And so this is what the true downwind sailing we’ve heard all about feels like! After enjoying the calm protected waters of Tonga, I have to say it was with a touch of dread that we headed back into the ocean swells to make our way west onto Fiji. We also had a deadline to meet (friends Brook and Nina to pick up in Suva), which as every sailor knows doesn’t usually lend itself well to coordinating with the elements. But thankfully the stars aligned and with gentle swells and a full moon to light our way, we managed to sneak in between two weather systems and finally find ourselves our most pleasant passage yet. And wow it felt good. A beautiful gliding magic carpet ride sort of feeling rather than the bucking and rolling we had started to think must be standard sailing.
On a broad reach initially, the jib worked absolute wonders. So much so that once we hit Fijian waters and the wind shifted right behind us, we let our other jib in on the fun. With the double headsails balancing themselves beautifully (still too nervous to try the spinnaker… but we’re making progress!) and Te Mana glided along with ease through the outer Lau group of islands.
But when the wind finally died out and our speed dwindled meaning we wouldn’t make Suva by daylight, we thought that rather than spend another night at sea we’d try our magic carpet luck and enter the harbour at night. As Suva is lit up like a Christmas tree (no idyllic palm lined beaches here), we thought we should be ok. And, despite the numerous wrecks of other less fortunate ships/boats in the harbour and outer reef, we were able to navigate just fine.
Although not our usual tranquil surrounds (it took a little getting used to being surrounded by big tankers and dilapidated Asian fishing boats) Suva and its grittiness was actually quite refreshing for a change of scenery after so many months of paradise (yes life has been tough). A busy bustling fresh produce market with Indian spice hall, big supermarkets, and a yacht club with great food (there’s a theme here…) and all so cheap! What’s not to like? Aside perhaps from the amount of rubbish floating in the harbour…
So with Nina and Brook now in tow, a boatload of new foods to try, and plenty of kava root to offer the village chiefs, we ventured south to explore the slower pace of life on the islands of Beqa and Yanuca. Although the sun was a little shy, the islands were beautiful and green, the fish were plentiful (Brook quickly overfilled the fridge), and the islanders were authentically oh so friendly (we were a hit at the local primary school). We all managed to clap at the right time and drink our bowls of kava during our first Sevu Sevu ceremony, and the boys looked only slightly uncomfortable wearing sarongs. The only things that didn’t go our way was the wind and swell – surfing Frigates sadly wasn’t an option.
Fiji is large. And as a result moving around from place to place requires quite a bit of sailing time. This mostly has to be done during the day so as to navigate the (often poorly or uncharted) reefs, and so a full days sailing was required to move onto Fiji’s western side. But strong winds helped us out (we reached our max speed thus far of 9 knots with only our twice reefed genoa flying) and we made it to Momi Bay in no time.
Being in a sort of rain shadow, it doesn’t seem to rain much on Fiji’s western side. And so although the sun had found us again, the main island is not tropically lush, the water not clear, and the scenery seems strangely similar to what you’d see driving down the Hume highway in summer. But once we ventured to the outer reef where the water was turquoise water once more it was smiles all round. The fact that we were anchored just off Fiji’s famous wave Cloudbreak also helped. And although the swell might have been small to start with, it served as a good intro for what was to come.
After waving goodbye to Brook and Nina at Musket Cove, we realized we’d yet again found ourselves in the midst of a sailing rally. So to escape the crowds we retreated back to anchoring between the playgrounds of Cloudbreak and Namotu and happily spent the next few days getting our surfing fix and totally exhausting ourselves. So much so however that Nick’s immune system crashed and produced the biggest pair of tonsils I’ve ever seen.
We retreated back to the more protected Musket Cove and with one man down Te Mana wasn’t moving anywhere. Although Nick’s feverishly delirious mumblings were initially very entertaining, it soon became apparent he was quite ill. But with a dose of antibiotics, lots of soup, and nearly a week of total rest, the offending tonsils retreated and we were ready to move once more.
With a new swell arriving we didn’t need to move far to enjoy more time surfing our favorite newfound waves. But compared to the empty or small friendly local lineups we’d become accustomed to in French Polynesia, Fiji was full of wave hungry Australian/Kiwi/American tourists focused on punching out their quotas during their 10 day surfing trips (we only met 4 local Fijian surfing their world class waves). We both knew where we’d rather be.
As the swell died we ventured north up through the Mamanuca and Yasawa Island groups in search of quiet secluded beaches and beautiful snorkeling and free diving. You’d think this would be easy to find, but tourism is well and truly established in Fiji and nearly every island has at least one resort, usually more. The villages also seemed far more expectant of tourism leaving the kava exchange an emptier experience than we’d had in Yanaka.
We did however love our time (although brief thanks to the oh so rolly anchorage) SUPing, snorkeling and scrambling our way around the uninhabited islands of Navadra and Vanua Levu. Fijian Survivor was filmed here apparently, and with its supply of goats, fish and coconuts, I’m sure these days we could both give the contestants a run for their money on island life skills. The 20kg Spanish Mackeral (our biggest fish so far) we caught on the way in kept the handful of boats in the anchorage fed for nearly a week. Without a freezer onboard we just can’t consume that much fish on our own!
Further north we swam with the Manta Rays. Apparently they hadn’t been seen for the past few days (we soon understood why). But we managed to time it right and glide around with the amazing creature for all of a few moments, before the experience was lost as the poor creature was totally mobbed by boatloads of tourists (seriously around 50 people jumped in all at once) and fled to deeper water.
So with another swell coming we’ve decided to cut our island exploring short and head back south for a few more days of salty exercise before checking out and getting ready to head west once more…
Next stop New Caledonia. Which we’re quite excited about. The pull of French cheese is strong!