Dispatches from Melanesia

One of the challenges of cruising is finding an anchorage that has clean water to swim in and enough activities ashore to allow for interesting forays inland. Typically, the more developed a town, the more polluted the harbor. Pristine anchorages are often accompanied by impassable dense forests or exhausting soft sand. In this way, Musket Cove approaches the ideal anchorage. The water is clean with plenty of protected reefs for snorkeling and there are numerous shallow inlets for exploring by kayak. Ashore, the resorts are confined to the lee coast and scenic trails crisscross the island. Each morning, I rise with the sun and head ashore for an energizing run. Passing through town, the village remains asleep as the kayaks, sailboards, and Hobie Cats lie dormant on the beach. Slipping by unnoticed, I follow the tawny dirt road over a bridge and begin to ascend. The road becomes a sandy trail that gives way to a sepia path. The huts clinging to the slope are sparse as the hamlet recedes behind me. Climbing higher, the sky gradually changes from a pale crimson to a sharp azure. Reaching the ridge, I am rewarded with a sweeping view of a lush valley below sloping toward a rugged coast. Across the expanse of wind-swept water dotted with jagged rocks, the mountains of the mainland can be viewed through the haze. Continuing along the ridge, I jog through bucolic meadows and traverse the weather side of the island. Unlike the protected and developed lee of the island, the east side of Malolailai has been conceded to nature. The hilly trail alternates between offering stunning panoramic views from the summits and the serenity of trotting through a sun dappled glen. Following the ridge from south to north across the tiny island, there is a sense of having the entire island to myself. Invigorating and inspiring, an early morning run around Musket Cove is an incredible way to start a day. The past week in Musket Cove has felt like a vacation (yes, I realize that I am always on vacation, but this seemed like what other people do for vacation). This can largely be attributed to the atmosphere of the nearby resort. Catering to tourists, the island of Malolailai offers water sports, fine dining, and palm-fringed beaches. It is also a haven for cruisers. As we enter the western portion of the South Pacific, we are now noticeably in the local cruising grounds of Australia and New Zealand. Each night at the island bar, a small sand bar with a fully-stocked bar, tourists and yachties gather to mingle and to bask in the reflective glow of being in such a beautiful place. The island bar even has a phone that accepts incoming calls. On one evening, while I saddled up to the bar, Anna received a call from the homeland and happily discussed political or family matters in a stream of sibilant Polish. As her return to Poland grows closer, she eagerly is counting down the days (currently 51 days remaining) and has been kind enough to inform me that I rank third among her favorite captains (she has only been crew on three ships). I already miss her. As the center of social life on Malolailai, the island bar is the best place to exchange stories and information with other sailors. Throughout the week, we were able to reunite with several sailors that we have met during out travels through the Pacific, as well as to meet some new cruisers. Among the interesting stories we heard were the following: We met a crewmember from the Swan that provided us with copious amounts of cheese in Tonga and were told of their harrowing ordeal in the Happai group of Tonga. During one particularly violent wind shift in the middle of the night, they realized that their anchor was dragging and they scrambled to keep the boat safe from danger – a struggle that proved unsuccessful as they were driven onto a reef. Fortunately, they were able to motor off the reef and retreat to safe waters with only scratches to the keel and rudder to show for the near disaster. Once again, the fact that a multi-million dollar boat with a professional crew and state-of-the-art equipment could nearly be lost is a terrifying reminder of how quickly the good life could turn sour. We met a couple from England who have been sailing abroad for five years and one of their favorite places along the way to Fiji was none other than Onset, Massachusetts. They visited my home port twice on their trip to Maine and remarked both on how beautiful the town was and on how friendly the people were. Apparently, after shopping for a t-shirt in the village, they left the shop without finding anything that they wanted to purchase. After moving a couple of shops down, the woman from the first store came over and gave them a small bag with the words “Onset, Massachusetts” on it as a gift, saying that she didn’t want them to leave without anything to remember the place by. Who says that Cape Codders are surly? One sailor who had swum with humpback whales in the Vava’au group of Tonga told us how she had learned some interesting information about the whales. According to her, each year when the whales migrate north from Antarctica, the leader of the pack develops a song that the rest of the group learns along the way. By the time they reach Tonga, all of the whales are singing the exact same song and it is different every year. This year, the song was said to have been 22 minutes long. In an unrelated story, every shop and bus in Fiji seems to be playing that awful Paris Hilton song. It is shocking at just how small our world has become and I long for the days when commonwealths were not plagued by bad American pop music, even if it meant they were plagued by bad British pop music. Several sailors that have spent more than 20 years apiece sailing in the Pacific described Fiji as their favorite cruising ground and Musket Cove as their favorite anchorage. The reasons provided were the beauty of the islands, the friendliness of the people, the good food, the relatively low costs, the wide range of services, a sense of safety, and the well-developed economy. Of course, Musket Cove does cater to a specific kind of sailor and it stands to reason that the people that are here are the ones that tend to enjoy it the most. The most common topic of conversation was that this year has recently been deemed to be an El Nino year. From what I understand, this is due to the temperature of the water being higher than usual and the fact that this is an El Nino year is supposed to result in less trade winds and more typhoons. I’m not sure what that means for me, but I doubt that it is good news. Aside from socializing, the week was spent snorkeling and kayaking. On Thursday, we splurged on a Fijian feast at the resort that promised a pig on a spit. Based on the description of the feast, we expected a cultural dinner along the lines of the traditional meal we experience in Tonga. Instead, we were seated in a posh restaurant near the edge of an infinity pool and dined by candlelight. It felt less like a cultural lesson than a painful date. We were also disappointed that the bovine was no longer suspended over a fire, but was dished out by a chef at the end of a buffet line. The other guests were an odd mixture of families, retirees, honeymooners, and high schoolers. This motley assortment of diners hailed mainly from Australia and New Zealand and these portly Aussies and Kiwis attacked the buffet with gusto. Despite the lack of any cultural authenticity, the meal was excellent and the substantial portions allowed us to stock up on hard-to-come-by vegetables that should ward off scurvy for at least a couple of more weeks. On Saturday, we moved to Luatoka. The 20-mile sail should have been routine, but twice we narrowly avoided unmarked reefs that lay awash directly on our course. Luckily, the sun illuminated the color of the water and we were fortunate to avert disaster. There is probably no good way to sink a boat, but running up on a reef in the middle of otherwise deep water while motor-sailing on a clear, sunny day would have to be one of the more ignominious methods of ending my trip. Along the same lines, I have frequent nightmares about accidentally leaving the valve for the toilet open during one of my excursions ashore, only to come back and find my boat resting on the ocean floor with only the tip of the mast rising above the water as a monument to my stupidity. The punishment for such an oversight would never end and I can picture myself years from now sitting in an interview and being forced to describe how my sailing adventure came to a harsh end because I failed to close the toilet. If the harbor of Musket Cove approached the ideal, then the anchorage near Lautoka is closer to the horrendous. To be fair, this anchorage can hardly be associated with Lautoka since we are over a mile away from the dinghy dock and can barely even see the town. This means a long, wet dinghy ride that only increases the chances that my outboard will fail. Did I mention that both of my oars are broken? Compounding the difficulty associated with the distance from town, the anchorage is deep, requiring an obscene amount of chain that pushes the acceptable limits of a safe scope for anchoring. As if this weren’t enough, we are anchored close to a mangrove swamp – we can already hear the armies of mosquitoes plotting their plan of attack. The blitzkrieg is expected to commence this evening. Finally, the waterfront of Lautoka is dominated by the Lautoka Sugar Mill, which constantly billows thick plumes of smoke that then rain ash down on the boats in the anchorage. The smell of burnt sugar is actually pleasant, but our previously clean decks are now stained black and the next time that we collect water from the decks, our drinking water will be tainted with sugar. Aside from the folly of brushing our teeth with sugar water, every time we hydrate we will embark on an unrelenting series of sugar highs to be quickly followed by the inevitable energy crash. On the upside, we are anchored next to a boat that, at first glance, appeared to be full of some Greenpeace tree huggers. On closer inspection, we learned that these sailors are advocates of a different initiative. Hailing from Hawaii, their red metal boat is adorned with green plaques hanging on the lifelines that contain such sweeping statements as “Stop overpopulation with birth control: Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” “Be a zombie: consume, be silent, reproduce, die,” and “There is enough for everyones need but not enough for anyones greed: Do not tolerate greed or corruption.” Curiosity impels me to investigate whether these cruisers are on some sort of crusade (as sort of anti-missionaries) or if they are just the type of people that believe in putting bumper stickers on any free space. Personally, I think the ostentatious display of your views is neat in an overbearing, annoying sort of way. Perhaps I will use the blank tablet that is my hull to share my own controversial views on global issues. I could hide my blisters behind some bold statement that illustrates my pretty much firm opposition to land mines, child abuse, and war. After sharing my unsolicited views of things that I am against on the port side, I could provide a balanced message by tacking over and informing the viewer of my advocacy of love and kindness on my starboard hull. With such a powerful message, this journey could transform from one of self-improvement to one that would change the world, albeit very, very slowly. Lautoka is to Suva as Chicago is to New York. Instead of skyscrapers, the skyline of this Windy City is composed of smokestacks towering over crumbling low-rise concrete buildings. The avenues are wide and lined with palm trees, but the town appears to have stopped developing in the 1950’s. I’m guessing that this is when the price of sugar plummeted and the prosperous Sugar City’s star suddenly dimmed. The stores alternate between general electrical supplies and cheap clothing boutiques with the occasional local fast food restaurant or grocery store providing the smallest hint of activity in the otherwise bleak downtown. Unlike the American Second City, Lautoka does not have a large Polish population, much to Anna’s chagrin. The closest that Lautoka comes to a version of little Warsaw is the dancing monkey playing polka on an accordion at one of the street corners. (Disclosure: there is no monkey playing an accordion, but there should be.) Our stay in Lautoka is expected to be brief. We plan to refuel, provision, and to clear out so that we can head for Vanuatu as soon as the weather looks promising. It is time to move on.

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