Passage home: Cruising sailors get ready to migrate

By Anne Rimmer

Last May, Anne Rimmer wrote about sailing to Tonga aboard the New Zealand yacht Duetto - her first ocean passage. In this series she makes the return trip to New Zealand aboard Sea Kiwi.

As summer returns to New Zealand, the cyclone season arrives in the Pacific islands. Like migratory birds, all the yachts that spent our winter island-hopping, begin heading south to avoid the weather.

Last May I sailed to Tonga on the New Zealand yacht Duetto, which had since cruised westward to Fiji, Vanuatu and Australia.

Now, I was delighted to be invited to join Sea Kiwi for her voyage home from Fiji. I'd met the owners, Ron and Sue Grantham, and their 17-year-old son, Peter, in Tonga. Since then, they had visited Samoa, and remote Wallis Island, and spent some weeks exploring Fiji. Now, after six months of cruising, it was time to head home.

With my friend, Phil Plimmer, I flew to Nadi on October 11th. A wave of heat hit us as we left the plane, and my first move on leaving the airport was to pick a fragrant frangipani flower for my hair - I was back in the tropics!

Sea Kiwi was moored nearby, at Vuda Point Marina, surrounded by yachts from all over the world. Each boat was moored bow to the shore, with its stern tied to a buoy. The only access to our temporary home was to climb from the seawall onto her bowsprit and over the rail. At high tide, this was a real scramble for a little person like me.

It always takes a while to get used to a new boat, and both Phil and I managed to whack our heads on the boom on the first day.

Phil, who had sailed on Sea Kiwi before, declared she sets the standard for off-shore cruising yachts. She's a Ganley Revelation, a 16m (53ft) steel boat, designed on classic lines, and gleaming white. Cutter-rigged, she carries two furling headsails and her mainsail furls into the boom.

On our first evening we joined the owners and crews of two other boats for dinner at a nearby resort. Perversely, I wore a long skirt, making the climb over the bowsprit even more of a challenge. We dined outdoors, beside a lagoon, serenaded by ukuleles, with geckoes patrolling the thatched roof above us - a fitting introduction to the tropics.

Bob and Sylvia Koskela of Auckland own the 23m (75ft) yacht Ocean Free. When discussing the amount of water that boats can carry Bob, acknowledging Sylvia's cleanliness, defined their capacity as eleven washing machine loads worth.

An English couple, Graham and Margaret Morfey, were welcoming their new crew member, David. Their yacht, Flight of Time, is based in Whangarei. David has sailed his own 12m (39ft) yacht around the world solo. Graham, chuckling, said he had told a French sailor that he had a "single-handed sailor" as crew, and the Frenchman talked about a woman sailor he knew who had only one leg!

For the next week we cruised around islands near Viti Levu, Fiji's biggest island. Our first stop was at Musket Cove, a popular anchorage, famous as the starting point for the Fiji to Vanuatu Rally. This bay is usually crowded, but by October the numbers had thinned.

While Sue prepared frozen dinners for our passage to New Zealand, Peter entertained teenage friends from Windflower. A TV, VCR and Play Station kept Pete entertained aboard, while his headphones kept the rest of us sane.

Ashore, Phil showed me round Musket Cove, bemoaning the fact that inflation has hit the $1 Bar - it's now the $3 Bar. Interlinking tidal lagoons have been bulldozed across the island, giving most of the bures (huts) their own water frontage. Thousands of tropical plants have been planted in the grounds, and brilliant bougainvilleas clothed even the humblest structures.

We were curious about the large burrows we saw everywhere, each with a mound of damp mud or sand at the entrance. Across a sandy airstrip was Plantation Island Resort, built on the site of an old coconut plantation. I found a green coconut and, as we walked, I patiently drilled through the soft eye with a stick. We drank the fresh, cool coconut milk on the beach, watching the ephemeral white ghost crabs flitting across the sand.

There were more of the mysterious burrows nearby and finally we saw a huge round crab appear from one. It was carrying an "armful" of wet sand, which it threw onto the mound. The crabs, which need to stay wet in order to breathe, must have to burrow ever deeper as the sand dries out at low tide.

Next day we sailed for Mana Island, sighting a large turtle en route. Mana has the advantage of two beaches, one on each side, so there's always a beach on the sheltered, leeward side. We were definitely on the windward side that day. The entrance to the lagoon was a narrow channel cut through the coral, and it had a right-angled bend in it. It was blowing 35 knots by now, but Ron and Sue had been here before and felt comfortable about going in.

As we motored cautiously through the channel, the colours of the sea were glorious. Brilliant white breakers on the reef set off the sapphire blue of the deep ocean outside. Alongside us, the shallow waters of the lagoon were bright turquoise, but in the channel, we looked down through crystal-clear water of the deepest emerald green.

It was a busy place. Coming out towards us were two small water taxis and an ex-Fullers Ferry with, behind them, a solid two-master, Sea Spray, under full sail, and motor. She was rail-down, the Fijian crew scrambling about while terrified-looking Japanese tourists clung to the steeply-tilted deck.

As she negotiated the right-angled turn in the channel, she luffed, but continued on at breakneck speed under motor. To us cautious Kiwis, it was a mad display of bravado, but the crew probably thought it all in a day's work.

Life aboard Sea Kiwi was delightful. We had two inflatables to go ashore in, wonderful surroundings, good food, and good company. But this idyll did have a serious purpose. It gave us all the chance to settle down as a team, gave me time to learn about the boat, and allowed the owners to gauge my abilities (or lack of them). After all, soon they would be entrusting their floating home and their lives to me as they left me alone on night watch.

And what a beautiful home this was. While Sea Kiwi was functional white metal above deck, the airy spaces below glowed with softly-curved mahogany woodwork and comfortable teal-coloured upholstery.

The captain's chart table was elegantly crafted, and even the ladder down from the cockpit was a work of art. Hidden behind two of the "pantry doors" in the galley was the entrance to the engine room.

Ron and Sue began building Sea Kiwi in their home town of Hamilton, where they have owned two garages, and then added the finishing touches in Tauranga. It took years of full-time work, before their creation was launched in 1997.

Ron is a tall, broad-shouldered man, and he had built his boat to suit, with spacious headroom, wide passageways and big, comfy couches. Even the "head" was spacious! I appreciated the space, but complained that I couldn't see out the windows. Ron, of course, could.

The rugged islands of Navadra and Vanua Levu in the Mamanuca Group form a crescent around a deep lagoon. The islands had been closed during filming of the television series Treasure Island Extreme. As we cruised in through the coral we could see a brightly-coloured parachute hanging halfway down a sheer cliff. What had happened to its wearer?

I'm not a strong swimmer, but snorkelling here was a breeze. All I had to do was swim leisurely out and hang in the warm water, at the point where the shallow reef dipped down into a deep blue abyss. The fish were abundant, so many bright varieties I couldn't count them. Many were curious and come up for a look. Much of the coral was alive, its tips glowing bright blue, or purple. I watched in delight, as young Peter free-dived down for a closer look far below, and then rose gracefully up through the blue water.

Only four other yachts shared our Eden. The crew of an old Danish yacht, Christianshavn added to the scenery. All nine of her crew were young and attractive, and the girls sunbathed topless on deck. The youngsters said they did not plan to head south until January. When we mentioned cyclones, they declared they would "sail north" if one came. I hope they can sail fast!

Ron listened to radio reports and received several weather faxes daily. Normally, highs come across the Pacific from Australia on a seven-day cycle. Now, two highs had joined, giving ideal conditions to start our voyage south.

We took a last trip ashore so that Phil could hike around the island. I tried beachcombing, but found that all the best shells had been nabbed by hermit crabs.

There was no shortage of life. Goats bleated from the undergrowth and skinks zipped across the sand. In fact the entire surface of the sand was patterned with the tracks of crabs, lizards and birds.

Two hours later Phil returned, triumphant, but very oddly shod.

"I've been shopping!", he announced, incongruously. In his own "Extreme" test, his sandal had broken part-way round the rugged route, so he had selected a "new" very ragged running shoe from a wide selection on the shoreline.

That evening, as we paddled our dinghy back to Sea Kiwi at leisurely pace, the setting sun slanted down through the water, illuminating the coral far below.

The thought of leaving for NZ was exciting, but not at all daunting. I was on a beautifully-built, well-equipped yacht, in the company of experienced sailors. I was ready to go!

Read part two of Anne's trip report here.

- NZ Herald

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