Yumi lavem long ples ia!

Don't worry, it's perfectly safe.  When the volcano decides to actually erupt, there's a special guy who can talk to it and make it stop.
Don’t worry, it’s perfectly safe. When the volcano decides to actually erupt, there’s a special guy who can talk to it and make it stop.

Lava bombs, rumbling explosions, and sooty ash. We’ve been exploring Mt. Yasur, a very active volcano, on the island of Tanna. Vanuatu has figured out how to gouge tourists, and charges plenty for admission to the volcano, but how often do you get to look down into the crater of an erupting volcano and hold your breath as molten lava shrapnel is spewed in your direction? It’s pretty awesome.

We walked up to the volcano, and, having failed to consider the giant ash cloud covering Tanna, were unprepared for the rain of fine ash falling into our eyes as we approached. Note to self: next time, bring a hat. The mix of ash, sweat, sunblock, and bug spray sticking to us by the time we got to the top was pretty gross, but people live and farm right up to the ashfields, covered in ash every day. As we reached the caldera, the volcano greeted us with an explosive jet of silver smoke and a red geyser of flaming lava. We weren’t so sure this was a safe spectator sport, but, hey, everyone else was doing it. As the sun set, the fireworks grew brighter and the lava jets and spewing bombs grew more frequent (or at least it seemed like they did). Eventually, acknowledging our two and a half hour walk back to the boat in the dark, we consulted:

“Is there something else that volcanoes do? Or more of this, but bigger!”
“I’m not sure we really want to be here if it does start doing something else…”

Mt. Yasur.  Totally safe, I assure you.
Mt. Yasur. Totally safe, I assure you.

So we tore ourselves away and headed down the hill, turning to watch the red glow of the smoke each time we felt the volcano roar.

That night, the wind shifted and the ash cloud spread to our anchorage. We woke to a boat covered in fine, black, ash, a fine grit much like glacial silt (only dry). This did not please Rob. Although Rob generally believes that dirt is clean, Rob does not think that ash is clean. Not when it’s covering his brand new rigging. Much scrubbing ensued.

Just below the summit cone on Mt. Yasur.
Just below the summit cone on Mt. Yasur.

Now we are in Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu, on the island of Efate. So far, we really like Vanuatu. Oranges, limes, pampelmousse, bananas, and coconuts have been bestowed upon us at nearly every village, a testament to the friendliness and hospitality of the Ni-Van (people from Vanuatu). In most cases, people are living in traditional huts woven from bamboo and cane, walking barefoot, and washing their laundry in the rivers. Food is plentiful and the villages are orderly. Even young children generally speak 3 or 4 languages: at least one local language, Bislama (the national language, which is a pidgeon English–just imagine what would happen if drunken sailors started teaching English, that’s how you get to the title of this post, which means, “We love it here!”), English, and sometimes French (Vanuatu was once under a condominium government, ruled by both France and Britain–it has been independent since 1980). Most of the more remote villages only see white people for a few months of the year, during tourist season. Consequently, the youngest kids are afraid of us. Their parents think this is hilarious and tell the kids that we are going to eat them. Not too surprisingly, the littlest kids run away from us. Especially Rob, who is really scary. The kids who are old enough to remember a few more tourist seasons, and haven’t yet been eaten, love to say hello and sing hello to us with big smiles on their faces until we’re out of sight.

Little bits of pumice floating near the reef on Tanna.  We saw rafts of floating pumice all along our trip north from New Zealand, and are seeing even more of it now that we are in volcano territory.
Little bits of pumice floating near the reef on Tanna. We saw rafts of floating pumice all along our trip north from New Zealand, and are seeing even more of it now that we are in volcano territory.

There is no electricity in most villages, but we have seen quite a few solar panels. In fact, we’re having a bit of trouble getting our heads around this aspect of Vanuatu. Rob spent a day fixing an inverter for the headmaster of the primary school in one village. The headmaster had just purchased a nice new solar panel set up for the school, but he crossed a couple of wires, melted a wrench in the process, and broke the inverter. They begged Rob for help. Rob hates electrical projects, so he was very pleased when he was able to fix it by replacing the 8 blown-out fuses. The village was ecstatic. And in the process, we learned, from a guy living in a grass hut, that there’s such a thing as Windows 8. Who knew? We hear the next boat through installed lights for them.

Giant squids schooling beneath the boat in Aneityum.  These guys have been known to tangle with sperm whales--we're lucky they didn't decide to rock the boat!
Giant squids schooling beneath the boat in Aneityum. These guys have been known to tangle with sperm whales–we’re lucky they didn’t decide to rock the boat!

In Tanna, I watched men collecting stones to go hunt bats, with their slingshots and homemade bows and arrows, while a young guy paddled up to our boat in a dugout outrigger canoe. I was sitting on the deck, so he asked for help. He explained the problem: He and his friends wanted to watch a movie, but they had already seen the four on his memory stick. Did I have any others? So much for all the fish hooks and flashlights we collected to give as gifts.

As we enjoy our experiences in the villages and get to know some local folks, I’m doing my best to keep my scandalous knees covered in accordance with the prevailing Victorian-era missionary standards, and we are trying to figure out all the cultural nuances. We’re pretty sure we’ve missed a few at every stop (I think our worst offence is that we’re prone to trying to get away with going for walks by ourselves, but you’re usually supposed to take a local guide with you so that he can keep you out of trouble), but we are learning as we go. Fortunately, people are very friendly and Rob’s boisterous laugh seems to win us forgiveness for our faux pas. Apparently, Rob laughs like a Ni-Van.

Watching spray from the blow holes bursting through the fringing reef at Aneityum.
Watching spray from the blow holes bursting through the fringing reef at Aneityum.

Free Range, Organic, Locally-Sourced, Sustainably-Harvested, All Natural Sea Salt, Now with Antioxidants

Sparkling white clusters of sea salt are clinging to the rigging, crystallizing on the solar panels, and coating the woodwork in layers so thick you can leave thumbprints behind. Accordingly, we’ve decided to fund the remainder of our trip by selling sea salt. We considered selling it at New Zealand labor rates, but decided that would be unreasonable, so we’re offering you a bargain-basement deal for a limited time only (until it rains): $25.00 per 100g, plus shipping. Note, however, that we don’t have a scale so we cannot promise exact quantities. Nor can we guarantee that your all natural sea salt is not contaminated with radiation from the nuclear testing programs carried out by major (and not very responsible) world powers on unsuspecting South Pacific atolls, or by the rapidly spreading contamination from the Fukushima disaster. But, we can guarantee that it will be very salty.

We are now anchored in front of Anelcauhat on Aneityum, the southernmost island in Vanuatu. We arrived a couple of evenings ago, just before dark. The trip up from New Zealand was, as expected, a bit of a sleigh ride and a bit of a bash. After two days of light winds, a low pressure system formed between Fiji and Vanuatu and picked up steam when it hit cooler, sub-tropical air. This had been in the forecast for some time, so we knew it was coming and had prepared for evasive maneuvers if it showed any signs of coming our way (i.e., beeline for Australia). It did not-it slipped off to the southeast as expected, but it did squish our winds up to gale force, 30-35 knots (about 34-40mph). We kind of knew that was coming, too, even though it was stronger wind than the forecast had predicted. But, with frothing seas and furious gusts pushing us from behind, we made great progress under greatly reduced sails-just our storm trysail for most of the night (that’s a teeny, tiny mainsail). The boat handled it well and kept up her speed for the 24 hours or so of gale force winds, and we found that, although it was wet and not very pleasant, we’ve seen much worse. At the height of the gale, which was, as usual, in the middle of the night, we had a few roaring monstrosities rear up and crash over the sides and back of the boat, but we were never pummeled and tossed quite like we were on our passage off the California coast, or even like we were on the way to New Zealand.

Predictably, as soon as the gale ended, the wind shifted to a noserly directed and we spent the next two days bashing into 25 knot headwinds, which is actually a lot worse than 30 knots from behind. The waves were a mess from the shifting winds, and life was a bit on the bouncy side. Though we maintained a good course, we discovered that the two weeks we spent fiberglassing the hull-to-deck joint did not fix our leaks (although they substantially improved the situation). We now have a few cupboards to mop out and several hundred pounds of cans to rinse with fresh water so the salt doesn’t make them rust and ruin our food stash. But, things are not as soaked as they were the last time around, and the leaks only happen when we are heading into the wind, so we are happy we did the work. The teak decking is the next likely culprit, but that’s a pretty big project and may have to wait for Guam, where we might be able to get caulk shipped at U.S. prices.

A night of strong squalls finally shifted the headwinds to our side, leaving unreasonably large waves smashing into us on all sides. You’d get your itchy butt dry for five minutes and some snotty wave would sense the dry patch and come crashing over your head. Some of the squalls brought lightening exploding in jagged arcs across the sky, so just when we thought we could ease off the wind for a more comfortable ride, we had to point back into it as far as possible to dodge the strikes.
Finally, the wind settled down behind us. Though the elegant wandering albatrosses that had been following us since we left New Zealand, even through the gale, finally left us and headed home, a small pod of Frasers dolphins, with several tiny calves, delighted us as they leaped over the waves and torpedoed through our bow wave. At night, the frothing waves glittered and a few dolphins came by, leaving glowing trails of phosphorescence behind them. Rob, sleeping below, heard the dolphins squeaking before I saw them from the cockpit.

We also saw schools of pumice floating along the waves, some of the rocks creating their own floating mini-ecosystems, with gooseneck barnacles firmly attached. This area is very volcanically volatile; our nautical charts warn of islands that appear and disappear at will, and of mysterious patches of discolored water. The pumice forms when undersea volcanoes spew lave through the ocean. The lava solidifies into pumice when it is cooled by the water. (Mom, has all this volcanic activity made your worry list yet? Just think, we could be sailing blissfully along when, suddenly, an as-yet-undiscovered volcano lurking beneath the surface erupts, violently announcing its existence to the world and belching us into outer space. It would be very dramatic.)

The lighter winds also allowed Rob the chance to climb the mast underway for the first time. He had let go of a halyard while switching to the storm staysail during the gale and the end of the rope flew to the top of the mast. In the calmer conditions, he climbed up to retrieve it. It won’t surprise you that he thought this was grand fun. We inherited a free set of mast steps recently, however, and plan to install those sometime soon, which may spoil the challenge next time by making climbing the mast a lot easier (and safer, if you’re into that).

On the morning of June 6th, we calculated our remaining miles and decided that, if we could manage 6.5 knots for the rest of the day (a tall order for us), we’d make it to Aneityum before dark. Our charts for this area warn of strange reports of breaking waves , and candidly caution that the islands on the chart are not actually located where the charts show them, and that, even if they were located in the correct position, they are very poorly charted. To get to the anchorage in Aneityum, you have to navigate a narrow pass through a coral reef, so a nighttime entry is not an option, especially with inaccurate charts. Now, while we understand that Captain Cook was a very advanced cartographer for his era, we do think that, perhaps, USGS or the British Admiralty Service could send a GPS or two and maybe some sat phones to a couple of these mis-charted islands. Then they could just call up the chief and say, “Hey, so could you turn on that GPS? Where does it say you are standing?” I really don’t think Captain Cook would be offended.

So, motivated to avoid a night of wallowing in the wave, we surfed the strangely massive swells and pushed our speed. Rob pulled tattered sails from hidden corners of the boat and hoisted one on almost every halyard. We thought lightweight thoughts. We said nice things about Aelous. We drank caffeine, which just made us queasy. We steered by hand, eking everything we could out of the wind. We got cramped arches trying to balance on the speeding boat. And we did it! We raced ahead and cruised through the pass in the reef about two hours before dark, and dropped the anchor in the clear, blue waters sheltered by the reef, under the shadow of extinct volcanoes flanked in kauris, sandalwood, palms, and pine. We raised our yellow Q-flag to alert the customs officials that we sought practique, and as the sun turned rosy, we began to hear the clinking of kava pounding coming from the shores. Cooled by a fair breeze, we watched the sun dip behind the hills, and went happily to sleep.

We’re in no hurry to set sail again soon, so we are drifting with the slow pace of the island, and enjoying the surprisingly comfortable temperature and cool breeze. We have a bit of clean-up to do from the passage here and a few minor sail repairs, but we are putting these off while we catch up on white sand beaches and snorkeling. Muddy tracks of deeply red soil connect villages across the island and clear, cool streams cascade in waterfalls down the volcanos. Waves erupt into waterspouts through holes in the shelf of reef along the edges of the beaches. The ruins of an old mission sit next to the village (along with a plaque commemorating the reconciliation of the Vanuatuans with the first Samoan missionaries-i.e., “Sorry we ate you, our bad. Thanks for bringing us Jesus.”). There are also remnants of an old whaling station, and in the woods, old logging equipment from a sandalwood operation. There is still some logging here, with a pine plantation along part of the island. But most of the island if full of tropical trees, and there are even a few very large kauri hidden in the woods.

We spent yesterday hiking to a waterfall with a local kid, who showed us some of the trees and told us a bit about island life. He showed us one plant, which is a giant ferny, palmy thing, which he told us we could not take home. If you take it home, you will see a big white man, who will kill you. He also showed us some of his favorite fishing spots, and pointed out the tree he is going to use to make a new dugout outrigger canoe with his grandfather. We stopped in his village on the way back down the hill-a beautiful village nestled in the trees. Grass pathways connect the homes, and lines of lovely pink and green trees arch across these walkways. The homes are raised above the grass on stilts, the roofs are thatched palms, and the walls are woven in alternating dark and light colors. The trees are dripping with grapefruit and bananas, and he let us fill our bags before we left.

Today, we snorkeled at the marine reserve surrounding Mystery Island, a tiny island that rises out of the reef across from Aneityum, where we watched a big, ugly octopus lurking in the brain corals.

It’s good to be back in the islands.

(Apologies if you’re confused…I wrote this a couple of weeks ago when we first arrived, but haven’t been able to post it until now. Unfortunately, the web here is too slow to add photos.)

Back to the tropics

Our Christmas gifts to each other this year.  Thanks to the magic of ebay, we got these for cheap.  They were salvaged off a sunken ship in India, but they're in perfect condition.  With this and the jars of peanut butter I stashed in our ditch kit, we'll be able to survive for ages floating around in the Bering Sea if we ever have to abandon ship.  I can usually get into mine faster than Rob, (except for that one time at our farewell party when I was already wearing a wetsuit and got stuck) but that's only because he has bigger feet.  He will probably make up for that, however, when he doesn't trip over his one-size-fits-all footies trying to jump over the toe rail.
Our Christmas gifts to each other this year. Thanks to the magic of ebay, we got these for cheap. They were salvaged off a sunken ship in India, but they’re in perfect condition. With this and the jars of peanut butter I stashed in our ditch kit, we’ll be able to survive for ages floating around in the Bering Sea if we ever have to abandon ship. I can usually get into mine faster than Rob, (except for that one time at our farewell party when I was already wearing a wetsuit and got stuck) but that’s only because he has bigger feet. He will probably make up for that, however, when he doesn’t trip over his one-size-fits-all footies trying to jump over the toe rail.

The boat’s in order, we’ve got food in the oven and on the stove, and we’re heading back to the tropics tomorrow morning!

Right this moment, I can’t say the idea of sailing seems super appealing. It’s been blowing 40 knots, hailing, thundering, and flashing lightening all over the place tonight. But, we’ve been waiting for this storm to finally hit, and it’s supposed to clear out by tomorrow morning, leaving us with light southwesterly winds to push us toward Vanuatu.

Rob, calm and collected, ties off the tiller so we can hide below deck.  We're hoping the trip back north is a bit calmer.
Rob, calm and collected, ties off the tiller so we can hide below deck. We’re hoping the trip back north is a bit calmer.

It doesn’t look like a perfect passage, but we have heaps of stratagems and escape tactics up our sleeves in case the weather turns sour. We could retreat or aim for a different island if things don’t look as positive in a couple of days. Besides, my current favorite salty, old man sailor with a credible, seafaring accent is leaving tomorrow, so it must be a good weather window. It’ll be a cold passage, but it should warm up noticeably every day as we head north, and I’ve got a big pot of soup and lots of hot cocoa on hand to keep us warm on our night watches for the first couple of nights. We’re hoping the trip will take about a week and a half to get there, depending on the wind.

Rob gets ready to reef some sails last November in the gale on our way to New Zealand.  Looks calm in the photo.
Rob gets ready to reef some sails last November in the gale on our way to New Zealand. Looks calm in the photo.

We’ve had a great time in New Zealand, and particularly enjoyed visiting family and old friends. Thank you, thank you, thank you, to all the wonderful people who made our stay great. We very much enjoyed your warm showers, your sleeping arrangements that don’t move, your internet, and your friendliness and hospitality. We’ve been very spoiled, and we hope to run into you again somewhere.

Sunshine and turquoise lagoons, here we come!
Sunshine and turquoise lagoons, here we come!

But now, it’s gotten far too chilly down here with all this hail and rain, so it’s high time we head north for more swimming, beach bumming, and sunshine. The boat is (over)loaded, we’ve pulled out those wool pants we haven’t worn in a year, dried our boots, and picked up a couple of big boxes of medical supplies to deliver to Vanuatu on behalf of Oceans Watch and we’re dreaming of white sand and snorkeling.

First order of business, find Bondas the Dugong in Vanuatu!

And now we're off for more of this... aimless wandering on the beach.
And now we’re off for more of this… aimless wandering on the beach.

The Voyage Home

Where we've been and where we're heading
Where we’ve been and where we’re heading

We scooted up to the Bay of Islands, the port from which we will exit New Zealand, a week-and-a-bit ago, and we’ve been sitting here waiting, some of us patiently, some of us not-so-patiently, for favorable winds to push us to the tropics. Things are looking better early next week. Well, maybe they are. The picture changes every time you look at the weather.

But, in the meantime, Rob drew us the nice map I posted above to show you first, which countries are actually located in the Pacific Ocean (though, admittedly, a few, like Tuvulu, Nauru, and the Chilean Islands near Rapa Nui, are not labelled here b/c of space), and second, where we are headed. You’ll see that we have an exciting trip planned. It’ll take us through Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Micronesia, Japan, Russia, and the Aleutians. Some of you might think, “Wait, I thought you said you were coming home through Hawaii?” Well, yes, we did say that, but we also said we were going around the world. I even told you that Rob got eaten by a shark in Panama, but that wasn’t true either.

Some of you might also think, “Russia? Are you allowed to sail there? That sounds dangerous.” Yes, you are allowed in Russia these days. We even have a little Russian friend who might come help translate for us. As to whether it’s dangerous, well, there are basically three routes home, and Russia is the best one. We met a nice Norwegian sailor who told us that all the Norwegians go that way, then they sail home through the Northwest Passage. The rest of us just need to toughen up. Of course, he was headed to Antarctica the last time we saw him, and his route home includes a stop in Greenland. But we’re pretty sure there are a few other boats headed our way as well. And besides, we’ve also spoken to a very professional weather forecaster we know back in Juneau, and he has assured us that the weather will be delightful when we head home through the Bering Sea. He even promised to help give us foolproof advice, based on the plentiful, reliable, readily-available weather information coming out of Russia, about our weather windows for that part of the trip. And they have cheap vodka in Russia. How can our trip planning go wrong?

More seriously, there are about three options for getting home: 1) take the tropics route through Samoa and the Line Islands to Hawaii and follow the winds around the edge of the North Pacific high to get home, 2) stay low, head east from New Zealand in the Roaring Forties, cut up to Tahiti, head to Hawaii, then home, 3) Russia. The first option requires some pretty heavy up wind sailing. Our boat is not an upwind machine. We got tired of upwind bashing, so we rejected option 1. Option 2 is a terrible option. The theory is to stay in low latitudes so that you can ride the top of nasty low pressure systems in the Southern Ocean, which gets you strong westerly winds to push you to Tahiti. And you do this in the fall. Kiwis do it, but they’re kind of crazy. It sounds miserable, and it’s over 2,000 miles from here to Tahiti. Plus, we’ve already been to Tahiti. But option 3 is brilliant. There are no passages over 1,000 miles, and the weather in the Bering Sea in summer is actually quite tolerable–a lot better than the weather in the Roaring Forties in the fall. And when you drool with jealousy over the stories we tell about all the places we visit along the way, you’ll see why it’s the obvious route home!

But, for now, we’re keeping our eyes on the weather, and hoping for a departure early next week.

Crow's eye view
Crow’s eye view

Livin’ large in New Zealand

Kea on Avalanche PeakManaia pillarsClimbing near ChristchurchYellow-eyed penguinsFluffy penguin chickPenguins at the lighthouse
Lighthouse keepersLake HaurokoHigh water at Lake HurokoPackrafting south FiordlandTent flats Lake AdelaideWaterfall at tent flats
Blue DucksBest swimming spotAbove Lake AdelaideNapping at Lake AdelaideUp the fallsFalls near Lake South America
Let's go fly a kiteDr. Seuss Waz HereMoses on the MountWalking out Lake AdelaideThree wire bridgeSomewhere near Milford Sound

Livin’ large in New Zealand, a set on Flickr.

I understand I’m in trouble for my delinquency in blog updating. To make up for it, I thought I’d just post a slough of photos to show you what we’ve been up to here in New Zealand. We’ve had a marvelous time as the weather’s been grand. Depending on your perspective, the summer was either the worst drought in 80 years or the best summer ever. Some might even call that bloody legend. And for those of you who really think the boat projects are more interesting than anything else, never you fear. I’ve added a bunch of boat project photos just for you. You might think the boat is falling apart when you see how many projects we’ve done, but it’s not. She’s not quite as shiny as she was when she left, but she’s holding up like an all-star. We’re waiting for some parts on one last project, and then we hope to take head back to Opua, the northernmost port of entry, sometime next week. I promise to update before we go.

Enjoying Whangarei

We hopped, slowly, down the coast to Whangarei and have been busy working on the boat. It’s a mess right now, but Rob put in a new toilet (“head,” in marine parlance) and new burners on the stove (the old ones were burning dirty and we had carbon filth all over the boat). We’ve also been investigating new rigging options (we talked to three local riggers and they all told us different things) and we’ve gouged out the hull to deck joint and are madly fiberglassing, caulking, and sanding to try to fix all our leaks! Lot’s more work to go, but we’re looking forward to a break at Christmas, when we’ll head to my dad’s in Wellington. After that, play time for awhile!

Okay, so some of us have been working hard, and some of us have been eating strawberries.

I counted up some of things I’ve been keeping track of on our journey so far, and in our 19 months at sea, we’ve visited 13 countries, I’ve read 78 books, we’ve eaten 38 pies (technically, two were apple crisps, which I like better than apple pie, but Rob thinks those don’t count and complains that he’s been deprived), we’ve lost dozens of tools and bits of hardware overboard, and we’ve seen all sorts of wildlife, ranging from bears, moose, harbor seals, and Steller sea lions to monkeys, parrots, sea snakes, and taipirs. Life’s been pretty good to us so far.

Rob let me go to the farmers’ market by myself and this is what happened. There was a 9.6 liter bucket of strawberry seconds and I just couldn’t resist. It made 2 pies, 1 shortcake, and plenty of just plain eatin’. Not a berry was wasted.

Learnin’ to fly, but I ain’t got wings…

…and comin’ down (bash!) is the hardest thing (crash!). Tom Petty must’ve been sailing hard on the wind when he wrote that song. We found ourselves humming it for many of the 11 days we spent launching off the crests of collapsing waves and slamming down in the hollows on our way to New Zealand. It turned out to be a pretty rough passage, almost entirely upwind, and there was a bit of mayhem in the fleet. In retrospect, we all picked a pretty stupid time to leave. There was much weather in our window, but not much window in the weather.

We had been watching the weather charts for some time, waiting to see how the various weather models would resolve a low pressure system expected to develop in the tropics, not far from Fiji. We cancelled our departure once, after prepping food and loading up on water, when it looked like we’d be right in the middle of a storm if we left as planned. Two days later, it looked like we’d be south of the low, in fine sailing. Lots of folks scooted off their anchors that Friday, the moment the forecast looked promising, but we were delayed by Rex the Dog and his ferocious teeth, and couldn’t quite motivate to rush when it felt like we were racing the unsettled forecasts rather than the actual weather. Besides, as Captain Ron reminded us at the docks in Suva, it was a Friday, and it’s bad luck to start a voyage on Friday. Things still looked good on Saturday morning, however, so we heaved ho.

Things were going well, with a light head wind and smooth seas, until we looked at Sunday evening’s weather prognosis. This showed us caught in the southern fringe of a rapidly developing low in a couple of days, followed by a couple more days squashed in gale force winds. Air will sometimes rush from high pressure to low, creating strong winds in the area of squashed isobars between the high and the low, and that’s where it looked like we’d find ourselves. The next morning’s weekly weathergram from the South Pacific weather guru further cautioned that this low might be a doozy. We knew we couldn’t make it far enough south to avoid the ugliness, so we cracked off to the west and picked up speed, aiming for lighter winds.

Sure enough, a couple of days later, the wind started to pick up. When it hit somewhere around “really strong” on our anemometer’s arbitrary scale and we were blasted with a ferocious black squall, we heaved to. Admittedly, I was not a supporter of this strategy at first. My primary goals on any sailing passage are 1) to get to land as quickly as possible so I can take a walk, 2) to get to land as quickly as possibly so I can have a shot at a full night’s sleep, and 3) to spend as little time below deck as possible so I don’t get queasy. Heaving to is antithetical to both of these goals, as it basically means parking the boat nose to the waves so you drift backwards ever so slowly, remaining within the calming slick your boat creates. Plus, I’d like to believe that you don’t employ “storm” tactics or “storm” sails until you’re really in a storm—50 knots plus. That way, I know we still have something left to try if we ever find ourselves in a hurricane. Unfortunately, it never works out that way; storm doesn’t really seem to mean “storm” in the technical sense. Protests aside, once we had the storm trysail set and the tiller tied off, heaving to had the decided advantage that we got to go below decks where it’s warm and dry. Well, not totally dry—we discovered new leaks when the rails were submerged for days on end and had puddles of water sloshing all over the floors. But still, the motion of the boat was really surprisingly comfortable, and our hot chocolate was pretty tasty. I became a convert as we napped comfortably inside and decided that the only real downside to heaving to was that we’d eventually have to start sailing again.

When the wind seemed to relax at night, Rob manned up (as usual) and took the first watch to set us sailing again. The conditions were rough, but never got as bad as the weather we saw on our passage from Seattle to San Francisco, except that this time, instead of flying with the waves we were bashing into the wind, which is a lot harder on the boat and a lot slower going. We weren’t moving fast, and our progress was almost entirely west, which wasn’t helpful since we needed to go due south. Several hours later, when it looked like we were about to be slammed with another nasty squall, we decided it was time to return to heaving to, since we weren’t making any progress any way.

In the morning, we wondered if maybe we were being big babies and if all the other boats, sailed by retired folks, were just sailing right on through it. We figured we’d probably been napping, er, heaving to, longer than strictly necessary, but didn’t see much point in hanging out in the wind and rain if it just meant moving the wrong way faster. Undaunted, Rob fried us up his favorite breakfast of greasy—I mean really greasy—potatoes and we flipped on the radio, waiting to hear the weather synopsis and the updates from other boats. We quickly learned that everyone else was stuck in the same squash zone and we reporting 30-35 knot winds with gusts of 40-50 knots in the squalls that were being kicked off by a front passing over our squash zone. We figured our conditions were probably about the same. Most boats had heaved to for most of the night, and some reported blown out sails, broken stays, broken auto pilots, or broken wind generators. They all sounded a lot crabbier than we felt while we sipped cocoa in comfort, though Rob was a bit miffed that he’d run out of coffee. One single hander had been thrown across his boat and broken his ribs. Worse yet, one boat was sinking and another boat was pounding back into the wind to try to rescue the crew, two people who were thought to be in a life raft (though it later turned out they were still on board the sinking vessel). Our only damage was to the wind direction indicator arrow at the top of the mast. It bounced at a precarious, and confusing, angle for several days before it finally snapped off, but it landed on deck so we should be able to reattach it. Listening to all the reports, we decided that heaving to was all around a pretty spectacular idea and kept at it a bit longer, just to be sure we didn’t spill our cocoa.

Once the gale died down, we, of course, had no wind, then more wind on the nose, then more squalls, then, finally, we made it to New Zealand. Wandering albatrosses greeted us as we approached, and a group of Bryde’s whales did tricks for me at sunset the night before we made landfall. We’re pretty excited to be here and to be able to stay for awhile, and we treated ourselves to overpriced hot showers to celebrate. We’ve enjoyed catching up with other boats and walking the forest trails in the Bay of Islands, but we’ve realized that we’re no longer acclimated to temperatures below about 85 degrees. As I was huddled in a sweater, a blanket, and slippers, Rob pointed out that the thermometer on the boat read 68 degrees. Nonetheless, we are enjoying feeling cool, even if we should be hot.

No one we’ve talked to reports a nice passage to New Zealand, no matter when they left, but the folks who got it worst are those who were about our latitude, but who left from Tonga or Niue and were a lot further east. The hero award, however, goes to the incredible couple on Adventure Bound, a boat quite similar to ours, but a few feet bigger. When most of us were heaving to in the gale, Adventure Bound got called to hero duty. Another yacht, 50 miles upwind from them was sinking and rescue operators asked Adventure Bound, the closest boat, to sail back into the teeth of the storm to rescue the injured couple. Watching the barometer drop 15 mb overnight (that’s a very large, scary drop), they side-saddled 30 foot seas and battled winds reaching nearly 60 knots, and it took them more than 24 hours to reach the boat in distress. By then, a freighter had reached the sinking boat, but conditions were still too rough for a rescue, and Adventure Bound stood by overnight to assist. The distressed ship was eventually rescued, and the couple on board, we understand, are okay, though they have lost their boat. Adventure Bound then had to turn around and head back to New Zealand, but they had to hand steer the whole way because their self-steering gear was damaged in the storm. Mother nature, unwilling to reward their efforts, tossed them a couple more gales along the way and a lot of headwinds, but they finally made it in last night, after 17 unrelenting days at sea. The last we chatted with them in Bora Bora, they thought their boat was living up to its name too well and were contemplating changing it to something more like “Tranquility.”

Three cheers for Adventure Bound! Hip hip hooray!!!

Fiji Time

Kadavu and the Great Astrolabe Reef

Well, we thought we’d be headed to New Zealand by now, but Fiji has managed to suck us in and we’ve been moving on “Fiji time.” We’re in Suva, the capital, for just a couple more days while we wait for the weather to come around. Suva is busy and full of diesel fumes, dirty water, and sunken ships. With the festering tropical heat and the city dirt, every scratch and bugbite seems to become infected, and my left leg is a mess of welts. I got bitten by an overly anxious dog this morning. The locally recommended remedy is the application of an onion. Don’t worry, I used a clean onion.

But, Suva has a fantastic market, a great museum, and friendly people. The boat is tied to a mooring buoy in a mangrove bay just past the downtown area now, with a drua (a traditional Fijian sailing canoe) tethered to shore nearby. Though Suvans are worse drivers than New Yorkers, and street crossing is accordingly treacherous (even though it’s year two of traffic safety decade in Fiji), they are every bit as friendly here, in the biggest city in the South Pacific, as they are in the villages on the outer islands. Wanting to get in a leg stretcher off the main road, we took a short walk up a dirt road near the boat and found ourselves struggling to keep up with all the gregarious “Bula Bula!”‘s coming our way–every house seems to be shouting hello, and all the kids in the street are big smiles. By the time we got back down the hill, we had one invitation to dinner and another to tea. We’re realizing that we could probably stand to be a bit friendlier to the tourists back home in Juneau, as the people here have really made Fiji stand out.

Pineapples by the heap…indeed!

Since our last update from Ovalau, we’ve spent a lot of time waiting for weather windows and learning to slow down the pace. We left Ovalau hoping to head to Kadavu, an outlying island about 50 miles from the “mainland” (a.k.a. Viti Levu, the island where Suva sits). We found ourselves headed right into the wind and decided there was just no way we were going to make our island by nightfall, so we eased off the wind and headed toward Suva.

I promised to post a photo here so they could see it, and they promised not to look at it when they’re supposed to be doing school work…ahem…
Our new friends from Wainaloko in Ovalau.

This turned out to be fortuitous. Shortly after we changed course, we were up at the bow watching some boisterous dolphin visitors when we realized the staysail stay (the wire that holds up the staysail) was disturbingly slack. In fact, the bolt that attaches it to the bowsprit had sheared off…oops! That’s kind of a big problem, because the stays are the things that keep the mast upright. Fortunately, this one isn’t the only one keeping things up in front, so there was no immediate issue. But, we spent the next couple of days touring hardware stores in Suva looking for the right bolt. We found one that’s close enough, and Rob’s got the problem resolved until we get to New Zealand.

Cruising is just boat maintenance in exotic locations.

After that detour, we tried for Kadavu again, but once again found ourselves bashing into strong headwinds and big waves, and unable to make the island. We retreated once more, but finally had favorable winds a couple of days later and an easy, pleasant reach to Kadavu.

Kadavu is a long, hilly island with scattered villages connected by muddy walking tracks and old logging roads. It is surrounded by the Great Astrolabe Reef, one of the longest barrier reefs in the world. It had been an oddly long time since we’d been snorkeling–at least a week–and we were parched and crackling from lack of water and tropical fish viewing, so we were pretty excited to jump in the water and snorkel the marine reserve at the reef. There were steep drop offs with sharks lurking in the mysterious depths; giant hard and soft corals in red, yellow, green, and purple; turtles swimming slowly along (“Taku” is the word for hawksbill turtles in Fijian, just like the river in Juneau!); schools of hundreds of fish, big and small; and dozens of brightly colored fish we’d never seen before. Best of all, we had a great little nook to ourselves and snorkeling from the boat was just as good as snorkeling by the outer reef.

Yaqona, or kava, or just grog… stowing away bundles for sevusevu

It had also been awhile since we’d been for a decent walk (not much public land in Fiji, and most of our plans for hikes have fallen flat since the required guides are beyond the budget), so we were eager to get some exercise. Kadavu is one of the best bird areas in Fiji, as there are fewer invasive wildlife species there to compete with native birds: no mongooses to eat the eggs and no myna birds to encroach on habitat. We enjoyed watching huge fruit bats, also called flying foxes, from the boat in the evening, and had a couple of great, muddy hikes to take in the island view and look for the splendid red and blue Kadavu shining parrot and the tiny red lories (like parakeets). On one walk, we took a wrong turn in the mud and a local, whose farm fields we were walking through, led us back to the right fork. When we reached the calf deep clay, he stopped to see if Rob wanted to take off his running shoes and go barefoot through the mud. Rob opted to keep his feet cushioned, much to our guide’s chagrin–what a waste of shoes! To be fair, he might’ve had the right idea; my sandals nearly got sucked off twice.

On another walk, a young man from the village where we anchored the boat took us over the hill to the next village, and we stopped to see the primary school. Actually, as soon as we walked by all 20 kids ran to the window, hopelessly distracted, so we came back after lunch and they greeted us with songs and a dance performance. All 20 kids introduced themselves to us and told us from which islands they hail, and we had a few moments to tell them about ice and glaciers.

Rob and the giant clam, Makogai

But alas, cyclone season officially kicked off yesterday, and we are nearly out of kava, so we decided we’d better make tracks to Suva and start paying attention to the weather. We’ve been listening on our ham radio to passage reports from sailboats on the way to New Zealand, a bit of a voyeuristic pasttime. We find ourselves listening with great concern–will Good2Go beat the gale? Will Baraka get squashed? Did Brio make Bundeburg? Does Cuttyhunk mean something in Kiwi? But the weather is looking better now, so we are planning to head out tomorrow morning, as long as my leg is still attached and not oozing.

Baby hawksbill turtle from the hatchery at Makogai

In the meantime, we’ve made friends with the guys at the crumbling dock where we leave our dinghy, the giggly little girl who keeps trying to sell Rob tuna roti for $1.00, and the ladies at the tasty, and cheap, vegetarian restaurant downtown.

We also stopped by the University bookstore to treat ourselves to some hard-to-find reading material about the South Pacific, and spotted a string of eco-NGOs along the way. We stopped by and knocked on doors to see if anyone had time to chat with us and we lucked out. A couple of folks from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) gave us some great information and a bunch of new reading material. We learned about efforts to help the towns running on diesel without causing future problems (i.e. turning to solar and ending up with acid battery leaching problems), and down-in-the-dirt efforts to keep bugs out of inverters and pigs and goats from using them as scratching posts. We also learned a lot about efforts to curb shark finning, achieve better protection for local conservation areas, deal with overfishing and try to reach sustainable fishing levels for tuna, and how all those efforts get frustrated if you don’t have buy in from locals and the chiefs. We’ve been eagerly reading and, so far, it confirms what we already suspected–some of the biggest problems facing the Pacific (the whole Pacific, including the U.S. and Canada) are sewage and overfishing (that’s commercial, recreational, and subsistence).

Wish us calm seas and wind that’s just right for our 9 day (we hope) passage to New Zealand!

There’s a disturbing array of sunken boats in Suva Harbor. Most are big Asian fishing boats, but we’re told there are also some giant American factory boats plundering the Fijian waters.

Bula bula!

Kate lovin’ the underwater view at Namena.

We’ve been kickin’ it in Fiji for nearly three weeks now, and are waiting for the thunderstorms to clear before we head out of Levuka, Fiji’s old capital. To get to Fiji from Fotuna, we had a bit of a nasty sail into the wind and spent most of one night tacking back and forth to avoid going through a narrow, reef-strewn pass in the dark with strong, gusty winds. There were no disasters, however, just a bashing good time smashing into the waves, with a calm arrival in Savusavu the next day. Shortly after our arrival, my mom managed to fit in a visit to Savusavu on short notice, and we tried to give her a good dose of the tropics while she made sure our bellies are adequately filled.

The best things about Fiji so far are the people and the food. The markets here are spectacular–there are veggies, even greens, again! And the prices are fantastic. Nearly everything is about $1.00 a heap (Fiji dollars, one of which is about $0.60 U.S.). The “heap” is a predetermined, arbitrary quantity that might be 6 tomatoes or a veritable armload of taro leaves (it’s like spinach). On top of the veggies, because of the strong Indian influence in Fiji, there are heaps of cheap Indian spices at the market. They even have spices I ran out of several countries ago and have been trying to replenish ever since. We’re overwhelmed. We can even afford to eat out again. If you ever find yourself in Savusavu, don’t miss Mum’s Country Kitchen, where three wonderful Indo-Fijian ladies will serve you up authentic Indian curry for a mere $3.50.

But the real highlight in Fiji is the incredibly friendly people. Fiji has a rich cultural heritage and many of the villages, even on the main islands, continue to stick to their traditional practices. This means that when we visit these villages, we have to bring kava (a mild narcotic that tastes like mud and puts you to sleep) to offer to the chief in a ceremony dubbed Sevusevu. The chief accepts the kava, and we get to anchor in his bay. We spent a few days in Makongai last week, a small island that, from 1911-1969, had a leper colony of 5,000 people, but now has only a small village and a mariculture station that is hatching clams and baby hawksbill turtles, and also working on cultivating coral to plant in Fiji’s reefs, and oysters for pearl farming. We offered our kava and the chief took us on a tour of the mariculture station and the ruins of the leper colony, then invited us to come share a few coconut shells of kava with them in the evening. We accepted, and he asked me to bring my guitar. The guitar was such a hit they wanted to borrow it for the next evening (the chief’s guitar was missing a few strings), and they were even more thrilled with my really exciting guitar tuner. It turns out it’s tough to tune guitars when you don’t have anything on the island that’s in tune.

A regal angel fish swimming the reefs of the marine reserve at Namena. These beautiful fish are pretty common around here.

Our new friends on Makongai also told us stories about island life and let us help them fluff strings for the pearl oysters, and showed us how they roll coils of palm fronds to weave mats. We snorkelled with the giant clams, and walked over to the village to see the local school and drop off some supplies. We’ve since reconsidered the usual gift of school supplies and decided we should have filled the boat with life jackets, especially child sized life jackets, and compasses. Makongai is only about 15 miles from Levuka (where we are now), but the stretch of water between the two islands can be rough (it’s where Captain Bligh fled from canoes of angry cannibals after the mutiny on his ship, the Bounty). There are no supply ships or planes to Makongai, so they have to take skiffs across from time to time. The chief at Makongai told us horrifying stories of these boats sinking. He was once on a boat that got lost (they navigate by sight), ran out of fuel, and sank, He spent the night swimming, holding onto debris, till he found a fish attraction device to hold onto. One might speculate that these would also attract sharks. Someone found him there in the morning and rescued him. Even scarier, his wife has twice capsized–once with his four-year-old daughter in tow. They swam halfway to Levuka holding onto a 55 gallon drum (yes, those are round) before they found a lighthouse to cling to until morning. Anyone know a philanthropically-minded life jacket company I could write to to ask for donations?

The spectacular common lion fish. Apparently, these gorgeous guys have invaded the Atlantic, where they have few predators, and have become pesty. They also have nasty stings. Here in the Pacific, however, we think they’re fantastic!

There are 296 more islands to visit in Fiji, but we only have about 2 more weeks to visit them before we need to jet to escape cyclone season. We’re waiting to see where the wind blows to decide which ones to visit.

Moce (that’s pronounced “mothay” and it means goodbye, or goodnight)!

Swingin’ in the palms on Teveuni Island.

Kickin’ it Wallis style

We’ve crossed the dateline and sailed into tomorrow (we’re not actually at 180 degrees, but the dateline meanders around here with everyone rushing to be first). This makes more sense when you’re counting lines of longitude on a map than it does when you’re sailing and suddenly it’s tomorrow, but an hour earlier.

Life is pleasant and calm here on Wallis, one of the three islands that make up Wallis & Fotuna. Wallis is an “almost atoll”; it has a fringing reef, but the interior has not yet eroded away entirely. The coral-speckled tops of old volcanoes poke up throughout the lagoon. Though the islands are low and gentle, you can tell from the steep, vine-clad shorelines on some of the islets that these really are the top ridges of an ancient, thundering volcano. Today, we walked to a crater lake to provide more evidence. After an easy, gentle (but very hot) walk near the shore, the ground suddenly dropped away to the right and sheer, 300 foot cliffs dropped into the perfect circle of a lake below. We had been hoping for a cool, freshwater swim, but the only way down to the lake would have been to close your eyes and jump, and the only way back up would have required a rope we didn’t have. We satisfied ourselves with watching the tropic birds, with their long, graceful, white tails, circle the lake while we cooled off in the shade.

Wallis and Fotuna see fewer tourists, and fewer cruising boats, than any of our other stops thus far, though there are still a few other boats around (and one brought us dinner last night, for no reason at all!). Though the stores are reasonably well stocked with fresh baguettes and French-subsidized goods, the local Walliseans are living a mostly agricultural lifestyle. Pot-bellied old men in pareus waved, “Malo” to us this morning as they chopped sugarcane, and most of the women, young and old alike, are wearing pareus and loose blouses. The influence of the missionaries remains strong, with ornate stone churches decorating the coastline of the island.

For our first full day in Wallis, our tasks of the day were to find fresh vegetables and to meet the king. Sadly, we failed on both counts. There are no fresh veggies, and, apparently, loitering outside the king’s palace doesn’t necessarily get you an invitation to the ballroom. We’ve conceded defeat on the veggies, but we haven’t given up on meeting the king. We’re not quite sure whether there’s one king or three, but we’d like to meet all of them. And both of the kings on Fotuna. We would really like to take them all sailing with us, but we’re not quite sure how to make that happen. If you come across a reliable e-mail address for the kings of Wallis & Fotuna, please let us know.

In the meantime, we’ve taken advantage of our calm anchorage in the lee of the island to catch up on some boat maintenance projects. Our sails are no longer the burgundy color they were when we left Juneau, but have faded to more of a pale salmon. They are still in pretty good shape, but we’ve been spending more time on sail work lately–restitching seams where the thread is weak from sun and chafing, and patching spots that get a lot of wear. We had a couple of small rips in high stress spots on the jib, but nothing catastrophic. These repairs always take awhile since we don’t have a sewing machine on board, but we’re hoping that, if we’re careful, we can get these sails to carry us all the way back home.

Rob’s been fixing little things on the boat, and also had an engine project a couple of days ago, fortunately, an easy one. As we motored from the main town around to the leeward side of the island, our engine dropped unexpectedly into idle mode–not ideal when you are navigating a narrow, winding passage lined with shallows and sharp rocks and your chart is mediocre at best. But, we already had a sail up, and the wind was kind to us, so we made it to anchor safely and were able to convince the engine to cooperate when we needed it. Rob fixed it the next day (we think) with a new fuel filter, and that left us with plenty of time yesterday for starting on the woodwork again–fresh sanding and varnishing for the structural pieces.

Our last ongoing project is our sinking dinghy. The sun’s been hard our our stout, but ageing, dinghy, and it requires frequent reinflation these days (which would be easier if our foot pump wasn’t so shoddy), and regular patching. We forked over big francs for fancy glue and bright red patches in Papeete, but they won’t stick. We’ve also broken two oarlocks, both during critical, row hard now moments, and are left with one oarlock that works and one that’s too big for the oar. We’ve been putting Rob’s rowing prowess to the test lately with some long, open ocean rows against the wind where, with one oar persistently popping out of the oarlock, he has to get us to shore before the dinghy sinks and the sharks eat us. I think it’s pretty funny, but Rob’s been drooling over the outrigger canoes on all the islands. We’re hoping that with enough duct tape and bright red patches, we can coax it along to New Zealand, where we can find a suitable replacement.

For the rest of our time in Wallis, we’re planning lots more snorkeling, a trip to go visit one of the local artisans who makes beautiful tapa (a bark cloth with traditional designs painted on it), and maybe a trip to another crater lake. We’re hoping to leave Thursday for a brief stop at Fotuna, then on to Fiji.