Vanua Balavu, Lau Group, Fiji
More than elsewhere, sailing in Fiji is about alignment: wind direction, wind strength, current, tide, sun angle – they all need to be in your favour to negotiate the inter-island passages, the countless reefs and bommies and narrow passes.
The prevailing southeast trade winds have been fairly relentless, blowing 15-20 knots or more, day in and out since we arrived in Fiji, which presents an immediate challenge for heading anywhere south. There is usually a break in the wind – a short window, usually only 24 or 36 hours – about once every seven to 10 days, when a big high pressure system passes to the south (along the Sub Tropical Ridge) and the winds do a quick flick ‘around the compass rose’ as the back edge of the high passes.
Once you have your window, you need to work out your timing: rule of thumb is ‘don’t travel before 9:00am or after 4:00pm’, since you need the sun high in the sky to be able to see the reefs and bommies that litter Fiji’s waters. Obviously, if you’re covering 130 miles (the distance between Vanua Balavu and Fulaga), it’s going to take more than seven hours, so you need to make sure that you are going to have good daylight for the tricky bits, of which there are plenty.
And then you have to time your arrival to coincide with negotiating the narrow pass into the island’s lagoon at slack tide, or else face strong currents and standing waves that can be a metre high. Not really what you want when the narrow pass is bordered by coral reefs that will tear the bottom out of your boat.
Then there’s the added degree of difficulty provided by our electronic charts…
Despite its vast expense and supposed cutting edge technology, our Raymarine chart plotter (Navionics electronic charts) is often up to 0.6 of a mile (1.1 kilometres) out – it frequently shows us to be on the wrong side of a reef, or even an island, and we frequently drop our anchor on top of a hill. It’s deeply disturbing, given how the charts tend to look like Jackson Pollock artworks: splatters of blue and green, representing reefs and islands and rocks, many of which haven’t been surveyed since Cook and Bligh passed through.
Thank goodness for Mr Google and some enterprising Russian computer nerds. We have been using a computer program called SAS Planet that allows us to download Google Earth aerial photos (when we have internet access) and store them in cache, and then overlay our GPS position and even lay live tracks on the images. Being satellite-shot, they are extremely accurate and mostly have a surprising level of detail, considering how remote and insignificant these islands are. (Unless of course there was a cloud covering the reef the day the photo was taken…).
Anyway, we finally got all the elements to align for a cracker sail to Fulaga, at the far southern end of the Lau Group, about as close to Tonga as it is to ‘mainland’ Fiji: beam reach, doing 10 knots just with gennaker (since we still don’t have a main).
We sailed overnight from Vanua Balavu, slowing down to time our entry through the pass to coincide with slack water (which occurs right on high tide or two hours after low tide). I was stationed on the bow, spotting hazards, while Damian was on the helm, keeping as close as possible to the line of waypoints supplied to us by Curly Carswell (local legend in Savusavu) and Graham on Maunie – who also gave us the waypoints of the rocks ‘found’ by fellow cruisers, which we desperately wanted to avoid!
With surf breaking on either side, we negotiated the outer pass, and turned hard left at a large triangular rock, close enough to it to just about reach out and touch it. Once inside, the lagoon opens out to a broad, shallow, beautiful expanse of water so clear it’s impossible to judge its depth. We picked our way across the lagoon, passing dozens of mushroom-shaped islands and anchored just near friends, Maunie and Exit Strategy, near a lumpy mushroom sprouting pandanus and the locally endemic fan palm – Pritchardia thurstonii – that grows wild nowhere else in the world.
Like the palm, Fulaga is like nowhere else.
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