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 über 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


  1. Incredible! Just incredible!
    Both the story and the photos are amazing. Especially the view from the galley.
    Have a wonderful day, you all :)

  2. Glad I am not the only one who has had a fright from the moon rising before! Minerva looks amazing. Enjoy Fiji! :)


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