On the morning of our 4th day at sea the satphone started ringing. This is NEVER a good thing on Jolifou, usually heralding bad news. The last time the phone rang it was news of the death of my beloved brother Tim. This time it was Dad.
We had delayed our departure for Fiji to await the result of my Dad having a cardio-version treatment as his heart had gone into arrhythmia. We had all been mightily relieved when it went well and his heart returned to normal rhythm. He was on the mend and in high spirits when I had a chat with him on the phone before we left.
The straight line to get to Fiji from Australia is usually a very bad trip because you encounter strong east/south East trade winds against you. So the game is to look for a window that will let you get as east as possible before you hit the trade winds. The length of the trip is also much longer than one can expect a long term forecast to be accurate, so all you can do is leave when it looks good and hope for the best later.
Weather windows for passage planning come in different guises. For this trip it took the form of a strong low pressure system that was moving southwards down the Australian east coast from Queensland and forecast to continue southward. We chose to leave Newcastle when the low was nearly on the same latitude as us. We would be getting the southerly breeze on its western side and later we would get the westerly winds on its northern side. That was the plan anyway.
Leaving on the morning of Tuesday June 20th, we soon realised one of the negatives about this strategy. Although we were sailing in Southerly wind, the strong easterly winds on the south side of the low had picked up a swell from the east, which we were sailing straight into, making for very rough conditions. We spent the first two days with little sleep, feeling seasick and not eating much. The biltong and crunchies that our mothers had left as parting gifts were a blessing as they formed our diet during this time.
Late afternoon on the second day with the wind blowing a bit stronger around 30 knots, we had a discussion about the situation and we decided to turn downwind more to try to make it more comfortable. Giving up on the goal to stay South of Lord Howe Island, we bore away about 20 degrees and the boat was immediately much more comfortable. By the next morning we were both feeling much better.
My YIT log entry at 9PM on the night of Thursday June 22: “Roaring along under a moonless starry sky. 2nd reef and staysail at about 110 TWA. Picked up some great favorable current east of Lord Howe which helped progress a lot too. Life is good on the Jolifou as we are finding our sea legs and settling into passage rhythm.”
Well this good mood didn’t last too long as we received the news of my Dad’s passing the next morning. Evidently his heart had just stopped whilst he was sleeping in bed at home. We were numbed and devastated with grief. After the initial shock we needed to make a decision whether to turn around and head back to Australia. The problem was we were now 3 days out and the wind between us and Australia would be strong south westerlies on the northern side of the east coast low. It would be a very difficult and slow trip and very hard on the boat and crew. We decided to continue towards Fiji and fly back from there, there was nothing we could do for him now and we would make it back before a planned memorial service.
As if showing a mark of respect, or influenced by Dad’s spirit the ocean became much friendlier, the sea state and wind was much more moderate during the middle part of the trip, allowing us time to grieve and reflect and sleep. We are not religious people but we do allow a little spiritual belief into our lives and when an albatross appeared and accompanied us for a few days it made us feel better believing it was the spirit of Dad.
As the South Pacific high pressure system moved over us and in trying to get to Fiji faster (to return home for the family) we started to use the motor for long stretches and I was starting to get a bit concerned about running out of diesel. We changed strategy to only use the motor when it was un-comfortable to sail or sails flopping around too much.
We also had many days of really nice conditions with smooth seas and broad reaching in moderate wind strength and the loose luff furling gennaker saw a lot of good use. This and frequent motoring meant we had plenty of sleep and were it not for the sadness of my Dad’s passing we would have been thoroughly enjoying the passage.
On one occasion we spotted a large yellow plastic box in the water and decided to investigate. It looked like the lid of a liferaft or something, possibly blown off a ship. Some small fish were hiding under it and large Mahi Mahi lurking beneath.
Our final approach to Fiji saw the wind strengthening and backing into the south east as expected. We were able to cash in our easting gained previously to improve the wind angle as much as possible but it was still quite rough going, not helped by the contrary current. With reefed main and staysail or half-furled genoa we were comfortable enough and making good speed through the water at a blast reaching angle.
On a trip where we had seen no wildlife apart from birds and flying fish, we were treated to two pilot whales surfing our wake and bow wave for a couple of hours, spectacular animals. We thought of them as the spirits of Tim and Dad and it brought joy back into our hearts.
We saw the high Kandavu Island some 50 miles out and as we got closer to Fiji the seas flattened more and our final approach was excellent reaching in quite flat water.
We arrived at the outer reef near Navalu passage just before first light on Saturday 1st July and decided to rather enter at Cloudbreak so I could check out the surf.
It was fantastic to pass by my favourite surf breaks of Cloubreak, Restaurants and Namotu Island on our way in, despite the waves being a bit ordinary and crowded.
Then is was a pleasant sail in flat water to the clearing in port of Lautoka on the main island.