11 December 1996

Season's Greetings From the Good Ship Vela Dare

This started out as an article for the Herald (our Dallas Hobie fleet newsletter) and ended up as a sort of Christmas letter to our families! As it happened, Micheal thought we could make two articles out of our cruising season to send to the Herald. So I made a few changes to my article, and here it is!

Just to bring everybody up to date, we departed New Zealand last May bound for Fiji with a stop at Minerva Reef. Our friend Richard came along as an extra hand on the passage. We sailed through a gale, had fun at North and South Minerva Reefs, caught some very tasty fish and arrived safely in Suva, Fiji. All of that took seventeen days. Richard was with us for a month and we were sad to see him go.

Our time spent in Suva was a mixed bag of fun and worry. Our good friends Rodney, Katherine and their young daughter Flora experienced the trip from hell from New Zealand to Fiji. With Katherine and Flora seasick most of the way, Rodney had to manage the boat by himself. Add to that a combination of bad weather, an inoperable engine, equipment failures including the GPS (on board navigation system) that went up in smoke, and a boat taking on water and it was a pretty frightening situation. We had been talking to them daily on the high frequency radio so were on top of the situation when it went from bad to worse. I was really proud of Micheal and his efforts coordinating a tow. He even managed to rouse the Fijian Navy from a kava party to stand by. They were eventually towed to Kandavu, an island south of Suva by a local ferry. The ferry "dropped" them off of a dangerous shore studded with coral reefs. With no engine, Rodney and Katherine were stuck. Lucky for them, our friend Bob from Dive Kandavu resort on the island (who we had telephoned earlier) came to their rescue and towed them to the resort. We were really glad to learn that they were finally safe.

So after three weeks in Suva, we departed for Viani Bay located on the southeast side of Vanua Levu in Fiji. There were a lot of good reports about this area of Fiji so we decided we'd check it out. It took two days to get there with an overnight in Levuka. But that's OK, traveling by yacht is a slow way to go. Little did we know that when we arrived we would end up staying SIX WEEKS.

I just don't know where to begin. Great weather, fishing, snorkeling, diving, hiking, people. Last years' cruising season in Fiji was a bit windy so we were prepared for much of the same. We were pleasantly surprised by day after day of perfect weather. Viani Bay is protected by a large island, Taveuni, which blocks the prevailing trade winds and most of the rain. The bay itself is rather deep and studded with hunks of coral. Not your ideal anchorage. But not to worry, we met a fellow American cruiser who owns land there and he let us use his mooring. And it just kept getting better. Between Vanua Levu and Taveuni is the Somo Somo Strait, location of world class diving and excellent fishing and snorkeling. So we had an incredible playground just a dinghy ride away. Micheal got into the habit of fishing early most mornings so our freezer was packed with fish during our stay there. And don't let me forget to mention the local Fijians.

Our mooring was located right in front of a small island, Yanuyanuiri, where two families live. We got to know Eddie, Boona and their daughter Charlene, and Ben, Diana and their children Mahoney, Dinah and Kathleen really well during our stay. We shared many meals and beach bar-b-ques together. And I finally learned how to husk and open a coconut, a very valuable skill not usually learned in Dallas, Texas and how to prepare fish heads in lolo (coconut cream). Got to be one of my favorite Fijian dishes. We also spent quite a bit of time with the American cruiser I mentioned previously. Joe, Kate and Kyle hail from Atlanta, Georgia and have definitely found a piece of paradise.

Then our friend Billy Hodge arrived from Dallas. It's sometimes funny how things have a way of working out. And it really happened for Billy. Originally we were scheduled to pick Billy up in Nadi on the west side of Viti Levu. But Viani Bay was too wonderful to leave so we arranged for Billy to fly in to Taveuni. It was a tearful and wonderful meeting. So we were off on Billy the Kid's Big Adventure...

We stayed in Viani Bay for about a week for starters. Billy went snorkeling for the first time, had a jungle shower for the first time and drank kava for the first time. There were so many "firsts" for Billy that I can't list them all. Then it was off to Rambi, Budd Reef and Gamea. It's worth noting here that the island of Rambi is owned and settled by people from Ocean Island in Micronesia. The British totally destroyed their island prior to W.W.II mining for phosphates and bought them this island to live on. How nice. Anyway we arrived in Kathryn Bay just in time to join in the celebration marking the completion of their new, beautiful church. It only took 14 years to build, all of the work being done by hand. These people are very different in appearance from Fijians, have different customs and speak a different language. We enjoyed the celebration and were even formally accepted into their midst by a dusting of talcum powder over our shoulders and necks.

From Gamea, we sailed along the windward side of Taveuni, the scenic route so to speak. On the chart, many waterfalls are marked along the coast and we thought it might be nice to take a look. This was also our first overnight sail with Billy aboard. The waterfalls were spectacular and Billy enjoyed his first night sail aboard Vela Dare, sort of.

Arriving in Suva early the next morning was exciting, as usual. We anchored off of the Suva Yacht Club for about a week. More fun for Billy the Kid and the crew. Parties and dancing, meeting new people, shopping, shooting pool, and drinking Fiji Bitters. Then it was off to Kandavu to visit friends we made last year. The sail from Suva was fantastic, in part because we caught a nice 15 pound Wahoo along the way on a new lure Billy picked up in Suva!

It was a warm and wonderful reunion at Dive Kandavu Resort and the village of Drue. Everywhere we went, the locals remembered "Micheal Mandolin !". There was more snorkeling, hiking and kava drinking. We also enjoyed attending a traditional Fijian meal, a "lovo" at the resort. Most of the food is cooked in a pit in the ground and included many traditional dishes. I think Billy liked it! Up until this time, we thought we were pushing Billy a bit too hard. He was so tired every evening. Then we hiked to the top of the hill overlooking the anchorage at the resort. I thought Billy was going to have a heart attack! But then he seemed to finally get his second wind. After that, nothing could stop him. Then it was off on another overnight sail to the Musket Cove Resort on the island of Malololailai.

Billy missed party week at Musket Cove by a few days and it was just a much fun as last year. After a tearful good-bye to Billy, we got down to some really serious fun. As I mentioned, last year we participated in the Musket Cove to Port Vila, Vanuatu Regatta Week. We didn't sail in the regatta, we just went for the fun. And the highlight was when we won the Hobie Cat Challenge in which 48 teams participated Anyway, it was so much fun last year that we returned for more of the same this year. We both got crewing jobs on board "Nero", a Kiwi designed/built boat owned by an American couple, Bob and Glenda from California. It's always a lot of fun to race on a fast boat! So there was plenty of racing during the day and partying at night. I'm sorry to report that Dallas Fleet 23 was unable to recapture the Hobie Challenge Championship this year. We came in second to a team/couple from Australia who happened to be very good Hobie 16 sailors. The races were a lot of fun and the competition was keen, especially the finals. It was the best two out of three and of course it went to three races. Our thinking is, if you're going to come in second place, it's always good to lose to someone who is really good.

Soon after recovering from Musket Cove Race Week we were off to a new country, Vanuatu! Land of lap lap, tam tams and volcanoes! The passage was very pleasant with winds aft of the beam (coming from behind us) the whole way. It took us four and half days to cover a little over six hundred miles. And fishing along the way was terrific. We entered the island group through a pass between two islands at just about sunset. It's always a treat to sight land after being at sea and we were pleasantly surprised by a couple of Humpback whales jumping out of the water as we sailed through the pass! Soon after sunset, we spied the red glow of the volcanoes on Ambryn reflected off of the clouds. What a way to greet visitors.

Vanuatu....what a fantastic place. We only stayed about two months, but that was long enough to decide that we want to return for another cruising season. Espiritu Santo, our first stop, was the site of a lot of American military activity during the second world war. Luganville, the main town on "Santo", is a sleepy little pace. Imagine the effects of 100,000 GI's showing up all at once! James Mitchner's "Tales of the South Pacific" and "South Pacific" were written about Espiritu Santo and the surrounding islands. While we were there, we took a land tour of W.W.II sites including Bomber One landing strip, site of the area hospital, ammunition sheds, the beach where Bloody Mary (in Mitchner's book) sold her wares to American GI's. Having just read Mitchner's "Tales of the South Pacific" while in Fiji, it was especially meaningful for me.

We stayed in the area a couple of weeks. Long enough to catch up with some cruisers we had spoken to over the ham radio, but never met. And we also caught up with Edwardo and Maria, our Spanish friends from Tonga! During our stay we snorkeled Million Dollar Point, an area where millions of dollars of military equipment was dumped after the war. It was pretty amazing to see a tank underwater and to sit in the drivers seat of a front end loader, underwater!

Our track took us south down the west side of Malekula, an island where many of the people are still living as they did one hundred years ago. We stopped at two anchorages along the way. Next stop was an island group called the Maskylenes. We arrived early in the morning just in time to sail through a flock of migrating Shearwaters, thousands of them. After we cleared the birds and before we arrived in the anchorage, we saw a couple of dugongs; the south pacific version of a manatee. The wild life in Vanuatu was fantastic! We spent the next week tucked up in a cozy little anchorage with about eight other yachts. There were lots of parties, snorkeling and getting to know the locals.

After a pretty rough overnight sail, we arrived in Port Vila on the island of Efate. What a fantastic place. Port Vila was pleasantly cool and dry compared with the hot and humid climate of the northern islands. We caught up with a lot of cruising friends while we were there and made many new ones. Our good friends Stan and Cora on Ambler were there playing music at the Waterfront, the local watering hole. Well, you can imagine what happened next. Micheal rejoined the blues band (Micheal played with them while we were in Fiji in June: They named the band Corita and the Ula Tulas. Ula Tulas is Tongan for bald heads!) and played with them for the next month. It was a time of relaxing and preparing for our passage back to New Zealand.

We finally departed Port Vila on November 19th. Conditions were favorable, as far as we could tell. Imagine our surprise one day out of Vila to hear that there was a tropical depression in the area! That's a real incentive to sail fast, let me tell you. The depression hung around for a couple of days and then reformed into the first tropical cyclone of the season, Cyril, near New Caledonia. We were still enjoying moderate conditions and sailing fast. We had our best sailing day ever, 169 miles in a twenty four hour period. Like I said, we wanted to get south fast. And we did. Nine days later we were back in Opua, New Zealand. We sailed 1,340 sea miles, averaging 150 miles a day. Not bad.

It's really good to be back in New Zealand. Micheal is out digging for clams at the moment. We've got a real taste for a nice clam chowder. The social scene has been really busy and of course Christmas is just around the corner. This time of year is when we really miss family and friends. I don't want to get too emotional here, so here's a big MERRY CHRISTMAS and HAPPY NEW YEAR to everyone. We've got a very busy summer ahead of us with some major boat work to do. Oh well, just make the best of it. And who knows, there may be a trip back to the states this year for a visit or to work. We don't know yet but will keep you posted. We miss everyone very much, including those family members we haven't met yet! I hope everyone has a safe holiday season filled with love and the spirit of giving.

Cheers for now...

Cruising December 1996

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