Tag Archives: Fiji

Navigating through customs can be frustrating, comical

Craig raising the quarantine flag, 2014.

What happened with the customs officer in Tonga?” a reader emailed, referring to a comment I made in last week’s column about a misunderstanding Craig and I had after arriving in that country by sailboat. “Perhaps other cruisers would like to know so they don’t make the same mistake.”

If only it were that simple. Countries’ entry and exit laws regarding foreign boats can be as hard to get right as sailing there in the first place.

It’s easy to read a country’s official policies online and in cruising guides. But because sailing schedules are ruled by the weather, boats sometimes arrive, or must leave, on weekends, holidays and during off hours. Often it’s not clear what to do at those times.

In addition, not all workers are up to date on their governments’ latest regulations. And even if they are, some officials view the check-in and checkout procedures more as guidelines than laws.

In 2006, for example, after arriving in the Cook Islands on a Sunday, I followed protocol and insisted that my crew stay aboard, at anchor, until Monday. After a difficult, upwind passage, this was like a jail sentence.

By Monday, however, after my radio calls went unanswered and no one came, we inflated the dinghy and went to the harbor’s administrative center.

“You should have come ashore,” the exuberant customs officer said when I told him when we arrived, “and enjoyed our beautiful island (Aitu­taki)!”

Other workers toe the official line. Last month we arrived in Vavau, Tonga, on Maundy (Holy) Thursday. Warned in Niue that everything in these devoutly Christian nations would be closed until Tuesday, we asked the locals who helped tie the boat to the entry dock what do to.

“Go there,” two men said, pointing to a nearby building.

Wrong building. A harbor official drew us a map to another building six blocks away. Wrong again. When we got back, an angry customs officer was at the boat.

“No one leaves the boat before being cleared!” he said. “Where did you go?”

The officer scolded us as we explained, apologized and groveled. Eventually the hand-drawn map convinced him that we had been misled, and he started us on our trek through Tonga’s customs, immigration, quarantine and health clearances, each division with its own inspector, forms and fees.

We were lucky. Customs officers can fine you, impound your boat or have you arrested.

Leaving a country by boat can be as tricky. In Suva it took us no less than four visits, each 2 miles round trip, walking, to the immigration office to check out. But the Fijian workers were so cheery about the time mix-ups — Oops, lunch time. Three o’clock? Sorry, we meant 6 — all we could do was laugh. Besides, after being on a 37-foot boat for most of a month, exercise felt good.

Worldwide, when arriving at a foreign port, vessels must request clearance by flying a yellow quarantine flag. It seems straightforward enough, but seasoned sailors know that hoisting a Q flag often signals the beginning of another memorable experience.

But having memorable experiences is why we go cruising.

Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean
Watch”, for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, www.staradvertiser.com

©2014 Susan Scott


All over but the recounting, trip had plenty of highlights

Resized marina fish

Fish in the marina , New Caledonia, 2006. ©2006 Susan Scott

Craig and I have been traveling together for 34 years now, and at the end of each journey, he asks me the same question: What was your favorite part of the trip?

After eight weeks of sailing 2,771 miles across the South Pacific, I had so many events, animals and places to choose from that days later I’m still coming up with answers to variations of the question.

The funniest moment of the trip, for instance, occurred in Suva. When you sail to a foreign port, customs, immigration and quarantine officials come aboard to clear the occupants and boat to enter the country. This can be easy and brief, or not.

After a mix-up in Tonga, where we angered the customs officer, in Fiji we were on high alert.

We soon lightened up, though, when the customs officer asked Craig his one and only question: “How long have you two been married?”

After a moment of silence, Craig said, “Um, I don’t know. Susan?”

The three officials in our cockpit burst out laughing.

“Man,” said the immigration officer as he stamped Craig’s passport, “you are in big trouble now.”

We laughed a lot in Suva, where nearly everyone greeted us with a warm “bula,” Fiji’s equivalent of “aloha.” For smiles, friendliness and just plain fun, Suva was my favorite city.

Sea snakes topped my list of must-see animals for this trip, and at least a dozen of those marine reptiles answered the call. One, a 4-foot-long blue and black banded snake, called a black-lipped krait, surfaced to breathe between Craig and me, snorkeling not 2 feet apart. It ignored us, but we will remember that little black face forever.

I felt even happier that I made this voyage when New Caledonia’s dugongs showed up. Dugongs are the Southern Hemisphere’s sea cows, gentle half-ton mammals that graze on sea grasses growing in shallow coastal waters of the Indian and Southwestern Pacific oceans. (Manatees, dugongs’ close relatives, live only in the Northern Hemisphere.)

In New Caledonia, where sea grass beds are extensive and marine sanctuaries widespread, dugong sightings are routine. We saw four, all brief glimpses of broad, brown, curved backs.

It was enough. Just knowing that these rare and endangered animals were feeding around the boat was a thrill like no other.

After Craig asked me to name my trip favorite, I put the question to him.

Craig likes sailing at night, especially during a new moon when the stars sparkle with intensity. He also likes full moons that turn the ocean silver.

During one of his night watches, he came below deck and touched my arm. “Sorry to wake you,” he said, “but you have to see this.”

The full moon was slowly turning a deep burnt orange as stars popped out like lights on timers. We had sailed into the splendor of a total lunar eclipse, Craig’s perfect night at sea.

We choose different highlights of our travels, but on one point we always agree: Oahu is the best place to live. No matter how good the journey, we’re happy to go home.

Especially by plane. Honu will stay in New Caledonia until our next adventure.

Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean
Watch”, for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, www.staradvertiser.com

©2014 Susan Scott


Calm seas and light wind make for a pleasure cruise

Published May 12, 2014 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2014 Susan Scott

Susan in the blustery conditions aboard Honu in 2006. Courtesy Scott R. Davis

In 2006 my friend Scott helped me sail Honu from island to island across the South Pacific.

“When I signed on for that trip,” Scott says, “I imagined baking bread and reading novels under sunny skies in a gently swaying boat.”

Me, too. But that summer the Pacific Ocean didn’t cooperate with our daydreams. Blustery southeast tradewinds and the resulting 8-foot seas made even standing in the galley an ordeal, and drenching squalls barred books from the cockpit. Both above and below deck, we hung on, longing for landfall and wondering who on Earth named this stretch the Coconut Milk Run.

Now I know. It was a sailor who had passages like the one Craig and I are enjoying right now.

We left Fiji nearly a week ago. Because that country’s entry and exit laws make visiting outer islands difficult for those of us with time constraints, we didn’t stop at any of the picture-perfect islands and atolls we passed while sailing to and from Suva.

Instead, we ate in Suva’s many good restaurants and visited the famous open-air market and museum. I don’t know why it ended up in Fiji, but the Bounty’s rudder, retrieved from the ocean floor off Pitcairn Island, is there, a thrilling sight for us sailors.

After a week of city life (and, yes, some boat repairs), we left busy Suva Harbor in a rainstorm, maneuvering between islets and around reefs toward our final destination, New Caledonia. The warm rain was a squeaky-clean relief from the salty state that we cruising sailors usually live in.

The wind was strong enough to sail but not so strong as to build up the seas. Enjoy this, Craig and I reminded one another. It won’t last.

But it has. For five days now Honu has been sliding smoothly downwind at 3 to 5 mph, sometimes propelled only by its billowing green and black sail called a spinnaker. It’s been so mild that I even hauled the boat’s soft salon cushion and our bed pillows to the cockpit, usually risky business for material that isn’t waterproof. Craig calls my cushy corner the princess bed.

With seas so flat, the marine life at the interface of air and ocean is crystal clear. As if shot from a gun, flying fish burst from the water, sculling along the surface to escape the tunas below. We know the predators are tunas because in their pursuit, they too leap clear, their heavy bodies splashing back to the water with loud belly-flops.

The commotion attracts booby birds and shearwaters, which appear like magic, snatching up the unfortunate fish trapped between carnivores above and below.

At night we have our own planetarium, with moonlight glistening on the water half the night and meteorites zooming across the pearly Milky Way the other half.

Honu’s running lights attract raucous sooty terns that announce their arrival by screeching their nickname, “Wide-awake! Wide-awake!”

With bunny rabbit clouds drifting over our rock-a-bye-baby boat, we’re devouring Kate Atkinson novels (highly recommended) and thinking that the Coconut Milk Run is well named.

All we need now is Scott to bake us some bread.

Scott in the galley of Honu, cutting warm bread; starfish potholder.

Scott in the galley of Honu, cutting warm bread; starfish potholder.

Scott in the galley of Honu, cutting warm bread; starfish potholder.

Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean
Watch”, for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, www.staradvertiser.com

©2014 Susan Scott

Reefs, rocks and wrecks punctuate sail into Suva

Published May 5, 2014 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2014 Susan Scott
Honu at the Royal Suva Yacht Club, Suva, Fiji, 2006

Honu at the Royal Suva Yacht Club, Suva, Fiji, 2006

SUVA, FIJI » Officially Fiji consists of 322 islands, but if your definition of island includes underwater atolls, coral banks and partially submerged islets, the number rises to 844. And although our nautical charts note every (we hope) island, atoll and reef, some are so small that they look like mere smudges on a map. As a result, it feels as if we’re running a giant obstacle course with our much-loved 37-foot ketch, Honu.

Last week as Craig and I left Tonga, we drew our route on our GPS chart plotter to Fiji’s capital, Suva. What’s that? we wondered, squinting at a speck along our course line. When we increased the map’s scale, it showed an atoll with a central lagoon but no visible islands.

Navigating through Fiji requires vigilance today, but it’s a cakewalk compared with the pre-GPS era. As Craig and I picked our way through a 4-mile-wide pass, we recalled a story a former Ala Wai Small Boat Harbor neighbor told us about sailing in Fijian waters in the 1970s.

“I was in the cockpit one night watching the depth finder,” Park said. “In seconds the gauge went from 100 feet to 75 to 50. Before I could stop the boat, it showed 10 feet, 5, and crunch! We hit the reef.”

Park and his wife, Gloria, were lucky: The coral didn’t puncture their Fiberglas hull, and they were able to winch the boat off the reef using their anchors. Except for frazzled nerves, they sailed away undamaged.

Sailors now use GPS maps to avoid dangerous reefs in tropical waters, but even so, it’s easy to be fooled.

“Look, there’s a fishing boat,” Craig said as we skirted a safe distance from one of several smidgens of reef we found along our route.

“It looks like a lighthouse,” I said, squinting into the distance, “or some kind of navigational tower.”

“There are two separate peaks,” Craig said, when Honu drew a bit closer. “Maybe this atoll has rocky spires like La Perouse Pinnacle” (in Hawaii’s French Frigate Shoals).

We sailed on, Honu racing downwind in 25 mph tradewinds as we watched 8-foot seas hit the reef edges in big white explosions. Two hours later the identity of our mystery mounds was clear: They were two enormous ships, one wrecked on each side of the atoll.


Wreck, coming into Suva, Fiji, 2006.

As we passed wreck after wreck, we appreciated more than ever the Pacific Seafarers Net, a group of volunteers who keep track of sailors via ham radio.

When underway, we check in daily with these friendly folks, two of whom are Hawaii residents. Throughout the Pacific, recreational mariners report their boat’s coordinates, sea conditions and destination. The volunteers post this information on the Internet for friends and families, and diligently monitor, and report, our safe arrivals.

When you’re no more than a minuscule piece of plankton floating past a speck on a chart, it’s great to know that someone is listening.

Fiji might not be the easiest place to navigate, but the exceptional hospitality we’re receiving at the Royal Suva Yacht Club, where we’re waiting out bad weather, makes us know that it’s well worth the effort. The reefs await.


Suva, Fiji, 2006

Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean
Watch”, for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, www.staradvertiser.com

©2014 Susan Scott

Boat provides a challenge too daunting to sail solo

Published March 31, 2014 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2014 Susan Scott

Honu in Tahiti 2006. Courtesy Scott R. Davis

PAPEETE, TAHITI » Last weekend I flew to Papeete because I left my sailboat Honu here in October to sit out the southern hurricane season. That being over now, it’s time to pack the boat with brie and baguettes, cast off the mooring lines and sail on.

When I mentioned this upcoming voyage to friends and acquain­tances back home, the first thing they asked was, “Are you sailing alone?”

No. I sail alone on short trips, but I don’t go offshore by myself for one simple reason: It’s too scary. But it’s not the open ocean that scares me (usually). It’s the boat.

Cruising sailboats have most of the appliances we have at home, all the machinery of our cars, and an IT worker’s nightmare of computer-driven nautical systems. Towering above all that is an elaborate assortment of ropes, poles and wires supporting flexing masts and flapping sails.

We cram this mass of specialized gear into a small space (37 feet by just over 12 feet in this case) and sprinkle it with salt water while shaking and pounding it for weeks on end.

The sailors’ old joke that the definition of offshore cruising is repairing your boat in exotic places is only funny if you’re good at fixing things. I am not.

But no worries. I’m sailing with my husband, Craig. It will be just the two of us, but having a man who’s been sailing since he was 6, and is good at troubleshooting and repairing all manner of marine systems, is like having an engineer, navigator and sailing instructor all in one.

Oh, and he cooks, too.

The other questions people ask about concern our destina­tion, route, distance and timing.

Craig and I plan on sailing to the Cook Islands, Tonga, Fiji and New Caledonia, where we will leave Honu in a marina and fly home to work. We have two months for this voyage, about 3,000 miles due west. This may seem like plenty of time, but when your vessel averages 5 mph, timing is a concern.

I want to leave Honu in New Caledonia for a while because it seems that whenever I see a photo of a fantastic new (to me) marine species, the location credit says New Caledonia. We shall see.

To answer another question, yes, I’m planning on writing my columns while sailing, sending them through my satellite phone email system — providing the satellite phone, computer and battery charging systems all keep working. I live in hope.

Satellite phones are marvelous inventions but they don’t transmit photos. I’ll try to paint pictures with words.*

The route Craig and I will be following is nicknamed the Coconut Milk Run because the prevailing winds come from behind the boat, making it an easy downwind run. In theory. I sailed this course in 2006 with two friends and had contrary wind directions and, of course, several boat system failures. Fortunately my friends were good sports and clever repairmen.

Now I get to again make the run with Craig, who on the boat is cheerful company and consistently optimistic. And, even given my deficient repair skills, he calls me captain.

Thank you, dear readers, for your caring questions and sincere best wishes. Stay tuned.

Susan aboard Honu during the Coconut Milk Run in 2006

*Susan’s web guy, Scott, was one of the crew on the 2006 voyage and will try to use pictures from that voyage to augment Susan’s painting with words.

Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean
Watch”, for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, www.staradvertiser.com

©2014 Susan Scott