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Heading for Paradise; Diverted by a Coup

Hugh & Heather Bacon

Argonauta I
Beneteau 440
August 6th, 2018

In the last article from Memories of a Circumnavigation Hugh and Heather continued to explore French Polynesia and shared memories from their passage from the Vava’u Islands of Tonga to Fiji. Lets continue to follow the adventures of Argonauta I, from when they began their journey in 1997 in the Caribbean, until the completion of the circumnavigation in 2006, when they crossed their 1997 outbound Caribbean track.


A Coup d’Etat! The Indo Fijian Prime Minister, Mahendra Pal Chaudhry, had been overthrown by a group led by businessman, George Speight. There were mixed reports of violence in the capital city of Suva so we had limited options in choosing our first landfall in Fiji, Melanesia, when we arrived August 15, 2000, after a five day passage from Tonga. We made landfall at Lautoka on the west coast of Viti Levu, the largest island of the archipelago.

We felt safe in Lautoka, which is the second largest city of Fiji and center of the sugar cane growing area. The only visible legacy of the Coup were road blocks, protected vital points and of course, very few tourists. There were many Fijians who had suffered major losses. In some cases, the Coup offered an excuse to “settle” old scores, which threw many out of their homes and properties, which were burned or forcibly repossessed. Indeed, the Canadian government sponsored a tent city outside Lautoka for homeless citizens, mainly Indo Fijians. Incidentally, the forefathers of the Indo Fijians were indentured labourers from India, courtesy of the British Raj. The deposed Prime Minister was the first-ever Indo Fijian to lead the country. Melanesian Fijians predominate as land owners; Indo Fijians tend to be merchants.

Our objective was to avoid troubled areas, so we obtained a cruising permit for the isolated Yasawa Island Group. Two days after arriving, we set out for Navini Island on August 17 to pick up two guests. Navini is one of the many outer Islands in the Mamanuca Island Group, due west of Lautoka, where there is an upscale Fijian resort. We moored, met the couple and welcomed them aboard. The plan was to cruise the Yasawas and then return to the Mamanucas, this time to Malolo Lailai  to join the Musket Cove to Port Vila (Vanuatu) Regatta, which was to start September 16.

We needed to provision, so we sailed back to Lautoka before setting out for the Yasawa Islands, located to the northwest. There are some twenty islands in the group and navigation among them is tricky. The reef strewn waters proved too demanding for charterers and the Moorings Charter base closed because of many mishaps.  In fact, these islands were only opened to tourism in 1987, so at the time of our visit, cruising yachts were still somewhat of a novelty. With our trusty chart plotter and some large scale charts, we managed to pick our way through the area without incident, although we did have a close call or two with reefs.

We provisioned at the exotic market in Lautoka, with its mingled scents of Indian spices and tidy bundles of vegetables sold in “heaps”. We bought $60 worth of dried, ugly pepper plant roots called kava, which our Indo‑Fijian merchant wrapped in newspaper with ribbons for presentation. It is the custom to visit the chief’s home on each island and take an offering. The protocol  is called Sevu Sevu. The powdered root of a pepper plant mixed with water is described as a tranquilizing, non‑alcoholic drink. It is much esteemed by Fijians, Tongans and Samoans. It has reminded some visitors of dishwater.

In the Yasawas, the sun always shines! We had magnificent snorkeling, pristine beaches, good winds (not to excess!) and, once again, friendly and generous people. We participated in the mandatory ritual of the Sevu Sevu ceremony at three villages. We went to the home of the chief, sat on a straw mat, legs modestly tucked to the side, placed the wrapped pepper roots at the feet of the chief who made an acceptance speech in Fijian, clapped three times and welcomed us to the village. Permission to snorkel, walk through town and take photos is included. Sometimes the ladies roll out their mats with shells, sulus (sarongs) and other handicrafts for sale, In one village, reminiscent of Palmerston Island, the people compete to host visitors. A warm and religious family prepared a delicious Fijian lunch and gave us a tour of the village. I took photos and showed the children their images on the camera. This provoked great giggles. I visited a school where I read, Thomas’ Snowsuit, by Canadian children’s author Robert Munsch, which had them rolling on the floor after a little explanation!  One evening we went as paying guests to a Fijian home, where we were served a fantastic island feast. The extended family joined us and it would not have been Fiji without lots of singing and dancing. Even Hugh got to dance with one of the willowy, rhythmic young ladies!

Soon it was time to sail to Musket Cove to prepare for the annual rally to Port Vila, Efate Island, Vanuatu.  It was beneficial to join, as it offered a good support system for the passage as well as lots of camaraderie.  The customs procedure was simplified and there were creative parties, including a pig roast and a fun race to a small island resort with swim‑up bar. We met some old sailing friends as well as many new ones. Dick Smith, the resort owner, welcomed everyone. Scores of cruisers met, partied, went on diving trips, snorkeled, and prepared for the passage.

Hugh sent an email on September 19, 2000: “Hello from the Musket Cove/Port Vila Rally! The 508 nautical mile (nm) rally departed Musket Cove at 1200 hours local time, on September 16. It was sad to say goodbye to Fiji and we will miss the infectious and ubiquitous greetings of, “BULA,” from these friendly people! We are in the rally for pleasure and never intended to compete, as we have two guests on board who are somewhat unfamiliar with the boat. Our position today at 0022 hrs GMT/1222 hrs Fiji time is 17 46.748 S/170 30.87 E. We are running about fifth last. Three vessels of the 32 participants have already arrived at Port Vila, and others will arrive later today. I am convinced the first three put the diesel hammer down to make it that fast! I’ll find out when we get there. We are about 365 nm along track with 140 nm to go. Day one we motored six hours and sailed thereafter. Our friends on Only Blue are 50 + miles ahead of us, but they are competitive so must have been hanging canvas more aggressively than us. Weather en route has been as bad as it can get outside of cyclone season. A South Pacific Convergence Zone has dominated the weather picture. We have had many thundery squalls, with winds to 40 knots and almost constant, moderate to heavy rain, sometimes zero visibility and a very grey sky. Needless to say, frequent changes in sail configuration have been necessary. Finally, day three, we are seeing some sunny periods. Now, intensified trade winds of up to 30 knots from the SSE have given us about seven knots of boat speed on a beam reach. This keeps the ride smoother than it might be, but still the motion is rough! Present configuration is a double reefed mainsail, staysail, and a heavily reefed genoa. Our only damage so far is a lost mainsail # 2 batten, which departed during a squall. Had I double reefed when I should have, likely we would still have the batten. I assume the batten securing devices came apart. It was fortunate that it missed the wind generator blades! In any case we seem to have left the squalls behind and are moving like a freight train, with about as much noise! Our guests smile bravely and are surviving a trying passage. I suspect expectations were much different than the reality of this experience. Nevertheless, all is well on board, but gourmet meals have been replaced by granola bars and canned stews and soup. Heather’s frozen casseroles have been a bright spot. If the strong winds continue, we should arrive in Port Vila 21 hours from now.”

We did arrive within the expected ETA, but during the final night just after midnight, with Heather on watch, our wind vane steering failed. At the time, wind was SSE 25 knots gusting to 35 knots and seas were 2‑3 meters. We were steering 260 M, making 6‑7 knots, with double reefed mainsail, staysail, and furled genoa. I was awakened by a crash and alerted to go to the cockpit by an obvious change in motion. We were wallowing in the seas about 110 degrees off heading. I turned the yacht back on course and tried resetting the wind vane steering but there was no response, so after engaging the autopilot I went below to check. The wind vane steering quadrant had detached from the horizontal shaft. I found retaining bolts sheared and the quadrant lying beneath the axle in a jumble of control lines. I left the mess alone. Conditions were well beyond the limit of our back-up Autohelm 4000. Still, with a little hand help on the weather helm side, it managed to maintain our heading. A guest hand-steered for a few hours to ease the strain and we had no further problem reaching Port Vila. Custom formalities were minimal and we secured on a well located mooring. We were still in time for the early arrival party that night!

We came in fifth last and yes, the winners all motored in the light winds at the first part. Heavy weather resulted in a number of yachts with damage. The sailboat, Imagine, a 60-footer, lost her vang and had a 70% crack at the base of the mast; serious damage! The sailboat, Ipou Kai, was missing for three days and a search was initiated. She eventually limped in, with complete electrical failure and a broken boom, just in time for the final Rally bash. Our only prize was for the smallest fish.

Heather emailed friends: “Vanuatu: what image do you have?” If you are like me, you had never heard of it. When I began reading Lonely Planet, I pictured a very feral place with primitive rituals. Port Vila was a pleasant surprise; a lovely secure harbour with restaurants, boutiques and delis reminiscent of France. I must admit that any place would have looked exotic after our last passage – Rain, wind, “confused seas” (translate as BARF!). It was not a pleasant introduction to cruising for our short term crew! When we arrived, I competed in an, “I most hate to sail”, contest. To my chagrin, I did not win, but my friends all supported me as most sincere.  However, once the passage was over, we quickly adjusted to marina life; we participated in cocktail parties, dinners and champagne receptions. We feasted on pâté, Charolais beef and coconut crab, all accompanied by Aussie wines. Secured to a mooring was bliss. I felt like staying forever!

Our crew promptly headed for the best hotel in town, where we bade them “goodbye”. Our wind vane self-steering manufacturer provided email guidance to arrange repairs, which were simple with the help of a local machine shop. In order to see as much local culture as possible, we joined a group of yachties to fly to Tanna, a southern island.

It was an exciting glimpse of a primitive world. We traveled almost two hours at dusk over dirt roads to see the active volcano. As we approached, the ground was thick with black ash. We continued over a moon landscape and then walked a short distance to the edge of the crater. Unlike in developed countries, there were no guardrails, souvenir stands or insurance disclaimers. However, we were aware of Lonely Planet‘s warning: flying boulders, singed hair, and three tourists killed some years ago. The volcano was fairly benign; some pretty fireworks and a few serious rumblings. We returned to our charming thatched bungalow, dined well and (Bliss) soaked in a bath tub!

Our lovely little resort had a swimming pool and spectacular views of raging surf. Early in the morning, local villagers were washing clothes in freshwater pools and laying them to dry on the hot black sand. In the morning we piled back into 4×4’s and rode through lush tropical rain forest to a “Kastom Village”, where ancient ancestral traditions are maintained. The serious ceremonies are tabu to outsiders, but they do allow visitors to see the village and will perform dances for them. All houses are of woven leaves and bamboo. There are kerosene lamps, but of course, no running water, television or general appliances. Men and boys wear only a namba woven of palm fronds. Women wear grass skirts and are generally topless. Small children are naked. The dances are animated and repetitive; circling and feet‑stomping. At the end, they come by to give a vigorous handshake. I bought a circlet of pig tusk and Hugh resigned himself to not being invited to participate in the boar‑clubbing ceremony. Honoured women have two front teeth ceremoniously knocked out. Boys go through a circumcision ceremony and are later isolated for some time in a tree house.

Back in Port Vila, we joined yet another race, the First Port2Port Yacht Rally from Vanuatu to Bundaberg, Australia. Before departing, we cruised north to see more of this amazing country and its fascinating culture. We sailed from Port Vila on Efate Island to Epi and Malekula Islands before reaching our Port of Departure, Luganville on the island of Espiritu Santo.

Next: Our Vanuatu cruise and final Pacific Ocean passage; 1033 NM to Australia!

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