Passage to Fiji

Barque Picton Castle, at anchor at Walu Bay, Suva, Fiji

The Picton Castle and her outstanding crew enjoyed a classic, even ideal, ocean passage from Tonga to Fiji. Four days of perfect South Pacific trade wind sailing. We all loved it.

Now Wednesday morning, as dawn is breaking, the anchor watch is checking lines, slacking some from the rain last night. Donald is making bread in his galley. A 200-foot inter-island ferry steamed in quietly and docked up. A handsome little ship. We can hear the hum of traffic ashore, and of the large container ship’s generators coming over the harbour. She is berthed at the big commercial wharf. Off in the green hills overlooking Suva the birds’ chatter carries over the otherwise still harbour. Overhead a couple tropic birds dance about against the clouds high above in the morning sky. Looks like fun.

The ship is anchored about a third of a mile off the Royal Suva Yacht Club in the northeast corner of Suva Harbour, close to a small curious concrete construction of a man-made island. We are told that this was built to hold the dynamite and gunpowder of HM Royal Navy and Military back in British colonial days, protecting the town should this stuff all blow up, I imagine. Kind of an interesting structure – could make for an interesting club on the water or something. But now long abandoned and overgrown with weeds and vines. The Picton Castle is flanked by a few of these ubiquitous Asian fishing boats at anchor as well. 90 to 120-foot-long Chinese, Korean, and I expect Japanese, longliners. They are usually painted white with black numbers and Chinese characters and occasionally names in English. One I can see is named Green Tuna. These little ships are everywhere around these seas. Suva is an important port for these vessels. There must be dozens in port on any given day, others coming and going, and a couple on the reef that we saw coming in. The shipyard is kept well busy looking after them. You can bet that the sushi restaurants here are as good as you can find anywhere. I guess those fishing industry executives flying in and buying all this fish have high sushi standards when they are visiting Fiji. A quiet morning as the dawn grows into day in Suva Harbour.

Last Friday in Tonga, after emergency training drills, the crew loosed sail, hove up the anchor and sailed off the hook away from Vava’u, Tonga after a grand visit there. We all would have loved to stay longer but sail a ship must. With Liam at the wheel, the ship spun around from the anchorage, headsails and fore yards backed. Soon yards were squared, and we were steering for the pass surrounded by high jungle covered cliffs out into the sea. With all sail set that could be set, watches were set – watch on deck stay on deck, watch below, go below.

For four days, day and night, we sailed along, yards about squared, with an excellent warm quartering southeasterly breeze and modest seas. This was as sweet as it gets. And good to get our sea-legs again without an overly sporty ocean – if only we could set more sail. A little over halfway of the 430 miles to Suva we sailed through the Lao Group of islands and seas diminished even more. Could barely tell we were at sea it was so smooth. The Lao Islands, forming a broad barrier chain of islands east of Fiji proper, are an old Polynesian archipelago once part of Tonga. Sounds fascinating but bureaucratically complicated to get permission to visit. So we never have.

Soon enough we were in the approaches to Suva, getting there every inch under sail – we had a set time to take the required pilot aboard. 1000 at the pilot station at the southern end of the long reach and pass into Suva Harbour. We nailed it too, on the dot, under sail. We were chuffed with that, and without slowing down too. Then I got the message that the harbour workers, including pilots, were engaged in “Tsumani Training” and thus, the pilot would be two hours later than planned. Well, nothing left to do but wear ship, head offshore for an hour and turn around again for the new pilot boarding time. We were about to turn around and head south when the radio crackled from the pilot boat telling us to keep heading north towards the harbour entrance, pilot on his way. Good news this.

Our good pilot sprung over the lee rail from the orange pilot boat (crunching an antenna on the monomoy (need to up that situational awareness, eh?) as we fired up the main engine. As we steamed into the channel, sails started to come off. The channel is almost north and south, a bit east of north. This makes for a pretty decent sailing ship approach and departure road. With winds from the east, a big schooner or a square-rigger can almost always sail in or out of this big well protected bay. We were anchored by 1100 at the Quarantine anchorage. Then the wait for officialdom. First Health which gives us clear pratique. Q-flag down. Then Customs & Immigration and a couple others. By 1530 we were all done. And we could move the ship closer to our landing spot to make for shorter skiff runs. Launch the skiff and get ready for Fiji.

Once ashore at the gracious Royal Suva Yach Club, Dirk made arrangements that we all could take advantage of their friendly facilities. This done and after a briefing on Suva dos and don’ts for the crew, the free watches headed ashore to take in a place I think is wonderful – hot, steamy, gritty, real, charming and exciting – redolent of the South Seas. And great Indian and Chinese food and so much else. Bollywood movies at the cineplex, waterfalls, big produce and craft markets and “kastom” Melanesian villages far inland. Also a great museum. Off we go!

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