The value of friendship and the ghosts of Fiji

We sailed on the morning of Monday, 6th July from Bora Bora, with a course set for the Fiji islands, in a flotilla of three boats: Milanto, Ariel and the catamaran, Sea Lover. We had long discussions prior to departure on the best day to leave due to the unfavourable marine weather forecasts for the days ahead. This part of the Pacific ocean is often subject to strong winds that can join with the existing trade winds and quickly build a lot of sea swell. In Polynesia they call it the Mara’amu. For a route like ours – around 1,800 miles – it is almost impossible not to encounter it. It has the advantage of giving us plenty of wind for sailing, but helming can be demanding.

First day of sailing
First day of sailing

We therefore decided to travel together in a flotilla for safety and distributed ourselves to be at least three persons per boat. I boarded Ariel, the legendary Hallberg-Rassy 53, owned by Paolo and Cecilia Casoni, the friends from Parma with whom we have sailed since the beginning of this journey. They too, like us in Milanto, were not able to collect their crew who waited in Polynesia due to the lockdown, and were now left on their own and planning to sail to Australia where, according to their initial plans, they intended to secure the boat and resume the circumnavigation next year. So Milanto sailed with Valerio, Amancio and Mark; Ariel with the three of us and Sea Lover with Daniel, David and Luca, a nice Sardinian from the crew of an Italian catamaran that had stopped in Tahiti. There are many boats that have suspended their sailing plans pending better times. Someone shipped their boat back to Europe at great cost; some Americans preferred to go back to Hawaii; and many have stopped in the marinas of Tahiti. We are among the first to have gone through the official ‘check out’ procedures from Polynesia after lockdown and to head for Fiji. Unfortunately, we were unable to stop in Tonga, Niue, the Cook Islands, or Samoa – as our initial itinerary would have been – because their borders are still closed. The government of Fiji, on the other hand, has opened the borders only to boats which, upon request, follow a rather complex bureaucratic procedure which also involves sending the result of a Covid-19 test taken before departure.

We therefore sailed with the certainty that all the documents sent were correct and approved, and we hoped to be welcomed after a 12-14 day passage. In the meantime, we were right to have doubts about the winds and sea state in ​​this part of the Pacific, because from the second day an increasingly large swell formed with waves that started at two metres and rose to three, four and even up to five, accompanied by a wind storm that often exceeded 40 knots.

The sea is mounting
The sea is mounting

I can compare it to the storms of the Atlantic – I remember the one that Valerio and I experienced with Milanto when returning to Europe in 2006. Here when the sea gets angry it becomes a real washing machine: the waves of the trade winds from the south east cross those of the low pressures coming from the south west making the sea irregular. The result is that in a running sea one wave would raise the stern whilst an irregular wave from the left side would hit the boat making it incessantly jerk and skid down the swell. Like being in a washing machine, day and night. We had little sleep, we were always trying to stuff cushions around our bodies in order to wedge ourselves against the lee (anti-roll) cloths. Each object flies if it is not well fixed and just drinking a coffee becomes a balancing act. Yet even in these conditions Ariel did not lack some comfort. Every two days Paolo baked fresh bread, while Cecilia made delicacies for both lunch and dinner.

Some evenings we ate cream of peas with parmesan flakes and breadcrumbs accompanied by red wine in glass wine glasses and ceramic plates. Dinner became a dance in which one person lifted the plate before the wave, grabbing a hand-hold with the other hand, while the second looked after the half-filled glasses and the third placed the bottle in the basket. Then suddenly – boom! A wave broadside would sweep across Ariel’s deck, covering it with tons of water.

I must say that going through such a rough sea with a Hallberg-Rassy 53 is almost a pleasure, because this is a boat that provides safety in all sailing conditions. The central cockpit is covered by a rigid splash guard and the lateral ones always remain dry, inside it feels like a ‘protective capsule’, as Paolo calls it. Paolo is an experienced sailor with great technical skills and several ocean crossings behind him and Ariel is a superb boat, safe, comfortable and fast: one cannot help but fall in love with her. Designed by Germán Frers, the same as Milanto, she has a fast and powerful hull, nothing compared to the Rassy’s of the past. We sailed with a poled-out genoa on the windward side and with two reefs in the main eased out on the leeward side, this sail configuration is used when you are running almost straight downwind and is called goose wing.

Poled-out genoa, staysail and mainsail
Poled-out genoa, staysail and mainsail

Paolo also put out the staysail to make the most of another wind channel that would have been lost otherwise. We adjusted the sails according to the amount of wind and at night we reduced the sails for safety. On certain occasions, surfing on the big waves coming from the stern we reached the astronomical speed of 14 knots! In these moments Ariel’s rudder was as light as a feather and the boat rode straight down the waves as if it were on a track.

Days pass quickly when you have a lot of wind and good company. After eight days of the washing machine, about 300 miles from Fiji, the wind began to drop to 20 knots and the sea slowly calmed down. At dinner we had a toast when we passed over the International Date Line, the longitude meridian where you lose a day.

The passage through the 180 meridian
The passage through the 180 meridian

We felt older than a day, but also happier and went to bed serene, and confident that we could finally rest after so many difficult nights. That night I was on watch from 23:00 to 02:00. I was engrossed in reading a book and occasionally dozing off. Shortly after midnight the alarms of the navigation instruments began to sound. I went to the helm to try to understand why the boat had lost its course. Total absence of wind. We went from 20 to 0 knots in three seconds! I got back on course and woke Paolo, we rolled the sails and started the engine. I went back to the chart to study it in detail and it showed a peak that from a maximum depth of 3,000 metres reached less than 30 metres below sea level. A kind of underwater volcano. The chart indicated whirlpools and strong currents due to this mountain in the abyss right where we were sailing. How did we come to be in the middle of this maelstrom! I changed the route to avoid passing right over the peak and closely monitored Ariel’s instruments and direction. We soon become prey to a sea that was seething because of the currents that crossed which generated accelerations and sudden slowdowns. The speed varied from 3 to 7 knots and the boat skidded unnaturally in the black night. At some point the sky opened and a torrential rain drenched the deck. Ariel proceeded slowly all alone in the middle of the ocean as if she were tiptoeing through hell, being careful not to wake up the demons of the night. Yet at some point I thought I heard voices. I could not make out the words, but I was sure that there were voices. Maybe Paolo and Cecilia were awake. I went to their cabin and saw them sleeping deeply. I went back to the chart table to follow our route. We were across the volcano and the currents were even stronger. The rain stopped suddenly but the voices continued to speak in the silence of the night. I heard a woman’s name being called out: ‘Judith, Judith, Judith…’ How was this possible?

How many times have I found myself sailing at night and have been influenced by an unexpected noise or a strange creak! This certainly must be the same situation. Yet the voices still occasionally returned. Paolo came to relieve me at 02:00 and we joked about it. But that night I couldn’t sleep until I felt the boat resume its normal pace. In the morning I woke up early and thought back to the voices. Who did they belong to? To the ghosts of whalers, pirates or sailors who fell overboard? I liked letting these suggestions construct stories in my mind and I told them to Cecilia while we had coffee. She looked at me and told me that she also woke up in the night and heard voices. She thought it was the Paolo and I at the chart table, but as soon as she came into the saloon she saw that Paolo was dozing at the table and that I was sleeping in my cabin. Collective suggestion? Definitely. But I like to think that those were the voices of the souls of whalers and sailors held back by the maelstrom. Still today, after days, my blood freezes at the memory of that distant voice that called: ‘Judith, Judith, Judith…’

On the morning of Saturday, 18 July we spotted Viti Levu, the large island of the Fiji group. The sea was calm and the sun shone on our sleepy faces. Once in Denarau bay, we dropped the anchor and I headed home: Milanto awaited me after this adventure that we had lived in parallel. It is incredible that we managed to sail side by side for all those miles and get here together! Sea Lover arrived a day later with a disturbing ingress of water in the right rudder, he will need to make repairs, but first, he has made it!

Arrival in Fiji
Arrival in Fiji

Thanks Paolo and Cecilia, I learned a lot from you two in these days. I learned how to feel comfortable and safe in the ocean even in difficult conditions, the attention to the smallest detail in the adjustment of Ariel’s sails, the importance of a well-cooked dish even with 5 metres of wave, but above all, I learned the value of the friendship you gave me. The greatest wealth. I will never forget the laughs we had, the nights we woke up shaking each other for the change of guard, the ghosts of the maelstrom, the whales that suddenly appeared on the radar on that night of light rain, the happiness in your eyes that I found every morning at breakfast with a coffee that woke you up to the world, Cecilia’s music at full volume like in a nightclub and her daily exercises in the saloon (80 – 90 – 100!) Paolo’s evening cocktails, our discussions, the books read, our future plans, the confessions and the stories of our lives. How much life we ​​have lived in every moment of this splendid passage. We lived it fully, seizing the moment like zen monks in the monastery of this magnificent and terrible ocean.

Paolo e Cecilia
Paolo and Cecilia

We have been in this bay for three days now, waiting to complete the quarantine period. The Minister of Health of the Fiji Islands has decreed that we must undergo a new Covid test – what we have brought with us is not enough! If the Minister looks favourably on Milanto, it means that we are truly among the first to arrive here from Polynesia.

Milanto at anchor in the bay of Port Denarau
Milanto at anchor in the bay of Port Denarau

In fact, no other boat can be seen here and the sounds of daily life are not heard from the coast, however we see some airplanes (mostly small twin-engine ones) landing on the runway at the Nadi Airport in front of the bay; and two nice guys from the local Navy in a rubber dinghy came alongside offering us their support. The landscape in front is beautiful: gentle hills covered with vegetation descending to the sea, grassy ridges give way to forests of trees that cover the slopes, the flat coast is rich in vegetation and the beaches have clear and bright sand. The climate is cooler and drier and the air pungent in the morning. On the coastline I see some buildings and a few white buildings, among which two large airport hangars stand out.

The coast of the island
The coast of the island

We use this time to carry out some maintenance work – at the masthead the VHF antenna was torn by the storm – and to rest. I read, In the South Seas by Stevenson, where I find many places in Polynesia that I have visited in recent months; I am reminded of my many experiences, faces of people, sunsets, landscapes, the sea of ​​the islands and the light of the atolls. I think we are experiencing an adventure similar to that of the brigands of the past, those who entered the bays after long sailings and often waited whole weeks before receiving permission to go ashore. We too, like them, live day by day trying to complete our journey among the difficulties of the moment, always with the wonder before our eyes and the melancholy of what we have left behind us. Like the ending from The Great Gatsby that I keep remembering, ‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past’.