Trip Reports

Prefrontal Geometry (15-Jul-2001-14-00):
2:00 PM local time Monday, July 15th. (0200 July 15th UTC) 16 46 S 179 20 E. Temp. 82, Humidity 76%, cloud cover 40%. On a mooring at the Copra Shed Marina, Savusavu Bay, Vanua Levu, Fiji.

Greetings from the crew of Maverick.

We picked up a mooring here Saturday. The careful reader will have noticed that our longitude now puts us east of the 180th meridian, no longer in the western hemisphere. We are almost sixty degrees west of San Francisco, or nearly 1/6 of the way, in longitude, around the globe. Our time, since Tonga and the international dateline, is now ahead of, not behind, Greenwich Mean Time, also known as UTC, or Z for Zulu.

Our passage from Tonga continued a pattern we have adhered to without exception since Papeete. We leave on a splendid day with either light wind or none at all and have good weather information that our passage will be benign. Two days before arrival we have thirty knots and rough seas. The most crucial time of the passage is closing the coast and entering a strange harbor. One would like to be fresh and rested. This is particularly desirable when approaching Fiji, where the distance between being near the first islands and actually in the harbor is over one hundred miles, peppered with more islands and coral reefs. As a sailboat can't make more than six or seven knots, it is impossible to do all of this part of the voyage during daylight hours. One must rely at night on radar, GPS, and charts which are not in this area very accurate. The Captain shudders to think about doing this run into Fiji with a sextant. Even with modern instruments, when the weather is gentle and one is rested, it is somewhat of a challenge to make it safely. But the crew of Maverick was tired before we entered Fijian waters, and the weather was rough.

On the morning of Thursday the 12th we were in 8-10 knots with Luigi overseeing things, and we were sailing along at about 4 knots in smooth seas, without a care in the world. The Captain noticed to the south an impressive bank of clouds stretching from horizon to horizon, paralleling our course. He reasoned that clouds mean weather, and there was an occluded front on the weatherfax in that vicinity, so here was a care for you. But we had a very specific and impressive forecast for mariners from the day before that predicted for the next forty-eight hours and probably beyond, there would be in our vicinity light winds from the NE, which is what we currently had. The weather forecast was so detailed, authoritative, and elegant, in fact, that we could almost forgive its being dead wrong.

By noon on the 12th we had thirty knots from the south and building seas. Soon we realized that we had a problem in terms of timing our approach to the islands. According to the course plotted by Navigation Officer Terry Shrode we were fifty miles from the waypoint at which we would change to a bearing which was SW. Our original timing, based on our former, stately pace, put us at this turn at about midnight, and at that point we would have about twenty-nine hours at four knots, the speed we were until then making, to make it to the harbor by daybreak on Saturday, a distance of another 115 miles. If the wind died, we could motor. Now, with the new wind direction and speed, at that same waypoint we must head up to a close hauled course for seventy miles, and then for forty-five miles we would be a on broad reach. This would take us through the outlying reefs and islands of Fiji to Savusavu Bay. In the increased wind we now were going hull speed, on Maverick about 7.3 knots, and surfing at 8 to 9 knots. If we kept this speed up, we would be at the waypoint in seven hours and could make the total distance into the harbor from where we were, about 165 miles, in less than twenty-four hours, which would put us into port before noon on Friday. That would be great; but that close-hauled bit was the problem.

In thirty knots of wind we will probably not be making seven knots close-hauled, bashing in to head seas, and with leeway and the possible necessity of tacking will be lucky to make a vmg of four. That would mean that the seventy-mile leg would take 17.5 hours, and along with the next 45 into port which on a broad reach we could do at 7 knots, the total would take twenty-four hours from our waypoint or a total of thirty-one hours from where we were then, at noon. So we would not make it to the turn into the bay, which is flanked by a reef, until after dark on Friday. Since we would not like to pass the reef in the dark we would not at that point go in, and this would mean that we would have to stand off by either heaving to or tacking in fairly heavy weather, in the midst of islands and coral reefs of Fiji, where the charts can be up to four miles off, for about twelve hours. The Captain had a little picture in his mind of this, and it wasn't a Britney Spears poster. But what if the wind, now south, veered to the SE? This seemed likely as the front passed (remember, for those of you actually following this, that we're in the southern hemisphere and in the southern hemisphere when the wind veers it goes to the left!) and if it happened, we wouldn't be close-hauled at all but just above a beam reach. Which meant our speed would be up to seven or eight knots, and we could make it in after all on Friday. Should we gamble on the new wind?

The conservative move, the prudent move, the unpleasant move, was to assume the wind would not veer, and so heave to well off of the islands of Fiji, in the open ocean where there's nothing to hit, and to make it to the waypoint the next day and the harbor on Saturday. This is what we did, in thirty knots. It would be the second time in a row we had to stand off all night in 25 knots plus at the end of a passage. Now the Captain must calculate how long to heave to so that we don't get there too early on Saturday, and we don't get there too late. And, incidentally, so we don't die, as a sailor did here in March.

As the Captain sat in the cockpit on his watch running through these dreary but necessary scenarios and making the calculations in his head, his stomach engaged in Maverick's weight loss program because sailing in light air doesn't set your tummy for the rough stuff. He determined we would heave to until 0400 and go for it, leaving, he hoped, room in either direction, and this information was passed along to Officer of the Watch Terry Shrode as he was awakened at 0100. The Captain retired.

Dutifully and efficiently, Mr. Shrode began sailing for the waypoint at 0400. We were there at around noon on the 13th, and indeed, by that time the wind had veered. The gamble may have payed off after all. We headed up to just above a beam reach, but to keep the speed down to five knots, we had about ten feet of jib unfurled, and two reefs in the main.

Then, soon after we made the turn, there was an awful vision. After spotting the first Fijian island we saw a ketch that at first looked like it was heeled over, but as we stared at it we realized it was on its side, on the reef. We had seen this boat back in Tonga. It had left a couple of days before us, and now it had foundered and was never to sail again. The skipper, a very experienced singlehander, saved himself, but not the boat that was his only home. (The boat's name was "Fearless," and some sailors discussing this later in the safety of the bar at the Savusavu Yacht Club thought, as sailors will, that perhaps the name itself foreshadowed her doom.)

There is no question that at this point the crew of Maverick was tired, unwell, and had lost their sense of humor. We thought about being home, clean and warm, and snuggled up and safe in a comfortable bed. Mr. Shrode considered reminding the Captain of our oft-repeated saying, that when you really would vastly prefer to be back at home sitting in traffic on the way to work, you know you're on an adventure. And he decided, with the kind of wisdom that as the reader may well know, the Captain himself cannot lay claim to, against so reminding him. As we worried about the fact that things could indeed get much worse, we refocused our attention on the task ahead. We had to keep a close watch for the next twenty-four hours, and all would be well.

As Mr. Shrode retired for a nap, the weather cleared, the wind eased, the seas flattened, and the front headed north of us in a definite line. All was right again with the world. Then something happened which is probably not new to weather, but was new to the Captain. The front looked down on Maverick, thought, "did we miss those guys?" and backed up and ran over us again, like the old joke, just to make sure we were dead. And it blew hard all the way to Savusavu.

Tell you what, I'm sure you're tired of this so we'll cut it short and let you know we made it safe and sound at 12:00 noon on Saturday. But it's just a little more detailed picture than usual to convey the idea that we don't always just drive into the nice harbor on a sunny day and drop the anchor, in paradise. PS There was a better way to play this, but the Captain saw it only in retrospect. PS to Fred Feller, Attorney at Law: We're far more worried about the reefs than the politics of Fiji. We'll keep you up to date on what our relative lack of concern in this area has gotten us into. Forward my regards to Crow, if you're in touch. PS to James McEntee, Attorney at Law: Through the good offices of his employer, Mr. Junior Walker, the Captain had the honor of being introduced to Mr. K-Doe in New Orleans in 1970. According to Mr. Walker, Mr. K-Doe at that time seemed to have reached a low point in his career, but as you can well imagine, the excitement the Captain felt in meeting him was not thereby diminished. (Mr. McEntee passed along to us the information that, for those who have not heard, Ernie K-Doe, who shared with us all his doubts about his mother-in-law, departed this life Thursday, July 5, 2001, at a New Orleans hospital. He was 65.)

Next report from this location: Savusavu and the Road to Lambasa

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