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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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 villagers started by making a buffet table and enlisting the cruisers’ help in catching lunch
Above, one of the villagers accompanies Stan, and Andy of s/v Spruce, by dinghy to help (meaning photograph) the women fishing.
Meanwhile, the women were engaged in the island women’s traditional method of catching fish. First, a net is readied.
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.
The fish are scaled and gutted using only sharp shells.
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.
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.
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.
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!