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Saturday, November 14, 1998

November 15, 1998-Nightmare Off New Zealand

Woody Goose

New Zealand bound cruising boats, including our WINGS,were hit hard in November as a series of low pressure systems interacted with reinforced trade winds to kick up strong easterly winds and big seas. In the tough conditions which resulted at least five boats were lost and there were four tragic deaths, some of whom were friends we’d cruised with across much of the Pacific.

A fleet of about 30 yachts left Fiji, Tonga and New Caledonia ports in early November with forecasts of excellent weather. The first warning was on November 11 when a Met-Service weather fax from Wellington showed a sharp dip in the isobars to the north. The real problem was the combination of this new low and the nearly stationary high to the southeast. People started to get concerned. Most of fleet from Tonga decided to hang out at Minerva Reef until the system blew over, but those of us coming from Fiji and New Cal were committed. By noon Friday we had over 30 knots of SE wind and the seas were getting bigger. The HF radio nets were full of conversations about the rough rides and about how difficult it was to make the needed easting. On WINGS, although we had made a good run in the last 24 hours, 160 miles close hauled on port tack, and we holding our line to the Bay of Islands, we were having rough going. Under a double reef main and number 4 jib we were making seven knots, right down the rumb line, but we were taking a pounding, the waves were constantly coming over the top of the boat, and the windvane was working real hard to keep us on course. We had to slow down. Eventually we wound up motorsailing under a third reef as the wind peaked at 45 between gusts which we didn’t even measure and the waves turned into small mountains.

After a rough eight day passage we arrived at 3:30 AM on November 16, in Opua New Zealand. Cold, tired, but safe, along with five or six other yachts. By the next day we started hearing about the problems the rest of the fleet was experiencing.

Woody Goose, a beautiful wooden 53ft Ketch from Britain, with husband and wife Roger and Anita aboard, was overdue. Without a HF radio, and because of several other problems they had been dealing with such as a repeatedly failing steering system and other damage suffered in a grounding in Fiji, they had been buddy boating with another yacht. During the early days of the storm the two boats lost touch with each other and Woody Goose did not come up on the VHF radio. Their friends went back for four hours looking but never again saw Woody Goose. On Tuesday Morning the word swept through the cruising fleet in Opua: Woody Goose had gone on the beach north of there and Anita was lost in the surf and drowned. Days later, during trips to the wreck site on the long sandy beach in New Zealand’s Great Exhibition Bay where the cruisers went to help salvage equipment from the broken boat, the story came out. Exhausted after days of hand steering, they had decided to anchor off the coast. Even knowing that the lee shore was dangerous, they desperately needed a rest. In the early morning hours the boat dragged, the engine wouldn’t start, and when they tried to sail off the steering failed. In the surf Anita was swept overboard, her harness was left hanging empty in the cockpit. Roger set off flares and tried to search for her, but to no avail. When help, in the form of the local constable arrived, he and Roger found Anita’s body on the beach a few hundred yards from Woody Goose’s battered hull. Even though nearly everything removable, including the engine and the masts were saved, the boat itself was a total loss, it’s ribs broken and it’s bottom ripped out.

At the same time two boats to the north west of New Zealand were also in trouble. Energetic II had been dismasted and was drifting west, away from New Zealand. Energetic II crew of three (plus one dog) were able to clean up their boat and start powering west towards Lord Howe Island. No way could they motor against the wind and seas to New Zealand. Then the news reports came in on Janamarie, another 50 plus foot New Zealand vessel on the way home with four persons aboard. They were rolled in huge seas and two persons were lost. The rig was down and the pilot house windows were all blown out. One crew member was on deck with the owner preparing to go below when the incident happened and he was washed over, never to be seen again. The owner was on deck with him but his harness held and he survived. His wife and the other crew were in the pilot house and, unbelievably, the second crew member was sucked out a broken window and also lost. The survivors were seriously injured with lacerations and broken bones, but they struggled in spite of their injuries to keep the boat afloat. Help arrived in response to their EPIRB and they were rescued. Their boat was left at sea. The rest of the fleet, including single handers Caledonia and Talisman, straggled in one by one to Opua New Zealand, all with stories to tell, but alive.

Meanwhile, well to the east, the storm had passed and the fleet at Minerva Reef headed out on their passage to New Zealand. At the start their conditions were mild and the lead boats made good time. Before any of them arrived in New Zealand however another low had formed and the coming weather was forecast to be even worse this time than the one which had hit Woody Goose, Energetic II and Janamarie. By November 27 many of the boats had made it in ahead of the storm but on that day an EBIRB signal was received from a vessel named FREYA, just east of Cape Brett off the Bay of Islands. They were dismasted, disabled, and sinking. New Zealand’s top notch air rescue services found the boat and lifted the three persons who had been on board to safety. FREYA was left at sea and not seen again. The same day a VHF distress call was received in the same vicinity from SALACIA, another boat coming from Tonga with two persons, Mike Fritz and Julie-Ann Black on board. They were also disabled and drifting towards shore, but without EPIRB to help rescuers to find them. All day and night Friday cruisers listened spellbound on VHF to the radio traffic of the searchers looking for SALACIA just west of the Bay of Islands. At the time we were all hunkered down in bays and coves with winds in the anchorages in the high 50’s and driving rain which made visibility nearly zero. The seas off the coast where SALACIA was reported to be were horrific. Early in the morning of November 28th a Kiwi Air Rescue aircraft reported that they had located SALACIA and they had vectored a merchant ship to the scene. At dawn, before a helicopter had arrived, the crew of the ship apparently attempted to rescue the two sailors from SALACIA. Later, on the ship’s VHF Mike reported that both persons were thrown life rings. He saw that Julie was in hers, (he said that she also was in a survival suit and life jacket) and then he went to the bow of SALACIA and pulled the second life ring over his own head. He was lifted aboard the ship but Julie was lost from her ring and not seen again. Mike said at first that he thought she had stayed on the boat and gone below, but no one actually saw this. When the ship returned for a second pass to get Julie, all they reported finding was wreckage from SALACIA. Even though the search was continued all day, no sign of her was found, nor was SALACIA seen afloat after that.

Wings, Anchored in New Zealand

Click here to see the log book pages of this passage.

Fred & Judy, S/V WINGS, Auckland, New Zealand

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Friday, November 06, 1998

November 7, 1998-Touring Fiji


We knew there was a path through these reefs, the chart clearly showed one, but it also showed several navigation markers. Where were those?

Finally I spotted some broken posts, one with a drooping metal sign. Ahah! These must be the markers. We proceeded carefully through the narrow, twisting passage, past missing markers, with reefs on both sides. It took the two of us, both fully attentive, to keep Wings safe, and it took three days!

Navigating in Fiji around Viti Levu’s North Coast to rejoin Elyxir at Ovalau had seemed like a good idea, surely an unusual one in the minds of our friends back at Malolo Lailai, but motoring inside the reefs instead of sailing farther north in Bligh waters, made it one of our more stressful trips. We were lucky to make it without mishap.

The pay off was being able to visit some out of the way places, well off the tourist path.

We anchored each afternoon and stayed overnight tucked behind points of land and in small bays, and we went ashore to explore the empty shorelines. Walking down lonely roads surrounded by sugar cane fields we saw only a cow here and there and an occasional house among the rolling hills. From time to time we could hear a car or bus roar by on the highway, on their way around the big island, but we saw few people.

Road to Rakiraki

This part of Fiji is a very quiet place.


One day we made it to the highway and hitched a ride into Ba, one of the sugar towns on this coast. Here we found a few Indian department stores and curry restaurants, and all the women were dressed in sari’s.


We had it in mind to go to Rakiraki, simply because the exotic name attracted us, but the day wore on and we headed back to Vitia Wharf, behind which Wings was anchored. When we got there we found the tide had gone out and left our dingy stranded by 100 yards of thick mud and sharp barnacled rocks.

Getting through that mess to the water was a struggle.

Another day we anchored in Ellington Bay and met a couple of Indian men who had turned from sugar farming to fishing. They stopped their 14’ plywood craft alongside and came aboard for a tour. They expressed wonderment at the winches and other equipment on Wings. At Ellington Bay there was a large passenger ferry, the “Ovalau”, tied to a pier, and appearing disused. We could hear a gen. set running, and saw laundry hanging out on the upper deck. There must be some residents.

The biggest town was Lautoka, a bustling city with an economy based on sugar mills. We found our way to the central market and smelled the rich aromas of bulk spices, and we had lunches in the curry houses. We found supermarkets for provisioning, and great prices at shops of all kinds. When we got back to the boat we found black snowflake sized ashes from the mills covering our decks, and it was a continuing struggle to clean off the sooty stains.

We enjoyed this part of the coast, more than the Yasawas, the popular island group in Nadi Waters where most of the cruisers headed after race week. There we’d found traveling dangerous in the vast uncharted areas and, with the exception of the “Blue Lagoon”, poor harbors. The contrast between the peoples who lived there and those on the North Coast was also educational. In the Yasawa’s there were Fijian villages, with grass houses and a communal live style little changed for centuries. Children ran naked in the village and the adults frequently demanded fees from yachts. On the North Coast the Indian people had frame or brick houses, and their kids were sent off to school every day dressed in neat clothes and shined shoes, packing bundles of school books. We saw these two divergent cultures first hand and could see for ourselves why clashes were going to be inevitable as the industrious Indians gradually accumulated wealth and the Fijians stagnated.

Waya Island

Rounding the NE corner of Viti Levu we finally reached open waters and could again set sail. Elixir awaited us at Naigani Island. This was again land occupied by Fijians, and after we anchored we made our way to the chief’s house to perform Sevu Sevu with the village elders, a ceremony in which we made an offer of Yagona, the bundled roots of the Kava plant, and they in turn shared a bowl of Kava, the narcotic drink prepared from those roots. The ceremony completed, we received permission to stay the night. Afterwards one elder took us aside and told us that the poor quality of our Yagona was an insult to the chief, and we were lucky not to be snubbed because of it. The requirement to do the Sevu Sevu at every island aggravated us.

Going to do Sevu Sevu

During colonial times the capital of Fiji was the town of Levuka, on Ovalau Island, and we anchored there off the main street, and then went ashore and walked along the older wooden buildings. For a price, a taxi driver took us on a tour of the island, where we saw a white church standing stark against the green jungles.

Ovalau Boats

There was more to our tour of Fiji, including visits to Vuda Point, Port Denerau, and Nadi, all in the West, and a stay in the Gnau Islands, in the East, where the Fijians turned Sevu Sevu into a full on press for cash donations. We completed our circumnavigation of Viti Levu when we arrived in Suva, the capital.


Royal Suva Yacht Club

In Suva we stayed at the Royal Suva Yacht Club, shopped in town, went to western movies, and enjoyed cool drinks at the yacht club bar. We also participated in a race in with the local boats, a hair raising affair among reefs and other obstacles, and were happy to get through unscathed.

Suva Market

As much as we’d seen of Fiji in nearly three months, we’d hardly scratched the surface, but it was time to prepare for the passage to New Zealand. As we got ready to depart, we made a promise to return.


Fred & Judy, SV Wings, Fiji


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