Heading Back to Fiji

As I followed the cattle herd of passengers to the X-ray machines at Denver International, I watched Jen walk away and turn to wave, but there was no smile on her face. I felt no excitement about the trip either, just sadness about leaving her for a month. Not once has she tried to dissuade me from doing this, despite the risks and costs. Many people have tried to convince me to take crew, to pay a skipper to deliver the boat, or to simply sell it in Fiji. Not Jen, she sees that I need a physical challenge to keep my spark alive, and that it needs to be some endurance test with high risk. She's willing to set me free to try it, no matter how it could affect her. She's a great woman, and I'm definitely blessed to have such a wife.

Two notebook computers stuffed in my hand carry made getting through Denver and LAX security, a long process. But I brought two because so much depends on them, so a backup was essential. As usual, email is a critical need. By hooking the computer to a Ham radio using a gizmo called terminal node controller (TNC), I'm able to send and receive text email without an internet connection. It's slow, basic and no attachments or graphics can be sent or received. But email from a boat in the middle of the ocean without a satellite system is pretty cool. It kept our sanity during the 29 day passage from Mexico to the Marquesas, and hopefully it'll do the same on this 10-day passage. In comparison the Marquesas was a "milk run" - this one is a different kettle of fish and email will be a great morale booster.

Not only do the computers allow email, they are also my vital link to weather data. Hawaii and New Zealand meteorological services send out weather maps and satellite images several times a day via HF radio. The TNC decodes the signal and passes it to the computer where a program called JVComm32 converts it to a graphical image. I download the charts at least three times a day and track every weather system as they march from Australia towards French Polynesia. Although SJ can't outrun a weather system, we can at least be prepared for it and change course to be avoid the worst quadrant in front of the storm.

Lastly, and least importantly, I use the computers to track my course on electronic charts. I say least importantly because computers and I don't mix and so I'll never rely on one for navigation. It takes just one tiny salt water splash to kill a computer, but a chart can take a wave and be dried out - with pencil marks still intact. But it's great as a backup - having the speed, direction and position recorded automatically is a great bonus. We first tried using this in Bora Bora and soon found it's major drawback. While happily anchored in the lagoon in 6' of water the computer told us we were actually anchored way up the mountain in the center of the island. It seems that the charts for most of the South Pacific are based on British Admiralty surveys of the 1800's, and back then it was all done by sextant. Although the bearings and distances between islands are pretty accurate, their position on the face of the earth can be off by up to 4 miles in some cases. So if you were to rely on electronic charts to go through a pass, there's a big chance you'll end up on a reef frantically pulling the cord of your EPIRB.

Each time the computers went through yet another X-ray machine, I cringed. Two weeks of evenings had been spent setting them up. Most of the data - fax schedules, weatherfax program updates, charts, emergency frequencies, email program enhancements and so on, had been loaded in the Compaq. My old IBM had no space for all this info, so I was praying the Compaq would be fine. To add more eggs to the basket, this computer contained all my work info - 650 MB of emails, gigabytes of correspondence and reports. The idea was that, armed with an Iridium satellite phone, I could still stay in touch with work and lessen the impact of being away from the office for 4 weeks. I'm not sure how this would work as I drifted into a sleep-deprived stupor after 4 or 5 days at sea. My guess is it will take every ounce of brain power to remember which end of the boat is the pointy end.

The Air New Zealand 767 thundered down LAX runway, rotated and was instantly enveloped in the marine layer. I don't remember seeing the top of the clouds but have vivid recollections of drinking grog on a woven mat on the cabin floor of Sojourner. Three chiefs were there, and a madman from an island called Mana. The chiefs were trying to make peace between me and the madman - but the maniacal Fijian kept saying "I weeel keeell im". Several of his middle front teeth were missing and his brows were huge like a Neanderthals. A nudge awoke me and a polite Kiwi accent said, "would you like a drink sir". I was still thinking of the kava bowl and the madman, so shook my head rapidly. Just before we left Fiji in 2002, Jen and I had been attacked by a crazed native. He chased us at high speed in a dive boat, standing on the bow with a rope in one hand and viciously swiping an 8' oar in the other, all the time screaming "I'll keeeel you, I'll keeeel you". This was apparently because we were attempting to dive at his dive spot. I remember his face, his vicious anger and the shrill scream of his voice. This guy had to be a descendent of the king of cannibals. The chase lasted about 3 miles and we zigzagged to prevent drug-crazed maniac getting close enough to crack our skulls with the oar. Our brand new rigid hull inflatable and Yamaha outboard saved us, but we were badly shaken. I also remember being angry we had done 3 miles flat-out with our new motor before it had even 5 hours on it. I have never seen Jen as frightened as during that chase - I think that was the turning point for her in Fiji.

The flight went quickly. In between naps, I chatted with a bible school teacher called Opal, who sat next to me. She was returning to Lambasa to run a bible school for the Fijians, and she talked at great lengths about how the villagers were all her surrogate family, how her bags were stuffed with gifts and how happy the people were despite their poverty. It's true, the Fijians are warm, radiant people with a overwhelming common trait - an intense desire to laugh. The way to a Fijian's heart is through laughter, then Kava, then gifts. They tend to shy away from serious people and will find a joke in just about anything. We found this over and over again throughout the South Pacific, more often than not the sound of laughter and singing would drift across the water to our anchorage. But there's always an anomaly - such as the grog-crazed Neanderthal on the dive boat in Mana, and the Tahitian in Bora Bora who threatened to cut our mooring line at night. But Opal seemed to have had a only a pure and happy experience with the natives, so I resisted the strong temptation to tell her my cannibal descendent story...

As we flew in low over the sugar cane fields on final approach to Nadi, the absence of city lights seemed odd. Just sparse, weak lights dotted the landscape below, marking the small shacks of the Indo-Fijians who leased the land to farm cane. It amazed me how none of the wealth of this international airport spilled over to the surrounding areas. As if there were some type of filter preventing any revenue leaving the airport.

Stepping out the door into the tunnel, the humid air hit me. Thick, warm, with an earthy foliage smell. I felt the first real stirring of excitement, Fiji at last, and a beyond that a huge unknown.

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