Yay! for the Yasawas

"Passage Notes" from our February 2007 issue

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The main islands of the rugged, volcanic Yasaw Group are surrounded by 100 smaller islands and sandbarsShannon Tumino

The Yasawa Group of islands, nestled in the lee of the large island of Fiji's Viti Levu, arc north-northeast for 56 miles and are surrounded by one of the greatest, most pristine reef systems in the Pacific. Seldom visited, the group consists of four islands, each with tall summits, and more than 100 smaller islands, rocks, spits, and sandbars.

Navigation is a nightmare. The anchorages are deep (usually more than 50 feet), exposed, and rolly. Basically, the Yasawas are still uncharted and/or inaccurately charted with huge sections marked "unsurveyed." There are thousands of coral heads in the area either not on the chart or wildly in the wrong place. There are no lighthouses, and only a few haphazardly placed marks, which are often missing.

The wind often shifts without warning, forcing vessels to change anchorages to find a lee. This is easy if the sun is over your shoulder but almost suicidal at night.

There are no airports, hospitals, or marinas-not even a dock. Forget about taking on fuel, water, or provisions. ATMs? Hah!

So what's the attraction?

Emptiness.

Modern civilization hasn't quite reached the Yasawas. The marine environment is the same as in Captain Cook's time. Perfect. Untouched. Pristine.

"I was in Israel," says Roni Neeley, bouncing her 16-month-old son, Daniel, on her knee in the cockpit of their 30-foot wooden sloop, Cracka II. "It was 2002 and I was organizing a diving holiday with some friends. I received a phone call from a Kiwi yacht captain who was also interested in scuba. The next thing I knew, I was sailing the French Riviera aboard the 54-foot motorsailer he was skippering. We fell in love and he begged me to go to New Zealand with him. I just couldn't stand the thought of parting, and letting such happiness slip away. What if I never got another chance? What if I went to my grave thinking about the road not taken?"

Her Kiwi husband, Rob Neeley, beams at her, the love plain on his suntanned face. He's a shipwright by training, was an international yacht skipper by youthful happenstance, and is now a confirmed sea gypsy at heart.

"We purchased Cracka II as a wedding present for ourselves," he says. "And it was Roni who suggested that we make this cruise so we could spend more time together as a family."

"We were so busy in New Zealand," agrees Roni. "We both had jobs and I was going to school. We were just handing off the baby as we passed, like ships in the night. Finally, I thought to myself, 'There has to be a better way.'"

Cracka II (the name is Kiwi slang for extremely good) is a Kevin Lidgard-designed 30-foot, cold-molded, double-diagonal wooden sloop built as a Half-Tonner in 1977.

"Has sailing with a baby been particularly challenging?" I ask.

"Well," responds Roni, "everyone talks about the hazards but there are hazards everywhere, not just on boats. While it's true that raising Daniel takes time, we've got plenty of time while cruising. And now I've got Rob's help 24/7 so it isn't as tough as some might think."

"Daniel seems to know when he has to behave," says Rob. "In heavy weather or when we have to shift anchorages, he just sits in his little chair in the cockpit and watches everything."

What's next for the crew of Cracka II?

"Who knows," laughs Rob. "Roni will have her law degree from the University of Auckland soon. We plan on keeping the boat in this area of the western Pacific for the next couple of years. We really love the local people and get invited to dinner almost every time we step ashore. And Daniel, cute little blond that he is, makes us instantly welcome in any village. We might have to fly home to work a bit, but right now we just take it one day at a time."

"Ilene picked me up in a bar," whispers Ken Larner of Silver Ruffian, a 47-foot aluminum schooner. "Actually, it was at the Balboa Yacht Club. I'd just sailed through the Panama Canal and she was refueling her ship. Her pickup line was, 'Do you speak English?' Since I'm British, I was fairly confident on that score. But when I learned she had an unlimited U.S. Coast Guard 1,600-ton master's license I was rather taken aback. But we decided to ignore rank and just have fun. That was back in 1993. We're still having fun."

American Ilene Byron signed up to work on a NOAA research vessel right out of the University of California at San Diego and soon worked her way up to the rank of captain.

"It was great," she says. "I get seasick so I'd just step outside the bridge occasionally and daintily throw up. On the first day of one of my commands, I realized the officers on the bridge were keeping track, whispering 'that's her fifth!' but we all got along just fine."

Virtually every day, Ilene and Ken dive in the morning and fish in the afternoon. Just last week, while diving with some manta rays between Naviti and Drawaqa, Ilene was able to reach out and touch one.

Silver Ruffian is silver and rough, the "ultimate low-maintenance boat," says Ken with pride. "If you want a boat you can hit with a sledgehammer and not be able to tell where, Silver Ruffian is the one."

Ken purchased the sailboat in 1992 in Lymington, England, for a fast, two-year circumnavigation, while still consulting as an actuary (mathematician) to the insurance industry.

"Most of my clients had no idea I was sailing around the world while working for them," says Ken. "But I fell in love with both New Zealand and Fiji and started digging a seasonal trench between the two. Ilene moved aboard in 1998 and we married in 1999."

"Everyday we have fun," beams Ilene. "People are always asking us why we don't sail here or there, but, for us, Fiji still has the magic. We love it. These reefs are pristine. And the Fijians are amazingly friendly. What more could we ask for?"

Another cruising couple enthralled with the Yasawas is Russ Spencer and Shirley Higginson, who were well-known organic farmers back home in British Columbia, Canada.

"We've had a marvelous 36 years together," says Shirley. "Russ is always up to something. Our lives, ashore or afloat, are never dull."

Eventually, they became so well known that organic-farmers-in-training from the four corners of the world flew in to help work the land and learn their unusual growing techniques.

But the more foreign visitors visited them, the more they wanted to visit foreign shores. First, they purchased a MacGregor 26 to see if they liked sailing. They did, and immediately sold it for a tidy profit to buy Wandering Star, a 1983 Hallberg-Rassy 352.

They left Canada in August 2003 and did the classic Coconut Milk Run through the South Pacific.

"We're enthralled with the Yasawas," says Russ. "Recently I was fishing with some locals and misplaced my expensive Leatherman knife. The following day it was returned, found by chance by one of the guys I'd been fishing with. Isn't that wonderful, especially considering how poor the people of Fiji are?"

Russ and Shirley's favorite place in the Yasawas is Naviti island, where Russ not only snorkeled around a World War II Air Force plane, which crashed on the reef, but found its distant propeller as well. Effects of World War II still remain here: the missing body of an American pilot was discovered on Viti Levu during the writing of this story.

"Everything is an adventure here," beams Shirley. "Some Fijian guy rowed up yesterday and wanted to sell us some wood carvings, but we ended up buying butter and eggs from him. Sure, it took all day, and the dozen fresh-from-the-nest eggs numbered only nine, but we had a marvelous time!"

What's next for Russ and Shirley?

"We're not sure," admits Russ. "Vanuatu? And, eventually, we might sail home via Japan and the north Pacific. But for right now, Fiji is fine."

Bruce Bird grew up within sight of the ocean on a farm in New Zealand. One hot summer day, he was spraying weeds with a huge tank of poison on his back when a yacht regatta sailed by. He stopped working, wiped his brow, and took a look.

"I thought to myself," Bruce smiles, "'now that would be far more fun than this,' and so I tossed down my tank and went in search of a crew position."

Jill Upchurch, his long-term life partner, remembers it differently. "We'd been out drinking one evening and we came home in a great mood, when out of the clear blue sky Bruce blurts, 'I want to sail around the world,' and I thought to myself, 'Well, I reckon I'll tag along.'"

Soon they were sailing the western Pacific as crew aboard an aluminum trimaran. Arriving in Hawaii without a proper visa, they immediately discovered another yacht in search of a crew. "We're leaving today," said the captain, who quickly ducked as Bruce tossed their still-damp seabags aboard.

Jill has done far more than just tag along. She has become an accomplished sailor in her own right and, in some ways, has exceeded Bruce as an adventurer.

"We'd returned to New Zealand and were at a party," says Jill. "I'd had a few drinks and was talking to the skipper of With Integrity and jokingly said he should sign me up as cook. Oddly, his cook had just stomped off the boat that morning and the next thing I knew, I was out to sea."

"It was strange," admits Bruce. "Staying home and tracking Jill and her crew dodging icebergs at 60 degree south latitude."

Jill, being a Kiwi, is genetically incapable of uttering the word "rough" to describe any passage but does admits that "sailing amid the bergs and rounding Cape Horn was interesting."

Now Bruce and Jill have their dream boat and are shaking her down in the Yasawas before heading westward for their open-ended, around-the-world cruise.

Daemon is a Larry Kendall-designed 32-foot double-ender. "She's a great boat," beams Bruce. "Coming up from New Zealand we hit a pretty decent gale which forced us to heave-to for a couple of days-no problem."

"She was in pretty good shape when we purchased her," said Jill, "but we decided that we'd do a couple of odd jobs to make her really shipshape."

How is the shakedown going?

"Excellent," reports Bruce. "We're going to return to New Zealand, mostly to cruise our home waters, which we've never done properly, despite all our sailing, then head off for the Indian Ocean and beyond."

Canadian singlehander Ken Bradley, who sails a 1975 Cherokee 35-foot catamaran, Ken B, is another Yasawa sailor with an extremely positive attitude.

"One day in 1998, I woke up and said to myself, 'Tomorrow is today!' and decided to go cruising. To discover if my fantasies were delusions, I purchased a little Watkins 29 monohull sloop and zoomed down to the Bahamas. I discovered the cruising life was even better than I'd hoped, but I learned I wasn't fond of the motion of a monohull, so I purchased this sturdy cruising catamaran and have been happy ever since," he says.

Ken was a general surgeon in Ottawa, Canada. "I'm a head-to-toe man," he jokes, "and proud of it. Hell, I'd have worked for free because the job was so much fun. But ultimately, I decided that I wanted to do something completely different. Why not? How much money does a man need? I decided to go to sea and just take it one day at a time. That was seven years and many ocean miles ago.

"The best part of cruising, I think, is that you learn something new every day. For instance, in the Yasawa-i-Rara village on Yasawa island, the chief of the village came and did the whole sevu-sevu"-the traditional kava gift-giving ceremony-"aboard the boat. It was wonderful, a real age-old tradition. And afterward, I was treated like family in the village, everyone inviting me to come into their homes and eat," he says.

Ken's favorite part of the Yasawas is the caves at Sawa-i-Lau. "They're the best water caves I've ever seen," he says. "You dive down and swim through the entrance and it's like being in a gothic cathedral. I was alone and just stunned. Yes, the Yasawa islands are amazing."

Ken doesn't find singlehanding a problem. "In fact, it's more difficult if I have guests aboard because I have to worry about them," he says. "By myself, I'm totally relaxed. The trick is to go sailing before you have a major health problem or get too old. I don't know if I've got six days or weeks or years left but I know that I'm living every one of them to the hilt."

What's next for Ken?

"I haven't the faintest," he says. "I only plan a week or two in advance. But, hey, there's a whole lot of world left!"

Cap'n Fatty and Carolyn Goodlander took a vacation from sailing in the South Pacific last fall to host CW's Sail-a-Cat charter in the British Virgin Islands. After land-cruising in the United States, they plan on heading from New Zealand toward Southeast Asia next season.