Cruising the South Pacific with Captain Bligh


“We could dog paddle from here.”

July 18. Thursday. Fiji arrival day. The fat lady had to sing one last time last night. Neville made the mistake of saying, “We could dog paddle from here.” It wasn’t long before the shit hit the fan. We got 30 knots of winds on the nose, a very difficult sail angle, causing much banging and necessitating hand steering again. While we were well out of sight of land, I sensed a change in the scent of the air. The flat salt smell was modified in some subtle way to something more neutral, with more weight to it. Later I smelled a sweet spicy smoke, probably the burning of cane fields. Morning as we motored into the lagoon, I could smell the scent of green growing things, and later the unmistakable smell of wet earth. Back to land again.

July 20 After a few exciting days and a couple of dull days, Songlines and crew arrived Fiji relatively unscathed on Thursday 18, July. The approximate 1800 nautical mile passage took 9.5 days, several quicker than first thought, due to stronger winds than expected.

We anchored off the port of Lautoka,our days in the town, provisioning and getting permits to sail in the remote northern Yasowahs. We’re soaking up the cultures of the Fijians and the Indians brought here by the British to work the cane fields. You probably remember hearing in the news about the violence a few years ago. There is still tension between the races, but it seems to have calmed down considerably and there is no danger. We feel safe. It is a wonderful third-world city, full of the sights and smells of life lived fully in the tropical heat. The market food is exotic and presents fun challenges in the galley. We will be sailing in the outer islands for a three weeks.

Yasowahs, islands of my dreams                                 

As a young boy in West Virginia, a trip to the bookmobile provided the stuff of dreams. I devoured the Bounty Trilogy and lived and dreamed these waters, these islands of Oceania. Never did I dare dream that someday I would sail the waters that flowed under the keel of the Bounty, take tea with people who’s ancestors tried to kill (and eat no doubt) Captain Bligh during his desperate voyage to save his men. Ah, yes, sometimes dreams do come true, though the course be not so straight or smooth, sometimes dreams do come true.

El Nino has not been good to us, giving us many cloudy days and high winds, both bad for navigating in reef infested waters. But we were able to spend a number of days ashore in small villages, and the genuine hospitality of the people made up for the weather. I’ll try and give you a taste for both the traumas of sailing shoal, reef infested waters, in poor weather; and the wonderful villages and people we were privileged to experience. First the blood and guts.

Saturday July 27 Anchor drama number one: Navadra Island. A small uninhabited island. We chose a north facing bay with a reef at the entrance and ringing the beach. Because of a steep drop off, we anchored close to the shore reef in order to get enough scope (the ratio between the depth of water and the anchor rode-higher the better) Wind began building from the north and before long her stern was in three to four metres of water and two metre waves were breaking under the stern. The hook (anchor) was holding but should it fail, we would be on the reef in less than a minute; no time to do anything. We motored deeper into the bay and dropped anchor again with all our rode. We set anchor watches for all night. At 2000 hours (7pm) a heavy rain squall blew directly into the bay with winds to 40 knots and 10 metres of visibility. I was on deck soaped up and having a bracing shower when the full force hit. I felt like I was going to be washed overboard by the wind and rain, but got a squeaky clean rinse. A lightning strike nearby knocked out our instruments, including our wind speed and direction indicator and depth finder. We were blind except for our GPS and compass. We turned on the lights so Neville could see the direction the rode was stretching out in front of the boat and motored against the wind to take some stress out of the anchor. If the anchor had not held we would have been on the reef in two or three minutes. We were not too worried for our personal safety, maybe a broken bone or two and lots or coral cuts, but we would have made it ashore, and the yacht Chelsea was nearby with a very skilled American captain, Gary, capable of effecting a rescue, or calling for help.

Sunday July 28. Anchoring drama number two: We made a few mistakes and almost lost Songlines. We sailed to Waya Island and into the bay. We felt our way around for an anchorage shown on our (ancient) chart. We motored into a hole behind a visible rock into the sun, and dropped anchor. Just as the anchor chain was clattering down, Claire saw them; bommies, coral heads sticking near the surface where Songlines was about to swing over. I foolishly attempted to stop the 60 pound anchor’s descent by clutching the anchor chain; it ran through my hands unimpeded, breaking my right index finger in the process, and severely straining the tendons in both hands. Crunching sounds followed, awful sounds, scary sounds. Lots of yelling ensued and somehow the anchor got raised. We motored to a more conservative anchorage further out and Neville took a swim to inspect the damage, which was limited to mostly lost paint and a bit of epoxy in non essential locations. The starboard rudder had to be re-rigged to kick up again, before we could go anywhere. We were lucky. Again, no fatal danger, the beach was nearby and friendly villagers, who had tried to wave us off, were nearby. Never sail into the sun in coral waters! Never go into a place without plenty of room to get out quickly, and never drop the anchor until the swing is known. There is always something to learn in these waters.

Thursday August 1. One bad anchorage to a worse one. When we tried to raise the anchor, it was fouled. I got into the skiff and, hanging over the side with snorkel mask was able to tell Neville how to maneuver Songlines to untangle the rode from around an anvil shaped coral bommie. I was ready to dive to eight metres if necessary, but was glad I didn’t have to; my ears hurt badly at about six  metres depth. I haven’t learned to clear my ears yet.

Saturday August 3. Anatomy of an anchor watch: We are anchored just off the reef at Nanuyabalavu Island. I have the first anchor watch, 2000 hours to 2300 hours. A strong SE wind gusts to 25 as it rips through the pass. The hook is well set and with a bridle set from both bows to the rode, Songlines doesn’t swing very much. Before dark I took bearings on several points and checked the regularly until darkness and clouds obscured them. It’s black as a well diggers armpit. All I have to rely on is a vague fuzz of gray reef breakers, their sound, and (thank you U.S. government) GPS coordinates taken as soon as the anchor was set. The responsibility for this yacht, valued at more than most peoples houses, lies completely with me for the next three hours, and Claire the following three. All of this hangs on one 60 pound anchor, 18 metres of chain and 15 metres or so of nylon line. The wind roars in the rigging, sheets (sail control lines) go airborne and slam hard down on the saloon roof just over my head. The wind changes pitch and timbre as it goes from 25 knots to 5 knots and back again. The waves grow and Songlines begins to roll and pitch enough to make me consider using a hand for the boat, unusual on anchorage. I go to the cockpit and run the diesel for a few minutes to assure it will start quickly in an emergency. After I turn it off and there is relative silence again, I take a few minutes to listen to and feel the boat under me better, to check the bridle from the bow and listen to the surf and wind. All these things feed into my mental computer and are checked for that funny feeling that tells me something is wrong. All seems well. Nothing jogs my terror button–this time. A check of the GPS shows the coordinates spot on. The wind has picked up again. It sounds as if a clumsy horse is grazing on the saloon top and the Big Bad Wolf is trying to blow my house down, onto the reef. 2300 hours I went to the aft deck where we keep the dingy tied by its painter (bow line), to answer the call of nature, one of the unique pleasures of wilderness travel. The Milky Way is specky tonight, putting on a show of brightness, anchored in the south by the Southern Cross. A high pressure area to the south is bringing fresh dry and cool winds from the southern ocean where it really is winter. The mountains of surrounding islands are becoming visible in the starlight. The islands are charcoal, the sea slate blue and the sky pale blue with shimmering stars. Oh yes. I guess it is all worth it after all.

I heard Neville tell another yachtie a several days, and a few more near dramas later, that in 25 years of cruising the South Pacific, he has never had such difficulties with coral and anchorages. We take regular compass bearings from headlands, islands and even far away peaks, and check them against GPS positions. They have varied from two to four cables (tenths of nautical mile) off to the west and a bit south. We are comparing these, perfect earth spheroid readings, with our 1973 charts, and they vary greatly. They also don’t show nearly all the reef. One day we were motor sailing in 60 metres of water, in a known channel, and within a few boat lengths, went to four metres! Talk about freaking out. Now we back all GPS positions up with old fashioned coastal navigation techniques.

Saturday August 17. Another bad anchorage: During the night the wind turned and hardened. By 0700 hours the winds were gusting to 25 knots and the short steep seas breaking not far behind Songlines. By 0730 the two other boats in the anchorage motored out. by the time winds reached 30 knots, Songlines was pitching badly, coming up hard on the anchor rode. The reef, as always just behind us, waiting. We prepared the mainsail, tidied up the decks and prepared the boat as winds continued to climb and gust. I had to steer while Neville brought up the anchor and Claire relayed directions from him. It was a first for me and in a very difficult situation: I motored toward the anchor, then when the anchor came off the bottom, Songlines began to fall off the wind and this was the dangerous part; if she got sideways to the wind, I would not be able to get her back into the wind with all the power available. When the anchor lifted off, I could feel the bows begin to turn. I applied half power, and for several long seconds it appeared she would continue to fall off. I could feel the reef break in my back and hear it calling Songlines! She continued to fall away and I had to make a decision to apply full power, which was all the cards I had to play, or to put the engine in neutral, allowing Songlines to drift back, while I turned the stern drive to give the rudders help in turning, and then get the power back on. I decided the latter, and fortunately the Stern drive turned as it was supposed to, I got it back in gear and we pulled straight into the wind again with not quite full power. Gulp. Claire said Neville was looking white on the bow. I was glad to turn the helm back to him to get us out of the bay.

We had to tack under power several times to get out of the bay and into open water with ringing reef all around. Once outside it was difficult getting up the main to third reef in the steep confused seas, but we managed and motor sailed close hauled in winds to 40 knots to a fallback anchorage. Once outside, Neville let me take the wheel, and the concern of escaping the bay changed to elation as Songlines seemed to leap off the crests of waves, but always somehow land sweetly with a calm wheel. The skipper and I might not always agree on some things, but I think he has designed and built a work of art for traveling the seas. She sails like a dream, and takes good care of her human passengers.

Now we are back in Lautoka for a few days provisioning for the 700 or so nautical mile crossing to New Caledonia.


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