Safely in Fiji, our brains have started the process of selectively erasing of all the bad memories of the passage from New Zealand to Fiji while enhancing and embellishing all the good memories.
As a part of the post-passage healing process, cruisers congregate with other cruisers at the local bar after a passage to compare “top this” dramatic passage tales with one another. After a few frosty cold Fiji Bitter beers listening to stories of broken gear, expensive repairs, lost boats and at-sea rescues, severe seasickness, crew falling-outs, injuries, and the various storm tactics employed, our stories didn’t seem too interesting. We survived with only a few bruises and minor boat repairs. You start to think, “hey, maybe our passage wasn’t so bad then”. This is the first sign of cruiser “selective memory”: purge the bad memories, while retaining only the good memories.
The saddest story of the lot involved a French single-hander that lost his boat and everything he owned except three small duffels. Our friends, Tom and Barb on Gosi, heard his mayday -he had been calling mayday for five days without a response. Gosi turned around, went 10 miles back, and affected a dramatic at-sea rescue of Pascal and his meager belongings as his home-built trimaran drifted off to the southeast without any rudder or means of steering. Gosi’s new crew member was a delight, Fijian officials were very understanding of his plight, and Pascal flew back to Paris from Suva.
Okay, now for our story. I clearly remember my watch from 2am to 5am on the second night of the passage. After the sliver of a fingernail moon set, I spent an hour or so looking up at the cloud of stars that illuminating the entire dome of sky from horizon to horizon. Yes, I know, there is only one horizon. Through binoculars, dense clouds of stars both within and outside the Milky Way galaxy filled the lens. I explored the mysterious “dark spot” in the Milky Way, only to discover it wasn’t dark at all – another few billion stars could be seen. I checked out the M42 and M43 Nebula in Orion’s sword and think I might have seen a few more galaxy-swirls well beyond our Milky Way. Listening to Coldplay or Dave Mathews made the experience more intense, spiritual, and surreal. Being near exhaustion enhanced these emotions. Life was good. Passages are good. The sailing life is great. Tropics here we come.
On the morning of day three, the revised weather report from Commander’s weather. The low over New Zealand has expanded and deepened. It will reach another 5 degrees further north. Whisper will not escape its grasp in time. The weather-window 50/50 gamble did not pay off. We will have 3 days of gale force winds with gusts to 50 knots, huge seas, and rough going.
On the morning of day four at 10 am, Robin woke me up from my morning nap to say, “I think we have a squall coming on radar and you may want to come take a look”. I came into the cockpit ill prepared for the first 50 knot gust – then a second and a third. The front accompanying the low arrived with a bang. Whisper, with only a storm staysail and triple reefed main heeled 30+ degrees with rail down on a beam reach and sustained winds of 35-45 knots. The seas built quickly to 15 to 20 feet and the boat was running nearly out of control at 8 to 10 knots. We drove Whisper downwind with the autopilot to try to get better control. She kept rounding up and our beloved autopilot kept steering her too far down. Oh, the wind direction kept shifting, too. I decided to hand steer. Big mistake. While looking down and futzing with the auto-pilot to start hand steering, Robin yelled “watch the jibe!”
The triple-reefed main slammed to port and when it hit the wire running backstay, it felt like the rig was going to come down on our heads. The impact sent a few tiny (to be identified later) bits of Whisper flying into the air. I started the engine, got some control of the helm, and started steering through the huge seas back onto a port tack.
The damage assessment showed the boom vang no longer controlling the boom. In the one minute the boom sat against the wire running backstay, the boomed gouged a groove into the anodizing. Yes Scott Easom, all Spectra running backstays are a good idea. The cam cleat on the traveler broke broke and our sailing-egos displayed severe bruised.
After about 6 hours of this “survival-mode” sailing, the boat was stable, heading north, and doing fine all by herself. We decided to revise our normal watch schedule for the next two days of continued gale force winds, squalls, thunderstorms, and slamming, boarding waves. We stood watch from below and let Whisper sail on. With the timer set for 30 minutes, we alternately checked the radar, looked around us (not that we could see anything), ensured the wind did not shift and repeated this for the next couple days. Fun-factor was low. I muttered “passages suck”, “I hate passages” or, “this is my last passage” at least 20 times during these three days.
On day two of the gale, I took some videos of the now calming seas – 20 foot elevator waves riding up under Whisper’s stern, then dropping us back 20 feet down into the next trough. Although the waves look big on a tiny video screen, it’s nothing like being there. Having videos of the event may help curtail our selective memory process.
We arrived in Musket Cove resort four days ago. Musket Cove is a cruiser-friendly resort in the Mamanuca group of the Fiji islands off Nadi near the southwest corner of the big island of Viti Levu. We’ve had great, clear, sunny, warm, tropical weather. 85-degree air and clear 83-degree water. A bit of a warm breeze. Rain showers last night freshened the air and washed the salt off Whisper. Perfect.
Over the last four days here we caught up with some friends and made some new ones. We have lounged in the shallows at a nearby sandbar in crystal-clear water, snorkeled an incredible reef nearby, sat by the pool reading our books, got a quick review of the 40+ dive sites in the area, Robin had an 80 minute massage yesterday, we’ve had two beach barbeques, drinks a few nights at the Island Bar, enjoyed the local’s Fijian dance, and I will probably go windsurfing tomorrow.
We have already had four days of fun in the sun and the price for this was only a seven-day passage with only three of those seven days worth forgetting. The remaining four days were fine. We arrived with our “home”, so the cost of being here (ignoring all boat and maintenance costs, of course) will allow us to stay five months where the average traveler might only stay two weeks for the same cost and have a grueling two days of plane-travel at each end. Maybe sailing a small boat across oceans is a good way to travel?
See how cruiser selective memory works? We have already started to rationalize that the pain of riding out a gale may be worth the destination pay-off. If it didn’t, I’m not sure anyone would ever choose to cross large oceans on small boats “for fun”!
Fiji kept us busy for four months. Initially, we worried about following the Fijian cultural protocols. Thanks to fellow cruisers, we showed well informed and prepared. We drank kava, met with village chiefs and wore proper attire.
Fish and coral consumed us for over 20 dives and lots of snorkeling which only scratched the surface of the underwater paradise.
Fijians are wonderful, friendly, resourceful and welcoming. We visited with families who invited us into their homes, cooked for us and drank kava with us. Schools put on performances. Chiefs shared their villages. Fijian women paddled by Whisper to give us gifts of taro and other vegetables.
Both land and sea are beautiful and bountiful.
Thank you Fiji and Fijians for a wonderful four months!