Streaked Fantail

We couldn't to find a guide to take us to Aneityum’s waterfall, but our friend Kenneth was willing to point us to the trail and send us off to explore on our own. The first part of the trail was a road that extended through a sparse field of pine trees still smoking from the fire that burned the night before. I had asked Kenneth if the fire had been to clear the underbrush or if a garbage fire got out of control, but he didn’t seem to know.

Then the road turned grassy and meandered through a well manicured village. There are primary and secondary schools on the shore, but there seemed to be a preschool in action in this smaller town. Beyond the homes, the road turned into a single lane path. We hiked for about a mile until we found a stream perfect for picnicking, passing a rusted through tractor and a scattering of violet orchids.

This single mile of jungle path had a more exciting array of birds than we’ve seen in some time. Our favorite was the streaked fantail, a cousin of the fantails who kept us company on so many pleasant walks in New Zealand. When we left, I was sure we would never see another fantail again. But here are their streaked Pacific cousins, just as gregarious and playful as ever. A trio of them joined us as we walked, flitting along the path and tumbling with each other in the air.

The scarlet robin was also a frequent visitor, as was the cardinal honeyeater, both small birds with big, flamboyant coloring. I had a brief glimpse of a whistler in the canopy, and a few other birds we can only tentatively identify. We realized, with horror, when we got back to Helios that we are outside of the geographical range of our go-to bird book.

An excellent excuse to start searching for a bookstore! No luck on Aneityum, and unlikely on Tanna, the island 50 miles northwest of Aneityum, where we are currently pitching in the swell in the shadows of Mt. Yasur. The next island on our itinerary is Efate, home to Vanuatu’s capital, Port Villa; hopefully we’ll have some literary luck.

Aneityum

We spent six glorious days exploring Aneityum. Pronounced a-nee-shum, it is the southern most of Vanuatu’s 81 islands that are sprinkled on a roughly northwest-southeast axis in the Pacific waters west of Fiji and northeast of New Caledonia. Aneityum was larger than we were expecting, a mountainous island home to a village of 2,000 ni-Vans (the Melanesian locals who make up 98% of Vanuatu’s population) and fringed with golden beaches.

The weather was still and sunny during our stay, so we had a full menu of activities to choose from each day: inland hikes, reef dives, paddle boards through translucent waters, and explorations of the nearby sandy islet, Mystery Island, set up as a small show village and populated only when cruise ships drop anchor in the large bay.

We had a few interactions with the locals, who are more reticent than their Fijian counterparts. We met Kenneth, the local boarding house manager who made two attempts at hiring a local guide to take us to a waterfall to no avail. The bureaucrats we worked with were nice and laid back and we met one local young woman interested in practicing her English, but longboats filled with 20 locals would cruise by and maybe one person would tentatively wave back at us.

The solitude is in someways peaceful (we can walk down the beach without two guides or a gaggle of kids in tow), but we miss the enthusiastic bulas and insta-family feel in Fiji; in Vanuatu, a hello and a smile seem much harder to come by. I suppose it’s not unlike regional differences one might find in the US, considering the stereotypes for southern hospitality and northern get-to-it-tiveness.

It will be interesting to see if the other islands in Vanuatu have the same introverted vibe. It may be that we are small tourist-dollar-potatoes in Aneityum compared to the hundreds of people who flood the island when the cruise ship comes to town, or perhaps Vanuatu's more tragic relationship with colonizing European nations has had a lingering effect on attitudes toward newcomers. Ni-Vans were forced and tricked into indentured servitude in Australia and around the western South Pacific in the later 1800s; Fijians were spared from this, one of their former rulers having brokered a deal to give the islands to Great Britain, stipulating that Fijians would never be forced into labor, in exchange for having personal debts forgiven.

We did find it curious that no ni-Van has ever lived on Mystery Island as they fear it to be cursed and the home of angry gods, but they have no problem taking their guests there to hang out: Queen Elizabeth when she visited (and named a beach after herself), every cruise-shipper who steps foot on dry land, we were given free license to explore. Maybe the old legends hold less weight these days, or maybe there is some subtle anti-tourist island trickery afoot, or maybe they just like show it off because the islet is one of the most picturesque beaches on Earth—powdery white sand, cyan lagoon, bug-free and plenty of shade, thunderous waves crashing on the reef a safe distance away...some of the many mysteries of Mystery Island.

The photo is the view of Aneityum looking across the bay from Mystery Island (we survived our visit unscathed by vengeful spirits); we have rudimentary cell coverage, so we can currently share one photo per post via the sat phone; more photos of adventures in Aneityum to come!

Yellow Fin Tuna

It was hot and calm in the early afternoon on Sunday. We were 120 miles off the coast of Vanuatu and counting down the hours until we’d be at anchor. Dominic tossed a large pink squid lure into our wake with the hopes of fresh food and a little amusement. I was down below, catching up via email with some good friends we haven’t seen in years (how the list of friends we haven’t seen in years grows longer!) when I heard the happy, frantic clicking of a fish stripping off line from the reel.

After the fish tired from its initial run, Dominic dropped the rod into low gear, fearing we had an outrageously large fish on the line as he was having to work harder than he did when reeling in the five-foot wahoo we caught a few weeks ago. After much toiling, the fish came into view three feet from our transom. It had the curvy tuna profile, and Dominic spotted its signature yellow fins. It was just over three feet long, but heavy and strong.

We brought the fish forward to our starboard beam; Dominic handed me the rod, after grabbing the leader line by hand, and then gaffed the tuna through the gills. He lifted the fish out of the water as I slid a slipknot around its tail. Dominic used the line to hoist the tuna over the lifelines and back into the cockpit. After some whacking and spiking, the fish was subdued and quick on its way to becoming sashimi.

Yellow fin, also known as ahi, is known for providing some of the highest quality tuna meat on the market. We’ve been hoping to catch one since we first started dropping lines in the water during our Pacific crossing. This beauty was worth the wait; we had two full days of feasting before we even considered cooking it. We put some on the barbecue last night, and I’m happy to report that seared ahi tacos are some of the best fish tacos to be had.

Now, fingers crossed for a blue fin…

Passage to Vanuatu

In August, our friend Jeff crossed the Pacific from Hong Kong to San Francisco as passenger on a container ship—not to cruise the islands, not to swim with the fishies, just crossing an ocean for the sheer experience of being at sea, surrounded by water and wind. I tried to harness that sense of awe and wonder as we left Fiji last Friday for a 450 nautical mile passage to Vanuatu.

Then an hour off the coast of Viti Levu reality hit: the 20 to 25 knot forecast turned into sustained high 20s with frequent periods in the low 30s; outside Fiji’s protected waters for the first time in four months, we were reminded of the power the wind has to whip up the ocean and found ourselves in three to four meters of swell. Sitting in the cockpit of a boat our size, three to four meter swells looks like walls of water charging ominously at you. We watched the bubble in the inclinometer oscillate from 40 degrees to 40 degrees. Sounds resembling those from a high speed vehicular collision echoed as waves collided with our hull. It felt like we were crowdsurfing on the back of a cavalry of rioting horses…for twenty-four hours.

Thoughts of awe and wonder I did not have. Instead, I found myself praying for a ruby slipper miracle as I lost the contents of my stomach, profoundly understanding that there really is no place like home.

But the lesson of the sailing life is one of continuous mutability—be they hellish or heavenly, the only thing the winds and seas guarantee is change. By Saturday afternoon, we were running downwind with eighteen knots on our stern quarter and an easy one meter rock and roll, the agonies of the previous night already a foggy memory. Forecasts, thankfully, were for a further softening of conditions. We fired up the iron jib at around 0300 on Sunday morning as the winds died, expecting to motor for the next thirty hours into Vanuatu.

Things were calm enough Sunday afternoon for Dominic to toss a line in the water; some thirty minutes later we had a delicious beauty on the hook and a serious menu upgrade for the rest of the day. Then around 1400, Aeolus blew a glorious fifteen knots behind us, filling our sails and sending us flying through flat waters at seven knots directly to our destination. Conditions held as the light on the sails melted into gold. We were in love with life, sailing into the sunset toward paradise, feeling the awesome, wondrous bliss that only comes when in harmony with the water and wind.

We arrived in Aneityum, Vanuatu’s southern-most island, at 1000 on Monday morning, surrounded by bright blue waters, long sandy beaches, and plenty of fishies with which to swim.

Five Fiji Favorites

We're leaving Fiji! Maxing out our tourist visas to the very last day, we're raising anchor this morning and leaving for Vanuatu. Our four-month circum-Fijian navigation has been a dream—enjoying so many islands, adventures, wildlife, and wonderful people in such a small area has been a fantastic balance to the nautical-mile-making extravaganza that was our experience last season.

Instead of falling into a melancholic reverie, I thought it might be more fun to say good-bye to Fiji with an easy float down memory river...

1. My Parent's Visit

Our times on the boat were never as exciting and unpredictable as when we had these two onboard, and the passage north from New Zealand with my Dad was about as good as father-daughter bonding can get.

2. Dimitri!

It's hard to imagine another scenario in which we'd be able to entice one of our siblings to hang out with us for three straight weeks. Dominic and Dimitri did lots of trolling, spear fishing, waterfall jumping, and giggling while he was here, and he never shied away from amusing us with his feats of physical strength. So much fun!

3. Falaga

Despite the island paradises ahead of us, Dominic has already named Falaga his favorite anchorage of the South Pacific. With its turquoise lagoon, sugary sand beaches, homey village, and coral that wouldn't quit, I'm tempted to agree.

4. Mantas

We did nearly ten manta dives while we were in Fiji and gushed about them so much that our friends on Il Sogno gifted us a carved manta for our anniversary. It didn't hurt that the mantas were gliding over some of the 300-plus species of coral that thrive in Fiji and often crossed tales with lemon sharks, turtles, spotted eagle rays, and all sorts of oceanic delights.

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5. As Seen from the Cockpit

Things above the water line weren't too shabby either. Our favorite vista was Waya Island, getting to watching the contours of her basaltic crags shift with the shadows over the course of the day.

Musket Cove

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We've spent the last few days enjoying Musket Cove. It's our third time in Malalolailai's largest anchorage, and it feels like home. We are gearing up for our upcoming passage to Vanuatu, so we've spent the mornings inspecting and deep cleaning Helios, the afternoons enjoying long lunches at the cafe and hiking around the island, the evenings breaking bread and hanging out with friends at the beach bar. 

We are upping anchor in a few minutes to head in to Latoka for our final provisioning and completing our departure paperwork. We made our rounds in the dinghy this morning saying final good bye's to boats we've been cruising with since we first arrived in the Marquesas 18 months ago and boats we've grown close with during our travels in Fiji. Not surprisingly, the experience was something of a tear jerker.

But after a final jump off Helios' deck and into the lagoon, we comforted ourselves knowing that our passing sadness is only a testament to the good times we've had. Not to mention we still have eight weeks of tropical cruising, a few new countries, and many more adventures ahead.

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Sotatale, Dimitri!

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On Thursday night we sailed northwest from Kadavu to Musket Cove. The sail was great—18 knots of wind behind us and mostly calm seas—and we dropped the hook in the well populated anchorage at 1020. 

We took it easy the rest of the day, napping, eating burgers at the cafe, saying hello to our buddy boats in the area. But then on Saturday morning, we found ourselves saying good bye to Dimitri.

We're so sad to see him go! He was lots of fun to have on Helios and kept us busy fishing and exploring when we might have been tempted to fall into a fourth-month-in-Fiji laze. We also savored the time together as he is headed off on adventures of his own: he enlisted in the Navy and is headed to boot camp before we'll be home.

So see you later, Dimitri. Thank you so much for coming, love you and miss you already, and I only hope that spending three weeks on a 38 foot sailboat with your brother and sister-in-law wasn't too overwhelming.

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Creepy Crawlers

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It's not all sea fans and adorable baby reef fish out here; often the critters below the surface seem like some of the more diabolical species on Earth. Above, a crown of thorns star fish raises two of its spiked legs to launch an attach on a defenseless piece of coral. Below, a giant moray eel cruises across the surface of a coral garden making Dominic and I dart away faster than any shark has lately.

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These are two gnarly slug-like beings we've been seeing all over the place. The slug above is in the upper right section of the photo, leopard print with black feelers sticking out of the top; the slug below is just all sorts of prickled weirdness. 

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(And a pod of dolphin we woke to find playing near Helios a few days ago to raise the spirits!)

Astrolabe Reef

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Our number one activity in Kadavu has been diving various sections of the Astrolabe Reef. We have visited a few famous hotspots (the Alacrity Rocks, the Naigoro Pass), but most frequently find ourselves jumping in and exploring whatever coral we find near Helios. 

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Fiji is famous for her sea fans. We didn't find many while we were cruising through the Yasawas or Viani Bay; we wondered if they weren't able to stand up to the turbulence caused by Cyclone Winston. We found some lovely orange and purple fans in the Lau, but they're tricky to photograph! They seem to enjoy deep water and growing upside down under large coral formations. I spotted the lime green beauties below in 30 feet of water when we were diving near the Namalata Reef on Kadavu's northern edge.

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And another baby fan, growing off the the shell of a giant clam underneath an overhang. 

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These are two of my favorite underwater sights: above, a small piece of coral is a rookery for bicolored damselfsh; below, a school of bait fish cruising just above the coral.

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Kadavu Sunset

We’ve spent the last few days cruising along the northern coast of Kadavu. We’ve been diving the reefs, paddle boarding with dolphin, dodging squalls, swimming with turtles and sharks, and relaxing in the cockpit while the sun paints evening colors in the sky. We’re still eating that wahoo we caught, going on six days of lunch and dinner (and the occasional breakfast) for three. Just another week in paradise!

Kadavu Waterfall

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Our tour guide, Andy, from Kadavu village led us to the waterfall that was situated just a five minute walk outside the village.

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It was the coolest waterfall we've been to yet. These photos are of the secondary falls. There was a primary cascade beyond the one seen here; scaling the rocks seen in the lead photo, the openning gave way to a large cave filled with a small lake and a tumultuous 22 meter waterfall filling it (and providing hydropower to the village).

There was a photographer out of Hong Kong there at the same time we were taking photos for a guidebook being published out of China; we exchanged contact information and are hoping he sends photos our way—I don't think our camera would have survived had I attempted to rock climb with it.

In the meantime, enjoy a few more photos of Dominic and Dimitri climbing and jumping off of rocks:

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Kadavu Village

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We have found Fiji's most beautiful village, Kadavu. It's the capitol village on the island, so to speak, and houses the chief of all the villages on the island. We visited with our friends aboard Il Sogno as we'd heard there was a phenomenal waterfall nearby. 

But as things go in Fiji, one doesn't visit the local natural attractions without presenting sevusevu to the chief.  

The boys borrowed sulus from the locals, and here Dimitri gets a few pointers from Dominic about how to fasten it appropriately around his waist. 

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There was a lazy river running through the village, so we hung out on its shore while our buddy below pounded the waka root to make the kava. 

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Then Dimitri enjoyed his first coconut full of grog! 

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Wahoo!

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We caught a monster! Yesterday, while cruising outside Kadavu's southern reef near the Korolevu Pass, we were trolling with two lines and a flasher in the water when I heard the clicker on the starboard reel start to tick with a frenzy.

I used one of my favorite salty phrases—"Fish on! Fish on!"—and Dominic dropped his water bottle in the sink and came charging through the companionway.

He took the rod, downshifted gears, and started to reel in the fish. He felt its size and strength right away, saying aloud that he hoped we hadn't caught anything too scary.

He put Dimitri and I to work reeling in the flasher and the port lure and gathering the supplies to bring the fish onboard: gaff, striker, spike, line tied with a bowline and a loop.

Dominic moved forward to the beam of the boat and strapped on his fighting harness, stabilizing himself against the toe rail as he battled his underwater foe.

As Dominic reeled, Dimitri spotted the fish in the water. At first he estimated it was three feet, then four, then as it got closer, he simply hoped we hadn't caught a shark.

The fish thrashed alongside Helios as it reached the surface, flashing light like a strobe when the silver scales on its belly caught the sunshine.

Once the fish was exhausted enough to lie parallel to the hull, Dimitri sunk the gaff through the fish's flesh just aft of his gills. As he did so, the hook became dislodged from the fish's mouth, and for a few tense moments we feared all would be lost. But then Dimitri hoisted the fish up over the lifeline, and we had our catch onboard.

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Then came the least fun part of the task—using our various devices to end the fish's life as quickly and humanely as possible. 

Then we tried to get a handle on just how enormous this wahoo was. Dominic measured him in the cockpit, five feet from his sharp teeth to the tip of his tail. We don't have a scale this size onboard, so Dominic rigged a block to weigh the fish against his 66 pound kettle bell. The bell was heavier, but not by much. A safe estimate puts this little fish around 50 pounds.

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After a few hours of fish cleaning and filleting, we began feasting, feasting, feasting—sushi (our best yet!), ceviche, fish tacos, and sweet and sour fish on the menu tonight.

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Dimitri is here!

Actually, he’s been here for ten days. Dimitri, Dominic’s younger brother, arrived on August 18 after traveling some 54 hours between Weaverville, California and Suva, Fiji (his connecting flight out of SFO was delayed, resulting in a 24 hour stay at the airport). He made it to the Royal Suva Yacht Club around noon on Thursday, spent two rainy days with us in Suva schlepping groceries and purchasing a speargun, and has been enjoying the island life ever since.

We left Suva on Saturday, August 20, motoring south toward Kadavu under a thick tapestry of clouds, spotting a cluster of whales off our starboard bow before entering the pass into the island. Kadavu is a kidney bean shaped island 30 miles south of Viti Levu and is a mecca for fishing and snorkeling as it is surrounded by the famously bountiful Great Astrolabe Reef. We spent the last week exploring Ono, an island just northeast of Kadavu. We swam with manta rays and dove the Alacrity Rocks on the western edge of the fringing reef.

Ono also had excellent fishing in our anchorage. Dominic and Dimitri dove in the water with their spearguns our first afternoon there, and Dimitri speared a small grouper straight through the gills—a killer shot for his first time out! Then he deserted Dominic, swimming straight back to Helios in an effort to protect his catch from the patrolling white tip reef shark.

These exciting events were followed my a more ridiculous comedy of errors in which Dimitri and I hopped in the dinghy to get Dominic, couldn’t get the engine started, started drifting, started paddling back to the boat, and then were waylaid by an unintelligible local in a longboat who wanted to raft up, chat and drift with us, before motoring to Helios to leave Dimitri and I to paddle back to the boat.

In addition to fishing and becoming increasingly fluent with the outboard engine, Dimitri integrates seamlessly into the Helios routine. He’s fluent on anchor management, keeping saltwater off the brightwork, lounging, playing chess, paddle boarding in 15 knots of wind, bread making, and nap taking. Aside from a lack of TV, internet, and video gaming, I’d say he’s a pretty happy clam.

On Friday, we cruised down to the southern edge of Kadavu, where we’re anchored now. Our buddies aboard Il Sogno have been bumping around with us, as well as a Dutch boat, The Bounty, who we shared a few anchorages with last season. We’ve spent the last two days diving the Naigoro Pass, hiking to the summit of the island through fields of wild orchids, and scouting the shining red parrots Kadavu is famous for.

More photos to come when bandwidth allows, and get excited, because few things are cuter than Dolci brothers on boats.

Sailing to Suva

We left Falaga on August 12 in route to Suva, the most populous city in Fiji and the South Pacific. We really, really didn’t want to leave Falaga, but the ice box and the wine cellar were empty. So when the winds turned a favorable direction, we dove the pass one last time and weighed anchor. The winds were blowing a steady 15 knots from the southeast, making our 200 mile passage to Suva the first downwind sailing we’ve seen since leaving New Zealand in May. It was paradise: an effortless 6.5 knots of boat speed, a gentle rocking motion as a brilliant three-quarter moon outshone most the stars in the sky.

We were going so fast we stopped at Mutuku, an island almost perfectly between Suva and Fulaga, to take heavenly naps, have lunch, and time our arrival in Suva during daylight the following morning. Mutuku was a beautiful place for a picnic, her rising peaks and thick forests a contrast to Falaga’s low, limestone bluffs and palm-lined beaches. Already missing Falaga, we were glad we had brought a part of the village with us, Mary.

Mary is a kindergarten teacher in Moana-i-Cake, the largest village in Falaga, and had been planning to take the supply ship in to Suva to attend a training conference and visit her parents and daughter living outside the big city. Then the stormy weather rolled through, the supply ship was delayed, and Mary needed a lift. We were happy to comply as kindergarten teachers tend to be some of the kindest people on Earth. So Mary, chipper and positive, was with us enjoying the perfect conditions, sharing the details of teaching in Fiji and village life, and happily lounging aboard Helios with a novel.

As much as we wanted to spend more time in Mutuku, another series of fronts was forecasted to roll through. We were back underway six hours after arrival. Underway, the conditions were similarly idyllic; it felt like we were somewhere between running down a dream and surfing on a cloud.

We dropped anchor in Suva’s industrial harbor at 1000 on August 14. There was definitely some culture shock—we were dodging wrecks in the harbor, rafted fishing boats rusting to death, a gargantuan Australian aircraft carrier that dwarfed the 25 foot fishing boat the Fijian navy used to monitor the harbor. Mary was easily the most popular person in the anchorage. Our friend Craig aboard Il Sogno gave her a lift in his dinghy ashore, but first had to take her to visit friends she had aboard another yacht in the anchorage. Dominic and I, on the other hand, spent the day taking long naps after our second night underway.

Around the Lagoon

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As we hang out on Helios on another rainy day, I thought I'd share a few photos we took while exploring Falaga's lagoon.

The great crested terns were our most frequent companions.

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One of the signature limestone formations, teetering on its narrow base. That's Evviva's helicopter in the upper right. 

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Plenty of thriving palm trees! 

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One of the inside-out caves, stalagmites and stalactites almost touching. 

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And that's Dominic's helicopter in the upper

left ; ) 

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