YANUCA (Pronounced Yanutha)
I made it to the islands of fire walkers. I’m on a coral-skeleton covered beach on Yanuca Island in Beqa Lagoon. We are building a bonfire with drift wood and palm fronds.
The sun just set and the teal water turned black. Heat lightning is flashing from every cloud in the sky, bright and blue. Purple hermit crabs are running around. One just ran right out of its shell. Now it’s hiding from the indecency of its exposure under a log.
We cook fish and potatoes on the fire and talk about the day. Smoke rising between us. The guys surfed Frigate Pass. The waves were lions and they all got eaten. One of them even broke a board.
I spent the morning in the water with the fish. Coral everywhere. Magenta tree flowers floating by. Total magic. I found a crab living inside of an old butter box. I saw pink anemones with a solar system of clownfish. I got nibbled on by some black soldierfish, they‘re fierce and territorial and they get all up in your face and make this clicking sound, the next thing you know you’re under attack and a bunch of them are biting all your bits. They’ve got some kind of nerve.
Then I helped kill a crown of thorns. It’s that spiked starfish that’s overpopulating and destroying reefs. I found one and my friend Missy jabbed it with a Hawaiian sling. The thing shrunk to a quarter of its size, we tossed it in a bucket, took it to shore, and left it there to rot into fertilizer.
I spent the afternoon in the village, doing Sevusevu with the chief of Yanuca. It’s a welcoming ceremony. It goes like this. I bring some kava root to the chief. He says some prayers then mixes the kava in a bowl with water and there are some more prayers and hand clapping, lots of hand clapping, and then we drink kava until we tingle all over. Until I do that ceremony I’m technically not allowed to swim or fish or surf in the water that surrounds that village and if I don’t obey these rules the sharks might eat me. The Beqa Lagoon is popping with mean sharks. Tiger sharks and other types of shark sharks, so it’s best not to skip Sevusevu, plus it’s very impolite to do so.
The chief is 78-years-old and blind. He has a rash on his belly and something is amiss with his toe. Most kava bowls are made of hand-carved wood, but this chief is drinking kava out of an old mooring ball that has been chopped in half. I like his style.
The chiefs throne is a red velvet chair. Nobody but the chief can sit in it, trust me I tried. There’s a large gold trophy and a TV next to the chair, and different types of floral fabric hang on the wall behind it.
His village has style too. It’s decorated in clam shells and it’s got mongoose jetting around the grass. And two hundred people, and four churches, and a school with spider man painted on it.
The chief’s right hand man asks if I want my kava bowl at “high tide or low tide” (meaning half full or full). I tell him I prefer a baby mix of kava at low tide. He passes me a bowl. I ask him about the origins of this tradition. He tells me that Sevusevu is a tradition left over from the days when “cannibalism was ripe.” I ask him about fire walking. He tells me that nobody does it anymore on their island. That it was an act made possible by the old gods and while some elders still worship those gods, for most people in the village there is only one God.
Now it’s night and I’m here, sitting around this fire and eating fish. Flames are flickering and lightning is flashing and stars are glowing.
BEQA (Pronounced Bang-ah)
The morning sun is all a sparkle. You can see straight through the water like a crystal and coral bommies are everywhere. I haven’t showered in days and I smell like campfire, but I don’t mind.
All the boats are weighing anchor and leaving Yanuca. It takes time to get the anchors up because we all have floats on our anchor chains to prevent us from wrapping around the coral. The float I’m using is one that I found on the windward side of Fakarava in French Polynesia. And it’s identical to the chief’s kava bowl.
I’m looking at the other boats on the horizon and I’m salivating over Macushla. Aesthetically she’s everything. She’s a cutter-rigged ketch and she was built the same year that Juniper was. She looks like a vintage pirate ship with long lines and teak trim, but her interior has got nothing on Juniper, the inside is where my baby really shines. She’s so groovy.
The captain of Macushla is adventurous too. He’s a commercial pilot that used to fly F16s and he anchors in places where most boats wouldn’t dream of anchoring. I wish I could fly. I wish I felt free enough to sail anywhere and anchor anywhere.
Anyway, we’re sailing around the lagoon towards Beqa. It’s a short sail. Two hours. Uncharted coral pinnacles are all over the lagoon and there are sunken ships and words of doom and dread are written across my chart plotter. I follow right behind SeaGlub. He told me that if his boat makes a sudden stop, then I should peel Juniper in a new direction. He’s brave too. Everybody is braver than me.
I’m hand steering still. We can’t figure out what’s wrong with my autopilot and I can’t get it to recalibrate. It doesn’t matter, I’m just steering away and listening to a dateline podcast. There’s something morbidly sexy about Keith Morrison’s voice, or perhaps it’s his words that I’m attracted to.
We pass a sand spit and an island called Nanuku Island which means Storm Island. I can see Beqa off of port. It’s a lush island. Wild and green- green jungle, green water, wild creatures. We anchor up a river that cuts deep into the northern edge of the island. The water is dark emerald, there are mangroves all around us and bats are either hanging upside down from trees.
The sky is rumbling and pulsing with lightening. SeaGlub drops anchor and I raft up next to him. We look like a spaceship with our boats tied together.
Ten minutes later the wind blows cold and then the storm hits. That’s the thing about a squall, you hear them and see them coming for a long time, then right before they hit you feel them. We see thirty knots. Rain is pelting us. The bats are going nuts, singing and screeching and flapping in circles.
I wish I could send you a postcard with the sound of this this place.
KADAVU (Pronounced Kandavu)
It’s 6 a.m. The wind is in full effect. I set up my windvane and get my mainsail up inside the green river.
We’re all heading to Kadavu. The wind is supposed to have some west in it, but right now it’s got some east and we’re motoring our way out of the Bala Passage. When I turn towards Kadavu all I can see is a wall of rain and black and it looks like it’s gonna hit us long and hard.
After four hours of motor-sailing and hand-steering, the wind turns west and kicks up to the teens. I unfurl the jib, lock the helm, and set the windvane to steer. The rain comes on too, it’s not heavy but it’s consistent, like a drip in the faucet that drives you mad.
It’s 2 p.m. and I’ve only eaten one apple since 6 a.m. The wind is in the high 20s now and I’m wearing nothing but a raincoat. I’m cold and hungry and soggy and my fingers are all pruned up, but I’m afraid to leave the cockpit for long. The sea is being all dramatic. Plus I’m sailing with the wind above the beam and as you know I’m not a fan of any angle above the beam. Plus I have a wild imagination. Plus the wind is in a mood today, I can tell. She’s being unpredictable. She’s acting all Hawaiian-style with wicked gusts that tangle your hair and tear your head up. I just want her to be mellow, but all she wants to do is rage.
Everything that was on the starboard side of my cabin is now on the floor. I just saw my basil plant eat dirt and and my laptop fly and fall. I can’t do a thing about any of it and my body is a withering fruit.
The wind just fell below the beam. We furl our jibs and are sailing main-only through the reefs of Kadavu Lagoon. Waves are crashing onboard and across the reef. We’re seeing thirty knots, which is nothing offshore, but when your sailing into the slit of a lagoon with reef bombs all around you, forget it. I’m clutching the helm like I’m dangling off a cliff.
Since the trades have reversed, we’re making our way to the east side of Kadavu, which would normally be the windward side, but what was windward is now leeward.
It’s 5 p.m. and I’m wet and we’re tying to anchor off Ono Island, but we can’t find a good spot to drop. We race against the sun and head further south towards a known anchorage on the southeastern side of Kadavu Island. It’s called Vatulutu Bay and it means “Falling Rock.”
It’s 6:15 p.m. and we made it. I just rafted up to SeaGlub. It’s been a twelve hour journey and I’m all jazzed just to be alive and floating. I feel high.
A long boat comes over and a man named Pony gives us a bunch of bananas. He speaks English like a European. He tells us that his mom is Fijian and his dad is Swiss and that he’s traveled all over the world but now lives alone in the mangroves. He tells us that he dreams to start a yacht club in this bay.
I eat spaghetti and pass out. And when I dream, I dream of Pony’s dream, because in it I’m at yacht club with tennis courts but I can’t get my dinghy to start.