We made it to Fiji. Finally. It should have been exciting, but it wasn’t, to begin with. The passage was horrid.
1,381 nautical miles (by sea)
AUCKLAND: It was lovely, just so lovely, to arrive home to our small floating abode.
There were puddles and a rainbow. It was cold.
PASSAGE: AUCKLAND TO THE BAY OF ISLANDS: We sailed swiftly north to Russell in the Bay of Islands. Back in the day Russell was known as the ‘Hell Hole of the Pacific’, a lawless melting pot of whalers, merchant sailors, adventurers and escaped convicts from Australia, famous for its prostitution and rum. It was also, for a short time, the capital of New Zealand.
It’s a sweet, friendly wee town with things we love: succulents, trees and a library.
The locals knew us within a day. On Day 2 we were running into ‘old’ friends on the street, always benefiting from invaluable titbits, a mix of local and ‘island’ knowledge – everyone’s been, or knows someone who’s been, to ‘the islands’ (aka Tonga/Fiji/Vanuatu/New Cal). If whomever we were chatting with didn’t have an answer to our vague chatty question, then they’d race off to find ‘Bob’ from the servo/post office/bakery and drag poor old ‘Bob’ back to consult with us. ‘Bob’ never seemed more than mildly disgruntled by the interruption to his day.
HAPPY BIRTHDALE. This is forty-four.
OPUA. New Zealand has new biosecurity requirements and there are now only four ports where yachts like MUSCAT 7 can exit the country. Opua in the Bay of Islands is one of them. It’s a pretty place.
As we’d hoped, the rally rush had cleared by the time we arrived. Travelling to Egypt may perhaps be an extreme way to avoid the hustle and bustle of a rally, but it was well worth it. We had the washing machines, hire cars and marina showers to ourselves.
We set to work on our ‘to-do’ list.
Dale did his thing, pointing at stuff.
I shopped online. Delivery to the dock is free, if you spend $1,193.56.
Somehow I magicked room for it all.
Unfortunately, I don’t trust anyone to select my fruit and veg. This I acquired old school with a trolley, check out and hire car.
TWIN COAST CYCLE TRAIL. Between boat jobs, we rode the section between Opua and Kawakawa, and back.
We jumped on an old train for 5kms.
PASSAGE: OPUA, NEW ZEALAND TO SAVUSAVU, FIJI. The weather was fair, as expected. The passage could not have been worse. It took us ten days, including a 24 hour pause at Minerva Reef. Before I share the miserable stuff, here are the happy moments:
Full moon rise and set.
School of the sea. Pirate class.
Science class. One morning I found a dead squid on deck.
The girls drew it.
Then dissected it.
Another day Dale found a dead flying fish. The girls thought it was too beautiful to dissect.
Around latitude 28 we waved to Sushi back in Australia, it was a clear line of sight, a mere 1,400 nautical miles away.
Our palatial safe dry helm is a joy compared with the helm on our last boat, ZINC. However, because it’s enclosed, you don’t see as many shooting stars. Shame. Life on a boat is about compromise.
MINERVA REEF. This is an atoll between New Zealand and Fiji. It’s seven days’ sail from New Zealand. Apparently it’s claimed by Tonga, but there’s no island, just a ring shaped coral reef with a large open passage and a lagoon 2.5 nautical miles across and 20 meters deep. We were thrilled to have a calm resting place to pause, recalibrate our rudders, make fresh water and bread, clean, snorkel, and sleep through the night.
It’s always surreal to anchor in the middle of the ocean, with no land in sight.
There was a community of cruising sailors, resting, repairing, cleaning, and psyching up for the final two day passage to Fiji/Tonga.
We snorkelled. The reef was ordinary. There were no fish. I’d expected the Garden of Eden, being so far from anywhere.
There were loads of reef sharks. The girls thought it was cool to snorkel with sharks. Dale thinks sharks are a sign of reef health. I suspect the opposite when there’s also no fish. I’ll investigate and get back to you.
We enjoyed a sunset spearfishing adventure.
THE MISERABLE STUFF. I try to paint a balanced account of our ‘livin’ the dream‘ life. Our life is far from perfect. Whatever our adventures, the photos you see us post, we’re the same ordinary complicated people managing the best we can to squeeze the most out of life, often encountering extraordinary circumstances, stretching ourselves and not always being our best selves. The stress and anxiety of being outside your comfort zone can do this.
We completely blew our crew selection for the passage. We both feel awful the crew bore the brunt of my anger and frustration and insane 10-days-at-sea-with-two-annoying-hopeless-crew craziness. Dale may or may not feel awful for taking his anger and frustration out on me and the girls. Nevertheless, my behaviour was unacceptable. The crew should never have tried to get a gig on a sailboat for that passage without experience. We should never have taken them. No-one else would. Ironically Dale’s charitable nature has caused no end of grief. No good deed goes unpunished.
CREW. Before I start, you’ll find no photos or personal details about the crew on this site or linked to us. I’ve deleted the happy snaps of us leaving New Zealand from Facebook and Instagram. The crew’s hopelessness and general character flaws will remain anonymous. They’re young. Maybe they will become better people later in life. My flaws however are clearly set out in full below.
Here I go… My criteria for crew has always been one hardy male with ocean experience. Simple. Clear. Logical. Unsurprisingly, this criteria has served us well. We’ve travelled over 25,000 nautical miles and nine crew members have joined us on various passages. For this passage though, Dale chose a French couple in their very early 20s; only one of them male, neither of them hardy, neither of them with ocean experience. Apparently they’d been walking the docks at various marinas in New Zealand seeking passage to Fiji/Tonga/Vanuatu/New Cal. No-one would take them. They were shocked people said the passage was dangerous for people with no experience. Anyone with any sailing sense knows the passage to or from New Zealand is challenging, even for experienced sailors.
Why did we take them? I think their promise to look after the girls and teach them French blurred Dale’s judgement. Of course this promise was broken. Hazel our five year old know-it-all proved too challenging for the twenty year old French know-it-all, and the only reason Willow wrote any French in her language book is Dale insisted on a lesson every day, once he realised the lesson wasn’t going to be offered organically by the crew.
Why didn’t I insist on my crew criteria? Well, I did. I didn’t want the French couple to join us. Full stop. We had other great options, one was a hardy bloke who knew how to sail. Gee I wish I’d insisted more. But Dale is the captain, he’s the boss onboard. He’d done the passage from Australia to New Zealand. He seemed to think crew with zero experience in any body of water would be fine. Dale loves to give people a crack, a chance to do adventurous things they want to do. A noble cause. Usually I love this about him. But not when it puts the safety of my little family in jeopardy.
We needed help with night shifts on the passage. We needed a strong capable street smart bloke. We’re a family with two little kids. We didn’t have the capacity to teach two backpackers who were inexperienced around water how to sail and give them a good time. The fact the crew didn’t even know enough to take the passage seriously, to acknowledge or appreciate the risk they presented to us incensed me. They had no skills to offer. They were in for a free ride to Fiji.
RANT. Google ‘French stereotypes’ and the following comes up: “Some people consider the French to be arrogant, lazy and smelly. On the flip side they have a reputation for being confident, beautiful and artsy. Of course the French are aware of these impressions and do generally find them funny.” [Source: https://flashacademy.com/french-stereotypes/%5D
The crew Dale chose weren’t smelly or beautiful or artsy or self aware, nor did they have a sense of humour. The only thing I liked about them was that they weren’t smelly; they were very clean and left their hull immaculate when they left, even in the circumstances. And yes, they enjoyed an entire hull to themselves on the passage while the four of us squeezed into the other hull, along with the kitchen. The hull they took over is usually the ‘library’, where the girls play and escape for quiet time away from each other and us. Without this space the girls bickered significantly more than usual. They had nowhere to go. We had nowhere to go. The crew were in our hull too. The kitchen. Gosh. The feasts. Three hot meals a day if they had a chance. On passage. Unprecedented. Dale left it to me to scale them back. “Did you sanction this?” he’d growl to me about the feasts they prepared. He didn’t want to upset them of course. In the middle of the ocean, on a long challenging passage, it’s easier and safer to harangue your wife. I get this. I didn’t crack until Day 9 of 10. This in itself is remarkable really. But when I cracked, it was big time.
I have a strong sense of justice. What was happening was not fair or reasonable. I’m cruisy and accepting until I’m not. Injustice stirs fire in my belly. I cannot express just how much I wish I had one more day of tolerance in me. I keep thinking, if we didn’t stop at Minerva Reef, I would have made it. Just.
MY MELTDOWN. Inconveniently, as well as having zero water experience, the crew were arrogant with no common sense. They weren’t keen to play with the girls, as they’d represented they would. They couldn’t do night shifts other than the few nights we had no wind and were motoring / motor sailing. And even then Dale and I couldn’t sleep when they were on watch.
I’d hear the wind change and jump out of bed to look at our course. “Nothing has changed!” she’d snap. So confident in her ignorance. “Well, sorry, yes, it has changed, let’s go a bit more downwind,” I’d say, tapping the autopilot ten degrees or so. Day after day the ignorant arrogance continued. My personality is not suited to be around ignorant arrogance.
On Day 9 of 10 I lost my shit beyond belief. I was exhausted. Dale was exhausted. The crew had sat on my leather couch in wet swimmers and it had split. They’d broken my oven handle. Communication was lost in translation, they could speak English, but they didn’t understand context, everything needed to be explained and explained again. They stirred up Hazel by saying things like “I don’t even know what you’re saying” in a tone suggesting Hazel is a goose when really their English context and interpretation was lacking. My petty complaints could go on and on.
After nine days of stress, bickering kids, no sleep, no exercise, confined in a rolling cell (11.6m x 6.7m) with five other people, three of whom, my family, were venting their own frustrations at me, I couldn’t cope. I just couldn’t. It was too much. I snapped. I yelled and screamed at the crew like I’ve never yelled and screamed before. I still don’t know what happened. I can’t remember exactly what I screamed. Something about them: being selfish, inconsiderate and arrogant – breaking stuff and having no respect for our home or remoteness – presenting a danger to us by having no clue what they’re doing – sponging off us and taking advantage of us – stashing snacks in their room and not sharing while gobbling all our food – suggesting they’d move on to take advantage of Fijian people, who are generous but poor. I am teary writing about it. I wanted them off the boat. I wanted to fast forward time to check in to Fiji and kick them off. It was so awful. It gets worse.
I was immediately apologetic and embarrassed and needed space. I climbed onto the back starboard step, the furthest I could get from the crew in their port hull. It was rough. I tried to sit down. I stumbled. I was washed off by a wave. It’s a blur. I think Willow threw me the life buoy and pointed to keep my position. Dale must have pulled down the sails and turned the boat around. I’ve never been as terrified watching the boat sail away, being slapped by chop, no land in sight, thoughts of sharks circling, the sun setting. I clambered onboard in my soaking wet slacks. I cried. I crawled into bed, miserable. I fell asleep.
FIJI. We’d dreamed of arriving in Fiji for a long time. Our arrival was ruined by the passage. We moved the crew off asap. Yet again their ignorant arrogance meant they failed to appreciate how entering a country by private yacht works. We’d explained it all to them before we left. They didn’t understand us or didn’t care. They didn’t even have an airfare to leave Fiji as required. I left the formalities to Dale. I didn’t care anymore. He’s the captain. It’s his problem if the authorities work out the crew forged tickets out of the country to show immigration. The hide. I wouldn’t have let them get away with this. I respect and comply with rules, even when they don’t suit me. I expect others to do the same.
My mental health was in tatters. I’d hit rock bottom. As awful as hitting rock bottom is, it’s also quietly comforting. The only way forward is up. You know where’s your limit. Everyone has a limit. For me, many ‘never agains’ came out of the experience.
But, I will do another passage.
Over the years, I’ve done more than fifteen 3 to 7 day passages. I’ll just not do a passage of more than seven days with kids again. I’ll not do a passage with completely inexperienced or multiple crew again. I felt my limits before we left New Zealand. I tried to communicate them to Dale. I should have communicated more robustly. Oh well. He knows now.
LIFE. Slowly and gently, with jogs and swims and space, a hot bath and a massage, I began to feel myself again. It’s distressing to feel not yourself. Sunsets helped calm my soul.
SAVUSAVU. This is where we checked in to Fiji. It’s a sweet relaxed little place, except on the day the cruise ship comes to town. See it, middle left?
Gosh, what a transformation. If you ever visit a village from a cruise ship, it’s not the real town you see. Apparently over 1,000 ‘cruisers’ came to shore. Willow counted 88 people on this ‘dinghy’.
This is the end of the line to get back on the dinghy in the afternoon. It was longer than the line to get into Mary Street on a Thursday night for $1 drinks in the mid 90s. It was at least 100m, and the rest.
LIFE. We weren’t in a rush to leave Savusavu. We couldn’t leave anyway because we were waiting for our permit to cruise Fiji.
The girls scooted, swang and swam.
I tightened a few bolts.
Dale gave Willow freediving lessons.
A chick cut our hair. $32 Fijian dollars ($21 Australian dollars) for us all. You can imagine the style.
We had to buy more food.
Hazel painted an egg carton.
The girls paddled the anchorage delivering cupcakes.
And shared a coconut.
Best of all we tuned in to Curly’s 8am radio schedule every day. It’s gold. Curly provides such a wonderful service for cruisers passing through Savusavu, listen in on Channel 68 if you’re in the area.
The Happiest Refugee is funny and inspiring, a refreshing feel good read. Thanks for encouraging me to include cheer in my reading list Toni! I reread Come, Tell Me How You Live for the same reason. It’s a delightful tale of Agatha’s adventures on archeological digs with her husband in Syria in the 1930s. I love Agatha and this mini memoir is a treat. Erebus: The Story of a Ship and The Pacific in the Wake of Captain Cook are both excellent and engaging reads, perhaps more for the sailors amongst you though. I also highly recommend The Swans of Fifth Avenue. It’s about bored rich women in New York in the 1960s and their friendship with Truman Capote. I can’t believe that world existed/still exists. Fascinating. What a sad way to live a life.
More Wimpy Kid. More Boxcar Children. More Enid Blyton. All tried and true favourites. And, a new favourite, The Babysitters Club! Willow inhaled these. She read one a day for four days straight.