Bula bula, Savusavu!
“GOOOOOD MOOOOOOORNING, SAVUUUUSAVUUUU!” blared a jovial voice over VHF Channel 16. We startled awake, passage weary and bleary-eyed from a few days at sea. The sun had hardly graced the hilltops, but nothing scrubs fatigue from your bones like the excitement of a new country to explore! Savusavu is a cruising haven and early morning tidings from a local sailor were evidence of the established community.
Time to rise!
We needed to make ourselves decent anyway, as we anticipated the authorities would be arriving soon to complete clearance procedures. Sure enough, it was not long before a tin boat arrived, ferrying all of the usual suspects to Red Thread’s stern: customs, immigration, and biosecurity. With a “Bula! Bula!” (hello, welcome), the authorities climbed aboard. Our dues paid and passports stamped, we were free to venture ashore.
Savusavu is the second-largest town, situated on Fiji’s second-largest island, Vanua Levu. Vanua Levu is divided east to west by a mountainous backbone that includes multiple peaks over 3,000 feet, the grandest among them being, Nasorolevuat (Mount Batini) towering some 3,645 feet (1,111 meters) above sea level. Situated on the southern belly of the 110-mile long island, the mouth of Savusavu Bay (14 NM across) opens southward to the Koro Sea and is one of just three ports in Fiji where cruisers can clear into the country (the others are Suva and Nadi on Viti Levu). For cruisers arriving from the east, it is the most appealing of the three ports.
Savusavu is cradled in the crook of a peninsula along the southeastern shore of Savusavu bay and nestled up a creek behind Tawi Island. Well-protected from most weather, it is hardly a surprise that a contingent of sailors has become a fixture of the community.
Home to fewer than 5,000 people, Savusavu has one major street on which all necessities and a few eateries and watering holes can be found, making it an easy place to linger and laze about. There are heaps of things to do within just a few hours of Savusavu, but our time was spent catching up with a few other cruisers, seeing a bit of the town and World Coconut Day festivities, and…boat projects. The waterfalls and hot springs we’d read about in our Lonely Planet would have to wait!
The contours of the hills and mountains above Savusavu are picturesque and lush with flora, and the climate is deliciously balmy. Not unlike Vava’u, it was not hard to figure out why Savusavu became many sailors’ final destination.
In Savusavu, we met Tawn from the boat Palarran, who had taken up residence in the creek at Savusavu, while her partner CB was overseas working for a bit. A highlight was reconnecting with Ichiban John, the fellow who had retrieved our wayward boat hook a month prior in Vava’u, Tonga. Both hail from Seattle, and their company gave us a taste of home. Sharing the delight of a few Fiji Bitters and catching an American football game left us feeling like perhaps we weren’t so far from home, after all.
Fiji’s complex political history has produced a cuisine replete with dynamic, colorful flavours. Curries. Spices. Textures. Aromas. YUM. We’d enjoyed food across the Pacific, but the flavor explosion born of Fiji’s complicated history was a delight to our senses. We enjoyed a wonderful meal with the crew from s/v Anahoa! Learning about history and culture comes in many forms, food being one. It was becoming clear that we were firmly in Micronesia now, having left Polynesia in our wake.
Perhaps our favorite meal, however, was a long dinner with Ichiban John aboard Red Thread. He spoke modestly of his life aboard boats, and we pried one story out of him after the next. John could craft his memoir chapter-by-chapter according to the boats he’d known, and Neil and I were fascinated to learn more about him. I think he was somewhat amused by us as well, having realized that one of his friends had stumbled upon our blog as we were getting ready to set sail in 2014 and solicited his opinion on how mad we were to embark on such a voyage as a pair of relative greenhorns. We’d managed to get a very long way from Seattle in rather good shape.
After a few beers and decent home-cooked meal, I think he had decided we were alright.
A splash of obscenities
After a few days of sleeping late and ignoring our to-do list in favor of socializing, we had to shift priorities, lest we become among the sailors whose anchors never left the muddy bottom of the creek! We took down the mainsheet and I set to repairing the luff of the sail, where the battens had worn through, and a few other small tears we’d noticed on our passage from Tonga.
When we hoisted the freshly repaired sail, Neil was at the mast taking care to adjust the furling line just right as we rolled it back into our LeisureFurl boom. As he went to replace the metal cover plate on the furling drum at the front of the mast, it slipped from his hands.
Tink, bink, bonk, splash.
A string of obscenities trailed the hunk of metal as it sank 40 feet to the bottom of the muddy creek known to be home to bull sharks. We would be unlikely to source a replacement plate in the South Pacific, and jury-rigging a temporary cover would be unlikely to work well. We needed to dive for the plate and quickly, before it settled into the silty creek bottom, where it would be next to impossible to find.
I was not about to let Neil dive by himself, but the thought of diving in murky bull shark territory sent my gastrointestinal system into a fret. To be frank, I felt like I was going to shit myself. On went our wetsuits and over to Red Thread came Ichiban John. We figured it would be good to have someone on deck to make sure we both emerged from the depths unscathed. We were probably being melodramatic given the rarity of shark attacks. Still, diving in water with poor visibility is hardly a pleasure and worth a few nerves.
Down, down, down we went.
We descended hand-over-hand down the anchor chain. Visibility was just a couple of meters, so we swam with a rope suspended between the two of us to ensure we did not lose each other and to help us canvas the sea bottom as thoroughly and efficiently as possible. After a few minutes, I spied a silver edge in the sand.
AHA! The plate!!!
Left for too much longer and the soft mud would have gobbled it up completely! Rather chuffed with myself, I swam toward the object, declaring to myself that I had saved the day!
We surfaced as quickly as we could, relieved on multiple fronts that the dive was quick and uneventful and we could now finish the job.
Community in action
Whether through good planning or luck, we have never encountered a life-or-death issue. There were, however, a hundred ways that other sailors helped us on our journey. Folx loaned us tools or offered hours of assistance installing replacement parts, among other kindnesses. While whittling away the time in Savusavu, we had an opportunity to pay forward support that we’d received along our own journey.
The sun was hurrying beyond the horizon when we heard a call for assistance over VHF channel 16 from a single-handed sailor who was nearing Savusavu. He was sailing under headsail and his sheets were overrun on his winch, leaving him no ability to furl his sail. He was also struggling to get his engine to turn over, leaving him tacking back and forth on approach to the river’s entrance. Neil, Ichiban John, and two other vessels responded with haste and soon there were three dinghies racing to lend assistance.
Some maneuvering to come safely alongside the under-sail vessel was required, along with a bit of acrobatics to jump aboard. Once on deck, Neil and John found the jib sheet was wrapped over and jammed fast, making it impossible to furl. After cutting the line free and hand-wrapping the headsail, the squad of dinghies rigged up a towing bridle off the vessel’s fore cleats and with 15 hp outboard motors roaring, slowly towed her safely up the river to a mooring.
There is a pervasive sense of accountability to one another among long-distance sailors. Strangers with little in common beyond boats come together in times of need without second thoughts. There may be, at times, a cadre of salts who deconstruct post-mortem what “should have,” or “could have,” been done differently (with opinions as strong and vast as a Southern Ocean storm cell…), but the community’s willingness to band together in action to help fellow sailors is steadfast.
Back in motion
We were counting down the weeks until friends arrived from the US, but we had enough time to explore a bit more of Vanua Levu. We wrested ourselves from the charm of Savusavu and sailed eastward alongside our friends aboard s/v Sarita to a tiny nook called Viani Bay a few hours away.
12 thoughts on “Bula bula, Savusavu!”
It was great to get an email from you guys. It had been a long time without any news. I hope all is well. Any updates on what you guys are doing would be wonderful. It is amazing to see on social media the number of folks and younger families that have taken to living aboard and sailing the oceans. We are boatless and will stay that way. We now have a travel trailer that we spend about 5 1/2 months in over in Montana. I have a Facebook page for Lou Cragin as well as IG and TicTok. Best wishes.
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Hello Lou! How lovely to hear from you. Yes, things have been quiet on this blog. We both work very demanding jobs these days and with bab(ies) there is rarely time to sit down, let alone write! I get such joy from reminiscing about the stories of our voyage and collating notes and journal entries, that I’m trying hard to start carving out time for it again. Comments like yours energize me–thank you. It sounds like you’ve opted to land yacht these days, which is wonderful. There are such magical things on land and sea, and it is great that you are writing chapters of your life that involve both. I’ll look you up on IG — I’m not cool enough for TicTok! -Jessie
Nice to read another account of your past adventures. Hope you still get to sail these days. All the best!
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Hello! Thank you for reading 🙂 Yes, we do, albeit not nearly as much as we’d like. Life on land is…busy…and this chapter has been particularly hectic in the best of ways. We’ll be sailing in southern Tasmania for most of the month of March! Whereabout are y’all at the moment? -Jessie
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Hi Jessie. We are doing major maintenance at the Boat Works in QLD. Hopefully backboard n the water later next week. Another winter cruising season at the GBR and visiting the Coral Sea atolls. Next summer in Tassie.
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We are still in Edmonds, retired for almost 20 years, can’t believe our daughter is 38 and Nancy and I are in our mid 70’s. We sold our boat in 2017 and the travel trailer entered the scene. We love Montana in the late spring, summer and early fall.
I hope with demanding jobs you take time for your selves. You seemed so happy sailing and being free. Do you still have the Red Thread? Can’t remember are you in Australia or New Zealand? Did I read “ babies”. Congratulations on the addition. Best wishes to you guys. It was a joy to met you at Elliott Bay.
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Cool to read storirs from years ago. How fantastic was Fiji? I spent 16 months and look forward to returning in May. Best wishes
Love a Robin Williams wake up call. So nice hear from S/V Red Thread and beautifully written.
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And thank you for your kind words, Mary!
This blog post is a lovely read. Thank you for sharing your experiences of Fiji. What are you doing now?
Barb and I met you at Chatterbox Falls when you became engaged. Was that in 2013? We were running the 40 foot Bayliner Bodega PineAweigh which we sold last year and are now among the landlocked.
For a number of years we followed your exploits, but then stopped receiving your messages for some reason. Having just gotten your latest one, Feb. 15, it’s nice to catch up a bit. Back in ‘13 we think you hinted of finishing up in New Zealand or Austraila. Did that work out? And now babies?
Whatever you are up to, best of continued success.
David and Barbara Pine
I had decided you were ok long before Savusavu😘. Now Neil, on the other hand…😉