Apologies for the length of this one but I have quite a story to tell …
Our latest passage has given us the opportunity to add a few more skills to our repertoire, as well as giving us the chance to experience Fijian kindness at its best.
We had spent three days carefully navigating the reefs to the north of the largest island, Viti Levu, anchoring in secluded bays, and making the most of the cruiser-friendly Volivoli resort, before crossing Bligh Water (named after Captain Bligh, who was chased across this stretch by cannibals after the mutiny on HMS Bounty). Everything was going well and spirits were high. We were looking forward to seeing a different side of Fiji in Savusavu, on Vanua Levu island.
Then, on day four, as we were approaching Nasonisoni Passage, our narrowest pass through the reefs so far (of course it was!) the engine overheat alarm went off. A quick dash to the engine room revealed a shredded fan belt, so the engine was shut down tout de suite. Luckily, we were in very deep water and in no danger, but there was no way we could pass through the gap, heading into the wind, without an engine.
We were not keen on trying to anchor with so many reefs and isolated rocks around, so we did the best thing available to a yachtsman in that situation: we hove to. For those non-sailors out there, that means that we turned the bow of the yacht through the wind but left the sails unchanged on the “wrong” side. This has the effect of stopping forward motion through the water. It doesn’t, however, stop us completely as the wind and any current will still keep us slowly bobbing along sideways. In our case, we were bobbing westwards at around 1.6 knots. The next little reef to the west was 8 miles away so that gave us plenty of time to make a plan of action.
Our first call was to our intended destination – Copra Shed Marina in Savusavu. They were excellent, tentatively arranging for an engineer to come out to us the following morning. The next was a courtesy call to Fiji MRCC (Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre) to let them know we were ok and that we had a plan. That was when the most bizarre chain of events started.
It wasn’t long before we received a call back from MRCC advising that the police were on their way to check on us. We weren’t sure what they could do, or when or how they would arrive (we were still 27 miles from Savusavu) so we just continued with our bobbing westward and sailing back, bobbing westward and sailing back …
Darkness fell, and all we knew was that the police has been unable to find fuel for their boat! Suddenly a call came through. The police were just coming through the Passage. We looked out for navigation lights but saw none. In fact there were no lights at all. But then, a bright torch flashed three times. A short wait, then three times more. Notwithstanding that we were lit up like a Christmas tree, we grabbed a torch and flashed back. It felt like some illicit drug deal was going on.
We hove to again and this 18 foot dory occupied by 4 Fijian men, clad in what appeared to be running gear, drew close and tied on. Was this the police or was it the most gentle act of piracy ever? We weren’t too sure. They climbed aboard with the biggest smiles on their faces, and eagerly accepted our offer of tea and biscuits. After a chat about our plans, they kindly firmed up arrangements for an engineer in the morning along with a tow to a suitable anchorage for the rendezvous.
Then began the general “getting to know each other” chitchat, where we learnt that the dory was the first boat ever for the Savusavu police, and they had only been gifted it two weeks ago. We were their first shout. In our view, they were extremely brave coming out to us across almost 20 miles of open sea and through the reef in such a small craft with no lights, no life jackets, no VHF radio and no chart plotter. They thought nothing of it. In fact, it was fairly obvious that they were enjoying themselves. It was their first time on a yacht, and they jumped at the chance of spending the night on board, stretched out asleep in the cockpit and down below in the saloon.
Early morning, whilst waiting for help to arrive, we suddenly noticed that their dory had broken free and was making a dash for open ocean. Suddenly, we became the rescue boat. Jeremy steered us as close as possible and one of the policemen went for an early morning swim to reclaim it. It was fortunate it didn’t happen at night; the loss of their two-week-old police boat probably wouldn’t have gone down too well back at headquarters.
Next we had the tow to deal with. This had been arranged with Namena Divers, who appeared in their vessel which looked something like a WWII landing craft. As no one had done this kind of thing before (we certainly hadn’t), all heads were put together to work out how to construct a bridle for the front of Sapphire, which the tow rope could be tied to and which wouldn’t get in the way of the anchor being lowered.
There was no shortage of people to assist. As well as the dive boat and the police boat, a third one appeared with the engineer on board, and the best thing, they all just wanted to help. Forget any worries about claiming salvage or whose ropes to use. They wanted nothing in return other than the cost of their fuel. Their philosophy: they might be in a similar position themselves one day and would hope that others would do the same for them. Not a bad philosophy in my view.
The tow and anchoring actually went pretty smoothly. Admittedly there was a bit of shouting involved and they did need the occasional reminder that we had a deep keel so passing over a 2m reef was not going to work. The engineer, Junior, came on board and ascertained that it was a breakage of a small “key” in the salt water pump that had caused all this hassle (water is pumped around the engine to keep it cool). This was then taken away to be fixed. Everyone else left and we spent the next day and a half totally alone at anchor, just down from the wreck of a 46foot yacht. Very reassuring!
Less than 48 hours later, Junior and a mate, Betta, were back on board to reinstall the repaired pump and accompany us through the Nasonisoni Passage, this time with us as the tow boat. Once through, the same dive boat came by to pick up Junior’s mate, providing us all with a bit of light relief in the process. Betta is not the slimmest of gentlemen and trying to transfer from their little boat to the larger-sided dive boat provided a “You’ve Been Framed” moment: the two boats drifting apart with him stretched out between them. How he didn’t fall in is anyone’s guess, but with a lot of kicking he finally got one leg over and was dragged on board by his friends. We could hear them in fits of laughter as they sped off back to base.
All that remained for us now was to complete our slow journey to Savusavu, and moor up at the marina.
But that wasn’t quite the end of our little adventure. Thirty minutes after tying up we hear shouts of “bula bula” (“hello, hello”) from the dockside. It was two of our policemen friends, who’d stopped by to welcome us in. What amazing people.
The Fijians really are the best.