Cruising in Fiji – Part One

Our time in Fiji was to be divided into two parts, first, the four weeks or so after our arrival in Savusavu, before we flew home for the summer, and, second, the several months after we returned in mid September, before we departed for New Caledonia and Australia. This blog covers our initial visit.

Duet in Savusavu

Upon arrival in Savusavu, our plans immediately underwent a change, because Ron got the local Savusavu flu bug. We’ve found that we are more susceptible to microbes in other countries, and our US flu shot obviously didn’t work here. He got pretty sick, 4-5 days of temps to 102F and at least 10 days of coughing after that. Nancy, fortunately, only got the cough and Sean didn’t get anything, since he was still recovering from whatever he caught on the plane flight to Bora Bora.

The check-in process in Fiji is rather drawn out, especially as we were out of the reach of our agent. She was able, however, to prevent a bit of a mess with Customs when we first arrived, thank goodness. Fijian Customs requires you to send your 9 page form at least several days in advance of your arrival. Nancy had sent ours to our agent at least a month in advance and she had forwarded them to Savusavu. So far, so good.

When we arrived, however, said form was nowhere to be found, or at least nowhere that our local Customs official was looking for it. Significant fines were mentioned, but we were able to get our agent on the phone and she got it straightened out. After that, it was relatively smooth sailing.

There are four departments which require forms and information from boats arriving in Fiji. First, the Health department. The Health Inspector boards the boat alone to confirm there is no communicable disease aboard, before the other three departments make an appearance. This seems like a high risk job to us, but the service was free, unlike several other departments.  Our Health Inspector was a nice guy, he looked us over, walked around the exterior of the boat and then issued our “Pratique” which is our health clearance, with the minimum of fanfare.

Once he gave Duet the thumbs up, on came Customs (with the immediate missing paperwork problem), BioSecurity and Immigration. All three officials were uniformed, friendly and polite. They ignored all our typed paperwork (except for Health who took it) and completed everything again, which gave them a chance to all ask Ron questions at once while stamping everything they put under his nose to sign. During this they also spoke rapid Fijian to one another, which made for complex communications.

The entire process took about an hour, and we were cleared in. But we weren’t done, far from it. Two departments required that a fee be paid, but the officials on the boat aren’t allowed to collect it. Fortunately, this didn’t require Ron as Captain, it just required cash. So Nancy and Sean went out the next day, got lost several times, and finally managed, after about three hours, to find the appropriate buildings and pay the fees. When we leave the country, we need to produce the reciepts for these payments, as apparently some boats try to dodge paying up.

Copra Shed Marina from Duet’s slip

The Savusavu Yacht Club

Before Sean left, a few days later, Ron staggered down the street to Immigration to sign him off the boat, thereby removing him from our crew list. This means that Fiji Immigration won’t be looking for him when we check out in a few months. Nancy also went to Customs about a week later to get our local cruising permit, which is not issued by Customs until all the paperwork is processed.

In the meantime, Nancy stocked up on local fruits and veg, we got caught up on email and news (Fiji has very cheap good local internet access), Nancy and Sean saw a few local sights and tested the local milkshakes, while Ron recovered from his brush with the local pneumonia. The weather really went to pot, as expected. It rained, it blew and conditions were not amenable to Duet going anywhere, even if her Captain was feeling up to it.

We had some local dock excitement when a boat from NZ checked in, was searched and found to be carrying several thousand rounds of ammunition. No guns, but lots of bullets. Armed police in flak jackets appeared (an unusual sight here, no police are armed), the ship’s master was imprisoned in the local jail, that section of the dock was taped off with yellow police crime scene tape, and rumors flew. In the end, from what we heard about three months later in Port Denarau, the captain got out of prison pretty quickly and we saw the boat anchored at Musket Cove in October.

Fiji takes guns and drugs very, very seriously (as do all the other countries we’ve visited) and, in our time there, caught at least one other vessel smuggling in large quantities of cocaine. That case didn’t go well, the captain tried to commit suicide when discovered (he was unsuccessful and, last we heard in October, still in jail) and the boat was impounded.

We never cease to be amazed by the number of people who seem to think either the rules don’t apply to them (such as the boat on the round the world ARC rally which refused to check in as required, and, consequently, was not allowed to check out until after Customs had searched it for two days) or that, because Fiji is a little far from anywhere, it’s Customs, Police or other officials are asleep at the wheel.

We had one other incident in Savusavu that affected Duet more closely than the ammo uproar. As a result of the weather, several boats had tied up on the end of our dock. They were aluminum dive boats, with a lot of windage. Duet is also a heavy boat, and was taking up an entire double slip, due to her rather substantial girth. The dock itself was floating, sort of, in that it was a series of wooden planks screwed to some floating supports, which were, in turn, chained or tied to the bottom or the shore.

Anyway, on Sunday morning about a week after Sean left and Ron was slowly coming back to life, Nancy happened to look out the aft door and noticed that Duet was no long perpendicular to the land. Nor was the dock. It had cracked in half just prior to Duet’s slip, and her end of the dock, with Duet, the two dive boats and a couple of small sailboats, was slowly turning out into the bay in front of Savusavu.

Duet and one of the dive boats

The broken dock

This definitely wasn’t good. It could even possibly qualify as bad. One marina guy arrived pretty quickly, followed by the waitress from the yacht club and the lady who did the laundry. With Nancy and Ron, that gave us a team of 5 and a few lines to fix the problem. The dock guy got a line on the end of the dock, the team pulled on it and he snugged it around a palm tree. That helped, but not much. With the wind blowing at about 25 knots and Duet’s 40 plus tons, not to mention the other boats, pulling on it, the tree was looked a bit outgunned. Ron dug out some of our longer dock lines and we started putting backup lines on other trees.

In about an hour the marina owner and several other folks appeared. Gradually a series of lines at appropriate angles were tightened up and order was generally restored. We ran a shot of our sea anchor line from Duet’s samson post out to the commercial buoy in the middle of the channel to windward, to take some of the strain off the dock. The marina owner evicted both dive boats, which, it turned out, were supposed to be on buoys in the first place. He then restored the underwater line from the far end of the dock to the buoy upwind of it, somehow it had become mysteriously detached when the dive boats arrived.

More help

Tightening things up

Tied off to the big buoy

Missing dock line to windward restored

Then the owner then did an inspection of the rest of the dock. The finger piers were a little shaky, particularly one with a 60 foot sailboat from Marina Del Ray, CA, attached to it. They ran a bow line out to share the commercial buoy with Duet, to take the strain off that. The next morning a dock repair man appeared and added more chains underwater and nailed a couple of planks over the hole. We gather, from folks we met several months later, that the dock is still a little shaky but remains a coherent whole.

Sorting out a bow line to the buoy for our neighbor

Soon after this, the weather moderated, Duet unwound herself from the commercial buoy, we recovered our dock lines from their roles as dock tethers and we set off for Port Denarau. The weather hadn’t moderated much, honestly, we saw winds in the mid 30s all way across the pass to the northern end of Vitu Levu, which is the main large island of Fiji. Duet chugged happily along, with conditions reminiscent of our 11 day trip from Bora Bora, but at least they only lasted about 10 hours this time.

We had one of our rare anchor incidents on this part of the trip. Normally our big Rocna hook (all 154 pounds of it) sets with little fanfare, but this time it was obvious that it wasn’t doing it’s usual competent job. Duet was slowly but surely dragging backwards as Nancy throttled up in reverse to test the set. So up came the chain and hook. The culprit was immediately obvious, a large ball of coral was jammed tight into one of the flukes. Several minutes later, after much pushing, pulling and general threatening with the boat hook, the coral returned to it’s natural habitat, and we reset the hook in a slightly different place. All was well thereafter, and we had a quiet night.

The following morning we set off through the Makogai Channel towards Nagani Island. Just north east of Nagani we crossed to the channel behind the reef that surrounds Viti Levu, and began picking our way around to Port Denarau, which was about 85 miles away. The easiest way to reach Port Denarau from Savusavu is to continue up Broad Passage, through the Vatu-I-Ra Channel and along Bligh Water, but the Ra Channel acts as a serious wind funnel. Winds were already in the high 20s early in the morning, which meant they could hit 40 knots in the Ra, so we gave it a pass and started along the rather opaque and poorly marked inside channel towards Nananu-I-Thake Island.

The water in Fiji isn’t as clear as the lagoons of French Polynesia and the charting is quite poor on both C Maps and Navionics. Much of the reef in Fiji is submerged, so the radar doesn’t help, and many of the physical buoys and other markers have been destroyed by the storms that pass through the area.  We relied heavily on Google Earth satellite photos, which had been geo synchronized so that they could be displayed on our PC navigation software. Given that the weather was overcast and raining throughout our three day journey to Port Denarau, using water visibility, other than intermittently, was a nonstarter.

The four pictures below were taken at approximately the same time.  All charts are north up, while the radar is course up.  Hardware in use includes the boat PC, the laptop, the radar and two iPads.  The second iPad (not pictured) was running the SailFiji app, which cannot be used for navigation directly, but provides good waypoints, which we entered on our main PC navigation software.  The SailFiji app also has pictures of anchorages, marinas, etc. which helped orient us.  

Finally, we had paper charts with excellent waypoints and extensive information, which we purchased from Carol Dunlap, who is part of our agent team.  Carol captained a 125 foot mega yacht in Fiji for 20 years and her local knowledge was definitely worth it.

C Maps charts

Navionics charts


Google earth

We traveled slowly and carefully to the anchorage off Nananu-I-Thake the first day. It turned out to be a kite surfers paradise, at least half a dozen kites were in the air as we came around the corner, with more poised to take off. Duet rumbled serenely through them, although one rider did manage to fall off right in front of her.  Ron maneuvered carefully around him, we dropped the hook and spent a pleasant night. It was a beautiful anchorage, we wish we had more time to spend there.

Nananu-I-Thake Anchorage

“We wish we had more time” was the story of our first month in Fiji, between the delays in Savusavu and the need to reach Port Denarau and get Duet settled before we flew home, we didn’t see much. What we saw though, made us want to see more when we returned in September.

Our arrival in Port Denarau was relatively easy, as we arrived early in the day from a nearby anchorage. Our slip neighbor, who came later in the day, fell afoul of the brisk afternoon land breeze and had a rather eventful docking, getting a line tangled in his bow thruster and subsequently losing control of his bow, which then headed straight for Duet. No one was injured and Duet was not harmed, as the captain’s wife, at much risk to herself, fended off their bow pulpit as it slid down Duet’s port side.

Duet’s red kayak is just visible in the right of the picture.Port Denarau is definitely a mega yacht destination.

Once all that excitement was over, we met with our agent Jo, set up various services, including having Duet washed and hiring a diver to change her zincs. Ron had injured his ear diving in Tahiti and so hadn’t changed them. It turned out that our diver had never changed a zinc before, but, as he said when he arrived “No worries, I watched it on YouTube, so it’s all good”. We generally found all our Fijians workers to be like that, willing, friendly, and anxious to learn. Several even came down to see Duet’s dive hookah in use, as they had not seen one before.

Ron and our diver, after the zincs were installed

We’ve gotten pretty good at getting Duet settled to be left, so after a few days we had a little time to go out to dinner and explore Port Denarau on foot. It is a large gated resort with half a dozen hotels, and multiple low rise housing developments. It’s beautifully kept and has many flame trees, some of which were in bloom. It is not, however, as one of our dinner waitresses said “the real Fiji” so we were glad we’d had a chance to see that in Savusavu. Soon enough, our airplane arrived and off we went, back home for Captain Ron to spend some time as Dr. Ron and to catch up with family and friends. We were to return in early September and begin the process of moving Duet to Australia. This will be covered in the next blog.

3 thoughts on “Cruising in Fiji – Part One”

  1. SUBJECT: Re: Cruising in Fiji – Part One

    Hi Nancy and Ron

    Not sure what your plans are but we are no longer in Far North Qld. If you come into southern qld let us know. We’d love to see you. Penny let me know there have been some changes of plans but that’s all I know. Hope all is good.
    Much love Sue and Jon

    Sue McKenney

    > On 15 Nov 2018, at 09:28, wrote:

  2. SUBJECT: Re: Cruising in Fiji – Part One

    Hey – run away docks! – you guys have all the fun! Glad you”re both feeling better after your brush with the local bugs. Agree they are the worst. We”re sitting at Atlantic Yacht Basin waiting for a weather window. We left New York later than we wanted/should have and its been a fight to get this far – and chilly. Ah yes, cruising teaches patience.

    Sue & Larry (not fixing anything for a change!)

    PS – have you tried the ear plug in the nondominant ear trick for sea sickness? I swear it helps – not a cure all, but it seems to counteract some of my side effects when I use the patch and sometimes I can skip the patch altogether.

    —–Original Message—–
    To: sstomback
    Sent: Wed, Nov 14, 2018 6:28 pm
    Subject: Cruising in Fiji – Part One

  3. SUBJECT: Re: Cruising in Fiji – Part One

    Once again, your travels are soooo thrilling. You both are an amazing couple filled with experience and knowledge. In addition, I adore, Nancy, how you write. All your real life tales feel filled with excitement. Thank you so much for including me. I am able to escape the real world and move, superficially, in your ocean experiences. Oh, welcome home to Doctor Don and Nancy. Your world needs you both ! Adele

    > On Nov 14, 2018, at 3:28 PM, wrote:

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