We Are Sailing
Inveterate sailor Fiona Harper recalls her enduring love affair with the Pacific under sail, from the old Suva Yacht Club to secluded bays protected by unmarked reefs, from the Mamanuca’s to Marovo Lagoon in Solomon Islands, the magic never dims.January 22, 2019
Rebecca MurphyJanuary 22, 2019
Despite 30-odd years since I first stepped aboard a yacht in the South Pacific, I can clearly recall how exotic Suva seemed back then. The sweet fragrance of frangipani filled the air. Palm trees whooshed overhead while the trade winds cooled the sweat on my skin. Iron-clad shopfronts, pot-holed streets and brooding laneways overhung with a tangle of powerlines begged to be explored. Fiji-Indian lady’s colourful saris clashed pleasingly with floral dresses in the Mother Hubbard style favoured by Christian missionaries. In place of earrings ladies tucked freshly-plucked flowers behind their ears. Colourful, battered buses bounced along Queens Road outside the Royal Suva Yacht Club. White-shirted school boys, whose own youth would now be a distant memory, hung from glass-less windows enthusiastically shouting ‘Bula!’ (hello!) before hysterically giggling behind their hands.
My fascination with Fiji and the wider South Pacific remains. Back in 1980’s Fiji our crew of four were delivering an 8m racing yacht, little more than an overgrown dinghy really, on the delivery voyage home after the Auckland to Suva Race. Waiting for an acceptable weather window for the 1,000nm run south, carefree days were spent swimming and snorkelling the coral reefs of the Mamanuca Islands.
Fast track to 2018 and I’m on a blue water cruising yacht anchored in Ships Sound, a slip of an anchorage with swinging room for one yacht, encased by weathered limestone pinnacles, vegetation clinging to their vertical sides as doggedly as those young school boys hanging out of the bus. Fiji’s far-flung Lau Island Group is about as remote as you can get without crossing into international waters. The islets of Ships Sound form an anchorage within the Vanua Balavu archipelago within a lagoon protected by a fringing reef that buffers the South Pacific Ocean rollers. The ridiculously blue sea is glassed-out calm. Barely a ripple breaks the surface. There are few beaches in the Bay of Islands due to the craggy volcanic topography, but the one we visit most often is shaded by trees laden with deliciously sweet pawpaw.
Downwind through paradise
There is one yacht in an anchorage further north and a small coastal village an hour’s sail to the south. Otherwise we have the entire archipelago to ourselves. Four weeks later we’ve explored every inch of this idyllic waterway by kayak, SUP board, dinghy and by leg power, snorkelling through coral gardens and swimming ‘laps’ around the islands. We make one foray to explore a mushroom shaped outcrop, scrambling over sharp volcanic rock which shreds my reef booties into ribbons.
Sailing the South Pacific on a yacht is an incredible privilege. This seagoing nomadic lifestyle offers extraordinary opportunities to explore little known places well away from tourist hot spots. The floating village of cruising yachties making their way across the South Pacific already know this. Caressed by the south easterly trade winds, a steady stream of ocean-crossing yachts call into Samoa, Fiji, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands on a downwind sail through paradise.
Samoa’s undisputed attractions are many with their strong Polynesian traditions and locals who throw their arms open to travellers. Though, admittedly, the two main islands of Upolu and Savai’i offer plenty of challenges for visiting sailors with few safe anchorages. Where the coastline of these continental islands doesn’t simply drop away into unfathomable depths unsuitable for anchoring, a handful of passages in the fringing reef mark the entrance to a serene bay. Asau Bay on the north side of Savai’i is one such haven. Though sailors need nerves of steel to navigate an unmarked narrow passage through the reef. The reward is a village that sits on the shore of a white sand beach, a low-key resort, Va-i-moana Seaside Lodge, with traditional fales for guest accommodation, and a beachfront restaurant and bar just made for leisurely afternoons on ‘island time’.
And the winner is…
Further westwards, Vanuatu is a popular cruising ground thanks to a string of 80-odd coconut palm-clad islands that run almost north south. The capital Port Vila sits on the shore of a pretty bay dotted with a couple of islands to break up the monotony of all that South Pacific Ocean blueness. But it’s not just sailors who fall in love with Vanuatu – scuba divers are equally enamoured. Famous wreck dives like Million Dollar Point and SS President Coolidge offer divers the rare chance to dive on intact WWII relics.
The Solomon Islands too are favoured by scuba diving sailors, the most accessible wreck being Bonegi 1, a WWII wreck off the beach near Honiara. But the real treasures of ‘the Sollies’ are well beyond the shore of downtown Honiara. Like Marovo Lagoon for instance. Covering around 700 sq km, roughly the size of Singapore, Marovo Lagoon World Heritage area is the poster child for pristine coral reefs, gin-clear water and picture perfect atolls, many of which are uninhabited. If there is a more tranquil lagoon in the South Pacific to drop anchor, mix a gin and tonic and become totally immersed in nature as the tropical sun dips below the aquamarine horizon, this sailing writer has yet to find it.
Sorry Fiji, despite my enduring love affair with your golden shores, lushly-gardened islands and underwater coral gardens, you’ve been out played by ‘the Sollies.’ •
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