Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Musket Cove, Malolo Lailai, Fiji

Musket Cove
Malolo Lailai, Fiji
October-December 2012

October 30, 2012

Done now with Suva, I headed out for another overnight sail. This time it was a bit further. Actually a day-nigh-day sail. And there was absolutely no wind. And none was forecast for the next few days. I ended up motorsailing most of the way with only a couple hours of actually sailing.

Departing Suva I had to contend with a fleet of Chinese longliner fishing boats that also decided this was a great time to exit the harbor.

Chinese Longliner departing Suva

The passage along the south coast of Viti Lavu, Fiji's main island, was uneventful. No wind most of the way. But that also meant calm seas, which is always good.

Galena's track from Suva to Musket Cove, Fiji

I was a bit apprehentious about the entrance to Musket cove. The area if full of reefs. The reefs are easy enough to see in good lighting so I had to time my arrival to have the sun over my shoulder. Between the reefs the water was deep; over 200 feet in most places.

From Google Earth, the reefs around Musket Cove

My Garmin chart plotter had been pretty accurate so I was trusting it to get me close and then trusting my eyes to make the final adjustments to my course.

From the Yachtsman's Guide to Fiji, the reefs around Musket Cove

However, about one mile out just as I was motoring between two reefs, the engine sputtered. It had been running perfectly for about two years and now, when I could least afford it to have a problem it decided to act up.

I ran down into the cabin and opened the engine compartment. I switched the fuel supply valve from the port tank to the starboard tank. That should fix it. But it didn't. The engine was still running, but sputtering and surging as if starved for fuel. I looked at the reefs close by. I looked at the depth sounder. It read 180 feet. Too deep to anchor. But maybe I should prep the anchor for a quick release. Maybe I should raise a sail to at least give me some semblance of control if the engine dies.

I went forward and prep'd the anchor for a quick drop. I pulled the sail ties off the staysail and released the hold-down at the stay.

The engine continued to sputter. Wait... It sounded a little better for a second. Then better still. Finally, slowly, it smoothed out. I was back to speed and heading in to the harbor.

Passing the last reef mark before turning in toward the yachts moored in front of the Musket Cove Resort I called on the VHF and asked for mooring instructions. "Just pick up any mooring you like and come in and see us when you get settled." I found one that wasn't too close to the other boats. Which meant it wasn't too close to the resort, also. I had no problem picking up the mooring. There was no painter just a heavy loop and about three feet of line above the mooring ball.

Once I was secured my friends Ernie and Charlene (s/v Lauren Grace) came by to say, "hi." After a brief chat they gave me a ride in to shore and Ernie took me around to introduce me to everyone and show me what was where. Having been up all night I barely remembered what he was saying. So I soon went back to Galena to put her to bed and then do the same with myself. After a nap I launched my dinghy and found my way to the little island bar at the entrance to the marina.

The "Island Bar" with Galena at her mooring to the far right

There I immediately felt I had found a home.

The "Island Bar" with Vasiti and Lavinia. At one time this was called the $2-Bar (Just about everything cost $2). By the time I got here it was called the $5-Bar. When I left it was up to $5.50-Bar

Some of my good friends, Chris and Paul, at my favorite place.

Me doing what I do best: harassing the tourists

Ernie had shown me where they park yachts for cyclone season. It looked very safe to me; sort of a mote around an artificial island surrounded by hills and trees. And the cost was very reasonable. I made the decision to stay for the cyclone season. This place had everything: bars, restaurants, pools, hiking trails, small store, laundry. And the ferry to the main island ran four times a day. On the main island one can get just about anything; within reason and for a price.

I decided to stay here for the cyclone season.

One of the comfortable places to hang out at Musket Cove is the Trader. It's the small cafe and general store. A large porch surrounds the building with nice views and constant breezes.

Charlene, her friend, Linda, and Ernie (s/v Lauren Grace) on the porch at the Trader

Musket Cove is very nice for a Pacific Island resort. Musket Cove is one of three resorts in the cove. Further along the beach to the south is the Plantation Resort (more family-oriented) and then there's Lomani (strictly adults only). But Musket offers a nice level of pampering and class.

There are two ferries that make 4-times a day runs to the mainland (near Denarau, Fiji). While I was there they hauled Cat II out for maintenance.

The main ferry that runs between Musket Cove and the mainland of Fiji

They are building a new one near the airfield and expect it to be ready for next tourist season.

The newest of the Malolo Cat ferries being built near Malolo Lailai Airfield

While the modern Malolo Cat ferries are fast and comfortable they haul only passengers. The small island trader m/v Bili Bili is the workhorse of these islands. This little ferry is almost constantly making cargo runs between the islands and the mainland.

The hardest working boat in Fiji: m/v Bili Bili

Patrick, the man who runs the marina assigned me to a spot that I would move to in case of a cyclone. We walked around to the hurricane hole and he pointed out where Galena would set and where I would tie lines to the shore. Everything was arranged. I would stay out on the mooring until a storm threatened. At that time I would move into the lagoon and tie up to the central mooring and to the shore. It was a nice arrangement. And interestingly they don't charge for that reservation for the storm mooring until/unless I actually go in and use it. I'm not complaining.

From the ridge line looking down on Armstrong island and the cyclone hole

Then, a week later, a huge power catamaran came in to the resort (m/y Safari Swell) and John, the owner, wanted to leave it here for the cyclone season. Under their agreement with me the marina would be able to charge me a pittance for just the few days Galena might be in the cyclone hole. But if they put that big cat back there they would make a bundle each day for months. So I was out. I was told, "So sorry. we seem to have 'overbooked.' I told Patrick, well and good but we had an agreement. He said he would find a place for me. He did. Not as good and maybe not as safe. But not bad, either.

Musket Cove. Z-Galena's mooring, B-Island Bar, X-Galena's Cyclone Spot, Y-Galena's promised spot

Practic Run into the Cyclone Hole

On the 18th of November 2012 we received word of a possible cyclone heading our way. Forecasts were calling for winds over 40 kts. I told Patrick I wanted to come in and asked where my new position was. He said he'd put me up against the walkway bridge leading to Armstrong Island. This was the place normally reserved for the BiliBili barge. But he was not coming in for this storm and I was welcome to tie up there.

First we moved s/v Lauren Grance into position. Ernie had done this before so I just assisted by handling lines for him.

Then we moved Galena into position.

Galena moving through the small draw bridge and to her cyclone spot against the Armstrong Island Bridge

Once I had her in position Ernie helped tie her up to the bridge and I put out an anchor off the port beam.

Galena secured to the Armstrong Island Bridge

The only problem with this arrangement was that the bridge is static and the tidal range is about six feet. Soon I was unable to climb up from Galena's deck to the bridge. I had to use the dinghy to go over to the nearby floating dock. Also, at low tide Galena was firmly aground. She was sitting in soft mud so I had no worries about damage. But it made living aboard a bit strange as she sat bow-down and listing to starboard.

Galena about a foot out of the water at low tide

As it turned out the storm was nothing of note. Winds were a little brisk but not too bad. Still I was happy to be where I was rather than out on the mooring. At least here I was able to get to the bar without using my dinghy.

Within a couple of days I was back out on the mooring and everything had returned to normal. All in all it was just a nice practice run. Although now Patrick says my official spot will be just outside the drawbridge at the Malolo Cat dock. Good enough I guess.

Erie was sailing over to Denarau (on the mainland) and asked if I wanted to come along. Sure, why not? I was going over to buy some heavy line to use during the cyclones and he would be able to bring it back with ease.

Charlene and Ernie onboard s/v Lauren Grace

We had a very quiet motorsail over. This marked the first time I was ever on a catamaran while underway. Very different motion compared to a monohull. And Ernie, having been here many times was eager to show me all the features of the route between Musket Cove and Denarau. When we got to the mainland Ernie guided me to all the boat chandleries and hardware stores in Denarau and Nadi. Finally we took a taxi out to Manaka near the Nadi Airport. We finally found a store with the 20-mm yellow polypropylene 3-strand rope I wanted. But the store wanted F$6.80 (about US$4.20) and I needed 100 meters. With a lot of haggling my taxi driver got him down to F$6/m. Still a lot. Then I saw some of the same rope in white rather than yellow on another spool nearby. The spool said it, too, was 20-mm. The only difference was that it was white. My taxi driver picked up both to compare them and in so doing twisted the yellow against the lay (it expanded in diameter) and twisted the white with the lay (it tightened up). The result was that the yellow looked a lot larger than the white. He showed them to the store keeper and asked how much this 'thinner' rope was? The guy said, "Oh, that's a lot smaller and is only F$4/m" "I'll take it," said I.

I hung out at the main tourist center at Denarau and partied a bit during the following weekend. They have the standard attractions such as a Hard Rock Cafe.

The ubiquitous Hard Rock Cafe, Denarau, Fiji

And along the harbor is the boardwalk with all the tourist traps one might want. Everything from bars to pizza shops to fried chicken fast food to cafe's with nightly fire-dancers.

The main boardwalk looking out at the tourist ships that take people to the outer islands

The mooring field at Denarau only has about 12 moorings. And they are not rated for cyclones. But nearby (about 1km) are two creeks that carry 7-ft at the entrances and go back several kilometers into the mangroves. During a recent cyclone there were 40+ boats back there and not one sustained any damage.

Mooring field at Denarau. Lauren Grace is the cat right of center.

Back at Musket Cove I'd go for walks along the beach. Well, that's not entirely accurate. I'd walk to the various resorts' bars on the beach. While walking near The Plantation Resort I happen upon Tom Hanks' raft from the movie, "Castaway." The island scenes were actually filmed on Monuriki Island, about 12 miles NW of here.

Look closely and you can see that the raft is completely stainless steel and fiberglass. In fact, everything that looks like wood is actually fiberglass.

Me playing Tom Hanks. In front of me is what's left of Wilson.

Another bar on the beach, between Musket and Plantation is Ananda's. It's just past the airfield and has some of the best food on the island. The beers are also a little cheaper than the big resorts. Ananda's was the first bar up and running after Cyclone Evan. With the demise of the Island Bar it became my favorite bar. But it was a far cry from the Island Bar. And a far walk from the dock.


Walking along the beach between Musket and Ananda's you crossed the end of the airstrip. The end of the strip ran right into the ocean. The sign wasn't kidding. Sometimes I'd be about to walk into the path of a landing plane. They were still a hundred feet high, but it's scary none the less.

Crossing the end of the airstrip on the beach road

And on some mornings, waking up and looking across the mooring field I'd be presented with the most wonderful sights.

Rainbow over the mooring field at Musket Cove from the deck of Galena

One thing I've not really gotten use to here in 'The Islands' is the absence of OSHA. Here we have the problem of trimming trees that are well out of reach from even the highest forklifts on the island. What do they do? The build a scaffold and lift THAT with the forklift. Works fine. But it's a little shaky.

Tree trimming from a scaffold on a forklift

Cyclone Evan - Monday, 17 December 2012

On 5 December I started seeing signs of a storm developing over the Solomons, several hundred miles west of here. The usual path for these storms is right down the island chain and then between Vanuatu and Fiji. Then they turn east and blow themselves out well south of Fiji.

This storm showed a different path. It was going to head directly west toward Samoa passing north of Fiji. Strange but it would still have little effect on us.

By 7 December the projected track showed a disturbing twist: The storm would hit Samoa and then stop, turn southwest and move directly toward Fiji. This was not good. Everyone started checking all the available web sites and weather sources. The projections said it would hit us on or about 16 December.

As we watched the various forecasts I noticed that the US Navy site (The Fleet Numerical Meteorology and Oceanography Center (FNMOC)) was the one the other sites followed. During the next few days the forecast changed constantly from - it's going to pass just west of us
- it's going to pass right over us
- it's going to pass just east of us

The forecasts wind speed and directions from WindGuru looked like this:

The sequence, top to bottom, of the forecasts we received

My assigned spot was where the ferry docks. They were going to run that ferry until the last possible minute. I didn't want to be out on the mooring when the winds started building. So I moved Galena into the main dock. There was no one there and the dock master didn't mind. That also got me very close to the island bar. Cool.

Galena tied up alongside the main dock. The island bar is just off to the right of this picture

Patrick, the dock master, was on vacation. He was supposed to come back and manage the movement/placement of all the boats in the area. The other resorts send their support boats (dive boats, excursion boats, party boats, et al.) to Musket Cove for shelter and once they start to show up it's a serious Charlie-Foxtrot. Well, Patrick decided not to come back. I understand he had his own home and family to worry about. But he also had responsibilities here.

Anyway, one of the expats, Dave, who runs Musket Cove's excursion boats took charge. He began directing who goes where. When I said I was worried about getting back to my spot if I waited too long, Dave understood. He directed me to a position just a few hundred feet down the dock from my assigned spot. As the ferry made it's last run evacuating the last of the tourists I moved into position and started securing Galena. I hauled my metal dinghy up on shore and put it behind a hedge and tied it to a tree.

Just about ready

The forecast at that time called for winds out of the NNW. I was pointed N with the floating dock on my starboard side. I strung most of my lines from Galena's bow to the trees on shore and the dock pilings. At the stern I just put a couple of lines to the dock and a tree on shore. The Malolo Cat I was going to stay on the dock directly in front of me and that would block some of the force of the wind from that direction. Also, at low tide Galena's deck was below ground level. That would help too.

The forecasts kept getting worse. This was now a Cat 3 and coming right for us. But the day before the storm we had a lovely sunset as we partied at the Island Bar. Little did we know that it would be the last party at that bar.

The day before Cyclone Evan. Sunset at the Island Bar

By mid-afternoon on the 17th of December the winds were picking up. The radar forecasts were looking bad.

Cyclone Evan with Musket Cove circled

The last forecast indicated a direct hit of the eye over Musket Cove. Winds in they eye-wall were 120-kts. Rain heavy.

The barometer was dropping fast. Everyone was doing last minute checks of lines and fenders. I walked over to the cyclone hole behind Armstrong Island. Everything looked good on the couple of boats I was 'watching' for friends.

Gradually the winds climbed as the barometer fell. But the winds were from the SE. Throughout the afternoon they continued to build and slowly clock to the East. That put the winds on Galena's starboard quarter. The one place where I didn't have as many lines as I might have had. Galena rocked hard over with every gust. Remember I was below ground level. The wind hitting the rigging was rocking her 20-degrees!

I started to see leaves, coconuts, palm fronds and then whole trees blow by. The water was whipped to a mist in the little lake that made up the inner harbor (it was only 250 meters across and it was rough as a small lake).

The big ferry also on the dock just in front of me started to pull the dock away from it's mooring poles. I saw the crew out on the dock and on the land frantically passing more lines around trees and using 'come-alongs' to pull the big boat back against the dock. I was concerned since I, too, was tied to that dock. If the dock let go, I knew my few lines to the trees wouldn't hold Galena, the dock, and the big ferry. We'd all be swept out of the harbor and out to sea. I went out to help them. We were wearing dive masks so we could see. We got a couple more lines to the trees and managed to coax the ferry back into position.

About then one of the few lines from Galena's stern to the dock exploded. It was about 16-mm 3-strand nylon. But it was a bit old and it was way too short (no room to stretch). I wasn't too surprised by it's failure. What surprised me was the way the other lines (much longer as they went up to the trees on shore) stretched and let Galena swing about eight feet from the dock. Too far for me to jump off and run another line. I was seriously considering abandoning ship when the crew from the ferry ran up and tossed me a line. I secured it to Galena's stern cleat and they pulled us back to the dock. I was so thankful they were there to help.

Finally just before dark the wind suddenly let up. The eye of the cyclone was on us. The sky was bright white. The air was almost completely still. The barometer read 945mb. I've never seen it anywhere near that low before.

I went for a walk to check on things. The devastation was pretty amazing. I met John, the guy who runs the dive operation for Musket. He was checking his shop and surrounding buildings.

John checking his dive shop during the passage of the eye of cyclone Evan

The rain started and as I hurried back to Galena the wind started to pick up. Within just a couple of minutes it was blowing hard again. Now from the NNW.

Looking across to the Trader from Galena. This is the little harbor that's only a couple hundred yards across

With the wind on Galena's port bow she was being pushed against the dock. Now Galena was pulling on the bulk of her lines which went from bow to shore. She was also somewhat shielded by the big ferry in front of her. She was also not healing over nearly as far. I knew her hull paint wouldn't look good in the morning, but, she needed a repaint anyway.

I curled up on the port settee and fell asleep. I awoke many times and there was no change. Winds howling from the NW and Galena rocking against the fenders on the dock. Back to sleep.

At dawn I got up and surveyed the damages. Galena was in good shape. One solar panel had a broken hinge. The plywood steering vane had snapped off (I was unable to loosen the bolt that held it so left it) and one of her lines had snapped. I walked around and took a few pictures of the damage:

Galena after the storm

Looking across to Galena and the ferry

Banana trees stripped to almost nothing

Many trees were toppled over

The fuel dock was pretty much destroyed.

After a bit of cleaning up those of us who had been on site for the storm got together in a small hut near Galena and had a drink. This is the picture from that survivor party.

This is the Cyclone Evan Survivor's Club, Musket Cove, Fiji

The main wharf leading out the Island Bar was damaged. The power lines to the island were cut. So there would be no island bar drinks for a while. And I had to move right away since the Ferry had to start service. So I went back out to my mooring.

I talked with the owner of the resort, Will Smith, and asked when the docks and Island Bar would be repaired. He said Yachtie support was at the very bottom of his list. Maybe he'd get around to that stuff in May or June. This made me feel very unwelcome. I was no longer happy in this little corner of paradise.

I called my old friends Jeff and Jose on s/v Stravaig. They had recently arrived in Savusavu, Fiji. I expressed my displeasure with Musket Cove. They suggested that if I came back to Musket Cove the owner of the marina would put in a new cyclone mooring for me. I decided that I would head back to Savusavu as soon as I had a reasonable weather window.

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