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Wednesday, October 16, 2013

2013, 10-12 One More Passage Behind Us.

    We arrived back to Savu Savu before dawn yesterday after our Fortuna run which was a “quick up and back” for visa purposes only.  Bill and I have become fairly proficient with the whole passage thing but I would be lying if I left you with the feeling that overnight passages are now –or will ever be- a simple humdrum part of this life we have chosen.  Multiple day passages mean pre-trip bits of stress with days of preparation and thought, Passage planning, weather worries and last minute boat repairs and preparations. Then the passage itself gives us endless hours of watch to drive the boat, watch the weather, navigate through reefs, meals alone (we try to share at least dinner together) cooking in rough seas, forcing yourself to nap when you’re not tired and sleeping in no more than 3:45 minute stretches. We’ve found a pretty decent rhythm with a four hour watch schedule but of course while you are on watch you are actually driving the boat so your four hour off watch time is rarely completely given over to sleeping.  There seems to always be a mess to pick up, a shower to take, fuel to pump or a batch of dishes that need attention.

    It takes time, every time, to get the rhythm of our watches. With short-ish passages about the time you really find your rhythm you’re there and it seems you have spent far too much time trying to sleep and far too little time actually sleeping so often arrive exhausted. On longer passages there are always external pressures that throw a whammy on the schedule –bad weather, catching a fish, making a set schedule for talking with friends on the ham radio, engine or fuel problems or bits of maintenance or repairs that must be taken care of immediately.  This trip we were affected by fishing, heat and then in the end weather.  Oh and a repair problem that sprang up on us before we had even left.

    We were ready to go. Groceries bought and stowed, check. Chickens roasted, check. Boat cleaned, check.  Fuel and water tanks topped off, check. Life jackets out and ready, Epirb tested, jack lines ready check, check, check. We had just finished our official clearing out procedure and had one hour to leave Fiji.  All that was left to do was secure the outboard, lift and stow the dinghy on deck and let loose the mooring lines and we would be ready off in time for our 4pm set departure.  Not so fast…what is that smell and what is that puddle at the bottom of the companionway steps.  &^#$%*&^&%^!!!!

   While we were checking out a sight tube-a piece of hose that lets us see how full a tank is- had broken and had begun emptying one of our diesel fuel tanks directly into the locker that houses our water maker.  The floor of the passage way to our aft cabin was awash in diesel and the puddle was creeping under the companionway stairs and forward into our main cabin and was leaking through the floorboards and into the bilge.  And the clock was ticking.  Suddenly all of our focus was on getting the leak stopped and then the hose repaired and the mess cleaned up.  Amazingly we barely blinked an eye as we waded through the mess and began the cleanup and repairs. It could have been worse of course –it could have been an ordinary day where we were off the boat for hours and come back to a much fuller bilge and a much bigger clean up.  Instead an hour after scheduled we were calmly motoring out of the anchorage but the stench of the spilled diesel would be with us for the entire trip.

   The weather window we had been waiting for never really appeared.  We had hoped to have south winds which would allow us to sail the 236 miles but finally settled for little or no winds and a passage that promised to be mostly a motor sail.  No wind and motoring is far better than winds on our nose and miles of beating into a rolling sea. 

   A highlight of the trip was the fishing.  Bill had been busy making homemade fishing lures. He cuts the top off of a pop bottle cap so all you have is the mouth of the bottle and the screw on top. Then he punches a hole through the lid where the line will be strung. He cuts strips of shiny plastic bags –think lunch box sized bags of Cheetos or chips – folds them over the lip of the bottle cap and then screws the lid over the bottle mouth. The high test leader line goes through hole in the cap and then the bottle top gets screwed down over the mouth of the bottle. We use heavy duty double hooks on a leader line that’s set off the bottle mouth with a few beads and viola’ a very enticing big fish hootchie lure for the price of the hooks and line! They look like shiny squid and the fish love them. Thanks to Chuck on S/V Jacaranda for the great idea. 

     The lures have been paying us back in spades.  Midday of the second day we caught two yellow fin tunas and a short time later a slight coarse shift to was taking us over a very promising looking shoal.  Having just finished catching, cleaning and stowing two yellow tail tuna Bill was below sleeping as I charted our progress toward the shoal. As we closed in on the shallow patch I could see birds working the water and soon saw small fish shoaling the surface.  I checked each of the lures trailing behind the boat for seaweed as we approached and was standing on deck in the sunshine watching behind us as we began passing over the bulls-eyed spot. I could see more small fish running on the surface and then a few pan sized fish running towards our lures.  Then in a space of a minute four big fish were racing across the top of the water towards the three lures being drug behind the boat.  I watched as a huge fish hit one of the lures and came flying up an easy four feet. The huge fish hit and flew up and out of the water a good four feet with sparkling water and bits of cookie bag flying in a huge arc before the fish slammed back down into the sea.  In the blink of an eye I had all three lines running with very large fish, each big enough to run and fight and all three crossing back and forth behind us.  One fish successfully fought his way to freedom but with Bills help we soon had two large fish on board –a four foot Wahoo and a twenty five pound Big Eye tuna!!!!  Bravo, bravo! Of course that meant a good hour of work.  First the fish must be….dispatched and then filleted.  Then Bill scrubs up the huge mess that always results from killing and cleaning big fish on deck while I work below in the galley where a bit of fillet fine tuning gets the pieces portioned and bagged and ready for meals and the freezer.  For dinner we had a taste test of the earlier caught yellow fin tuna and the big eye –both amazingly delicious but  the big eye won out in the sashimi test.  The only bad part of the whole deal is that the freezer was now full and until we were somewhere where we could give fish away poor Bill was going to have to stop fishing. 

   Thirty hours after leaving Savu Savu we had arrived at Fortuna. The anchorage there can be very rolly and uncomfortable with a south swell and that was just what was predicted for the following day along with winds on our nose going back so our choices were clear, stay for several days in the rolly anchorage or leave straight off.  Add to that the fact that we had no French Polynesian francs and there is no ATM on the island so we wouldn’t even be able to have a meal off the boat or splurge on baguettes and imported French cheese. Plus it was astonishingly hot even in the early morning.  So a quick in and out it would be.   We dropped the dinghy off the deck and paddled in to the wharf to a short walk to Customs and Immigrations and then on to the Gendarmerie. Passports were stamped and papers filled out then right back to the boat for a quick lunch and in no time we were raising the anchor and off on our way back to Fiji. 

   The whole trip so far had been dry and hot and that’s what we got going back.  Right up until I heard Bill say “Kat, come up on deck and look at this sky.”  It was nearly six pm and we had just clearing the Somosomo straight -the reefy-est part of the six hundred plus mile passage.  Ahead of us was a bank of black clouds that spread completely across the skyline.  At the bottom of the line of ink black clouds was a strip of lighter color clouds that were rolling and boiling.  The storm front was still many miles away but within moments the seas were up and Island Bound was rocking and rolling in short steep wind waves.  By the time we got our dodger/bimini side and door pieces in place the rain drops were falling and suddenly we were in some of the worst seas we have ever sailed through.  Luckily the winds were not too bad –an easy 25 knots with gusts up into the mid or even high thirties. The rain was fierce and the seas were like a washing machine. The soon to set sun was obliterated and we were suddenly sailing into the night rolling and plunging and trying our best to stay dry.

     In the end out of a sixty hour passage the last 12 were pretty uncomfortable.  Not scary because the winds didn’t get too bad but rough and wet and not much fun.  It was too rough to really sleep or move about the boat so by the time we hove too outside of Savu Savu to wait for sunrise we were both completely exhausted. Our concern as we sailed into this weather front had been for the reefs between us and Savu Savu and the lack of anywhere safe to stop and wait out the weather.

     As uncomfortable as the end of our passage had been we had been concerned for friends who had left Savu Savu a day and a half after us.  Behind us they would be facing this weather in the open ocean and were likely to see higher winds and bigger waves.  Leanna and John on Ref Sky and Charlene and Ernie on Lauren Grace struggled through much higher seas and winds over 50 mph!  Red sky blew out there main sail and had the fresh water pump on their engine go out leaving them without an engine and beam on into very high seas while Lauren Grace a cat had an easier ride of things but blew out the bungee cord that attaches the trampoline on their foredeck and both came limping into Savu Savu with tales to tell.  I was glad we had picked the weather window we had. Out here you can run but you just can’t hide.  Fair winds, Kat. 




2013, 09-28 How Far Do We Go?

   We are back in Savu Savu waiting for a weather window that will take us safely and comfortably to the island of Fortuna.  When a boat enters Fiji their Customs and Immigration allows an eighteen month stay for the boat itself, after 18 months the boat either has to leave the country or pay import tax on the value of the boat. Our eighteen months will be up in March of 2014 which is right smack in the middle of cyclone season.  We don’t want to chance a blue water passage in cyclone season and we don’t want to import the boat -or pay the 36% tax- so we will sail out of the country on or before 10/16 when our visas are up for renewal. This will reset the eighteen month clock and give us each six more months on our personal visas allowing us to move on from Fiji as we plan after this year’s cyclone season.  Fortuna is the closer of two French governed islands to the NE of Fiji and our closest option for accomplishing a necessary evil. I call it a necessary evil because it all seems pretty silly when you think of it.  

     To cross all of our T’s and dot all our I’s we must complete an official check out then sail away then turn around and come back in and pay a few fees. Then we are allowed to stay another 18 months.  But of course that means a 225 nm mile passage through open-ocean to a place we don’t really want to go.  Fortuna is so used to it they check you out and in at the same time -for free thank you very much.  They know you are not going to stay and in fact are surprise if you do. The anchorage is open and rolly and there is little to see or do to entice anyone to stay. So we will go, come back and then spend our money and our time in Fiji for the foreseeable future.  Everyone does it and no one really wants to go to Fortuna. The Fijian reasoning behind all of this I am told is to insure that the cruisers here have boats that are seaworthy enough to actually leave and allows the government to cross all their T’s and dot all their I’s and of course brings in a second -or fifth- set of fee’s for entering the country. It also has the side effect of having boats that are less than seaworthy stay in Fiji and pay a hefty tax to do so. Of course derelict boats are not worth much so the fees are lower and their owners don’t tend to pump much into the economy either. Oh well, we don’t make the rules and it still makes Fiji a country where you can stay for an extended amount of time unlike many spots in the Pacific.
   Once again as cruisers we make our choices based on immigration and visa policies and of course the weather.  In fact once we left Washington every choice we’ve made has been based on seasons, government policies and the prevailing winds.  Unlike many cruisers who spend weeks or months away from their boats we have chosen to stick with the boat. Other than a short road trip to California from Baja in 2011, a ten day trip home in 2012 and a couple of weeks soaking up the luxury of condo life in Mazatlan thanks to the generosity of family and friends we have been full time cruisers for nearly three and a half years now.  Almost everyone we know has spent far more time off their boats than we have. 

    This has been a conscious decision on our part.  We’ve chosen to stay aboard Island Bound even in the off seasons and in fact some of our favorite experiences have happened during the “off season” while others chose to go home for periods of time. It has meant we have stayed around when all of our friends disappeared for periods of time to visit family, handle work or home responsibilities or do land based.  Sometimes I am a little envious. 
    I would have liked to see my family more. I would have liked to travel to parts of Mexico that were more than a day trip away from the boat and I would have liked to have more time to recharge my personal batteries.  There is no right way to do this of course but as I think forward to the future I wonder if I would be …….more enthusiastic if we had taken a few more breaks. 

    I’m not complaining ….really I’m not. Most people would give their eye teeth to be able to do what we do.  But cruising is NOT a 24/7 vacation.  It also means Bill and I have been together virtually every day for three and a half years less the three days I was in Seattle without him in 2012!  And we do almost everything together.  I rarely even go shopping without him.  What I have discovered from that is interesting. When you live a “normal” life as a couple you spend pretty big chunks of time apart and I think it gives you both something unique to bring back into the relationship. You have stories to tell, experiences to share and time apart to –maybe- appreciate each more as well. For us it is a hard choice because if we did as so many others and spent more time away from the boat we would miss the off season cruising that we have found so amazing. Traveling separately as many couples do at times means more money and it means someone is left looking after things back aboard the boat alone. It also leaves whoever stays behind essentially stuck in one place since Island Bound is too big a boat to be comfortably single handed.
      Some wives don’t make the open water passages choosing instead to fly ahead and meet the boat when hubby arrives with his guy friends or passage crew and some couples choose to always take on crew for passages rather than manage the rigors of double handed watch keeping.  I still admire a couple we met in Neah Bay right before we left Washington who had just arrived after a 49 day three hour on three hour off passage from the Marshall Islands.  Thankfully we have never needed or wanted to make such a long passage because frankly it sounds exhausting beyond belief to me. But then again for most of you the 23 day passage the two of us made across the Pacific in spring of 2012 sounds just as daunting.  I’m just glad we have not needed to face anything any longer than that.

     Which leads us to my next thoughts: when have we gone far enough?  The farther west we go the harder it will be to even consider trying to return to North America. Bringing Island Bound back to Seattle has never really been on our agenda but as we move west it sometimes feels like we are closing doors behind us.  With the pirate problem in the Red Sea still a reality once we get as far as Thailand our options dwindle.  If things are looking better in Pirate Alley we can choose to run the Red Sea but historically things don’t look like they will change much there any time soon.  We could ship the boat but that is extremely expensive especially considering the value of our boat.  We could chose to stay put in Thailand or the Philippines but that is a complete unknown until we arrive and find out how we like it in Asia. We could sail the coast of Africa to get around the Cape of Good Hope in order to make our way to the Mediterranean with the idea of eventually crossing the Atlantic and making it “all the way around” or we can turn around and go back across the Pacific. That idea has its own inherent difficulties including some very long passages indeed (think 49 days from the Marshalls!!) or if done at our current pace several more years of full time cruising. 

   Truthfully how I think about any of these choices depends on the day.  Some days it feels totally right to just keep going. We could easily spend ten years out here. We could stay in Fiji –with the occasionally trip to Fortuna and back- but it feels like it is nearly time to move on.  We could also decide that we’ve had our time and it’s now time to do something else.  We have no concrete ties, no home we’ve left rented no storage locker filled with the life we had back home. Everything we own in the world besides one foot locker full of pictures and tax records stored at my moms’ house is right here with us aboard Island Bound which will make starting over anywhere interesting in this material world.  Only time will tell I guess.
     What I do know is that whatever we do will look very different from the life we lived before we left.   We can continue to enjoy life on our investments –as long as we don’t try to live like most Americans do with a house full of possessions, two cars and all the frills.  Frankly because we retired from the working world so early (I was 48 when we left Bill was 53) we can’t afford to live in the manner to which we have become accustomed in a large metropolitan area. Not without going back to work fulltime which doesn’t really entice either of us I can assure you.  And how do you decide to quite cruising?  What if one of you is through and the other wants to keep going? 

     When we left we were hoping for ten years. Still young enough to
travel and enjoy  life and we would be closer to Social Security age and
the age of Medicare and have less time we would expect to need to
live out our lives on our savings.  We have talked about a day of selling
the boat and maybe doing the RV-ing thing -less strenuous than
cruising fulltime, no storm tossed seas, weeks long passages or making
our own water and hauling all of our groceries by backpack. One day
we will decide the work necessary to keep a sailboat in condition to
make ocean passages is too much.  And heck it’s pretty hard to screw
up and sink your RV and end up floating around in the sea hoping
someone is responding to your distress signal and racing to your rescue.
     Maybe I am just tired right now to even be thinking these
thoughts. Most days we talk about what is coming next: cyclone season
at Vuda, time in the country of Vanuatu and then six months
meandering through the Solomon Islands before moving on to Palau,
the Philippines and Thailand. I don’t regret for a minute the choices
we’ve made to get here. It’s exciting and compelling and always gets
me looking forward again to the people we are going to meet, the
friends I am going to make and the miles that will flow under our keel.
And hey, I can’t wait to learn how to cook Thai food!     Happy sailing,