Mysterious Ways

About 12 months ago we were departing the Tuamotus, International Capital of Reefs and Navigational Hazards. And we did find it the trickiest place to navigate. Until we got to Fiji …

The Tuamotus had reefs, lots of them. The Societies also, most islands being completely surrounded by it. Rarotonga had reefs, Niue and Tonga as well. And so does Fiji.

But not all reefs are created equal.

In the Tuamotus and Societies, the reef situation was tricky because there was a lot of it, and we were forced to navigate very close to them – in many instances within just a few meters. As tough as it was, there was a major relief: visibility. Super-transparent water combined with the explosive colors of the reef. As long as we chose the right light conditions, eyeball navigation always felt safe there. Moreover, almost all reefs there were well marked on our nautical charts.

Typical Fijian reef seen from above. Note the greenish tones. A beautiful view from above and afar, but very hard to see from deck level.
Picture taken from deck level during a calm day. There is a reef out there, some 50 meters away from Pesto. Notice how hard it is to see it.

In fact, our navigation skills between reefs got honed to a point that we felt comfortable navigating among the lesser reefs of the groups to the west of French Polynesia this year.

Well, that is, until we arrived to Fiji.

Waves breaking over a reef during a windy day. The reef can’t even be seen from above. Paradoxically, however, it is easier to spot them from deck level in conditions like these.

See, four aspects that are specific to here collide to make navigation a very tricky affair:

  • the water, although extremely clear, has more sea life – micro organisms – than in French Polynesia. Is is then less transparent, and reflects the sunlight more, in hues of blue and green
  • the reef, albeit rich and alive, is less colorful, tending towards greener tones. As such, it becomes very, very difficult to spot underwater from the deck level
  • most reefs are not displayed on our charts
  • some of the reefs that are displayed on our charts do not actually exist

Of course, we discovered all that the rough way, after a solid sequence of jumpscares revealed and confirmed the situation described above to us.

Typical “ooops” situation here. The nautical chart says there is a big reef to the left (the green patch at the center of the screen). But in reality we found – and almost ran onto – a HUGE uncharted reef elsewhere, right where the white cross is placed on the chart. Note our route, the black line, showing a radical turn – almost 180 degrees – as an evasive action from the invisible reef.

Alternatives there are, at least partial, one of them being an app which combines nautical charts with satellite imagery, and I yet need to try it. But I reckon some of the satellite images are compromised by clouds (some reefs are very small and only show on very clear images). Besides, I fear that by having such assets at hand I might become complacent.

Another “ooops” situation. Note the sudden shift on our route (the black line). Although uncharted, there was a BIG reef where I placed the white cursor on the map.

In fact, I have been using the fear of the initial jumpscares as my first line of defense against the threat of the invisible reefs. This fear keeps me and the crew at a constant level of utmost alertness. Whenever we are on the move, I stay all the time behind the wheel, my eyes either pegged to the depth sounder or scanning ahead for possible telltales of a reef, and my hands ready to disengage the autopilot and change course immediately. At the slightest suspicion, Adriana, Paulo or Raquel are on deck scanning our surroundings. Also, we almost never sail here because it could be difficult to take evasive action with the sails up. And even under engine, we seldom go at full cruising speed. Finally, as we accumulate miles in the region, our electronic charts are being enriched with the “snail trails” from the tracks we have already logged.

There is a positive among all this – the richer water and live coral make up for some awesome snorkeling. And the vistas from up above are to die for.

The other side: we had a great time snorkeling the Fijian reefs, which are full with life

It is said that everything has a price. For cruising in Fiji – and all the views, the friendliness, the flavors – the price comes in the form of this mystery of navigating among invisible reefs. It’s tricky, scary, but a healthy reminder that navigation is to never be taken lightly. Besides, c’mon, this is Fiji, and it’s well worth the extra effort !

Yours truly, the green reef, and mighty Pesto on the background, at my favorite Fijian anchorage: Yasawairara

6 Replies to “Mysterious Ways”

  1. Alex, thanks for the “heads up”! I knew there are many uncharted reefs in Fiji, but not the difficulty to see them. Thanks and keep up the good lookout!

  2. Thank You Phil ! With that said, Fiji is officially now my favorite spot in the South Pacific (out of what we have seen, of course: FP, Cooks, Niue and Tonga). Really worth it, in case you are considering.

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