[100606, 2035 UTC, Savusavu, Vanua Levu, Fiji; 16°46.67'S / 179°19.82'E
Where in the World are the Iles Wallis?
The distance between Niuatoputapu and the almost-atoll of Wallis Islands, about 200 miles on a course of 316 true, is a downwind sail in SE trade winds. We knew that the deep but narrow pass into the atoll (called Passe Honikulu) could be treacherous at certain tides or when the trade winds are strong, so we planned to time our arrival just before the projected high water slack tide. An early arrival would give us time to get a good look at the pass and its range markers.
Careful estimation of our speed over ground over the course of the trip and steady, mild E to SE winds of 15-20 knots allowed us to continuously adjust our sail area to time our arrival. Of course, as always seems to happen on our passages aboard Carina, our arrival at the approach way-point coincided with a squall. We called this one a white-out because it was raining torrentially atop of us but the sun was shining brightly ahead. The conditions created a glare that made it difficult to see the pass two miles ahead. Continuing slowly forward, we anxiously looked ahead to try to see through the (literal) waterfall, while crashing through 2 meter swell, all the while trying to decide if we should abort our attempted passage and slink off to Fiji. Thankfully the squall moved off and within a mile of the pass we could clearly see all four channel markers at the pass's narrowest section. We could also see the huge surf pounding on the reef on either side of the pass, a sobering sight.
The passage through Honikulu went fine as it appears that our tide table and our "Sailing Directions" derived calculations of high water slack were accurate - that time being "between one hour 10 minutes and 30 minutes before high tide at neap tides and with "normal" tradewinds". The old adage in the US, "red, right, returning" certainly doesn't help you here as the starboard markers are green when you "return from the sea".
Bucking a strong easterly wind, we motored slowly up the wide Baie de Mua against the ebbing current. We were glad we no longer had to deal with large ocean swells, though there were extensive reefs to lee (west in this case) as well as to the east. Suddenly our VHF radio came to life and we heard "mayday mayday, I've lost my engine"; then silence. We looked back to see Tribute slowly falling off to port, heading towards the shoals and reefs.
Tribute had been following us in as, Larry, who is currently single-handling, cannot see his GPS, his chart-plotter software, or his depth sounder from his helmsman's station. His VHF is down below at his navigation station so after the initial call to us, we lost contact with him. We turned around and dug out a tow line to use if needed and went round and round Tribute as Larry (who is not a big man) did a masterful job of saving his enormous and elegant old race boat from the reefs.
The first sail he hoisted was a genoa but this sail could not be trimmed to allow him to sail away from the hazards. At last he got his mainsail up but found he could not possibly attain enough way on with this sail alone to avoid being swept aground. Wearing ship (a maneuver where you allow the boat to fall off the wind to another point of sail) with little room to spare, he sailed SE towards Ile Faioa on the eastern shore of Baie de Mua to gain some wiggle room. Finally he removed his genoa and bent his staysail onto the genoa stay. Soon, Tribute shot off through the narrow Pass Faioa, leaving us behind. At this point, there was nothing we could do to guide him (since he was quickly becoming a tiny sail on the horizon ahead) and he ended up negotiating the tortuous path to the anchorage off the village of Gahi by occasionally running below and checking the course to his next waypoint on his computer screen and then running up above to make a course adjustments. All-in-all a fine display of sailing skill while sailing short-handed. After sorting things out, Larry discovered that his problem was a slipping raw water belt which caused his engine to overheat.
That first day, none of us ventured ashore - the tide was high and the trade winds were blowing which sent wind waves over the reef and crashing into the (lee) shore at the village landing. Too, the anchorage was at Gahi (pronounced Nah-hee in the Wallisian language) which is approximately three nautical miles south of the main village of Mata Utu and would require us to go to shore and hitchhike a ride in order to check in with officials. The distance by road is about six miles.
The Iles Wallis, or Wallis Islands, include over twenty islands within a fringing reef. The largest island is called Uvea and it is here at the village of Mata Utu that the local King (and the Catholic bishop) reside. It is said that these two men possess all the power here and that the French administrators must cede to the local power, despite the fact that the French pay the bills. The population is mostly Catholic and it is a requirement that all teachers in the primary schools are also Catholic. The French language is used exclusively in schools, however the Polynesian people here speak a language similar to Tongan (called Wallisian) and are thought to be descendants of Tonga. Interestingly, their sister island, Futuna, 130 miles to the west, is peopled by descendants of Samoans and who speak a different language. Both islands are administered out of Noumea as French Overseas territories.
An email from a friend advised us it was a good idea to pay a visit to Gahi's chief and bring a gift. This surprised us because we knew that this was custom in Fiji but had no idea we were obliged to do so here. Obliged is probably the wrong word, advised is better. By visiting the local chief we would be assured that we were welcome to use their bay and land at the village. Also surprising to us was that the consumption of kava, so prevalent in Tonga and Fiji, is nearly extinct here, so a gift of pure, organic Tefahi Island kava we acquired in Tonga for just such a purpose, would be useless here. Whiskey is apparently a popular gift but we had none to offer. In the end, we gave a Carina t-shirt as a gift and it was received happily.
Not far from where we beached our dinghy, we were able to get a lift from a couple with a pickup truck loaded with coolers of fish. They dropped us off at the local gendarmerie to check in. The cheerful officer who helped us spoke a little bit of English and that, coupled with our scant French and our dictionary, allowed up to communicate.
We next visited the Customs office about a one kilometer walk away. Another cheerful official helped us with the paperwork and then gave us directions to the bank where we could access the island's only ATM machine. The currency here is the CFP, identical to what is used in French Polynesia. You need about 83 CFP to buy one USD or said another way 100 CFP is $1.20 USD. And, for instance canned butter is 208 CFP and a baguette is 74 CFP. CFPs are large and very colorful bills.
We had only been walking for a few minutes when the very same Customs official drove up, stopped his car across the street and motioned to us. Right away, we figured we were going to be admonished for some irregularity with our paperwork and told to return to the office. Instead, he kindly offered to give us a ride to the bank and to show us where the local supermarket was. This was only the first of our encounters with helpful Uveans and French citizens who rarely get to meet visitors as there are few and those are generally off of yachts.
What we found in Wallis was not only friendly people, curious to talk, but little development. The village of Gahi had in fact no development, though the young people used an abandoned building (from the US military presence during the war) as a social center for dancing and playing volleyball on an adjacent sliver of tarmac.
Every time we ventured out, or simply sat along the road with a bundle of parcels, someone stopped and picked us up. First, we met Didier, a soft-spoken French chef turned cooking teacher who had just returned to Wallis after stints in France and Papeete. Then, having difficulty trying to buy a cell phone chip (which was futile as there aren't cell phones at Wallis), we met a young French woman with two gorgeous young daughters of upturned noses and fine freckled skin. Her girls sat aside and we squished in and she took us first to a hair/salon and gift shop and then almost all the way to the other side of the island, where she left us in the capable hands of Mana, a Polynesian. All the while, she chatted at us nervously in French-lish. (Her husband was also a teacher.)
The reason we were looking for a chip was so we could call to rent a car; Mana rented cars but alas he had none that day. Getting back on the road, we began hiking back towards town, a distance away, and trudged pass a team of a dozen or more teens dressing up the roadside for the Feast Day of the Ascension. After many cars passed us by, a sinister looking Peugot with blackened windows and a deep throaty purr pulled off just ahead. Opening the door, Philip encountered cool air and Nina, a Polynesian beauty adorned with flowers; he smiled and beckoned us to follow. Nina was a joy, sweet and giving and as she left us off with a gift of her flowers, she said, "See you Friday" (the day we were hoping to rent a car). These people represent only a few of those we met who made us feel welcome on this isolated atoll.
We never did rent a car, as weather and tides suggested we weigh anchor and head southwest for Fiji after only eight days. The day of our departure dawned bright and by 2 pm local, we were pulling anchor and heading for the pass to meet the tide. By this date, the moon was full, so the predictions of slack tide were inaccurate, though this did not give us any trouble in the pass as we pushed through the flooding tide. As soon as we exited Wallis, we were hit with the first of many squalls which would challenge us en route to Savusavu, Vanua Levu, Fiji. We knew weather in this area was unpredictable, but we had no idea just how unpredictably unpredictable it is...now we know.
Now in multi-cultural Fiji, where 49% of the population are Hindu descendents from Indians brought to work in the sugar industry, we are immersing ourselves in ample budget-shopping opportunities for veggies (etc.) and spicy food and trying to learn bits of a new language...BULA!
Your friends of the yacht Carina,
Philip, Leslie and fat cat, Jake