Starting a new chapter
One week ago today we were still in the Lami anchorage in Suva Bay, and we were getting tired of the gray, rainy days. We’d seen mornings with temps in the low sixties and the water was in the low eighties. We wanted heat. The western end of Fiji is the leeward side of the big island of Viti Levu, and it is where the warmest weather is to be found. We talked about it and made the decision to skip Kandavu Island and the Great Astrolabe Reef this time and head west for a while. We could return to Kandavu’s famous snorkeling when the water warmed up a bit later in the Southern Hemisphere’s spring. With about 120 miles to cover in total but only around 90 miles to a pass through the reef, we decided to depart just after noon on Sunday.
Wayne had been keeping an eye on a problem with our engine cooling system for several weeks. When he would do the typical pretrial check of engine fluids, the cooling water was often low. Learnativity has a fresh-water-cooled engine and the system uses a keel cooler which is essentially a looping length of steel pipe welded to the bottom of the boat. Wayne was adding water every time we left, and he knew the system had a pinhole leak somewhere, but he wasn’t able to see where it was going. This big steel boat has inside ribs and stringers that separate the bilge into unconnected parts. The sections he kept checking didn’t have any water in them.
Somewhere about the time we cleared the entrance channel to Suva Harbor, the engine overheated, and Wayne discovered there was no water in the system at all. The mystery pinhole had grown to something much bigger, and it meant we could not run the engine at all. Because Wayne wasn’t finding the fresh water that leaked out of the system in the bilge, he thought the pipe must have rusted through on the outside and the water was leaking into the sea.
We had an uncomfortable night sailing downwind in 25-30 knots of wind and very confused seas—each of us wondering what this new development would mean to our cruising. Our plans had been to keep sailing until September and then to haul out at Vuda Point Marina to do a bottom job. But recently, we have started to talk about selling Learnativity and building a new boat. It’s just talk right now, but we had started thinking about doing a bigger boat renovation to pretty her up and list her with a broker just to see what happens. Maybe, once we refinish the interior teak and repaint the hull, we’ll just decide to keep her and sail off for more cruising. This new twist in our cruising plans could give us the time in the yard we would need.
But even more importantly, in the short term, to get to the western end of Viti Levu, we had to go through a pass through the reefs. That could be dicey without the engine. We wouldn’t know until we got there if the wind angle would allow us to sail through.
Around midmorning the next day when we finally got some quieter water in the lee of Viti Levu, Wayne went below and rigged a bypass system to run fresh water through a length of hose in the engine room. But while Wayne was below MacGyvering that system, I sailed past the main reef pass, the Navula Passage. I’d already watched two sailboats enter and they had dropped their headsails and motored through. I decided that with our ESE wind, we would probably be able to point our way through the Malolo Pass and not have to tack. By the time Wayne got the engine working, we were already well through Malolo pass.
However, once in the lee of Viti Levu our winds had been steadily decreasing. As we sailed through the “foul ground” sections inside Malolo Pass, the wind dropped down to 5-7 knots and our speed dropped to 1.5—barely enough to have steerage. Off to our left was Musket Cove, a resort and cruisers’ hangout. We had intended to go there, but now that we were engineless, we decided the prudent thing would be to head for the marina and boatyard. It was past noon already, and we still had about 17 miles to go to reach Vuda Point. No problem normally, but at 1.5 knots, not so good. We ran a trial and found we had about 9-10 minutes to run the engine until it overheated, and it was just enough to get us out into clear water beyond the pass.
As Wayne continued to work in the engine room, I tried to get every bit of speed I could out of the light flukey winds. Finally, around 2:00, the wind picked up, and soon I was doing 4.5 to 5 knots. We sailed up close to the mooring ball off Vuda Point and furled the main. With just the jib, we tried to sail right onto the mooring ball, but once Wayne let the jib fly, we lost way faster than expected, and we fell a few feet short. He fired up the engine, took us up the last few feet, and I grabbed the mooring line with the boat hook. We’d made it.
As we toasted the sunset that evening, we talked about what to do next. Wayne had finally found the section of the bilge with the accumulation of fresh water and it’s located under the fiberglass bathtub. It looks like the hull rusted through inside the keel cooler. It is going to be a big and complicated repair job. We considered taking a slip in the marina to work on the boat, but decided in the end to just haul out so we can get started on lots of the big jobs we want to undertake—including figuring out what to do about the keel cooler and repainting the topsides. So, after two days on the mooring ball, we were towed into the harbor and then started the engine to make our own way into the waiting slings of the travel lift. We have decided to spend the cyclone season here in Vuda Point, so we will be on the hard for about the next six or seven months.
For us, this also marks a sort of closing of the circle. Vida Point Marina is where I first met Wayne, Ruby and Learnativity about twenty months ago. We are laughingly calling this the end of our “first date.” Now, for this new chapter, we have become full time Fiji residents in Vuda Point, located between Nadi and Lautoka. Not many people are excited about the prospect of living on their boat on the hard, and I know it sounds crazy, but we are both very happy to be here. Wayne will be making progress at getting the boat into top shape, and I will have long hours to write. We have air-cooled refrigeration on the boat so it still works in the yard, and we are a stone’s throw from the heads that are equipped with on-demand-all-you-can-use hot showers. The marina has a nice restaurant, a lovely little coffee shop, and small convenience/grocery store, as well as a whole flock of new people to get to know.
During our time out of the water, I intend to finish this new Seychelle novel I’ve started. I’d been finding it difficult to get into the writing while sailing in the Lau Islands, but now I won’t have those distractions. Just as our cruising life has started a new chapter, I am finishing up with the outlining stage and ready to start Chapter 1 of the new novel. Who wouldn’t be excited by that?