2014 Season. It’s ON.
Our cruising season is well underway by now, but we’ve been remote for so much of that time, without internet access, that we haven’t had a chance to publish any blog posts. Now that we’re back for a quick stop in Suva, capital and largest city in Fiji, for some provisioning and picking up of boat parts, we are locked and loaded in terms of photos and text. I plan to publish one post each day for the next several days, at which point we’ll be all caught up.
When last we ‘spoke,’ Stan and I were wintering in Seattle, while Buffalo Nickel braved the cyclone season tucked up on the hard in Vuda Point, Fiji. There was warranty work we already knew needed to be done, but Circa had thought they could send some of their crew over to us in Fiji to accomplish that in the spring, leaving us free to begin our cruising season in early May from right within western Fiji.
Sadly, that was not to be. Circa concluded, after performing the work on a couple of our sister FPB’s affected by the same issue, that it was unrealistic and ill advised to try to get the project done remotely. As it turned out, they were right in that assessment. For the 1100 mile passage back from Fiji to Whangarei, New Zealand at the end of April, I opted to fly instead. Circa sent Larry and Neil to Fiji to accompany Stan on the passage. Despite an apparently good weather window, the trip turned out to be somewhat horrific. Winds were high and seas were a confused washing machine most of the time. Larry and Neil requested T-shirts that would read “We rode the Buffalo!”
But Circa began their work nearly the moment Buffalo Nickel arrived, with several aboard her every day toiling away at both the scheduled warranty jobs and various other tweaks and additions we had decided would be nice to have. Other than the aforementioned involved fresh water plumbing fix which we knew about before even departing for Fiji last year, most of the warranty jobs were minor and/or uncomplicated: a bow thruster with a failed bearing, replace our propeller shaft seal, troubleshoot some navigation electronics gremlins and deal with some infant mortality issues in one of our air conditioning units. The additional projects we chose to commission while there were:
Installation of a two-speed engine room exhaust fan which has lowered the engine room operating temps by at least 10° F while underway in the tropics.
Installation of a fly bridge helm sonar display: our Furuno forward looking sonar has been an invaluable tool in navigating poorly charted reefs, coral bommies and transiting narrow reef passes, so we wanted access to it from both the main helm below and also the fly bridge helm.
A handrail for the ladder that runs from the fly bridge forward onto the foredeck. We run up and down that ladder, it’s so convenient, but it was surely only a matter of time before one of us took a tumble on the way down. We saw one of the FPB’s after us had one put in and quickly realized what a good idea it is, and totally unobtrusive from an aesthetics standpoint.
Modification of the stanchion and lifeline setup on the port side of the aft deck, allowing us to remove/replace at will the aft stanchion and the lifelines leading from that stanchion to the port side gate. This has enabled us to clear the aft port side of all obstructions while we are active with Plug Nickel, our larger dinghy, during cruising season. Now when we launch or retrieve that big aluminum tender, it only needs to clear its dinghy chocks, not the lifelines or stanchions. When we want the lifelines there again, we can just slide and lock them into place. At least one other FPB has opted for this same modification as well.
While we waited the couple of weeks for the work to be completed and our bottom painted, we somehow managed, despite our poor luck getting calm passages to and from Fiji, to rope our very good friends Jeff and Julie to coming to New Zealand and crewing with us to Fiji. Jeff and Julie are sailors, and some of our besties from Ventura. They were in La Paz, Mexico at the time, readying to finish out their Mexico season cruising the Sea of Cortez. They dropped everything when they got our e-mail (they can be wild that way), put Buena Vida, their 42 foot Catalina, on the hard for hurricane season and flew to Whangarei. They were able to spend some time touring N-Zed’s North Island while we awaited our boat projects’ completion and a good weather window.
One of the upsides to our unplanned trip back to New Zealand was the opportunity to provision there. Not only the fine variety of healthy fresh produce, but also the ability to order excellent quality meats (including fabulous lamb and venison) for the whole season, vacuum sealed in the requested portion sizes, from our favorite butchers, Omak Meats in Kamo. Not to mention 12 cases of our favorite Kiwi wines, which most of the wineries will happily deliver anywhere within New Zealand with no shipping fees.
Finally on June 2, it was time to depart for the 5-day passage to Fiji. The bridge in Whangarei that had been under construction when we departed last season was finished, so the drawbridge raised (or tipped, whatever) out of our way as we left, like a friendly wave goodbye.
Our winds were predicted to range from 12 to 20 knots, both winds and seas expected to be quartering, in other words, more behind us than to the side or head-on for you non-nautical types. Even all you landlubbers will recognize the phrase ‘fair winds and following seas’ right? But true to form, our window did not turn out to be quite as advertised. Actual number of days where we did not see 42 knots of wind: 0. Actual direction of the steepish 6-8 foot seas: straight abeam, predominantly (spanking us on the side.) Side-note: it’s not a good sign when your barometer tracing looks like your ECG. The best state of affairs is when it looks like you’re pretty much dead.
So, it turned out to be, not scary at all, but just a slog. Of course we always have soups and whatnot in case of sporty conditions. But the four of us have a grand history together of preparing and eating scrumptious meals and it was a shame to have to forego those on our passage. One day, when Julie and I concluded that our plans for cast iron-seared salmon fillets in ginger-soy glaze over soba noodles were unrealistic, Stan put his foot down. “Damn it,” he said, “I want to enjoy a really fine dinner and I’m going to cook it for us even if you two can’t.”
It was just at that moment, right after the end of his announcement but before he reached for the cast iron skillet, that Stan fell on his ass in the galley. A big wave screamed across the aft deck, over the dinghy and through the open house door, spewing salt water onto the stairway, smacking the hull hard enough to jar those of us who were standing with both arms raised threatening to wield knives and iron skillets, and ending the discussion.
The Ramen noodles that evening were awesome though. Really. Some of the finest.
We made landfall in Suva, which proved to be easier, quicker and less expensive than the process we had gone through in Lautoka a year earlier. We used the Royal Suva Yacht Club to facilitate, well worth the expense for their services. (Don’t let the word ‘Royal’ fool you though, the yacht club is a modest, casual and friendly establishment.)
As is typical when clearing into island nations, we had to toss all our fresh produce overboard before entering Fijian waters (our meats were fine, since Fiji is OK with New Zealand origin meats aboard and all our frozen stores were properly labeled by Omak Meats.) So our main goal while in Suva was provisioning of fresh fruits and veggies, along with purchasing yaqona (pronounced yong-GOH-nah) and sulus.
Yaqona is a plant, in the pepper family at least vaguely, whose dried root is known as kava. Fijian villages each have a chief, and in order to be welcome, not only to visit ashore but also to anchor, snorkel, dive or fish in the local waters, a visitor must make a formal offering of kava to the village chief and have that gift accepted. This is not just some idle entertainment for the sake of tourism promotion; the Fijians take it very, very seriously. More on the drinking of kava later, but for our kava gifts to be proper, they needed to be around 0.5 kg each and packaged in a certain way: the wider base wrapped in paper in a sort of conical shape, with colored twine coiled decoratively around the paper and up to the pointy tip of the cone. The best kava in Fiji is grown on the island of Kandavu, so we made sure to check the origin of ours when we bought.
Sulus are brightly colored wrap-around skirts worn by both men and women in the more traditional Fijian villages. We planned to spend much time this season in the more remote Lau group of islands, which are little visited and adhere tightly to tradition. Men might wear knee-length shorts outside the village to work or fish, but within the villages, the sulu is de rigueur.
The huge vegetable market in Suva did not disappoint in terms of quality and variety of locally available produce. You can forget about things like broccoli and most herbs, but what they do carry is abundant, fresh and cheap. Groups of men wait patiently (sleeping requires patience I guess?) with their wheelbarrows to accompany shoppers into the vegetable market and tote their purchases for a tip.
On the market’s upper level, we were able to buy local Indian spices, and 10 packages of properly wrapped kava from Kandavu.
Down the street, Julie and I found some shops where we bought sulus for all of us. The men declined to accompany us, requesting only that we didn’t purchase them identical manskirts. Come on, this is Val and Julie we’re talking about. As if we would commit such a fashion faux-pas, ever. Sheesh. The important thing was to make sure we got them sulus that would coordinate with their existing T-shirts, then teach them proper technique for affixing a manskirt to one’s person.
Well stocked with fresh fruit, vegetables, kava and beer (Fiji Bitter, natch) we hastened on our way to explore Savusavu and eastern Fiji… look for our next chapter tomorrow.