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Back to the Tropics, New Zealand to Fiji

Here we go to Fiji then, just a small matter of 1156 miles to travel across the ocean. It has been a long time, nearly 6 months to the day, since we last did a long passage, namely the one down to New Zealand from Tonga. So as we head out into the ocean, through the calm of the Bay of Islands we wonder how we will settle back into the routine. The human brain is an amazing thing, so good at forgetting negative experiences and focusing on the good. Will this offshore sailing be as we remember or is there something lurking that was best forgotten?

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The forecast for the first couple of days was for a fairly big waves and 25 knots of wind. So before we left Amy precooked some meals that would sustain us until the conditions were due to moderate. This proved to be a good move as the lumpy conditions on the first two days, combined with our very rusty sea legs meant that balancing in the galley to cook something from scratch would not have been fun.

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The first 24 hours passed without incident. The nearly full moon lit up the sea to help us through the night, but sleep was in short supply as Florence was tossed around by the waves. Sleeping in these conditions takes practice.

The second night was a little more testing, thick cloud cover obscuring any moonlight from penetrating though to us, a rough sea sate and out of no-where, the wind suddenly doubling in strength during Matt’s watch:

“I was sat huddled at the front of the cockpit wearing thermals, thick socks, extra jumpers and all my foul weather gear just to stay warm. It was so dark that I could only just make out the faint loom of the mainsail in the masthead navigation lights, the instrument lights providing the outline of the wheel and winches but no more. I could hear the waves surging around Florence but couldn’t see them, nor could I see the dividing line between sea and sky. Everywhere was just black.

Suddenly a gust of stronger wind hit, heeling Florence over so that her gunnel was in the water and she was off, rounding up onto a tight reach and leaping over the waves at 7.5 knots like a bucking bronco.

I struggled to get up and grab the helm to bring her back on course but as I lunged for the wheel I was brought up short by my safety tether. Flicking on my head-torch I realised that at some point whilst working in the cockpit I had tangled it around myself. A quick pirouette untangled the tether and I could reach over the wheel and flip the lever to disengage the wind vane self steering and grab the wheel myself. Steering Florence back downwind brought the situation under some control, she righted herself and as the genoa became hidden in the lee of the mainsail she slowed down to a more comfortable 6 knots. A glance at the wind instruments showed a steady 29 knots (very different to the 14 knots of moments before). With the immediate situation dealt with, I punched the button to engage the electric auto pilot which holds her on a compass course. I then set about furling away the genoa until there is just 3ft of it left flying, enough to balance Florence when we come back up onto course. The main sail already had 2 reefs in it as we were being cautious on a pitch black night, but I was considering a third reef. Florence was now under control, but we really don’t need that much sail area in these conditions. All the commotion to this point had woken Amy who was on her off watch. She called up from below, asking ‘would you like any help?’. Considering the sea state it would be safer to have a human hand on the helm rather than an electronic one whilst reefing the main. With the wind whistling around my ears, I opened my mouth to reply ‘yes please’, and at that instant, the wind switched off, dropping down to 10 knots.

Florence was suddenly wallowing along at just 3.5 knots, massively under canvassed. Given the recent experience, and the fact that in the pitch blackness it was impossible to see any clouds or squalls approaching, it was a further half an hour before I felt confident enough to unfurl the genoa once more and bring Florence back up to speed.”

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Getting Florence back on course during another gust

By contrast a night to be remembered happened the following night.

Our third night at sea found us slipping gently along, reaching in 15 knots of wind with calm seas and clear skies. Not a cloud in sight. The moon had yet to rise but Florence was lit up by the light of the stars alone. This is the magical side of ocean sailing. There are places on land designated as ‘dark sky observatories’ where no light pollution is allowed, but you can’t beat looking at the stars on a clear night at sea, hundreds of miles from the nearest light pollution. The stars are so numerous, so bright and so beautiful. The milky way was clearly visible and we spent an hour just laid back looking at the wonder of the night sky.

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Where to go, Minerva reef or Fiji?

On day 4 we had a decision to make. Our ETA at Fiji was for a Saturday. This would incur extra charges (approx £100) for checking in at a weekend, so we would prefer to arrive on a weekday. We needed to either slow down or find somewhere to stop. Where can you stop in the middle of the pacific ocean?

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This little guy stopped for a rest on Florence

Well it turns out there is such a place, Minerva Reef.

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Minerva reef visible at low tide

Minerva reef is a circular reef with a single pass through into its protected interior. However at high tide the reef is completely underwater which makes you feel that you are literally anchored in the middle of the ocean. The reef is just over half way from New Zealand to Fiji and not far off of the direct course, so we headed there to stop for a couple of nights. On the way there we spotted a huge water spout up to windward; 2 massive sperm whales. We slowed right down to pass them, staring with a mix of awe and excitement. Although they never came close enough for a decent photo, they followed us for about an hour, their bulbous noses poking out of the water behind us.

The reef stops most of the waves but there is no shelter from the wind. We were far enough north by now to put away our thermals. The water was even warm enough to feel comfortable swimming again. Although we would have loved to get a closer look at the life on the reef, it was a bit rough to launch the dinghy and neither of us were keen to venture far from Florence without it, with rumours of big sharks visiting the reef.

Feeling refreshed, after a couple of nights rest we set off to complete our voyage to Fiji.

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Leaving Minerva in pleasant warm conditions

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Apart from one large wave breaking a control line on the self steering during the night, the rest the days at sea started to all roll into one, as they do on any long passage. Before long we were sailing through the Fijian islands on our way to Savusavu where we would check in. We chose to check in at Savusavu because it is the most windward check in port, meaning it is easiest to access most of Fiji downwind from there. Although this did mean that we had to spend 24 hours sailing through the islands and reefs before we actually arrived.

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Flying the Q-flag

Arriving in a foreign country by boat gives a far more authentic experience than arriving by plane. At an airport you are processed through queues, marching down lanes to have your passport checked by silent, serious faces, behind glass panels. Instead when arriving by boat, you invite the officials in to your home. The reams of paperwork involved always allow for time to chat and learn about the places, people and culture of where we are visiting. The hour spent chatting with the bio-security official, (one of 4 separate officials visiting the boat), over a cup of tea,  was a not only a personal record but a good indication of how friendly the Fijians are. You don’t get that at the airport, imagine the queue behind you!

Ultimately we sailed 1257 miles over 11 days including a  two night stop in Minerva reef. This is supposed to be one of those passages where you can get caught out by bad weather, so we are very happy to have ticked it off with no drama.

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Peaceful mooring off of Savusavu
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3 thoughts on “Back to the Tropics, New Zealand to Fiji”

  1. Congrats guys on another successful ocean crossing, well done!
    Thanks for keeping us up to date and also the lovely photos.

    Keep up the good work and we are looking forward to more interesting commentary and beautiful photos!
    Fair winds and blue skies.

    Kind regards,

    Geoff
    South Africa

    Like

  2. Have to say, I am loving the updates on your journey. Sounds like an amazing adventure. Really awesome to see and read about it.

    Like

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