Well, the Tonga to Fiji passage turned out exactly as Sonrisa envisioned with the exception of four tiny details.
At sunset on the second night, we looked up from our dinners and found the first of four stowaways, also enjoying sunset. As the passage continued, three more little guys poked their heads up to see what was going on. We enjoyed their company, as they were funny to watch roam around the cockpit with no concern for the dimension of space on which they were climbing. Upside down, no problem! These fearless little devils would walk out on Sonrisa’s wood side rail, on the low side, right next to the passing water.
“Rupert! Get back in here!” I would exclaim. Don’t they know that the edge of the boat is the same thing as standing on the edge of a cliff? “If you go overboard, we will not be able to come back to get you!”
Rupert ignored me and edged closer to the water, sticking his tiny nose overboard to watch the bubbles go by. Soon enough, he got bored and waddled his sticky feet back over the cockpit combings and into the relative safety of the propane locker.
Rupert, Murdock, Fox, and Gecko #4 (because I realized 3/4 of the way through this endeavor that I recently committed to stop naming things) seemed happy enough, but I began to be concerned about their diet. The Tongan Geckos usually capture and eat moths — hundreds of moths. I have no idea where they fit the leaf-like wings in those tiny Gecko bodies, but they do. I loved to sit and watch them hunt in the light. But, out at sea, there are not any bugs at all.
“Are you guys getting hungry?” I ask. I tried to leave them a little morsel of egg (figuring they were protein eaters. But, they turned their noses up at that. They seemed temporarily interested in an avocado salsa we made with onions and garlic and tomatoes, but they just sniffed it and walked away. “Okay for you.” I said. “Let me know if I can offer you anything.”
I worried anyway. And then I worried about what to do when we get to Fiji. “What if they escape the boat, swim ashore, then eat the tiny eggs of some endangered Fijian bird???” But by the time we arrived, they were nowhere to be found.
We arrived in Levuka, Fiji at precisely 8:00 a.m. after a bouncy, nauseating fourth night. As I circle the anchorage looking for a good spot to land, Andrew fiddles with the anchor windlass (the machine that drops and/or pulls up the anchor and its 300 feet of chain). I nudge Sonrisa’s bow into the wind and hold her in place. This is when Andrew would drop the anchor, and I would hear the chug-chug-chug of chain links being pulled out of the locker. Nothing.
“What are you doing up there?”
I am met with silence. The wind starts to blow Sonrisa’s nose off place, so I loop around and get into position again. This time, I hear an erratic “CHUUUUUGGGGG, pause, CHUUUGGG, pause, CHUUUUUGGGG, pause.” The anchor dropping process takes several minutes longer than usual, but eventually we are set. Andrew returns to the cockpit just as the Port Captain radios instructions for us to pick up the Quarantine Officer ashore.
We rustle Grin out of bed (tied up on Sonrisa’s foredeck), build him up and drop him over the side of Sonrisa’s hull with a splash. He shuttles the Quarantine Officer out and back easily enough, and then he arrives with two rather sturdy Fijian men. They climb aboard Sonrisa, and we chat while they fill out paperwork. Soon, the men invite both Andrew and I to accompany them back to town with our passports to finish completing the customs work. Andrew offers to shuttle them in, then return to pick me up.
“No, no. Don’t waste the gas!” They drop over Sonrisa’s side and into Grin. The two men sit side by side on Grin’s middle bench; Andrew is in the back at Kitty’s helm. Grin looks up at me in desperation as the rope I am holding to keep him next to Sonrisa tightens just a little bit under the weight of all those large men.
“You are coming, too?” He seems to say. Large waves from the sea enter through the Levuka reef passage, bouncing Sonrisa and Grin together erratically. “Okay…..” He says, unsure. I drop onto his front bench as gently as I can and he sinks just a little lower. His bow hovers just inches above the water line.
“Don’t worry, you are the unsinkable Port-A-Bote, remember?”
Andrew throttles Kitty up ever so gently, and Grin points his bow toward shore. The waves are side on. Grin concentrates very hard to stay upright when a wave nudges his port side, slips beneath his hull, then rocks him the opposite way as it exits beneath his starboard side. “Leslie, could you lean back a little?” Grin whispers as we edge closer to shore.
“No,” I whisper back. “I will bump into the Port Captain’s knees.”
The Port Captain and the Customs Agent act blissfully unaware that they are moments from taking a swim, but I suspect this is all part of a fun game. Will this particular Captain dump them in the drink? Andrew swerves systematically, trying to take each wave at just the right angle to allow Grin to climb up and over, then drop down the other side without burying his nose, flooding or turning over.
Andrew lets off a little chuckle from behind me, and later I learned he was thinking about the day the U.S. Coast Guard pulled us over and lectured us for driving my tiny little sister and her friend through a completely calm bay. “Officer, we were just practicing for the day we have to drive two large Polynesian Government Officials through an anchorage with open ocean waves.
By some miracle, we did make it. As we arrive at the dock, a line of Fijian men watch as I toss a rope to someone standing ashore. I gingerly step onto the dock without tipping Grin and receive a rousing cheer from our audience. The officials climb out, too, maybe a little disappointed that we escaped without the opportunity for a swim.
Checking in to tropical islands is a … relaxed process. There are more forms to fill out than one can imagine, each asking the same question over and over again: Boat name, Coast Guard Number, Captain, Captain’s Passport Number, Crew, Crew’s Passport Number, previous ports, next ports, etc. etc. Each form is guided by your friendly customs, port or quarantine agent who laughs and smiles, asks about your trip, marvels that two people (particularly a husband and wife team) would be so crazy as to sail a little boat across an ocean to arrive at their island. It takes hours upon hours. Most of the time, each group of forms must be filled out in a different building. Sometimes you are provided instructions for how to get to the other building, but sometimes those instructions are somewhat unclear. So, you look for your next check in spot as though it is some kind of treasure hunt. Sometimes the offices are air conditioned, and that is when you know you really struck gold. No matter what, it is usually a fun experience to meet these people, walk through town, and watch the process unfold. We haven’t had a bad experience, yet.
We enjoyed the little town of Levuka, but we couldn’t stay long. The waves in this anchorage bounce Sonrisa up and down, right and left, leaving me very worried that she will bounce right off her anchor and onto land. So, we coordinate the necessary paperwork to get our “cruising permit” for the outer islands and leave the next day.
When we return to the boat, Andrew sets a grim face and starts pulling out his tool box.
“What are you doing?” I ask.
“Oh, I have to look at the anchor windlass.”
Uh-huh. I take up my computer and process some pictures while Andrew clambers over the top of the two large light wind sails currently stored on the bow bed. He wedges his arms and head through the anchor locker hole, leaving his gangly long body protruding out.
The waves are getting worse, now. The wind has come up, from the Southwest, and it is pushing giant ocean swell and wind waves into the anchorage. I take a break from my typing because I am getting seasick, in the anchorage. I hear Andrew grunting and breathing loud sea-sick-staving-off-yoga-fire-breathing breaths from the forepeak.
Bounce, heave, pitch, bounce, heave, pitch.
All of a sudden, Andrew is trying to wriggle his way out of the tiny hole, off the sails and through Sonrisa to reach her cockpit. I look back and he is dry heaving over her back rail. “Ougghhhaaaahkk! Get. Me. Ouggghahaaak! Some. Ougghhhaaak! DRAMAMINE! Please!”
Even in this state, the poor guy remembers his manners.
I scramble up with a bottle of water and a dramamine. Andrew sits on Sonrisa’s side deck breathing in between urges to toss more cookies. “We need to go get some dinner.” He declares.
So, we do. I pat Sonrisa’s hull and say, “Stay put, Sweet Girl” as we leave. In the dark, Grin escorts us up, down, side ways and through the giant waves. I look back at Sonrisa’s bucking anchor light with trepidation.
By now, we are like celebrities in town. Everyone knows we are the people from the sailboat and they can’t wait to talk to us. As we return to our favorite restaurant, Margu the owner greets us with her beautiful smile. We choose a table, and the Fijian man the table next shakes our hand. He and his son are hosting a Chinese man named Gene in Levuka to discuss the construction of a hotel. When the three men find out about our crazy voyage, they all laugh and smile and ask a million questions.
“WOW! You are my hero! What a huge idea!” Gene marvels. “That is amazing! I bet everywhere you go looks like this!”
He turns his telephone around and presents us with a beautiful picture he had taken of white sand, palm trees, calm turquoise ocean and a pensive person walking the beach. The photo is presented in "watercolor".
I cover my mouth to stifle a giggle. In response, Andrew says only, “Yep, yep. Pretty much.”