Plan ‘B’

There’s always a Plan ‘A’, ‘B’ and even a Plan ‘C’ when you’re sailing. We’re mostly dictated by the weather and flexibility is just one of these requirements we’ve become very used to. We wanted to sail to Tuvalu from Vanuatu and then onwards to Kiribati and the Marshall Islands. Unfortunately, the weather decided otherwise and we are now in the Solomon Islands. 

We always knew it was going to be tricky to do some easting from Vanuatu, but, from time to time, it can be done. With cyclone season fast approaching, we couldn’t wait any longer for that weather window. We have to be north of ten degrees south (the ‘safe’ zone) by early December. So, we changed our plans. Our clearance document form Vanuatu stipulated ‘Tuvalu’ as next port of call, fortunately that was not an issue for Customs in the Solomons who simply crossed it out and replaced it with ‘Ndendo’.

We dropped anchor in the deep bay near Lata on Ndendo Island, early in the morning, after a very calm two-day passage from Vanuatu. 

On the way out we had a brief stopover in the Banks Islands. We were sailing past Vanua Lava when we spotted a stunning twin waterfall tumbling down near the coast, pouring all its water into a pool right next to the beach. We anchored near the waterfalls and were greeted by Kerele, who came out to meet us in his pirogue. He told us he lives next to the waterfall with his extended family and we agreed to come ashore. After a brief welcome ceremony, we were escorted to the waterfall by the women and children. It was better than any waterpark you find in the developed world: plenty of rocks to jump off, smooth stones to glide off and high pressure streams of water to stand and swim under. The water was delicious and refreshing (it’s incredibly hot this time of year in the tropics). 

Next day we set sail for Tuvalu but soon agreed it was too uncomfortable a course (wind on the nose, swell on the beam) so changed direction and headed for the Solomons.

Two days later we arrived in Ndendo. There was one other yacht anchored in the bay; Bertel passed us all the key information: go to town by dinghy and anchor off in front of the shipwreck on the beach, there’s no ATM or cash exchange but there is one shop that will give you cash on your credit card, oh and watch out for the customs lady as she will try and charge you an overtime fee and pocket it, also watch out as she will try and get her hands on any freebies she can find while searching your boat …

So off we went into town, a very long dinghy ride but sooooo refreshing (it’s even hotter here than it was in Vanuatu). A couple of dozen locals were sitting on the beach, in the shade under the trees, chewing a red nut that rots their teeth and colours their tongues and mouths a bright crimson red. It was quite a scary appearance. Despite their threatening looks, they were very friendly and three of them offered to escort us to the customs building, a five minute walk across town (in the blistering heat…).

When we got to the office, the bank manager (who shares an office with the immigration and the customs officers) told us that the immigration lady had just left to come and see us. Luckily, she hadn’t gone far yet and they were able to call her back to the office. The customs officer apparently never showed up to the office and always ‘worked’ from home. We explained that we had no local money and they told us that was not an issue: we could pay immigration and customs fees in Honiara, the capital. However, the girls from the bank took pity on us for not having any local currency and as we walked out they handed Aeneas a wad of local bank notes.

“So the kids can buy something refreshing at the local market,” they said. 

We were taken aback by this generosity, such friendly and welcoming people and instead of asking us for handouts they were giving away their hard earned money. Incredible and very humbling. The boys, of course, were very happy and immediately started to work out how much it was worth in another currency they knew the value of (US dollars or Vatu) and how many sweets it could buy them.

“Perhaps we can buy some Lego with it,” Aeneas said.

“Sure,” I said, “If you can find a shop that sells Lego, you can buy all you want.” 

No chance of finding Lego in this part of the world. We are far way from all those luxuries now. Apparently, we were only yacht number 19 to check into Ndendo this year. And there are no tourist facilities at all. So you can imagine, when we walked into town, everyone wanted to meet us and talk to us and find out where we were from (which is always a tricky question to answer: well … we are Scottish/Belgian but the kids grew up in England; and then some blank stares as they have no idea where any of these countries are. After a while we just said we are from Europe).

But back to the immigration officer … who returned to the office to tell us she and customs lady and two police officers would come to the boat. They had their own transport (‘the’ police boat) so we raced back to Rehua (after buying a local SIM card and waiting for half an hour in another shop for the credit card machine to work so we could get some local currency). 

A little later six officials boarded Rehua and we had a pile of forms to fill in (in duplicate as well). The customs lady, sporting crimson red teeth, searched through the boat. It’s a first on Rehua: we’ve never been searched by Customs before (by Bio Security yes, but never by Customs). She looked through all he cupboards and counted the bottles of wine (the ones she could find) but we were within limits. She then returned to the cockpit and demanded some juice and a coffee. The other officials all seemed very embarrassed by her attitude and behaviour. 

Check-in done and we were allowed to take down the yellow Q-flag, but, unfortunately, we don’t have a Solomons flag to hoist instead (remember we didn’t plan to come here in the first place…). We will have to get creative and make one, as they don’t sell flags here. 

Later in the afternoon, at high tide, we ventured up the river next to the anchorage where, we were told, we would find a natural spring with some of the purest mineral water in the world. As we paddled the dinghy up the river, we admired the lushness of the jungle. The size and colours of the plants and flowers were absolutely breathtaking. It was completely still and as if we had been transported into ‘Jurassic World’ and a dinosaur was about to pop out from in between the huge leaves. The water was very refreshing (did I mention it is hot here?) and tasted delicious.

Everywhere along the river, locals were having their daily shower, washing clothes and cleaning dishes. At the top of the river, at the spring, people came and went to fill up water bottles. One of the locals told us that some Chinese guy was trying to set up a factory here to bottle this top rated spring water and sell it around the world. I guess you never know, look at Fiji water, which is sold on the other side of world for an exorbitant amount of money.

After one night in Ndendo we headed to the nearby Reef Islands. More to follow about our adventures there in the next blog.

Unfortunately Internet is very patchy here. There is not much network coverage and 2G is the best we can hope for. We can send basic emails using our HF radio and there is a way to write blog posts via email (they then should be uploaded automatically on the blog and on Facebook) but unfortunately that hasn’t been working very well recently, as you may have noticed. We’ll keep trying and as soon as we have better network coverage we will post photos too.

So, anyway, here we are in the Solomons; enthralled by the friendliness of the locals and the lushness of the landscape.

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1200 nautical miles later

Seathan did a final weather check early on Tuesday morning and decided the window looked better than initially hoped so we all got into action and started preparing our departure for midday. We rang Customs (who also handle immigration on departure) and they offered to come to see us in Orakei marina which made everything much easier for us. The whole process was fast and efficient and the Customs officer very friendly and professional. We had one form and four departure cards (similar to the ones used in the airport) to fill out and received our clearance document. We were free to go! Karen, the Customs officer, also mentioned that five other boats were getting ready to depart today too and she would pass us their names and details so we could stay in touch once we were out there. Eventually it was mid afternoon by the time we left and we had crammed a lot of final prep into one morning: stowing, another trip to the supermarket and the ships chandlery, filling up with diesel, …

We were happy to throw the lines and say goodbye to Auckland for a second time. It was a beautiful calm afternoon and stayed that way as we sailed into the night. As we headed further north and lost the protection and cover provided by the mainland, the wind grew stronger and day 1 was spent in a heavy sea with winds forward of the beam which translated into a lot of banging and slamming. Even though the kids and I had taken preventive anti-seasickness tablets I didn’t feel so well and neither did Tyrii. Aeneas seemed fine and was happy playing with Lego. Seathan did most of the sailing, cooking and looking after everyone. I managed to do one shift at night so at least Seathan got a few hours sleep.

Day 2 was even heavier and the wind kept building. At one point (and Seathan only told me this afterwards) we measured 45 knots. The waves were steap and high as walls. We knew there would be some heavy weather for a couple of days but this was much worse than expected. Several big waves crashed over the top of the cockpit and slammed in the windscreen. Once it started raining it came down like a waterfall. The kids and I huddled together inside the cockpit which was still protected on one side from the rain by the plastic clears we had put up. Not a happy morning and I have to admit I felt a bit scared. This was probably as heavy a storm as we ever had in our two years away.

In the midst of all this crazy weather we saw a pod of hunting dolphins, six or seven of them jumping in and out of the huge waves in perfect synchronisation. They didn’t seem bothered by the storm at all. A bit later a very gracious big bird came to check us out and we soon realised it was an albatross. Such a beautiful sight to see it gliding past us using its massive wingspan so effortlessly and elegantly. I remembered that the sight of an albatross is meant to be a good omen and although I’m normally not a superstitious person, one is happy to believe anything if it can help getting out of a horrible situation. Sure enough, soon after we experienced a very sudden and significant wind shift of about 120 degrees which meant we could start running with this heavy weather rather than beating into it. What a relief. And although the wind continued to be strong and the sea state remained extremely confused for the rest of the day, we all understood that the worst weather was over and the promised southerly winds had arrived as per the forecast.

Another heavy night followed and again Seathan did most of the sailing. I took over around 2 am and stayed on watch until sunrise to give him some much needed rest. Day 3 followed and things started looking up. The wind was still in the high twenties to mid thirties and the waves very big but at least we were in a following sea. I managed to cook a hot meal for the first time since we left that night. So far we had managed with rice cakes, snacks and pasta and it felt good to get back to normal routines. The kids even got to watch a movie that evening!

And so the next few days got better and better, the wind calmed down, the temperature kept rising and everyone settled into our usual happy routine at sea we hadn’t experienced for a long time. Not that bad after all. I was no longer enviously thinking of that short 3 hour flight from Auckland to Fiji and happily chilled at last. We got used to the night shifts and routine of sleeping 3 hours on and off. During the day Seathan got on with polishing and other maintenance jobs whereas I preferred to nap or read my book. The kids spent most of the day playing with Lego and the evening watching a movie and then making up crazy stories for their cuddly toys once in bed.  We were in perfect harmony and nobody minded that the wind was now quite light and it would take us at least one extra day to get there. How things can change in just a few days.

Rehua had handled the heavy weather really well and we were happy to have chosen this boat to take us around the world. As the weather calmed down we realised we had not incurred any breakages and counted ourselves very lucky. The only problem that propped up in the following few days was some sort of autopilot failure whereby all of a sudden the boat would wander off course and head into the wind, sails flapping loudly. Usually, when there is a big windshift or any other change in circumstance, the autopilot will sound an alarm but not this time. It still appeared as if it was working only it wasn’t. That was scary, and it always happened when I was at the helm and Seathan was inside. Several theories and manuals later we discovered it wasn’t a bad connection or electronics failure but quite simply due to interference of the SSB (single side band) radio we use to send emails and get weather reports and to join a daily weather call with Gulf harbour radio. The fact that it kept happening every time Seathan was using the HF soon made that obvious. Simply using a different frequency solved the problem. Phew. I was happy no to have to repeat our last episode of manually steering across the Atlantic with an emergency helmstick.

It’s impossible to predict exact arrival time on a longer crossing so we basically had a 50/50 chance of arriving in daylight. As the winds got lighter we tried several alternative sail combinations: normal genoa and mainsail set up, goose winged,  spinnaker, … Eventually we settled for our new code zero sail which worked beautifully for downwind sailing. It gave us maximum output with light winds and is a a great addition to our wardrobe. We relaxed and enjoyed those perfect few days sailing downwind on a flat sea. We slowed down to avoid arriving during the night (too many reefs) and frankly were enjoying the journey itself too much to hurry. The last days of the trip were so pleasant, I almost didn’t want the trip to end. We still experienced a few nasty squalls but overall the weather was perfect and the nights were lit up by the full moon, which makes nighttime sailing so much easier. And as we sailed back into the tropics, the warm tropical temperatures made a welcome return to our lives!

After nearly 8 days at sea, on Wednesday morning, we sighted land. Luscious green mountainous islands started popping up around us, as did many reefs and lower lying atolls. We still had a fair distance to go to Savusavu, where we planned to clear in, and worked our way past many islands for the rest of the afternoon and the evening. In the early hours of Thursday morning, exactly 8.5 days after leaving Auckland we  dropped the anchor just outside Savusavu next to Toucan. Our friends had left their AIS on so we could see where they were on our chart plotter as we approached and anchor safely in the dark. We had sailed 1,200 nautical miles (as the crow flies) and this was probably one of our toughest crossings so a a quick celebratory beer was in order before we caught up on some much needed sleep. The next morning we were very happy to see Bruce and Di and then proceeded to Savusavu, a few miles up a creek, to clear in. On the radio, on our way in, we were asked some very strange (but apparently standard official) questions: Did we have mice or rats on board? Did anyone die? Did anyone have fever? Or an infectious disease?

Clearing in was easy enough. Firstly, we were visited onboard by two officials of the Department of Health. Once they were satisfied all was in order, we were allowed to take the yellow Q-flag down and hoist the Fiji flag. A little later followed officials from Immigration, Customs and Biosecurity. A lot of form-filling and then we were free to go ashore. First stop: beer and pizza at the local yacht club!

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We had three days of very rough weather … unfortunately I didn’t take many photos


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Happy boys, after the storm had passed


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Our new code zero sail did great in the lighter winds


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A stunning sunrise during my early morning watch


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And another one…


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And one more!


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Last one, I promise!


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Four happy cruisers!


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Sunset over Fiji as we approach our destination


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Great to see Toucan again!


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Sailing up the creek to Savusavu to clear in


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Savusavu town


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We’re cleared in and flying the Fijian flag


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Rehua on a mooring in Savusavu


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Pizza anyone?

 

 

 

Out of the Tropics

We crossed Latitude 32 Degrees South two hours ago, leaving us 180nm into Opua, it’s not a snap change but we left Minerva in shorts and sun-hats, six days later, one out of New Zealand there has been a hunt on for those toasty items of clothing that haven’t seen the light of day for eighteen months. Its comparatively freezing to the Tropics, water temperature is down to 14 degrees Celsius, air temperature to around 16 with wind chill taken into account, “pass the furs dahling”.
Our cockpit enclosure is a godsend, we keep the windward “clears” in place most of the time sailing, heck we’re cruising, Audrie and I have both done our “time on the rail”, I sincerely feel for some of the less well protected helms on this leg!
We have the top of a low pressure system giving us a bit of Westerly punishment at the moment, it’s 25-30knts on the beam, the sea is a mess and the colder wind is heavier by far giving the gusts some real punch.
Rehua loves this stuff, we are double reefed on the main and balanced nicely with a few turns on the 130 genoa sheeted to the toerail, this gives us a good average of 8.5knts which will bring us into Opua at first light tomorrow.
On the menu today is pretty much everything we have left in the lockers, eat it or lose it is the NZ Customs mantra or should be reading their list of prohibited articles.
So we’ll start on the fresh stuff, not much left, swiftly moving along onto the cannery department, why do we buy sausages and beans in a tin, beef casserole in a tin with carrots peas and potatoes? Who eats that sh.., er, stuff these days, Joshua Slocum, Robin Knox Johnston, Bernard Motissier didn’t have a choice, we do, “ban the can” I say!! Dried goods, how many 40ltr containers??? we should rent a 747 and fly the surplus to some less well off African country.
Enough said, NZ’s “Bio-Boys” will be incinerating for a week, the upside is we’ll be light again and we’ll never stock up with tins again……..will we?? Rehua_/)_to the “Land of the Long White Cloud” (understatement today)

“A Dark Art”

Position: 28 deg 11 min S: 174 deg 21 mins E.
The art of emailing via SSB radio is a dark one. Our Icom 802 crackles to life as we choose an appropriate frequency which is selected from a propagation chart, we listen in to make sure no-one else is using the line, it’s back to your pre-broadband modem that popped, squeaked, screeched and whistled at you, this message will come through a ground station at Darawank in NSW, this evening it could be Mahini in the Tuamotus or Nuie in the Cook Islands, it seems like the proverbial lottery which station has the strongest signal!! Either way it’s free (almost)and it works, most of the time.
It’s Thursday 2100hrs UTC or Friday 1000hrs local, we have just received the GRIB files for the next four days, everyone sitting round the screen to see what Huey (Australian God of wind)and Neptune (Greek God who roughs us up a bit)have in store for us today. It looks pretty good apart from a low that will hit north NZ on the weekend, we will make Westing while we can and try to tuck in behind it for a sled ride into Opua.
Today it’s blue water sailing at its best, wind 60 degrees apparent, boat speed 7-8 knts, and the sun is shining; downside, the water temperature is going through the floor, swimming in NZ will not be quite so luxurious!
Everyone is on great form, the salon looks like a Lego/Playmobil paradise for the boys, for adults, how to describe? it’s akin to walking barefoot over a big coral head……….in the dark!
Our buddy boat Phileas has managed to take a jump on us, methinks the “iron headsail” might have been used, either way we will catch up for a reunion on arrival.
Other news is that we don’t get news out here, it’s weather, food and sleep that drive our day, the weather is great, there’s a chicken casserole on the stove and we all slept like “Jack Tars” last night, long may it last. Rehua; standing by in the South Pacific.

GREY

We didn’t stay long in Minerva reef. In fact, we left the same day to catch the weather window to NZ. At this point it is unclear when the next weather window will be, so we didn’t fancy being stuck there for a week or two with nothing to do! Swimming or snorkeling is not really an option there because of the numerous “non reef” type sharks and there’s not even a beach or anywhere to go ashore. But the place was stunningly beautiful with amazing turquoise water and huge waves crashing onto the reef in the middle of the ocean. We’re very glad we stopped there and saw it.

After a very tranquil first 24 hours where we could see a family of colourful Mahi Mahi swim around the boat, things slowly started heating up. The waves got bigger and the wind kept increasing. Yesterday afternoon we got a call from above. Literally. The ORION airplane from the NZ coastguard called us on the VHF to check our port and date of departure and of arrival. Afterwards we heard them check two more yachts, one being our buddy boat Phileas who were 60 miles away. It’s good to know they are checking.

Last night the waves got quite uncomfortable but Rehua handles it very well. Nevertheless, the kids and I took a preventive seasickness tablet and we are all feeling fine. The only thing is that it makes you hungry. Luckily we have plenty of food on board (which is always one of the main concerns expressed several times by Aeneas before we leave port) and it needs to be eaten before we get to NZ anyway (they confiscate pretty much everything on arrival). Today was pasta for lunch, home made chocolate cake in the afternoon and beef stew for dinner. Not good for the waist line!

In contrast to the blue and turquoise waters we have become so used to, we are now experiencing every shade of GREY around us. The sea has been pretty rough in the last 24 hours but that was always expected. We knew this passage wasn’t going to be a walk in the park! The water temperature keeps decreasing and we slowly keep adding more layers to our clothing. Soon we will be in full wet weather gear. Unheard of on our trip so far!

Our position on Thursday 19 November 18.00 (local NZ time): 27.21S 176.05E

Minerva Reef

The sail from Tonga started beautifully with flat water, fair winds and blue seas, the colouring was continuous but the wind and sea state, as usual, did an about turn, humps from the south and lumps from the east made for some rock and roll, albeit at 9knts+ boat speed.
We are anchored in the middle of the Ocean! Seriously! We approached Minerva Reef at 11 am and entered through the pass to find a few other yachts (tourists, tch, tch 🙂 inside this stunning turquoise lagoon. It’s worth looking this up on Google Earth (the big green donut with sprinkles) someone apparently wanted to build a resort here and got as far as trying to create a sand Motu for the hotel, it’s gone, there would have to be easier ways to scratch a living, how were the visitors going to get here?? This place is beautiful but remote doesn’t begin to describe it.
The fishing on the way down was at last productive, it didn’t seem to matter what you put on the end of the line, the Mahi Mahi were up for it, we snared a beautiful 4 footer last night; after a scene resembling one of Tarantino’s earlier movies we finally managed to get him into the freezer, R.I.P. Mr. Blue, we will think of you every mealtime.
P.S. If you want to stun a big fish with rum, spray it in his gills, don’t I repeat don’t pour it down his throat……………….

Welcome to tomorrow!

We’re in Tonga! To use the words of our kiwi friend Mark: welcome to tomorrow! We crossed the dateline on the way here and had to turn our clocks forward 24 hours. The 250 NM crossing was windier than the GRIBS had predicted by a factor of 2. Instead of 15 we had 30 knots! So we got here faster than expected and yet again had to stand off all night to wait for daylight. There was complete cloud cover (it rained constantly) and zero visibility. Feels like home really except that the men wear skirts here, oh … hang on: that’s kind of familiar too 😉 

Passage from Palmerston to Niue

Magellan has a lot to answer for! So far this vast ocean has not been true to its name apart from a few days where we enjoyed a flat sea. Our passage from Palmerston took 62 hours and was a real mix of weather: wind coming from various directions, changing wave patterns and even some rain. We knew the crossing would be rather windy so before taking off the kids and I took a seasick prevention tablet (for the first time ever on our trip). It worked wonders and nobody felt even the least bit queasy. It did knock us out though and I felt very sleepy on my first night time watch. Somehow I struggled through the night and it was such a relief not to feel any seasickness. Yesterday the weather calmed down and we enjoyed a quiet day at last and even cooked roasted chicken for dinner (on the BBQ) and the kids watched a movie before bedtime. But soon enough everything changed again and we had to put in two reefs. The wind kept building and there was an uncomfortable steep wave on our beam. It was too cloudy to sight land until we were only a few miles off and somehow this rather flat island wrapped in a cloudy mist reminded us of Scotland. It started raining as we tied onto a mooring. Toucan, who arrived here last week, welcomed us and brought a few cold beers over. Now the clouds are shifting and the sun is coming out and we ready to head ashore to clear in and find somewhere nice for lunch!

Aitutaki to Palmerston

Our passage from Aitutaki to Palmerston was 200NM and we expected to arrive in 36 hours. The first 12 hours went perfectly according to plan: a gentle breeze just forward of the beam and average speeds of 7 knots. Then the wind dropped completely and, apart from a brief spell during the second day where we had the sails up for an hour or so, we had to motor the rest of the way. One night turned into two and in the end it took us 48 hours before we pulled up on a mooring just outside this beautiful atoll. We enjoyed the passage for what it was though and marvelled at a totally still Pacific, something we hadn’t experienced so far!

We arrived here at 8am this morning and Goodley and Ned where waiting for us in their fishing boat guiding us towards where the mooring buoys were. A bit later Edward called us on the radio and said he will come and pick us up to go ashore. Can’t wait to find out what it will be like. There are two other yachts here (one German and one American) but both are getting ready to leave this morning so we will be all on our own!

From French Polynesia to the Cook Islands

We’re in Aitutaki… After having spent more than 3 months in French Polynesia we’re back in English speaking territory and it feels strange and somehow less exotic. The Cook Islands are independent but freely associated with New Zealand. The natives speak with a kiwi accent and the NZD is the official currency. These islands are famous for being welcoming and friendly and we certainly notice this when we check in and meet the various officials here in Aitutaki.

Our four-day crossing from Bora Bora was very enjoyable. The first 24 hours were a bit slow and then the wind picked up and we started making some good speeds averaging 8 knots. We even had to slow the boat down and stand off on the last night to avoid arriving before daylight. The pass into Aitutaki is one of the toughest so far: it’s a narrow and shallow (1.4 metres in places) entrance channel with strong currents. The anchorage area itself is tiny: there’s only room for a few boats so we had to tie a stern line to a palm tree and wedge ourselves in between Toucan and a small monohull that were here before us. As soon as we were anchored a local official from Port Health came over and told us to keep the Q-flag up until he had been on-board to inspect our boat and spray it against insects. After that was done we were allowed to hoist the Cook Island flag and go ashore to customs and immigration. Finally, another official from another health department (“Bio Security”) had to come on-board to check all our produce and to confiscate any fresh meat, fruit and vegetables. Everyone was very friendly and efficient and as long as you pay all the fees there don’t seem to be any problems…

red sky in the morning ...

red sky in the morning …


navigating through the channel

navigating through the channel


kids on the lookout going through the channel

kids on the lookout going through the channel


view from our cockpit in Aitutaki

view from our cockpit in Aitutaki


the anchorage in Aitutaki

the anchorage in Aitutaki


happy to be on land again

happy to be on land again