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New Zealand to Fiji

Written by Cathy Siegismund
May - June 2003


We finally pulled out of Bayswater Marina on Friday, May 23. After a few last minute errands Friday morning, which included a farewell trip to Starbucks, mailing our ADSL modem we had sold, and returning our rental car, Xen and Drew help cast off our lines at 1130 and we motored in partly sunny, but chilly weather on our first of a series of hops we were making up to Opua, where we plan to check out of New Zealand and head to Fiji.

Leaving Auckland after 18 months

We had very little wind and what we had was on the nose, so we ended up motoring all the way to a small bay across from Kawau Island called Christian Bay about 25 miles north of Auckland. The days are getting shorter as the New Zealand winter approaches and even during the day we were wearing fleece in the cockpit. We dropped the hook in the middle of the small bay, and huddled in fleece blankets and watched a movie.

We have the lazarette tightly packed around our Espar heater for the passage so we are leery of using it.  By 0900, the next day under similar conditions we motored another 40 or so miles to a small bay at the entrance to the river that leads to Whangarei. Ken had a small, yet dreaded project of aligning the engine. The engine had been somewhat out of alignment causing quite a bit of vibration, shaking hose clamps loose and causing the drip-less shaft seal to drip - a lot! After we had the anchor down, he worked on the project, which took an hour or so, but it seems fixed. We shared the small bay with a power boat. We planned to try and make Opua the following day, which will mean a dawn or earlier departure. We at least should be able to make it into the Bay of Islands, if not all the way to Opua.

We pulled up the hook at 0600, just at dawn and again in very light winds and flat seas motored to Opua. As we were trying to make it before dark and we got a little breeze in the afternoon, we put up the sails and motor-sailed the last 4 hours or so. This helped push our speed up over 6 knots most of the way and we pulled into the Opua marina just as it was getting dark. We will consult with Bob McDavitt, weather guru, tomorrow, but are planning a Tuesday departure. We had nice hot showers, and tomorrow we'll give Felicity one last nice fresh water bath and complete final passage preparations. Ken has a few last minute projects and I have laundry and some pre-passage cooking, as well as a last grocery shop for fresh food once we confirm our departure date.

By five in the afternoon, Bob McDavitt had blessed our planned Tuesday departure. I was finishing up laundry, and running last minute errands. Drew and Vernita had driven up to Opua for the night to see us off. We had dinner at a nice Opua restaurant and had a girls vs. guys Canasta game rematch, the girls let the guys win, as we had crushed them in the last game. We continued working on last minute projects with Drew and Vernita's help. We finally finished up and cast off our lines at 1500. Jim and Eleanor, aboard Solstice from San Francisco, whom we had met at Christmas were also preparing to leave for Fiji. They were a week or so away from being ready, but came over and helped us cast off as well. It was hard to believe 18 months had gone by since we had pulled into Opua a day behind Drew and Vernita. We really enjoyed our stay in New Zealand, and will miss the new friends we made there as well as our very good friends Drew and Vernita who are calling New Zealand home for at least a few years.

Drew and Vernita with us on Felicity's bow wishing us a bon voyage

We made our Tuesday, May 27th departure, and only missed our planned noon departure by a few hours. We had hoped to leave New Zealand a few weeks earlier to avoid being at sea on my birthday, as that really wasn't how I wanted to ring in my 40's. However, weather and incomplete boat projects delayed our departure.

We couldn't have asked for a nicer day to leave New Zealand. It was a sunny, mild autumn day. We sailed out of the Bay of Islands in 10-15 knots of wind on a beam reach in flat seas. We had full main, jib and staysail during a nice quiet dinner as the sun set over the Bay of Islands. Now if we could only have that for another 1,100 miles to Fiji - yeah right!

There are certain stretches of water that cause cruisers to take them very seriously. Granted we're not talking about Southern Ocean here, but the passage between New Zealand and the tropics has been known to be nasty, so nasty in fact it has claimed its share of boats and some lives. The most famous of course is the Queen's Birthday Storm of the mid-1990's, which clobbered a group of boats making the fall passage to Tonga and Fiji from New Zealand.

Drama of course aside, we don't foresee anything that daunting -- we're just trying to avoid sailing to weather. The theory is to leave New Zealand on the middle to back side of a low pressure system, with its southwesterly winds, and get a fast ride north making some easting if you are headed to Tonga or Fiji. You then hope to continue to get a boost from the front side of the following high pressure system, which should provide winds from southwest to southeast. You may have some motoring in light winds between these two or as the center of the high crosses. For you Northern Hemisphere dwellers, remember the direction of low and high pressure systems are reversed in the Southern Hemisphere. You then hope that you are far enough away from New Zealand and into the predominantly southeastern trade winds before the back side of the high reaches you and the wind turns northerly causing that distasteful point of sail in front of the beam.

Our passage route from Opua, New Zealand to Suva, Fiji

We left New Zealand heading northeast. We were trying to get some easting in and then if the wind predictions looked favorable we would head more or less directly for Suva. We wanted to keep west of 180 degrees latitude, as east of it, there start to be reefs, including North and South Minerva, which claimed a boat last November, and other unfriendly bits of land that are hard to see on radar and one would rather not hit.

We expected a passage of between 10 and 15 days depending on the weather. The first 7 days of the trip really couldn't have been better as far as the weather. We had 10 - 20 knot winds behind us and gentle seas, with interspersed periods of lighter winds when we motored. The first couple of days of course were still full of exhaustion for both of us and a little queasiness for me. However, Stugeron, the anti-nausea wonder-drug for me, remains effective in keeping my seasickness in check. For the first 3 days we pretty much slept every off watch. We saw a few freighters heading to New Zealand the first couple of nights. The third night we spotted a sailboat, which had left Opua a few hours before we did, and was heading toward Minerva Reef. After talking to them on the VHF, and confirming they had seen us, they passed within 1/2 a mile to the stern as we crossed paths.

We were very lucky with the weather window we picked to depart New Zealand. The high, which we had been riding to Fiji continued to grow and produce moderate winds from a favorable direction.

Our seventh day out of New Zealand, was June 3, my 40th birthday. I really had not wanted to be on a passage pulling three-on three-off watches as I rolled into the next decade, but I guess it's better than being stuck in a cubicle at work somewhere. Ken, knowing I had really wanted to be in Fiji on my birthday, did a wonderful job of making it as pleasant as possible; though he wouldn't bite at taking all of my night watches. He had volunteered to bake me a birthday cake, but as the wind and beam on seas were increasing, I told him I'd take a rain check and he could bake me the cake once we got to Suva.

When I woke up for my 0000-0300 watch, not my favorite, Ken had decorated the boat with a big happy birthday sign and streamers. The following morning after my morning off-watch nap, a celebratory shower in the quickly warming weather, and finally changing out of fleece and into shorts, I got to open presents and cards that Ken had stowed aboard from friends and family.

Cath's 40th birthday in route from New Zealand to Fiji

Ken really surprised me with a present of a week-long trip aboard the Fiji Aggressor a live-aboard dive boat we'll get to enjoy during our stay in Fiji.

The weather gods had been extremely kind to us for the first seven days of the trip. However, soon after the birthday celebrations ended, the weather began to get a little more boisterous. The winds swung around to the east and the seas moved more to the east as well. This put us on a beam reach, which is my favorite point of sail in nice flat water, but with 2-3 meter seas smacking Felicity around it can get pretty uncomfortable. With about 400 miles to go to our outer way point by the southern Fijian island of Kadavu and another 50 miles after that to Suva, we hoped to arrive sometime on Friday, June 6. We had about a day and a half of 20-25 knot winds, and another day and a half of 25-30. We tended to reduce sail at night to slow the boat and make it a more comfortable, sleep-conducive ride and to be able to handle the nightly squalls we were getting, which would occasionally have gusts up into the 30's.

Despite all of our Auckland boat projects, we had a few problems on the passage, as you often do. About half way through the trip, we confirmed with each other that we thought the watermaker water tasted a little salty. Not what you really want to have. We continued to use the water for showers, dishes, and cooking but moved to juice and pop for drinking. Dehydration can be a very serious issue at sea; fortunately, we only had a few more days to reach Suva and it was not too terribly hot. However, this could have been quite serious and if it had been a longer passage we would have had to consider catching rain water.

We also had various leaks we thought we had fixed. This included the watermaker, which just ran into the bilge; a mystery deck leak in the v-berth, which resulted in a good number of my cloths being salty upon arrival; and our dreaded main companionway hatch leak. We discovered this little gem of leak at the end of our last cruising season. When a large wave hits us from the side, even with the companionway doors and hatch closed, a sheet of water flows into the boat along the edge of the companionway hatch. Fortunately, we were on a starboard tack most of the time so the sheets of water were just washed into the galley instead of onto the navigation station and all of our electronics. We now believe that the leak is coming between the hatch slides when water builds up a pool next to it after a large wave deposits water next to the dodger. We're back to square one with this problem, but are going to try and find a solution once we're in Suva.

We also had problems establishing a reliable email connection using the SSB radio. The SSB seemed to work adequately for checking into the nets, but was finicky to unusable for email the farther away from New Zealand we got. This, like the watermaker, had been a rock-solid system for us during our last cruising season, so we found this very frustrating. We know our friends and family like to hear from us when we're on passage and we love the diversion of receiving email during passages. We later discovered that the wire attached to the backstay was corroded and fixing that appears to have solved this issue.

We also had some problems with the engine overheating, especially at higher RPMs. We think this might be a missing impeller blade. However, by the time we discovered this, the winds were such that we really didn't have to motor much, except for charging. We also seem to have an engine starter issue, but fortunately we carry a spare, so that too will have to go in the job jar for Suva. In Suva, we found that the impeller was fine and that the impeller belt was simply a little loose. We're hoping that tightening that fixes the overheating issue. The starter was also replaced but the culprit appears to be a weak starting battery as electrical connections are fine.

There were other small issues, but one momentary mistake in the middle of the night could have caused some excitement at sea. At our 0000 watch change the wind had climbed to around 30 knots give or take and the boat was feeling very overpowered, making it tough to sleep. We had been sailing with a second reef in the main and a reefed jib. We decided to drop the main, furl the jib, and hoist the staysail. As usual, all of this drama happens on a "dark and stormy night". We furled the jib, and then I headed Felicity up into the wind, trying to more or less heave to with the main while Ken raised the staysail. This did slow the boat and ease the motion, providing a more relaxing and restful night. However, during the sail change, with the 2-3 meter seas smashing into the boat a few of them drenching us and the pitch dark rainy night, Ken forgot to tie off the main halyard. The next morning when the winds had eased some, we then realized that with only the staysail we were sliding too far west and would not be able to clear Kadavu on the way to Suva, we decided to raise the main again. We then discovered that not only had the loose main halyard had wound itself around the Blipper, the radar reflector mounted about halfway up the front of our mast, but that the staysail halyard while being raised was also wrapped around the Blipper. We now had to worry about chafe and the possibility of breaking these halyards. The staysail we decided we would risk, but we were reluctant to raise the main. We decided to try sail with a partially furled jib again and see if we could hold a more easterly course for Suva. The obvious option would have been sending Ken up the rig to untangle the halyards, but in the increasing sea conditions and 25-30 knot winds neither of us were very keen on that. Other options were to motorsail, which we did for while, but we lacked the fuel to do this all the way to Suva. The worst option was to head off the wind and go to Nadi instead of Suva going to the west of Kadavu.

Our first option of using the reefed jib allowed us to gain back our easting, though often sailing at 30+ degrees of heel, with our leeward ports often looking more like aquarium windows. Needless to say, the quality of galley cuisine suffered a bit because of this. Finally, after 12 hours or so of this, the winds eased back to the 20-25 knot range and after clearing Kadavu, we were able to fall off the wind some and get the seas on our stern quarter. Of course for the last night as we turned further to the west to head to Suva, we were running almost dead down wind, which is also not a very comfortable point of sail. However, with only 50 miles to go it was easily tolerated.

On the more entertaining side, Ken always wears his head lamp when he goes out to change sail at night. You may ask why he doesn't just turn on the spreader lights; I think he just looks for any excuse to wear the headlamp. Earlier in the passage, Ken went up to reef sporting the headlamp and upon his return noticed a six-inch squid had defied gravity and had leapt onto Felicity's side deck, we presume at Ken's head lamp.

A few nights later, Ken again went forward to reef, again with headlamp, while I was off watch. I could have sworn I heard a small yelp from outside, though the skipper denies this. I do know there was a good deal of commotion in the galley with the water pump running and some hushed expletives. Apparently, on the return trip to the cockpit, Ken had stepped on a hapless flying fish we assume had also been lured onto the side deck by the seductive headlamp. There are certainly less appealing things than stepping on a very smelly, squishy flying fish, barefoot in the middle of the night. Without trailing a hook of any sort, we managed to lure one squid, three flying fish, and one unlucky mackerel onto Felicity. It is debatable if the mackerel was a victim of the headlamp or just got washed into the cockpit by a wave.

We arrived at Suva at sunrise on Friday, June 6 for just under a 10-day passage. We were very happy with this despite a few gear and system hiccups and a couple of days with the beam-on-sea washing machine motion.

Suva, Fiji

The last few hours of the passage as we motored to the reef entrance to Suva, we cleaned ourselves up and tidied up the boat, as we expected to be visited by customs, immigration, and agriculture officials upon arrival.

Ken tidying up the cockpit after our arrival in Suva

Per instructions from Suva harbour control on VHF 16, we anchored in the quarantine area. We were surrounded by three large Japanese Navy ships and a couple of freighters.

Japanese Navy ship anchored behind us in Suva Harbor

We were a little nervous about the customs visit, as last year Jason and Tam had checked into Savusavu and had been given a little bit of hassle because they exceeded the liquor limit; and after a less than subtle hint from the official they gave him a bottle of gin and escaped paying duty.  We had decided to be truthful about our excessive wine collection and just pay duty if required, though we also had a token bottle of gin if a greasing of the skids was required. This fretting was however, all for naught, as we finished cleaning up the boat we saw all three of the Japanese ships pull anchor and move to the wharf. We then got a call from Suva harbour patrol that they wanted the skipper of Felicity and another boat which had just arrived to come to the customs dock in our dinghies.

I sent Ken in with our liquor list, as liquor, firearms, and tobacco seem to be the only things that Fiji is that concerned about, and we don't carry firearms or tobacco.  When Ken arrived at the customs dock, most of the officials where quite preoccupied by the three navy ships and didn't seem to care less about what we had on board, and no official ever came aboard Felicity.

I continued cleaning up the boat while Ken finished the all the check-in procedures. We then moved Felicity out of the quarantine anchorage, and closer to the Royal Suva Yacht Club. We feel a little lost without our usual cruising buddies to meet us, but hope to catch up with Green Ghost, Velella, and Altair sometime this year. We also will no doubt meet other cruisers. and regardless will enjoy exploring this lovely country.

 

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