WHERE IS HOME?
29 May 2011 - 1 January 2012
Written February 2012 – Fiordland, South Island, New Zealand
Where is home?
People ask Alene and I this question all the time. Sometimes it's in a different form. Perhaps, "Where are you from?" or "Where do you live?", but it means the same thing.
Of course, Migration is our home. But I have — had — two homes. I would say "I'm going home to visit Mom." And after the visit, I'd say "I'm going home to Migration." It wasn't confusing for me. It was, in fact, comforting. And regardless of how little time I now spend in California, and that I didn't grow up and live in my parents' condominium, it's been my mother's home in Long Beach that I considered home. It was where she was.
Our Migrations updates are chronological. So when I started this one, I began where the last one ended... sailing away from New Zealand last May. Just as if nothing happened. Just as if my world hadn't changed.
But it felt false and wrong. Like I was lying; waiting to spring a horrible surprise halfway through. So I hit delete. I needed to start again.
My mother died in September.
Now you know. It will influence every word I write in this update. But at least I can begin at the beginning. Back in May as we sailed north from New Zealand. Before the sadness and loss. When one of my homes was still the place where she was.
SAFE HAVEN: RAOUL, AGAIN.
We sailed in late May. Just as in 2010, a change in the forecast suddenly predicted a Northeast gale. Sheltering at Roual Island in the Kermedecs again seemed like a good idea. This time we spent 6 days getting blown about by the gusts that shoot down the steep cliffs on the west side of the island into Denham Bay.
The holding is good in the bay but the williwaws are ferocious and bothersome. There was no danger; it was just noisy and occasionally bumpy as the gusts slammed into, or down onto, the boat.
Two and a half days later we arrived at one of our favorite spots in the Pacific. Here is a quiz:
To the above celebratory list, we added Alene's 48th birthday. Arriving on 9th June, we entered at night... somewhat foolish unless one has local knowledge which, by this time, we feel we possess having entered or exited the pass at least eight times.
Two Tongan Navy ships lay at anchor in the center of the lagoon. As we motored past in the darkness, one of the ships launched a large RIB that immediately raced toward us. After our encounter with the Fijian Navy last year (see Migrations 16), we weren't sure what to expect. The crew sped to our stern quarter, getting soaked by the steep chop, and yelled "Are you all right?" They were only checking on our safety. Thank you, Tongan Navy.
To understand why the Tongan Navy was at Minerva Reef, you need to know what's been happening at this dot in the Pacific. Last year, the Fijian government decided that, though the countries of the Pacific had recognized Tonga's claim to North and South Minerva Reefs back in 1972, now they weren't so sure. It's not that they necessarily want these rings of coral... however, the mineral and fishing rights to the thousands of square kilometers of seabed surrounding it may bear some influence on their actions.
Last November, a few days after we had been boarded by the Fijian Navy at North Minerva, the Fijian ship returned to North Minerva and commanded the few cruising boats anchored there to leave immediately. It turns out that they wanted the place cleared out so they could blow up the navigation light that the Tongans had erected several years before.
This dispute has created tension between the two usually friendly nations. In fact, the reason the two Tongan Navy ships were anchored in the middle of the lagoon the night we arrived is that a Fijian Navy ship had arrived that afternoon and the Tongans had chased them off.
There were quite a few boats in Minerva Reef. They'd been holed up there for a long time due to the weather and were anxious to head to Fiji. We had hoped to have a big birthday celebration but the next day nearly everyone departed. In the end we had a nice birthday dinner (and cake, of course) with Phillip from the Swiss catamaran Blue Bie.
Philip departed for Fiji the next day. One other boat remained at Minerva and, over the next few days we got to know Helmke and Bronte of s/v Cooee II. Bronte is crazy about blue water freediving and spear fishing. Here's how it works: He takes his dinghy outside the reef into the deep water. Then he sets a big parachute anchor to slow the drift. From the dinghy hangs a fish attractor: a long line of about 40 feet with flashing propellers that spin as the dinghy bobs up and down in the swells. He swims nearby with a huge speargun. The spear is attached to a big float (looks like a boogie board) with shock cord. And there he waits. For the big fish: wahoo, mahi mahi, swordfish. Of course, this being the outside of the reef, there are plenty of sharks hanging about as well. It's very exciting, and very, very beautiful. I know because I went with him once. It was a great adventure.
We left North Minerva and had an absolutely delightful sail to Savusavu, Fiji. Four and a half days with the wind astern. So nice we actually flew the spinnaker the entire night.
Fiji. It's one of those places many dream of. And though it does have everything listed in the brochures — palm trees, aquamarine waters, reefs covered in rainbow corals and tropical fish, waves breaking on white sand beaches — people often forget that it also has Fijians. It is their home. It is not just a giant resort for honeymooners, movie stars, and surfers. Or just a destination of a sailing voyage. It is the home of 850,000 Fijians as well as the unique island homes of Banabans and Tuvaluans.
The western Yasawa and Mamanuca islands are filled with resorts. Not our style. Several friends who'd previously sailed to Fiji recommended Eastern Fiji. So we made landfall in Savusavu on the second largest island of Vanua Levu. Of the overall population of 850,000 people, 180,000 live in the main city of Suva (the largest city in the Pacific Islands) on Viti Levu. Savusavu has about 5,000 people. Basically one main street lined with shops and restaurants, a big public market, and lots of Fijians saying "Bula!"
Bula literally means life. But it is used as the universal greeting in Fiji. It has a subtext of friendliness that is quite potent. Nearly always delivered with a smile, it exemplifies the congenial, warm, and welcoming attitude of the Fijians.
Fiji is an interesting combination of cultures. Over a third of the population are Indo-Fijians: Fijians who trace their ancestry to India, mostly descended from the laborers brought by the British to work the sugar cane plantations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Every town has its curry shops and the most common street food is curry wrapped in a roti (flat bread). The Hindi culture permeates the towns as most businesses seem to be owned by Indo-Fijians. Small statues of Hindi gods are sold alongside fishing tackle. Ghee is sold next to coconut milk.
The country has had its share of ethnic tensions. In fact, these tensions were the primary cause of the many coups the country has experienced over the last several decades. It is currently ruled by the leader of the last coup which took place in 2006. Despite this fact, in all the places we visited, you would never know you were in a country that was ruled by a military leader. Tensions seem to have eased a great deal. People are fairly relaxed — this is the South Pacific after all— and life goes on.
It's a complex and fascinating society.
We picked up a mooring in Savusavu, handled check-in formalities with officials, and hung out for a few days to get our bearings and reprovision.
We were excited about this season's cruising in Fiji because we were expecting several sets of visitors. My Mom was going to visit in September. But first, my best writing friend April Wayland and her family were soon to meet us on the island of Taveuni. After taking care of all our paperwork with the Port Authority (you have to provide a list of every place you plan to visit, so most cruisers just list every place in Fiji!), we dropped our mooring and headed out, hoping the tradewinds wouldn't blow too hard as we headed east.
Once anchored we grabbed our mask and snorkels. Our first experience beneath the Fijian waters didn't blow our minds. The vis wasn't that good and much of the coral was in poor shape. But once we found the healthy spots, we began to understand why Fiji is so popular. This was the first Pacific island we'd visited that had a great quantity of soft coral. The corals' flowing shapes and colors, along with a great diversity of fish, made for fantastic snorkeling and diving.
Amidst the beauty, it was here, anchored off the resort, that the main story of our year began. I received a call from my brother Doug. Doctors had found a growth on Mom's pancreas. They didn't know what it was, but it didn't look good. She was feeling all right. In fact, she continued with her plans for a trip to Chautauqua in New York with her friend Alan.
With that sobering news, we sailed east from Savusavu Bay, bucking the winds through bouncy seas and tacking back and forth up the coast. Our first stop was the tiny village of Fawn Harbour. This enclave of about 10 homes is populated by the Pickering family who settled here many years ago.
After a few days spent visiting and exploring, we headed for the next bay to the east: Nasasobu. In Fijian, 'B' and 'D' are pronounced with a preceding 'M'. So Nasasobu is nasasombu. And the international airport of Nadi is pronounced nahndi. There are a few other exceptions but most Fijian is pronounced as you read it — very easy until the words get long.
Our friends Derek and Allison of s/v Kalida were anchored in Nasasobu. They'd already become good friends with the nine people living there. We met George immediately when he stopped by in his boat to welcome us with a bag of fruit. George and his extended family live mostly on what they harvest and catch. There are no roads so everything is transported in and out by small boat. The family also earns a small income from the copra trade. We spent the next day tramping through the mud to see how they work.
In the next bay over was the village of Dakuniba. We decided to pay a visit along with Derek and Allison and Philip of s/v Blue Bie who'd just come into the anchorage.
Upon arrival in most Fijian villages, the first order of business is to perform sevusevu. (Note: not Savusavu, which is the name of the town we'd recently departed). Sevusevu is the ceremony in which one presents the chief of the village with a gift of kava and asks permission to visit his lands and anchor in his waters.
Kava. You only need to be in Fiji a short time before you hear the word kava. Kava is the root of a pepper plant and most Pacific Islanders drink a broth made from it. It has a slightly narcotic effect (depending on how much you drink) and is the mainstay of social life.
Now back to Dakuniba.
At the chief's house we all sat on the floor while the chief (in this case, the chief's son because the chief was out fishing) accepted our gift of kava. Then he and the other village men present clapped and sang a greeting. That was it. All over in just a few minutes.
One of the village boys offered to take us up to see the petroglyphs on the river. The glyphs weren't that exciting but the hike up the river was beautiful.
Thanks to Robert Louis Stevenson, tropical islands make us think of buried treasure. We've never found a map or a skull and crossbones etched into a rock, but we did have a bit of a treasure expedition at Nasasobu. Around the point from the bay were the remains of a pearl farm. Seems an American came and set it up several years before. He built a nice three story house on pilings off the beach and ran oyster lines through the lagoon. We are not sure why he never thought about cyclones. Though there is a reef protecting that shore, it is completely open to the south and no reef can provide complete protection from a big cyclone. Which is what came through this area in 2010. Cyclone Tomas had winds up to 135 mph (215 kph ). The only thing that remains of the operation are a few pilings and, under the water, some of the oyster lines. Derek, Philip, Alene, and I all donned our dive gear and went to see what we could find.
Most of the oysters had fallen off the lines so we searched through the mud on the bottom.
We moved seven miles around the corner to Viani Bay. Viani is located inside Rainbow Reef — a six mile long reef that is world famous for scuba diving. There are no roads into Viani, so, though only 30 miles from Savusavu, it feels pretty remote.
We'd heard about Jack Fisher from friends who had been to Fiji last year. Over the last year he's been earning some money taking cruisers scuba diving... on their own boats. He comes aboard, drives your boat to the best spot, tells you where to anchor, takes you to the dive spot in your dinghy, and then follows your bubbles as you dive so he's there to pick you up when you surface. All for $10/person plus lunch. He also treats you to numerous stories about his very interesting past.
I met April Wayland at an authors event in Eureka, California way back in the early 1990's. One evening, as we hung out with the other writers, she read the incredibly bizarre book Lobster Moths. We've been the best of friends ever since. I've always wanted her to come visit us aboard Migration so I could share this world with her and she could better understand our life out here. This year, I got my wish.
We sailed across the swirling currents of Somosomo Strait to Taveuni; a beautiful lush island which many compare to Kaui in the Hawaiian islands. There we found a safe anchorage for Migration, provisioned, and walked to the tiny airport.
Great Story: Viani Bay had gotten very busy. We had friends who sailed in this part of Fiji last year and they hardly ever saw another boat. Now, there were at least 9 boats anchored in Viani. Jack was popular... and busy. One day we went out with Jack and two other boats. There were 11 divers and three dinghies to handle. Plus, April was snorkeling as she isn't SCUBA certified. There were way too many people for Jack to keep track of.
When we came up from our dive I asked Jack where April was. Looking a bit sheepish, he replied that he thought she was "over in that direction..." Now, you need to understand that we are three miles from land, the reef is nearby with breaking waves, there are strong currents running every which way, and, of course, all the other delights of the sea... like sharks.
I was a bit panicky thinking how panicky April would be when she realized she was lost and drifting far from the boats. We all stood in the dinghies scanning the area. It wasn't long before we spotted her about a fifth of a mile away. We sped toward her. I was expecting a mixture of fear and relief. Instead... "That was the BEST snorkeling ever! I was all alone floating in the blue sea. It was beautiful! What a wonderful experience!"
Obviously, I needn't have worried.
VISITORS FROM HOME VISITING HOMES
After her fun visit last year, our friend Ella asked if she could come again... this time with her 15 year-old son, Jelte. Just a few days after April and family departed, we were back at the tiny airstrip on Taveuni meeting Migration's next guests. We spent a whirlwind 12 days visiting many islands and villages.
We sailed on to Rabi (pronounced rahmbi) where we anchored in Eritabeta Bay along with Roger and Sally on s/v Equanimity. I was getting over a cold so everyone else went for a walk to the nearby village of Nuku.
Rabi is an extremely interesting island. Like Kioa, the people who live here are not Fijian. The Rabian's home island is Banaba; just south of the equator and over 1,100 miles to the northeast of Fiji. Banaba is a raised coral atoll (like Niue) and is part of the Republic of Kiribati, although the Banabans consider themselves a separate ethnic group from the I-Kirabati (the people of Kiribati). The island was heavily mined for phosphate throughout most of the 1900's. This mining removed most of the topsoil from the island making it impossible to support the local population. After the Japanese occupation in WWII, the British purchased the Fijian Island of Rabi (with money set aside from the mining operations) and relocated the Banabans. Now there are only about 300 people on Banaba while over 4,000 Banabans live on Rabi. In fact, the Council of Elders of Banaba resides on Rabi and makes decisions regarding both islands. The language of Banaba is spoken on Rabi and the locals maintain their Banban customs, dance, and song.
We sailed from Eritabeta on the northwest of Rabi south to Katherine Bay and the village of Buakonikai.
The village women offered to put on a performance of traditional dance for the cruisers anchored in the bay.
It was a fun evening ending with all the cruisers dancing with the women; to the great amusement of everyone else, of course.
A few days later, two of Kita's children, Renata (12) & Tuikali (9), offered to be our guides to a nearby waterfall.
On the way home, Renata told us that she and her brother had never even been under the waterfall before. We'd have never known by the fearless way they'd leapt up the rocks when we first arrived.
We hung around Katherine Bay for a few more days waiting for the wind direction to change.
We finally left Katherine Bay and headed 20 miles east to Budd Reef and the village of Yanuca (pronounced yanootha). Budd Reef is a rough rectangle about 8 miles on the longest side. Much of the reef is submerged but there is still plenty that can cause discouraging noises on a boat's bottom. The reef encompasses five islands, the biggest of which is Yanuca where the village sits on the east side. Cobia Island (thombia), a collapsed volcano crater, is in the northeast corner of the reef and we hoped the wind direction would change so we could visit.
The day after our arrival we dinghied in to the village. After performing sevusevu with the chief, one of his sons, Harry, led us on a walk to the top of the island.
The chief's eldest son, Will, offered (for a fee) to take us to Cobia. So the next day we picked him up and set sail.
Cobia is very steep, thus there are not many places to anchor. It took us an hour or so to find a location I felt was secure in the changing conditions.
After our hike, Alene and I snorkeled in the crater. The vis wasn't very good but it was interesting (and a bit spooky) as the inside walls drop almost vertically into darkness. We'd bought a tuna from Will and had a fine dinner on deck. Then we spent that night anchored at Cobia after snorkeling for lobsters.
WATER, WATER, EVERYWHERE
After dropping Will off at his village, we had a boisterous upwind sail south to Taveuni. After coming and going six times, Taveuni definitely felt like our home base. The island is known as The Garden Isle of Fiji. It has several national parks and we set out to visit one: Bouma National Heritage Park on the east coast. That coast is the windward, and therefore rainy, side. Green and lush and wet, with rivers and creeks flowing down from the tall 4,000 foot (1,250 meter) mountains. The east coast gets up to 10 meters (32.5 feet) of rain each year.
We jumped on the local bus and headed for Bouma and its three waterfalls.
NEWS FROM HOME
Throughout Ella and Jelte's visit we'd been in close touch with my family at home. Mom had been diagnosed with a very rare form of pancreatic cancer. When she returned from her trip to New York, she'd had a biopsy to remove cancerous cells for testing in the laboratory. The biopsy didn't go well and she ended up in the hospital with multiple infections. It was serious. I made plans to fly to Long Beach. But we had to get back to Savusavu first.
Ella and Jelte changed their flight so they could leave from Savusavu. We set sail the next day.
The first flight I could get to California happened to be the same flight as Ella and Jelte. Together we took the short hop to Nadi and then the long leg to LAX. My friend Steve picked me up at the airport and dropped me at the hospital. 20 hours after leaving Migration, I was with Mom.
Alene stayed aboard Migration in Savusavu; we felt it was better to not have to worry about our home. While I was in California, Alene kept busy with boat projects and various diversions. She took a brief 3-day diving trip with Sally and Roger of Equanimity. Here's her account.
After a month, we decided Alene should come to California. She booked a flight and got Migration ready to be left on her own.
I had arrived in Long Beach on August 6th. There began the saddest months of my recent life. Mom spent weeks in the hospital, mostly fighting infections from the biopsy complications. When she finally got home, she was too weak to fight the cancer. She passed away on September 22nd.
It is cliché to say that there are blessings in every situation if you just look for them. Yet, amidst the heartache, I was grateful that I live a life where I could pretty much drop everything and be with Mom those last months. It's even more cliché to say that at least she didn't suffer (much). Platitudes, but accurate, yet no more true than the deep sadness that swirled about our family.
I'll say nothing more except what I said at her funeral. If you would like to read it, follow the link below.
HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS
Alene and I spent another month and a half with my brothers and uncle dealing with Mom's home, belongings, and affairs. Family and friends made life bearable. No, far more than bearable. Enjoyable at times.
With my Border Morris side at a Pirate Faire; at the birthday party thrown for me by my second family, The Jensens; with friends visiting from far away, and friends and family who live close by; via emails and cards; from phone calls from those I know, and those who only knew my Mom; and most especially through the tenderness and encouragement of Alene, life in the midst of sadness was still thrilling and hopeful.
Marlene & Roy, friends from way back in our Mexico-cruising days, were returning to Mexico aboard their catamaran s/v Damiana. We were lucky to be able to sail to Catalina with them for a few days.
From Avalon, Marlene and Roy headed for San Diego. Alene and I hiked all the way from Avalon to the mountaintop airport where my friend Steve met us with his 1961 Mooney to fly us back to Long Beach. We felt like such jet-setters.
On October 29th, Alene and I flew back to Fiji. The South Pacific cyclone season runs from November through April; we wanted to get Migration down to the safety of New Zealand. Migration was in good shape for having been left in the tropics. Aseri had aired her out occasionally so the mildew wasn't bad at all.
Shortly after we arrived, we had another visitor for a few days. Tammy and Alene met 10 years ago in Panama and hadn't seen each other since 2005. Tammy had just completed a kayak trip in western Fiji so it worked out perfectly that she could come aboard for a couple of days.
After Tammy left, we waited impatiently for a weather window. We'd already booked tickets back to California from New Zealand on the 8th of December so we felt a bit pressured to get moving. We decided to move to Western Fiji as it would shorten our trip by about 100 miles.
First stop was Namena Reef where Alene had gone diving with Sally and Roger of s/v Equanimity.
We arrived in the port city of Lautoka four days after leaving Savusavu. Lautoka is the second largest city in Fiji with about 50,000 people. It is known as Sugar City because of the large sugar cane mill there — sugar being one of Fiji's main exports.
Since there hadn't been a weather window for so long, there were dozens of boats waiting to depart. After checking out the afternoon before, on 18th November we sailed out the Navuola Passage on the southwest corner of Viti Levu. Probably fifteen other boat left the same day. However, they were to sail on while we had a slight mishap.
We dropped the sail, turned around and sailed back; both of us well aware that this is what happens when you leave on a Friday.
Just a half hour after dropping the anchor, we received a call from our friends Rosi and Peter on s/v Green Coral. (We met them at our wedding in Minerva Reef.) They were motoring out the pass when their transmission stopped working. We upped anchor and towed them in.
The next day we towed Green Coral the 17 miles to Vuda Point Marina so they could get settled and figure out the problem. It was raining most of the time but that didn't stop us from working on an important project. I'd replaced the mainsail in 2004 and kept the old one. It took a while to extract it from where it'd been stowed in the aft port ama, but it was in good shape and ready for action... except that we'd changed the sail track on the mast. We hack-sawed off the old slides, removed the new ones from the new sail, installed the slides, and Alene sewed a strop for the reef point.
It was a long passage — 10 days — with some rough weather on the front and back. In the middle, we had several days of calm. But those times were actually quite pleasant with some light air sailing. Two nights we dropped our sails, turned on our radar alarm, and went to sleep. That was a treat... it felt like cheating!
IS HOME AN AIRPLANE?
We had just a few days to get Migration ready. Poor boat! Again she would be left alone. We flew back to the US six days later on the 8th of December and spent more time clearing out Mom's condo. Then we flew to Ohio to spend Christmas with Alene's family.
Then back to California for a couple of days and on to Auckland, New Zealand on the 29th of December. Because we crossed the dateline, we arrived in New Zealand on the 31st. Immediately we boarded our flight to Christchurch on NZ's South Island, arriving around 9pm New Year's Eve. We celebrated with friends Ondene, Enya, and Mia (Sven was at sea captaining a ship).
And thus we said goodbye to a hard year.
Now, we're aboard a different sailboat: s/v Visions of Johanna. (Poor Migration, alone again!) We joined Bill, Johanna, and Gram for an adventurous trip to, and through, the Fiordlands and Stewart Island in the far south of New Zealand.
And that is how I come to be writing this update in Milford Sound -- a beautiful and majestic fjord on the southwest coast. Yet my heart is heavy. I was here only once before: as a tourist two years ago, with Mom and Alene. It was during Mom's 2010 visit to New Zealand when we took our exciting, whirlwind trip together. Mom treated us to a tour from Queenstown to Milford. We had a gorgeous flight across the Southern Alps, an excellent cruise under blue skies, and another breathtaking flight back.
I was here with Mom. Now I am not. Never will be again. I'll never be anywhere with her again. Yesterday I stood on the foreshore at the head of the fjord and looked out to the cascading falls, the towering peaks, the cliffs dwarfing the tour boats and thought of our time here together. I miss her so. I miss the anchor that she was. I miss the home that was hers, and therefore, mine.
Over the last years, while I've been cruising, our main form of communication has been email. I miss her emails. And especially how she ended them. She wrote consistently — every two or three days since I left nearly seven years ago. Each communication, ending so simply, but clearly stating everything she wanted for me. From the day I was born until now, this moment.
I always thought it was sweet.
Now, I think it is profound.
Care, Enjoyment, Kindness.
This is what she wished for me. For her family.
What more can anyone ask?
Thank you, Mom. I will.
Be safe. Have fun.
This site was last updated 07/29/12