Monday, October 15, 2012

Great Astrolabe Reef, Kadavu, Fiji

It felt cathartic to pull the anchor out of the muck and head away from the city once again. Thursday 20 September we sailed out of Suva Harbor under jib alone for a full day (40-nm) passage to Kadavu. After passing through the reefs, we realized the island that we had been seeing on the horizon from the harbor was actually Beqa (pronounced Em-behngha) so we set sails farther south for over-the-horizon places. It was a brilliant sail. The main went up and in the light breezes, we decided to put up the 150% Drifter. After another hour of making hull speed, we sailed out from the protection of Vita Levu into the Kadavu Channel and increased winds. Down came the Drifter, replaced by the 80%, we flew along toward our goal. When Kadavu finally became visible on the horizon, we were surprised how close we already were to our intended goal, Great Astrolabe Reef, located to Kadavu’s north was a mere 3-nm off our port. Horizon scans found the red and white stripped lighthouse (off which we had awaited dawn upon entering Fiji), marking N Astrolabe Reef. The days NE winds were perfect for sailing through Herald Passage into the protection of the Great Astrolabe Reef. We had just enough daylight time to tack upwind toward Dravuni Island, our first intended outer island landfall. Although quite far away from the cigar shaped island, which provided protection from E winds, we happily set Rocky in a nice patch of sand surrounded by sea grass as the sun went below the horizon. We were still having NE winds, so the island was not protecting us, but the outer reef was close enough for relative comfort in the roadstead anchorage. The next morning around 0500 our anchor alarm went off as winds abruptly switched to the SE and we turned 180-deg. All of our forecasts said we should be seeing NE flow, so this was a surprise, but light enough to be manageable we decided to monitor it and prepared to head ashore for our first sevusevu.

Through the cruiser grapevine we were informed of the sevusevu (or "gift") ritual and thus bought 3 yaqona (kava root bouquet) at the market before leaving Suva. The sevusevu ceremony, traditional in the outer reaches of Fiji, occurs as we present the village's chief or spokesperson yaqona and request permission to visit. Confused by this custom, since we had gone through the process of checking into Fiji, it was explained to us that anchoring in waters off someone's village is like camping in someone's backyard. The locals seem happy to allow us to do it, and very much appreciate us respecting their traditions and asking to be here. It turns out that this is a great way to "force" interaction between us as tourists and the local population, as we were invited to walk through each village we visited. Our experiences presenting sevusevu were vastly different at each village we visited. Once we landed Fatty on Dravuni’s western beach, we were pointed toward the chief who looked like any other fisherman busily preparing a boat for something. Rather distractedly, he invited us into a small room where his wife was present. They gestured that we should sit and asked to see our paperwork. As the village chief, Kitione, was perusing the document (all in Fijian), we spoke to his wife Maryan finding out she was from Kadavu Island and their children were currently living in Suva attending school only to visit during the holidays. Kitione then deemed us fine to be there, thanked us for our gift and it was obvious the meeting was over. After the stories that we’d heard, we felt a little let down, but also were happy to be free to explore the island. We met one woman in the water preparing fish for lunch, but otherwise, we were shy and viewed the village from the distance of the beach. 

Back at Tao, winds still from the SE, we decided to move toward a more protected anchorage. We relatively quickly sailed off the hook and headed the short 2-nm to check possible anchorage on a beach on the west side of Namara Island. Surprisingly, we were able to tuck right into a bite in the island providing protection from winds blowing from SE to NE. We anchored in 15-ft depth in a 50-ft diameter patch of sand flanked by beautiful live coral. Adding floats to our chain so there was no chain/coral interaction, we spent the next few days in this private paradise only big enough for one boat. Chris was recovering from a cold and the weather was forecast to be overcast and rainy so we hunkered down for 3 nights. Between stormy weather, we were [luckily] graced with sunny suckerholes that allowed us to explore Namara by foot and surrounding small islands from Fatty. During one sunny period, winds were so non-existent that as we rowed, we could see straight down to the thriving coral below. We beached a fully rigged Fatty and hiked atop Yanuyanu Loma Island, just north of Namara, for expansive windless views from above (we haven’t had such views since hiking from Don Pedro in Bay of LA, Sea of Cortez, Mexico). Continuing our adventure, we avoided two islands to the east as we had noticed helicopter traffic on one (that we later found is privately owned and a 5-star hotel is being built on). Instead, as little breezes filled in, we sailed around to Qasibale a tiny and gorgeous island S of Namara. With the sun shining we enjoyed snorkeling the reef around it. Getting late in the afternoon we hopped back in Fatty to finish our circumnavigation exploration of Namara and watched the sunset over Kadavu Island from Tao’s deck once again. 

With pressure of both a flight to catch and close cruiser friends we were hoping to connect with, we were prepared for that to be our experience, and were pushing to take advantage of a small weather window the next day across the Kadavu Channel toward Lautoka. However, convergence zone and trough activity creating stormy conditions were persisting, and the small window we were hoping to cross in, abruptly slammed shut. With no real choice (unless we wanted to motor through lightning storms), we decided to stay for another several days and hope that what looked like an opening at the end of the forecastable period provided better weather. Although sad that we wouldn’t get to see our friends, and anxious because we had a set flight date to make and needed to procure space to leave Tao safely moored for 10-days, we were at the same time ecstatic to have more time to explore such a beautiful area. In the partly sunny afternoon, we pulled our chain floats and Rocky aboard and sailed the short distance (3.5-nm) to Buliya Island where we had heard tale of huge manta rays. 

We set the hook on diamond shaped Buliya Islands SW edge in a deeper water (45-ft) anchorage with 100-ft diameter patch of sand and added only two floats to avoid surrounding coral interactions. Cool weather dictated hot chocolate as the sun set in our new environs. The next morning after listening to weather and having breakfast, we went ashore to sevusevu. This time we were pointed toward the village spokesperson, Bill and his wife Maggie and their adorable son Little Bill. We presented our second yanqona bouquet and they gratefully accepted. Bill looked over our documents and Maggie, who’s English was excellent, told us about their village and other people who routinely visited their island. Chris requested permission to swim with the manta rays and there was a bit of confusion about how much it was to cost per person and if we could go on our own or if Bill needed to come with us. We worked it out and they told us we could visit the mantas as much as we wanted and invited us to dinner the next evening. Although bad weather was forecast and we were thinking of finding more protected anchorage, we accepted their gracious invitation and hoped for the best. Bill and the young village children (older children move to bigger neighboring islands and only visit on the weekends or holidays), just out of primary school for the day showed us around their village and walked us back to Fatty, helping us to launch her. 

A still windless day, we decided to row to Virolevu, a small island 1-nm south of Buliya, an area that manta rays are known to frequent. A touristy looking dive boat appeared to be searching for the mantas, and they quickly motored away as we and a panga from Buliya simultaneously approached. The panga driver assured us we were fine, just didn’t want the other boat to swim with the mantas because they had not requested proper permission. Crowds gone, we anchored Fatty, jumped in and swam around looking at beautiful coral formations. Around a very large coral head, we had one quick manta sighting though it swam away faster than we could follow. After swiming to land and walking the beach, we got back into the water again and the cloudy conditions [luckily] magically cleared up. This time around the same large coral mound, we were joined by two huge beautiful manta rays. They slowly, gracefully continued on, the late afternoon sun shining through the water providing extensive views, we snorkeled along behind and above them. For 15-minutes, the four of us swam together comfortable in each other’s presence. It was awe-inspiring. (If you’re interested in what they look like, check out our friend Riki on Guava Jelly’s post about his visit here- he was the one who tipped us off to the manta rays). 

The next day dawned overcast with the promise of deteriorating weather so we fired up Yannie and motored around to the NW edge of Buliya and found protection from the forecast winds. Shawn’s bow-watch paid off when we came closer to a near surface coral head than expected, but otherwise, we made our way to the largest sand patch yet anchoring in 30-ft depth and 500-ft diameter patch surrounded by sea grass. We think due to the diamond shape of Buliya, this anchorage (as well as the last) had a roll from a couple of directions, so we set Floppy our flopper-stopper for more comfort. Donning our wetsuits, we hopped in Fatty and sailed out toward Yabu Island (locally known as Bird Island after the nesting shorebirds which we did not see) where we walked the beach and found butterflies, hermit crabs and coconuts. We were hoping afterward to reach the mantas again, but they were upwind and our early dinner plans didn’t end up allowing us enough time to make another visit.  

Back at Tao, we organized fresh baked brownies to add to the dinner as well as fish hooks and a bottle of wine that were items that had been requested as highly sought after. We beached Fatty and walked around the shores edge trying to avoid getting wet with the nearly full moon’s extremely high tide. When we reached the house, we were met by a completely prepared “small” Fijian feast, for the four of us, one “auntie” that helped prepare the feast, and two children. In addition to decorative breadfruit leaves, beautiful Clementine-looking limes and huge papayas, there was an enormous lobster with brilliantly marked shell, crab onion mix served in the upside- down crab carapaces, balls of taro with coconut milk, deliciously flavored slices of cooked eggplant, sweet potato, and several other cooked roots to choose from. They provided forks for us, but we mostly used our hands to eat as they did, afterward rinsing our fingers in a shared bowl of water. For dessert we ate chocolate brownies (honestly Little Bill ate nearly half of it!) and had delicious tea from hot water (warmed on their wood stove) over lemon leaves. We stayed several hours talking during which they promised us all the much left over food would be doled out among family members throughout the village. When we prepared to leave, they insisted on walking us back to the beach and carrying a handmade basket brimming with papaya, limes and lemon leaves. Quite an experience! 

The next morning was still overcast, but with nice winds for sailing off the hook, we gave wide berth to both Buliya and charted rocks off Yabu Island then tightened up to sail south toward the obviously larger Ono Island. We made our way toward Nabowalo (pronounced more like Nam-bou-walu), a deep bite in the western side of the island near Alacrity Rocks that separate it from Kadavu Island proper. Our tide charts were wrong again, and it was [luckily] low tide, so we could pick a decent anchoring spot, far enough away from shallow sections most easily visible at low tide. We were the only boat anchored out in the expansive bay protected by two arms of Ono. Since it was early enough, we went ashore to sevusevu at 1500, hoping it was far enough before dinner. Several youth had just been brought ashore by boat returning from middle and high school (form 1-7) as we pulled Fatty up the beach. A few of the uniform clad teenagers led us to the village chief, and left us outside a small cement one-room building. Poking our heads in, the structure was packed with men and chiefs from around the entire island of Ono, apparently in the middle of a 2.5-hr long church meeting. They invited both of us in and ushered us to the far end of the room to sit next to Tumichi, Nabowalu’s chief. We carefully maneuvered around the gigantic kava bowl in the middle of the room. Most of the men were smoking, with several younger men circled directly around the main bowl, and another in the corner straining and mixing ground kava (previously the sun-dried root that we gifted them) for immediate use. Commonly known as kava, this beverage is called grog in Fiji and is traditionally drunk from the half-shell of a coconut.  

A sevusevu ceremony was performed in the middle of the meeting/kava ceremony, as they graciously accepted our third and last yaqona kava bouquet as well as a powdered packet of dry ground kava root. One of the men, while holding the yaqona said a long bit in Fijian and the chief translated simply that they all welcomed us and appreciated our gifts. Then the whole room, starting with the chief, followed by an older gentleman whose position we didn't glean, then Chris and then Shawn were individually presented and downed full “cups” of grog as everyone else watched. Three claps before by the man that presented the cup and another three claps after consumption from everyone else. The other half of the room was a bit less formal with several cups of grog being downed simultaneously. The big bowl in the center was refilled and the grog was presented and consumed again (though the second time, they genially poured out a bit of Shawn's for only a 3/4 cup which was good since her lips and tongue were already tingling). Finally the chief told us we were welcome to walk around the village and we took this as our cue to leave the meeting. Whoa, we were blown away! We seized the opportunity to walk through the village and met several fun characters along the way as villagers often stopped whatever they were doing to speak to us and answer all our many questions, always welcoming.
The next day was wet and grey with dramatic clouds passing by. We snuggled down, did a little catching up to organize for the following day’s passage, and Shawn recovered from a small allergic reaction of hives that we blame on the grog. We received word that our friends were still in the Nadi area but they urged us not to miss some amazing snorkeling very close to our anchorage. When 1 October dawned with sun peeking out and weather looking even a little better for passage the following day, we decided to stay yet one more day. We prepared Fatty to for the adventure to sail out past the outer reef to some deeper water snorkeling on the outside of the rimming reef. When we found the spot (we had a handheld GPS and waypoint ala Britannia) we saw spectacular columns of rock that dropped down to depths that looked close, but were deeper than we could dive. Chris got in the water and placed Little Rock (our dinghy anchor) on a dead bit of coral atop one of the columns. Below the surface, it was another world with excellent visibility, amid the steep columns topped with colorful reef. It felt very exposed far away from land as we saw a curious white tip shark below us and rainy clouds slowly moved our way. We didn’t get as much time to explore there as the area deserved, but we were happy to have had sunny time there before the clouds again engulfed us. We sailed back across the main reef at a shallow point, and with the centerboard pulled up, we still managed to kiss the reef with our rudder before making it back inside. At least the clouds brought wind, though it was directly upwind back to Tao, we tacked back and forth in our wetsuits as the rain descended.  Through the rain, a beautiful beach beckoned from just outside our anchorage, but the now chilly weather had us pushing on back to the warm embrace of Tao. We reached her just in time to witness a stunning rainbow. 

As predicted, that evening, the weather cleared and the next day dawned perfect for an overnight passage (140-nm). We sailed off anchor- being very aware of the charted reefs around us followed our previously charted route closely under 80% jib alone out of the Great Astrolabe Reef. Our route was headed directly downwind, so we first set the main and then attempted wing-on-wing. However, even poled out, with the lightwinds, our jib kept loosing air and we weren’t keeping sufficient speeds. We decided to set the Drifter alone and let the breezes push us along. Chris headed down below to grab a little sleep and we had a beautiful run across Kadavu Channel, closely following our set route between Vatulele and Beqa Islands (purposefully avoiding Cakau Lekaleka reef between them) in order to be crossing the Kadavu shipping channel for as short a period as possible. Chris came back on deck as the sun neared the horizon and together we raised the main to shadow and then drop the Drifter, then raised the 80% for maneuverability. Sunset and dinner later, Shawn went to bed while Chris jibed between the islands under a full harvest moon. Lights on Viti Levu’s south shore became visible and there was one questionable light on the horizon at midnight watch change (Happy 11 year anniversary to us!). As the watch wore on, it became apparent that the light was a ship, and after finally showing up on the AIS and Shawn hailing to determine their intensions, it turns out that it was an enormous cargo ship, drifting downwind awaiting sunrise to enter the Navula Passage with pilot at 0600. As we continued toward them, yet another container showed up as well and both passed the channel well ahead of us. At 0800 we approached the pass ourselves, and winds bent around Viti Levu in an advantageous way that allowed us to sail through the tight pass with current ebbing out, satiating Chris’ requirement for adventure. 

Instantly we were in another world. No longer offshore, we were in a busy area protected by reefs. Several sailboats scurried around, most under motor or motor sail in the small breeze that made it around Viti Levu. We had thought that Suva was the main shipping port, so were surprised as we slowly made our way north when two huge container ships headed from Lautoka by us and on out the pass. We kicked back and enjoyed the slow mosey in afternoon seabreezes and calm seas toward Vuda Point Marina our hoped for destination. We had tried several times to make reservations, but it is apparently first-come-first-serve for space there, so we both waged internal battles between the need to enjoy the last moments of this sail and anxiety to get there and procure a space during our planned travels. Six hours later just outside the harbor, we hailed Vuda requesting a waypoint for their entrance since what we saw did not match the chart. It turns out they have carved an entrance through the reef that is marked by white flagged stakes. At just before 1500, we pulled the center staging mooring in the circular harbor to await directions to an open space. By 1630 we were secured Med-style between a houseboat and a large currently unmasted sailboat, bow to the wall and stern toward the center of the basin. A quick glance around, determined our friends were not here. However, after checking in with the marina office, while Chris was in the water adding shackles to remove rope to rope connections on our stern line attachments, we were hailed on the VHF. They were [luckily] anchored a mere 2-nm away. Exhausted, we planned a gathering for the next evening in Sawine Bay with Britannia, Convivia, and Piko and headed toward hot freshwater showers with a grateful sigh of relief.


  1. Sounds like you are having a wonderful adventure - love the stories and the photos.

    When you get a chance, please let us know what "gift" ideas you have for Fiji. Like sizes of fish hooks. We want to be prepared!

  2. Wow! And again, wow! What an adventure!

  3. bula, bula!!! Cheers, Respect and LOVE to you our sea-faring friends of the Vayu~

    Ahui ho malama pono