People love to ask us if we ever get bored on the boat. At times yes, maybe? The thing is, if you’re not out surfing or kiting or diving or doing whatever it is that excites you, there’s bound to be a long list of boat projects that needs tending to. I can’t say rebuilding the head or trying time and again to find the problem with the SSB radio are tasks that get me out of bed in the morning ready to conquer the world, but do they make me bored? No. Once you get into it they’re just a more masochistic kind of fun.
The first time I rebuilt one of our winches I was slightly intimidated. Well, I was confident and ready to figure it all out until Matt came over, dropped a Calder book at my feet and tented me with a tarp pleading I not send anything flying. I can’t really blame him, though, as I had recently launched a bit from the outboard’s carburetor into Bora Bora’s lagoon, and finding replacement parts for our original 1970-something’s Barient winches is nearly impossible.
For a device that makes raising the mainsail possible (I literally do not weigh enough to get it up without a winch) I expected to remove the drum housing and meet the monster inside that would take an entire day to service. But what do you know? These things are pretty straightforward, and one of the many reasons I greatly prefer mechanics to electronics. That same winch is running smoothly almost three years later, but we’ve got eleven on board and it was about time another one seized up on us. Despite what I’ve just mentioned, I got up extra early and put together my kit with fervour and made for the mast, but that’s really one part coffee, two parts existing knowledge of the task, and three parts trying to beat the heat of the sun.
There are a number of winch-specific cleaning products out there, though I’ve found a good diesel bath to work magic and it’s usually something we have an excess of on board. That said, it’s a good thing no winches seized on our way down from the Marshalls… But the whole cleaning process is so simple and requires so few elements that it makes sense to do them all at once, when the ease of servicing them is so greatly outweighed by the ease they offer in return and the annoyance of when they don’t. My kit is nothing more than an awl for getting the circlips off, needle-nose pliers for getting the pawls out (mind the springs!), diesel for washing, a green scrubby for scrubbing, gloves, grease, lube, a paintbrush, a bucket, and some rags.
I should add that another possible reason this task was tackled so quickly is that the seized winch was the one we use to hip the dinghy at night (no davits on this canoe). When the backstay broke we didn’t feel comfortable hanging nearly 250lbs from the mast and the dinghy sat in the water for three weeks. We finally brought it out of the water and put it on deck for passage and had this to deal with:
Advice for anyone facing the same issue: let it cook in the sun for a day and try to stay upwind. It’ll be a whole lot easier to scrape off, and your nose will thank you.
Something we learned in the Marshall Islands is that weather prediction for the surrounding area can be painfully inaccurate. Being only a few degrees off the equator, the ITCZ (which in itself is annoyingly unpredictable) is never too far away and can turn a glorious day into a panic of dragging anchors in the blink of an eye. Or on the other hand, as in our most recent case, the forecasted winds we were hoping to ride south to Fiji were simply nowhere to be found.
I can’t even begin to describe the frustration of looking at GRIB files that say you’re in 15-20 knots on the beam, while noisily motoring through the glassiest seas imaginable and breathing obnoxious amounts of diesel exhaust. I found the best way to deal with this was just to go hang out on the bow, as far away from the sounds and excrements of the engine as possible, and watch the dolphins. Needless to say we burned through our fuel supply far faster than we would have liked, and the wind forecast was getting more dismal by the day, so we changed course and made for Kiribati where we could refuel and hopefully give the breeze a day or so to fill back in.
We didn’t stop in Kiribati on our way north last year. We sailed through their waters within eyesight of the atolls but had enough fuel and wind to keep moving, and some friends who were in Tarawa emailed saying it was dirty and there was nothing to do, so we didn’t feel a stop was warranted. With that I can’t say either of us were thrilled to stop there now, so we made plans to get clearance, get fuel, and get out all in a day.
Customs and Immigration took 24 hours just to clear us in, so that plan went straight out the window. In that time, though, it started to look like we could get better wind if we stuck around for a few days, and with a build-up of energy from days of motoring and then being confined to the boat while officials took their sweet-ass time, we hatched a new plan. Our finely practised method for expedited cultural immersion is this: get a phone, rent a car (or a scooter if you’re in Tuvalu). So that’s exactly what we did, and I can tell you that Tarawa, outside of the shipping port, is not dirty, and there is plenty to do.
I’m actually a huge advocate for local transit; taking the bus is an experience in itself. But we wanted to go as far as the road could take us and stop for photos, so with a super spiffy (air conditioned) Subaru and Google maps running on the phone, we set off.
Interestingly enough, while Kiribati is only a few hundred miles away from the Marshalls and also comprised primarily of atolls, it’s a completely different environment. I got all jazzed on the acres of mangroves (love me some mangroves), and we noticed pretty much as soon as we set foot on the island that there are surfable waves; from what we learned, there’s an Australian expat who’s been teaching some of the locals to surf and now there’s a small but growing community. So that’s awesome.
While Tarawa is fairly industrialized, it seems not to suffer the same Western infiltration upon its culture that we experienced in the Marshalls (it’s actually under an Australian wing, not American, but you know what I mean). The architecture was immediate evidence of that, with a refreshing preservation of traditional building techniques everywhere we looked, and the locals seemed to have an easier time blending indigenous practices with modern conditions. Taking someone’s photograph without them defaulting to gang signs was, again, refreshing, and while this could be a result of nearly everyone’s remarkable fluency in English, it felt we were welcomed more as “visitors” than “foreigners”. In the short three days we were there we easily had more interactions with locals than in the last five months we spent in Majuro, and between their penchants for song, dance, and witty island humour our plans to keep on moving were nearly revised. Though maybe getting out while things are good is sometimes the trick to an enjoyable experience. Seriously, though, the I-Kiribati are super friendly and seemed pretty stoked that we were around. Even the big-wigs at the Parliament Building where we eventually started tying up the dinghy were laid-back islanders down for a good time, at least off-hours. Which in itself is a funny story…
The Parliament Building has a bar. Our last night in Tarawa we thought maybe we’d check it out and have a drink or two before setting off on another two weeks of sailing. We found ourselves in the company of some PM’s and after an hour or so of raucous conversation they asked us if we’d like to try some local food. It turns out smoked sea worm is delicious. Apparently it’s even better barbequed.
We’re going places again and it’s rig-check time. Matt normally runs me up the mast, and from the top down I’ll look at every single part of the rig; from wind instruments and electrical components to stay/shroud connection points to the mast itself. There’s a lot going on when it comes to a boat’s rigging, and a lot of places where failure can happen. You have to look closely and be thorough to catch things like hairline cracks, pitting, kinks, corrosion. But, sometimes, a failure is obvious. Like our broken backstay. That was obvious.
Matt noticed it a few days before we were going to do our check. Up near the top of the backstay, right where the upper insulator for the SSB antenna is swaged to the last section of cable, three cable strands had broken and unwound themselves. Actually five were broken, but three of them were just a-blowin’ in the wind, not doing their very valuable job of holding the mast up. Poop.
All of the connections for our stays and shrouds are swaged. They’ve been great up until now, but they require specific tools to install (tools that we don’t have and apparently don’t exist here) and cannot be reused (we need new parts). Fortunately there’s more than one way to rig a boat and we’ve been introduced to the wonderful world of Sta-Lock fittings!
This is where a seemingly nightmarish situation transformed into an easy, educational, and dare I say almost fun morning task. Well, after the two weeks it took to get the parts shipped. The postal service in the Marshall Islands is a dark, twisted version of USPS where any promise of timely delivery or tracking is promptly abandoned and whatever you’ve ordered from the States is likely to go hang out in Guam for a couple days… anyway. This is also where our friend Cary came through. He’s a long-time boat resident of Majuro and was able to offer us the tools, space, and know-how we needed to get the job done. Turns out all you need is a way to cut cable, a couple wrenches, and some tubes of goopey stuff.
We ran the temporary backstay to the back of the boat to a split line that we could cleat off.
The split line was cleated off and the halyard could be tightened at the mast winches.
We tied off the backstay just below the upper swage and lowered it with a halyard. The jib halyard (blue) acted as a temporary backstay while the cable was down.
We’d taken the jib down to do some stitching so we repurposed the halyard and used it as a temporary backstay. Matt tied off the top swage and we lowered the cable, and we finally detached it from the stern and coiled it up into a neat and oddly insignificant-looking bundle of wire. On shore we cut the stay at the upper insulator’s lower swage, and with our handy new Sta-Lock fittings attached a new insulator, a new section of cable to replace what had failed, and the connection piece for where it meets the masthead. I think it took an hour. Putting the stay back in place would’ve taken all of twenty minutes, but the opportunity to take apart, scrub and polish the turnbuckle end was too tempting and I stretched it closer to another hour. We were done before lunchtime and I still can’t believe it was that easy.
Even with the confidence we have in the new fittings, however, the rigging still failed. It was all redone back in 2012, and rigging has a general life expectancy of ten years; the fact that it has started to go in half the time is unsettling and now we find ourselves doubting the integrity of the remaining swages. While we’ve tentatively scheduled a haul-out in Australia to address other large projects, it might be time to consider replacing the rigging entirely. If it comes to that, I think we know what route we’ll be taking.
So, how do these Sta-Lock fittings work? It’s pretty clever and easy enough to where just about anyone could do it themselves.
With the backstay down it’s ready to cut up.
Cable cutters were the go-to, but they weren’t strong enough for our 5/16 cable and we had to use a different method.
We clamped the cable at the swage, which was already compromised and coming off anyway, and used a bandsaw to make the cut.
And there it is. The reason masts fall down. Good thing we saw it when we did.
The bandsaw didn’t make the neatest of cuts, so we cleaned it up with a file before going any further. Make sure to clean up any burrs and sharp ends.
Measure twice, cut once. The last thing you want is a backstay that’s too short.
Our new Sta-Lock insulator wasn’t nearly as long as the old one with swaged fittings, so the new section of cable had to be quite a bit longer than the section we cut off.
After sliding the Sta-Lock fitting over the cable, use a screwdriver or awl to unwind the outer layer of strands, revealing the core strands.
The outer strands will hold themselves open and the core strands are ready for a wedge.
Slide the wedge over the core strands and set in place. We wanted an 1/8 reveal for the core strand.
With the wedge in place, slide the Sta-Lock fitting up. Work the outer strands if needed to keep them evenly spaced and prevented from crossing over each other. The wedge will keep the fitting from going too far, so slide it up as far as possible.
Use a tool (we really dug the awl) to do a final alignment of the strands before dry-fitting everything.
Holding the fitting in place so it doesn’t slide back down the cable, insert the male (cable) end into the female (in this case, the insulator) end. Using wrenches, tighten the threads until it’s seated, and unscrew.
The outer strands will have formed around the wedge, and now it’s ready to be set in place for good.
Squeeze some silicone sealant into the female end, and give a light application of threadlocker to the male end.
Wrench together the fittings the same was as for the dry-fit. Silicone will squeeze out the cable-end. Clean it up, let it dry.
And there you have it. A whole new section of rigging ready to go back on the boat.
Easy, right? Rigging doesn’t have to be scary, just do a little research and talk to someone who’s done it before. That said, we accept no responsibility for however you may muck it up. Maybe we mucked it up. We’re about to go sailing so I guess we’ll find out…
Sailing has been around for a while. Like 7000-ish years. Given its historical perseverance one would think it would be more commonplace, or at least more understood. But with the advent of planes and cars and boats with big powerful engines it seems to have fallen into a sort of niche category reserved today, perhaps, for those in less of a hurry. While I’ve developed my own collection of adjectives for describing the art of sailing, most tend to see it as a romantic venture; consulting the stars, quietly disappearing over the horizon, always with the possibility of never returning… Handheld electronic navigation units, satellite phones, engines and autopilot can mar that dreamy description pretty quickly, but fortunately we know where the elemental magic of yesteryear can still be found, and that is precisely why we’ve come to Ailuk.
Now, outrigger canoes are as much a part of the Pacific image as flower leis and coconuts with straws in them. They’re found around cities and indigenous villages alike, made of anything from carved breadfruit trees to cutting-edge carbon fibre, and are particularly popular around larger universities (think tropical rowing club). The sailing canoes, however, the descendants of the voyagers that first populated these islands, have achieved an unfortunate novelty status and usually can only be seen in museums or reenactments. It seems that outboard engines have proven to be too convenient for tradition- or have they?
Ailuk is very busy- the population is low, less than 400 people, but with over 50 islets they have a respectable amount of cultivatable land and a thriving copra industry. Every morning the men take off for any given islet that can be up to two hours away and every evening they return home. And while spearing reef fish in the lagoon will keep you fed, trolling for tuna in the open ocean is both more fruitful and more exciting. The locals simply move around too much for fuel-fed boats to be practical, and with the infrequent and irregular supply ship a petrol shortage or mechanical fault would be crippling. They’ve also managed to keep in mind something that so many others have either forgotten or never learned in the first place- sailing is fun! From childhood the joy of sailing is learned in the most assured way possible. The anatomy of a sailing canoe is quite simple and is easily scaled down to a toy, and an evening low tide will undoubtedly be cause for a race. The children and canoes grow up in tandem, young teens learning finer control in simpler but still technical trainer-size hulls, eventually graduating to the real-deal which can be around 20’. It is at once both everything and nothing like learning how to drive a car. Practical, perhaps necessary, definitely commonplace, and absolutely beautiful.
Escape Mission! Some very altruistic friends loaned us their spare outboard so we could get the heck out of Majuro. We had ten days with the foster kicker, so we kept our jaunt semi-local and made for Maloelap Atoll just 100 miles to the north. We took care of formalities in the southern corner of the atoll, but a fellow kiter had shared some waypoints with us back in Fiji and conditions were lining up for his all-time favourite spot, so we upped the anchor after a few days and moved to the other end of the lagoon. The spot was as good as promised, but it would be out of sorts for us to go too long without breaking something, and after a number of purely epic kiting days our trusty 12 meter kite bit the dust, essentially halting our fun and leaving us to seek out alternate activities.
Wandering into the jungle was initially a strike mission for firewood- the landowners of the small uninhabited islet had given us the go-ahead to collect and burn at will as long as we were responsible and tidy. We beached the dinghy and clamoured up the eroding shoreline, past the façade of pandanus and into the shade of the seemingly nondescript forest of coconut trees. What had been completely invisible from the boat, however, and what the landowners had entirely failed to mention, is that we had just stepped onto a sprawling and shockingly intact Japanese military installment. The Marshalls are home to a host of WWII ruins from their time spent serving in the Pacific Theatre and it’s not unusual in particular atolls to come across a relic or two, but this was, to say the very least, unexpected. The sun was setting quickly so we gathered enough sticks to start a fire and relocated to a nearby sandspit where we promptly revised the next day’s agenda.
The compound that once served as a power station was sitting on unusually undulant ground; small hills and valleys that you would find nowhere else made little geological sense, raising a million questions as we walked what could only be described as a ridgeline towards the main building. Standing on the threshold of the looming structure we faced an overwhelming episode, seemingly suspended in time, and timidly tiptoed around the exterior. Curiosity ultimately got the better of us and with somber but unrestrainable excitement we passed through a doorway, stepping carefully into another time, whispering as though we might wake up a sleeping war. The ground level had been thoroughly burned and the blackened walls stripped of their tiles that now lay on the floor, heaped together with a more recent layer of coconut shells. Concrete from the ceilings had been violently cast downward, and the once smooth walls were peppered with holes of obvious origin. A utility room still housing its water heater sat adjacent to a kitchen with traditional Japanese ovens, and a bathroom where someone had thoughtfully arranged the shattered porcelain plumbing fixtures along the rim of a tub. At the centre of this all was a wide, sunlit stairwell to the second level, and despite heavy emotions it was hard not to appreciate the architecture. Upstairs was, in strange contrast, a room brightly lit by blown-out windows and a roof perforated by mortar strikes, where determined trees and vines growing skyward appeared to both consume and preserve the building. No one had removed the rubble. No one had roped off dangerous areas. It had been abandoned, left as it was at the height of the war, and forgotten.
Back outside we discovered more buildings; mostly fuel and water storage, a pump house, and foundations demonstrating the accuracy of airstrikes. The hills and valleys that were at first so puzzling started to add up as forcefully moved earth, either by detonation or as an effort to create a barrier. From the top of one of the mounds we caught a glimpse of yet another structure and made our way over to discover a bunker tucked along the shoreline, hidden within the trees alongside an anti-aircraft gun aimed out over the lagoon.
The tide had gone out since we landed on shore, exposing most of the seaward reef, and we made time for one last venture before heading back to the boat. The coral plateau was long dead and revealed little of interest, but just as we called it a day and turned back towards the dinghy my foot kicked something into a tide pool. I bent down and picked up two heavy metal objects roughly the size and shape of a finger, rusted and deformed, though clearly recognizable as ammunition and still possessing the unmistakable smell of explosives.
No book or movie could ever prepare someone for how rattling and how awe-inspiring it is to walk through such a preserved piece of history. The locals have more or less left it alone, using it only to store the refuse from copra processing, and the jungle seems to be the last man standing as it slowly reclaims its rightful land. There are live rounds scattered throughout the handful of islands involved in the war, so if you find yourself lucky enough to stumble upon this or another site, tread carefully.
I’ve been feeling generally uninspired by Majuro. Engaging with the locals is difficult; taxi rides are awkward at best, and despite dressing to blend in we still get stared at everywhere we go. We’d been warned directly that the locals were unfriendly, and while I wouldn’t necessarily use that word nor apply it to everyone, there is an underlying dissonance. Though I’m sure it’s exaggerated by the fact that we’ve come from Fiji where everyone treats you like family, even in the city. The city itself isn’t attractive. It’s pretty fucking filthy, a feature highlighted by the recent hepatitis outbreak and my refusal to get in the water.
And now, much to my chagrin, we’re back in Majuro.
We got here right before Christmas with no plans to stay long. Matt’s parents were visiting so we saw and did all there was to see and do, and intended on taking off for several months soon after they went home. Which we did. And we made it up to Aur. It really deserves its own feature, but it was what we came to the Marshalls for. Clean, clear water and unspoilt fishing grounds. A beach perfect for launching the kites. Privacy. Seclusion. The locals were kind and outgoing, and we really started to get a feel for the Marshallese culture which tends to be a little diluted in the capital. Then the kicker quit. We’ve been experiencing some issues with the old Mercury lately, but they’ve mostly been fuel-related and a good carb cleaning usually did the trick. But after three days of tinkering we accepted that whatever the problem was, it was beyond our ability to fix. I wish I could say that we could get by without it, and we honestly tried to convince ourselves we could, but with kiting being our MO it’s a necessity. The consensus shared between fellow sailors as well as the mechanic we found is that we should just replace the thing. It’s old, a ’99, and major parts are starting to fail. But we’re stubborn and in our small world that is a boat we tend to become absurdly attached to things like pieces of PVC and broken springs. I don’t know if we’ll ever forgive ourselves for replacing the windlass in French Polynesia. Also a new outboard that can perform the way we need want it to is well over our budget, so we’ve committed to fixing our ancient but beloved Mercury. The serial number is gone, of course, and no parts distributor will ship to the Marshalls, so we’re here for a bit while we sort this mess out.
Now, the real issue with Majuro is simply that an atoll isn’t capable of supporting the amount of people that live here. Like everywhere else in the world, people from more rural areas, i.e. the outer islands, flock to the city for jobs and amenities. Or because nuclear fallout has rendered their home atoll uninhabitable. In exchange for things like fishing rights, missile rights, essentially the rights to take advantage of location and resources at the detriment of the indigenous people, more “established” nations may provide subsidised goods to help keep everyone fed and clothed. Of course, these nations usually have reasonable means of dealing with the amount of waste the modern world produces, but while shipping things in is one thing, shipping out is another. Most of what arrives in Majuro is here to stay; cars that break and can’t be fixed, construction materials inadequately constructed, the plastic packaging on nearly everything. With sea levels rising all these things and people are pushed further inland and everything that isn’t useful is likely to end up on the street, in the water, on what once were beaches. It’s been affecting the Marshall Islands since the mid 1940’s, and it’s gotten really, really bad.
Angry, and seeing an opportunity to channel said anger into something more productive, I packed a bag and set off to capture the ugliness that is Majuro. In a place where land is so valuable, seeing it wasted on useless abandoned buildings, piles of deceased cars and impossible amounts of garbage is enough to make someone’s head spin. Territorial dogs ran me out of the Darrit district pretty quickly, which did nothing to improve my impressions, so I grabbed a handful of coral ammunition and hightailed it towards Uliga and Delap. With the sun and temperature rising the dogs became lethargic and disinterested, seeking shade wherever they could and leaving me free to wander the more residential areas. I let the coral fall back to the ground, slowed my walk. And then something happened- someone said “Good morning!”
Everyone slowly seemed to drop their guard, including myself, and started in a sort of transient conversation. Kids grabbed my hand as they passed, staring for a moment before shouting “Hello!” or following me a bit before returning to their prior engagement. People made sure to poke their faces out and greet me as I passed their homes. I realised that tourists must not amble through the back streets of Majuro often, which is unfortunate because they, or at least this one, turned out to be the most beautiful part. Standing amidst the homes and heartbeat of the city, I was embarrassed to think I’d assumed they wouldn’t take care of it. Merely 200 meters across to the lagoon side I’d been trudging through the refuse of 30,000 people, and here I found myself enamoured by a culture I’d believed buried. A tennis ball rolled to a stop at my feet, and I tossed it back to a group of boys who were thrilled to show off their ballgame. Folded up cardboard boxes made perfectly acceptable mitts.
I’d walked so far that I needed to take a cab back to the dock if I wanted to get anything else done that day. It had gotten awfully hot and as I climbed into the backseat of the taxi I welcomed the air conditioning with quiet relief. The driver met my eyes in the mirror and smiled, asking me how I was, making it the most conversation I’d managed in a taxi yet. He drove slower as we talked.
The Marshallese have to be given their due credit for resilience. The cultural upheaval they’ve endured in less than a century is ludicrous, and expecting a seamless transition is equally so. They came from the sea, live by it, and one has to realize that the state of the environment in and around Majuro hurts them more than it would any tourist. And for those that were born and raised in this city, many have never seen with their own eyes the paradise that it once was or had the pleasure of visiting the outer atolls. It’s times like these that make me realize how truly lucky we are aboard Cavalo.
To think we almost didn’t come here. To think they almost didn’t let us come here! After sitting down with customs and immigration in Fiji and having a carefully worded conversation, they granted us a visit for the sole purpose of refuelling before continuing north. Our “special permission” came on a very official-looking sticky note and was accompanied by intimidating eye contact and the stipulation that we were neither on vacation nor to go surfing. Though the weather window we were looking at was less than ideal it was the best we’d seen in weeks and we were impatient to go, so we backed out of the office while still in their good graces and prepared Cavalo for passage.
A two day motor-sail and the island appeared suddenly as islands tend to do when the air is dense and humid and holding the seaspray in a perpetual state of suspension. It was larger than we expected with peaks and coves, a spattering of rocky islets all around. As we rounded the eastern coastline the flash of the sun off a mirror glinted on the beach and I ran below to grab a compact to return the signal. Senseless twinkles of communication left me giddy, and when we reached the anchorage we found the clear turquoise-blue bay all to ourselves. What was this paradise we’d so recently just heard of?
While Rotuma is technically part of Fiji, the people and culture bear little resemblance. They speak their own language and have their own customs and holidays, and are widely considered Polynesian instead of Melanesian, tracing their lineage back to Tonga, Samoa and French Polynesia. Even the land itself, dark and jagged volcanic rock, was more reminiscent of the Marquesas. We thumbed a truck into town (after walking 6 of the 12 kilometres) and drove past immaculate homes nested behind expertly crafted low coral walls, veils of orchids and hibiscus and a rainbow of other tropical flora, deducing that the locals take great pride in gardening and property maintenance. Even the grounds surrounding abandoned homes were kept, rubbish we’d grown used to seeing on beaches was nowhere to be found.
There are no tourist facilities on the island. No hotels, hostels, places to buy a meal. That said, there were no other visitors present and all eyes were on us, so we made sure to play by the rules. We jumped off the truck in front of the police station and went in to make ourselves known and show immigration our special sticky note, then set off to take care of our own business. While we didn’t end up needing much fuel, what we did need was a new battery. Wait, what!? If you’re thinking that by now we must be beyond sick of thinking, talking and writing about batteries, you’re right. So, in short, the engine start battery that we got for a very reasonable price in Raiatea over two years ago that at this point doesn’t owe us anything finally gave up. And by “gave up” I mean fucking exploded. Gunshot bang, cabin full of thick white smoke, battery acid everywhere. Obviously this all happened offshore in the middle of the night and was absolutely terrifying. The boat is fine, we’re fine.
Here enters the unlikely hero… In addition to the other amenities Rotuma lacks (not in the least bit a complaint) there isn’t, you know, a battery store. We set off on foot towards the energy building that powers the island thinking they would know where we might be able to get our hands on something, but ran into one of the officials from biosecurity along the way. We told him what we were doing, he told us he had a battery. In fact, he had a brand new battery. It had been destined for a generator but for whatever reason wasn’t needed after all and had been sitting on the floor in his office for six months. He seemed eager to get rid of it and offered to put in on a charge for a few days, and just like that, in one brief chance encounter, we managed to acquire a battery and buy ourselves a few days to not be on vacation. The rest of the biosecurity team was organizing their weekly fruit harvest and offered to take us along; their route went right by the wharf, and an impromptu tour could double as a lift home. We climbed into the truck and took off down a dirt road running parallel to but hidden from the main road, through backyards and a large muddy sports field. They described to us the different fruits they were harvesting and the fruit flies they were incubating for study, I explained what doing doughnuts was. Matt shot me a sideways glance but they seemed in good humor, though disinclined to stomp the accelerator and crank the wheel.
Rotuma seems almost a secret, like a puzzle box. The twinkle on the beach was an invitation, or a dare, and with each passing day more of the island opened up to us. Faces became familiar and one by one revealed to us a glimpse of the island’s seemingly endless trove of treasures along the coastline, in the jungle, underwater or in someone’s home. Places and things that no one would find on their own without feeling like they were trespassing. A quiet, isolated little island with a whole world inside it. We did manage to go surfing, but we won’t say where.
If attempting to obtain clearance, confirm well ahead of time that all officials will be on the island. They usually are not all present, Fiji is strict on formalities, and they will know you’re there.
The main town is on the western side of the larger portion of the island, north of the neck to the smaller portion. It is about 12 kilometres from the main anchorage and there are few vehicles on the island, so plan your walk early and stick out your thumb.
NE anchorage is the most reliable, though it is largely exposed, shallow, any strong breeze from any northerly direction would make it untenable.
Anchor in 2.5 metres, sand. Swell is bothersome, stern anchor recommended. Tuck in as close to the wharf as you dare. Have a long line ready to run to the wharf for strong northerlies or excessive swell.
Flies are extremely bothersome. They do not bite, but will swarm heavily at all hours of daylight. Screens are very recommended for those planning to visit Rotuma.
There are no yachting facilities whatsoever. Diesel can be purchased from barrels at a number of locations on the island, but the supply ship only comes once a month, so one should be considerate of the islanders’ needs. You will need to arrange transportation of your jerry cans, there is no mobile diesel unit.
There are no rubbish receptacles and all water is either bore water or rainwater.
Basic provisions can be obtained in every village, with the main town having the most variety. There is no produce market, so if you want fruit or veg you will need to make friends. Again, be considerate of the islanders’ needs.
* These notes are offered as observations only and are not meant for navigational purposes.
Up until a few weeks ago, if you’d asked us where we were headed next the answer was Vanuatu, New Caledonia and then Australia. It’s more or less the usual route everyone takes around here, and this is likely one of the reasons we’ve opted for the alternative. There are a number of reasons, really, and the more you try to unpack it the more complex the decision becomes. In the end, though, we realized an opportunity that probably wouldn’t present itself again, and I have a strong personal aversion to predictability.
After crossing into the southern hemisphere in May of 2014, we’ve seen an unimaginable array of environments. They’re all unique, they’ve all left a mark. If you could go back to any one place, where would you go? It’s not an easy question to answer, but of them all the Tuamotus were something else. Low-lying atolls of white sand and coconut trees. Glassy lagoons rife with fish, sharks and corals. The juxtaposition of postcard-picture paradise and a survivalist existence agreed with us, and it’s something we haven’t come across again since we moved further west. So, we’re going 1,600 nautical miles north to the Marshall Islands instead. Should be a trip, stay tuned!
Resort guests stroll up and down the dock, pointing to the boats that excite them the most. Penthouse-style motor yachts, carbon catamarans, classic monohulls. The motor yachts are usually a favourite. Exclamations of admiration and desire make their way out of mouths not privy to the fact that most of these boats are broken.
The spot we were assigned on the dock was directly across from the Island Bar. I still can’t decide if this was convenient or inconvenient, or maybe even if it was assigned to us intentionally. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if it was. Either way, we grabbed a few beers before what would normally be considered an acceptable hour to do so and set out to solve our most pressing issue: getting the engine started. This turned out to be a fairly simple fix, especially since we knew where the problem lay; Matt did a quick rebuild of the manual lift pump and we were finally able to get all the air out of the lines and fuel to the injectors. She started right up. Phew! Our next task would demand a lot more time and patience, though.
During a seemingly endless inundation of advice, we isolated each of the three house batteries to measure voltage capacities and discharge rates, keeping meticulous notes as we went. We eased them from the normal charge and discharge routine into more aggressive efforts; overcharging them in attempt to burn off any sulfation and then bringing them down under a constantly controlled draw, just to the brink of death. We combed the electrical system over and over looking for a diagnosis. By some form of luck our neighbouring boat was suffering extensive electrical issues, and though the owners were away they had an electrician staying on board doing repairs. He’s more-or-less our age, so we made fast friends (at the Island Bar, obviously) and he eventually popped by Cavalo for a look at our system. We got more accurate readings with his clamp meter, and he was able to take a more educated look at how we had everything set up. He gave us a solid stamp of approval, and assured us that we had been charging and discharging the batteries properly over the last 18 months. Though we’ve learned there can be an unusual amount of room for interpretation when it comes to electrical issues, his comments were what we needed to make a final decision. Our system was fine, we bought shitty batteries.
Battery-buying is not exciting. In fact it’s pretty stressful. It’s a lot of spec-sheet reading and compatibility testing. And then of course we’re in Fiji. There are locally made batteries that are more affordable, but they have only a so-so reputation. And we’d heard stories of brand-name batteries being ordered at top-dollar prices through local vendors only to have knock-off versions delivered. We were over surprises by this point and decided to shell out for some Lifelines that we could get shipped from New Zealand. Matt coordinated movements between vendors and freight companies, I argued with customs over rotation numbers and tax exemptions. Finally we had some batteries on the way, though in the meantime we were still stuck on the dock. We had friends visiting in less than a week, so I decided it was as good a time as any to dig out the power tools and get into some brightwork. I transformed the deck into my own floating woodshop and buried my frustrations in a nice layer of teak dust. Perhaps a bit ambitious with company coming, but it needed to be done and was hugely (bigly?) satisfying to get started. We eventually got the cease-and-desist order from the marina on account that it was not in fact a boatyard, but the dirty work is done.
The batteries arrived and we moved to a slip over in Denarau to pick them up and swap them out. I’d all but forgotten how much they weigh, and how awkward they are to get into and out of the boat. The three batteries together weigh in at almost 500 pounds, and they need to come out of their hole, up through the companionway, off the boat onto the dock, and then the new ones go in. The new batteries were slightly different dimensions, enough so that we needed to rebuild their cradle, but after contorting in all sorts of weird ways we learned that I just barely fit into their bilge-home, with just enough room to wield a cordless drill. Cozy.
As of now? The new batteries are working wonderfully, the varnish is looking great, all the stainless is polished. Lots and lots of work that is so very much worth it.
Immediate agendas are generally not discussed much amongst sailors. The bigger picture, sure, but the short term is better left to circumstance. It’s pretty much a guarantee that any attempt to stick to a schedule will leave you feeling like things didn’t go ‘according to plan’, so we tend to make a general outline and then take it day by day.
After leaving the mantas we jumped up to Blue Lagoon to hunker down; the forecast was for a few days of rain, so we figured we’d sit it out there and continue north once the skies cleared. Fortunately we still had good visibility when we rounded into the pass, because the entry to the lagoon is an absolute minefield. We did a series of sharp turns as reefs seemed to appear out of nowhere, and after dropping the hook we sat and watched some following boats do the same; others sailing about the area had arrived for similar reasons. The anchorage in Blue Lagoon is one of the most protected in the Yasawa, and the yacht club has a basic shop, showers, and some local attractions that we could take advantage of in the meantime, so for a stretch of grey days things were looking pretty good.
There’s a delightfully picturesque hike up and over the ridge to the village on the other side, even in the rain, and we encountered Lo along the way. She’s a tall Fijian woman with big features, and when she spotted us from several meters away, she stretched her arms wide and exclaimed “Hello! I’m Lo!” She was on her way to tend her crops, but pointed us in the direction of her beachfront Tea House in the village where we sat down for fresh lemon tea and some cake, watching the waves gently lap the shore just steps away. We needed more food, though, and the shop back at the yacht club was woefully barren of produce.
We’d been given some insider information on a nearby farm that would possibly sell some of their bounty, so we put on our sulus and rain jackets and ventured off to the neighbouring island. It’s a few miles by dinghy, and only accessible at high tide, but once you find the entrance into the mangroves a winding channel leads you right to the steps of the farm. They go up up into the jungle, slippery from the rain and mud. Two of the family’s children, Millie and Duncan, spotted us first and came screaming, literally, down from the hills with their dog to meet us. They led us to the crops where we met their mother, and she promptly began filling our bags with all the things we love: tomatoes, cucumbers, spinach, bok choi, aubergine, radishes, herbs, eggs. The farm was massive, terraced, lush and beautiful. We bought enough to get us through the northern end of the Yasawa, and attempted fishing on the way back to the boat. Guess what? No fish…
Blue Lagoon, though somewhat touristy for our liking, provides a good base for a handful of activities in the immediate area. I could go on about paddle boarding the lagoon, fishing in the pass (we actually hooked something for a second but lost it), or late nights at the yacht club watching rugby. But really what I would be doing is avoiding the part where everything started to go wrong. The part where our adventure through the Yasawa came to an abrupt end.
A year and a half ago, back in Opua, our old batteries finally gave out and we had to get new ones. Batteries are *really* not cheap, but a friend of a friend who was a rep for a battery manufacturer managed to get us some at wholesale. We didn’t know anything about the brand, it being a relatively new one, but they were made in China and deceitfully affordable. They actually worked beautifully for the time that we had them. We made sure they never got too low and regularly gave them a good strong charge. There was no significant decline in performance that indicated failure. Alas, the morning after we stocked up on veg, I woke at 5am to the battery monitor reading 11.3V. If you don’t know much about batteries, I can tell you that those are really bad numbers to see. The inverter was off, nothing had been left on overnight save for the fan in our room. We made a silent apology to the anchorage and fired up the engine. The alternator kicked into gear and the batteries started accepting a charge, so we let her run for several hours hoping we could set things right. However, once shutting down ol’ Mr. Perkins, our hopes of a simple recharge dropped away with the rapidly declining voltage. We borrowed a generator and let it run for four more hours. The batteries again tried to hold a charge, but once unplugged it was becoming clear something was amiss. We checked connections, looked for leaks, turned off absolutely everything.
By this point we thought ourselves lucky that we could even start the engine (our isolated start battery was more or less fine) so we made the call to head back towards town where we could plug in at a dock and figure everything out. Fortunately the weather had cleared; there wasn’t much of a breeze, but we could see the reef well and running the engine gave us a chance to charge devices and keep the fridge cold. Still, it was a rough morning. Matt was wracking his brain about what could be wrong, I was bemoaning my botched escape from Musket. But then! Zzzzzzzzzing! What is this? The fishing line went out at lightning speed and the rod was so bent I was sure it would snap. We slowed the boat and Matt started reeling. Whatever was on the other end of the line was big, and I was convinced it was the dreaded Skipjack that we’re so sick of. Even with our lousy luck lately, it’s possible we’d have thrown back a Skipjack. Silvery stripes shimmered below the surface of the water and we both let out a hoot. I grabbed the gaff and together we brought on board an impressively sized Walu. Walu being the Fijian name for the Narrow-barred Spanish Mackerel, and boy are they tasty. Butchered, bagged, back on course. Even with the past days’ battery blunders, we were feeling pretty high and psyched to throw some giant fish steaks on the grill back at the Island Bar. Oh, life, don’t bring me down now…
We were back in the Mamanucas, so we called up the Musket Cove Yacht Club and secured a spot on the dock. It was getting a bit later in the day, but we were steaming along glassy water and would easily get there before dark. Assuming the engine kept running, that is. Just as we entered the reef pass the tachometer wound back to zero, and, silence. We’re super embarrassed about it, but we did it. We ran out of fuel. We’d both been meaning to check the level, and we even had 80 litres on deck, but somehow it all got forgotten with everything else going on. But back to the matter at hand. Here we were, in a reef pass. There was no wind and the water was as calm as could be, so we scrambled to get the diesel we had on deck into the tank and then proceed with the line-bleeding. Another lesson here for those that don’t know much about diesel engines: you don’t run out of fuel. You just don’t do it. It’s not like a petrol engine where you just fill it back up and off you go. No, no, no. Air gets into the lines and it needs to come out. This involves topping up filters, operating a manual lift-pump, and sequentially opening and bleeding all the fuel valves and lines until there’s nothing but diesel in there. We’d done it before (after replacing filters, not running out of fuel) so we thought maybe we could get the engine up and running in ten to twenty minutes, but something wasn’t working. The manual lift pump had failed, and we didn’t have enough battery power to keep cranking over the engine to get the fuel to the injectors. We drifted closer and closer to the reef. Left with no other choice, we dropped the anchor and called for help.
Two familiar longboats appeared from behind Malolo Island. We were able to fashion a bridle to the bow and get the anchor up quickly, and for the first (and hopefully last) time in Cavalo’s history, we got towed. We averaged about 4.5 knots along the way, which was faster than expected, but it still took long enough for it to be pitch black by the time we were in the marina. We med-moored under the power of the two longboats; a somewhat graceless dance that had our neighbours chucking out fenders and ready to grab lines. In the end we secured Cavalo without incident and offered half our catch and a bit of cash to the boys who rescued us.
Why so few pictures of this ridiculous event? The camera stopped working. Go figure. Looks like we’ve got a few projects ahead of us.
Approach to the anchorage is a MINEFIELD. Do not trust charts, or even others’ tracks. Keep a sharp eye and only navigate in good visibility.
The anchorage itself is great, though deep. Anchor in 20 meters. Sand.
Nanuya Island Resort is very open to cruisers. Small shop, bar with food menu (though the two times we tried to get food there the kitchen was inexplicably closed) and hands down the best showers in Fiji at $5 a head.
Apparent laundry service, though we didn’t explore it.
Go to Lo’s. Ask about lunch.
* These notes are offered as observations only and are not meant for navigational purposes.