On the day we were leaving, one weather forecast suggested that a low over Fiji might form in a few days and then travel to Tonga. The winds were expected to be 20-25 kts and then go up to 30 in a couple of days. That's a bit more wind than we like but nothing outrageous. We didn't want to wait for that teeny weeny low to pass over Tonga as it probably would have delayed our departure by a week, meaning we'd need to renew our visas (for a fee, of course).
Having said our goodbyes and made some good buys (ice cream) with our last Tongan pa'anga, we sailed down the channel leading from Neiafu harbour out to the open Pacific. The wind came from behind so we kept the sail plan simple; the working jib moved us along at a comfortable 5 knots. As we passed sheltering Hunga Island, the southwest 1m swell conflicted with the southeast wind to create a rather rough, lumpy sea. Even though the waves weren't very high, we rolled and lurched along. Oddly enough, neither of us was very interested in supper, nor the banana cake we had purchased just before leaving Tonga. Instead we spent the remaining daylight scanning the horizon for any whale spouts, but saw none. We were making good time in the predicted 20 knot breeze and it wasn't so rough that we couldn't read or rest. The sun set soon after leaving Tonga, and in the darkness we could see a very well lit ship behind us. Pacific Sky, a cruise ship, passed us soon afterwards heading on a faster track to Fiji. Bjarne hailed them on the radio and learned that, yes, we were registering on their radar and, yes, they could see our newly repaired masthead light (good work, BJ!). We enjoyed the full moon's light and got into our passage rhythm fairly well, although we still weren't hungry.
The next morning Bjarne made us fried egg sandwiches for breakfast. I enjoyed it and I suppose he did too, but about a half hour later his went over the rails. The problem, we concluded after a similar event later in the day, was that he was reading in the cabin. If he stayed outside he seemed OK. I was glad I'd taken some sea-sickness meds. We were both quite lethargic however; neither had the energy to do much other than read in the cockpit or lie down below.
By the morning of the 23rd, the winds had increased to 25-30 kts and Freya was blasting along at over 6 kts. We didn't want to go too fast else we'd arrive in Fiji on Sunday, which means paying overtime to the customs officials. We replaced the working jib with our staysail, and were quite glad about the smaller sail area when some rain squalls came through with gusts in the mid-thirties. The winds and swells built over the day; by sunset we had a fairly steady 30 kts and 3.5 m swells. This was all in the forecast so not to worry. However, by 2200h the winds were 30-35 kts and thicker clouds were scudding across the sky. The odd “lull” of 25 kts and occasional shower provided variety.
Just before dawn on the 24th, we were approaching the outer islands of Fiji, where we peered in vain through the overcast for the light on Welangilala Island to confirm our location. Alas, we had to rely on the GPS, but no worries: the Nanuku Passage is at least 15 or more miles wide. We were glad for the easy navigation since, even when the sun rose, the land was so shrouded in rain and mist that we could only make out vague ghostly shapes fading in and out. The day brought rain and more rain - the heavy all-day rain that folks in Victoria understand. We weren't sure how effective our watch keeping really was since we couldn't see very far past Freya, but we went through the motions anyway. Every few hours the off-watch person would don their wet foulies and send their relieved buddy down below for a vigorous towelling. Around 1600h the winds died and the rain fizzled to a drizzle. Normally we don't like to motor, but we breathed a sigh of relief at the wind reprieve, and looked forward to an easy night of motoring the last 50 miles along the coast of Vanua Levu (the northernmost of Fiji's two big islands).
I thought this would be a good time to get a proper meal into us so I began to salvage our rotting produce and turn it into supper. At 1700h the winds suddenly became gusty, 18-31 kts, so we shut the engine off: a little more bouncy, but still manageable, so I continued with my culinary activities (remember, everything takes longer on a boat). From the cockpit, Bjarne began commenting on the interesting dark, cigar-shaped cloud on the horizon. Twenty minutes later, the cloud arrived overhead and the wind instantly blasted through at 35-40 kts and put our speed over 7 kts at times. Down came the staysail, and up went our lovely, bullet-proof, bright orange storm jib. We love that sail! Supper was packed into Tupperware – sigh, granola bars again – and we stowed items that would cause havoc if flung across the cabin (such as the metal burner grates). Where the heck did that come from?! We concluded that the low was deeper than predicted and that our calm break probably happened because we passed through the centre of the low. When the winds hit we were about 7 miles off shore and our planned course was to take us about 4 miles off the point of Taveuni Island. The distance, which had seemed safe in the non-existent winds, took on a whole new meaning with gale force winds blowing toward shore. We needed to get out of there.
We considered our options. One of the ways of dealing with heavy weather is to run downwind. If the winds are too high you have the risk of going too fast and losing control, broaching, or if the waves are huge, pitch-poling (stern over bow). These conditions were not that extreme so we could have safely run before the wind, except for the minor detail of a hunk of land in our way. Another option is to heave-to, which means you rig your sails and steering so that the boat is essentially still but not flopping around out of control. When hove-to we need our mainsail up, and the boat kind of slides sideways, moving downwind at about 1 knot. That presented two problems: the land was downwind, and the mainsail wasn't up. To stay more still we could put out our parachute anchor, but we weren't sure how much we would drift toward shore and feared having no mobility if we did get too close. Upwind of us was a nice open patch of water, called the Koro Sea, so our chosen approach was to tighten the jib and head up so that the wind was coming from just forward of the beam. Without the mainsail up we couldn't sail at a much closer angle to the wind, but the coast did gradually recede. We chose to leave the main down because we didn't need more sail area (we were going fast enough, thank you); nor did we want to mess about with taking the sail cover off, putting the reefs in, attaching the halyard and pulling the sail up while being bounced around. The danger of our approach was that the waves came at the beam, which provides a nice big surface area to slap, instead of parting nicely over Freya's pointy bow or stern. Once we had some sea room we figured we could deploy the parachute anchor if things really got hairy.
The seas built quickly and the winds were mainly in the 40's with some higher gusts. Bjarne had been on watch for a few hours by now so I climbed back into my wet-weather gear and took over. We assume the sun set in its usual manner behind the thick clouds. In the pitch dark, all I could see was the phosphorescence in the churning wave tops and surrounding Freya as she cut through the water. Even though I couldn't see the waves clearly, the motion of the boat, and the loud whooshing rumbling sounds warned of impending impact. During the 3 or 4 hours when the wind and waves were at their peak we were knocked about quite a bit. Although the waves were only about 3 or maybe 3.5 m, they were quite steep, which made them harder to handle. In between peeks around the dodger, in case there was some other nut out in that weather, I spent my time figuring out different ways to brace myself. The safety harnesses we wear are all well and good, but I suspect it would be darned uncomfortable to be flung out of the boat and dragged behind, wondering if the harness would hold. One time I was standing on the cockpit sole (floor) facing toward the port side where the waves were coming from, hanging on to the inside of the dodger frame – a large wave hit and suddenly my feet were airborne. I have no idea how far over we were but was glad I'd had a good grip. Another wave sent me from a sitting position to upright vertical where I had a good view looking down at the ocean pouring in over the side of the cockpit while the wave sent water running down my sleeve as I held on to the dodger frame over my head. Being “knocked down” means your mast hits the water. Fortunately, we never went over that far, but we had to have had a good 70 or even 80 degrees heel for the coaming (high sides around the cockpit) to be in the water. I was thinking very fond thoughts about our heavy lead keel that night. Bjarne was off watch, but I don't think he got much rest between stowing things that came off shelves and me yelling out “HANG ON!!” when I thought we were about to get pasted.
During this tiring and scary time, I enjoyed some unexpected comic relief. We had just been well doused, and the foot of water sloshing in the cockpit was taking an inordinate amount of time to drain. I puzzled about this for a bit then grabbed the flashlight; in each cockpit drain one banana poked up out of the hole. I shone the light aft and saw a now-empty stalk where about 15 lady-finger bananas had been hanging from the railing. A succession of waves had swept every banana clean off the stalk and one had lodged perfectly in each drain hole. There is a superstition that one shouldn't have bananas on a boat. Now we know why.
By about 2300h the wind had eased a little: it was now hitting 30 kts, with lulls in the low 20s. Did I say 2300h? I could have sworn it was much later than that. The night was very long. Very gradually the seas moderated and the moonlight made some escape through the clouds. Some more waves flung themselves over the cockpit, and the wind continued to send gusts that kept us wondering if it was picking up again. I managed to sleep a little but that almost made it harder to get back into my now wet wet-weather gear for my second watch. I spent the time trying to stay out of the wind, which felt rather cold, and trying to stay awake, which felt rather difficult. By 0430h we had reached the lee of Koro island, which blocked the worst of the waves. The winds were now 10 – 15 kts, and the lovely fragrance of tropical flowers was carried out to me by the land-warmed breeze. Ahhh...
Plotting our position on the chart, we concluded it was now safe to turn to head for our destination without risking getting too close to land in the dark. We altered course for Savusavu, whereupon the wind essentially died. Arghh! We started the engine, a sure-fire technique to call forth a breeze. Soon a perky 20-25 knots pushed us for most of the last 30 miles.
In the very large Savusavu Harbour we passed our friends on Manu Kai leaving the bay. We had a short chat over the railings: long enough for them to tell us we have to try the burgers and shakes in town. We motored into Nakama Creek off of Savusavu Harbour, passing two other boats we had met previously, one of which (Stardust) also called out to us about the burgers and shakes.
We hailed the Copra Shed Marina for directions on clearing in and were directed to a rather tricky shallow location, which found us momentarily stuck in the mud. Another boat had the choice spot; we had to come in close to their bow and sideways to the end of the dock. After some maneuvering Freya was happily tied off to await the visiting officials. Whew! What a passage. The worst part is that this was supposed to be one of the easy ones.