Monday, September 7, 2015

Visiting Lautoka, Fiji

Our sunset view wasn't so bad after all!

While some folks spending time cruising Fiji may not think much of Lautoka - we found it to be our favorite "big city" on Viti Levu. It may be true that the anchorage is not as picturesque as many of the other beautiful places in this country - especially since you usually end up anchored right next to the busy port - but the city itself has a LOT to offer. 

Super fresh yummy eggs from the market.
We visited Lautoka many times while we were in Fiji and here's a few of the reasons we loved the place...
  • A multitude of well supplied grocery stores to choose from
  • Some of the best banana bread we've ever tasted
  • Awesome $5 haircuts that didn't make us want to wear a hat
  • Super nice locals (though that's pretty true everywhere in Fiji)
  • The 2nd largest (and on Saturdays the absolute BEST) fresh market in all of Fiji 
The fish market had lots of options...
Puffer fish anyone?

Look at those gorgeous stacks of tomatoes for $1 US!
  • Always a cab ready (for cheap!) right when you need it most
  • A really cool sports stadium where we watched Fiji beat the pants off of the Cook Islanders in rugby 
  • Amazing views of the burning sugar cane on the hillsides at night (though I could do without the coating of ash all over the boat)
The glow of sugar cane fires - the whole
hillside seemed on fire at times!
  • Everything seemed about 5-10% cheaper than in Nadi
  • And the only place we were able to learn all about the local sugar cane industry! 

One of the 100's of daily sugar cane
trucks lined up to be processed.
And in truth, you could anchor closer to Bekana Island if you wanted a nicer view, but we liked being just a short dinghy ride from the town. 

Overall, we liked Lautoka because it pretty much provided one stop shopping with a significantly better "vibe" then the nearby Nadi. If you are cruising Fiji and need some time in the city to resupply, we highly recommend giving Lautoka a chance. We can guarantee that the more time you spend poking around there, the more you'll like it!

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Suva – Fiji’s Capital

Beautiful artistry at the festival.
There's nothing like a carnival, right?
In August of last year, after our visit to Levuka (the original capital of Fiji), we thought we should check out the current capital  - Suva!  Definitely the biggest city in the country, Suva is the main port for Fiji and is definitely the political and commercial capital of this wonderful country.

Groups of fishing boats all on one big mooring ball...
Entering the harbor at Suva is an experience all on it’s own.  As you approach the outer reef you begin to see a multitude of abandoned wrecks, a stern reminder of the need for careful navigation in this area. I think we counted at least 6 wrecks on the way in.  After you enter the harbor, there are more sunken hazards to watch for (most of them marked or easily seen thankfully!).  But what's really crazy is the multitude of huge fishing vessels that will all be tied to one large mooring buoy – with most of them exhibiting an advanced state of disrepair. 

Now that's how you run a ride 3rd world style!
But if you can get past the view and the almost constant rain that falls here in the rain-shadow, Suva has a lot to offer the curious traveler.  We were lucky enough to arrive during the Hibiscus Festival – which meant plenty of fun activities, including lots of interesting food, arts and crafts and even some really sketchy looking rides!  Brett was especially interested in how they powered the Ferris Wheels – that’s some serious ingenuity... 

Some pretty good food at the festival!
Other areas that shouldn’t be missed?  Suva has the biggest and BEST fresh market we have ever been to.  It just goes on and on and on – fresh, beautiful fruit and vegetables as far as you can see in a riot of color.  Need some fish?  Maybe some eggs?  How about some nicely packaged Kava to present to the village chiefs? Or some Indian spices or brightly colored candy?  No problem!  The Suva market has it all. 

A replica of a classic Fijian boat.
Another must stop spot was the Suva museum.  What looked fairly small at first opened up into some really great displays on Fijian culture – both in the past and in modern times.  One display showcased some modern Fijian wedding dresses made out of Tapa cloth that were absolutely stunning.  Definitely glad we made it a part of our Suva visit.

Yep - just a motor and some pulleys!
All in all we would recommend Suva as a fun place to stop in and stock up before heading back out into the beautiful (and much more remote) areas that Fiji has to offer.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Levuka on Ovalau Island, Fiji

We cruised this area in August of 2014.

The entire ensemble of children that sang and performed.

Sometime pre-August of last year we decided it would be fun to do a circumnavigation of Viti Levu – a pretty big, but completely manageable undertaking for the three short weeks we had before our friend Jenn arrived in Nadi.

Levuka Church
Having made our way through the previously traveled east side of the island, we decided our first big stop would be Levuka, on Ovalau Island.  Since Levuka was the original capital of Fiji we thought it would be interesting to explore there.

While there was plenty of interesting older buildings and a very cool museum – the best part of Levuka turned out to be something we completely lucked into.  While exploring one of the larger churches – we were greeted by some young boys wielding spears and doing their best to look scary.

Turns out they were from the main school and all the kids were putting on a big performance for the big cruise ship that was in town. 

The youngest kids performing - some for the first time.
You should have seen how excited their moms were!

 Kids of all ages performed a variety of dances – some to welcome us and some that simply showcased Fijian culture.

Handing out welcome flowers to every guest.
They were just adorable and so serious about what they were doing!  But there were still plenty of smiles and quite a bit of laughter too as they performed their many songs and dances. 

The older boys performing a seated dance.

Seeing and meeting the children within the countries we've traveled has been one of the biggest joys of this cruising life.  Their shyness, followed by beautiful smiles and a total willingness to interact with us has made us grin more times than we can count.

 We are very grateful that this community decided to include us in their lovely celebration!

The young women sing.

On the road again…

First off – I just wanted to express my heartfelt apology to our faithful followers for their emails and questions on what the deal is with our blog (or should I say our complete lack of a blog in recent months).  I’m happy to report that I’m FINALLY going to post some updates after an almost 10 month hiatus – including a few that will fill in what we were doing during that time. 

An extra big apology to those of you out there that have been faithfully checking back to see if there was anything new.  Hopefully all of our readers haven’t completely deserted us!  I greatly appreciate your keeping after me to get back on the horse.  I know I’ll be very glad in the long run to have this log of our activities when I’m old and grey….

Happy reading!

Stacey & Brett

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

A Very Bad Day

Toberua Island Resort
The beautiful Toberua Island Resort
When you arrive in Fiji, it is with dire warnings of the hazards to navigation – of countless uncharted reefs and "markers" (i.e. sticks in the water) that get destroyed after each cyclone season.  Considering most of the charts we are using were developed in the late 1800's, you can imagine how inaccurate they might be and how challenging it makes it to navigate these reef strewn waters.  We were told that during the 2013 cruising season over 200 boats went aground and 4 of those were a complete loss.  Dire warnings indeed!

Bad Light
Not so easy to see the reef in low light...
Good Light
Much better lighting for reef spotting!

So with those words ringing often in our ears, we have proceeded with the utmost caution while navigating here in Fiji and have often had to call on every ounce of experience we’ve had to get out of a hairy situation.  But unfortunately, all the experience in the world can’t help you every time and so it was that just after 7am on August 12th, we found ourselves completely aground on a reef just after high tide.  This is the story of one of our worst nightmares come true.

The Reef
The view at water level where we grounded.
We left the anchorage fairly early in the morning, before coffee as we had a long day of travel ahead and it’s important to arrive during strong sunlight.  We had tracks to lead us out and so felt confident we could navigate back the way we had come.  We'd been underway for about 8 minutes and there was some confusion about which side of a mark we should be on, when suddenly we felt a thud.  Looking over the side we quickly realized we’d made the wrong choice!  With the low light it happened incredibly fast and within minutes the wind chop had pushed us another 10 feet further onto the shallow reef.

With the bottom of the boat banging against the hard ground, we immediately lowered the dinghy and did everything we could think of to kedge ourselves off, knowing that the tide was falling with every minute that passed.  Unfortunately there were no other cruising boats nearby to help us.  There was, however, the Toberua Island Resort, so when it became obvious that our dinghy and sails were not going to be enough, Brett left to enlist their help.

Over 1
Bella Vita on her side as the tide goes out.
Max, the manager of the resort and a prior boater himself, quickly organized some of the resort employees along with a boat carrying wood beams and plywood.  These would be used to shore up the falling side of Bella Vita in an effort to keep her from completely rolling over as the tide went out.  This was critically important because if she laid completely on her side, there would be a good chance she would not re-float before she started to fill with water. 

Working along side the local Fijians from the resort, we did what we could to shore Bella Vita up, but as the tide continued to drop and the weight of the boat continued to shift, it became clear that the materials wouldn’t be strong enough to support the full 36,000 pounds of the boats’ weight.  We had already kedged two anchors perpendicular to the boat in an effort to relieve some of this weight – one  mid-ship and one from the bow with a line to the stern, but even that was not enough.  So as our dear Bella Vita continued to drop we  shoved everything we could think of (extra sails, fenders, even the inflatable kayak) under the boat to keep her angle as high as possible.   As the water dropped we prayed that our efforts would be enough.

We used everything we could to prop
her up, including fenders and our kayak.
I cannot describe the stress of watching your home slowly and painfully fall over on its side.  Giving 100% to do everything in your power to save her while secretly running over every worst case scenario in your mind is a bit mind blowing and certainly exhausting.  Walking around our sweet girl with the water level at just 6 inches is a site I will unfortunately never forget.

Over the next six hours as the water started to rise, we did our best to determine a plan of action.  The tide would not be high until 7:30 pm and it would be dark, so we needed to have every duck in a row.  We ran long lines off the forward cleats for the two boats that would try to pull us off the reef and tried to secure everything left below for the return to upright.  We tried to eat a meager meal I’d prepared (hard to fix food when the boat is 90 degrees to normal) but I couldn’t eat, sick with worry and thoughts about having just witnessed the super moon, which means the highest of tides is past and if we couldn’t get Bella off the reef that night….….our dream was over.

Over 2
This is a picture I'd hoped we'd never take.
So we waited..….for hours.  Slowly watching the water inch back up, praying the boat would re-float – some of the longest hours of our life.  The water slowly began to cover the toe rail, with no change in position – I feared the worst was coming true!  But wait… the water rose another 2 inches we could slowly see her start to lift.  Hallelujah!  Over the next four hours she came up completely with no water intrusion.  After several more hours of listening to the keel pound against the coral in the dark the tide was finally up and it was time to attempt getting off the reef.  

Toberua Island Resort brought out two of their strongest boats armed with an amazing 500 horsepower each – which we tied to our two forward cleats, meant to handle extreme pressure loads.  In complete darkness I pulled in on our anchor while Brett pushed our motor to its max RPMs and the two resort boats pulled with all their strength.  After approximately 15 minutes we had turned around but were still not off the reef.  The feeling of dread was overpowering as I contemplated the very real possibility that we would not be able to get off.  It was horrible to feel so powerless to save our home.

Over 3
Almost all the way down now.
After conferring with the guys on the resort boats, we reset our main anchor perpendicular to our new angle and basically ran the same drill again.  The hope being that pulling from a different angle would be our ticket to freedom.  After another 10-15 minutes of pulling Bella Vita still hadn’t budged and I admit I thought it was time to give up.  How much more could we do?  But those amazing Fijians just kept pulling and as I continued to bring in the anchor I felt it grab giving us that extra little bite we must have needed.  Suddenly Bella Vita released and shot off the reef like a rocket – zero to 8 knots in seconds!  I couldn't believe it.  A shout went up as we all started screaming and whooping and celebrating the fact that our girl was finally free!  You could even hear the people at the nearby resort cheering along with us, having watched our ordeal all day.  I can’t express how ecstatic I felt at that moment (and still feel remembering) listening to everyone cheering, shouting and cheering myself as tears of relief streamed down my face.  Our dream of seeing the world would not be over.

I can honestly say I’ve never experienced anything so emotionally and physically draining.  I imagine it's a little like watching you house burn down.  Knowing that everything you have may be lost.  Knowing that the dream we worked for and saved so long to live could be over that quickly.  But through some sort of miracle, and through the help of some incredible people, our boat (and dream) remains intact with amazingly little damage - just some scratches on the keel and worn off bottom paint.  We are very, very lucky and owe the local Fijians and the resort managers a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid.

We can't thank Max and Sandy enough.
In classic Fijian fashion, everyone refused any compensation (even for the fuel – a highly valuable commodity here which I’m sure they used a lot of).  Max was quick to reply, “In Fiji, one does not charge people for saving them.”  I can’t help compare how different their attitude is from the recent reactions to some US sailors saved last spring, with many indignant Americans demanding they repay the Coast Guard for their efforts.  All I can say is that even with the utmost care, accidents happen and I am eternally grateful that there was someone there to help.  People who had never met us, that were willing to give everything they had to help us save our boat.  We can’t thank them enough, as we never would have made it off the reef without their help, but we are especially grateful for Charles, Mata and Saula, the main people behind the efforts to help from the resort, along with Max and his wife Sandy – managers of the Toberua Island Resort. 

The Girls
Who knew we could seat 7!!?  :)
In the days that followed we paid several visits to the people involved, bringing gifts of kava and baked goods (which was all they would accept), thanking them each personally whether they had helped or not, and gratefully sharing in their kava circle.  We also had many of them out to see the boat (after we got her shipshape again) as most had never been on a yacht and so were very curious about how we live.  Their laughter and delight with the visit went a long way towards making the days that followed significantly brighter.

As with all bad days, I never for a minute forgot (and reminded myself often throughout the long hours) that no matter what happened, the important thing was that Brett and I were safe, unharmed and we still had each other, even if we lost the boat AND the dream.  At the end of the day, the love we share and the life we’ve built together is the only thing that really matters.  However I am definitely relieved that our dream has not come to an end and we will be able to continue our explorations and travel. 

From the left - Mata, Charles and Saula - Vinaka (thank you)!
As we said our final farewell a few days later, I was talking with Charles (the boat captain that was our biggest helper) and couldn’t help getting emotional over how much his help had meant to us.  He quickly tried to sooth my tears away, telling me clearly that it was fate that brought us together that day – that we were meant to meet and he was meant to help us.  I couldn't help but feel it was also fate showing us how important it is to include the locals in our travels as they have many things to offer and to teach us along this journey.

While it’s often difficult not to dwell on the things we did wrong that allowed this to happen, Charles’ attitude and the giving nature of the people we've met because of it have gone a long way towards turning a horrible situation into something much more meaningful.  We would like to take this opportunity to thank them all again for their help and support and to highly recommend that if you ever come to Fiji, you include the Toberua Island Resort and their amazing staff as a part of your visit.  They are a truly wonderful group of people.

Vinaka Vakalevu TBR!
Thank you very much TBR!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

A Perfect Day in the Blue Lagoon


A few days ago we arrived in the upper Yasawa Islands, into a bay referred to as the Blue Lagoon.  As some of you may have guessed, it’s named after the movie that came out in 1980 starring Brooke Shields and Christopher Atkins as shipwrecked, love-struck teens.   The anchorage is located just off of Nanuya-Sewa Island and it is just as beautiful as it was in my hazy memory of the movie.

The view to the south of Nanuya-Sewa
We were soon surprised to find almost 20 boats in the anchorage, about half of which we knew!  We hadn’t seen this many boats in one place in all of Fiji apart from Savu Savu or Muscat Cove – so obviously this is a popular spot!  We were delighted to catch up with several friends here, especially Muwari who we hadn’t seen since May…

Brain Coral
Amazingly colorful coral
When we awoke on our first morning here the weather was as perfect as it gets.   Sunny skies with just a few clouds and a light breeze to keep you cool.  No rollers coming into the anchorage, sending the boat careening back and forth – just smooth water with Bella Vita barely moving on the glassy surface and the nearby reefs clearly visible through the bright blue water.  When I used to dream of what cruising would be like, this is almost exactly what I imagined!

Camo Fish
This shy little guy blends right in!
We soon decided that such a day deserved a reprieve from the long list of chores and odd jobs we address each day – that we should just enjoy and make the most of this seemingly perfect day.  So after breakfast we got together with John on Mystic Moon to explore some of the local snorkeling spots. 

We arrived at our first spot, scouted by Brett the evening prior and quickly slipped into the water.  GASP!  Even with our “skins” (a lightweight fabric that provides sun protection and helps keep you a little warmer) the water felt very brisk!  But we soon adjusted and began our explorations.  Though the water here was a little murky the fish were plentiful and we also saw some nice bits of coral.

Yellow Carpet Coral
Amazing how soft and lush coral can appear.
After warming back up in the dinghy, we made the short trip to our second spot, just off the beach a little south of the resort.  We immediately could tell this was a popular spot for feeding the fish as we were positively swarmed the minute we got in the water.  While I greatly enjoy being surrounded by colorful fish I must say I’m not a fan of people feeding them as these fish are not meant to eat bread and can’t really process it properly.  But I’ll get off that soapbox for now….

Mini Mushrooms
These almost look like mushrooms...
It is definitely a little startling to have several fish right next to your face every time you look in a new direction, but once they figured out we didn’t have any food for them, they started to keep a little further away.  There was  nice variety of small fish along with some larger parrot fish that were beautiful.  I would definitely consider it a successful snorkeling trip!

The view looking back to the pass
After a quick beer on Mystic Moon and a visit from Muwari, we made our way back to Bella Vita for lunch before gathering on the beach with Mystic Moon and the crew from Calypso for a walk around the island.  The conditions were perfect – on the way to low tide, not too hot and a light breeze to keep us cool.

Treading carefully through the muck...
The mellow hike took us across a wide expanse of sandy beach, around to the pass between Nanuya-Sewa and Nanuya-Levu, to a bit of a mucky bog (tide was on the way out after all!).  After carefully picking our way through the shallower parts of the pass we soon made it the sandy beach in front of the the reknowned Lo’s coffee house (Really – a coffee shop out in the middle of nowhere? YES!).   It turns out that Lo’s makes a pretty tasty chocolate cake – especially when paired with a sweet orange soda.  LOTS of sugar to give us energy for the walk up and over the hill back to the anchorage. 

Chocolate cake at Lo's!
The walk along the ridgeline was chock a block full of excellent views, which each new crest showcasing yet another beautiful perspective of reef strewn islands and crystal blue water.  Matching the beauty was the excellent company of some wonderful new friends – Andy, Nina and Antje off the boat Calypso.  We had originally met at the anchorage on Mana Island two weeks prior and our paths had been almost completely the same since.  Unfortunately, we won’t likely see Calypso again after leaving here as they are soon on their way to Vanuatu – but we’ve really enjoyed spending some time with them.  Hopefully our paths will cross again.

From left: Andy Antje, Nina, John and Brett

As always, electronics can be a
hodgepodge of things in the
third world, as seen here for the
local wifi antenna.
We finished off the perfect day by joining 6 other boats – Muwari, Rafiki, Mystic Moon, Calypso, Ray Margarite and Mersoleil – at the Blue Lagoon resort bar for happy hour as the sun was setting.  We are very partial to a chilled beverage in the company of friends as an excellent way to end the day…

From start to finish, I couldn’t think of a better way to spend a day with such perfect weather and such a picturesque location.  Sun, water, sand and friends – definitely everything I hoped this trip would be.  The fact that days like these are surprisingly rare just helps us appreciate them more and to realize how lucky we are to be out here living this life.  Thanks to the friends (new AND old) who shared it with us! 

The view from Lo's coffee shop

Friday, August 22, 2014

Friendships at Sea

Mussel Gatherers
Fun with Göran, Missy, Gudrun, and Bev!
One of the things I’ve been thinking a lot about this season is the cruising community and the friends we’ve made along the way.  I thought I’d share some of my thoughts here as it’s an important part of our life.

Les and Diane
Les & Diane - friends from Mexico.
The cruising community is a pretty amazing thing to be a part of.  While we were friends with a lot of boaters before we left Seattle (and they were always helpful in a jam) out here it’s taken to a whole new level. 

KooKoo for Coconuts
Coconuts in Suwarrow with Cindi & Kathy
One of the things that always bothered me about living in the city is the lack of connection we have with our immediate neighbors.  While we often knew the neighbors on each side of us, we rarely knew anyone beyond that.  You could live next to them for YEARS and just barely know them – with little more then the occasional wave and hello as you passed on the sidewalk. Of all the neighbors we had, I can honestly say there was only one (Tom and Beth in Queen Ann) that we really got to know well, initially because we shared a wall and common maintenance, but discovered we truly liked each other.  I’ll be the first to admit that was our own fault for not reaching out.  I sometimes yearned for the community spirit that I imagined small towns and belonging to the local church must bring.

Dinner Out
Sharing a meal in Bora Bora with Bravo,
Mystic Moon, Mazu and Bella Star
Out here on the water, that community springs up anytime there is more than one boat in an anchorage.  We’ve made it a personal habit to often introduce ourselves to boats we don’t know in an anchorage and always make the rounds to catch up with the ones we do.  Because of it we’ve discovered some amazing people and made some wonderful friends.  It’s not uncommon to have a complete stranger dinghy up to our boat to say hello and ask a question about the type of boat we have.  This has often led to inviting them on board for a tour and a nice chat – it’s happened dozens of times.  Can you imagine if someone from your neighborhood knocked on your door, enquired about your heating system and you invited them in to not only discuss it but to tour your whole house?  Of course not!  I know my first thought would have been for my own personal safety – everyone knows we’re not supposed to trust strangers….right???

Hylas Rendezvous
Beers with Peter, Gene, Kate & Paul at
our mini-Hylas rendezvous.

But out here on the water I’ve seen complete strangers take part in rescuing a boat they didn’t even know just because they saw it was in danger.  I’ve seen a sailor rescue a dinghy that had gone “walkabout” and spend a fair amount of time locating the (extremely grateful) owner.  We’ve even been that stranger trying to help another boat get off a reef.  That’s not to say that people do not do amazing things at home, but I have to say this life often brings out the best in people.  It’s been pretty amazing to witness what people will do for each other just because we have this one small thing in common.  If only everyone made that effort to go out and not just meet their neighbors, but to help them in some way – imagine what a place the world would be.

Our last game night with Göran and
Gudrun from Anniara - good fun!
Along with the community aspect of cruising, another amazing part is the people we’ve met and the friends we’ve made.  Brett and I have always been very social people, so it was a little tough before we discovered how easy it actually is to make friends out here.  But once we did – well, we were off and running!  And the friends we’ve made….so many boats!  Amazing families from all over the world!  And while it’s mostly wonderful, it’s also a little tough because your time together is fleeting and it often involves a goodbye, right when you are really getting to know each other.  In June we had to say farewell to one of our favorite boats – Anniara.  We met them in Samoa and became fast friends – sharing a car for three days when we barely knew each other, touring the island.  We’ve run into them many times since and had lots of fun nights together, so it was really tough to say goodbye, knowing we might not see them for years….if at all.

Michael & Anita
Relaxing in the Marquesas with Michael
& Anita from Cherokee Rose
But that’s where the Internet comes in, allowing us to stay in contact with friends, even when you are 1000’s of miles apart.  Imagine our delight when our friends on Cherokee Rose (who we hadn’t seen in a year) decided to travel upwind (gasp!) to visit Fiji, totally against their prior plans.  It was awesome to have the unexpected time together to catch up.  A happy and welcome surprise. 

Friends at Omoa
Mazu, Cherokee Rose and Exit Strategy
Soon we will be doing the Muscat Cove Regatta and almost every boat we know in Fiji (that’s a LOT of boats!) will be there – some of whom we haven’t seen since Tonga or New Zealand.  I can’t wait to catch up with all those friends and hear about their adventures before we go our separate ways once again.  And while it’s always tough to say goodbye, there is always the hope that we will see them again down the road.  It might be three countries from now, but we will still hope.  And until then we will continue to take the time to stop by that boat that we don’t know, because new friends are just a dinghy ride away.  It’s a great way to live.

And of course, John & Kathy on Mystic Moon