If you had suggested a year or so ago or even back in March as Temptress approached French Polynesia and the Marquesas that we should attempt an unmarked passage in a reef some twenty miles off the coast, we would have argued it was a foolish thing to do so no thanks. Yesterday however after several months of finding our way through well marked reef passes and across coral head strewn lagoons Temptress departed Savusavu for tiny island of Namena. It is tucked inside the southern end of a thumb shaped eponymous reef fringed lagoon that curves down from Vanu Levu’s south western coast and back up again. Two sets of passes with the comical names of North Save A Tack Passage and South Save A Tack Passages (yes plural) give access to the humped tree clad ridge of upraised coral that is Namena.
As we left Namaka Creek and motored towards Reef Point from Savusavu there was a light land breeze off the island to our north, out to sea ominous clouds were moving in from the south east. As if a switch had been hit around ten o’clock the trade wind suddenly dominated once more killing the overnight breeze. We responded by unfurling some gennie and Temptress reached smartly across the Koro Sea toward the North Save A Tack passage. On the chart a couple of beacons are shown but we knew from the various guides and notes other cruisers had shared with us that they were not in existence four to six years ago and it is unlikely that even if they had been replaced in the mean time that they exist as the advent earlier this year of Cyclone Winston that devastated swathes of Fiji including Namena would have swept them away.
The electronic charts for the Pacific are mostly based on their paper forebears which in turn are mostly based on surveying undertaken a hundred years or more ago. Practical experience in Tonga, where Temptress often seemed to have picked up a mooring at the top of the hill above Nieafu or taken a short cut over headlands to reach an anchorage shows our main set of CM93 charts to be one or even two hundred metres out. The charts used by the iSailor software on the first mates iPad which we use as a backup are more accurate but not necessarily absolute. Global satellite positioning (GPS) gives an absolute position on the face of the planet far more accurate than any chart of Fiji.
Enter the mark one eyeball and some help from those who’ve been this way before in the form of recorded tracks. The skipper used Open CPN’s layers feature to create a layer containing some of the electronically recorded tracks we’d been given, another layer contained rather blurry satellite images from Google Earth. Used together we could see exactly how far out the passage was on our chart and set a course for where the passage should be.
The small fly in all this was the rapidly approaching squally looking cloud. To safely negotiate coral popular wisdom has it that the sun should be on your back, the weather calm and the spotter in this case the first mate, up high forward wearing polarised sunglasses. Well we had what sun there was behind us, the clouds were whizzing by as the squall that had enveloped Koro island south of us moved on to swallow Makogai due west of our position. The water was choppy, the swell forward of the beam running toward us; I stood on the bow clinging to the furled genoa on the forestay getting soaked with every wave. The skipper motored slowly in, the water deep, deep blue which means it’s very deep over 20m.
Suddenly I could see a brighter blue just below the bow, a sandy bottom some ten or so metres down, this must be the pass. To port ahead the water turned a browny green, a coral head deep but how deep? Turn to starboard I yelled back and pointed too. The skipper turned the wheel and Temptress pointed more north. Soft rain began to fall. The water turned dark blue again, we were through, we just had to make it across the unsurveyed lagoon to the island so I stayed put keeping an eye out for shallows or coral but it was deep and clear right up to the shallow indentation on the north west coast of Namena that serves as a protected anchorage.
The mooring(s?) mentioned in the marine reserve’s web site were nowhere to be seen, victims presumably like the houses and trees ashore of the cyclone. Kevin motored around a bit surveying the bottom both by eye and depth sounder with me on the bow advising on our approach to the reefs that extend out like arms from the shore either end of the anchorage. After an abortive attempt at anchoring where we laid hook and chain over dead coral and limestone chunks we found a secure sandy spot about where others had suggested the mooring was.
Namena from a distance has a long low hillock at its eastern end, rises in a couple of curves towards the west then down to a small sandy beach by the anchorage before terminating in a lump of rock that is almost pyramidal. Viewed from afar against the sun it looks like a sleeping dragon – Fiji’s Nessie? Close to the trees have been stripped of their branches, huge silvery grey trunks are heaped up on the beach like a giant log pile yet there is growth on those trees whose roots withstood the cyclone, those trees look like the pollarded lime trees in London short bare stumps ending in pom-poms of green leaves.
This island is a nesting site for red footed boobies both the brown and white versions, dozens swoop in and out looping around Temptress mast effortlessly. Others have rebuilt their nests in whatever perches remain including resourcefully in the roots of upturned trees at the bottom of the cliffs. There is a constant clattering, rather like a few dozen strimmers being run. Boobies love to gossip and chatter. Around Temptress too white tropic birds with their impossibly long tails dart down to the sea surface in the hope of a fish whilst above the island as the afternoon progresses frigate birds soar. It is a bird watchers paradise.
Sadly though the coral below the water is dead, the bottom strewn with dull grey coral rubble, tree trunks and limestone blocks. The water itself was rather cloudy and though we both made snorkelling trips, the skipper to check the anchor and the mate to view the shoreline, it was decided the risk of a shark sneaking up unseen was too high to spend long in the water. I did however see a lot of fish including at least one huge grouper with a larger chest measurement than me lurking in the overhangs where the island dips below the ocean. That at least seems to indicate that the marine reserve may be achieving one of its aims that of improving fish stocks.
Once the sun had set darkness was absolute, the waning moon would not rise until the early hours of tomorrow morning so we were treated to amazing views of the stars. The bird noise continued though at a lower level as if the dragon was truly just snoozing. There is a little trepidation in our minds about what should happen if the weather deteriorates as we have no intention of exiting the lagoon in the dark but despite that we slept well, gently rocked by the tiny swell that has made its way over the reefs and around the eastern end of Namena.