Dodging Reefs (Part I)

Monday, May 31, 2004

Vuda Point Marina

Near Lautoka, Viti Levu, Fiji

Dear Friends and Family:

Since I last wrote, we've dodged innumerable reefs, dragged the anchor numerous times, set ourselves down, rudder first, on a reef, floated ourselves off, and finally planted ourselves in the strangest marina I've ever seen. Details follow.



Don't miss "Dodging Reefs, Part II"

Map of Fiji



When I last wrote, we were looking for the perfect snorkeling place out of Suva. We had just been joined by Craig's cousin, Gail, and the trip around the northern side of Viti Levu looked promising, with the chart showing myriad islets and reefs, and tourist brochures which talked about the stunning diving in the Bligh Water. (Captain Bligh, of Mutiny on the Bounty fame, brought his longboat of loyal men through the Bligh Water after the Bounty was taken over by the mutineers.) We should have been clued in by the fact that the cruising guides say very little about the north coast. In actual fact the reef markers are very poorly maintained or in many cases completely missing, the charts are hundreds of meters offset from the GPS readings, and the mud outflows from the rivers on the big island mask the color of the coral reefs, so many are nearly invisible.

Our first night out, we anchored at Leleuvia, a lovely little island with what promised to be wonderful snorkeling. We arrived late in the afternoon, so Craig and I did a scouting snorkel, seeing a large population of fish and other marine fantasies. We decided to leave more exploration for morning. Unfortunately the wind kicked up during the night, and snorkeling was not a reasonable possibility. We sailed over to the east coast of Viti Levu, but didn't find any suitable bays. Finally we just nosed in close to the coast for the night (near the village of Luvunivuaka) and found secure anchorage in light winds. Although we couldn't see any lights close by, we could hear drums coming through the jungle. In the dark, with Venus setting over a volcanic peak, it was easy to imagine ourselves back 100 years ago when we might have had to worry about cannibals coming out of the jungle, looking for fresh meatů As it was, the only people we saw were women, wading out onto the reef, apparently looking for octopus hidden in the coral. Everywhere in Fiji, there seem to be women walking out on the reef - including at night, with kerosene lanterns - looking for sea life to be harvested.

The next day we sailed out into open water, and around the northeast corner of Viti Levu. We were heading for a pair of islands with the unlikely names of Nananu-I-Ra and Nananu-I- Thake. We took to calling them the Nanu-Nanu Islands (for those of you who are too young, that was Robin Williams' greeting when he played the arriving alien Mork from Ork, on the old TV show, Mork & Mindy). Anyway, it looked fairly straightforward - you head west, and at the appropriate moment (as shown by the GPS and the chart) you turn to port, past the reef markers, and head through Nananu Passage. I was at the helm, and there were no reef markers to be seen.

(Reef markers are actually pretty hard to see, consisting of a thin stick stuck into the reef, about 5 feet high, sometimes with a triangle on top, and sometimes leaning crazily to one side.  The example in the photo above was NOT seen in Nananu passage, but it's approximately what we were looking for.)  Sometimes reef markers are not there at all. This was apparently one of those times. All of a sudden there was a bright yellow reef in the water, about 10 feet to one side of the boat. I yelled, slowed down, and Craig got up to the bow, and directed me to turn around quickly and go back. Whew! That was a close one! Hitting a reef like that, at 7 knots, would have been a major disaster.  

It turned out that the chart was hundreds of meters off from the GPS (some of data used for these charts date nearly back to Captain Cook, and HE certainly didn't have a GPS to tell him exactly where he was). In addition, at least three reef markers were completely missing. We finally spotted a buoy, halfway down the pass, and made our way very slowly and carefully through the various twists and turns, and found a place to anchor near Nananu-I-Thake island. This is an area with many small resorts, and many large beach houses - no doubt owned by rich foreigners. Nananu-I-Thake is mostly forested, with one large, substantial dock and only one visible house.

Sunset over Nananu-I-Ra Island

We enjoyed the relative solitude the next morning, listening to the birds on shore and watching the very large bluebottle jellyfish float by. (We thought for a time these were Portuguese Man of War jellyfish (think "fatal sting"), but a local divemaster has now assured us that the water here is too warm for those, and that the bluebottle jellyfish are harmless.) The water wasn't clear, and the only beaches seemed to be in front of the elegant houses, so we elected to move on in our quest for the perfect snorkeling site.

We headed west to Nukurauvula Passage, and it also proved to be hard to find, with missing markers at the outer edge of the pass, and again a chart offset against the GPS of hundreds of meters. We finally spotted the "Sand Cay" shown on the chart, and adjusted our thinking to put it on the east side of the pass. As we approached we noticed the reef marker beside the Sand Cay.  (See photo of reef marker above, with Sand Cay in the right side of the picture).  The rest of the way in was fairly straightforward, and we headed toward the apparently protected anchorage inshore of Nanuyakoto Island.

Unfortunately the holding here was very poor. (We have used the Spade anchor - plough type - hundreds of times, circumnavigating Vancouver Island, and all the way across the Pacific, and it has failed to set only two or three times.) We re-set the anchor several times, with no success, and finally deployed in addition our Fortress FX-85. That proved to be a successful combination. We worked until well after dark on the anchoring situation, and then fell into bed, exhausted.

Retrieving and washing the Fortress anchor

Indian fishermen near Nanuyakoto Island

The next morning, at 7:00 a.m., we were visited by three Indian fishermen, who were coming in from a night's fishing out on the reef. Their catch was very poor - probably only a dozen small fish in a box that looked like it was capable of holding several hundred pounds. They were fascinated with our boat - leaning over the rail to catch a glimpse of the navigation instruments, and very interested in our story of having come from the west coast of America. They said they were heading home to get some sleep, and then they would head out again in the afternoon. They said they sometimes sleep at night while they are fishing, but it gets cold. There is no covered area or blankets in the boat, and frankly it doesn't look as though there is anyplace comfortable to sleep.
Most Indians live either in the cities, or in individual houses on their farms or sugar plantations. Indigenous Fijians, by contrast live together in villages, and the land and nearby sea is owned in common by the village. We don't ever see the Indians and indigenous Fijians mixing socially, except in government offices. Several times when we have asked, Indian will describe themselves as 3rd or 4th generation Indian, even though they are Fijian citizens. There were coups in 1987 and 1999 in which elected politicians of Indian heritage were forcibly removed from office by native Fijians. Since then things are quiet but some Indians are emigrating to New Zealand, Australia, Canada or the United States.

An hour or so after the Indians' visit, we were visited by two Fijians - Sam and Joseph - in a similar boat, but without an engine. They said they had been out fishing, but they couldn't have gone far with their two poles as their only means of propulsion. (And they had no fish). My guess is that they really came out to have a look at us and at the boat. Sam and Joseph pointed out their village on shore, and invited us to come visit, or they would come to the boat with all their friends, bring kava, and we'd have a good time. When we said we had to depart soon, they indicated great disappointment. We explained that Craig's Dad was arriving in Nadi and we had to be there to meet him. Family has great significance for the Fijians, so I think they understood our leaving.

The gift of kava roots ("sevusevu") is supposed to be presented to the chief of the village. We knew that we were trespassing on village waters, without having presented sevusevu, and Craig tried to make amends by presenting the package of kava roots to Sam and Joseph. He asked them to give the sevusevu to the chief, with our apologies that we couldn't come in person. This actually seemed to be the right thing to do. Joseph asked to come on board to accept the kava with a prayer. He and Sam bent over, and Joseph came out with a torrent of words in Fijian (we caught the word, "America") and ended with "God bless you" which he repeated a number of times. I think they were genuinely touched with our offering. We hope the chief understood.

As we approached Lautoka, and the west side of the island of Viti Levu, the reef markers seemed to be better maintained. We entered the reef again through Ba Passage. Craig had by this time taken bearings to set the chart offset so that what we saw on the display seemed fairly close to what the GPS was telling us. We anchored at Natunuku, and again experienced poor holding, but eventually the anchor set.

Dodging Reefs Part II