Backpacker Yachties (Part Three)

Sailing the High Seas on a Shoestring Budget

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1905
A lone sailing vessel anchored at Rotuma Island, Fiji Islands, South Pacific

Author’s Note: It had been a long haul since completing my doctoral studies in Public Health. Two years of fruitless job hunting — even resorting to wearing a suit and tie (and shoes) for interviews in Washington DC, New York and Boston. So when Eddie approached me to join him for a second season of sailing on the Nudge Nudge – amazingly, despite the numerous brushes with death on our maiden voyage, I agreed to join Captain Eddie and Ray – a seasoned sailor, to once again tempt fate aboard the infamous Nudge Nudge.

Season II aboard Nudge Nudge

“At last, a beautiful day of sailing, beam-reach to five knots – and another fish! Anchored in the middle of three small uninhabited islands — spectacular corals, sun-washed beaches. A northerly wind is rising, and the stars are brilliant. Ahh yes, the yachtie lifestyle!  Sometimes it works — and then there’s the rest of the time.” [Captain’s Logbook]

Nudge Nudge up on the hard in Neisau Marina, Lautoka, Viti Levu, Fiji Islands

Indeed, everyday aboard Nudge Nudge was grist for many a tale – with the endless stream of near calamities and breakdowns, patched together in true budget-yachtie fashion. Coke can slivers holding our winches in place, the leaky dinghy requiring repeated sessions with the air pump and the ridiculous hose fitted together haphazardly in bits and pieces.

A hole in the exhaust manifold that poured a stream of thick, black smoke into the cockpit, making it virtually impossible to remain there whenever the vessel was motoring. A chronically broken engine and faulty alternator – with no way to recharge our batteries.

But who needs electricity – or an engine for that matter — when your Captain is an ardent student of Polynesian Archaeology? It seemed we were destined to ply the seas as the ancients did, or at least as the early Europeans did, with our 1853 vintage British Royal Admiralty charts – attractive relics complete with coconut trees adorning the islands, but off on longitude, as we had noted on our maiden voyage the previous year. 

The auto-steering setup was probably the most interesting feature. It consisted of a piece of surgical tubing tied to the tiller opposite the main sheet to balance our heading – and it worked like a charm!

Oh no!

Then there was the gaping hole that emerged in the hull when a sizable chunk of rust flaked away while scraping it. Fortunately, we were up ‘on the hard’ when that happened!

Amazing what a bit of bottom paint can do for a boat!

And we assumed that our efforts to take accurate sights with a sextant from the wildly pitching deck offered at most a challenging, if dubious backup to our GPS navigation system – until we learned that our ‘actual’ backup system wasn’t working either.

Taking a sighting with the sextant

But we were a rough and ready crew — the Backpacker Yachties.  Well-seasoned and undaunted by all the big, flash, high-tech yachts about — shouting defiantly from the bow “Hey, don’t you know who we are? We’re the smallest, slowest (and cheapest!) boat in the Pacific!“

Cruising Fiji!

It was our fifth day at sea. The winds and seas were building as the sun set over the distant island.  We were really punching it hoping to arrive in daylight, but darkness fell before we could get to a safe anchorage.

Too rough to stand off shore, with no moon, a faulty engine, and no real chart to speak of, we ventured carefully into port – poking along, hoping to avoid the few reefs outlined in our pitifully small guidebook map.

Arriving Rotuma at dusk, after five days at sea

I was at the helm. Eddie and Ray were looking out. We had a depth gauge, but these were all shelf reefs, so there would be little or no warning before any contact.  Fortunately, a brightly lit supply ship was docked there – a lone beacon guiding us in.

Looking out for reefs

Slipping silently along-side the rusty old freighter – as veritable pirates – it was past midnight, and the sleepy crew stared incredulously through the gloom as our tiny vessel appeared suddenly out of the darkness.

Sunrise in Rotuma

Waking up in the cool breeze we lounged on deck as the sunrise painted an ever-changing display of color and contour on our lovely bay. We were anchored in the most beautiful lagoon with the gorgeous island stretched out before us, just waiting to be explored.

Rotuma — tiny and isolated, lies halfway between the main islands of Fiji and the island nation of Tuvalu to the north. Rotuma was officially off limits to private yachts, but as guests of our Rotuman friends (whom we knew from Hawaii) and with the blessing of the local administrative authority, we were sliding a bit — ‘island style.’ Unknown to us however, a new, overly diligent, hot-shot government officer had just been posted there.

Busted! With instructions from the capital Suva, “Sergeant Cool” confiscated our passports. Nudge Nudge was to return to Customs and Immigration Headquarters, a five-day voyage.

Relaxing with several members of our host family

I was granted permission to fly back to the main island of Viti Levu to begin a consulting assignment there, but would be under ‘house arrest’ with our host family (which entailed plenty of eating, sleeping and swimming – and then doing it all over again) while waiting for the plane, which eventually arrived five days later.

Airborne at last, the tiny airport was filled with people waving goodbye, including our very own “Sergeant Cool” – a cordial farewell.

A hui hou! — until we meet again!

Eddie and I returned to Hawaii, and Ray sailed Nudge Nudge downwind to New Caledonia where he sold it for twice what Eddie had paid (borrowed) for it – not a bad investment. Riding one giant wave since my defense the previous year, it was getting better all the time! I printed the final version of my dissertation and submitted it to the UH Graduate Division.

Stay tuned for more stories, coming soon!

You can read more about Jim’s backstory,  here and here.

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