Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Off the Charts in Fiji

Checking in with carefully weighed luggage!
Our flight arrived back in Nadi, Fiji on Friday morning.  Weary, after a red-eye flight, we all clambered back aboard Field Trip, stepping over the eight duffle bags full of “stuff” we’d brought back from the states.  Our weariness dissipated, though, when we realized how many friends we had around us!  I’d assumed that everyone would have moved on from Port Denarau, continuing in their travels to Indonesia or exploring other parts of Fiji.  We were all very excited to reconnect with our ‘boat friends’ whom we’d missed so much!  Even jet lag couldn’t keep us from enjoying a happy hour that same night.
What a wonderful way to be welcomed back!
While we were catching up over Fiji Bitter Beer, we found out that our friends on Exodus and Breeze were planning to sail out the very next day to meet up with our friends on Lumbaz.  At first, I thought it would be impossible to think of leaving the next day with them, remembering the stacks of luggage that needed to be unpacked and stowed, but our desire to be back with some of our favorite families won out.  After all, the luggage surely wasn’t going anywhere!  The next morning happened to be the Saturday Fresh Market in town (the largest market day of the week), so we hopped in a cab, re-provisioned our produce and refrigerated items, and were underway by ten o’clock!  So much for taking our time to get settled in!
Everyone was heading to an anchorage just off of the Manta Ray Resort in the Yasawa Island Group to the west of Nadi.  Much of the waters in Fiji are uncharted and reef-scattered.  When planning the passages, we have to overlay the satellite images onto the existing charts and plot our course from there.  Then we make sure there is good lighting and plenty of time to get anchored before the sun is too low to provide adequate visibility.  No wind meant we had to motor most of the way, but our jet lag and land legs appreciated the calm passage.

Heading into uncharted waters

The charts for Fiji are notoriously wrong.  Our entrance into Viwa here shows us crossing land.

The first morning we were there, we headed to a pass to swim with the giant Manta Rays who come to feed on the numerous krill and plankton found in the current.  It wasn’t long before the enormous creatures came gliding by right below us, their mouths gaping, and wings gracefully moving them along.  On a few occasions they would wow us with a barrel roll, exposing the bright white of their underside as they fed.  What a privilege to swim so close to a majestic, peaceful giant of the sea.  None of us wanted to get out of the water, and with our new full-length wet suits, we kept warm enough to stay in the water for nearly two hours with them!

Fijian Birthday for Elizabeth

It had been a year since our special birthday celebration for Elizabeth with the sweet family on Maupihaa, near Bora Bora.  Now, she would be turning ten somewhere in Fiji.  The other boats had heard some stories of the dogfish tuna one could spear off the coast of an island called Viwa, the westernmost and lowest in elevation of the Yasawas, which was enough motivation to navigate the super-tight entrance pass and make do with the barely-there anchor holding (thin layer of sandy gravel atop hard, flat rock).  All four boats put out extra chain with our anchors and some even wrapped around rocks to get holding.  Then we dressed in our Fijian chumbas and sulus to go ashore for the sevu-sevu ceremony with the island’s chief.  There were seventeen of us in all - eight adults and nine children.  We were our own sailing village!  Many of the island children ran to the shore to greet us with warm smiles and shy hellos, excited to see so many visitors at once!
Navigating between shallow reefs and a shipwreck to enter Viwa Island in the Yasawa Group
Waving hello to our welcoming committee!

We all brushed the sand from our feet as we entered the ceremony hall and a quiet respect fell over the group.  Each father presented the yangona (root used to make traditional kava drink) and the chief gave his blessing and granted us permission to join his community.  After the formalities, I mentioned that it was Elizabeth’s birthday, and the school children who surrounded us sang a special rendition of “Happy Birthday” especially for her.

Entering the ceremony hall to meet with the chief for the sevusevu
Happy long life to you, happy long life to you!  Happy long life, dear Elizabeth! Happy long life to you!

Next, a young man was asked to show us around the village.  He walked us along the well-kept narrow paths between houses constructed of straw, concrete, wood, and tin, Brightly colored laundry hung on the lines strung in between.  Folks popped their heads out of the doorways to say “BULA!” as we filed by, and little children skittered along behind our processional, so excited to be part of the tour.  The village was neat and orderly.   The houses were arranged in an organized grid pattern unlike any village we’d seen.  In the aerial shots we had viewed to navigate through the pass, we were struck by the planned layout of this village.  All the houses faced the same way, and the paths provided access to each one in a very logical way.  Their HOA must really be on top of things!

Hanging laundry with this view wouldn't be too bad!

Before sunset, we all piled back into our dinghies and met up on Field Trip for cake, cocktails, and yet another rendition of “Happy Birthday”, this time with a Spanish version tacked onto the end, thanks to the multilingual Lumbaz crew!  As all of our friends sang together, I was overwhelmed with the many dear families we’d connected with along the way, some who’d even helped us celebrate Elizabeth’s birthday a year ago!  The Pacific crossing has given us long-term friendships that I never thought possible in the sailing life.  And this experience together has created friendships that will last a lifetime.  I imagine Elizabeth trekking across Europe when she is in high school, visiting all of these wonderful folks we've met while sailing - British, Spanish, Swedish - I'll want to go, too!

Our international birthday party!

The following day, we took the kids to shore to interact with the schoolchildren who were out on a two-week holiday.  Meanwhile, the men went spearfishing outside the reef, and a few of the women opted for some quiet snorkeling around some of the reefs.  Rumbling stomachs brought us all together for lunch again.  Our anchorage places us next to raised coral cliffs along the shoreline where the local children stand, watching and waiting for their visitors to come out again to play!  So, we have a continuous audience watching our every move.  I guess they got a bit impatient, because somehow, the play moved from the beachfront to the transom steps of our boats that afternoon!

Fijian children enjoying their holiday!

Making new friends!
The kids were all smiles when the guys got the dinghies set up and took them tubing through the anchorage at top speeds!  From our boat deck, I watched the kids hooting and hollering as they held on for their lives, screaming, “Faster, faster!!”  I imagined them going back to school in two weeks, standing up in front of their classmates and retelling of their high-speed adventures with these crazy cruising families.
The smiles say it all!
It was obvious that they loved the company, which made it even harder the following morning when many of them stood on the cliffs and sadly waved to us as we pulled out.  The calm winds had created perfect conditions for us to transverse through the tedious pass once again.  So with little notice, we had decided to raise anchor and set off for our next stop, leaving no time for formal goodbyes.  
In many ways, I was nervous coming back to Fiji.  Sitting in the living room of my mother-in-law’s home, I realized how accustomed I’d become to American life in the two months we were there.  How quickly our schedules had filled up, our lives had become rushed, and our standard of living had swung back closer to where it used to be.  I saw a boat friend post a photo of her kids sitting in a grass hut, on palm mats, talking to a Fijian family and I was struck by how detached I was from that scenario, when we could have taken a similar photo only months prior!  As I sat on an over-stuffed chair drinking iced water, I wondered if I could go back to that.  Part of me was really enjoying the air-conditioning and the consumerism!  Did I want to go back to that?  Was living off the charts something I would choose?  At that time, I could have named a million reasons why we should’ve stayed, because I didn’t want to say goodbye.  But now that I’m back, there’s no question that this is where we are meant to be right now.

Sailing Families from Sweden, Spain, Canada, California and Colorado!
Sailing Sisters - Me, Sabina, Deanne, and Genie

Our life has found its rhythm again.  This morning I’ve been writing out my month-to-month lesson plans while Mark is adding more solar panels outside.  The kids took the paddle board to the beach and are with nine other boat kids, setting up tents, planning meals, and building the bonfire for their beach campout tonight.  It's good to be living off the charts once again.
A hike to the top for a beautiful view!

(Special thanks to our boat buddies on Breeze, Lumbaz, and Exodus for sharing photos with us, many of which were used in this post!)

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Making Connections

Of course, one suitcase was lost in transit!
But was delivered the next day.  Phew.  
It was getting dark in Fiji the night we arrived to the airport shlepping our carefully packed and weighed luggage.  I’d filled a few bags with finished schoolwork, acquired souvenirs, and the kids’ prized rock and shell collections to bring back with us and leave in the states.  Mark was happy to see the excess weight leave the boat, and I was glad to make space for whatever treasures we’d find in future travels.  We had decided to visit home in the summer months, so that we wouldn’t have to buy warm clothes or deal with cold temperatures and winter germs.  Visiting in the warm summer months also meant less bulky clothing items to pack, which would prove to be VERY important at the airport.

At the check-in desk we had a run-in with the ‘baggage nazi’ who made sure we weighed each piece of luggage and even made each of us place our carryons in the tiny metal measuring frame.  We hadn’t expected such strict check-in, but luckily, with a bit of juggling we were able to get it all worked out by and shrink-wrapping two suitcases together to count as one bag. Somehow, we avoided getting Mark’s backpack weighed, which would have easily exceeded the 15-pound limit with two laptops, kindles, and the iPad tucked inside.  If you are traveling on Fiji Airways anytime soon, make sure you read their baggage requirements and adhere - they don’t mess around!

Window view descending into the clouds over Los Angeles

The kids were wired for the first two hours of the flight - surfing through the tv channels and munching on snacks.  Michael had to push every button he saw before he could sit still, but Mark had no trouble settling in.  He was sawing logs less than 15 minutes after takeoff!  When Michael, who was sitting beside him, had to go to the bathroom, I had to lift him up over his slumbering daddy to avoid an accident!  Elizabeth wanted to watch The Hobbit, but I told her she’d have to sleep first.  After just an hour she awoke asking, “Can I watch it now??”  Oh my.  Luckily, she fell back asleep for 3 hours and still had time to watch the whole movie before we landed. Eventually, everyone got some zzz’s and I was even able to doze here and there.

Catching a few zzz's during our layover in LAX

In LAX, we met the grown children of some of our dear sailing friends, Theo and Wanda, who happened to be flying home on exactly the same flight we were on.  Then we gorged on California Pizza Kitchen and I got my Starbucks iced green tea fix.  Ah, it was good to be back in the land of American food!  

Indulging in Giordano's Stuffed Crust Pizza while visiting Chicago - only in America!
As we waited for our next connection, I found it strange to hear so many American accents in one place, and enjoyed not being the foreigner for once.  But even Elizabeth noticed the disconnect among the bustling passengers.  “Mom, everyone’s just looking down at their cell phones!”  It was odd to see so many people in one place not speaking to or even acknowledging each other.  

As much as I wanted to dive into Facebook and Instagram, I resisted the urge and started a conversation with a new mom sitting next to me instead.  Her stroller was loaded down with every gadget her little one might possibly need on the flight, and she was trying to time the next feeding to coincide with take-off.  Oh, how I remember those days and am SO glad to be out of that pack mule, plan-for-every-worst-case-scenario stage of parenting!  As we walked toward our next flight, I had to smile.  The kids were pulling their own rolling backpacks (a traveling MUST for us are the Jansport versions that fit perfectly under the seat in front of them).  Meanwhile, I was carrying my small daypack and NOTHING ELSE!  My conversation with that new mom had brought me an enlightened perspective and newfound thankfulness in the midst of our grueling 24-hour travel itinerary. 

Our time away has helped us resist many technology temptations because we don’t have access to internet or television in so many places, but our time here would really put us to the test.  I wanted to maintain the disconnect, but I also found myself wanting to get plugged back in.  It would prove to be a real struggle for each of us to keep our noses pointed anywhere other than at a screen.

But this trip was all about making connections.  Logistical travel connections, learning connections, and heart connections.  That’s the connectivity I was hoping for in our trek back home.  Thankfully, our flights have gone seamlessly so far, and we have had wonderful opportunities to connect in our learning and relationships.  Here are just a few of the memory making moments we've been blessed by...

Our cross-country extravaganza would bring us
through seven states from the east to the west coast! 

First stop was to Great Grandma's wall of generations.  Oh, the stories she had to tell!

Cherokee ladies weaving belts much like
the ones we saw in Colombia

Learning about the sacred legends of the eagle
feathers in the Cherokee culture

We watched the inner workings of an old mill house run by a water wheel,
and even bought some freshly ground cornflour!

Michael was intrigued by the 3D printers that kids were using at a summer tech camp put on by our friends, Steve and Debbie, of Table Top Inventing

Elizabeth learned about her teeth X-rays from her Poppy during our dental visit,
and even helped to make my bleaching trays in the lab!

NERF war!!

Bowling with cousins

And more family silliness with family!

Girl cousin time enjoying the Indiana sunshine!

Even celebrated Fourth of July with a good 'ol American parade

And the U.S. adventures continue...

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Heading North for the Winter

Sailing north to find the tropical weather again!
How can it already be the beginning of JUNE??  Where has time gone?  In looking through the photos to compose this post, I realize that the amount of ground we've covered in the past few months could easily fill a tour book for the north and south islands of New Zealand and easily take you hours and hours to read.  SO, in the name of progress, I'm just going to take a deep breath and pull you into our present location.  (Incidentally, if you plan to visit NZ anytime, send me a note and I will inundate you with our experiences and highlights.)  But for now, hop on board for our most recent passage - from New Zealand up to Fiji.  A passage that proved just how much difference a few degrees of latitude can actually make.

Opua, NZ on the morning we checked out
Early morning on May 9th, we dinghied into the customs office in Opua, NZ to check out. We rode through a thick, foggy chill, bundled up in our fleeces and raincoats.  The fall season had brought cold, wet days and even colder nights, making all of the cruisers anxious to get north.  For the weeks prior, everyone had been watching the weather closely, desperate for a window that would provide safe passage to Fiji.  The chatter and anticipation was buzzing in the air all around the marina.  At the cafe, in the laundry room, at the dinghy dock - "Have you seen the weather?  What did your GRIBs show this morning?  Looks like we'll leave in two days.  How about you?"

Michael getting the fresh eggs stored for passage 
Elizabeth taking inventory as I dig through our stores in the bilges below
Mark was deep in the analysis paralysis mode, comparing weather routing and talking with weather gurus, really wanting to make this trip as comfortable as possible for all of us.  After doing quite a few long passages in the past year, we realize that we have completely different feelings about being out at sea.  He loves the isolation, the routine, and being out in the raw elements.  He has turned into quite the 'salty dog' and I'm not sure I'll ever get him back on land!  While I love the peacefulness of calm winds and slightly rolling seas, I struggle to settle into the idea of being out so far and vulnerable to mother nature.  When the winds pick up, Mark rushes to fill the sails and power up, grinning like a little kid.  Meanwhile, I hunker down and nibble on saltines, praying for the wind to settle down!  This is one area of our lives in which Mark cherishes the journey and I can't focus on anything but the destination.  (I know, I know.  I'm working on it.)

We wanted to pick a weather window carefully.  During this deciding time there were a lot of false starts, creating a bit of confusion for provisioning and preparing on my part.  I decided to go ahead and make some meals to freeze - beef stew, dahl soup, chili, curry - which allowed me to feel like I could progress toward leaving despite the weather uncertainties.  I also continued adding to the produce and refrigerator shopping list.  I wouldn't actually do this shopping until the day before we left in order to ensure the longevity of the food stores we'd need, but I wanted to be as ready as I could be.

Finally, the weather said it was time to go.  Checkout was seamless. We mounted the outboard engine on deck and raised the dinghy.  Then we gathered in the cockpit for our safety briefing and pre-passage prayer.  It was time to set off.  We would travel from 32 degrees South to 17 degrees South and find ourselves in an entirely different world. Fiji is about 1,100 miles from NZ, which would normally take us about one week, but we hoped that the weather would allow us to stop in at one or both of the Minerva reefs along the way.  

The other woman
Turns out, we couldn't have chosen a better weather window for Field Trip.  She sailed along beautifully in light winds with her new foresail, a Code Zero design with huge sail area and a bulging belly that really maximizes light winds.  With only 8-10 knots of wind, we could average 6.5 knots of boat speed!  Mark could not stop raving about the new addition, and I started referring to the sail as his new girlfriend.  He was smitten.  Admittedly, I was pretty happy, too, to be able to sail along nicely on calmer seas.

We all fell into our passage rhythm easily, with movies, podcasts and an afternoon Harry Potter story hour over the cockpit speakers to keep us entertained.  I opted to take seasick meds (Pahia "bombs" from the local NZ pharmacist) for the first few days, just as a precaution, and gave some "Sea Legs" tablets to the kids as well.  A few of our boat friends left at the same time, so it was fun to be in VHF range.  Before we were out of cell tower range, we talked on our NZ cell phones, just to use up our remaining prepaid minutes.

That first night out, I was on watch and had a close encounter of the lunar kind.  On my starboard side, I suddenly saw a deep red, glowing light.  Was it a cruise ship?  Or a container ship?  Nothing was showing up on radar and my heart was racing.  How close was it?  Should I wake up Mark?  As I continued to watch, though, the clouds parted and I realized that it was a magnificent full moon rising and I could do nothing but stare as it emerged and lit up the water's surface.  My heart calmed instantly and I giggled at my overactive imagination.
Quick phone call to grandmas!

The days ambled on and the winds died out, so we had to motor for a day and a half before we could put the Code Zero sail out again.  On day three, we used the IridiumGo to make phone calls to our mothers back in the states, wishing them a Happy Mother's Day.  The following day I ran the morning net and enjoyed hearing many boaters check in with their positions and weather conditions.  People who had already arrived in Fiji taunted us with tales of 28 degrees Celsius and warm waters!  Winds picked back up for a day, so engines could cool down and we had some quiet again.  We were all in a good rhythm by now.  The kids were passing the days easily, although secretly wishing for a few more waves so that schoolwork would be cancelled!

By day five at sea it was calm again. We were faced with a decision. Would we stop at South Minerva Reef or go on to the northern reef and hove to during the night to avoid a nighttime arrival at the reef's pass?   Based on our weather and estimated arrival time, it made more sense to go to the southern reef.  We could get in before sunset with our engines running, and check it out for a few days.

Brenden shot a monster coral trout!
Two other boats we knew decided to stop as well, and we commented on how strange it was to have friends as next-door neighbors in such a remote spot!  The guys went out spearfishing in the pass each morning, while the women and kids got school knocked out.  Then we'd all meet up after lunch to snorkel and/or dive, still wearing our full wet suits in the chilly waters.  The southern reef is shaped like a figure 8, and the smaller loop provided some fantastic snorkeling in between coral walls housing brightly colored clams and tropical fish.  Reef sharks kept their distance, swimming along the shallow tops of the reef with their dorsal fins skimming up out of the water.  In the evening, after a potluck dinner together, the men and a few older kids ventured out to the reef at low tide where they walked along in the dark and snagged almost 20 lobsters!

Snorkel trip with Elizabeth's friend, Luna from Spain

Beautiful spot to sink below and check out
South Minerva Reef Anchorage 
Field Trip South Minerva Reef
In a few days the weather and winds would be picking up, with winds of 18-20 knots and a swell of 4 meters.  It was time to move up to the northern reef and get tucked in behind the protection of the coral.  Each boat navigated out of the pass in a Pacific processional and you could smell the testosterone in the air as the guys raced to get their sails up first.  The radar and AIS tracking systems were fired up to keep an eye on the competitors and fishing lines were put in the water.  Any excuse for a little friendly competition among the guys!

Wing-on-wing sail configuration - trying to catch as much wind as we could!

When we arrived at the pass, the waters allowed for easy viewing of the reef entrance.  The way in was wide and straight, with breaking waves clearly showing where the shallow reefs lurked.  We knew the stronger winds were coming, but made the mistake of letting the guys' spearfishing addiction convince us to anchor just beside the reef pass.  At low tide, we had large swell coming up over the reef on our beam (side) and choppy waves from the winds at our bow.  In the early morning hours, I awoke to severe washing machine motion caused by waves coming from various angles.  The stronger winds had come.  Amidst the havoc, my body was also trying to adjust to not being on our 24-hour watch schedule, and I couldn't get back to sleep.  This idyllic location wasn't seeming much like paradise at that point!

Another boat navigating through the pass after the winds and seas picked up
I radioed to the other boats to check on how their night went.  Tired voices answered, and we commiserated about the situation, deciding to head over to the side of the reef closest to the wind direction.  At least then we wouldn't have the fetch (choppy waves that build up from the wind) on the bow as much.  When we moved, it still wasn't ├╝ber comfortable, but none of us wanted to leave quite yet for a few reasons: a storm to our south had sent four-meter seas out way and we wanted to dive once the waves calmed down again.  This was the place our friends had seen a 3 meter tiger shark swimming around their hull while they were cleaning a fish last season!

Photo taken by SV Lumbaz last November in North Minerva Reef.  Notice the blue bottom paint on the shark's nose from where he'd 'investigated' their boat's hull with a nudge!
Granted, I didn't want to dive with the beast, but I knew his presence meant a healthy reef environment and probably some amazing sights underwater.  No one wanted to miss the chance to do some diving and snorkeling outside the pass, and when the winds calmed down we were not disappointed by what we saw.  Huge walls of coral reef were teeming with all sizes of fish who poked in and out of the hard and soft coral formations.  Reef sharks lurked in the darker, deep waters below us as we puttered along.  Sea anemones housed skittish 'Nemo' fish and clusters of delicate sea fans waved in the surge.

A vibrant marine environment, for sure!

Mark taking a deeper look while snorkeling
Mahi Mahi for lunch and dinner and lunch...

In total, we spent 8 days exploring both reefs.  Then, a good weather window appeared on our GRIB files, and we headed northwest to our final destination - Fiji.  It was another great passage of comfortable seas and light winds.  Mark and I kept our regular watch schedule, and we got back into the sailing rhythm again quickly.  On our way in, the kids got out their inflatable kiddie pool for a pool party on deck after we all worked hard to wipe all the saltwater off the boat's stainless steel with a water/vinegar mixture. By this time, we were melting in the hot, tropical sunshine.  Gone were our fleeces and raincoats, and out came sunglasses, swimsuits, and sunscreen!  What a difference two weeks of sailing and a few degrees of latitude can make!

What 7 year old boy doesn't love a powerful hose to play with??!
We had left New Zealand on May 9 and did not touch solid ground again until May 25 (except for a rendezvous with cruising friends on a sand spit for an hour in North Minerva at low tide)!  After my watch on the night of the 24th, I looked forward to sighting our destination in the morning.  I was ready to get there.  However, when I awoke at dawn, I noticed the boat was barely moving.  When I went up to the helm to check on things, Mark smiled easily and said the winds had died so we were just going to "bob and drift until it picked back up".  I seriously started to cry.  Every ounce of me wanted... no, needed to be there.  It was like a switch had gone off and I felt like I was going to go 'postal'!!!  Gone were the dreamy notions of sitting peacefully at the helm, soaking in the wide ocean view.  All I could think about was how little produce we had left, how slow we were going, and how much I needed some interaction and conversation with anyone other than my dear, sweet family members.  Mark looked at me like I needed a straightjacket, and honestly, I secretly wondered the same thing myself!  I was going mad!  In order to avoid a mutiny or mom overboard situation, the wise captain saw the desperation in his first mate and revved up the iron sails.  Smart man.
The view out of the galley porthole - stillness all around us

We pulled into Savu Savu, Fiji late that afternoon.  I regrouped and prepared for our check-in to the country.  On VHF channel 16, we called the Copra Shed Marina to request permission to enter the harbor.  The woman asked the typical questions - our last port of call, captain's name, how many people on board - but she also asked a few other questions which were new to our check-in experiences.  Was anyone ill on board?  Had anyone been ill at any time during the passage?  Was anyone currently taking medicine for an illness?  Thankfully, we could answer 'no' to all of these, but it made me wonder what diseases they were checking for?  Were they having problems with some illness that I needed to protect us against once we arrived?  I never found out, but made sure we washed our hands extra carefully and more frequently while we went ashore.

The marina receptionist instructed us to tie up to a tiny, 30-foot dock so that the customs, immigration, biosecurity and health officials could come aboard.  While I worked to fill out the tedious customs forms with passport numbers, previous ports, goods to claim, and intended destinations, Mark handed them our boat documentation and answered a number of queries.  The biosecurity officer asked if we had any fresh produce or frozen meat on board, and I rattled off the few remaining fresh foods we had left - a few eggs, garlic, onion, rubbery carrots, potatoes, and frozen chicken and beef.  He made sure it was all purchased in New Zealand, and allowed us to keep it on board as long as we consumed it aboard and didn't take it on land in Fiji.  And that was it.  We were officially in Fiji now!

It was as if we had sailed to a different planet.  The air was heavy, hot, and sticky.  The land was lined with palm trees.  Old buses painted purple, pink,yellow, and blue picked up and dropped off local people along the narrow street that followed the shore.  Roosters crowed from littered yards.  Time slowed.  The breeze barely blew, carrying the conflicting scents of trash fires and tropical flowers.  I breathed deep and said a prayer of thanks for our safe passage and solid ground.

Waitui Marina in Savu Savu, Fiji