Encounter with Bureaucrats, Gales, and Sharks

In retrospect, my comparison between Lautoka and Chicago in my last journal entry was misguided. They are completely different. I like Chicago. A better comparison would be to New Jersey; although the island of Viti Levu is not shaped like an outstretched arm, I still consider Lautoka to be the armpit of Fiji. As my initial impression suggested, Lautoka is a hole. There is little to recommend this dilapidated town and I am still trying to figure out why it is the only port of entry in the western part of Fiji. It isn’t close to the open ocean – it is 25 miles through unmarked reefs to get to the sea. The anchorage is terrible. There are no marine services and I literally mean none. Even in the smallest ports, it is usually possible to refuel either at a wharf or with gerry cans at a dinghy dock. Not in Lautoka. Instead, we had to trudge about a mile to a regular gas station in town to fill up our gerry cans, then take a taxi back to the wharf. The taxi wasn’t even able to get us that close to the dinghy dock, so I had to carry two full 20-gallon cans the last couple hundred yards. Certainly, this was not a place that I would miss and we were eager to head for bluer pastures. However, our designs for a smooth exit were thwarted by the customs official when we attempted to check out. I was informed that I was supposed to have checked out of Suva and then checked into Lautoka when I arrived. This was clearly my mistake, although I wish that someone had told me about this since most countries require only an initial check-in when arriving and a check-out when departing. Besides, I thought that this was why we got a cruising permit – so that we could move freely within Fiji. Further, it isn’t like we even changed islands; Suva and Lautoka are on the same island. Lastly, I was trying to leave Fiji, so what do they care anyway? In any case, the gentleman in Lautoka insisted that I must return to Suva, clear out there, and then clear both in and out of Lautoka. This would mean a 5-hour bus ride to Suva. I suggested that he use the phone since a 30 second call could confirm that I had been in one place and that now I was in a different place, but he did not appreciate this suggestion. So, we rushed to catch a cross-island bus and endured the 5-hour ride along the south coast of Viti Levu. The route was scenic with breathtaking views of the Coral Coast, but we spent most of the ride nervously checking our watches and calculating whether we would arrive before the Customs office closed. A night stranded in Suva was not an attractive proposition, but would have been about right to complete our string of frustrations in Fiji. Luckily, we arrived in Suva at 4:00 pm and the office was still open. The paperwork took all of five minutes to complete and then we scrambled around town to get a couple of iced coffees and spicy curries to go before catching the last bus back to Lautoka at 5:15 pm. This bus took a different route along the northern coast of Viti Levu and the majority of the six hour trip was spent hurtling through pitch dark words on rugged dirt roads. At one point, I’m not sure if we were even on a road. It was like the Blair Witch Project only with a bunch of coughing Fijians. We arrived back at the boat around midnight and were welcomed by our pet mosquitoes who buzzed frantically around the cabin to show how happy they were that we were home. On Wednesday, we finally cleared out of Fiji. As expected, I simply completed the same seven pages of repetitive information that I had provided the previous day in Suva, only twice – once to check in to Lautoka and once to check out. This raises the question of why the Lautoka office could not have just faxed a copy of the form to Suva, thus saving us 11 hours on the bus (we keep the original copies anyway and a faxed copy must be at least as good as a carbon copy). While I was clearing out, the crew from another boat was enduring the same difficulties that we had experienced and was preparing to hop on bus to Suva for their own preposterous epic journey. Once again, I suggested to the officials in the Lautoka office that the two offices could communicate the necessary information using either the computer taking up space on their desk or the fax machine decorating the corner, but again my advice was unappreciated. What is so appalling about the inefficiency is not the lack of a process. The fact that they are so rigid in following a process indicates both that there is a well-defined process and that someone is aware of the entire process, but that they were either too dumb or too lazy to streamline it. If ever there was a place that could benefit from Six Sigma methodology, this is the place. Fiji has been one of the more interesting places that I have visited. I would rank it just ahead of Tonga, but I’m not sure that it deserves to share the same ocean with French Polynesia. I would give the people an A- (everyone smiles and is quick with a greeting, but no one is really very helpful), the culture a solid B (fascinating, but not very accessible for sailors), the natural beauty a C+ (pretty and diverse, but lots of reefs and difficult sailing), the pollution a D (disgusting water, filthy air, and dirty streets), and the government bureaucracy an F (see above). The roughly 300 islands that make up Fiji are among the most beautiful that I have visited, although the country is swarming with tourists and seems to have cast its lot with resorts. Despite the frustrations that we encountered in the country, I hope someday to return and perhaps next time I will be able to visit some of the more remote islands to better experience this wonderful culture. On Wednesday morning, we hauled anchor and departed Lautoka in ideal conditions. Cruising down the west coast of Viti Levu, we enjoyed fair winds, calm seas, and clear skies. It didn’t last. As soon as we sped through the Navula Passage, we were no longer protected from wind and waves by the mainland. Instead, the wind strengthened and the seas grew and grew and grew. Suddenly, the wind jumped from 25-30 knots to 35-40 knots and our boat was badly overpowered. Not only was the rail submerged in the water, but our cabin windows were in the water. We quickly dropped the jib and reefed the main, but not before we lost one of the battens, a solid piece of plastic sewn into the mainsail that helps improve the sail shape. Luckily, the damage of the tempest was minimal and, after an hour of enduring the gale, the winds dropped back to the slightly-less-uncomfortable 25-30 knots range. Flying a double reefed main and the staysail, we rocketed westward. Just as we had harnessed in and braced ourselves for the vicissitudes of the wild ride, we noticed that the fishing line had become taut. In our wake, we saw a large fish, which we identified as a mahi mahi thrashing around. In strong winds and rough seas, neither of us was overly enthused about the prospect of filleting or cooking a fish and we would not have been entirely disappointed if the fish got the better of this battle. Repeatedly, as we climbed to the crest of a wave, the dorado would see an opportunity and would dive downward in the water. Seconds later, as we came surfing down the backside of the wave, the fish would be launched out of the wave, executing what old timey acrobats would recognize as a double somersault with a Welsh waggle before flopping down with a slapping sound that was audible in the cockpit 100 feet away. This cruel and unusual torture continued for three hours, until just before nightfall when we decide to try to haul the beaten, battered, and fully tenderized fish aboard. Luckily, the dorado was dead since there is no way that we could have landed the fish otherwise. Even with the lifeless corpse providing little resistance, it took a while to get the fish to fit in the net and then a burst of strength to hoist it into the cockpit. (In the process, I managed to break the tip off of one of the wind generator blades with the landing net. I had previously fixed the wind generator in Panama so that it produced the whirring sound of a mildly annoying fan. Now, it once again sounds like a Vietnam-era helicopter is landing on our stern whenever there is a strong breeze.) The dorado measured in at 3 feet, 11 inches. Despite the violent pitching and rolling of the boat, we managed to fillet the mahi mahi on the cockpit floor and then mix the copious amount of fish with vegetables and coconut crème in the pressure cooker. This provided the meals for several days and we were happy not to have to worry about cooking for a couple of days. We completed the trip from Lautoka, Fiji to Port Vila, Vanuatu in four days. Thanks to the consistently strong winds, we averaged 140 miles a day. Although not a blistering pace, compared to our usual sluggish progress across the Pacific, this felt like a fast run. The only other incident worthy of mention that occurred during the trip again dealt with a fish. This time, we hooked a large barracuda just as we were nearing Port Vila. Due to the strength and fight of the fish, I couldn’t manage to haul in the handline to set the fish free. (I normally release barracuda since they are known to eat smaller reef fish and, as a result, often carry ciguatera. Plus, they have a lot of teeth and bite.) Not wanting to drag a fish on a long trolling line through the harbor, I was considering my options when the problem was resolved for me. Appearing out of nowhere, a black fin circled the frantic barracuda, took a quick bite, circled again, and then attacked. After several seconds of churning water and tails piercing the surface as the fish appeared to roll, the fight was over and the shark quickly departed the victor. The action took place not 60 feet from the boat and it felt like a scene from a shark documentary. The speed with which it all happened was shocking. Surprisingly, I did not lose my lure, although the solid metal head of the faux squid has a couple of grooves that presumably came from the teeth of one of the combatants. Sharks are said to be common in Vanuatu since they prefer the black sand and it is recommended that cruisers ask locals whether it is safe to swim before plunging in. I understand that shark attacks are rare and normally do not even consider the threat before swimming, but after witnessing the fury of the attack on a fish about the same size as my leg, even with permission I might be a little hesitant to test the waters here. Since we arrived on Sunday, we are confined to the boat in the quarantine anchorage until customs and immigration can come aboard to clear us in on Monday. The week ahead holds a mix of boat chores and sightseeing in Port Vila. After a busy week, we hope the upcoming week involves less bureaucracy, more relaxation, and just as much entertainment as the past week.

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