Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Shiriri Saga #54 Fiji Reefs.

Among Fiji reefs.

A race with the night.

"Shiriri! Shiriri! This is Moonlighter!" It is early morning, the blue hills of Macongai island lie ahead, and we have a call on the VHF radio. They are at anchor at this island and are inviting us to join them. We can just see their mast with the binoculars up against the land. Once again they have made friends and are having a great time. We are tempted, it has been an interminable night tacking back and forth on the dark Koro Sea. We spent hours trying to get out of the bay and round a projecting coral reef. We have had no sleep and are behind on a tight schedule.

From Makongai to Nananu Pass.

We check our photocopied chart and see a maze of reefs between us and their boat. They have arrived from a different direction but say there is a sort of passage in through the reefs that the fishermen use. This looks way too tricky and besides we are swept up in the midst of a passage of our own and are in a race with the setting sun. We need all the available daylight hours to negociate a long mess of reefs and narrow passages before we can arrive at our chosen safe anchorage. We have figured it out carefully, but one extra zig zag last night has us two hours behind schedule. We say goodbye to Jim and Lindy and turn right up a steadily narrowing passage between submerged coral heads.

We now have the trade wind behind us and we foam along with all the sail set that we can safely carry. Time passes. We take turns sleeping. It`s hot and we loll in the cockpit tiredly keeping track of our progress. Our photocopied chart is a little faded and ill defined. Heather and I cannot see the buoys that mark the narrowest part of the passage up ahead. I decide one must be on that little islet up ahead so we turn slightly to pass it to starboard. Suddenly I see the yellowish brown colour of a reef just beneath us and when we look around we see we have wandered into a big nest of coral heads. Anne bounces up from her nap, looks around with the binoculars and sees the buoys way off to starboard: we have been swept too far to port by a cross current.

I jump into the ratlines on the foremast and guide us through the coral heads back into the channel and we resume our race with the sunset. There is no time to think of how close we came to wrecking our boat, we are still on a very tight schedule. The freshening wind keeps us optimistic that we might make it with minutes to spare. Now we are in open water again, so hour after hour as the sun moves closer to the horizon we do little time/distance sums to see if we are gaining a few precious minutes. At last the pass lies ahead and we check our cruising guide notes (Fiji Cruising Guide) for the entrance.

Nananu Pass.

Nananu Pass, so the guide book says, has range marks which, if we line them up, will lead us safely through the pass. We start reducing sail as we approach in the strong afternoon trade wind but look as we might we cannot see the leading marks. Finally, through the binoculars we see a stick jammed into a reef close to an island and guess that the rear mark was once in the middle of the saddle of the grassy island summit. No time to ponder, the sun nicks the horizon. We line them up and pass through the rocky pass and into the lagoon. The evening light is bad for navigating among the lagoon reefs but somehow we manage and our trusty Isuzu diesel finally chugs us slowly into the wind and to anchor behind a sheltering headland just fifteen minutes before all fades to black. That was a near thing!

Passage between Nananu I Cake to Vatia Bay.

Shiriri leads the way.
"No Charts" arrives as we take a rest day at anchor behind the island of Nananu-I-Cake. We met him first in San Diego with his big dog and little sailboat and were surprised to hear that he had decided to leave his dog to a good home and sail across the Pacific. We, after all, had spent years planning and it seemed almost indecent to just up and go without making a big deal of it. He had his sails torn up in mid Pacific and patiently stitched them back together and finally reached the Marquesas after many weeks at sea alone. What earned him his name was his difficulty with navigating without much in the way of charts. In our case we feel we are so superior with our pieced together photocopies! His passenger from Savu Savu is getting off here and he asks if he can follow our lead through the inshore reefs on the way to Lautoka.

Next morning we both begin to sail downwind through a winding and ill marked channel among the submerged coral reefs. Anne or Heather steer or uses the binoculars to look for markers while I settle into the top of the foremast from whence I can see the white patches of reef. We cannot rely on the markers because sometimes they are missing or they can be miles apart. GPS positions do not necessarily coincide with the chart and besides this is very tight minute to minute piloting. The crew far below me keep up a regular flow of bearings off the beautiful coastline of islands that remind us of the bare grassy hills of California. I call down course corrections and provide a commentary on the ever changing shapes of the reefs. We are slipping along quickly in the brisk breeze and call up No Charts to check if we should slow down. "No, no!"comes the reply. "I am taking in my jib so I do n`t catch you up!" We smile, we can hear his busy engine noise carried down to us on the breeze.

At anchor in Vatia Bay.

The distance to Lautoka is just a little too far to make in one day`s zig zagging among the reefs. We are particularly sensitive to not overreaching ourselves after our last race with the dark and there are no more good anchorages once we pass Vatia Bay. Even so we feel the push to keep going with such a wonderful following wind that has us off Vatia by one pm. A narrow sharp edged channel has been formed by the fresh water of a creek that issues out of a mangrove fringed mud bay and in we go and anchor in fifteen feet of water with ninety feet of chain out. That will hold us against the gusty winds that whip across the grass and scrub covered hills.

After a calm night (with mosquitoes once the wind drops.) we meet some local fishermen who are fascinated with our figurehead of Miss. Shiriri and Chick Pea and we laugh as we raise anchor. Just as we begin to motor out the bay we meet No Charts backing into the bay again at top speed. I scratch my head pointedly and he yells "I hit the reef!" Oops, the flat morning light and muddy water hide the coral edges from deck level. Sure enough, by the time I reach halfway up the ratlines I can see that we too are just about to slice our wooden side against the reef. Luckily Anne catches my wild gestures from the cockpit and turns the wheel.

Once out, with No Charts sticking right on our tail we have several miles of open bay and muddy water to motor across, so Anne bakes some delicious muffins to have with morning coffee. We steer a compass course secure in the knowledge that there are no reefs ahead and chat away enlivened by a good night`s sleep and the excitement of our departure. Suddenly the VHF carries a worried and stressed out message from behind us. "Hey are there lots of reefs? I`ve been following your every move!" We look astern to see a woefully wiggly wake with our chartless companion desperately following our every turn.

Soon we are back into really tricky navigation among the reefs pushed along by the increasing trade wind that is doing it`s best to reach gale strength, but by early afternoon we have dropped anchor off Lautoka wharf and No Charts has made it safely too.

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