Couch Sailing Fiji Islands

As an official member of the crew on 52′ Colombia Cutter Sorsha, I earnt my keep by cooking, cleaning, provisioning, and amateur sailing; the simple life. Food and booze (rum) were my only outgoing costs. It’s the perfect way to travel on a budget! Many roamers don’t realize there are websites set up for this specific purpose. Not just couch-surfing (although we did invite couch surfers onboard) but websites like Crewbay (www.crewbay.com) and Crewseekers (www.crewseekers.net). Where you can find crewing positions, of varying degrees. Of course it helps if you have some sailing experience up you sleeve, but it depends heavily on the captain, type of boat and type of trip they are undertaking. Some captains just need someone to cook while they take care of the sailing on a small overnight crossing. Not all sailors are happy eating a cold can of baked beans. That’s where an open minded traveler, like you, comes in! 🙂

On that note, Stephen (being a young bachelor) used couch surfing as a way to have travelers (mostly cute girls) come sailing for a week or two. They would contribute to expenses, cooking and a little cleaning (maybe scrubbing the deck or hosing it down for preventative salt erosion maintenance). Nothing to strenuous and in return they could call themselves the luckiest of the lucky to sail for almost nothing on board Sorsha, with other like minded travelers.

Lucky for me I was signed onto the crew. Which means Luis, the Captain, had to write an official letter, on a Fiji Customs letterhead to allow my New Zealand passport and I to stay in Fiji for longer than two months, with the promise we would be sailing to Asia by September.

So my first week as a sailor, we had three other girls unofficially join the gang. They had each answered an invite via Couchsurfing. A Frenchie, Eastern European and a Chilean. Luis (our Peruvian Captain), was thrilled to have another passionate Spanish language speaker onboard where they could fill his yaught with the soothing sound of his mother tongue again.

We picked up the couchsurfers in Savusavu, they settled into their spots on Sorsha while I lapped up another gorgeous Fijian sunset.

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Savusavu; the real Fiji.
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Not a bad catch 😛

The next morning we set sail for Koro Island. As you can see from the map below, it would take us the best part of a day, so we had to leave bright and early.

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Jessica (Eastern European) and Tess (Chilean), both had been backpacking in New Zealand previously to couch sailing Fiji with us.

Unfortunately our new friends didn’t have natural sea legs like me, and spent the majority of the day sailing with their heads over the side of the boat and the French girl wouldn’t or couldn’t even come to the cockpit from down below. Which usually makes seasickness worse. Once we arrived they were all good though, we dropped anchor, piled into the dingy and rode to shore to explore the new unknown land!

Stephen had been here before and was able to catch massive mud crabs the size of his head, but to no avail this time. You can see how big the claws are in the third photo.

With everything in life, it can’t always be candyfloss and flowers. We did face a sticky situation which involved a local man standing on the shore, machete in hand, one green leave covering his naughty bits, only hours after we went back to Sorsha. He gestured to us come to shore, with his machete, to which we politely declined.

In this part of Fiji, because it is super remote, some locals don’t like seeing westerners anywhere near their land. Which I can understand, and appreciate… Luis asked that we all stand where he could see how many people were on board which was six in total. This seemed to scare him away, however it was rather confronting, and we got out of there the next day. But not until we put the bad vibes behind us and glimpsed of this magical sunset, rum in hand.

Next stop on the couch sailing Itinerary was Taveuni Island, where the snorkeling was rumored to some of the best in the world! It was another long day and the girls were not too keen on hours of sailing the very next day, however they were only staying for a week and we wanted to cram as many “Fiji time” experiences in as possible. So while they spewed over the side, I smiled and Stephen sailed.

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Tavenui Island was one of my favorites Fiji Islands (second only to the Yasawas, stay tuned for that post)! It was a bright blue day, the sea was reflecting the crystal clear sky and the island was teaming with wildlife. Within the first few minutes of anchoring and exploring I had seen intricate colored crab shells, fluorescent fish, and almost stood on a sea snake. Yes the poisonous one! See photo number six below..

Tavenui is the third largest island of Fji after the mainland of Viti Levu and Vanua Levu. So there is no shortage of places to anchor and head to shore for exploration time. The hard part is finding a protected area with minimal reef, calm waters and deep enough oceans that the hull (the bottom of the boat) doesn’t scrape on the reef. This can be mitigated by having crew on the look out at the front of the boat for reefs, like Stephen in the first image above. Navigational charts do not show details of shoals that contain coral. You will find sporadic or missing soundings (depths) on many charts. You must use your eyes!

How to Navigate through Coral Reef safely:

  • You are looking for dark spots in your path that cannot be picked up with charts or navigation alone. In fact you cannot trust your marine GPS (which sailors use now days) or chart plotter when navigating near coral. Many cruising boat skippers have been lured by his or her electronics, only to end up as a uncharted wreck on a lonely atoll. Stick to eyeball navigation.
  • Check you approximate compass courses through the coral, and choose the path that keeps the sun behind you. Always make sure the sun is behind you as the glare from the water, can make spotting coral extra difficult.
  • Practice extra caution on cloudy overcasts days, the shadow can make it tricky to determine if that dark spot is coral reef or a cloud shadow, clear skis and bright sunny days are the ultimate atmosphere for coral reef spotting.
  • Wear polarized sun glasses. They help show the different colors that identify coral patch, turtle grass and sand.
  • Stand as far forward as you can and as high as you can! Like Stephen in the first image above, use the ratlines or mast steps to stand on, you need to raise your eye level/height of your eyes.
  • Before you start navigating through the coral, find spots in your charts where you “pull off” if the sky starts to cloud over and visibility is obscured.

The most important thing is to keep the crew and vessel safe.

Typically if you are in Dark Blue water, you’re fine, there is enough dept. However pay attention to the changing colors below. Light Blue water will have about 30 feet of dept below. Green water: 12-30 feet. Pale Green water: Less than 12 feet and Yellow to White: 5 feet or less. Pale Green and Yellow to white water is the danger zone!

We decided to head back to Vanua Levu, Savusavu, as we had word there was a local fair happening in a few days time including live Bollywood music and dancing and rides. Check out the rusty old ferris wheel that was rusted to the core, creaking as it turned on the axle. We were sh*t scared but all we could do was laugh and pray we didn’t start rolling away.

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The next few days the couch sailing girls and the Sorsha crew chilled on in Savusavu before the girls caught buses to their next travels. We cooked every meal on board, swam, snorkeled and enjoyed our “Fiji Time” to the up most extend, chilling the most!

We didn’t spend a cent more than we had spent at the start of the week, provisioning. Which for the couch sailors was about $50 FJD for the week of sailing to help cover boat maintenance costs, $50 FJD for local produce and $30FJD alcohol. So essentially $100FJD for the week if you don’t like to be a drunken sailor. And if you do, $130 FJD per week.

That’s only $85 AUD or $62 USD. Considering an island hopping tour costs about $2000 FJD plus for a week of ferry crossings, hostel accommodation, buffet style food, and mainstream activities – this was an incredible bargain! Always explore your options, you don’t have to accept the mainstream! Think outside the box.

So if your a budget traveler, and the above looked like fun to you, make sure you check out the mentioned websites before leaving and hook up with some sailors. Keep your whits about you if you are a woman, obviously, but as I said it’s all about enjoying this ultimate way of living, taking your home and all your belonging with you, wherever you may roam.

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