After saying farewell to the Feral Sea dogs, or FSDees-similar to FBeyes (fierce beavers with night vision)-the last week in Tonga was spent doing maintenance on the continually, perplexing Lord Vader. An electrical leek had produced vast amounts of rust on the keel (the top of which is a stainless steel diesel tank which would, if left, eventually fizz away) and we were not sure where it was coming from. An electrician came to visit, after we had lured him in with a couple of jars of honey, and came up with some temporary solutions with Darth, the Owl. The boat would be ok… for now. When not filling the fuel tanks, shopping for fruit and vegetables, collecting water and preparing the boat for sea some fun was had. Stormy, the cat (stormy by name, stormy by nature, has had no dealings with anyone called Donald) had to be rescued after an attempt at circumnavigating Neaifu on her paddle board, Princess paddle Leia, when the wind picked up. Staring haughtily down into the depths at black and yellow polka dot stingrays which looked like kites she failed to notice that the breeze had changed and drifted languidly into the farthest reaches of the bay. Once rounding the head of the bay and possibly an hour or so paddle away from Darth Vader the sea had picked up into a rough chop. The breeze being almost impossible to paddle against the Owl found her on her knees furiously not going anywhere at all.
A proud Owl was invited ‘on stage’ after winning the final and fourth ‘in harbour’ race of our stay. During the race the cat had to take a dive to rescue a VHF radio which the owl had flung overboard, but nobody in the race committee (one man and a dog) seemed to notice. The crew onboard this week were two Russians who had fled the brutal winters and hard life of their home town and were hiding out here in the tropics. They entertained us with their rich and strong accents and willingness to sail. They had never sailed before and had a week before brought a small boat. The owl promised to take them sailing on their own boat, to teach them the ropes, but we never saw them again.
The final night was spent having dinner in the home of the South African electrician and his wife. The electrician being a boat handy person extraordinaire, bee catcher and baker and his wife being the local ‘untrained but perfectly capable and much needed’ vet on the island. Their house was filled with smells of freshly baked bread, a Jurassic park of moths on walls and floors, a dog with two wonky legs, South African artwork, a foal in the field and a hive of bees at the bottom. We sat on plastic chairs on their porch under electrical light and they told us stories of the ex-patriot and Tongan characters in the local community. It is is intriguing to find out what draws people to remote spots in the world and how their lives are lived in amongst an odd community of locals, drifters, dreamers or the most practical. We also talked about the feral nature of the current world and how their homes in South Africa have become more dangerous. It is apparently something all sailors talk about when far away and drifting around the Pacific is the collapse of the present day world.
The day for departure had come and it was time for the Owl and the Cat to explore elsewhere and say some goodbyes to the friends they had met. The Owl, had ‘Greesed the Spigit’ which he told the Cat one must do regularly -Owls do have an odd way with words- and declared it was time to go. After clearing customs, a lengthy wait as a morning to lunchtime meeting was in progress, they pushed off from the wharf and waved goodbye to a boat full of Italians. The Italians had melted over the sight of Darth Vader and declared their love and admiration at her marvellous beauty. The Owl was so proud, being a lover of dodgy Italian cars, I think he is still beaming now.
Passage notes below written by varying parties at the time of happening:
The Cat: “Goodbye Vava’u ! And time to move on it is. The Owl is busy posturing and flabberjabbering with some Italians on the dock and I am hiding in the galley. Quickly must boil up eggs and chop cabbage for our next few days of lunches before I have to do so at sea. Farewells to the newly met and newly departed Italians and the lines are being flung. Off we go. It is absurdly hot down below, after having the stove on, and I am sweating into the eggs, oh well, time to go on deck and watch the places we have got to know get smaller.”
The Owl: “The weather looks excellent for the next few days. Predict Wind, our software for forecasting, displays 6 weather models all showing similar signs, so downwind to Fiji in a time of 3 and a half days. A perfect cake ride and I am happy as a pig in pie after having met those delightful Italians. Not a whale to say goodbye to us as we leave, but a magnificent horizon with tropical trade wind skies. Hazy blue with hovering light white clouds, the sea seems a bit of a mess however”
The Cat: “The sun is making roasts of us with the wind behind and the boat is rolling quite badly. Sticky hot, wet, mind slowing heat. Hopefully the waves will ease and even but the Owl has declared he will rename the boat ‘Old Fat Rolly’ if it doesn’t. I hope for Darth Vader’s sake it does. A hammer has been beating the inside of my head for a while and it is hard with that and the seas and heat. Right there is nothing else for it but a naked cold shower on the back deck.”
The Owl: “The cat is trying to stand and use the deck shower on the rolling boat. Her paws keep getting caught up in the wheel. What a sight, “sit down for goodness sake”. Chewbacca is steering us, our third crew and autopilot, and doing a fine job due to the sea state. I hide in the shade in this unbearable heat and watch the succession of different sized flying fish flit between the waves. Still no whales to speak of or to which I find peculiar.”
The Cat: “Still holding on to this rolling barrel as the sun dies fast, as it does in these latitudes. We have prepared for the night with the adornment of life jackets and head torches. Red lights flick on and off on deck as ropes are eased or sail trim is checked. The wind remains soft but the boat remains a barrel tumbling down a hill. Living on the outside and inside of a falling barrel is hard and you can do nothing else but hold on. Dinner has been preprepared, 3 nights of mince just in case we cannot cook, but even to stir a pot on a rolling boat and a gimballed stove involves acrobatics. One day I will join a circus, oh no need just go and cook something in the galley. Chewbacca makes his yawning, roaring sound but he can steer straighter then us in the dark. A sea made up of bronze crumpled silk shot with deep purple forms at sunset. The white clouds slowly turn black and make a negative of the sky. I am on the first watch from 8 to 11 and hope the Owl can get some sleep but even now it is awfully hot down below.”
The Owl: “The moon is to rise late but phosphorescence lights up our trail so there is some other light out here and the stars seem distant but bright. The log book reads ‘rolly poly’ in every section of notes so far, this is probably a nice way of putting it. I have decided, tonight, that I will sleep in the saloon. A cooler breeze comes down the middle hatch for some reason and feel it will be better here. I stuff pillows at my side to stop my wings flailing in the roll. ‘Please rock me to sleep gently’ I think as I jump in my cot. Teddy Owl will sing to me”
The Cat: “Hard steering tonight with the odd seas and imagine the irregular wave patterns are due to the number of sea mounts around. The depths change in contours from 2000m To 20m in some parts. We must avoid getting too near to the mounts as the sea can become spiky. The rolling is getting to us, although it has not yet been 24 hours, and neither of us are sleeping. The Milky Way looks like a fold in a Cornish pasty and I imagine we are inside it on a sea of meat and gravy. Not only these type of thoughts occur but we have both started talking to Chewbacca. Chewbacca is doing most of the driving but we must give him,It !, rests. “It is my turn now Chewy, well done Chewy” The Owl seems a little more critical towards the autopilot and keeps telling him off for over steer”
The Owl: “Dawn arrives with a mercury sea. I must wake the cat up soon because we need to jibe as we are now headed in parallel to the course and are making no ground. The cat is sleeping but I see her paws twitch out at the Tongan fly who has joined us for the journey. My head is full of a decision we must make about our future plans. It circles around and around in there and no solution or conclusion comes. With the boat needing repairs we potentially need to return to New Zealand for a while which is sad but necessary…maybe. I don’t know, hopefully I will know soon.”
The Cat: “We jibed the boat early and I managed a little sleep in the early hours so am feeling more wilful. The sea state is better from this angle and the boat flatter, surfing down the waves. Have just realised we have bananas onboard, as I shove one greedily in my gob, which is bad luck to sailors. Later I will make an offering to Neptune in repentance. My mind is full with a decision we must make about our future plans but now is not the time to discuss with the Owl as are heads are weary and the words will most likely come out poorly.”
The Owl: “My feathers are wilting in the heat and have now had three showers to cool off. The good thing is the sun is charging the solar panel which in turn is charging the batteries and we don’t need to worry about leaving the autopilot running all day. The cat fed me rotten eggs so my stomach is sore but the sea state has regulated which is good, unlike my bowels. There she is now standing on the side deck offering a banana and a coin to Neptune. She waves to the white horses and white bearded Neptune who gallop below us accepting their fee and letting us pass. “
The Cat: “The night is cool and the stars nearer but soon clouds come and we descend into darkness. The coolness brings sleep and eyes are heavy on watch. The sleep is delicious and the sound of the water under the surfing boat soporific- an endless woosh woosh. At 2.00 in the morning I have to wake the Owl to jibe over as we are again headed away from course. With sleepy heads this manoeuvre is done slowly to a point but once the boom is over things must be done quickly. A good lump of fruit cake and other midnight snacks in the belly helps this.”
The Tongan Fly: “3 days I have been stuck on this boat. I wasn’t playing stowaway or anything but was merely minding my business snacking on some sugar crumbs when the next minute I realised I was out on the ocean, ‘oh dear’ I thought ‘I have been press ganged’. There is a pompous Owl onboard ,who spends a lot of time in the lavatory, and a Cat with bizarre habits such as throwing odd items overboard and speaking to herself. I am hiding on a shelf now watching them with my tiny binoculars. They are watching the sea and not doing very much now. I write down what they are doing at all times to keep myself occupied and relieve the anxiety of unwillfully leaving home. Goodness knows where we are headed.”
The Owl: “Misty Islands on the horizon and soon we will be entering a passage in the reef. The entrance passage is about 15nm wide so a lot of room but there is a large rock which sticks peculiarly out of the sea on the southern side. Booby rock. I see it now and think about waking the Cat but leave her sleeping. We have a list of ‘what do you want to be woken up for’. My one request is ‘a Whale’ the Cat’s requests are ‘Anything supernatural or giant squid please’. She will still be vaguely annoyed not to see the rock I am sure.”
The Cat: “I can smell land, it smells of coconuts but soon realise unfortunately it is the rotting smell of coconuts which were left in the sun in a basket on the back deck. I make a trail like Hansel and Gretel in the sea. They are cracked and will sink, or perhaps float and new trees will grow elsewhere. I can see land, an island, and it looks luscious and jagged, can imagine giants living there. White beach, rainforest and palms but we must keep going for another 100nm. A strange low cloud grows around the horizon and I sense rain. A tawny coloured sea bird, which looks like a species of Booby bird, my favourite, makes 3 attempts to land on the second spreader. I steer the boat carefully to help it but no luck and it lands to rest in the ocean. I am sad as could have done with the company as the the Owl is sleeping soundly”
The Owl: “The afternoon brings more rain and the clouds have settled around and visibility is bad. The chart is checked regularly as we are now amongst islands although they are around 30nm away on either side. Should be at Savusavu on the Island of Vanua Levu in the morning. Heading North with the bending breeze from the rear”
The Cat: “I awake to the sound of rushing water and the Owl calling me from on deck. Heavily lift myself from the comfortable saloon cot bunk and poke my head up on deck. The hatches have been sealed from the rain and it is wet and warm down below, a great place to grow mushrooms or something. The Owl in a cool, calm panic tells me the wind has increased suddenly to 30knots and would I please check the chart as he battles with the wheel. Life jacket is flung on and I jump to the helm as the Owl places a reef in the sail. Lighting flashes in the sky and black heavy clouds loom behind. We sail fast and Darth Vader comes to 13knots as we surf down waves. I bite my claws as the squall pushes us fast towards land. The lighting comes closer and the Owl gives me a recipe to cook and save the electronics. I look at him blankly but follow the instructions. Hopefully the sun will rise soon. Adrenalin kicks in and we stay awake until morning.”
The Owl: “One recipe for ‘saving electronics if you think a lightning strike may be imminent’ or ‘not cooking by cooking’: Place electronics in a greased baking tray. Stir through and add a pinch of salt. Place electronics in the oven and set to a temperature of 0 degrees Celsius. Remove from the oven once the storm has passed.”
The Cat: “Morning brings rain but light eventually of which we are thankful. The entrance to Savusavu bay is ahead and we struggle to make out the tower (special light beacon) on the edge of the reef. The lighthouse on the other end of the island was not working in the night and we have come to believe that lighthouses in these Pacific islands are not to be trusted. We round the bay and the clouds disperse. The sails are dropped and we motor on a glassy surface towards mountains with dragon shaped clouds curling around their bases. A beautiful bay and will have to be wary of the giants that likely inhabit it.”
The Owl: “Darth Vader coolly enters Savusavu channel and we tie to a rickety marina dock, guided by the local customs and immigration on the crackling radio. We are weary from our travels and stand heavy shouldered but the uppity Tongan Fly, the stowaway, buzzes in pleasure around us. He seems to be as glad as we to be here. He did not help with anything at all and I will put him ashore at the first opportunity. The cat seems to be announcing something from the top of the companionway. Only admirals and other things I can’t mention do this..”
The Cat: “For this last leg I can only quote the words of Robert Louis Stevenson written in 1888 to a friend in London after he had been wandering the Pacific. I quote “And yet the sea is a horrible place, stupefying to the mind and poisonous to the temper; the sea, the motion, the lack of space, the cruel publicity (Fly you will agree), the villainous tinned foods, the sailors, the captain, the passengers – but you are amply repaid when you sight an island, and drop anchor in a new world.””
After this declaration the Owl and the cat waited patiently on the dock as the customs and immigration, health and bio security came and went in a succession of small boats over a period of four hours. The next duty was to get something to eat ashore as supplies were low and stale bread and cheese was not enough to sustain them. The Owl moored the boat in the narrow channel where they would have to wait for their cruising permit for the next 5 days and the cat visited the hospital to pay the health fee. The hospital seemed empty and no sick were to be seen just nurses and doctors in softly lit corridors who seemed to be engaged in some playful punching shoulder game. The health administrator had been on a very long lunch break and returned with a certain shyness or realisation she had been caught out. A petite Indian Fijian women wearing a ruffle edged blouse, pearls and pink lipstick. Her office was filled with plastic flowers in pink vases and ornate lace curtains. Every movement she made was tiny and delicate and pink, the cat felt dirty and heavy in comparison after having been at sea for three days. That evening the Owl and cat walked through the vibrant town. Tomorrow was Constitutional day, a national holiday and much bustle at last minute shopping and joy at a day off- much coming and going, playing and chatting in the streets. Bright pink, green and orange painted buildings, some brick some wood and wonky shacks. Brown happy faces in bold floral clothes and the smells of incense, curry, pineapple and sulphur, clouds of volcanic steam evaporating at the waters edge. The ferry was departing for Suva on the main island and passengers waited as silhouettes on the wharf as a sunset made for giants burnt out their features from behind. The Owl and Cat knew in the coming days some decisions must be made for returning to New Zealand but for now their weary bones soaked in the last of the dying sun and heads happily went down like diving bells into their pillows.