep six” it as soon as possible!

We wandered the small island, past the airstrip, poked around the 5-star hotel shop,
did laundry – you can’t imagine what a highlight it is for a cruiser to be able to do
their own laundry!!, shopped at the gourmet deli and ate icecream.  Musket Cove
was an idyllic spot for the passage-weary cruiser and we loved our stay there.

The passage to New Caledonia was imminent and because of the obligatory check-
out paperwork, we needed to move the boat back to the main island.  Fiji’s check-
in/out procedure is bureaucracy at it’s finest but we were able to sail the boat to
Vuda Point marina, about 10 miles south of Lautoka, to complete the process.   
Anything to escape another coating of sugar soot, we pulled in there for two nights
primarily for the customs/immigration procedures.  The marina is an odd circular
affair cut into the fringing reef.  Boats enter bow to a circular concrete wall and then
stern lines are attached to the myriad of bouys that are in the central circle.  Two
interesting aspects were the acrobatics one had to perform to get off the bow of the
boat onto the land (particularly in a low tide), and the unceremonious exit where one’
s boat gets towed out backwards (engine propulsion is not allowed at the risk of
fouling the myriad of stern lines).  It really was an “up close and personal” marina
experience with boats being toe-rail to toe-rail and we had three different neighbours
in the space of 24 hours!   Anyway, it all worked out, and despite the mosquitos we
had a useful and positive experience there.  The Immigration  timetable gave us
enough leeway to be able to visit the town of Nadi by taxi for a few hours.  This was a
treat – a great Indian restaurant for lunch and shopping in what had to be one of the
finest souvenir shops we had ever been to!  Jack’s in Nadi sports an elegant
collection of up-market carvings, paintings and artifacts and we loved the shopping

Back aboard and loaded with fresh baked banana cakes, muffins and a basket of
fresh tropical fruit, we took our leave of Fiji and launched into the Pacific Ocean
again, bound for New Caledonia, this time without our mates on King Harald, who
were still enjoying the anchorage.
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