SOMEWHERE, OVER THE RAINBOW (REEF)

September 14, 2020 ; 3:23 PM
16°75’S, 179°90’E – Vanua Levu, Fiji

Rainbow Reef is probably the most world-renowned dive spot in Fiji, featuring the famous Great White Wall.

So naturally, not 24 hours after we dropped the hook, we were keen to be on the reef.

The Great White Wall was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Fiji is known as the soft coral capital of the world, and Taveuni is known as the soft coral capital of Fiji. The colors were so vibrant they seemed unreal, and they varied from oranges to purples to yellows, etc. The reason the wall is unique compared to the rest of rainbow reef is that it’s a 90 degree, colorful cliff that is dusted with paper white soft coral as well. As our guide would say, “this is the only time you’ll ever see snow in Fiji”.

The difference between soft and hard coral is that soft coral shrinks and expands according to the current. Our awesome dive masters (Taveuni Ocean Sports) took us at just the right time of day for a current that ensured the wall was blooming like a field of wildflowers (or maybe more accurately rainbow cauliflower?). Apparently, if you go at the wrong time, it just looks like a big grey cliff. Nothing would be more of a letdown.

We swam through caverns and schools of colorful fish. I was completely bewildered at myself because I’ve spent almost every day swimming in the ocean since January, and I never wondered where the common Goldfish came from. What a dig to my favorite fish friend growing up, Cedric. (Cedric was an important member of the Pankratz family, killed by the hands of the admiral– but that’s a story for another time).

Swimming around the reef, I was sure I had found that Fiji was teeming with Goldfish, but I was mistaken. After dive number one, the dive masters educated us on the fish and coral native to Fiji. I learned that the orange fish that covered most of the reef were actually Anthias. The females are orange and look just like Cedric, but the males are a gorgeous purple (I referred to the males as “mohawk fish” prior to our little science class).

Anthias are all born female and live in schools with a single male. When that male dies, the largest female anthias turns into a male. This is opposite of clownfish (which we saw a lot of, too), who are born male and headed by a female. When the female clownfish dies, the biggest male turns into a female. Basically, Marlin was really Nemo’s MOM during the movie, although he was Nemo’s dad at birth. The animal kingdom is kind of freaky, isn’t it?

Our guide was extremely good at pointing out tiny micro animals throughout both dives. I would have missed literally all of them without his help, as most looked exactly like the coral or other plants they were sitting on. My favorite was a lime green crab, only about an inch wide, that he pulled out of some lime green “hair” growing off the coral. I had just examined the area carefully and missed it completely. We also got to see popcorn shrimp and searched for pygmy seahorses, although I never saw one.

We saw parrot fish laying eggs, a white tip shark, lots of mocking blue fin tuna, and so much more. As we explored the coral heads I had trouble keeping my snorkel in my mouth as my jaw dropped around every corner. Seriously, I encourage you to YouTube videos of Rainbow Reef and the Great White Wall, and then TRY not to put it on your bucket list. It was the most wonderful, other-worldly experience.

-Kristen Pankratz
First mate, Amazing Grace

TLDR: Rainbow Reef was the best dive site that didn’t feature major game (sharks, rays, etc.) of the entire trip to date. It was jaw-droppingly beautiful and should be on every divers’ bucket list.

DARLING, IT’S BETTER, DOWN WHERE IT’S WETTER

September 11, 2020 ; 9:20 PM
17°31’S, 178°17’E – Volivoli, Fiji

OKAY WE HAD THE MOST MAGICAL COUPLE DAYS OF SEA CREATURE INTERACTIONS. Don’t believe me? I have about a million videos.

RACING DOLPHINS
Dolphins love to race at the bow of Gracie Girl (and any boat) on a day with the right conditions. Although we’ve seen less dolphins total than I probably thought we would on this trip, we’ve certainly seen this pattern a lot.

Over the last two days, during great intraisland day sails around the Yasawas, we had 3 separate pods of dolphins race with us!! They weaved around and in front of the boats for about a half hour each time, until they realized they could never keep up the pace and forfeited to go catch a school of fish instead.

Gracie Girl: 3 ; Dolphins: 0

FLIPPING MANTAS
If you’ve read pretty much any of this blog, you’re aware I have a manta obsession. French Polynesia gave us some awesome experiences, but it’s been a while. So when we sailed to Manta Ray Island I was just as giddy as our first snorkel in Maupiti. And my perfect mantas had a surprise for us!

Since we were drift snorkeling through a fast-current pass, we were in a primo eating environment for the mantas. They opened their mouths all the way and swam quickly to collect plankton, etc. for lunch. The best ones did backflips all the way through their meal! Seriously, for as long as I could keep my body in their vicinity before the current swept me away, the backflips never stopped. Don’t believe me? Check out some videos.

One of those guys even has a ZIPPY! Apparently, he thought I was a manta, not a shark, which I much prefer anyway😊.

HUNGRY FISHIES
The manta snorkel was complete with large schools of fish and pretty coral. We loved it so much we drifted the pass 5 times. My favorite non-manta was this school of fish feeding!

Since we left Manta Ray Island (which also has delicious, wood-fired pizza, by the way), We’ve been running from some storms and making our way back east. Remember, we had to sail almost all the way west to Port Denarau to complete COVID check in requirements for Fiji. Now our sails east are against the trade winds so we don’t miss out on the “best” parts of Fiji. Weather windows are extremely important, and we are conscious of strong winds coming through the area. Sadly, our Russian friends ended up on the reef that night at Manta Ray Island (everyone is okay and the boat is reparable).

The islands are close together and there are many reefs, which aren’t as well marked as they were in French Polynesia. So we’ve done some day sails over the last couple days rather than one long, overnight passage to make sure we don’t hit anything. Luckily, this short stop in Volivoli featured Fiji’s best burger, and it did not disappoint.

As you can tell, WE ARE LOVING UNDERWATER FIJI. Next stop: Rainbow Reef!

-Kristen Pankratz
First mate, Amazing Grace

TLDR: 2 words: Manta backflips. Yes, scroll back up and check out the videos.

SEGA NA LEQA- IT MEANS “NO WORRIES”

I know you have all become accustomed to the high-quality blog posts from Kristen, our first mate, but she stayed with the boat to snorkel, kayak and relax without parents (hmm?) during our adventure to Turtle Island Resort.  So, you’re stuck with me.

Admiral Anne and I enjoyed a two-day respite away from the part of boat life that can get old.  You know- constant cleaning, showers where you cannot really get enough water and it is rarely warm, beds that are not quite wide enough, preparing meals in a very small kitchen, decks that never stop moving, constantly thinking about all the parts and pieces to maintain, ensuring the anchor does not drag, etc.  You get the picture.  A night at Turtle Island was the right move.

Turtle Island Resort is a magical all-inclusive resort on private Turtle Island (also called Nanuya Levu).  Captain Cook anchored here in 1774 for the beautiful water and good shelter of the lagoon.  Turtles in those days were a welcome feast for the sailors.  Captain Bligh also anchored here but was reportedly chased off by the king on Matacawalevu Island.  Fijians have a strong warrior history.

Now days there are 26 villages in the Yasawa island group.  The land is under Fijian control with a hierarchy of kings, queens and chiefs. 500-acre Turtle Island is the only freehold island of the group.  Turtle Island was first settled by Europeans in 1858 and then granted freehold status by the English monarch, Queen Victoria, in 1884.  Richard Evanson bought the island in 1972 with money he made in cable TV.  In 1980 Columbia Pictures filmed The Blue Lagoon staring Brooke Shields on the island.

Today it is a private resort with only 15 bures or “huts” with huge bathrooms, hot tubs, beds and seating areas.  The staff or family of 40 people who live on the island cater to whatever you want.  As we arrived the girls (Anne and Kristen) were carried by Fiji men in full dress from the boat to shore and we were welcomed with a song and introductions of the staff.  After breakfast at a big table on the beach and a tour of the island, Anne and I went to a private picnic lunch on Honeymoon Beach (one of 15 private beaches on the island).  We had a great time complete with beautiful sand, rock cliffs, waves, hammock, lounge chairs, and delicious lobster curry.  Next, we were up for a horseback ride before cocktails on the beach and dinner.

Dinner was Fijian style- cooked underground in a pit with hot rocks and coals and served on a beautiful open-air table in the garden.  The food was excellent including lobster, pork, chicken, and lots of different vegetables.    After dinner, traditional Fijian dancers and singers precluded the traditional Kava ceremony and drink.  We closed the evening with a bottle of champaign on ice on the beach under a beautiful star-filled sky.

The next morning, we enjoyed another great breakfast at a table on the beach  and the morning song and dance with staff/family.  Afterwards we went to the beautiful, huge garden to plant a small papaya tree and the traditional garden.  It was fun to see names of famous people like the John McCain family, Al Gore family, Robert Murdoch and some of the royals who had visited.  We then took mountain bikes to explore the incredible views and the private beaches we had not seen, including Devils beach, where Blue Lagoon was filmed.

We did lunch at the private Cliff site which includes a private swimming pool, pavilion, and hammock overlooking the sea.  Relaxing together in the hammock was my favorite.

We returned to the boat late in the afternoon refreshed, relaxed, and with all the boat laundry cleaned by the staff!  Kristen was so happy to see us😊!

-David Pankratz
Captain, Amazing Grace

TLDR:  Great memories at Turtle Island and Honeymoon Beach.

SEVUSEVU SAVVY

September 7, 2020 ; 4:50 PM
16°97’S, 177°37’E – Turtle Island, Fiji

As you can tell, the wildlife and landscapes of the South Pacific are jaw dropping. But our lengthened time to explore (thanks, COVID!) wouldn’t be the same if we didn’t also get to immerse ourselves in cultures that are so different from our own.

Fijian culture varies from French Polynesia even more than the landscape, and we’ve already had the honor of participating in so much of it.

When a boat comes to anchor in Fiji (outside the main tourist areas), it’s in someone’s territory. For permission to stay in a given bay, the captain and crew of a vessel must go to shore and present kava to the chief. Kava is a root vegetable grown and sold in Fiji that also happens to be a very mild narcotic that the villagers make into a drink (basically, mildly hallucinatory mud juice). Once the chief accepts the kava and the crew participates in a short ceremony of chanting in Fijian and welcoming to the island, the boat is welcome to stay. The village also often offers visitor dinner and/or entertainment, and has a variety of fruits and crafts to sell.

Super yachts and boats like ours are about the only visitors these areas get, due to their remoteness. That also makes us their main source of village income. Of course, there are teachers who live in the village and commute to school with the children, and others who live and work at resorts around the islands or on the mainland and send funds home. But the villages tend to be relatively poor and live simple ways of life. They live off the land and cook only what can be grown on the island or fished from the sea.

Since the chief at our first village (Somo Somo), is 94 years old, we presented the kava but didn’t get to participate in the drink (I guess she was tired, as we met her in her bed). She was a lovely woman and her family and friends catered to our tour around the island and told us stories about the chief and her ancestors. She’s a pretty impressive lady.

We also participated in their traditional Fijian feast. It was a blast, and the food was only 80% disgusting- consisting mostly of boiled, unseasoned root vegetables and fish, as well as seaweed and sea grapes (harvesting these underwater options is another source of income).
The other 20% of the meal was fresh fruit, eggplant, and a delicious, fried spinach patty. I can certainly see why the Fijians are much fitter than the French Polynesians…

After dinner, the village sang and danced for us. They had the most beautiful voices and really seemed to enjoy having us there to perform for. Captain Dave even got dance stabbed in the heart with a spear. We think he’s ready to have a second career as an actor…

The village allowed us to hike and snorkel on their land. Although we thought we found the hiking trail, we quickly lost it and were left yet again to make our way through thick woods. Luckily, Captain Dave was in front, so he got the brute of the spiders and branches. I’m sure he was regretting not purchasing that machete back in Huahine…

It was great to be around kids again in the villages. They came to greet us and played on the beach. We would see another village with lots of kids again soon at our next anchorage, where we were blessed with a magical morning at church.

As we made our way to the chapel through kind villagers who offered me clothes to wear (I was completely soaked during a very windy dinghy ride), we realized we were a little early for church. We hung out front with Maximillian and chatted with Sam, who was interested in our journey, as we listened to Sunday School kids practicing their song.

Since this village was close to a resort area, they get few visitors (especially since COVID), and the kids were very curious to see us. We were thanked for coming to spend time with them rather than snorkeling or beaching, which was sweet. But we know we were more blessed by the experience than they were.

The kids sang “A Wiseman Built His House Upon the Rock”, a tune we were familiar with. Once the adults filed in with traditional Fijian songs, a choir of gorgeous voices moved us. As we expected, the songs and sermon were mostly in Fijian, so I’ll admit I did a fair amount of bible reading rather than paying attention in the 2 hour service. But religion is such an important part of culture to our family that we really enjoyed seeing how it’s practiced and celebrated on the other side of the world.

While I was most impressed and blessed by the villages over the last few days, we’ve been moving fast and exploring more “touristy” areas as well. At The Boathouse we spent a fun afternoon drinking beer and eating cardboard pizza with the other Bitter Enders.

We went on a gorgeous hike as we said goodbye to our dear friends on Influencer, who are headed to Australia this week.

Then Admiral Anne and Captain Dave decided it was time for some time off the boat.
We anchored at Turtle Island, and they spent 32 hours at a 5 star resort, >50% off a one night price, and lived like the rich and famous (typically requires a 6 night stay). They and Serenity First were the first guests since the beginning of COVID 19, and the staff (who live there) couldn’t have been happier to see them.

I know because I was invited in for breakfast (best waffles of my life) and a tour of the private island, which were both impeccable. I’m sure the entire stay was a wonderful, once in a lifetime experience, but I opted for some alone time with Gracie Girl.

I spent almost 2 full days of pure bliss- enjoying my alone time, kayaking, snorkeling, exploring the beaches and rocks, listening to whatever music I wanted, and not being nagged for one single moment about anything. IT. WAS. AWESOME.

The Captain and Admiral’s First Mate free time was more eventful (but couldn’t have been more blissful) than my time on the boat. But I wasn’t there, so I can’t tell you about it.

Although they haven’t taken me up on my offer this entire trip, maybe the Captain or Admiral will guest write about it. Or maybe what happens on Turtle Creek Island, stays on Turtle Creek Island…

-Kristen Pankratz
First mate, Amazing Grace

TLDR: Despite my sunny attitude, charming personality, and general lovingness to the people of Somo Somo, I still haven’t gotten to try even a sip of Kava mud juice. What’s up with that?

WILSON!!!!

September 2, 2020 ; 11:13 AM
17°46’S, 177°04’E – Navadra, Fiji

Monuriki (not to be confused with Castaway Island) is beautiful and diverse- although it’s only about 100 acres large. Monuriki is where most of the extremely slow but occasionally hilarious Tom Hanks movie was filmed- but Castaway Island has a resort of the same name. So, tourists sometimes end up there rather than the uninhabited paradise of Monuriki. Also not to be confused with Rafiki, who is the baboon from the Lion King 😊.

After a not so good night’s sleep (anchorage was rolly and winds were high), Admiral Anne was chomping at the bit for an explore first thing in the morning. To shore we went in search of the hiking trail.

The term “trail” should be taken VERY loosely in this post. It’s more likely that a group of drunken college kids stumbled around with pink ribbon and tied them around nonsensically than that someone tried to trample a trail. Seriously, there might be hidden cameras around that filmed Amazing Grace, Amari, and Influencer stumbling around the jungle. Yes, our falls and confusion were hilarious, and if you’re out there reading this- we are interested in making a rights deal to fund the rest of our circumnavigation.

Each not-a-path we explored led to varying difficulty of hike based on elevation, barriers, and number of spiders. This naturally split us off into 3-4 different groups. I can only speak to the couple hour, achieve highest elevation as possible until continuing up the cliff would lead to certain doom hike that Captain Dave, Amari’s skipper, and I did- but if you want to hear about people smarter than us who found a real trail you’ll have to talk to Admiral Anne.

Our hike began on the gorgeous, white sand beach before we cut inland. We trudged through arid, dry woods full of sticker plants (which thoroughly cut up our legs) until we came to a steep rock face. After some hands-and-feet climbing, we made it to a magnificent view overlooking the surrounding islands.

As we climbed down the other side, we found a lush jungle. The plants and soil changed completely. Queue killer spiders.

The worst part about leading on these not-path hikes is the spider webs you have to knock down to get through. Usually, they’re large webs with little, half-inch diameter creepy crawlers. NOT ON MONURIKI. We encountered the largest spiders I’ve seen since the tarantulas in Big Bend. But unlike tarantulas, they’re not crawling on the ground, they’re eye level and menacing and you might not see them until they’re 4 inches in front of your face. YIKES!

As we zig zagged through the spider jungle, we eventually came to clearings where it was straight up fall. A complete season change happened in the course of a few feet, and we were surrounded by gorgeous red and orange leaves.

Eventually, we made our way back down to the sea, because it was obvious there was no way for us to get to the top without climbing gear and we were absolutely nowhere near a trail. We emerged from the woods in the middle of a rock beach.

Remember the scene in castaway where he’s trying to spear the fish?? That was us wading through the water. And the crabs? They really scurry all over these rocks. We even found Tom Hanks’ cave! Or at least one camera angle of it.

As we walked back toward the boats, we returned to the white, sandy beach where most of Castaway was filmed and met up with Admiral Anne and the others. We loved that we had seen such a variety of landscape and vegetation on such a short hike, and we had the battle scratches to prove it.

After a quick lunch on the boat we returned to the island for some beach time, and we FOUND WILSON!

Don’t we look as rugged as Tom Hanks? Isn’t Wilson getting better with age? It was a very fun, silly day- topped off with a short motor to Navadra (thanks to Gracie Girl for getting off that island).

On the short passages around the Nasawa islands, we’ve been stretching Gracie Girl’s sails. Unfortunately, since getting the main patched, we’ve had trouble unfurling as the sail jams in the mast. Hopefully, it will work itself out over time. But with the time and effort it takes to crank the sail out (Captain Dave on deck pulling, me on the winch), we are SO HAPPY it’s a problem here within island wind protection, and not on the open ocean.

Here off the coast of Navadra we have the cove all to ourselves, except a trimaran on the other end catching some waves. We spent a nice, quiet evening grilling on the boat and watching the sun set over the hills.

Then this morning we snorkeled both sides of the island. We saw our first turtle in a while and walked down the beach, where there was a sign that we weren’t allowed to come to land without permission. Who’s permission did we need? Probably the chief’s. Now we’re off to meet up with the other Bitter Enders and find the chief!

-Kristen Pankratz
First mate, Amazing Grace

TLDR: While on Monuriki, Tom Hanks made best friends with a volleyball. For me, it was a very long stick that I used to bat away the large and scary spiders…

BITTER ENDERS

August 31, 2020 ; 6:14 PM
17°61’S, 177°04’E – Monuriki, Fiji

After 2 days in the quarantine anchorage and the rest of a week in the marina, we’re finally out sailing/exploring Fiji.

Don’t get me wrong, a few days at a marina after a passage like that were AWESOME. Port Denarau has brand new facilities with HOT SHOWERS, DO-IT-YOURSELF LAUNDRY, FREE WATER, and STEP-OFF-BOAT-TO-LAND access. If you’re hanging out at home, that might not sound like much. But on the boat it’s luxury.

Upon arrival I immediately laced up my Asics and ran as far away from the sea (and my parents, I mean way, way further than 46 feet) as possible. I’m sad to admit that was only about 2.5 miles after 2.5 weeks of little leg use at all (yes, my muscles are pathetic), but that doesn’t mean it didn’t feel AMAZING. I was happy to walk the 2.5 miles back, and over the next few days, my legs started to feel normal again and my runs got longer.

Port Denarau honestly looks a lot like St. Petersburg, FL- where the Captain and Admiral live. It’s obvious there is a lot of wealth here. Houses are gorgeous and well-maintained flowers bloom everywhere. The things to do are shopping, eating, spa, mini-golf, regular golf, tennis, water parks, etc. It’s a lot more built up than most of the places we visit, and the “things to do” I mentioned are actually closed for now because of the lack of tourists.

Still, there were a couple restaurants open. We attended them over and over again, after weeks of eating on the boat and promise of more to come in as we plan to sail many uninhabited bays. Luckily, Fiji prices are much more comparable to Dallas prices than those of French Polynesia. And 2x per week even the hair and nail spot was open. Can you tell we were pampered with pedicures and haircuts? THE LIFE OF LUXURY.

We met back up with the rest of the bitter enders who are hanging onto the Lost ARC with everything we can (Influencer, Maximillian, Amari), as well as our friends on Serenity First. For my non-sailing friends, the bitter end is both the spot in the Caribbean where the Captain and Admiral honeymooned and the 6 fathoms of line on the boat-end of an anchor chain that connects it to deck (inside our anchor locker).

I GOT MY BURGER, and we ate lots of Indian food. There’s a big Indian influence here in Fiji, because Indians were originally brought here as indentured laborers to work on sugar cane plantations in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Where French Polynesia had Chinese food influence, French Polynesia has Indian. Luckily, we love Indian food.

We had a birthday celebration on Amari, where I lost miserably at hearts and Admiral Anne successfully shot the moon. We had a blast out at dinners out and aboard each other’s boats. We sat with our agent who helped us get into Fiji (Yacht Help- 10/10 do recommend) and he took us through all the places we shouldn’t miss as we sail around the islands. Captain Dave and I ogled at the 3-masted sloop at the end of the dock.

But the real reason we were in the marina for a few extra days was to get some work done. We checked the rigging, had the bit of the main sail we’ve been patching fixed professionally, fixed the grill, brought down our code zero, scrubbed the rust off Gracie Girl with a toothbrush (yes, that was a first mate job- we have got to get some more crew…), fixed the bimini, provisioned, did laundry, bought more fishing supplies, etc. etc. Pretty soon, Captain Dave had a posse of workers yelling “bula, bula” at Gracie Girl each morning to update him on parts and more jobs he could do if he wanted…

But boats aren’t meant to sit in marinas. Our friends on Max are always saying the longer a boat sits in a marina, the more presents she asks for. So as soon as we got our sail back and our final piece for the grill, we set sail for Musket Cove.

Musket Cove yacht club is world famous for its $1 membership fee available to any skipper who sails in from a foreign port. Yet another thing to check off Captain Dave’s bucket list!

It’s a nice spot to hang on the beach, swim off your boat, kayak, etc.

I had 3 highlights.

  1. BRUNCH: All-you-can-eat Sunday brunch at the yacht club was just under $25/person and TO DIE FOR. I’m talking seafoods prepared like we’d never had them before, a full bar of deliciously prepared veggies, stuffed pork and cracklings, beef with pepper sauce, all the breakfast foods you can think of, a coconut to drink from, etc. etc. Every single thing on my plate was INCREDIBLE, until we got to desert, which was a little eh. Not a problem, I happily had my first “iced coffee” in 9 months for desert. It was blended and perfect (yes, I am aware of how basic I am, feel free to not comment).
    Brunch entertainment was football taught to the Kiwi and Aussie at the table, courtesy of Captain Dave. It was seriously hilarious, and featured mimosa glass line men and parfait receivers. Of course, we followed it up with a showing of the Blind Side. “Highlight” reel below…
  • ZIPPY: He’s the best fish friend that anyone could have!
    Naturally, at anchor with Influencer, Admiral Anne and I had an 8 am swim workout date. I love me a workout to a reef. There’s nothing quite as cool as a long swim over fish and coral, and the underwater life here in Fiji is as different from French Polynesia as the landscape. But why was this swim so special? An adorable, 1.5-inch, lime green with black stripes fish named Zippy 100% thought he was a remora and I was a shark. He swam with me for a half hour! I played with my speed, and when I went just the right pace, he would swim just in front of my goggles to surf my wave. His little body was wiggling SO FAST as he tried to keep up for the adventure. I choked on salt water more times than I could count because I was laughing so hard. When I swam too fast, he would sometimes attach to Admiral Anne, but when we stopped he would always come back to me. Even when we treaded water and chatted for 10 mins before swimming back, he hung out just an inch from my suit.
    Unfortunately, I’m not sure he’ll ever find his family again (fingers crossed he has a dad like Marlin), but MAN did he make my day <3.
  • BEACH BAR HANGING: Musket Cove has the most adorable little rustic beach bar. The young ladies from Amazing Grace, Amari, and Serenity First took full advantage. We stood at the bar and talked for hours, read on the beach, and met some new people. It was nice to have some bonding time and hang out with…. Not my parents (love you, guys!)

So, overall, Musket Cove was a great, few day stop. We bonded and ate good food (bonus was Amari teaching us to make their coconut curry) and got back into the swing of being at anchor. But after a couple nights it was time to begin our real adventure into the much lesser known areas of Fiji.

Fiji reminds us of the BVI because the islands are so close together. You can go for one last swim in the morning, sail to a new island for a snorkel and lunch, and then be in at your next anchorage before dark. It’s the kind of sailing we remember from chartering when I was young, and it’s awesome.

Our first day of that took us from Musket Cove to Honeymoon Island for a lunch stop. Best snorkeling for things that aren’t big game (sharks, mantas, turtles, etc.) since South Fakarava. The coral is vibrant and so many different colors. We swam all the way around this (very small) island and became one with the fishies. Seriously, Finding Nemo could have been based on this reef. While there were some small spots where coral was dying, we mostly swam in shallows and off a drop off where the world was popping with oranges, greens, and purples in every direction. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the underwater camera. I wanted to get back to total immersion in the underwater world. But I’ve been told we’ll find similar spots along our tour of Fiji, so stay tuned.

Now we’re at anchor in a bay just off the coast of Monuriki, the island where Castaway was filmed. Tomorrow, we explore!

-Kristen Pankratz
First mate, Amazing Grace

TLDR: WE’RE BACK TO LIVING THE DREAM. This is exactly how we envision the pirate’s life (which by the way, is for us): Wake up, swim, sail to a new island, have lunch and a snorkel, sail to another island, sundowners, dinner in a gorgeous cove, rinse, and repeat. Miserable parts of passages are so far in the rearview mirror they’re just amusing anecdotes 😊.

BULA BULA, FIJI

August 21, 2020 ; 1:44 PM
17°75’S, 177°37’E – Nadi Bay, Fiji

1,950 miles later, we are finally anchored off the coast off the coast of Denarau Island, Fiji. It’s a beautiful, sunny day and it feels oh so good to be floating still after a rough passage.

The sail started off beautifully. We had 6 days of sunny skies, fair winds, and mild seas. We adjusted the sails regularly between wing on wing sailing and a broad reach to speed through the water to our waypoints. The moon was nearly full, providing plenty of light on night watches and the crew was content with all things- except a severe lack of fish biting on our line. It was sailing bliss, and it was too good to be true…

7 days of squalls rolled in and brutally beat Gracie Girl’s hull against 15-foot swells. The wind was constantly shifting, making for uncomfortable night watches and fragmented sleep patterns. Sea spray and rain made it impossible to dry anything out, and life aboard Amazing Grace became increasingly uncomfortable. My bruises are battle scars from being flung across the galley as the boat pitched in the waves. Captain Dave must have one on his behind as well, because all 200 pounds of him was chucked across the cockpit at my head at high speeds. Looking back now, the unbalance is comical. At the time, it was infuriating.

Heat exhaustion and probably a little dehydration cursed me with a migraine through one of those gross, rainy, rough days. To those who haven’t spent time on the high seas being thrown around a boat, I’m not sure how to describe the misery of laying around the boat trying to keep my head still so I wouldn’t feel my brain rolling around in my skull. That was the worst day of the trip so far. Oh wait, second to learning Corona Virus cancelled our circumnavigation.

In the middle of our 7 rough days, there was one day of sun, there to remind us how we love floating in the middle of the ocean. But I do mean floating, as we were hit with hot, hot doldrums that caused 24 hours of motoring. Then, quickly, it was back to the washing machine.

In the midst of a rough sail, our phone calls from friends and family (thanks guys) and bites on our fishing lines help break up the time and add some variety to time spent unsuccessfully whale watching (there was an extreme lack of wildlife on this passage), reading, listening to music and podcasts, etc. But the fish out on this side of the Pacific are seriously gargantuan.

There were epic battles between the captain and his prey, the first mate and her prey, and our colorful, squidy prey and the sea. Unfortunately, we lost 5 truly giant, strong, angry, vindictive, impressive fish. I mean it, there was absolutely no lack of skill in the fisherpeople on board 😉. One snapped the line on the pole after pulling it all the way out of the spool, one stole the hook from our squidy bate, two were pulled almost all the way in before they darted around and got off the hook, and one literally chomped through a steel leader. I mean, there was a disturbance on the hand line, I pulled it in, and the line itself was still intact, but the bait and the hook were completely gone, and the STEEL leader severed. Shark? Monster? Narwhal? Who knows, but I’m logging it in as a gargantuan sea monster. (Okay, so reading 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea might have gone to my head).

We did manage to reel in one of our 3.5-foot dolphins. No, we didn’t eat flipper. Maybe you’re more comfortable if we use the Hawaiian name, “Mahi Mahi”, or the Mexican name, “Dorado”? It was a glorious battle and we prevailed. Captain Dave filleted him after dark because it took so long to pull him in, and I spent the next afternoon creating a feast of sushi.  He’s good for many meals, and Admiral Anne’s lemon, garlic sauce was so good it rivalled even my new sushi-making skills. We felt like warriors and ate like kings.

Near the end of the rough days, we crossed the International Date Line and time travelled forward a day. I’ll count it as a blessing, because that day would have probably been spent on a wildly bucking boat as well 😉. As we crossed the line, which is shockingly not marked with a literal line to create dramatics as it is on maps and globes, things started to mellow out. We were within the Fiji island chain (there are 330 islands in all), so the reefs were starting to break up and block the swells. As we made it through the pass, the seas calmed down completely, the sun came out, and we enjoyed a few hours of glorious sailing, followed by 24 hours of motoring to get to our quarantine anchorage. It was the first time ever that the crew of Amazing Grace was happy to motor.

I cannot describe the relief of dropping the hook, reversing the boat, and getting a hold after the passage we had. We were greeted with yells and waves from Maximillian and Cathryn Estelle and notes from the rest of our Lost ARC crew as we reunited (socially distanced by 4 boat lengths of water, of course). Gin and tonics, lasagna, red wine, and brownies were had, but celebrations were short as our beds were calling. I slept for a miraculous 12 hours, a start at make up zzzz’s for extremely broken and unsatisfying sleep on the passage. I even missed the navy come by this morning (all good). I feel like a brand-new woman.

Today it’s sunny and extremely hot and beautiful. We cheered Amari as they came in this morning, and got our COVID tests done this afternoon. We expect results tomorrow, at which point we’ll be able to dock at the marina and set foot on land. Speaking of COVID tests, after an extremely painful experience in Papeete, we were dreading our nasal swabs and couldn’t wait to get them over with. But a kind, gentle doctor was brought out to the boat by the Navy. She swabbed us uncomfortably, but it was quick and painless and my eyes barely watered. It was awesome and we are grateful.

So, we wait. And we can’t wait to head into the marina, meet the locals, explore the island, STRETCH OUR LEGS, and hug our friends. Fiji currently has zero cases of corona virus, in part thanks to their strict process for bringing in foreigners. Flights are still not open, and anyone entering has to quarantine for 14 days, with negative COVID tests on both sides of the quarantine. Lucky for us, Fiji counts our time at sea in quarantine time. We so appreciate their diligence, especially after hearing upon our arrival that there are now over 150 COVID cases in French Polynesia, where flights opened back up just prior to our departure ☹.

Here at anchor, Amazing Grace is going through a very deep clean. She was salty as ever after our rough passage, and everything had a slight odor after a week of wetness. We’re catching up with friends and family, writing blog posts, reading the news, and doing whatever we can to keep ourselves busy until we are allowed on land. (I’ve spent too much time watching the school of tuna swimming around the stern of the boat. They are absolutely mocking me, as we’re not allowed to fish in this bay).

Although it was a tough passage, we’re thankful for safe sailing. We try to remember mostly the 6 really wonderful days of sailing and our fishing triumph and forget the hard days, but we need to walk on land, eat a burger, and drink a local beer first. Hopefully, all goes well with the check in process and my next post will be full of Fiji fun.

-Kristen Pankratz
First mate, Amazing Grace

TLDR: Captain Dave and his first mate battled the mighty sea monsters of the South Pacific, but the monsters retreated before we could have our victory. They may have quit the battle, but we will WIN THE WAR.

FRENCH POLYNESIA FAREWELL TOUR

August 5, 2020 ; 7:14 AM
17°54’S, 149°56’W – Papeete Marina, Tahiti

Total honesty: Papeete Marina wreaks of failed plans to sail around the world.

If our visa agent hadn’t specifically forbidden us from checking out of another island, we would have avoided coming back here at all cost. It’s a lot easier to move forward and get excited about new plans when I don’t continuously find myself physically in the place where my old plans failed.

But pouting never did anyone any good. Like it or not, we had almost a week of preparations and wait time in Papeete Marina before our weather window aligned with check out timing to sail west. So, with the help of our Lost ARC family, we pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps and made the best of our Tahitian farewell tour.

Even after all these posts, do you seriously not believe me that the Lost ARC is a family? You will now. This parody of Amazing Grace has Pankratz family get together written all over it, courtesy of Domini.

Somehow, we only find ourselves together with Domini during farewell tours and haven’t had the pleasure of much leisure sailing together around French Polynesia. No matter, reprises of The Santa Marta Blues were accompanied by parodies for each Polynesian island chain. We will miss the energy and hilarity that radiate out of that boat.

Because the future of our sail plans is so uncertain, we find ourselves saying goodbye regularly. For about the third time, we said farewell to Next Step and Aurora, some wonderful friends (and magical EU passport holders) who are flying home to rejoin their boats next year.

We visited our favorite spots (Captain Dave literally visited every hardware store on this island) and took advantage of time in a marina. I had 5 days of awesome runs through newly opened parks (reminder: Tahiti has 0 cases, except one new case that came in on a cruise ship and never set foot on land). Hopefully I earned enough miles to prepare my legs to be virtually sedentary for a couple weeks….

Les 3 Brasseurs (a Tahitian brewery) is finally open after leveraging COVID lockdown to renovate. It was nice to try something new and expand our Tahitian beer pallet beyond Hinano. Plus, this brewery is my kind of place, with half price Mondays and juicy cheeseburgers. My first IPA in 7 months hit the spot.

Speaking of firsts in 7 months, Grace from Amari and I decided to bite the bullet and spend a night in a resort. IT WAS MARVELOUS, SIMPLY MARVELOUS. For the first time in 7 months, I slept in a COMFORTABLE bed, under COVERS, and it DIDN’T MOVE. NOT EVEN ONCE. I literally can’t describe how luxurious it was, or how different my life is from a year ago. Unfortunately, it also reminded me how barely comfortable my boat bed is (womp, womp).

I took lots of long, hot showers and we spent as much time as possible in the pool. The swim up bar was an extra bonus, and the cost was worth it just for the wifi.

Most of the time, we have to spend hours at wifi cafes/restaurants/bars/etc. to download podcasts, books, music, and movies for passage. Staying a night at a hotel meant that for the first time in forever, I set all my devices to download, left to do other things, and came back with it done. THE LUXURY.

We wore masks and carefully distanced ourselves from other guests, which was easy as they were at limited capacity to help with distancing. Many of the guests were obviously French Polynesian locals who were there on holiday, and we felt comfortable knowing our risk level was low with (again, only 1 known case in French Polynesia).

A bit of pampering was just what we needed before 14 days at sea… within 45 feet of our parents.

The captain and admiral copied us and spent a night at a hotel too. It was definitely fancier than ours and complete with a French restaurant and Tahitian dancers. La tee da.

Speaking of French food, we got one last meal at L’O A La Bouche with our loudest American buddies, Amari. We may have been shushed. We definitely had an exquisite time eating even more exquisite food.

We’re elated that our fun friends on Amari, Maximillian, and Serenity First will help us create our own little fleet to sail west. Of course, the majority of our days here were dedicated to planning and preparations for Fiji. We are so excited to set sail because until we do, the planning will never stop!

FIJI CHECKLIST
(X) Submit Fiji paperwork (D PAM form, etc.) to request permission to enter
(X) Scrub the bottom of the boat so no barnacles or algae slow Gracie Girl down
(X) Hoist the captain up the mast to check rigging and fix the steaming light
(X) Provision for a 14-day passage
(X) Download books, podcasts, music, movies, etc. to keep yourself occupied during passage
(X) Clean and stow everything on board
(X) Top off fuel
(X) Raise the code zero in case of light winds
(X) Check the main sail and patch the tear
(X) Get COVID test within 72 hours of departure and receive/send negative results within 48 hours of departure
(X) Process customs and immigration paperwork within 24 hours of departure
(X) Put a seasickness patch behind your ear at least 2 hours prior to departure

Did you notice everything was checked off? WE ARE FIJI BOUND. Passage goals include seeing many pods of humpback whales, learning to play the ukulele, catching 2+ fish per week, and (as always) keeping our bodies firmly on the boat. Catch you in a couple weeks, internet.

-Kristen Pankratz
First mate, Amazing Grace

TLDR: WE ARE FIJI BOUND. Catch us on the sat phone or not at all over the next couple weeks as we get back in touch with the open seas.

I SPEAK WHALE

July 30, 2020 ; 4:32 PM
17°54’S, 149°56’W – Papeete Marina, Tahiti

Our last morning in Raiatea was spent on a wonderful dive. Just outside the reef, there’s a gorgeous coral shelf that is bustling with fish. It reminded me of the dive we did in the north pass of Fakarava. The big difference was that on that dive, there were walls of sharks after the drop off from the reef. On this dive, the sharks were interacting with the reef fish- just slinking around as if monitoring their constituents. They even swam within just a few feet of us. They liked checking out Captain Dave best!

Unfortunately, pictures (yet again) don’t do it justice. Everything turns out a little bit blue when I shoot from 20m underwater. But the colors were vibrant and we even saw a few fish we’ve never seen before. It felt good to get back in a dive suit and be part of the ocean.

The deeper water divers (we’re only certified to 20m) dove after us. When they surfaced, they said they heard WHALES during their dive! My ears pricked up just knowing they must be some within a couple miles of us.

So, after our dive we set sail for a whale hunt. Okay, okay, Captain Dave would say we set sail for the love of sailing and to relocate to Bora Bora. But what does he know? My eyes were peeled for whales. I was not going to miss them surfacing, even if it only happens every 45 minutes and could be anywhere in a 2 mile radius…

When we set out on our circumnavigation, we thought we would miss humpback whale season in the South Pacific. The whales migrate through here each year between late July and mid-September. Thanks to a complete change of plans due to the Pandemic, we have a chance to see them!

GOOD THING I SPEAK WHALE. Don’t believe me? Neither did the Captain or Admiral. But I called them from Amazing Grace, told them where we were going, and asked them to bless us with their presence. Not long after, THERE THEY WERE, flapping their tails on the water and spraying out of their blowholes in the Bora Bora sunset. It was an amazing ending to a practically perfect day.

Bora Bora round 2 was equally wonderful to round 1. We took Celtic Star and Amari to all our favorite places, and even found a new snorkel spot.

We went by Bloody Mary’s again (but were disappointed the dancers weren’t there). Still, the atmosphere is so fun, and we loved a night out with Amari, Celtic Star, and Verbana.

Fabian wasn’t available to take the other boats on the fabulous tour of all the best snorkel spots that we enjoyed on our last visit with Influencer. No matter, we took the dinghies and showed everyone around on our own!

We went back to the aquarium (Admiral Anne’s eel nemesis is still living in the same coral head).

We checked out the sandbar where the tour boats feed the sharks and rays.

At both places, there were a couple tour boats. The opening of the island is starting to show, but it’s still sparse compared to non-pandemic times. We even ran into Fabian giving others a tour at the aquarium! We were happy to see he’s gotten more business 😊.

We had a marvelous lunch at Bora Bora Beach club, our favorite spot to kick back, drink Hinano, and eat parrot fish on the beach.

The last 2 nights we anchored off one of the Motus where we searched and searched for mantas last time we were here. Although the anchorage itself was plenty deep, the bombies around us only gave about 2 feet of clearance under our keel. Captain Dave and I spent an hour measuring and making sure he was comfortable with the spot. In the end, the beauty of the anchorage was overwhelming, and the shallow clearance was accepted.

We never saw any mantas, but we snorkeled at Manta Point and the coral gardens, which were both stunning. The highlight was a fever of 20 spotted eagle rays (yes, a fever, but I had my money on a flock). We followed them through the channel. They are incredibly graceful, soaring in a similar fashion to a manta (rather than swelling like a sting ray). Each ray has its own unique pattern of spots, and it was so cool to see them all together!

At the coral gardens, we saw the biggest and most active moray eel any of us have ever seen, and lots of colorful reef fish. The curious butterfly fish came right up to our goggles! They’re my favorite. I mean, they’re my favorite today… Tomorrow I’ll probably see something I love just as much. Have we told you how incredibly lucky we are to be LIVING THE DREAM??

A rainy day meant a euchre tournament aboard Amazing Grace, followed by a potluck dinner on Celtic Star. It was humiliating that Captain Dave and the skipper of Celtic Star won… but I guess I’ve been gone from the Midwest too long and I’m a little rusty 😉.

The potluck was tuna sushi, coconut curry, salad, and pumpkin pie. Seriously the best dinner I’ve had since Lilly’s vanilla mahi mahi in Rangiroa. I went over to Celtic Star early to sous chef on the sushi. Richards is the best amateur sushi chef I know, and I had the BEST time learning why my sushi is never quite as good and dancing around their kitchen to RAM RAM (a Celtic Reggae band led by Richard’s mate).

But all good things must come to an end. With our visa running out, we are preparing all the paperwork to sail to Fiji in just a few days. Unfortunately, the protocol has changed for checking out in French Polynesia- they are only allowing checkouts from Papeete. So, back to Tahiti we go, flanked by pods of dolphins on either side through Bora Bora’s pass.

But first we took a pit stop in Raiatea for dinner and story swapping with Island Wanderer, Kari, and Influencer. It was incredible to see those guys! All our magical EU passport carrying friends have as much time as they want to continue exploring French Polynesia. If they were to move on to Fiji, they’d be barred by the same regulations as us Americans. So, we said a bittersweet, “see ya later!” to Celtic Star, Island Wanderer, and Kari, and hope to connect again when the world calms down.

Then we set sail for Papeete. The sail was up-wind, but the wind slightly angled off our port bow, so we got to sail without the motor. It was beautiful, but the wind was gusting hard and we were heeling over a LOT, so no one got much sleep. I continued to speak to the whales, hoping for more sightings, but unfortunately the conditions weren’t good for seeing anything in the sea. I’m sure that’s the reason, and that there’s nothing wrong with my whale grammar 😉.

Now we are in Papeete with lots of boat chores, paperwork, etc. to get done before departure. We will get one last goodbye to Aurora, Next Step, and Domini. Then we are hoping to buddy boat the passage with Amari and Maximillian in a small but mighty fleet. Next time there’s a weather window we are Fiji bound!

-Kristen Pankratz
First mate, Amazing Grace

TLDR: Life is a funny thing. COVID ruined our circum-navigation plans but gave us a chance to really get to know and love French Polynesia and her people. PLUS, IT GAVE US WHALE SEASON! Humpbacks, I’ll keep calling you, please come visit again!