Farne’s World Cruise

Anne Lowrie

Message sent Friday, October 08, 2004 3:50 AM

This was written during our crossing to new Zealand last week and is sent from Whangarei.

We are just crossing the South New Hebrides Trench on our way from Fiji to NZ, 400 miles out on the last of our passages for this year, the 1100 mile beat to Whangarei in the North Island. The boat is healed at about 30 degrees, punching into the waves as we rush on to the south. The occasional wave flies high over the bow and lands in the back of the cockpit. Everything on deck is encrusted with salt but down below we are dry and still warm, although the nights are becoming quite cool now and we have to dress in trousers and oilskins.

We’ve come a long way since our return to French Polynesia after our brief return home in May. When we got back to Moorea we spent a week or so fixing things with parts that we had brought with us from home and trying, unsuccessfully, to get the computer working- it had died while we were away.Then we set off for the western islands of the group, Huahine, Raiatea and BoroBora. We found some pretty anchorages, especially in Huahine, but were disappointed with BoraBora which now has a resort on every little island in the lagoon, is hugely expensive and cursed with jetskis. Our last stop in French Polynesia was Maupiti which is how we imagined pacific islands to be. We might have missed it altogether as there was a 25kn wind blowing through the pass into the lagoon, so whereas the entrance is usual! ly clear, all we could see was a continuous line of breakers. But we had arranged to meet friends there so we headed in on the GPS readings, picked up 1 of the leading marks and literally surfed in through the entrance saying our prayers and hoping not to broach. A few minutes later we were in calm blue water following the channel to the anchorage just off the small settlement under a high rocky bluff. With our friends we explored the island, finding petroglyphs of turtles on the rocks, friendly people who gave us breadfuit, children offering us bits of sugarcane and swimming in beautiful clear water, Not all was sweetness and light as there was a bit of noise on shore late on Saturday night and the next day we found some men boarding up the window of the little Tahiti Air office on the wharf. They told us that the damage had been done by ‘alcohol boys’. On the whole though we found very little drinking, or smoking, went on in any o! f the South Pacific islands.

I was very apprehensive about getting out through the pass, didn’t sleep well the night before we left, worrying about facing huge breakers, but the wind had gone down and it was much easier than coming in as we set off on the 5 day sail to Suvarrow in the Northern Cook Islands 700 miles away. We had mainly following winds with a good day’s run under spinnaker the second day out. Then the wind strengthened until it reached gale force in the rainsqualls and we were storming along as we approached the island. We got into the lee of the main island where we dropped anchor among about 8 other boats – before it was even down 4 sharks were circling . The reef sharks are said to be harmless but we decided not to swim down to check the anchor! Suvarrow is very isolated, no cruise liners call there, just the odd supply ship, fishing boat and yachts. It is national park and a warden, Papa John, his grandson and another relative called Baker, live there for 6 months of the year outside the cyclone season. The lagoon is about 5 miles across with lots of islands scattered around its edge where thousands of seabirds were nesting. The reefs were full of fish and lobsters and the water was crystal clear. Papa John liked to welcome everyone and took us out to different islands to show us how to live off the land by catching coconut crabs and cooking them on hot stones in a fire (I’m not sure that this was really what a warden should be doing) and making baskets out of pandanus leaves. In the evenings they made feasts of fish, coconut milk, breadfruit, crabs, lobsters and we all took food along to the big table in the open-sided shelter under the coconut! palms. They played the guitar and ukelele and sang. Baker, a very fat guy with a big smile but no teeth, was a pretty fancy dancer- could he shimmy when he got going! We spent a very happy week there before moving west again to Apia in Samoa.

Few boats now call at Pago Pago in American Samoa as it is a smelly harbour with a big fish cannery and it is expensive to check in there, so although it was a bit further we went on to Apia, the capital of what used to be called Western Samoa, (but has now dropped the ‘Western’). After the first day of this 500 mile crossing we had gale force winds and rain squalls most of the time with a heavy following swell that towered over the stern each time until the boat lifted and the wave swooshed away beneath us. We ripped a sail and had to mend it (to be fair was pretty worn by the time we reached Guatemala but we hoped it would get us across the Pacific before needing to be replaced) and the end of the boom kept dipping in the water. We just made it into Apia at dusk on the 3rd day so avoiding having to stand off for the night. We couldn’t see any sign of land even when our GPS told us that we were 3 miles off, and we were apprehensive about approaching under those conditions, but thankfully a small patch of clear sky appeared at about 5 o’clock, the rain stopped and we were at last able to see the channel, make our way in and anchor just before it got dark at 6pm.

Apia was a cheerful place. Every morning at 7.45 the police band, in their blue lavalavas (skirts) and white shirts and helmets, marches along the Beach Road to Government house playing jolly tunes- a good start to the day! The Samoan people are very friendly and all keen to chat. We cycled through villages and were asked to houses and cricket matches-not cricket as we know it but ‘kirikiti’. Every village has a concrete crease somewhere in the middle, probably because a grass one would be rooted up by the many pigs that run free, and after the days work is done- mid afternoon or thereabouts- the men of the village (there are apparently women’s teams too but we never saw any in action), set to with their huge bats more like war clubs, and play kirikiti. The springy ball goes everywhere, into the houses which have open sides, over the roads, into the streams, and the game seems to end when all the balls have been lost! Whereupon small children are sent far and wide to look for them for the reward of a ‘lolly’ ie sweet. It is played with much enthusiasm, much more entertaining than our variety. They are also mad on rugby and when we said we came from England we were invariably congratulated on being world champions. We went to an evening outdoor showing of an international match, the Pacific Islanders against NZ, made most enjoyable by the enthusiastic audience participation, a wonderful meal served on banana leaves and a fire throwing display in the interval! We explored both of the islands, Opolulu and Savai, sharing a car rental with friends and visiting RL Stephenson’s home, now an excellent museum, and his grave in the hills above Apia, visiting blowholes where you dash up before a wave comes in and throw a coconut into the hole to watch it being blasted out in the blow, and jumping off and sliding down waterfalls into clear deep pools. Making our way back to the dinghy one night after parking the car, we got caught in the curfew. This takes place at dusk every evening in all the villages. Gongs are struck and everyone has to get into their house for prayers. We had waited until the gong had sounded the end of the curfew but unwittingly crossed the border into the next village where it had not yet finished. The ‘curfew police’ politely told us to sit down on the grass at the side of the road until their curfew was over, then a woman kindly came and asked us into her house. All the Pacific island countries have strong religious adherence, with churchgoing, often 3 times on a Sunday, but it was strictest in Samoa and Tonga. The Mormons are particularly active in both these countries.

Between Samoa and Tonga we crossed the International Date Line, so losing forever one day of our lives, Sunday 25th July. It was another rough ride! I had thought that after the long crossing to the Marquesas we would be into easy short hops between islands in sunny calm conditions, but all our worst weather has been in the western Pacific. Tonga in particular was often dull, wet and windy- Blue Lagoon turned into Grey Lagoon and it became more difficult to navigate through the reefs when you couldn’t see the changes in water colour that show up the depths. Sheltering in the lee of an island in the Hapaai group we found ourselves in a pretty bad situation when the wind changed direction 180 degrees and blew nearly 50 knots. We were lucky to get away with a severely bent anchor- my favourite one made of 1 inch thick stainless steel, and sharp so that it sticks into anything. Now we are back to our old one that is much harder to set properly and Brian and I will need counselling! It was a shame about the weather as friends had come out to sail with us in Tonga, but we did have lovely sunny days when we explored the islands, snorkelled on the reefs and best of all, watched the humpback whales with their young. They were blowing, raising themselves straight out of the water, flinging themselves over backwards, rolling and showing their tails. Unforgettable displays!

The Royal Kingdom of Tonga is a small but widely scattered string of islands which has never been under any colonial rule, so it has never had the sugar plantations and imported labour of other Pacific countries. Its main export is squash pumpkins to the US but most people are subsistence farmers and pigs, dogs and hens run everywhere. Many people still wear the traditional woven pandanus mats tied around their waists (now over other clothes). The royal family holds both political and economic power, one of the king’s sons is Prime Minister and the Crown Prince is a wealthy businessman. Parliament consists of the royal family and 33 nobles with 9 elected representatives of the rest of the people. Most Tongans seemed to support the royal family and one lady suggested to us that Prince William should choose a one of the kings grand daughters for a wife, a nice idea!

Most of the yachts are found in the northern Vavau group of islands where Moorings and Sunsail have their charter fleets and where Friday is race day. Cruisers are welcome to join in, so we entered Farne, laden as she was with stores and fuel. It was good to see that Brian had lost none of his competitive edge on the start line and, with the skilled musclepower and keen eyesight of his 3 mature and experienced crew ( Quentin, Liz and me!), we led the fleet from start to finish, much to the chagrin of the young charter company skippers who were trying to look good for their female backpacker crews!

Quentin and Liz helped us across to Fiji on another sail-ripping 3 day passage in rainy weather which fortunately took a turn for the better once we reached Fiji where they just had a few days before flying home. Fiji is an interesting mix of Indo-Fijians, the original people who just call themselves Fijians, and quite a few Chinese and Caucasians. We saw mixed groups but schools are separate, although not entirely exclusive ie Fijians can go to an Indian school and vice versa, but we were told by the chief in one village we visited that he would banish anyone who married an Indian. He himself had an Irish great, great, great grandfather! Probably most of the Fijians just wish that the Indos would go ‘home’, although of course many were born in Fiji. The coups of 1987 and 2000 did enormous damage to the economy and tourism in particular, and there is a will to avoid any repetition. After completing all the entry formalities and getting our cruising permit we left the north island for the remoter Kadavu island within the Great Astrolabe reef. When you anchor off a village you must go ashore straight away to ask permission and to take the chief his sevusevu or gift of kava roots. You have to do this through an intermediary so that he has the option of refusing them. If they are acceptable you go into his house and sit in a circle on a mat and he holds the kava and tells you formally in Fijian that you are welcomed by the village as one of their large family, that you are free to go anywhere and they will look after you for as long as you care to stay. Brian then formally thanked them for the priviledge. Then a bowl of kava is made from the ground roots and everyone has to drink a coconut shell of it down in one go, clapping as you receive it and 3 times when you give the bowl back. At first it tastes horrid but we soon began to think that it wasn’t that bad. The bowl goes round and round as you sit talking, cross legged on the floor- that was the hard bit for us!- for an hour or 2 getting very stiff and your mouth going numb with the kava. We stayed for 3 days at one village, searching the forest for the Kadavu shining parrot, (we saw parrots but they didnt seem to be particularly shining!), talking to people about their gardens and going to their church service on the Sunday morning, It was only a small village of about 50 people, all related, but that congregation sang, unaccompanied, in the most wonderful harmony we have ever heard. After the service we went to the chief’s house for Sunday lunch of taro roots, fish and boiled ferns in coconut milk- a memorable birthday for Brian!

The thing that amazed us throughout the Pacific was the fact that these people, who have been the world’s finest navigators and sailors spreading right across this huge ocean without charts or navigation instruments, now no longer sail. Nor do they even make boats, apart from the odd crude dug-out outrigger canoe or rafts made of a bundle of bamboo canes lashed together with pehaps a wooden pallet on the top. Yet in the museum in Suva and in Tonga and Moorea we saw replicas of huge ornate canoes that could carry hundreds of people for thousands of miles. Now they seem to struggle to tie a decent knot to secure their raft to a tree and all their fishing seems to be done from precarious little craft within the reefs, or by walking nets out across the reef at low tide. OK, so they no longer need to build war canoes and can get ferry boats or planes between islands, but they still fish and sailing boats would be a cheap way of getting to the bigger fish outside the reefs. It is very puzzling.

We are now within 300 miles of NZ and, having crossed the 180 degree line between Tonga and Fiji, I suppose we are technically on our way home, apart from this big diversion south to NZ to get out of the cyclone season in the Pacific. We haven’t decided on our route home yet and will have to find out whether the way through the Red Sea and Suez Canal is still an option by next year. We plan to spend January to April in the NZ summer. Right now though we are looking forward to getting there in a few days and flying home at the end of the month to see everyone again- after sailing almost 11,000 miles in the past year it is time to lay up the boat for a while and come home!

We arrived in NZ on 6 October after an 8 day crossing. That is to say that we arrived but our rudder did not! It snapped off after 2 days of gales when we still had 100 miles to go. Fortunately the wind moderated soon afterwards and we were able to steer using the small auxillary rudder on our self steering gear, taking turns to stand on the stern and operate it manually as we navigated the more restricted waters along the coast and up the river to Whangarei. As you can imagine, this has left us in an even more uncertain position regarding future plans but we are just glad that it happened near NZ where all the necessary services are available and not in some of the remote part of the ocean.