11 September 2010 | south seas
Most of our time in Fiji was spent working on the boat. While here we got the boat hauled out of the water and painted, did some stainless steel welding, replaced bearings on the windlass, took apart and reassembled the windvane, and cut some new batons for the mainsail ect ect. We knew we would have to set sail for Vanuatu soon (over 500 miles to the west) to stay on course and wouldn’t have much time for island exploring but one island in particular sparked interest. We heard tales of a deserted island miles off the west coast of Fiji’s main island where Tom Hanks Castaway was supposedly filmed. After looking over the charts with some salty sailor friends of mine we knew where it was and decided it was to be our last stop on the way out of Fiji waters.
We took the boat up to Latoka, a port city on the west coast, so we could clear out with Fijian customs. We had a new crew member and boat doctor now aboard Bubbles, a french girl named Marion. I had first met her in the Galapagos and we had crossed paths again in the Marqueses, Tahiti and Nui so she was no stranger to the boat. Having a doctor aboard is convenient considering all the ways I seem to injure myself.
After a couple hours of paperwork and saying goodbye to my old crew Diego (hadnt seen him since Bora Bora) who also happened to be in the same port on a different boat, we were ready to head for castaway island. We had attained a copy of the movie and on the way there watched it just to be sure this was the island. We passed several islands as we headed west but none had that distinct peak with the sandy point. There was one island left before the reef pass and open ocean. We replayed the scene where Tom first gets washed up on the island and after a couple double takes from the computer screen to the island up ahead we knew we had found it. This was the one!!
We jumped in the dingy with camera in hand and our own version of wilson (although the make on our volleyball was pro-light). Jim and I took turns filming our own make of the movie while Marion spent some time trying to fade out some tan lines. Jim would film me getting washed up and trying to make fire and I would film him trying to open a coconut (exact same rock Tom used to for his coconut) and finding the cave. We even did a few scenes with wilson but I must say the funnest scene to film was trying to paddle our dingy out past the waves as our friend Tom had attempted and finally suceeded in the movie. At first I would film Jim getting hit by breaking waves as he paddled out but in the process we discovered that with both of us in the dingy paddling we could catch a wave like a surfer would with a board. We spent the rest of our time on the island perfecting our new sport – ‘dingy surfing’ catching wave after wave until finally it was time to make a move to get out of the reef pass with daylight. We looked back at the island just as our boy Tom did when he finally left on his raft and even though we weren’t there for four years and a had a much more seaworthy vessel I’m sure we felt similar emotions as we set off for the open ocean.
The weather files had showed heavy winds out of the southeast but we only found light 10 knot winds out of the northwest. There was a quite a swell building out of the southeast leading me to think that it must be the massive island of Fiji blocking the wind the weather files showed and sure enough in a couple hours there came the wind and the waves with it. The first waterfall we took through the port hatches was immediately followed by a cascade from the starboard side. Time to close her up and buckle down for a bouncy ride. By morning we could now see the 15 foot waves that were throwing us around and they were getting bigger.
Our autopilot, which we had just fixed in Fiji, then went out which meant that we had to hand steer down the face of each wave careful not to turn the boat the wrong direction and get either rolled or pooped. It was midday and the waves had now built to 20 feet with winds of 25 knots. We had taken the mainsail down ealier and were sailing with only the jib chugging along at 6 knots increasing to 9 when we would catch a wave. Surfing 20 foot waves on a 39 foot surf board with a steering wheel is quite the exciting ride. When in the trough of each wave for a few seconds all you see around you is walls of water and as the face of the next wave approaches, you think for sure its going to crash on you taking the boat and everything on it down with it, but somehow instead it picks you up and from the crest you can see miles and miles of whitecaps making you feel like neptune overlooking his vast watery realm only to drop you surfing down its face to repeat the process all over again.
It was midafternoon on day two of the passage when we got hit by the ‘big one.’ I was at the helm and because helming the boat during such conditions is quite exhausting much of the time not at the helm is spent sleeping or trying to sleep and so Jim was dozing in the saloon and Marion in the aft cabin. I usually like to look back and watch the waves as they come but for whatever reason I was lost in thought facing forward. Luckily I had both hands firmly on the wheel because as fast and strong as this thing hit it would have swept me off the boat with any less of a grip. Maybe it was a rougue wave or maybe the wave just happened to break right when we were perfectly positioned for it but like a flash flood with no warning the boat I was driving disappeared under a blanket of white water. I lost steerage and could feel the weight of the water surrounding me take the boat sideways into the next wave. My heart raced. I thought we were sinking or surely would be after the next wave toppled us. Jim came racing to the companion way dripping wet wondering what was going on followed by a soaking wet Marion who thanked me for her afternoon shower. I now had control again but was still standing in knee deep water in the cockpit. As the water drained Jim explained how a little airvent on top of the boat (all the hatches were closed) starting squirting down on him like a fire hydrant and Marion, in her french accent, told of how she thought she was drowning in her sleep. I was just happy to have stayed on the boat.
The waves and wind started to subside by day three and I now felt it was safe enough to climb off the back of the boat and try to get the wind vane going. The wind vane is a mechanical device that drives the boat to a given wind direction and as simple as the objective may be the device itself is anything but that consisting of numerous gears, pulleys, paddles and lines that all must be lined up perfectly for the device to function. It took both Jim and I hanging off the back taking off this pulley to run that line or lining up these gears a couple hours before getting it right during which time the back of the boat would dip into waves nearly taking me with them. Luckily we are in the warm waters of the tropics. Still trying to figure out the insanity that drives men to sail cold water. After a couple test runs we had the boat driving herself and we could all rest on our own schedules.
By day four with the wind vane doing the driving and everyone rested up it was back to normal life at sea. We would start the morning with french lessons from Marion then it would be to the gally to work on making some yogurt and baking some bread followed by an afternoon chess tournament. That same afternoon Jim spotted a vessel (first one we’d seen) and it was adjusting course and approaching us from the rear. I tried contacting them on the radio but got no reply. We made ourselves visible on deck and when they got within good sight they turned away. Were they just curious fishermen or pirates looking for easy prey?? Whoever they were they disappeared into the horizon taking with them their story and identity.
The next morning brought the ringing of ‘Land HO!!’ and high fives. Vanuatu here we come…