From Tonga to Fiji by Outrigger Canoe
Robert Gillett has written an excellent article, I hope that you enjoy
A few years ago when I moved to Suva, Fiji, I wanted to have a boat for getting from town out to where we surf on the reef and perhaps for visits to the nearby islands. With the multitude of boats available locally, it was difficult to decide what to get. Because the organization I work for had done some work in modifying a traditional sailing canoe design from the Gilbert Group into a craft that was perhaps more seaworthy and could carry greater loads, I eventually chose that design.
Living in Suva, a location with several boatbuilding firms, I thought it would be easy to find someone to build the plywood canoe. It wasn't. Suva's leading wood boat builder quoted a price over four times the Gilbert Islands cost and smaller builders were not interested in the job. Finally, one firm agreed to undertake the project but kept the project on the "back burner" for over five months.
At the beginning, the idea was to build a canoe which would, as closely as possible, resemble the craft we were promoting in the Gilberts. The offer by reliable local fiberglass shop to build the boat out of fiberglass caused me to reconsider the original plan. Why not try a new material which, in some Pacific Island situations, may be more appropriate than plywood?
A wooden jig (temporary frame) was constructed to which sheets of 6mm Divinycell foam were stapled. Seams between the foam sheets were filled and faired. Over this surface (eventually to become the outside of the hull) three layers of fiberglass cloth (300g and 450g chopped strand matt, 330g woven cloth) were laid. The structure was then turned over and glassed on the inside (two layers of 300g chopped strand matt, and one layer of 16oz roving). Departure from the original plywood design included a completely sealed watertight stern section and floor area, re-inforcement of the hull in the area of outrigger support attachments, extension of the foredeck further aft, and the use of a fiberglassed solid foam outrigger float.
The canoe has a 15 sq meter gunter sail arrangement - somewhat like a gaff rig in which the gaff extends vertically. I originally thought it was a bit "Mickey Mouse", but soon became a gunter convert after sailing in very rough, offshore conditions.
When the canoe, named Nakono, was finished, I had no idea how seaworthy it would be. After a few afternoon outings in Suva Harbor, we started island hopping. From a modest weekend trip to nearby Beqa Island we progressed further offshore over the next 18 months to a 10 day 400 mile cruise around the islands in Fiji's Koro Sea.
The nice thing about canoe cruising in Fiji is that almost all of the 300 islands can be visited by doing 20 mile segments. This tremendously simplifies the navigation and safety aspects of the trip. In a reasonable wind, three of these island hops can be undertaken in a day. If the weather blows up, we simply stop at an island, drag the canoe up on the beach, and wait for conditions to improve. With a great diversity of islands in Fiji, it is possible to choose whether to stay at a deluxe resort, Fijian village, or uninhabited island.
These island hopping trips were a learning experience with respect to both canoe seamanship and required modification to Nakono. Because of the constant spray, navigation must be waterproof. Photocopied sections of charts are kept in a long cylindrical glass jar with the presently-used chart on the outside. Notes on speed and departure times are made on a SCUBA-type slate. In case of dis-orientation in a squall, a hand bearing compass is carried. Being buoyant like a cork, the Nakono has never taken on water from a breaking wave, however splash water and spray necessitate occasional bailing. To reduce the amount of this work, a taut canvas cover was fitted over the main hull between the outrigger beams and a plywood cover was cut for the area between the foredeck deck and the forward beam. We carry a 100 quart ice chest which gave cool cocktails and marinated fish for up to 6 days. Tools, food, and clothes are kept dry in 12 gallon plastic jars. Cooking is done on a small gas stove using pint size fuel bottles. With a bit of practice, water could be boiled for coffee while at sea. For propulsion in calm weather, a 3.5 hp outboard is carried. Although it weighs only slightly more than a sewing machine, it can push the Nakono along at a respectable 6.5 knots. A 12' x 12' plastic tarp with grommets around the perimeter has proven handy for forming a tent over the canoe when it has been dragged up on the beach and for collecting rain water.
After a few months of sailing it became obvious that the weak component in the Nakono system was the outrigger beams. Made of a local wood called "dakua" (Agathis vitiensis), the solid-stock pieces measured 2" x 6" x 14'. Immediately after snapping one in a moderate sea 5 miles offshore, a few promises were made to myself. I realized that modifications were necessary to improve seaworthiness. Accordingly, the beams were replaced with ones made from 12 laminations. One old beam was retained for use as an emergency beam splint, a lever in case of capsize, and a convenient seat on the starboard side between the beams.
We also learned that in lively sailing conditions, island hopping by canoe is more akin to mountain climbing in the challenges it presents than to a conventional south seas yacht cruise. Ten hours of being wet and sunburned while
surfing down swells, hiking-out to compensate for gusts, and actively steering to compensate for being slapped around results in a very tired crew. More than once we were looking forward to a rowdy time ashore at the next port, only to fall asleep after half a beer.
After assessing the performance of the canoe over an 18 month period, I decided that it was time to get more adventurous. Taking advantage of a large Tongan fishing boat being in Suva, I negotiated a deal with the captain to have the Nakono taken as deck cargo 400 miles upwind to Tonga's capitol, Nuku'alofa.
Deciding on who to take as crew came next. Although lots of people who had sailed with me expressed an interest in going, there were only three people I would consider doing the trip with. When it came down to making a commitment, a surprising number of job obligations and wives appeared on the horizon. A friend from the isolated Tokelau Islands north of Samoa had all sorts of obligations to keep him from doing the trip, but the challenge of the voyage to Fiji from Tonga proved too great - he told his pregnant wife to name the child "JiTo" after the two island groups if she gave birth while he was at sea (she did).
After rigging the canoe in Tonga, there came a period of waiting for the right conditions. We were psychologically prepared for the trip and anxious to depart, but patience at this time is critical. It is most difficult to lay around doing virtually nothing while waiting for ideal conditions when the thought of a forthcoming intense adventure is heavy on one's mind. In addition to this, the multitudes of dates, appointments and commitments which must be swept aside for such a trip begin creeping back into reality. Living for a number of years in the South Pacific, it has been my experience that a large portion of nautical disasters occur because of having to be somewhere before a deadline which may lead to pressure to set off in sub-optimal conditions.
Finally the day came. Conditions on the weather map and forecast appeared ideal: fifteen knots of wind from the northeast and indications it would hold. Still, we were wondering if this was the right move. There was little conversation between my Tokelauan friend and myself as the island of Tongatapu disappeared over the horizon. We were both mentally hovering over the thin grey line which divides concern from fear. There wasn't really that much to worry about; the winds generally blow from our departure point to our Fiji target, we carried a four-man life raft plus EPIRB radio, friends in both Tonga and Fiji were notified of our departure, and the local airline agreed to keep a watch out for us. Still, a long way offshore with 10 inches of freeboard, the thoughts of what might happen become magnified.
One person steered while the other one puttered around attending to small jobs: bailing, making coffee, tending the trolling line, noting speed on the slate, providing snacks to the helmsman, brushing teeth, and trimming the sails. Navigation was fairly simple: our first leg would be a 250 mile jump to the Lau Island chain which extends 240 miles north to south. By aiming for an island in the middle of the group, our navigation could be as much as 120 miles off without major consequences. In the local language "Lau" means "hitting the target", so I presume that we were not the first to use this navigation technique to get from Tonga to the main island in Fiji.
The first day's sailing was great! Classic tradewinds of 15 knots aft of the beam produced an easy seven knots. But as nightfall approached, so did our apprehension - could we handle a healthy squall in the middle of the night? As it turned out, our only problem was sleeping. The small wisps of spray which were pleasant during the heat of the day, made it far too cold to sleep at night, even with foul-weather gear jackets. Shivering at night while trying to get some sleep I resolved to bring arctic clothing on my next canoe adventure.
I have often wondered about what comforts traditional Pacific Island canoe sailors had on their ancient long distance voyages. After all, our downwind slide of a few days, although seeming fairly hard-core to us, would be easy compared to the weeks at sea of a canoe voyage a hundred years ago. In 1983 I spent a few months on a Micronesian atoll, Satawal, which probably has the strongest present-day tradition of canoe voyaging. While at that location, I tagged along on some canoe voyages and paid special attention to the creature comforts of traditional canoe cruising. My list of little things that made life easier aboard a canoe included: a nice spray rail all along the topsides which prevented almost all water from reaching the crew, a nifty canoe bailer contoured to fit the inside of the hull, seats contoured to fit the outside of one's posterior, tasty local food specially preserved for the trip, and a tiller arrangement which would allow the helmsman to occasionally steer with his feet. They also have well-developed story-telling skills which can be cleverly used to raise the crews' spirits during adverse conditions by telling about some really horrendous voyages.
All the gadgets and modern sailing comforts aboard a yacht are not as important for the well-being of the crew as fine weather. I have come to believe that the greatest luxury traditional canoe voyagers have is that of time. Those sailors are able to wait as long as necessary for ideal weather. After all, a thrash to weather in a deluxe cruising yacht is far less pleasant than a downwind slide in the most basic boat.
The first night out of Tonga, despite the perfect weather, we wondered how our "basic boat" would fare in the darkness ahead. Looking back at it, I chuckle thinking about my promise that night (among others) never to take my canoe offshore again. Clipping along on a broad reach at six knots under single reefed main was not unpleasant but the flashes of lightening on the horizon served to remind us of what may be in store. Time did not "fly" that night.
With the coming of the dawn and the fine weather of the day, the resolutions made during the night were easily forgotten. We casually spoke of our next, more ambitious cruise. With a full main we were easily sliding
along at eight knots. The warm weather permitted little cat naps between lively debates of who was most scared during the previous night.
Even on a small canoe there are a multitude of little jobs to keep the crew busy and help pass the time. In carrying out several of these tasks, I decided one of the handiest items to have on a canoe cruise is inner-tube rubber. The trip to Tonga convinced me that it is possible to do almost anything with rubber. Shock cords for trolling lines, lashings for emergency splints on spars, pads to prevent chafing, tie-downs for deck gear, and eliminators of irritating rattles can be made out of that lovely stretchy material. Perhaps the most novel attribute of this cruising gear is its cost.
The second day at sea, like the first, was about as ideal as one could ask for: 15 knots of wind with few clouds in the sky. The combined effect of the weariness of not sleeping the night before together with a bit of adrenaline from realizing how far offshore we now were, produced the net effect of a surprisingly normal consciousness. We decided that if a ship spotted us and came to offer assistance to our ridiculously small craft, we would shout to those up on deck "DO YOU NEED HELP?". I could tell our spirits were rising when my buddy from Tokelau started his usual complaining over the lack of fresh, raw fish and the accompanying monologue about what a hopeless fisherman I am.
We spent most of the time clipping along on a starboard tack. Wind from the starboard side causes the outrigger to be pushed into the water. Although slower than having the outrigger being lifted while on a port tack, the reduced chance of a capsize was worth the half knot, at least when you are a hundred miles offshore.
In the late afternoon when we faced the prospect of another black night ahead of us, the feeling was a bit different than the first evening. There was less concern about being thrashed by a squall than about ploughing over a reef. We were due to arrive at the first island of the Lau group at 1000 hrs to next day, but if we had underestimated our speed, there was some chance the Nakono would crash into one of the protruding reefs in the black of the night.
As it turned out, along about midnight while shivering in the cold, we worried about the opposite: what should we do at dawn if there was no island at all in sight? Hmmm.... Just before dawn our first squall of the trip hit like a ton of bricks. After yanking down all the sails, the major worry was how much worse it would get (it only got to the semi-panic level). I was somewhat comforted seeing how well the Nakono rode downwind under bare poles. As we waited for first light of dawn, I just could not decide what to do if part of the Lau Group was not visible. While agonizing over this predicament in the rain, time crawled along.
The squall passed, the horizon lightened, and Moce Island popped up directly in front! Damn, it looked good! As we sailed closer, the bright sun rose higher, the ocean became more blue, and the island assumed a brilliant green color. When we crossed over the shallow reef into the lagoon, the inhabitants of the distant village ashore realized that this arriving boat was not the typical yacht. They piled into a dozen of their traditional sailing canoes and came out to meet us. The sight of the canoe fleet approaching us was spectacular! When these sailors learned where we came from, they were astonished, as our canoe was the first one since the turn of the century to sail from Tonga. We were equally surprised as I was not aware of their type of craft, even though I live in the same country.
The plan was to sleep a few hours ashore and then proceed to Suva. We could then call the stopover at Moce Island, for Immigration/Customs purposes, an emergency visit. Oh well, so much for good intentions; we both slept for 18 hours, ate and then knocked off a few more hours. Then we figured that the officials in Suva would excuse a canoe race between ours and the "waqa-vaka-viti" canoes of Moce (a very close finish). Finally, we hoped that Immigration/Customs could see that we were obliged to stay for a feast. By the time of our departure from Moce, we were hoping our "friends" in officialdom, whom we had never met, were going to be really good guys (they were).
From this point, sailing back to Suva would (hopefully) consist of island hops to destinations we could see, without any dismal cold nights at sea. From Moce to Vanua Vatu the weather was ideal - a few bumps on the bottom going over the reef on arrival, but not bad. The the next segment of the trip proved to be the worst. Halfway from Vanua Vatu to Moala, the wind freshened to about 30 knots and together with some shallow seamounts in the area, created "washing machine" conditions.
I have often thought about what to do while canoe sailing if conditions get really bad. First off, the 11 sq meter main can be reefed twice. Because of the gunter rig, at each reefing the mast becomes more stable, better supported, and has a lower center of gravity. After two reefings, the boom is dropped to deck level where it behaves nicely. Under jib alone, the canoe could take a lot of wind. The canvass and plywood covers over the main hull would prevent swamping if a healthy wave broke onboard. Twenty gallons of the Pacific would get down below but not 200. I have been told by canoe voyagers up in Micronesia that, if caught in a typhoon, they would purposely swamp the canoe for survival. Crashing down the swells on the way to Moala in "roller coaster" conditions, I weighed the pros and cons of the swamping idea.
Eight hours after departing Vanua Vatu and a few more resolutions later, we arrived at Moala Island under double reefed main. Whew...
The next leg of the trip was to Gau Island and then to the port of Suva. The Nakono, having served us well in some tough times, had gained our confidence. Rather than tuck into Gau for the night, we opted to proceed on to Suva. The Nasilai area, noted for its roughness, didn't scare us, even after dark. At this point, we figured if the worse was to happen, we could drift for a while, then climb up on the reef and walk to Suva. As if building
up to a climax, the wind became stronger the nearer we came to town. Finally, at midnight as we screamed around the point in the reef and approached the passage into the harbor, the wind shut off completely to leave the Nakono becalmed.
Because we had ditched all of our outboard fuel during one of the earlier panics, the paddle to the mooring took two hours. In retrospect, this slow period at the end of the voyage allowed time to reflect what on what had taken place during the previous days.
We had pushed our small craft to the limit and in doing so, the performance and seaworthiness of the Nakono exceeded our expectations. Although we learned much about the qualities of the canoe, we also learned a bit about ourselves and how we react in frightening circumstances. We were both glad we had done the trip but neither of us had a desire to do it again - but can any real adventure be done a second time?