Saturday, August 04, 2007

Fiji to Vanuatu

Fiji to Vanuatu August 5, 2007

We'd been in Fiji nearly three months and it was all too easy to laze day after day in the idyllic anchorages of the Fiji's westerly most islands in the Mamanuca and Yasawa group. However, we were sharing this slice of paradise with the tourist trade with little resorts dotting every perfect beach, idiots on jet skis passing way too close to the anchored yachts, and glum faced Fijians working the resorts. We had been spoiled by the quiet, unassuming, friendly and forever smiling Fijians in other parts of the country and were now lacking any genuine interactions with locals and the sense of adventure was feeling lost.

One morning I awoke with clarity of purpose and I was certain it was time to move onward to the Vanuatu island group some 470nm to the west. Kathy was of the same mind and as I checked the weather forecast that morning she sipped her coffee with numerous guide books laid out before her. The computer generated "grib" files indicated a favorable weather window might be in our near future and so the decision was made to make preparations for departure. We decided to head for the mainland and spend a night at the Vuda Point Marina so as to have the opportunity to water, fuel, provision, shower, internet and check out. As is often the case things always take longer than expected so it was two nights at the marina and then we were off to Vanuatu.

The voyage plan was a simple rhumb line course taking three days and a few hours to make the four hundred seventy odd nautical mile passage. Trade winds were forecast to be twenty knots from a favorable South East direction. I usually like to have winds forecast at fifteen knots. But, since the planned voyage put the wind on our port stern quarter, around one hundred twenty apparent, the extra wind should just make for a faster passage. The problem is forecast wind speeds are an average and actual wind speeds regularly are plus or minus fifty percent more than forecast. Thus my interest in a fifteen knot forecast as we do very well with fifteen and can also sail well with less. On the high side fifteen turns in to twenty two and twenty turns into thirty, at times not ideal but certainly tolerable. Given the next window was maybe 10 days away, and as we were checked out of the country and would be breaking the law were we to stay longer with out repeating the check in and check out process not to mention the rigors of again provisioning, we decided to go.

Underway and just outside the westerly most barrier reef of Fiji approximately twenty miles from the mainland I check the weather again and the forecast was now predicting twenty five knots. Damn. This was definitely reducing the probability of a pleasant passage as now winds might reach thirty two knots or just shy of a gale. However, we were now committed and after a short chat decide to go for it. About this point we were breaking free of the lee of the island (protected waters downwind of an island) and could now get a true gauge of the wind and swells. The wind was in fact already twenty five and the swells were another thing altogether. Apparently, a storm or two somewhere far off in the Southern Ocean was cranking out some nasty swells and there were two different sets one from the South East and one from the South. Multiple swells for different directions cause what we call confused seas as they heap up on one another and the rhythm is not so predictable. Instantly, I was feeling ill as the occasional fifteen foot sea slewed the boat sideways in a boiling mass of white water. Yuck! Kathy was feeling fine and doing ok so I went below for a nap. For me this generally is the best plan as I often wake up feeling better. And a short nap later I did feel a bit better, but now Kathy was feeling ill and preparing to feed the fish for the next eight hours, unable to keep down even saltine crackers or the coveted sea sick prevention Kraft Macaroni and cheese. At this point sailing back to Fiji was out of the question as battling upwind in these seas and winds would be far worse than continuing on. It was just these damn swells from storms in the southern ocean needed to abate quickly. Around 4PM I was again having a little rest when a rouge wave picked us up and careened us sideways down an exceptional large wave. A few books crashed across the cabin as the roar of the breaking crest of the wave engulfed the decks. Kathy was sitting in the companion way and made a valiant effort to shut the hatch in time. Without the drop board in place the water gushed down the companion way stairs and into the cabin. In the starboard berth my pillow was soaked by the torrent. Luckily the navigation station was only superficially splashed and by some premonitions I had put away my new laptop computer and it was sealed in a bag. Not too fun and of no real consequence other than sacrificing a few clean towels to mop the floors, walls and ceiling. For the next twelve hours or so we had several other rouge waves one of which completely emptied the port side book shelf, A never before performed feat in thirteen thousand nautical miles of sailing. Mom, don' worry, nothing remotely dangerous just uncomfortable.

The ugly swells ended up lasting a day and a half and the wind did its' part as well with gusts into the low thirties. We reefed down to a triple reef and a small storm jib and were still doing seven and a half knots. The one benefit of the conditions is that our passage would be considerably shortened with the strength of the wind. The first night of any passage is always a difficult transition from calm anchorages and uninterrupted sleep. This one added the insult and injury of big confused seas and strong winds. Fortunately, we both quickly gained our sea legs the second day and the passage proceeded less painfully as the wind and swells continued to abate. As I now compose this story we are about thirty miles out of Tanna, Vanuatu and expect to arrive around noon today. The wind has died and we are motoring in these last miles. We were looking for adventure and found it sooner than expected. Thankfully we'll arrive in settled calm conditions and after a quick nap be ready for some planned and more predictable adventures ashore. Let's hope Mother Nature is kind as Tanna island is home of one of the most accessible active volcanoes in the world.


Admiring the billowing plumes of steam and ash from the volcano on the final approach we hooked in to a nice Tuna and are now safely anchored in Port Resolution, Tanna Island, Vanuatu. Before we even had the anchor down three kids paddled strait out of "National Geographic" in a dug out canoe to shy greet us.

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