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The Spice Islands! And Buffalo Soldier Goes AWOL.

Some of the rally sailboats opted out of the passage north across the Banda Sea to the Spice Islands, a cluster of about half a dozen small islands in eastern Indonesia. This was primarily because it would necessitate beating back south later, with no help from the tradewinds blowing from the southeast. We didn’t have to worry about that aboard the Buffalo, though, and we wouldn’t have missed our visit to Banda.

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Below is a Google Map, with my crude line drawn around Indonesia. It’s hard to get one’s mind around how big and sprawling this country is, especially when you begin to take in the variety of languages, customs and ethnicities as you move from one end to the other. The red marker is in the Banda Islands, which you can’t even see at this range.

When we arrived at Banda Neira after a night or two underway, we could actually smell the cloves as we dropped anchor. Cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg were the principal enticement prompting over three centuries of Dutch colonialism, which ended with Indonesia’s independence only after World War II. Big draws for us were the spices, the vestiges of Dutch colonial history, and the scuba diving. The lovely, lush jungle backed by dramatic volcanoes didn’t hurt, either.

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Cloves in various stages of drying in the sun.

The diving couldn’t be considered world-class only by virtue of the moderate to poor visibility. Water clarity is very seasonal and our arrival at the wrong time of year for scuba diving couldn’t be helped. Despite this we got together with a group of fellow cruisers on two different days, and the ‘dive boats,’ pictured below, were an adventure in themselves. We encountered plenty of critters and it was time well spent.

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The highlight for me, though, was touring the spice plantations.

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Nutmeg fruit with the mace-covered nut within; clove blossoms.

I’d never seen where cloves come from, but the delicate blossoms grow on trees. Nutmeg fruit is like a very small, very firm peach. When split, the brown egg-like nut within can be seen through the lacy scarlet covering of the mace. Within that nut, you can hear the nutmeg itself rattling around.

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Nutmeg (left) and bright red mace dry in the sun.

The red mace, once it’s dried, is sent to Java where it goes into Coca Cola. Now we’re one step closer to figuring out the secret formula! I bought some mace jam from a local woman. I think it was made with some of the fruit as well as the mace. And it DID taste kind of like Coca Cola jam. Really.

The cloves have found their way into kretek, the local clove cigarettes. In fact, where once all the cloves in the world came from Indonesia’s Maluku Islands, now the kretek has become so popular here that Indonesia has to import cloves from abroad just to keep up with the demand.

The plantation owner showed us how cinnamon bark is peeled in squares from the tree, which is unharmed by this bit of dermabrasion. The bark squares roll up as they dry, resulting in the cinnamon sticks you buy commercially.

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Cinnamon bark is harvested using a machete.

During the days we spent in Banda, we wandered the towns and villages. The vibe is very peaceful. A mixture of Dutch colonial architecture, shady tree-lined streets, small patches of cloves and nutmeg drying in front of the homes, and a generally chill pace of life.

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The house that spice built.

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And once again, the open curiosity towards us, particularly on the part of the children, and the welcoming smiles and shouts of ‘Hello mister!’ and ‘Where you from?’ warmed our hearts.

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In the main town, evidence of former Dutch colonialism is everywhere. Below are some iron cannons probably from the late 1800’s, just lying in the street. A group of us remarked you could just carry one off and nobody would care, though I imagine it would take more than the few cold Bintang beers we’d enjoyed to give us the will to try to lift one off the ground.

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Stumbling across random Dutch cannons.

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A woman shells and sorts peanuts.

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Fish drying on a village street.

In the category of bad news this season, we discovered, only after schlepping our new quadcopter drone Buffalo Soldier back to the boat with us from the States, that it’s not in working order.

Stan had been diligently practicing piloting the drone in Seattle, without the camera in place. (In case of one too many misadventures due to inexperience, he figured there was no point in risking both the quadcopter AND the new Sony camera.) We had tested the camera itself, and Stan’s skills were good enough to practice piloting from the deck of Buffalo Nickel.

Unfortunately, we never bothered testing the controller circuit that directs the camera once it’s attached to the drone. That part doesn’t work, and after e-mails back and forth to Finland and every other conceivable place, Stan had to accept the sad reality that we won’t be able to get Buffalo Soldier to take any amazing footage for us until after we get that part repaired back in the U.S.

Bummer! We watch the cool drone footage our friends aboard s/v Delos  publish all the time… we want to do that on our boat! Oh well, first world problems, right?

Next up: Wakatobi, and some truly world-class diving. Plus: day-to-day power management while cruising aboard Buffalo Nickel.

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Hello Mister!

That’s what we heard shouted in our direction, in every town and village, in every anchorage in Indonesia. By grinning kids canoeing up to Buffalo Nickel in their outriggers, by adults walking, or zipping by on motorbikes in the busy market streets. Once in awhile someone with better English would wave and say “Hello Missus” to me. And we heard a lot of “I love you!” as well. But mostly, it was a face-splitting smile and “Hello Mister!”

We thought people could be no more welcoming than the Fijians. But that was before we made landfall in Indonesia. Folks there are simply overflowing with warm welcome and frank curiosity about us. I think “Hello Mister!” will be my free-association thought when Indonesia comes up, for the rest of my days. That, and the pervasive scent of kretek, the clove cigarettes everyone smokes there.

The village of Debut, on the island of Kei Kecil in eastern Indonesia, was where we made our first stop to clear in. Nearly 50 Sail 2 Indonesia rally boats arrived from Oz to share the anchorage, but we were the first, being the fastest vessel. It was another day and a half before the next couple of boats made their landfall. All of the other participants in the rally were greeted by a local in a flag-festooned runabout who led them to suitable anchoring spots with deep enough water and no obstructions. Then customs would arrive at each boat to take care of the necessary paperwork.

Not us, though. We had our bright yellow “Q” flag flying (a ‘quarantine’ flag, signifying the request for ‘pratique’ by a vessel arriving from abroad: inspection by local officials, without which we are not permitted off our boat.) But the officials took one look at Buffalo Nickel’s mean-looking aluminum hull and decided we must be an American military vessel. So they totally ignored us. We hailed every party we could think of over VHF radio, in every language we could muster, to no avail. Finally we gave up, bumbled around the questionable anchorage until we found a suitable spot on our own, and waited until late the following afternoon, when the next yacht arriving with the rally told the Customs officers we were part of the group.

Customs officials visiting the newly arrived yachts.

Customs officials visiting the newly arrived yachts.

Of course, this all transpired back in mid-July, four months ago. During cruising season, every day is a decision: experience whatever the day has to offer? Or should I write about last week, and sort photos? This season has been so busy and eventful that we opted for the experience most of the time. Which explains why I’m so horribly behind on our blog.

We put 6,000 miles beneath our keel this season. Fiji to Vanuatu to Australia to Indonesia to Singapore to Malaysia to Thailand. Well beyond 600 engine hours on Buffalo Nickel’s main engine, a 236 hp John Deere. And around 40 hours added to our ‘get-home’ emergency engine, a 110 hp Yanmar, because it needs regular exercise in order to be useful to us if and when our main propulsion fails and we really need that wing engine.

Indonesia was a real change of scene and it was easy to tell at a glance that we were in a whole different corner of the globe. It’s a largely Muslim country, though Christianity is also well represented, and in some regions, Hinduism. Because it’s so populated, we heard the Muslim calls to prayer broadcast from the minarets in virtually every anchorage. Many sailors complain about it, especially the pre-dawn 4:45-ish one. But we both have always found it to be hauntingly lovely, calming and centering in its own way.

Top of a mosque peeking through the treetops.

Top of a mosque peeking through the treetops.

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They also have some unique fishing-related paraphernalia. Above is the Indo version of a squid boat. And all over, we’d see small drifting structures resembling little bamboo pagodas on rafts of various designs. These are known collectively as FAD’s, or fish-attracting devices. They are ubiquitous and necessitate a close watch while underway. Most cruisers opt for daylight passages only wherever possible, unless we can get far offshore, in order to avoid getting entangled.

Our stay in Debut was occupied with getting some logistics taken care of, like buying SIM cards for local phone and internet, and finding an ATM for cash. Internet is mostly wishful thinking, at least in this part of Indonesia. The narrow bandwidth is woefully oversubscribed. None of the people have refrigeration at home; they have no landlines and little or no electricity. But the average age is young, and they all have smart phones.

We also received a warmer welcome from the town than we ever imagined. They had us muster in the anchorage on our way ashore:

Dinghies rafting up for our welcome to Indonesia.

Dinghies rafting up for our welcome to Indonesia.

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They gave us a ceremonial welcome by parading boats, then more formal ceremonies ashore. Banquets, speeches and various blessings ensued.

Government officials welcome us at the dinghy dock.

Government officials welcome us at the dinghy dock.

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The Village Elder blesses our boats during a solemn ceremony.

The Village Elder blesses our boats during a solemn ceremony.

All those aforementioned smart phones, plus the ones we cruisers brought ashore to record the events, made for some humorous cases of us taking photos of them taking photos of us… and vice versa.

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The most touching thing for us, though, was the way the residents of the village and the neighboring towns turned out to roll out the red carpet in their own way: with flags decorating all their homes in honor of our visit, local bands playing, people lining the streets and all throwing smiles and greetings in our direction.

Gotta have music!

Gotta have music!

Townspeople line the streets to catch a glimpse and welcome us.

Townspeople line the streets to catch a glimpse and welcome us.

Our buddy Budi (standing, in hoodie) brings a few friends to Buffalo Nickel.

Our buddy Budi (standing, in hoodie) brings a few friends to Buffalo Nickel.

Their helpfulness and good cheer made it so much easier to begin to immerse ourselves in this new landscape, new culture and new language.

Up next: the Spice Islands!

Australia – The Short Version

The 1,300-mile passage from Vanuatu to Cairns, Australia took us nearly six days, but was one of our most comfortable and uneventful crossings to date. Seas were 2.5 meters for the first couple of days, but all well aft of our beam, making for decent surfing conditions. We hit 15 knots with regularity, and had to slow way down our last 24 hours in order to ensure a daylight arrival.

We worked into a comfortable rhythm with the boat and our own four-hour watch schedules. And for the first time ever, the Admiral wasn’t sleep-deprived, even in those notorious first 24 hours. A milestone!

The clearing-in process in Australia was rigorous, as expected, but all the officials were prompt and courteous. At one point, one of the customs officers began to ask us to specify how many bottles of wine we had aboard (ahem… 14 cases,) since we rather vaguely declared ‘unknown, for personal consumption’ on the form. But his colleague cut him off: “Leave it, mate. They’ve only got five bottles of beer aboard, after all.” As in, five bottles of beer? That is so pathetic as to be unworthy of any further consideration. You clearly know nothing of drinking and we’re wasting our time. Ah, those Aussies, they do love their beer.

Cairns itself was a nice surprise: super friendly people, lovely waterfront development with a long esplanade for walking, fast internet, great provisioning and lots of options for dining out.

After the muster meetings of our rally fleet – 50 yachts from all over the globe, all eager to discover Indonesia – we set off for the series of day-hops that would bring us some 450 miles up the Queensland coast to the northern tip of the continent, our jumping-off point for Indonesia.

Our primary reason for signing up for the rally was to get our paperwork handled. The Indonesians are formidable bureaucrats and the red tape involved with spending any length of time cruising within the country is legendary, for both boat and crew. It would have been impossible for us to accomplish from Vanuatu. But along with the advantages of having our own agent, the social benefits are substantial, as we began to realize while getting to know our fellow cruisers in the various anchorages along the way.

There was time for some tourist activities, too. We enjoyed the obligatory koala-snuggling…

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… but also fell in love with the Aboriginal art. In our particular portion of Queensland, the tribes make what’s called ‘x-ray art’ when depicting the local wildlife: the skeletal structure and/or internal organs are visible in the artwork.

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The local wildlife is plentiful and varied. We had no need to look for crocodiles in the zoo, since we could enjoy watching the saltwater crocs bask and hunt right in front of our boat in many of the anchorages. They look like big logs in all our photos though… sorry. And we weren’t inclined to get any closer. In one anchorage, a particularly aggressive specimen had killed one person a few years ago, mauled another in a kayak, and sunk a float plane. Yes I know, right out of Jurassic Park, but it’s true!

The bird life is astonishing, exotic color and sounds everywhere.

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Their pelicans dwarf the American ones, they’re as large as human children, when they stand on the beach. And they feed differently. Instead of flying diving, they paddle up next to schools of small fish, turn their heads sideways and simply shovel the fish into their mouths.

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Finally we arrived at Thursday Island, where we did our last bits of provisioning and shuffled into their historic Customs building to clear out. Next stop: Debut, Kei Islands, Indonesia!

I’m calling this ‘The Short Version” not because it’s a brief post (though it is,) but because we realized we are dying to return to Australia to spend a much greater length of time exploring by land. There’s so very much to see here and we just didn’t do it justice!

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Buffalo Nickel in Vanuatu

Our first week was spent in Port Vila, making reconnaissance and loading up. The three of us (Brian and Sue of British sailboat Darramy, Brian and Sandie of American sailboat Persephone, and ourselves) were impatient to get out to the islands, but the groundwork was important. We met with what seemed like everybody: World Health Organization (WHO,) Peace Corps, Save the Children, National Disaster Management Office (NDMO,) District Administrators for the various islands we were to visit, Minister of Education, and a variety of other non-governmental organizations (NGO.)

With plans and protocols in place at last, we packed our boats. Some of our supplies we purchased with personal and donated funds: roofing nails, building tools, a chainsaw, calico fabric, fuel and engine oil. Other items were donated: seeds to replant crops, clothing, food, schoolbooks and supplies, tents and sleeping bags, tarps.

Below in the checked shirt is Clive, a logistician originally from the UK, in Vanuatu on behalf of the WHO. He was readying to depart Vanuatu around when we did in mid-June, bound for either Nepal or Antarctica. Quite the interesting life. Here he’s sorting some of the items he sent with us destined for health clinics and outposts in the Shepherds. We were tasked with filling out detailed assessment questionnaires at the health care facilities, and also carried some large water purification units and lighting that we’d have to assemble and install.

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The ten 100-foot-long tarpaulins above were offloaded from Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior and onto Buffalo Nickel, but later on nobody could remember who provided them. It was a bit of a frenzy, and reminded me in some ways of an auction, only taking place via VHF radio, SSB radio, mobile phone and random dock encounters:

“They’ve got 300 sheets of corrugated iron roofing at the foundry. Can you take them?”

“Try hailing Dragonfly or Rainbow Warrior. If they can’t do it, then let’s see how many will fit on Buffalo Nickel’s starboard side walkway. But we need to know by this afternoon.”

“Hey, Llyr can take a few if Rainbow Warrior can’t handle them. Anyway last I heard they were going to head south instead?”

“I’ve got a line on hundreds of large knives.”

“Nah, we’ve heard that their machetes are to the villagers as our mobile phones are to us. Never more than an arm’s length away, even for the toddlers. They kept them close during the storm. What we really need are more roofing nails, and some seeds. Somebody supposedly had a load of seeds… has that gotten through customs yet?”

And so it went, until our little fleet was well loaded and we set off for the island of Emae.

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We spent a good chunk of time there, in addition to visiting the islands of Tongoa, Tongariki and Buninga.

Though some forests and buildings remained defiantly intact, and regrowth was impressive, there was evidence of Pam’s destruction everywhere. The photo below exemplifies it for me: corrugated metal roofing shredded like paper by the wind, whose raw power then sent it whizzing up high in this tree and twisted it around a branch. Humbling.

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A home.

A home.

The reason there were so few fatalities caused by this monster cyclone was the fact that people here are familiar with how to hunker down during cyclones (though never one this bad.) We heard tales of villagers who, when their homes blew away from over their heads, shoved all the children in between boulders to wait out the storm. In another case, a tiny village of fewer than ten people all took shelter together under one bed, with mattresses stacked around them, for the 13 hours the wind spent shrieking through. What everyone we questioned mentioned, though, was the sound. They said they’d never heard anything like it in their experience with cyclones, and they couldn’t have imagined such loud noise. The children were especially traumatized.

There are two vehicles among the ten villages on the island of Emae, so we were able to trade diesel fuel for transport around the island to some of the villages accessible by road. They threw into the deal pumping up the front tire, which had to be done every few minutes along the way.

We three ladies got to ride in the cab.

We three ladies got to ride in the cab.

It was on Emae that we forged the strongest personal relationships.

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Joseph, a very bright, resourceful and caring man, is a key member of the island’s Disaster Committee. He also heads up a group that establishes fishing guidelines for the local waters for purposes of protective management of the reefs.

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Donald, pictured above with his wife (a nurse,) three children and a nephew, is the primary health care provider for the island. I was never clear on whether he is in fact a physician, but he performs surgeries in the health clinic and visits all the villages.

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Above, Donald’s wife is getting ready to cook lunch in their kitchen, such as it is. Their home adjacent to the island’s health center was badly damaged in the storm.

Beyond delivering supplies as needed in the villages we visited and our WHO work, we took note of things requiring repair and helped wherever we could. Other than simply making our boats available for interisland transport, the ‘fixing of stuff’ turned out to be our most valuable contribution. The Ni-Vanuatu (people from Vanuatu) living on the more remote islands are skilled and resourceful in many areas, but not when it comes to machinery and hardware. Though they enjoy the recently available convenience of having a truck or an outboard motor or a generator (often shared,) they don’t know how to repair or maintain these and have nobody to teach them. Cruisers, on the other hand, are virtually to a man (and in many cases woman) very handy at diagnosing and repairing mechanical and electrical equipment, often able to MacGyver things back to functionality with dental tools and duct tape.

Stan and Brian (Persephone) tinkering.

Stan and Brian (Persephone) tinkering.

Of particular importance were systems related to fresh water. Most of the villages have no supply of fresh water other than rain catchment. This is done from rain gutters running along their rooflines, draining into tanks. With better than 90% of roofs damaged by Pam, many gutter catchment systems were in sad shape. The villagers did not have the hardware required to refasten them so that they maintain the correct angles for catchment of rainwater. Many tanks were lost or damaged as well. Large capacity tanks are critical to see the people through the dry season.

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Above, Sandie of Persephone carries some WHO equipment from their dinghy up the hill on Tongoa to meet Brian and Sue of Darramy. They are readying for a long day ashore visiting schools and health centers.

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And here, Sandie and Sue stand in a tent erected by UNICEF to serve as temporary school in a Tongoan village. The two women took a particular interest in children’s education, touching base with school principals and women’s groups whenever they could.

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The photo above is a favorite of mine, because it speaks to so many aspects of Ni-Vanuatu culture and also of our mission there. The principle of sharing certain resources figures prominently in the local culture. Aid given to a village might be shared with several other allied villages. Supplies donated to a village need to be distributed among the households, typically by the village chief and with the input of the Disaster Committee. So our donating supplies to a single family would have been a big faux pas and resulted in discord in the village. We were already violating the Prime Directive in so many ways, we didn’t need tribal warfare to erupt as well. (If you’re not a Trekkie that last sentence probably made no sense to you.)

The seeds above are being doled out carefully to the small village of Reisu, in proportion to the number of households in the village. Mostly the crops themselves are grown at the family level and not shared. The shells used as small bowls are typical as well. Aside from the fact that most of their plates, pots and pans blew away in the storm, shells of various sizes are routinely used as bowls, knives and other tools. The small pile of rivets represent all we were able to collect for use in repairing the village’s aluminum boat.

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The boat had been brought ashore before the storm and covered with corrugated metal roofing sheets, those weighed down with heavy rocks. But it all blew away, carrying the boat crashing through the trees where it got torn and holed in many spots. George, the owner of the boat, trades his catch of fish, making this boat the only source of income for the village. With Reisu being miles from anywhere, it represents their access to the other villages and the health center. A young man in Reisu got a leg wound during the storm for example, and was unable to walk the miles overland to the health center to get it treated. Due to lack of access, this village had received virtually nothing in aid after the storm except for a single tent.

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Here is George’s young daughter Niri. Cute as a button. She was one of a couple of children we met who had never before seen a white person. She didn’t show any fear though; more curiosity, especially about my sunglasses.

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Stan and the Brians spent a long, hot day repairing the boat. The villagers watched intently, and were eager to contribute as soon as they figured out the techniques involved.

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Grateful to the point of choking back tears afterward, George made a stencil and christened his boat ‘Sea Mercy.’

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In another village, they had what they called a ‘hurricane house,’ built of heavily reinforced indigenous materials like local timbers and the traditional Natengura leaf and bamboo roof. 50 people crammed into this structure to wait out the storm, and the hurricane house, remarkably, survived fully intact as you see it below.

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A communal lunch was often cooked in the village on the days when the boys visited to ‘fix stuff.’ Here they prepared crab, rice, corn, and cassava root.

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One of the villages had a damaged fiberglass boat. The three of us didn’t have the supplies needed to patch it, but Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior was in the anchorage with us.

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They happily gave us the fiberglass matting and resin, and the boys repaired the boat in the village of Mare. This one got christened ‘Mercy Warrior.’

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The boys returning to the beach for a well-earned cold Tusker beer.

The boys returning to the beach for a well-earned cold Tusker beer.

At one point, we took leave of our two buddy boats in order to scoot north to the larger island of Epi and pick up food and water supplies from the NDMO for distribution back on Tongoa and Emae. Buffalo Nickel gives us the ability to bash back against the trades and associated steep seas quickly and comfortably. (Gee, have I mentioned lately how much we love our boat??) There was no reason for the two sailboats to endure the rough ride, especially since we can carry far more cargo.

That said, we were a bit nervous about the 4,000 lbs of bottled water we took on. We stowed as much as possible low in the boat, but still ended up with a disturbing amount of weight up on our flybridge. It did exacerbate our at-anchor roll just a bit, but the seven-hour ride back to Emae was comfy and uneventful, especially once we accelerated into the head seas. I know, right? It’s a counterintuitive move in many boats, certainly in trawlers; but it works like a charm in our FPB.

It’s a shame about the bottled water on several levels. Large tanks and fresh water fills are preferable by far. Sergey Brin’s Dragonfly (which we often just referred to as ‘the Google boat’) with its monster watermaker, and physician with paramedical team, was brilliant at delivering both medical care and huge volumes of fresh water to numerous outlying islands. But their time was up and they had to depart to pick up charter guests or whatever it is they do. And with the dry season upon Vanuatu, fresh water shortage was going to become critical for some of the villages. Actually, since they have no grocery stores and don’t run into bottled things as a rule, the villagers were likely as excited about the bottles as they were about the water. They treasure all forms of lidded glass or plastic containers.

Back at Emae, the Brians and an assembly line of villagers were there to help, as all the water and tinned fish had to be offloaded onto our dinghies and ferried to the beach.

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Another long day for us. But quite rewarding.

Bottled water, tinned fish, clothing and miscellany for the villages of Emae.

Bottled water, tinned fish, clothing and miscellany for the villages of Emae.

Our time in Vanuatu was a unique learning experience in many areas. But what touched our hearts and our souls the most was getting to know these people, who, when faced with this…

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… still managed to look like this:

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On Giving Well

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In this second of three posts about our time spent helping with cyclone relief efforts in the Shepherd Islands of Vanuatu, I’m going to get on a bit of a soapbox about offering assistance in the event of a large-scale disaster: specifically, things one can do to be most, and least, helpful to a disaster relief effort. We learned some valuable lessons during our time interacting with Vanuatu government officials, NGO’s (non-government organizations) both large and small, health care providers, and the victims of Tropical Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu. We feel compelled to pass along information that could be useful to you, as donors wanting to give what you can to help with a disaster relief effort in the future.

But afterwards, we’ll lighten things up by giving you a brand new cocktail recipe! Sound like a deal?    I thought so.

When we decided to undertake this little project, our idea was that our boat might be of use transporting supplies and/or personnel to those islands and villages that are more remote, especially knowing that many of the vessels in Vanuatu had been damaged or lost during the storm. We went in search of an organization that could make good use of us. We solicited suggestions and explored web sites, eventually finding a good fit with a U.S. based organization called Sea Mercy. Their mission involves using sailing volunteers and their vessels to deliver disaster relief and medical care to island nations in the South Pacific. They requested a minimum one-month commitment from us, which was around our maximum time available, so that worked.

We hated to leave Fiji without supplies on board, especially after hearing the villages were drastically lacking in the materials needed to repair their homes and water supplies: namely, roofing nails, corrugated metal roofing sheets, and fasteners for rain gutters that they use for fresh water catchment. But we were told that those supplies existed in the capital city of Port Vila, they just weren’t making it out to the remote hard-hit islands. Moreover, Vanuatu needed our cash in their economy. So we brought money instead, donated and personal, and purchased the supplies in Port Vila when we arrived.

Sea Mercy organizes its volunteer boats into ‘mosquito fleets,’ clusters of three or four cruising yachts who focus their weeks of service on a small group of islands or villages. The previous set of three boats, having a couple of physicians among their crew, made a medical rotation in the southern islands, conducting medical clinics in various villages.

Our rotation was not a medical one; rather, our mission was to make assessments, deliver and install equipment for the World Health Organization, deliver needed supplies within the province on behalf of Vanuatu’s Disaster Management Office, and meet whatever other needs we could as they arose. Our focus was the Shepherd Islands, roughly in the middle of the Y formed by the islands of Vanuatu.

The small capital, Port Vila, was swarming with relief workers from various NGO’s both large and small, and naturally, government officials from the provinces. Also attending the party were Greenpeace’s s/v Rainbow Warrior, and m/v Dragonfly, the super yacht owned by Google co-founder Sergey Brin.

Our week in Port Vila was one of controlled chaos, as the grapevine hummed with which organization had what supplies that needed to somehow get to wherever, and which vessels were in a position to take them. We filled our boats with what would be most needed, then topped off with various supplies donated via charitable groups from Australia.

This is where we hop on our soapbox. The donated goods included, on the medical side, things like sets for intravenous blood transfusion. But here is one of the clinics we visited:

Maternity Ward, Emae Island

Maternity Ward, Emae Island

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The Surgery, Emae Island

The Surgery, Emae Island

There are three wards (room with a bed) at this clinic, which serves the whole island of Emae and its ten villages: one room for sick patients, one for surgeries, and one for maternity. They do not give blood transfusions here, nor anywhere in this island group. And this clinic was one of the best ones we saw. Many had no refrigeration even prior to the storm. Let’s just say we would not want to be in need of medical care there. Expired and nearly expired medications are not useful. Nor are medications labeled in languages that the health care providers do not understand.

On the household goods side, we had some items that would have been embarrassing to take to the villages. Strappy stiletto heels with sequins? Really? And do folks truly need massage oil to recover when their homes have been lost to a cyclone? Even food choices were often misguided. Flavored drink mixes (“Delicious chilled!”) are worthless; the people are in need of drinking water, in some cases urgently. Flavoring their drinking water is not a concern. Likewise, foods like pasta that require lots of water for cooking are a poor choice. You get the idea.

The intentions are good. And we all want to give ‘stuff’ rather than cash. It feels more personal, and we don’t worry so much about our donated cash being misspent, or ending up in the pockets of someone corrupt or greedy. But giving ‘stuff’ in the case of a disaster, especially one in another nation, is a mistake. It’s far worse than simply not being of value, because it actually clogs the supply chain, preventing or delaying the things that truly are useful from being delivered. All those donated goods get shipped in shipping containers better occupied with what is really needed, as decided by those professionals whose jobs are to make those assessments. The World Health Organization and Save the Children know far better than you or me which medical supplies are lacking, or what to feed a household in a primitive village in Vanuatu. It all must pass through customs, and the very few customs officers spend their time sorting through boxes of pasta and drink mixes, while hundreds of kilos of precious seeds needed for replanting of crops have to wait until tomorrow or the next day.

So, is there a local food drive in your community? By all means, donate your food. Is there a local charity that operates a thrift shop selling used clothing and household items? Perfect. But when people far away from your community have lost their homes due to some disaster, give money and only money. Any charity asking for goods in such a situation is misguided, because unless they have boots on the ground qualified to assess the situation, they don’t know what is needed. Cash is king. American citizens give only 5% of our charitable contributions overseas. This means that, without increasing our giving by one dime, if we shift just 5% of our donations to international efforts, our contributions abroad would double. If you are concerned about screening a charitable organization to which you are considering donating, as well you should be, Give Well is an excellent source for evaluating the bang for your buck. If you’re really interested in the philosophy of giving, and how to be the most effective in your charitable contributions, read this article in The Atlantic.

If, on the other hand, you’re done with all this preaching and ready for a drink, then I have a recipe for you. By the end of our rewarding rotation in the Shepherds, I was determined to come up with a cocktail I could name the Sea Mercy, after the charitable group with which we aligned ourselves for this ‘mission.’ But we had almost no spirits aboard; selections in Fiji and even in the capital of Vanuatu were quite limited.

Fortunately, our buddy Sarah Dashew happened to e-mail me with an original recipe of hers to try. She agreed to let us christen it and here it is:

Sea Mercy

1.5-2 oz Reposado Tequila (Herradura or Casamigos)

Sprig of muddled mint leaves

½ cup pomegranate kombucha *

Ice cubes

Mix ingredients, diluting with water to taste. Shake and pour, baby!

* Kombucha is a slightly fizzy drink made from fermenting tea. Pomegranate kombucha can be bought in a health food store like Whole Foods, or if you’re really ambitious you can make your own. There are plenty of recipes on Google.

Since I can’t make a Sea Mercy yet, here’s a picture of Kombucha Mama’s ‘purple hippie’ cocktail, ‘borrowed’ from EugeneWeekly.com, as a stand-in!

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Next up: an account of Buffalo Nickel’s activities in the Shepherd Islands of Vanuatu, with tons of photos.

Steaming West from Fiji. But Not Without the Persian Fetta!

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The second week of March this year found us avidly following developing weather in the South Pacific from the comfort of our cozy Seattle digs. For the cyclone season, we had left Buffalo Nickel once again hauled out into a protective ‘pit’ in Vuda Point Marina, Fiji, while we visited the States. An intense tropical storm was threatening not only to up its game to Category 5, but also to hit Fiji, so we fretted about our boat.

That storm did up its game, becoming Cyclone Pam, but instead of Fiji it went for the island nation of Vanuatu to the west. With 155 mph sustained winds (highest sustained winds of any storm in the southern hemisphere) and gusts to 200 mph, it wiped out power and communications in this poor nation of 82 islands. 90% of buildings were damaged, and thousands of people displaced. With few airstrips, most local boats damaged and storm season still ongoing, many of the islands and their villagers were cut off from all contact or aid even four days after the storm passed. Some islands were completely without fresh water or shade during that time.

“So, now what?” we wondered. We had planned to spend some time in Vanuatu during the upcoming cruising season. Should we bypass it altogether and just make for New Caledonia, with its postcard-worthy beaches, spas, and French food and wine? Cylclones damage reefs so scuba diving on Vanuatu would be negatively impacted, along with an infrastructure that was third-world to begin with. But more to the point, we could not have slept well at night after frolicking all day in the face of their devastation.

During our two seasons cruising Fiji, the people had been so generous and welcoming to us yachties. Just walk past a home in a Fijian village at mid-day, and the family will invite you in for lunch. They’ll mean it, too. Whenever a cruiser faces a challenge – runaway dinghy, boat gone aground – the villagers are right there, dropping everything to lend a helping hand. We’d heard the people were similarly genuine and welcoming in Vanuatu. We figured this would be a good time to give something back instead of sightsee. Gotta keep the karmic ledger in balance…. or whatever it is that compels agnostic heathens like us to do ‘good works.’ We decided to spend several weeks contributing in whatever way we could to their recovery efforts before moving on to Australia and our Indonesia rally.

But before we could weigh anchor to head for Vanuatu, just a 55 hour passage away from the marina in Fiji, we had to shake down and address a few gremlins. Boats, and their systems, like to be used. When a boat is left for an extended period unused, things just quit working for no apparent reason. We knew from prior experience that systems that worked perfectly before, and were maintained and protected just prior to our departure, would give up the ghost when we turned them on again. In this case, just to mix things up a bit, the Buffalo worked flawlessly when splashed and throughout day 1: main engine purring to life right away, outboard engines on the dinghies AOK, toilets flushing, fresh water pumping, all systems go. We puttered out to the anchorage in Musket Cove content in our good fortune, but awoke on day 2 to find that gremlins had in fact run amok. One head stopped working (these are electric toilets,) the pump to our potable fresh water failed, one dinghy outboard shot us the finger and stalked off in a huff. The water heater began leaking as well, though this was the least of our worries in the tropical heat. And the stainless steel accumulator tank for our diesel-burner domestic heater sprang an antifreeze leak in the engine room. (This last we could account for without resorting to supernatural causes: under the influence of heat and time, the antifreeze turned more acidic and corroded its steel tank.)

Stan cursed (but only a little bit) and spent the next couple of days tinkering. I am pretty good with technology and electronics, but largely worthless when it comes to handiness around machinery. So I spent that time stowing provisions and prepping stuff for freezing.

Bins of food stores like this UHT milk are stowed in the 'basement,' their contents recorded on a spreadsheet.

Bins of food stores like this UHT milk are stowed in the ‘basement,’ their contents recorded on a spreadsheet.

Provisioning for a season in undeveloped remote areas is quite an exercise, especially for folks like us who enjoy cooking a wide variety of food rich in fresh vegetables and herbs, and drinking fine wine most nights we are not underway. We don’t care for processed food, and goods available for purchase on the remote islands of Vanuatu range from nothing to very little. Our solution involves prepping and/or pre-cooking, and freezing. Many of the ingredients we love, like most fresh herbs and much of the produce, are simply not grown in Fiji but we were able to send our personal order through a super yacht provisioning service to get beautiful produce and cheeses from New Zealand. Score!!

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Wine and a few spirits stowed under a settee cushion in the great room. One of 3 like this, which should see us through to Australia.

Wine and a few spirits stowed under a settee cushion in the great room. One of 3 like this, which should see us through to Australia.

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Freezing fresh herbs or citrus is something most of you on land would never think about, but it works well if you do it right: whole mint leaf stacks, frozen in water in ice cube trays; basil chopped with a bit of olive oil and salt , the pesto-ish result frozen into cubes; thyme and rosemary vacuum sealed and frozen in whole sprigs; lemon, lime and orange zest and juice… I had many days of work to do. And that was before I got to things like cauliflower puree, parsnip puree, veggie-rice cakes, baked eggs for easy passage breakfasts etc. With sourcing, procuring, prepping and stowing, it took nearly 14 solid days of work. But the payoff is worth the effort, all those ‘life is good’ moments, evoked by memorable meals taken while underway or swinging at anchor in some magical secluded spot.

Ice cubes of fresh basil.

Ice cubes of fresh basil.

Fresh thyme freezes well, and it's easier to pluck the leaves when it's frozen.

Fresh thyme freezes well, and it’s easier to pluck the leaves when it’s frozen.

With both pink and blue jobs done, we arrived in Vanuatu on May 11 after a very comfortable trip. So nice to get an easy passage once in awhile! The island of Efate, at first blush, looked in good shape two months after Pam blasted through. We arrived at night, and many of the streetlights in the small capital city of Port Vila were lit (turns out they had only come back in the last few days.) But the morning light revealed some sad sights, one side of the harbor entirely fringed with storm-ruined boats:

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We resolved to spend the next few days gearing up for our several-week rotation through the hard-hit Shepherd Islands to the north of us (more on that later.) But meanwhile, that first night at anchor we celebrated our successful passage with braised New Zealand salmon seasoned Moroccan-style, with kale, cauliflower, preserved lemon, pine nuts and red quinoa. All washed down with a lovely bottle of Craggy Range Pinot Noir. Those of you who get Blue Apron (which, come to think of it, is just about everyone we know) might recognize the salmon dish, along with the shamelessly pilfered photo.) So glad I stuck some ras-el-hanout from the spice shop in Pike Place Market into our luggage. If you’d like the recipe, click here.

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Fulaga, and the Little Dive Compressor that Couldn’t

Down to just the two of us, having left Jeff and Julie in Vanua Balavu in the northern Lau to make their gradual way back to the States.

The passage to Fulaga (foo-LONG-ah) in the southern Lau was a short overnight. When entering and exiting via reef passes, as this trip entailed at both ends, it’s best if you’ve got some daylight so that someone on the bow can spot the dangerous bits under the water before smacking your boat up against them. Our friends John and Kathy aboard Mystic Moon were making the same passage. They left a bit earlier than we did in the late afternoon, then we leapfrogged by them during the night and arrived a couple hours ahead of them at the reef entrance.

Not the ideal time of arrival for us, since the sun was still quite low in the sky at around 8 AM. So we drifted and motored around in big circles outside the reef entrance to Fulaga for an hour or so, alternately working ourselves into an anxious lather and steeling our nerves to brave the pass. I know, forward looking sonar, blah blah blah. But we believe in using all the tools available to us, our eyeballs among them. The reef entrance at Fulaga is narrow and has a reputation as the most challenging one can expect to encounter in Fiji. In fact, one entering sailboat ran hard aground just a couple of days after our arrival.

The photo below was actually taken five weeks later, on our departure from Fulaga. We were too distracted to fiddle with cameras when we arrived.

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Oh, and did I mention the tide factor? Ideal time to navigate the reef pass would be at high slack water, meaning no current running. Failing that, incoming tide is best. The outgoing tide, especially in strong current conditions with the wind blowing counter to it, results in big wicked standing waves across the entrance, the stuff of nightmares. Current affects your speed over ground and your ability to steer. The current will be stronger or weaker depending on the cycle of the moon… are you beginning to get how complicated this can be? No way to coordinate all these moving parts, so we just made sure we had an incoming tide, took a deep breath and went for it.

We had a sunny, cloudless sky, but the angle of the sun was still acute enough that I couldn’t appreciate bottom conditions more than a boat length ahead of us. So my communication with Stan through our headsets, while colorful, did him no good whatsoever. The water was so clear and its surface so flawlessly glassy that I could not discern the surface as a layer at all, I could only see the shadow of Buffalo Nickel’s silhouette gliding along the pale sandy bottom like a flying ghost. The effect was breathtaking.

Stan: “How does it look a boat length ahead of us?”

Val: “Huh? Oh, I can’t see that far on account of the sun. But this is SO GORGEOUS! I can see every little colorful polyp of coral… OH. MY. GOD.”

Stan: “What?!?! What is it??”

Val: “What, nothing. You’re doing fine. It’s just there are so many fish! We are going to have the BEST time diving here.”

At which point, I’m not saying that Stan scolded me, or used any profanity whatsoever. But I’m not NOT saying it either, know what I mean?

Once inside the large multi-lobed bay of the roughly horseshoe-shaped island, we anchored in front of its main village, Moana-I-Cake (moh-AH-nah ee THAH-kay) and went ashore to present our sevusevu to the chief.

 

Buffalo Nickel, village anchorage, Fulaga

Buffalo Nickel, village anchorage, Fulaga

Moana-I-Cake Village, Fulaga

Moana-I-Cake Village, Fulaga

After Sevusevu, Fulaga

After Sevusevu, Fulaga

Before I go any further let me point out that many of the photos that follow in this blog post were taken by our good friend Larry Anderson of s/v Lisa Kay. He’s got a great eye, and I shamelessly but ever so gratefully have made use of his pics. On most of his, you can see his name in the lower right corner.

The village’s 90-odd inhabitants were extremely welcoming. It is the most primitive island we have visited thus far: no generator for electricity, no phone service, no shops or true businesses of any kind. They paired each boat up with a different host family, who made themselves available during our stay at anchor to give us information and help in exploring the island. And this was really a two-way exchange, as the cruisers could often be found helping the villagers fix an ailing single side band radio, or teaching an art class at the school, or accompanying the island’s nurse in conducting health checks in the villages. That level of participation in village life added to the experience of the cruisers and we watched as warm, lasting bonds were forged.

For our part, we visited our hosts a couple of times, went into the village for a lovely church service, to take tea with some of the villagers and check out their lovely wood carvings. But our personal timing was not fully in sync with most of the other boats anchored at the island. We already had a season in Fiji under our belts, including many days spent involved in village life. As fun and fulfilling as that is, we felt we were being presented with our first opportunity since well before leaving New Zealand to just kick back, chill out, forget what day it was and soak in the South Pacific experience of being anchored in a remote, gorgeous tropical paradise. A lush, romantic setting with nobody to answer to except each other.

Wife of our host serving a lunch of fresh fish stewed in coconut

Wife of our host serving a lunch of fresh fish stewed in coconut

So after maybe five days anchored off the village, we spent the rest of our five weeks at a spot called ‘The Spit’ due to a large sand spit that emerges at low tide. Clear shallow water, long sandy palm-fringed beaches, tiny islets and mushroom-shaped rocks, and proximity to the fringing reef where we went scuba diving several times with some of the other cruisers.

The bay is full of variety and color:

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Below, you can see both our dinghies deployed off our stern, and our two kayaks thrown onto the dinghy chocks on the aft deck for quick and easy deployment. Our big aluminum tender, Plug Nickel, proved perfect as a little dive boat. Sadly, Stan inadvertently float-tested our small camera, without its waterproof case on, so there are no underwater pictures of Fulaga.

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One day, a bunch of villagers came out to the spit and put on a picnic in true Fijian style for us. I was sick that day, and so disappointed to have to miss the event. But Stan was able to go.

'The Spit' at low tide

‘The Spit’ at low tide

Cruisers arrive by dinghy, ferrying the villagers with them.

Cruisers arrive by dinghy, ferrying the villagers with them.

The villagers started by making a buffet table and enlisting the cruisers’ help in catching lunch

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Above, one of the villagers accompanies Stan, and Andy of s/v Spruce, by dinghy to help (meaning photograph) the women fishing.

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Meanwhile, the women were engaged in the island women’s traditional method of catching fish. First, a net is readied.

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The net is placed in fairly shallow water. It is held in place while a group of women wearing masks and snorkels act as beaters, locating schools of fish and chasing them into the net.

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The fish are scaled and gutted using only sharp shells.

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Young Ben of s/v Lisa Kay considers his lunch.

Young Ben of s/v Lisa Kay considers his lunch.

The Fijians make everything lickety-split from the natural materials at hand. They don’t use forks and knives anyway, and they weave everything from seating mats to serving baskets to plates from the palm fronds and other materials lying around. Fish, crabs and cassava are cooked over an open fire.

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Succulent fish, cassava and other sides dished up on a frond plate.

Succulent fish, cassava and other sides dished up on a frond plate.

Cooked crabs served in a basket.

Cooked crabs served in a basket.

The cruisers provided other side dishes and sweets, which naturally we brought in plenty of Tupperware, foil and all manner of serving and packaging materials.

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A rocking good time was had by all, except for me of course. I spent the day moaning and groaning aboard the boat, intermittently watching all the fun through binoculars.

Meanwhile, on the boat systems side, I’ll test my own understanding by launching into our recent tale of woe surrounding the dive compressor we installed on our FPB. This season saw its first use by the way; last year we suffered from a bit of systems overload, having to learn to operate and maintain all kinds of new equipment. That combined with a parade of guests aboard led us to forego scuba for the season and content ourselves with snorkeling.

We are happy with our set-up in general. The compressor itself is in the engine room, with the tank hookups and gauges on the aft deck, located inside the starboard side bench ‘seat’ on top of which Penny, our small RIB, sits. With access both through the top of the bench (if Penny is out of the way) or through a locker door on the inboard side, using our compressor is easy. We chose a Coltri compressor, a well reputed Italian make that can fill two tanks simultaneously for us. All well and good, but here’s where it gets more complicated.

Aside from the compressor, there is a motor which drives the compressor, made by a different company in the U.S. We chose a three-phase motor in order to enable a ‘soft startup’ and not yank lots of power at once when initiating operation. The three phase motor, however, requires a controller (i.e. an inverter) which was manufactured by yet a third American company. A fourth company assembled the whole system, which was ordered and sold to us by a fifth party, the dive compressor distributor (i.e. a sales guy.)

We had used the compressor only a couple of times when infant mortality set in and it failed on us. The biggest challenge for Stan was localizing the lesion, but as a boarded internist with a strong background in veterinary neurology, and armed with his multimeter, he was up to the task. The fault lay with the controller. The controller manufacturer’s response was simple, direct, rude and arrogant: “These units don’t fail. They never fail so there’s no reason for us to replace it. Your problem is elsewhere, because it’s not possible that our unit failed.” The company that assembled the system was equally rude and lacking in accountability.

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On leaving Fulaga we made for Suva, intent on finding some expertise in the big city. Nothing is made in Fiji, everything is expensive to order from abroad, so as a result they tend to learn to fix everything. We found some electricians who took the unit into their shop and tinkered with it, and isolated the problem to a single diode. Unfortunately, after replacing that diode and firing the controller up in the shop, it wasted only seconds before blowing the same diode again, so ultimately the fault is still out there.

The ‘sales guy’ is trying to do the right thing, we think, though he’s not technically savvy about any of it. The plan is to send the controller (inverter) back to him, though at this point we are strongly considering just going with a single-phase motor instead, which would not require the addition of the inverter at all. The electrician offered to install one, but the only thing available in Fiji is 50 Hz, and power to our compressor is 60 Hz. In order to get a 60 Hz model, we’d have to source it in Australia, or the U.S. We know of at least one other FPB with a single phase motor in use for their dive compressor and we probably should have gone that route from the get-go.

In the meantime, John aboard Mystic Moon was kind enough to give us a fill. Our next stop after Suva was the Kadavu group, where we made eight dives but had a local dive operator fill our tanks.

We spent a fair bit of money on our feature-rich system, so the process of doctoring it has been frustrating and time consuming for Stan. Our lesson learned to date for anyone shopping for a dive compressor for your boat is to do your homework well first, make sure you establish ahead of time who will be responsible for warranty on which components.

The good news is that while in Suva pursuing the elusive solution to our compressor problem, we picked up a new Go Pro camera, and we love it. So we’re back in business with underwater pictures and especially video. Stay tuned!

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Susui Island, the Color Pink, and Hemingway

Our last anchorage before bidding Jeff and Julie a sad farewell was the small island and village of Susui. Though we spent only 4 or 5 nights here, we all fell rapidly in love with the place. We really clicked with Jacob, the kind, quiet man who met us when we came ashore and escorted us to the chief’s house. We were only the 5th yacht to visit the island this year, and the first motor yacht to visit, ever.

On the Beach in Front of Susui Village

On the Beach in Front of Susui Village

Jacob and Daughter

Jacob and Daughter

The 90 villagers were warm and welcoming, with especially open arms toward Jeff and Julie once we told them our friends would be ending their first visit to Fiji in just a few days, and had yet to taste kava or attend a church service in Fiji. Susui village is Methodist, like most of the villages we have encountered here.

We snorkeled in the area, naturally.

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The next morning we returned for church. The service was entirely in Fijian, but with a heavy emphasis on singing which is typical and a joy to listen to. Fijians are natural-born singers, and every adult and child participates in the harmonies, which are so lovely. The children’s choir learned an English-language gospel song to perform especially for us, which was quite touching. We didn’t understand a word of the service, of course, but from the fire-and-brimstone tone, the four of us concluded that a very bad thing appeared to be at issue, and we were all hopeful that we weren’t guilty of doing the very bad thing.

We were invited to a feast at the pastor’s house after the service, along with the whole village. A few of the women (they rotate Sundays) had spent the whole morning preparing fresh fish, curries, vegetables, bananas and cassava.

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We ate in shifts. The four of us were in the first shift, a position of honor along with the village elders. (When a party is thrown specifically in your honor in Fiji, which this one fortunately wasn’t, typically the guests of honor are expected to finish their entire meal before the rest of the folks even begin to eat. Now that is just awkward.) Eating is done with hands only, though we uncultured Yanks were allowed to use the serving spoons as eating utensils if we wanted.

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Above, the second shift eats. Children are traditionally in the last group to eat, leaving them at the bottom of the pecking order in terms of access to good protein. This contributes to Kwashiorkor, or protein-calorie malnutrition, among small children in some of these villages… though fortunately not this one.

The kids, all in their Sunday best, flocked along to see us off on the beach.

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One day, Jacob and a couple of the guys took the four of us, along with John and Kathy who had arrived aboard Mystic Moon the day before, to gather oysters in a sheltered nearby cove.

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They harvested the oysters from the mangrove roots…

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… then prepared them while we lollygagged around on the beach.

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They were simply roasted in an open campfire, then shucked, and eaten with a dipping sauce of lime juice and fresh chile peppers. Delicious. Alcohol is not welcome ashore in any of the Lau group, though Julie and I quietly agreed that a chilled crisp Sancerre would have been just the thing to round out our picnic.

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That evening after dinner, we all returned ashore to the village where we were invited to a kind of bon voyage party for Jeff and Julie. Pretty much the whole village seemed to be in attendance; they had woven us each necklaces made from local flora, and for Jeff and Julie some gorgeous flower ones resembling Hawaiian leis to honor them especially as a farewell. It was heartwarming to us what a big deal they made of this goodbye celebration when we had only been there a few days. The type of party it was is called a Meke (pronounced MEH-keh.) They had never done one before for an outsider (non-Fijian) and the women spent the whole day practicing and teaching the kids what to do. First the children, then the adult ladies, sang and danced for us.

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I found myself wishing I had a translator of some kind to give us insight into the songs, especially the hand gestures. Then finally, the ladies took the children home, and the men gathered with us for some kava consumption, singing and guitar playing. We understand that it’s fairly common for the women to retire together to drink kava themselves, but whenever we’ve been included it’s been with the men. Women are only welcome to drink kava with the men if they are accompanied by a husband, or a close male relative.

The preparation and consumption of kava is somewhat labor intensive and ritualistic. First, the dried root is pounded for quite awhile into a powder.

Pounding Kava Root

Pounding Kava Root

Next, the powder is filtered into room temperature water in a special wooden bowl called a tanoa. That big bowl is carved from a single piece of Fijian hardwood known as vesi; the borders of the bowl are typically intricately carved and sometimes inlaid. In any case, the resulting liquid is nearly odorless and looks like muddy water.

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The filtering above is being done through a dark blue cloth. Usually a plain white rag is used, which in combination with the muddy appearance of the kava drink or ‘grog,’ does not add aesthetically to my enjoyment of the experience. Once I got the image in my head of someone’s dirty underwear being put to use as a kava filter, it simply will not go away. You’re welcome.

The taste is mildly peppery but not a strong flavor and we don’t find the taste unpleasant per se. Most beverages we folks normally make a fuss over are served either hot or chilled. This one is neither. Given that, the dirty-dishwater look of it and the fact that you are expected to chug the entire coconut-half serving bowlful (called a bilo) without leaving a drop behind, the whole thing can be a bit daunting to some. But you can request ‘low tide’ versus ‘high tide’ to indicate your preference in portion size, and you can politely decline any more after glugging down the first bowl or two if you like.

Oh, and did I mention, the drink is prepared by hand as you can see, repeatedly stirred with bare hands, and the same bilo (drinking bowl) dipped and shared among all in the room repeatedly as the evening progresses? You just have to get over some of this stuff we figure, at least temporarily, if you want to enjoy hanging with new friends in exotic places. Here’s Kathy, downing another bowl of grog, hoping that the guy coughing and sneezing on the other side of the room is no longer contagious.

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The chief is always offered the first bowl, then it proceeds in a non-random rank-related fashion from there, with one man mixing and straining, one man offering the bilo to the next recipient, another one fetching water, etc. When you are offered a bowl of kava, the appropriate response is to clap your hands once if you are going to accept it. Then take the bowl in your two hands and chug it down in a single draft until it’s gone. Everyone in the room will clap three times. You say “Maca!” (pronounced MAH-thah, which means ‘hey I drained it!’) Then hand the bowl back to the guy who served it to you. But like I said, the kindly Fijians are ever tolerant of us clueless cruisers so you get a pass if you goof things up, as long as you smile warmly and enjoy yourself.

Kava has mild narcotic properties, but at least in Fiji the kava is not awfully powerful. Meaning that if you drink it in very large volume, you can certainly get well lit. But for most females who can’t conveniently exit the hut to stumble around in the pitch black looking for a spot to relieve an aching bladder with modesty and decorum, this doesn’t happen. The men have more options. What you get when you take just a few drafts of it is a numbness around your lips and tongue, and the warm fuzzy feeling of being welcomed by new friends. Having spent our entire season last year in Fiji, Stan and I felt gratified that Jeff and Julie got to experience the the unique warmth and joy of Fijian villagers before ending their vacation here.

One of the traditions around kava drinking is the telling of stories and funny anecdotes. To that end, Kathy asked one of the guys who had accompanied us on our oyster expedition if there was a story behind the pink ukelele he was playing. Here it is, in all its tiny, baby-pink glory:

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I smiled, sharing the expectation of getting a chuckle out of the ensuing tale. Surely there would be some reason, right? For a big manly-man like this dude to be sporting that color instrument? In response, not only the guy in question but all the men just stared at us blankly. Not as in ‘how awkward that you’d even ask that,’ but as if we’d requested the story behind his T-shirt being white, or his friend’s brown guitar. Like we were totally strange to expect a story out of such a thing as a big bad looking dude playing a pink ukelele.

Screaming social liberal that I am, I am not used to feeling like a culturally knuckle-dragging, gender-stereotyping bozo. But that’s how I felt, especially later when I thought back on it. They truly don’t have that preconception, even compared to a liberal-thinking, pseudo-enlightened gal like me. I felt so busted! And now I notice, in the pic above with the men pounding the kava root, that one of them is wearing a shocking pink sulu. Of course, he gets a fashion fail regardless of gender or sexual orientation for pairing it, appallingly, with the butter-yellow, navy and white rugby shirt, but that’s beside the point. My name is Valerie, and I’m a gender-stereotyper. Or a ukelele-stereotyper. Or something.

Anyway who needs a drink?

Not of kava, due to the aforementioned aching-bladder-gritted-teeth-while-bouncing-back-in-the-dinghy-late-at-night scenario. But during our time with Jeff and Julie, we rediscovered the joys of the Hemingway daiquiri at sundown.

Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway

I first got this recipe years ago from the bar at the Connaught Hotel in London. The fresh grapefruit juice that Papa Hemingway introduced to this cocktail puts it many steps above a traditional daiquiri, in our opinion. Apparently he introduced it at one of his Havana haunts, La Floridita.

A Google Image, Sorry; Buffalo Nickel is Out of Rum as We Write This :-(

A Google Image, Sorry; Buffalo Nickel is Out of Rum as We Write This😦

Here’s the recipe for a Hemingway Daiquiri. The asterisked substitutions are a version we recently discovered at our favorite bar in our Capitol Hill neighborhood, Canon Seattle.

HEMINGWAY DAIQUIRI

1.5 oz white rum *

1 oz fresh ruby red grapefruit juice

0.5 oz fresh lime juice

1 teaspoon maraschino liqueur (Luxardo makes the most common one you’ll find) **

lime wheel, orange or grapefruit twist, or whatever strikes your fancy, for garnish

Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker. Add rocks and shake well. Double-strain into a coupe, garnish and enjoy. Hurry now, so you can catch the sunset.

*  try aged rum instead of white rum for a more complex flavor

** substitute Crème de Pamplemousse, a grapefruit liqueur, for the maraschino liqueur, to lend an extra kick of grapefruit. We had to look around a bit before finding this stuff in a well stocked liquor store in Seattle. It looks like a  bottle of rosé wine.

Next up: Fulaga Island in the southern Lau

By the way, thanks to Julie for some of the photos in this and the previous blog posts from this season. I’m too disorganized to figure out whose pics were whose or I would give them each the attributions they are due!

Vanua Balavu, and Thoughts on Cruising Under Power in Various Boats

From Viani Bay, we made our way southeast to the island of Vanua Balavu (VAH-noo-ah bah-LAH-voo) in the northern Lau group. The Lau group is the easternmost group of islands in Fiji, reportedly the least visited islands in the South Pacific. This is in large part because (as related to us by one of the Lau’s village chiefs) several decades ago, recreational drugs were brought ashore by some cruisers. This caused quite a stir among the very conservative Fijian villagers, resulting in the chief of the entire Lau group ordering the whole group closed to all tourism thenceforth. For the past several years they have tried to relax this strict isolationist policy, first by issuing only a handful of permits annually to a very few lucky cruisers, then as of last year, opening it up on request to all cruisers holding Fijian cruising permits. Since one still has to clear into Fiji in the middle or western islands, then travel a couple hundred miles against the prevailing trade winds to get here, the Lau group is still a relatively remote destination.

There are no resorts per se, and only two or three of the islands have small air strips where a plane makes a stop, weather permitting, once weekly. Failing that, the only access is to book passage on a cargo ship, which makes the trip about once a month to deliver supplies to the islands. So outside of visiting yachts tourism is quite rare, though no doubt this will change over the years to come.

On the map above, we have drawn a crude line around the entire Lau Group of Fiji.

We considered our personal holy grail in the Lau group to be Fulaga in the southern Lau, and normally would have made straight for that island, bypassing the others in favor of spending all our time in Fulaga. But Fulaga has no airstrip at all, the closest one being 100 miles north. Jeff and Julie would likely need to head back to the States before we’d want to leave the Lau group altogether, so to avoid anyone feeling ‘stuck,’ we traveled first to Vanua Balavu: closer, with a weekly flight to Suva, and one of the more developed islands in the Lau. By developed, we mean there are a few select locations where you can pick up a cell signal, one of the villages has a couple of stores where basic staples like flour, rice and eggs can be had. And we could buy fuel for our outboards at the bakery (the fuel prices written on the same hanging whiteboard as the bread prices, how cute is that?)

We stopped first at Daliconi village to present our sevu-sevu (our offering of kava to the chief) in order to anchor in the lovely nearby waters known as the Bay of Islands.

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Daliconi Woman Prepares Leaves for Weaving

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The Bay of Islands has no sandy beaches, but does have lots of sculpted rocks and mushroom shaped tiny islands with trees on them. The network of islands and channels, completely undeveloped and pristine, combined with lovely blue and turquoise water, lends a fantasy-kingdom feel to the place.

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Working our way around the island over the next several days, we finally, FINALLY caught up with our friends John and Kathy on Mystic Moon. Mystic Moon is a Selene 53, sister ship to our last boat Pax Nautica. Though we reunited with John and Kathy over New Year’s in the States, we haven’t cruised with them since 2007 in California’s Channel Islands, so we were excited to anchor next to them once again.

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Buffalo Nickel looks relatively puny in the photo due to perspective: Mystic Moon is 60 feet overall length, Buffalo Nickel 68. Getting the boat tour with Jeff and Julie while we were aboard lovely Mystic Moon for cocktail hour one evening, Jeff asked me “How does it feel to be aboard a Selene now?” I told him that, though we are over the moon about Buffalo Nickel and wouldn’t trade back for anything, it made my heart ache just a little bit.

Which it did. Then I felt like a jerk for having that reaction. I felt like Midlife Guy, who adores wife number 2 but gets jealous when he hears that wife number 1 has a boyfriend. It’s possible I need therapy for some of this.

Anyway, while in Bavatu Harbor, we hiked up a 272 step stairway built into the jungle, constructed to provide access for the villagers between the shore and their so-called ‘caretaker village.’ It isn’t a separate village per se, but rather a permanent outpost with a cluster of houses for the villagers who take care of the village’s plantation, which is where they grow their coconuts, fruits and vegetables, and maintain their livestock.

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272 Steps

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Boy in the Caretaker Village

We brought a couple of gifts for the head caretaker, who gave us bananas and paw-paws in exchange. He was also kind enough to send his son with us to continue our hike to some lookouts with vistas over both the Bay of Islands and Bavatu Harbor.

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Vanua Balavu's Bay of Islands

Vanua Balavu’s Bay of Islands

Bavatu Harbor. BN is anchored there, obscured by trees in the foreground.

Bavatu Harbor. BN is anchored there, obscured by trees in the foreground.

Along the trail, we sampled some of the local fruits. One of them, if we understood him correctly, was called sour-soap. Sounds unappetizing, like something your parents might force you to eat if you use foul language, but actually was refreshing and delicious. Our intrepid guide scampered up a coco palm at one point, knocking off a coconut for each of us, then smartly lopping their tops off with his machete so we could quench our thirst.

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The island produces and exports copra, which is the part of the coconut consisting of the meat and inner hull. They dry it in the sun, after which it will be processed (probably in Suva) to extract the coconut oil.

Copra

Copra

 

Next up: Susui Island, in which Jeff and Julie bid us “adieu for now,” abruptly terminating their crew contracts and leaving us to fend for ourselves in a strange land tropical paradise.

In unrelated news, several folks including personal friends, cruising acquaintances and offline communications from blog followers, have requested that we specifically speak to the comparison from a practical cruising standpoint between a traditional trawler (such as a Nordhavn, or a Selene which we spent over six years cruising) and our FPB, after our first season in Fiji and three blue water passages.

We made several promises to do that, which as it turns out we have no intention of keeping, at least not in this blog forum. I actually wrote just such a blog post, we spent a whole lot of time distilling our personal experiences as a cruising couple with our boats and their various systems, composing the piece and editing it… but were never truly pleased with the implied message, no matter how I wordsmithed it to achieve the tone we were striving for.

What I WILL say, and call it good, is simply in response to what we think is a misperception among many of those who cruise under power. In fact, it’s such a common misperception that Stan and I both shared it, even as we signed on the dotted line to purchase our own FPB. I’m tempted to go all shouty-caps with that last sentence because it’s just that true and that important in relation to our perspective as it stands today.

That perception is that an FPB is all about the blue water passages. That it will make ocean crossings more comfortable and safe (and therefore more commonly undertaken,) at the expense of some of the creature comforts enjoyed during other aspects of cruising: namely, an interior, exterior and systems designed for stylish and convenient living aboard, spacious and welcoming enough for entertaining, and practical for playtime at anchor.

And again, we were operating under that same assumption when we decided to sell our Selene and buy an FPB. Yes, I did crawl around a couple of the 64’s and conclude that I could live aboard one of these boats, but at first glance I still assumed I could live aboard happily despite some sacrifices. The layout and flow is different enough from a trawler that any more was hard to assess in advance; and when it comes to systems and power management routine it’s challenging to really judge for yourself until you live with them. This statement applies to both Stan with his ‘blue jobs’ and myself with the ‘pink jobs’ as we have a more or less traditional division of onboard activities along gender lines. Which reminds me, we are a couple cruising together almost never accompanied on our passages. We might entertain one or more other couples from the anchorage aboard on occasion, and we try to get our adult kids and their plus-ones to spend a week or so with us each when they can, but we cruise basically as a couple, for about 7 months at a stretch; not a couple-plus-crew, and not a family, so all my remarks should be interpreted in that context.

But what we’ve found, both of us, is that in practically every area, our at-anchor and live aboard experience, in terms of day to day life on the water, entertaining, maintenance and other chores, our FPB experience is even less hassle, less work, more comfortable and generally more pleasurable for us than aboard our trawler. And make no mistake, we LOVED Pax Nautica.

In other words, what many assume and what we ourselves assumed, is that with an FPB, time underway would be safer and more comfortable, BUT that we would make small sacrifices in terms of aesthetics and living space, in an environment less well suited to enjoyable time spent at anchor engaged in all the many leisure and labor activities that constitute the cruising life. But that this trade-off would be worth it in our particular case, as we would feel less inhibition in making offshore passages and therefore seek more adventure.

Here’s how our statement reads today: with our FPB, time underway is spent in greater safety and comfort, AND we feel we have a better living space, in an environment better suited to enjoyable time spent at anchor engaged in all the many leisure and labor activities that constitute the cruising life.

As to what we didn’t like about our more in-depth comparison piece between our two boats, juxtaposing our experiences as cruisers (not as designers or engineers,) in each area and system, it comes down to this: no matter how we tweaked it, it sounded like we were trying to define what constitutes an adequate, or an ideal, cruising motor yacht. And that just doesn’t sit well with us.

What comes to mind is an experience we had recently at a crowded dock party in Whangarei, New Zealand. We happened to be in conversation with a sailing friend, and standing next to one of the FPB 64’s recently splashed and about to set off on her first season (not our own boat, which was hauled out in the yard at the time.) Another unknown sailor approached, and our friend remarked to him, cocking his head toward the FPB: “Great looking boat, isn’t she? Are you familiar with these?” To which the newcomer shrugged and replied: “I don’t know… but it’s certainly not a CRUISING boat.”

Comfortable in my anonymity, I asked, “Really? What makes you say that?”

He said to me something along the lines of “That boat would never survive the kinds of conditions you encounter when you’re passage making offshore. Most people don’t even know what it’s like. Have YOU ever been in 25 meter seas?”

Pleased with my Yankee self for doing the math so quickly he might not even have seen me squinting or my lips moving, I answered, “75 foot waves? No… and I hope I never do.” I laughed (this being an un-winnable argument, not to mention a ridiculous turn of conversation,) and quickly tried to change the subject.

You see, he had constructed a ‘clubhouse for cruisers’ with his arbitrary definition of offshore sailing and I was not going to be allowed into the club. And maybe I’m NOT in the club, what do I know? All I can say with assurance is that one of the things we love most about cruising is that it’s such an inclusive activity. When we make new friends in an anchorage, everyone seems to focus on our commonality and on shared experience. Not what we do or did for a living, where we were educated, how big the men’s water makers are or any of the other things that separate and stratify us.

We’re really not into the exclusive game. In our view we are all headed for the same destination. Some of us under sail, some under power. Some faster, some slower. In various sizes, shapes, ages and pedigrees of vessel. Some of us with lifelong boating experience while the rest of us just muddle through somehow. But we all arrive, over the water, and almost without exception we’ve had a great time doing it. We had the time of our lives cruising on Pax Nautica, figured cruising for us couldn’t get much better than that. And then we met Buffalo Nickel, and lo and behold, it did. We hope to see you out there!

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Savusavu and Viani Bay

While underway on the calm inter island passage between Suva and Savusavu, Jeff encouraged Stan to fiddle with our speed and interrogate its effect on fuel consumption, engine load, etc. We have lots of data at our fingertips from our Maretron monitoring system, which can be displayed any which way we want, so it was a fun exercise for them.

Our ‘normal’ cruising speed is 9.5-9.75 knots over ground at 1700-1750 RPM.

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Ignore the speed through the water figure above, that instrument has never been properly calibrated, so regardless of current or other conditions, it invariably reads 1-1.5 knots less than our speed over ground. (One day when we’re in calm current-less waters we will try to adjust its offset.) The rest of these data, though, show a sort of sweet spot we have settled on. For calm inter island hops, which in fact we spend much of our season doing, we can travel at or close to 8.5 knots and achieve 3.3 nautical miles per US gallon of fuel consumed. This saves us a bundle in fuel expenditure over the course of a season. We increase the engine load to 45-50% every so often. If conditions are sporty, we prefer to travel at our regular ‘fast’ speed for comfort’s sake. Also worth mentioning that our Naiad active stabilizers are running in both scenarios. Turning them off would increase fuel efficiency further. But though it’s been known to happen, conditions need to be quite calm before the Admiral will endure running without roll stabilization. In those truly calm sea states, our tendency is to run on our Yanmar wing engine instead, which needs its own regular exercise anyway and seems to be quite fuel efficient. Our hydraulic stabilizers will only function when our main engine is engaged, so we have no active roll stabilization when using the wing engine.

On our way to the town of Savusavu on the island of Viti Levu, we stopped at the island of Makogai (pronounced mah-kong-GUY) where one of the kind villagers there showed us around their lovely island. They have a giant clam nursery in the village, where these amazing creatures are spawned and raised to a large enough size to be transplanted back into their native habitat around the various islands. They also rehabilitate and raise sea turtles with the same goal in mind.

Turtle Colony, Makogai

Turtle Colony, Makogai

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When we reached the sheltered river-like channel where Savusavu is located, the larger main marina’s mooring field was full. The logical thing would have been to anchor just outside of the moored boats, but we spotted another smaller marina with a mooring field further inside the channel, and for whatever reason decided to travel further up the channel and grab a mooring ball in this unknown-to-us marina. Devoid of local knowledge, we nearly stumbled into real trouble with that little maneuver.

The photo of our Furuno chart plotter image below shows our track, from left to right. Please note that the chart itself is, typically for Fiji, not quite accurate. All obstructions are fully submerged, and the only safe water follows the S-shape course we more or less ended up making. There was complete low cloud cover, naturally, and the water is murky there anyway. There are a few sticks in the water, whose message, other than ‘watch out,’ was not obvious to us in directional terms. The next day, someone mentioned on the local VHF net that boats should never attempt entry into this part of the channel without first transiting ever so slowly in their dinghies. Hmm. A day late for us, and nearly many dollars short!

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That first acute angle backward you can see in the red track represents Stan putting Buffalo Nickel in reverse when our forward looking sonar showed an ominous situation ahead of us. Of course you have to be going dead slow to begin with, in order to make effective use of such information and reverse yourself out before you hit. (Clueless we might have been, but not stupid!) We muddled our way through with the much appreciated help of our forward looking sonar. I’m sorry not to have pictures of those displays, because they truly show the value of this instrument in staying within safe channels among reefs. But three of us were doing a lot of flapping of arms, wringing of hands and swearing, while the fourth was gamely trying to ignore such distractions and drive the boat, which he did with style and grace. Nobody reached for the camera until we were through. At some point Curly, the guy who looks like sun-tanned Santa in the photo below, arrived in his dinghy to help guide us through. Curly is a local fixture in Savusavu and an invaluable resource to the cruising community in all of Fiji. We were awfully grateful for his assistance.

Curly

Curly

We remained in Savusavu only a few nights, mostly because having recently arrived in Fiji, we really were hankering for an anchorage where we could get the full ‘Fiji experience,’ meaning: jump off the back of the boat and swim at will in some nice clear water. Savusavu has a lot to recommend it, but not that particular quality, so we moved on to Viani Bay.

Viani Bay was a lovely experience for us. There is no village there, but Jack Fisher’s house is right on the shore and serves as the focus for shore and water related activities among the cruisers anchored in the bay. Jack’s family has lived there for generations; they are warm and welcoming. Jack rowed out to Buffalo Nickel daily, offering us fresh bananas and papayas (which the Fijians call ‘paw-paw’,) freshly caught walu (a white-fleshed fish known in the States as escolar) and other goodies in exchange for donations to the local school and church. Stan also gave Jack his Tilly hat with neck guard, to replace the ratty looking baseball cap he had been wearing every day. Jack seemed truly thrilled with his new hat.

Jack Fisher, Viani Bay

Jack Fisher, Viani Bay

The first night, Jack’s family hosted a lovo, the Fijian equivalent of a barbecue feast, and invited all the cruisers.

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Above, one of Jack’s granddaughters tends to the burning of coconut husks, which keeps the mosquitoes away.

Most of the food, which sometimes includes pork but in this case fresh fish, chicken and side dishes, is wrapped in leaf packages, the whole mound of which is wrapped in more large leaves and roasted in a pit under a tarp.

Cooking the Lovo Feast

Cooking the Lovo Feast

Once the cooking was done, we all feasted on fresh fish in coconut milk, cassava root, cabbage salad, potatoes, chicken and stewed taro leaves.

From our anchorage in Viani Bay, the view spans the short distance across the Somo Somo strait to Taveuni Island. Taveuni  is a mountainous island whose peaks remained under cloud cover every day we were there, while our own anchorage saw mostly sunny skies. Each day we saw at least one rainbow over Taveuni, including some horizontal and inverted ones.

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Between Viani Bay and Taveuni island is the Rainbow Reef, which contains some of Fiji’s most celebrated scuba diving sites. We have a dive compressor and carry four scuba tanks, but Jeff and Julie had not brought their regulators with them on the trip, so we booked a couple of excursions with Dolphin Bay dive resort so that we could all four dive together. They were located a couple of bays distant, but were happy to pick us up right off our boat in the morning, take us on two stunning dives with lunch in between, then drop us off at day’s end back on our swim step. And it was just the four of us accompanied by a couple of dive masters. Perfect!

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White Tipped Reef Shark. Not a Man Eater.

White Tipped Reef Shark. Not a Man Eater.

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One day we took Plug Nickel, our big tender, over to Taveuni, where we had a taxi driver Jack knew take us across the island to a National Park where we hiked a few miles up through the jungle to see some waterfalls. It was a lovely day and it felt great to stretch our legs.

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Happy Bee with Pollen Leggings

Happy Bee with Pollen Leggings

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The crazy looking spider above was as large as my open hand. Not that I got close enough for an accurate comparison; I maintained a safe distance of 30 feet where I sat hugging my elbows, rocking back and forth. The back, or abdomen, or whatever hideous part that is, looks to me like one of those small crackers, the ones with lots of artificial coloring and cheese flavor. The ones impoverished male college students seem to favor in large quantities? In fact, in that peculiar way nature has of fooling some species into mistaking predators for food, I’ll bet impoverished male college students are the typical prey of this spider. They would be about equally matched in a physical struggle, but that’s without taking envenomation into account. Anyhoo…

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On the way back to our van and driver, a small group of piggies decided to follow us down the road. (What’s a group of pigs called? Flock doesn’t sound right. An oinking of pigs? A hamlet? A snuffle?)

A Bank of Pigs

A Bank of Pigs

The remainder of our time in Viani was spent relaxing and snorkeling the reefs. It’s impossible to get across in photos the sheer variety of size, shape and color of corals, both hard and soft, we would see down there. But here are a few pics anyway:

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It might be difficult to make out, but in the photo above, the squiggly lines with the spotted pattern are a giant clam viewed from above. We saw lots of giant clams, and they have some striking colors and patterns. Their shells are also plentiful ashore.

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After stocking up on the fresh stuff again, both from Jack and the vegetable stands on Taveuni, we set off for the island of Vanua Balavu in the northern Lau group. Until tomorrow…

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