From boatbum to businessman...
Time and tide wait for no man - or in our case, replace tide for cyclones (hurricanes). We arrived in New Zealand a month earlier than planned courtesy of Cyclone Xavier and signs that it is going to be a boisterous year for tropical storms.
On 7th October we left Tonga for the 3½-day passage to Fiji flanked by two pods of humpbacked whales. What a lovely place, we'll be back next year, hopefully.
Tonga and Fiji are currently in turmoil in
a number of ways. The sea around the Lau group of islands (Fiji) was covered
in a layer of pumice covering hundreds of square miles, the aftermath
of a new island erupting between these island states. It had been reported
that the layer was up to a meter thick and had abraded hulls and blocked
engine intakes. Some of the football sized lumps made ominous noises as
they collided with the hull.
Our sail to Suva, Fiji was a gentle broad reach, which was a welcome respite from strong winds. We had timed our arrival for dawn. The entrance through the coral pass is very narrow but the blue leading lights made the entrance easy (we'd been told). An hour before sunup the moon disappeared as an ominous black cloud passed before it; the rain came down in sheets followed by thirty knots of head wind. Down came the sails and on went the engine. We were just outside the pass searching for the leading lights which were no where to be seen. Christine radioed harbour control to check whether there was a problem. "No", came the reply, "but you can't see the lights because the cloud is so low!" We slowly felt our way through the pass. I spotted a fishing boat which I thought was in the pass so I headed left towards the boat. Christine happened to notice the depth sounder was reading 5m - a little shallow for a main pass We then realised that the fishing boat I was heading towards was actually aground on the reef. Opps!!! Helm hard to starboard - another close shave!
Suva's weather was wet and windy nearly every day we were there. The shopping was good and the market excellent, with everything around one or two Fiji Dollars for most fresh fruits and vegetables. You can also stock up on kava here at around F$20 a kilo. Kava is the local drink that is made by steeping ground kava roots in water; it tastes a little like sawdust but with a kick!! It is still the custom that if you visit a local village one has to present a gift of kava and undergo a welcoming ceremony by the chief, who will then give you permission to visit his village/island. We had not planned to visit any of the islands so we have not yet experienced this. Maybe neat year!
Both Tonga and Fiji were the parting of ways for many of the cruisers. Some were heading south from Tonga to New Zealand, some to Fiji then on to Australia and others to Fiji then New Zealand. We were in the latter group. Our main reason for going to Fiji was to "do" our teeth and eyes. Suva, the capital of Fiji, is a bustling city where most things are available at a reasonable price. The medical facilities are good as most of the practitioners were trained in Australia or NZ. We had excellent service at both the opticians and the dentist. Keith had a clean bill of health at the dentist and Christine had no requirements for glasses.
After doing our business we hung around Suva waiting for the weather to abate; Suva Yacht Club is great for hanging out and has great facilities. As one of the departure points for New Zealand, discussions about weather windows were commonplace; this, together with the morning reports on the "Rag of the Air" (the cruisers SSB net), heightened the excitement. Our own part was played when a report came through that the rudder had failed on "Ranganui" in forty knot winds three days out. They had decided to turn back and head back for Suva. Just outside Suva harbour their engine failed. They were taken under tow by an American yacht and Keith went out in the rib to help them steer through the pass and tow them into the marina for repairs. They had spent 6 days in 40+ knots of wind, hand-steering most of the time. The couple were very relieved to get to Suva.
Eventually the weather did abate a little so we checked out of Suva - apart from Panama, probably the most bureaucratic procedure anywhere. It was about 100 miles to Musket Cove, but you had to check in at Lautoka - a thirty mile detour. The gentle sail to Mbengga atoll didn't last long as it turned into a brisk 25knots. We anchored behind Yanuca Island for the night. Originally we intended a gentle three day passage stopping on the way. Heading out the next morning the fresh easterly turned into 35knots but the seas were relatively flat so, under genoa alone, we covered the next 70 miles in double quick time. We anchored just inside Navula Pass and made our way up to Lautoka the next day. Cruising is full of lovely surprises; the breathtaking sunsets, the joy of seeing dolphins playing and the excitement of new places - hard to beat is the heartfelt meeting of old friends. The trip to Lautoka was one of these. A call on the radio brought us in touch with "Three Ships" again; we had last seen them in Gibraltar 3 years earlier. Needless to say it was fun to meet up with them again!
After checking in at Lautoka (another mammoth exercise) we headed to Musket Cove, probably the most yacht-friendly place in the Pacific. Other than Suva, Musket Cove was our only other planned stop in Fiji - for sentimental reasons. It was while we were at Musket Cove in 2001 that we decided to go cruising after talking to the yachties there.
The resort is magnificent and cruisers get to use all the facilities which are included in the F$20 a night cost of a mooring, or free if you anchor. This is the main launch pad for the passage to New Zealand and weather patterns are the main topic of conversation - in between swimming in the pool, barbeques every night, gentle walks along palm fringed beaches need I go on?
A few days after we arrived many boats left in a favourable weather stream. We wanted to enjoy a few extra days and decided to take the next opportunity in a week's time. When we were in Tonga we were given some meteorology advice notes by "Chameleon" a very knowledgeable fellow cruiser. These notes provided guidelines for selecting a good weather window for the notorious trip from Tonga/Fiji to New Zealand. They were very useful and during our departure planning we used them assiduously. There appeared to be a weather window on Sunday 28 October so on the Friday we took a day trip to Lautoka to check out of Fiji - a bit of a pain. This left Saturday to get ready. When we got back to Musket Cove we spotted "Ripple II" next to us so we popped over for a visit. When relating our story about Musket Cove it transpired that they had also got their inspiration for cruising here as well. Definitely an excuse for another celebration. A wonderful meal at the resort restaurant was a lovely way to end our stay in the islands.
The "morning after the night before" was not conducive to an early start, so a leisurely breakfast was followed by a leisurely departure. The general plan was to sail the rumb line, taking advantage of a large high pressure developing over the Tasman Sea. The only problem was that the weather system was creating a "squash" zone at our current latitude. Radio reports from boats already on passage indicated this zone was only around 70 miles wide so we prepared for a bumpy start. Sure enough, the first day was yuck - a beam reach in 35 knots; fast, wet and lumpy. We were thankful for our plastic protectors on the side of the cockpit!
The yuck conditions soon changed to 20 knots from the ESE which put us on a close reach with fast sailing conditions. These prevailed for the next 5 days and gave us some very fast sailing - we even broke our daily record one day, clocking up 187 miles! At 25 degrees South you reach a decision point - do you trust the conditions will hold and continue or should you heave to and wait for the next depression to pass south of you? Carol (Christine's sister) was checking the NZ weather forecasting and sent us an updated forecast via satellite and the signs were all for "go for it" - so we did! The conditions held until we were in sight of the Land of the Long White Cloud - then the wind dropped! We ended up motoring the last hundred or so miles and arrived to a firework reception in Opua on Sunday 5th November - exactly 7½ days to cover 1150 miles. (We were very impressed with ourselves and our passage planning - and later discovered that Chameleon, whose notes we had followed, had left for New Zealand on the same day as us!
Approaching Opua was just like sailing into a south coast town in the UK - although the graceful albatrosses signified that we were in southern latitudes. It took us a week to recover; Opua being the main port of entry for cruisers meant that there was lots of cruiser gatherings and "get togethers". There had been a mass exodus from Fiji when Cyclone Xavier threatened and the signs were building for a bad cyclone season. New Zealand is a major stopping point where cruisers leave their boats for the cyclone season while they go back to their home countries. Others find a cosy marina somewhere and settle in. Most buy a car and go travelling.
Our plan was to cruise down to Auckland via Great Barrier Island and visit Carol and Trevor (Christine's sister and brother-in-law). The weather so far has been blustery and cold so sailing for pleasure has not been high on the agenda. We had a lovely week or so at Earthsong Lodge Carol & Trevor's luxury resort - wining and dining, playing tourists and helping out with a bit of landscaping around the Lodge.
The second part of the plan was to get jobs for a couple of months to top up the cruising budget and help pay for new sails and the many modifications we have planned. Luckily, Keith has already managed to secure a couple of months work as an accountant at the largest newspaper printers in NZ. The funds will be useful but working will probably be a rude shock. Christine is starting on the "to do" list while looking for work.
On Monday 11th December we moved Poco into Pier 21 marina - right in the heart of downtown Auckland. It seems too good to be true - a lovely working marina with only about 5 "liveaboard" boats. And on Tuesday 12th December Keith transformed from boat bum to business man - sent off to work in long trousers, shirt and tie, jacket and SHOES!