By Captain Adrian Faulkner
“Take a look at this!” Jak was stabbing a headline in the Fiji Times: “YACHT CREW RESCUED”. A yacht had been wrecked on a reef near The Exploring Islands in the Lau Group. A ship had rescued five castaways and was returning to Suva with them. I thought of the horrors on that yacht. Quiet, gentle sailing. Starry night. CRASH! Violence, fear, screams, waves.
But Jak wasn’t into tragedy. He was grinning, tapping the last sentence, listing the crew of the yacht: it ended “… and two young American women.”“Maybe they’ll be looking for another yacht to sail on?” Now that was of real interest to two young guys!
I’d just sailed into Suva two months earlier, from Nelson, New Zealand, on my first cruising voyage. My 36’ yacht HADAR was built of steel, and so was I … or at least I was feeling so: at 29, I was strong, confident and had an irrepressible urge for adventure!
But I was alone: my crew had gone home. I needed help to spot the coral I’d be sailing through, but I also needed company. Two young women sounded just right!
The Team Forms
First Jak Ayres had soon joined me, answering my notice in the Suva Yacht Club. Jak came from Hawaii and we had much in common: both of us were high school teachers, surfers, young, fit, and in our late 20’s. Light and easy-going, his face was framed with short, curly hair, and alive with the wrinkling eyes of easy smiles.
The Royal Suva Yacht Club was a perfect sailors’ base, and it has changed little over the four decades since this story unfolded. The odd lick of paint, but not too many: it is a club to be used and enjoyed, not a flash chapel of image like many other clubs that cling to the “Royal” label. The Suva club’s neighbourhood would not suit the flash crowd, either: just over the road is the prison: watch- towers, barred cells, razor wire and all! Indeed one player in this story would soon spend some time “over the road”, where “bar” has a very different meaning!
A few days later I came back to this haven from the bustling town, to find Jak bubbling with excitement, desperate to tell me, “They came, those chicks. They’re cool, man!”
While I’d been out the two girls off the wrecked yacht had come to the yacht club. They’d seen my “crew wanted” notice, and soon found Jak. Rather exceeding his rights as a newly- signed crew, he’d taken them out to HADAR, where they’d poked around through the cabins with childish delight. They knew how to summarise someone else remotely: what does he eat/read/ listen to? They’d got the wrong boat twice before through neglecting this vital step: they were more careful this time!
Jak bubbled over like a shaken beer, filling me in with details about the visit: mostly what they looked like, ages, body shapes, hair colour – all the things he thought relevant to their suitability as crew for HADAR’s proposed cruise. And later in the day, around sunset time, I met them and formed my own opinions. I tried, vainly, to be more objective, but reached the same conclusions: they would be great to have aboard!
Susie and Jana were close friends. Susie Rose was below average height, with lots of curves in all the right places, long dark hair and a darkish – Mediterranean? – complexion. Her eyes sparkled with mischief, flashing a language of happiness no-one could ignore. Jana Palm was taller, thinner, red-haired, freckled and fair-skinned, with at least as much vibrancy as her friend. Both in their early twenties, they’d been friends for several years: they had that spontaneous ease of intimacy that had them often speaking as one – with two voices, finishing each other’s sentences like sisters. It took me half a beer to realise that I wanted them aboard.
Third Time Lucky?
Of course I’d had to ask them about their previous sailing experience,
They found their first skipper in Pango Pango. They’d quickly realised he was a dreamer, but at sea he became a drunkard, too. They were soon standing on the shores of another South Seas port, wondering “what next?”
“Yacht BUNGEE”, anchored off Aggie Grey’s Hotel, soon answered that question. This 43’ fibreglass cutter was calling for crew for the trip to Fiji. She was owned by an Australian woman and skippered by Fred, her American boyfriend. He was a GI, ex-Vietnam: the girls hoped this would be a disciplined ship! No sensible questions were asked about the skills of the skipper or the preparedness of the boat: just “please take us”! Now that was a bad mistake, as they were soon to find out.
Bungee sailed out of Apia with five aboard, full of fun and optimism towards Wallis Island – a small French territory about 300 miles west. Land was soon out of sight on the second day and to find this small island required navigation. The skipper took the beautiful Plath sextant out of its case, posed himself on the stern, adjusted the mirrors, peered at the numbers…and then slammed the sextant back into its case, muttering darkly about nothing working properly “on this shit boat”. They sailed through the night into another day, but the dawn brought more than daylight: it dawned on Susie and her friend that their skipper didn’t know how to navigate. They were lost! His growing anger spread over the whole boat.
Fred gave up trying to find Wallis and changed course towards Suva, about 450 miles south west. But while it was unforgivable getting lost trying to find Wallis Island, it was safe enough: there was nothing else to hit out there. But sailing towards Suva from the north east without very good navigation is like Russian roulette. Across most of the sea are strings of coral reefs that are invisible from more than three miles off by day, or a hundred yards off by night. Fred hadn’t a clue of his true position. He kept the yacht sailing on towards this line of foaming danger.
It was on his watch, at about 0300 – he was asleep, with the yacht on self-steering – that they hit the reef. The horror of those first, dark hours of shaking and grinding, each new wave lurching the boat and drenching her crew. They clung to the cockpit, feebly joking, hoping – and waiting for daylight. As dawn came the fear level subsided a little, but the danger they were in was clearer. The yacht had washed onto the windward side of a reef, and was pressed hard on the coral by wind and wave. There was no way the boat could be saved. It was already starting to take water through the crushed fibre- glass hull.
Some small good news, though, came with dawn: there were three small islets just a mile or two downwind. Fred and his partner – a yacht-owner the day before, now a wreck-owner – took off in the dinghy, laden with salvaged gear and stores, towards these islands. “She’s yours if you can get her off”, Fred snarled as they left: his moods swung from grim to violent. Their only refuge should the hull break apart was the life-raft, inflated and tied alongside.
It was near sunset that Fred, now “Crazy Fred” to his young crew, came back in the dinghy to collect more gear, and to take them off the wreck. A base had been set up above a beach on the central island, and with a fire, some food and plenty of coconuts in the palms above, they were all safe for the moment. Safe from the sea, but maybe not from the skipper.
Amongst the gear were several weapons, for Fred was a special kind of crazy: he was gun-crazy. I was later to find ammunition of several types washing around the wreck, like on the floor of a flooded armoury. I could easily believe the girls when they told how he would blaze away at coconuts in the palms and at other times, order his young crew to do his bidding, stressing his orders with a pistol in his hand.
The girls were elated the next day when the ship hove into view, inside the lagoon, to take them to Suva. The girls were welcomed into the family of one of the ship’s crew. The wreck’s owner was found a hotel. The “skipper” (the wrecker) was taken to a different “hotel”: as we talked over our cold beers he was just over the road in the Suva Prison, charged with illegally importing firearms, which he’d hidden in gear he brought off the island!
To my astonishment Susie and Jana were keen to join me on Hadar. I just couldn’t understand how they could do it again, and asked how and why? “Third time lucky!” they laughed, glowing with simple enthusiasm for the adventures of young life!
Making a Plan
Even before Jak came along I’d decided to sail to Fiji’s Lau Group. I’d found the Yasawas dull. Lau would be different. Dozens of very different islands are scattered across the sea, mostly with very deep, clear seas between them. Poring over my British Admiralty Pilot Book and my charts, I could see that at least half of the Lau islands had good anchorages where we could be safe and happy, no matter which wind blew. As any sailor knows, the two most important things for his happiness are a safe anchorage, and a warm wahine: both were now looking possible on this Lau cruise!
The girls were keen to go back to the scene of their near-demise, and I was keen to see it too. Jak was on for anything, and this voyage fitted perfectly with his passion for marine biology. Cruising the Lau required a special permit: it had long had a special status as a pole of political power. A consequence of that was that tourism was not encouraged, and visits were strictly controlled. With a recent science degree, I soon concocted a plan for “research” in Lau that would benefit Fiji: the permit was granted.
The other challenge with sailing to the Lau was that getting there normally required sailing straight into the trade winds. But I’d noticed that this became easier every week or two when fronts came through: the winds tended to back around the compass over two days. Our plan was to wait for a front, and then sail to southern Lau (Matuku and Fulanga). Later we’d ride on the trade winds, north to Vanua Mbalavu (Vanua Balavu – evocatively called on the early charts “The Exploring Islands”). We’d base there to explore the nearby reefs where wrecked Bungee lay, and then come back to Suva across the Koro Sea.
Suva also does the best overcast sky I know: vast, roiling black clouds queue over the mountains, then roll down over jagged peaks, pushing sheets of grey aside and dumping rain on the glistening brown flesh below. Most people dart from shelter to shelter, giggling, laughing and shouting in the warm rain.
This weather often signals that the winds are changing. One dawn soon after the girls joined Hadar brought that signal. With a rising northerly we soon had full sail set for Matuku, 100 miles south east. Four bright young souls aboard a fine cruising boat, a skipper with just enough skills to keep them safe, and an adventure ahead – it does not get better than this!
The black skies cling tightly to the main island, like the wiry hair on a Fijian’s head. Out at sea it clears and by nightfall it was all stars, with a young moon setting. Rushing on through the night, across seas clear of dangers, DR (dead-reckoning – navigation by compass, log and the clock) was the technique of choice.
Hadar, like most cruisers of that time, had no electronics. GPS didn’t yet exist. For those who’ve known navigation with sextant or by accurate DR, there is real satisfaction in practicing those skills. At that time autopilots were very rare on cruising boats, and Hadar, like most cruisers of that era, relied on self-steering, powered by wind and water.
By dawn our chosen island was clear ahead, still 15 miles away. With the rising sun the valleys, forests, and clearings all began to fill out the picture of paradise unknown. Soon stark white beaches, contrasted against dark green forests, underlined the picture. It is pure magic watching a new land unfold with the day.
But there, as the chart promised, was a clear and wide passage, the dark-blue of deep water guiding us through the reefs of the western shore. A wide pass leads right on into the heart of this mountainous island – into the crater, in fact, of what is a great volcano. Matuku’s harbour is wonderful both for its shelter and for its breathtaking beauty. We sailed on in, eyes full of wonder.
We anchored off the village of Lomati, in the heart of the crater. Muddy shores, mangroves giving way to coconuts and then jungle, with small garden clearings on the slopes rising up to steep basalt cliffs on the skyline. The village was a small affair, evident more by gentle smoke and domestic noises (children, dogs, roosters, axes) than by any structures.
The waterfront was lined with children singing hymns and chanting, “Come to the billage! Come to the billage!”. We did as we were bidden.
The houses were small, simple and often dilapidated, set along each side of a wide grass street that leads up from the landing towards the hills. There were perhaps twenty houses in total, and a church/hall. The population was below 100. The chief’s house was no different from its neighbours. We were warmly welcomed in, shaking hands, giving our names and origins and our gift of kava.
We stayed three nights in that cradle of beauty. The nights were so dark. Not a light below the black mountain’s sawtooth ridge, a blaze of stars above. Deep silence reigned till dawn, then came a flurry of the noises of awakening life, calming slowly into the quiet, routine sounds of daily life. Aboard there are routines, too. There’s bread to bake, and meals to prepare; there’s cleaning; sometimes a repair to do, or something to make. Outside, there’s the people to greet and meet, the land to explore on foot, the shores by dinghy – or on the bamboo raft Jana borrowed from the village and poled around the mangroves.
Susie and I were getting on very well, though she was always saying “Lighten up!” After her two previous skippers I felt she might appreciate me being serious!
The girls were great company. Aboard they were often busy in the galley, playing with ideas that turned into delicious meals. Ashore, they were soon involved with village life, with children playing, and with the women, learning village skills – like grating coconut to produce coconut cream (lolo), or weaving mats of pandanus leaves. Friends they brought from the shore were welcomed aboard, where they gazed at us like exhibits from another planet – the world of palangis (valagis – visitors). And then, one day, as sailors must, we left Matuku and sailed on.
We left one afternoon, with the trade winds in the south – on the beam – for the hundred miles across to the next island. Another charmed passage through the night, another silhouette in the sunrise, though this one is nowhere near so dramatic. Fulanga (Vulaga, or Fulaga) is a doughnut shaped rim of raised coral 260 feet high on the western side, lower on the northern and eastern sides. And that’s where the pass is – our entry into what was going to be one of the loveliest places I’ve ever seen on the sea.
The pass is only 60 yards wide, a deep channel running from the ocean, straight through the reef into the lagoon. Up the mast at the spreaders I could see the channel clearly, but there were strong pressure waves – rapids! – showing the tide running out, probably at about three knots. It was not the best time to enter, but I’d breasted six-knot tidal flows before. I knew the boat could handle this – but could I? I lined up the boat, ruled my nerves into submission, and fired Hadar into the slot at full power. Slowly, slowly, we were making headway. The big danger in this situation is that being thrown off the straight course can very quickly send the boat onto the coral at full speed: it’s only 30 yards from the centre line to the side – about 10 seconds at six knots. You must be totally attentive on the helm, fighting every eddy, making corrections every moment to stay on track.
As we came through the worst pressure waves, and into the lagoon I could relax and begin to enjoy this astonishing, vast lagoon of azure water, sprinkled with scores of small islands – some mere rocks, others larger and jungle-covered.
It was all so wonderful, but far too much to take in at once. I shouted, “let’s do that again!” Throwing the wheel over, we shot out through the pass again, with the current this time, down the rapid at nine knots, out to sea, laughing with exhilaration we came in again, a little more relaxed this time, better able to watch the magic scene unfold.
The lagoon is about 10 miles wide, and five across, though it is so cluttered with islands and islets that the full size is not clear at first. All the land, islets and rocks are made of old, upraised coral which is eroded by the sea into very sharp, hard surfaces that are dangerous to walk over. Most islands have the rock undercut by the sea, and the smaller ones are like mushrooms sprouting from the sea. Some would have only a few square yards of vegetation atop: bushes, stunted trees, even coconut palms, clinging to their hard, dry surface.
The lagoon has one village, Naivindamu, on its western shore (inside the rim), while there are two more villages invisible on the outside of the rim, facing the ocean on the southern shore.
Five days passed easily. We spent our days walking the beaches, snorkeling the shallows and watching the last of the sailing proa flitting across the lagoon like graceful butterflies. These are small cousins of the traditional Pacific drua – dug-out canoes built up with planks sewn on with sennit (coconut fibre) and balanced with an outrigger that always stays to windward. The sail is a “crab- claw” form, with two spars meeting at the deck near the bow. When they tack the spars must be taken to the other end, the rudder is also swapped: the bow becomes the stern, the stern the bow, and off they go on the other tack. Here they were trolling the lagoon, or moving across to work gardens on smaller islands. Sails were largely made of old synthetic sacking or plastic roofing material, a patchwork of dull white, orange and vivid blue.
Ashore we met a man collecting mud crabs among the mangroves. He gave us some – large, fearsome beasts whose claws thankfully he’d tied with vines – to take for our dinner. The next day he came back and we had to admit we’d had trouble eating them: it is so hard getting the flesh out of all the crevices, and it all seemed too much hard work. He laughed gently, as a father would at a child who cannot master a normal skill, “no problem, wife can do”. He came back later, calling from the beach, bearing a bowl of beautifully prepared coconut crab.
For the record – so we could say we’d stayed at an uninhabited island – we left Fulanga and sailed north 15 miles to the Yangasa Cluster, a group of four jungle-covered, rocky islets on an intimate lagoon. This place was as pure as the world can be, floating at the edge of the world on crystal azure water over coral sands. It was certainly worth the effort!
A couple of days later, we were off on another night sail amongst islands and reefs, 100 miles northwards to Vanua Mbalavu (Vanua Balavu). This passage needed more serious navigation. It was just another wonderful challenge and about noon the next day I brought the yacht safely in through Nggilanngila Pass, and down to the Bay of Islands.
Vanua Balavu & Bungee’s Grave
The Yacht Bungee was wrecked on a reef just seven miles north of the main entrance to Vanua Mbalavu. We were all keen to get out to see what was left of her. We motored gingerly across the lagoon to the windward shore where the wreck lay, clearly visible. I anchored nearby.
The yacht was lying on her starboard side, with much of the hull visible at low tide. We dinghied across, with masks, snorkels and fins. The debris- field spread a hundred yards down-current towards the lagoon. Knickers, clothes, cassette tapes, shoes, bags. Books were pulp. Jars and cans without labels. A bottle of wine. This was the private stuff of people, rudely exposed by sudden surprise. It brought strange emotions for Susie and Jana.
Crazy Fred’s ammunition, of several calibers, was washing around the hull. The mast, still standing, was tilted to a crazy angle. Some of the rigging wires were loose, showing it would soon fall. There were countless sharp edges to watch out for. I’d brought a basic tool kit, and salvaged a winch that was later to be part of my next yacht, MANDALA.
The girls cooked a celebration dinner that night aboard Hadar, anchored just off the Kimbombo Islet that had been their home for three nights. Some jars of pickles and the white wine off the wreck featured with great ceremony. Later, they wrote a very poetic note, briefly describing the history of the bottle, adding their names and addresses, and poked the note into the bottle. We sealed the cork with wax and posted the bottle in the sea. Over a year later a letter arrived at Jana’s USA home from someone north of New Guinea who’d found the bottle on his home island. That bottle found life amongst the reefs a lot safer than Bungee did.
We spent another week in Vanua Mbalavu, a vast and wonderful cruising destination in itself. This being soon after the British period, all navigational marks were in good condition, marking the myriad reefs along the paths around the island. We played and danced along the shores and reefs, a tight crew, bonded by all the good things that open minds, souls and bodies can do together as they explore a world of such beauty, yet kept alert by the ever- present danger that’s just one mistake away.
Across the Koro Sea to Suva
Now a month out of touch with fresh stores, our food was getting dull. Fish, onions and rice still taste much the same, no matter what you call it. We’d not seen a shop since Suva and only three yachts (not that they had any more than we did). We decided this chapter was over. It was time to find the markets – and Suva has the best.
The Koro Sea is a lovely place to sail. The sea is thousands of feet deep, with winds any fool can sail on and tall islands that only an idiot like Fred could hit. For the first 100 miles we flew the spinnaker on a very light easterly. Passing one island, a booby landed on the pulpit, only to be frequently buried by the collapsing spinnaker as the wind eased. Sorry for it, I gently reached out and scratched its neck, the bird writhing with pleasure like a pet chicken. I picked it up gingerly – they have serious beaks these birds of the gannet family – and brought it back to the cockpit where the others could stroke it. It spurned morsels of my latest bread, and my aging dried fish, clearly showing its distaste with a long, white squirt. Later, as we passed another island, it grew restless, then flew away – a nautical hitchhiker! The next morning, with two fresh walu aboard – one for us, one to trade – we anchored off a village on the next island to come up, and went ashore to bargain our fish for their vegetables. With little language but very clear intentions there was a lot of laughter from both sides as we mimed our hunger and our needs. We came away with a good basket of eggplants, taro, pawpaws and bananas in exchange for that superb fish they’d find hard to catch from dugout canoes.
And the next day, HADAR was anchored again off the Royal Suva Yacht Club. Jak couldn’t stop grinning. Susie and Jana had found a sailor who was safe to sail with and each got the bonus of a good man to love; and Jak and I had both found these lovely women to share adventures with.
The same team sailed the yacht back to New Zealand in November 1976. Jak and Jana stayed together long after they left the boat and Susie and I lived very happily together in Nelson for the next year until her visa ran out. To my eternal shame and sorrow I lacked the courage to ask her to marry me, and our paths diverged. Now, 38 years later, I am still in touch with both Jana (living in Sydney) and Susie (in California).
It was this cruise that confirmed me as a cruising sailor, the major warp woven with many and varied wefts into the fabric of my wonderful life. Of all the cruises I made over the next 35 years there was no other that got the recipe quite so right: take the right mix of young, perhaps naïve, spirits, flavour with a good dose of optimism, lots of tolerance and flexibility, add a fabulous cruising territory and spice it with young love, and find a good human drama to follow. The result was delicious! Mine was a very happy crew. For them, there was a good boat and a cautious skipper learning his skills carefully – even if he never learned to “lighten up” enough for Susie!