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Circumnavigating Vanua Levu

Dec 28, 2017

Exploring the northern side of this Fiji island

The Moody 422 Astarte anchored off the island of Kia.

The Moody 422 Astarte anchored off the island of Kia.

The 332 islands that make up the Pacific nation of Fiji offer the cruising sailor a bluewater playground of options. If you want organized activities and social time with other boaters, simply find one of the mooring fields filled with international boats. If a quiet anchorage near crystal-clear waters for snorkeling or diving is your desire, there are hundreds of spots to choose. If you surf the waves or the wind, you have islands that will welcome you. There really is something for just about every voyager.

We have spent three seasons in Fiji’s beautiful islands aboard Astarte, our Moody 422. For the last two, we decided to go off the beaten track. One of the things we most enjoy about our time in the country is the people who call Fiji home. Fijians are known for their friendly “bula” style. Bula is the greeting that is “hello,” “welcome,” “great to see you” and “cheers” all wrapped up in an enthusiastic two-syllable word. It is said from the heart and it is so Fiji.

Our goal was to visit some areas where the rallies, regattas and super yachts don’t go. We wanted to cruise an area that wasn’t packed with dozens of boats; we dreamed of our little piece of paradise. More important than that, we hoped to see villages and meet some local people who rarely get “yachties.” So we decided to circumnavigate Vanua Levu, which means “big island,” though in truth it’s Fiji’s second largest island.

Kids visiting aboard Astarte.

Located between latitudes 16° S and 17° S, and longitudes 178.5 ° E and 180° E, this island is surrounded by a fringing reef (like most of Fiji). The north coast of the island is protected by the third largest barrier reef in the world: the Great Sea Reef (locally called Cakaulevu). Because of the normal southeast trade winds, the north and west coasts are in the island’s lee while the south and east coasts are on the windward side. You do get a little wind relief on the east side of Vanua Levu thanks to the mountainous island of Taveuni, which is just across the Somosomo Strait.

The international port of Savusavu on Vanua Levu is where we have always cleared into the country of Fiji. The protected bay, fed by Nakama Creek, hosts three small marinas, many mooring balls and is a safe and friendly town. Clearance in this port is efficiently done and makes for a good first experience in Fiji. We have checked into Savusavu all three times we’ve visited the island.

Gathering info
Our decision to go around Vanua Levu was made easier thanks to using OpenCPN and Google Earth. The southern and eastern coasts of the island are well traveled and well documented by other boats, and waypoints and blogs are plentiful. Some of the favorite spots for diving and snorkeling are along the southeastern corner of this island near the world-class Rainbow Reef. The northern coast is the area that is less transited. Because of this, there are fewer places to find information on good anchorages, waypoints or services. We did take advantage of information from another cruiser who had done the north coast more than a dozen years prior. Plus there was an older guide — A Yachtsman’s Fiji by Michael Calder — that was also quite helpful, though dated.

Once we made the decision to go around the island, Michael started to download and build his own Google Earth KAP chart/OpenCPN library. Thanks to good and inexpensive Internet in Savusavu, this project was easier to complete than in other locations. Vanua Levu’s largest town, Labasa, is on the northern side. Because of a large sugar processing and shipping port and several lumber mills, large cargo ships frequent this side of the island. We presumed navigational markers and channels would be in place for shipping purposes. Unfortunately, a giant cyclone named Winston hit the island and we had no doubt that some of those markers could have been damaged or destroyed. We knew that in these island groups you couldn’t always count on the navigational aids to be there. Aboard, we also had Garmin proprietary charts on our Garmin GPS plotter and Navionics charts on our Raymarine chartplotter — but from past experience, charts in Fiji can be hit or miss. This year alone, two sailing yachts have come to grief on the reefs in Fijian coastal waters.

We gathered as much information as we could find and decided to give it a shot! In 2016, we went around the island counterclockwise and we made a similar circumnavigation in 2017, this time going clockwise. Both times we started in Savusavu. When going counterclockwise, we had to time the winds along the southern coast to be light or no trades. We also had a really difficult time around the western corners thanks to the strong trades that seemed to accelerate around those areas — we had thought we would be protected by the island. The second time around, we chose to go clockwise and it seemed to be an easier trip all around. Perhaps we had different weather conditions the second season, but we would recommend going the clockwise direction.

A view of the village on Kia.

A challenging pass
Getting around the corner from Savusavu and through the reef on the southwestern corner can be challenging. This is known as the Nasonisoni Pass, and in June a U.S. boat hit this reef and ultimately sank. Its mast could still be seen at low tide, just barely sticking out of the water. This is always a tough sight, especially because Michael and several other yachties along with a local dive company made every effort to save the boat — and thought they had!

The navigational challenges of this trip meant that we would only do the reef-rich passages when we had perfect light. In Fiji, that’s not too difficult a problem. We always kept a good eyeball watch along with our various Google Earth, OpenCPN and Garmin charts. Michael preloaded waypoints using all the tools and we followed them, but always with an eye open to see hidden dangers. His charts and the Garmin charts proved to be very accurate throughout the trip.

We also had to plan the length of each passage. Some of the trips between reef entrances were close to 30 miles, but entering and exiting the reef had to be done in really good light. We wanted to enter a new cut with the sun high and not in our eyes. We would plan to arrive with the light perfect and then use our track to get out again safely if we wanted or needed an earlier start. I was always on the bow during any passages through reef cuts or where there were reefs along our route.

In an island nation a school bus is often an open boat with an outboard.

The trip around the island was special. As we left the “normal” cruising grounds and started along the northern coast, we stopped in many villages that hadn’t seen a boat all year or had only seen a few boats over the last few years. The Fijian traditions were more intact and the friendliness and openness of the people was unforgettable. We would anchor in a protected bay off of a village, mostly in good holding mud near mangroves. After taking the dinghy to shore, we’d be met most often by lots of children anxious to help us secure our tender and take us ashore. We would ask for the “torongo ni koro” (elected head man) who would usually take us to the chief, at which point we would present “sevusevu.” This is the ceremony where visitors ask permission from the chief to visit the village and anchor off their land. A bundle of kava is given as a gift to the chief. Once our sevusevu was performed, we were welcomed into the village and often taken on a tour either by the “head man” or the entourage of children that we attracted.

Seeing the big yacht
We would spend several days to a week near various villages and go on hikes, snorkel, beachcomb or visit the school. Whenever we were aboard the boat, small local boats would come by to see the “big yacht” and villagers would often take pictures with their cellphones. Yes, no matter how remote the village, cellphones abound. We invited many people aboard to take a look at the boat and it was always fun to watch what they thought was worthy of a picture (a hallway light or foot pump for the water!). It was also thrilling for us to hear comments like “this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience” from the folks who would stop by Astarte.

Fijians love to have their picture taken. We started to take “class photos” in schools so we could get a picture of just about every child in the village. We loaded up on ink cartridges and photo paper, printed the pictures aboard Astarte and delivered them to the schools. Most schools had never had a class photo taken and it was great fun for both the kids and us. In return, we had lovely songs sung to us by the children. The children in one village that we had returned to remembered Michael’s name from the year prior, and as soon as he was ashore they would all start yelling “Michael! Michael!” Those are the special moments.

Michael Hawkins taking class photos on Kia.

The northern coast is home to many of Fiji’s sugar cane fields and is populated by Indo-Fijians. These people came to Fiji from India generations ago and are an interesting mix of Indian and Fijian cultures. Most are Hindi and speak a Fijian Hindi. Along the north coast we met Indo-Fijian families and learned a lot about sugar cane harvesting, which was happening while we were making our circumnavigation. In one stop, we were “mirrored.” As we entered a bay near Tivi Island, we saw this bright light coming from a hillside — we thought someone might have been doing some welding. It ended up being a woman holding a very large mirror to reflect the sun and shine it at us. It was blinding! Michael went to find out what it was all about and met a very interesting family of Indo-Fijians. The mirror was used for generations to welcome people to the bay and invite them to visit the family on the hill. We went there a few times for tea and to meet the entire multigenerational family and take family pictures.

A highlight of the trip both years was our stop at Kia Island. Kia is a small island off the north coast. The Great Sea Reef goes out in a small horseshoe at one point and inside the bight is the island of Kia. The island is renowned for its fishing prowess; most of the people on the rocky island make their living from the sea. Each day, small open fiberglass boats with 5- to 40-hp outboards head out with four to six men aboard, and they would be gone for eight hours or even overnight. The boats would come back with a good amount of fish and lobsters. The good news is that the island also understands the need for conservation measures, and so they have size limits and designated “tabu” (forbidden) areas where you cannot fish or spear.

A village elder
On Kia, we met Save (Sah-vay). He was a village elder and spoke quite good English. He became our friend, teacher and Michael’s hiking partner. He took Michael up to an old cannon on a hillside. How it got there is a mystery, but it had been there for centuries. Save had a picture of himself as a teenager at the cannon. He took Michael up to the cannon himself and Michael took another shot of him near that same cannon. He struggled up the hill (as did Michael) and he told Michael it would most likely be the last time he ever did that hike, which made the trek even more significant. The view was spectacular from the top. Seeing Astarte sitting alone in the clear reef-strewn water was worth the hike.

As Astarte entered the anchorage at Tivi Island, they were greeted by the flash from a mirror.

On our 2017 voyage around Vanua Levu, we discovered a new favorite spot. The locals call it “Nubu” (pronounced Noom-boo), meaning “deep” in Fijian. The anchorage was about a mile through an S-curved reef on both sides. The cut was very deep, as was the anchorage (about 50 feet), but it was a good sandy bottom. It was the last stop on the northeastern corner of the island just inside Udu Point (a long, narrow peninsula with a fringing reef that you have to give plenty of room because it is deceiving). At the Nubu anchorage, just over a sandbar, there was a cut in the mangroves that led to a small stream with a series of very deep pools and waterfalls. This was the perfect place for lots of laundry and baths, but it’s also just a beautiful secluded spot filled with birds, butterflies and water sounds. We were visited by a few boats from the nearby villages, but otherwise the place was all ours for the five days we spent there. Paradise.

As we went around Udu Point, the locals promised we would be able to catch a fish. They were right; we landed the largest mahi we had ever caught, along with losing another mahi and catching a rainbow runner.

On the eastern side of Vanua Levu, there is the island of Rabi. We stopped at an anchorage on the northwest side of Rabi after rounding Udu Point — a truly picture-perfect postcard anchorage. Rabi has an interesting history: It is inhabited by people from the Kiribati Island of Banaba. They speak Banaban and, though they are citizens of Fiji, try to maintain their Kiribati heritage.

From the top of Kia Island, the Great Sea Reef stands out. It’s the world’s third largest barrier reef.

Markers in place
The trip around was easier than we anticipated. Many markers were where they were supposed to be, and the charts Michael made got us safely around and into good anchorages. We had some great sails inside the reefs where the seas got knocked down, giving us a smooth ride. When we left the protection of the reef and went on the outside, we had some fast sails with fish lines out and ready to snag the big ones. We motored to have better control in some of the narrower cuts or where sandbars and reefs were everywhere, but most of the trip was made under sail.

We visited friendly villages, many of which we were returning to for the second time. We were welcomed back as if we were family. The people, whether indigenous Fijians or Indo-Fijian, have traditions and strong cultural ties. Their generosity overwhelmed us. We were gifted with many fish, fresh vegetables and fruit. Invites for tea, meals and hospitality were never-ending.

It took us six weeks to travel around the island. It certainly is the path less traveled, at least by voyaging boats. Fiji welcomes hundreds of international boats annually, and yet along the north coast we saw only three other boats in passing.

Our memory banks are filled with friendly faces, a varied landscape, azure waters and a challenge completed.

Barbara Sobocinski and Michael Hawkins have been cruising aboard their Moody 422 Astarte since 2009. They are currently exploring the islands of the southwestern Pacific.

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