Field Report
October 2023 // 10 Min. Read

Brazil. El Salvador. South Africa. Tahiti. The back half of the tour means months on the road. Having scored perfect J-Bay in South Africa and securing his spot in the 2024 Olympics, John sat down to write out a quarterly update on where he's been and where he's going ahead of the North Shore winter season.

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Dispatch from Fiji

Quarterly Update // August 2022 // 10 Min. Read

Ok here we are -- quarterly update! 

I am currently sitting in Port Denarau, Fiji, about 10 miles away from Tavarua. We sailed here from Hawai'i  and arrived about a week ago. 3000 miles of sailing; something is bound to break. So here we are in the port fixing things. The not so glamorous part of sailing. I love it though. Every part is an experience in itself.

Anyway, to jump back to the 3000 miles of sailing part, I’ll catch you up there. I had been planning this trip in my mind all year. The plan originally was to finish the year on tour and then head down to the South Pacific to surf some different waves way off the grid. That changed slightly when I tore my mcl during the G-Land event. I put a lot of thought into what I was going to do, whether I was going to go back on the tour with a knee brace and an unhealed mcl, or take the time to heal it up right and do something I have always wanted to do. For me, the second idea was the obvious choice. 

So, I started planning the trip and slowly getting the boat together over the past couple of months.

I have never done a trip this big, so it was pretty intimidating, trying to make sure everything was fixed and working. There were so many things to think about. Making food plans with Lauryn, with the possibility of being at sea for more than 20 days. Making sure I had the boards I would need, and the gear I would need to surf all day in the sun. And making sure we had everything else we would need to live off the grid while we are down here. It all added up. As we got closer to the trip I was spending every day on the boat trying to fix things myself so I could understand them a bit better for when issues came up while we were in the middle of nowhere. 

The crew for the trip was Lauryn, Erik, Gio and myself. Lauryn is my beautiful wife and a great cook. Erik has been the man behind the lens on almost everything we have created. Gio is a great sailor and was here to have some fun and share the sailing load on the way down. 

We left Honolulu on August 24th hoping the trip would be between 10-14 days.

The first few days out of Hawai'i  were really hard sailing. Lots of rain and wind going in different directions. Hawai'i  has very difficult sailing conditions because of the big mountains and the channels between them. They do all kinds of weird things to the wind. I’ll attach a photo of it here with my short understanding of it. Anyway, this made it so we didn’t get a lot of sleep the first couple days. Lots of sail changes, some motoring and dreaming of the steady trade winds ahead. Lauryn was seasick for the first 5 days. Erik was seasick for the first 2 or 3 days as well, so that makes things even more fun. Once we got out of the lee of Hawai'i  we got into some more steady wind and some good, fun sailing. We were broad reaching with a larger head sail that we call our reacher, and we also had one reef in our main sail. This was our go to sail plan. With steady trades we were doing between 10-18 knots of speed. I think that’s like 11-20mph. 

The next big milestone

for us was passing the ITCZ (International Convergence Zone), or the doldrums as it’s known to some. It’s an area where the Southern Hemisphere trade winds blow in a SE direction and the Northern Hemisphere trade winds blow in a NE direction – they meet and converge, creating some interesting weather. Sometimes it can be an area with absolutely no wind. I was able to experience this on a previous trip a couple of years ago. It’s amazing to see the water like glass with the energy of the swell moving from the south and swells coming from the north crossing through each other. And at night almost seeing the reflections of the stars on the water creating this endless sky effect. Anyways, I talked up the doldrums a lot to Lauryn telling her this is how they were, so she was looking forward to this becalmed desert ahead, especially after being seasick for 5 days. 

But, when we reached the ITCZ we were greeted by strong winds, confused seas, and lots of squalls. I wanted nothing more than to push through it as soon as we could. One of the squalls in particular was scary for everyone on board. We were caught with too much sail area up and too much wind. The boat accelerated beyond 20 knots, and you could feel the load on everything. There are all kinds of strange noises, the bow is crashing into waves, and it really demands every part of your attention. It’s a scary feeling when you’re in the middle of nowhere, and you feel like you’re sailing right on the line, just waiting to hear a big ‘bang’. It lasted about 30 min but it felt like a lot longer.  We never heard a bang thankfully, and we made it through unscathed for the most part. That felt like our sign off to the ITCZ this time around. It was the scariest part of the trip.

After that we continued south looking forward to a big equator crossing.

For Lauryn, Gio, and I it would be the first time. We were still pollywogs as they call it. And for Erik, his parents sailed a lot when he was younger, so he was already a shellback (someone who has sailed across the equator) as they call it. They say it’s customary to give an offering to king Neptune when you become a shellback, so we were in the planning stages. We passed the equator at about 6pm, right around sunset. We couldn’t have asked for better weather or a better time to cross the equator. It seems like on long trips like this these are the milestones you will remember.  It’s also nice to have shorter goals to break up the trip. 

After crossing the equator, we adjusted our direction a bit and pointed toward the Phoenix Island chain, toward Kanton Island in particular. After the ITCZ, we started noticing some rudder issues and wanted to have a stopping point to reset and make sure everything was working properly. None of us really knew too much about Kanton except that Erik’s Dad had stopped there 20 years ago. We knew that it was going to be difficult to get permission for clearance, but we were hopeful they would allow us to stop and make some repairs. The Phoenix Islands are part of Kiribati and to check into the country I think you have to go to Christmas Island, which is about 600 miles ENE of Kanton. Turning up wind for 600 miles was not something we were about to do. So we took our chances.

We first saw Kanton around 3pm in the afternoon.

It’s an incredible feeling arriving somewhere that’s so far away from everything we know. It’s 1200 miles from the closest city. And it really does feel that way. 

When we were about 5 miles out, our steering locked up and the boat started turning to the wind. We looked over the back of the boat, and the track that the steering cars ran across was destroyed. We rolled up our head sail, got the steering back under control, and limped our way toward the island. Arriving somewhere like this is funny because the only means of contact is through VHF radio.  You just sort of pick it up and hopefully someone is listening!  I called channel 16 for about 30 minutes, repeating ‘’Kanton Island, Kanton Island, this is the sailing vessel Vela, do you copy”.

Finally, a voice came over the radio calling our name. They gave us permission to enter into the lagoon and anchor. At this point, after being at sea for 10 days, and the stress of the rudder issues, it was a major feeling of relief to set the anchor and jump in the water! We took it all in, and then got to work right away on solving the rudder problems. 

We spent 3 days on Kanton. The locals were very helpful with allowing us access to the land and their lagoon. We had a chance to surf a perfect little left that runs inside of a shipwreck, and then had the chance to go diving. The coral reef there was some of the most incredible I have seen anywhere in the world. We saw giant coral tables, 10-15ft across and half an inch thick.  Kanton looked like it was pretty heavily used during WWII as well. There’s nothing but old shipwrecks and army trucks scattered across the landscape and shoreline. Even around the shipwrecks, it’s amazing to see what the reefs and wildlife can do when given some time to make a comeback. It reminded me of our previous trip to Palmyra Atoll.

Ok, next stop Fiji! 1000 miles south.

We set off on our way with our rudder issues solved, or so we thought. The first two days out of Kanton were beautiful sailing. We sailed about 500 miles in two days. Then as the wind started to lighten up, we heard a bang and lost steering again. Gio ran to the back and Erik took over the helm. The pin on the port side rudder had broken in half. We pulled the rudder out of the water and disassembled that side of the system. 

We were down to one rudder.  Luckily, it’s a catamaran and we have two rudders, so we continued to sail with one rudder at a much slower pace to be safe. Then we lost the wind completely. Not a bad thing for having rudder problems but also not very fun. 

We were forced to motor for the next 4 days, trying to get to the protection of the Fijian lagoons before a big weather front hit. Even though motoring isn’t what we wanted, it was still incredible. We had our dinners out on the front of the boat which is usually too wet and open to the elements when we are under sail. We also had the chance to watch the SpaceX satellite arrays being launched and then we saw 40 or so satellites in close proximity jetting across the sky. It was hard to believe it was real!

Once we got closer to Fiji, we decided to enter near the Yasawa islands. There is a big area called the Bligh waters and on our weather maps it seemed to be pretty well protected from the incoming storm front. The front hit us about 3 hours before we entered the Bligh waters, and we had 3 hours of slow upwind bouncing. That was rough.  

Once we were between the islands, the water really calmed down, and we were able to motor sail through the reefs all night.

Once we were between the islands, the water really calmed down, and we were able to motor sail through the reefs all night. No one got much sleep.  We were all on the lookout for reefs and hoping the charts we had were correct. Finally, at around 6am Fiji time we set our anchor outside Port Denarau and waited for customs to call us in for clearance. The next thing we knew, we were given a spot on the dock between these massive super yachts. It was quite a contrast from what we had experienced the past 17 days. 

Since then, we have been bouncing back and forth between Tavarua, to surf, and Port Denarau, where we’ve been fixing our rudders. I’m really looking forward to setting sail again, thinking we will head toward east Fiji.  It looks like there could be lots of waves. And no one around. 

John Florence