Written by Brittany Cooper
Photography by Stu Johnson
The fleet of 27 Oyster yachts, ranging in size from the 45 model up to the 825, have successfully completed what some participants have called the most difficult stretch of the two-year journey that began in Antigua nine months ago.
Plenty of long passages tested both their endurance and their teamwork as the adventurers – many of them short handed – set sail for Panama, the Galapagos Islands, French Polynesia and Tonga before the first vessels received clearance into Fiji on Vanua Balavu, part of the little-known Lau island group, on the 30th of August. Oyster Yachts liaised with Yacht Help Fiji to arrange for Fijian customs, immigration and bio-security officials to be flown out from Suva especially to meet the fleet, process their paperwork and clear them into the country.
From Vanua Balavu the rally participants have begun making the most of this Pacific pit stop – exploring the volcanic islands’ pristine sandy beaches, taking part in local villagers’ sevusevu customs and kava welcome ceremonies, and booking their boats in to be lifted out on the main island of Viti Levu for a thorough once-over after a few close encounters with coral reefs.
The 2017-2019 rally is the second world tour organised by Oyster Yachts, after the 2013-2014 inaugural event was declared a grand success by organisers and participants alike. Participants have been full of praise for the support provided by Oyster Yachts from their Ipswich base, especially for the assistance of event co-ordinator Regine Watts and technical support officer Gavin Needham, who have been on the move flying to each location just ahead of the fleet to prepare for their arrival, as well as arranging for repairs and spare parts to be shipped as quickly as possible.
The vessels have access to weather forecasts, route and anchorage advice, special social events, assistance with customs procedures and even all-important information on local etiquette as it varies from country to country. Also significant is the sense of community the adventurers have built, looking out for one another as they communicate via VHF to swap news and tips on various locales, ready and willing to share spare parts and know-how in emergencies.
For Tiggy and James Nathan on board Oyster 575 Miss Tiggy, the first leg of the rally has been the perfect opportunity to take their time making a lengthy and picturesque homecoming as they sail back to Australia to be closer to their Melbourne-based son after 12 years spent living in London. They chose the Oyster World Rally for their “adventure of a lifetime” after falling in love with Oyster yachts at boat shows in Southampton and Dusseldorf, and they have been pleased with the rally’s relatively slow pace through the Pacific, a zone which was always going to be a highlight for them.
“We have learnt so much it is hard to know where to start,” said Tiggy. “We were both concerned at the outset that we may be bored at certain stages, but this has not been this has not been the case, quite the contrary. The most important thing has been to live each day as it comes and presents its different challenges.”
Miss Tiggy is set to be the first yacht to reach Australia, as they are planning to skip the five-month layover period in New Zealand and instead head straight for Brisbane via Vanuatu and New Caledonia. As the only Australian owners participating in the rally, Tiggy and James are keen to welcome many of their new “wonderful friends from all over the world” to our shores, with many of them making early trips over from Auckland to visit our cruising grounds. Some owners are even toying with the idea of signing up for the iconic Rolex Sydney to Hobart Race on Boxing Day.
For many of the Oyster owners participating in the rally, like Charles and Nicky Manby of Oyster 575 Calliope, their trip provides a unique opportunity to make contact with villagers from remote communities they visit along the way, many of whom are still struggling to rebuild and recover facilities after severe weather events like Cyclone Winston. Winston was the strongest Southern Hemisphere tropical cyclone on record, sweeping directly through Vanua Balavu at record-breaking speed in February this year and destroying communications with the mainland as well as housing, generators and healthcare facilities.
About half of the Oyster World Rally fleet have signed up to Sea Mercy, a not-for-profit organisation that provides thousands of villagers in the South Pacific with food, shelter, desalination equipment, professional medical care and supplies after natural disasters. As part of the Give Sight Programme, the Oyster owners have been trained by volunteers from Sea Mercy in setting up small eye clinics, where they can perform basic eye examinations and distribute hundreds of pairs of adjustable prescription glasses as required. In return, the rally participants gain a sense of “sailing with a greater purpose,” making a huge impact on the lives of remote island people. As an expression of gratitude for their efforts in the eye clinics, villagers have presented the Manbys with grapefruit, bananas, pamplemousse and on one occasion a huge chunk of freshly caught tuna. “The real advantage is it gets you into the local community,” said Charles.
“It’s particularly rewarding to help people with short sight move four or five lines down an eye-test chart or see the other side of the road for the first time thanks to our clever eyejuster glasses that can be altered to serve a range of short sightedness,” said Nicky. “They are really a very clever $30 invention.”
As a primary school governor with many years of teaching experience back home in Suffolk and in France, she also takes great satisfaction in visiting small island schools to read books to the children and bring them gifts like felt-tip pens and crayons whenever she gets the chance.
Most of the Oyster World Rally participants are couples who have found to their delight that the challenges of spending weeks on end at sea have brought them together.
“We’ve sailed together for years now and we’ve coped,” said Charles. “But during the rally it’s been big stuff – a long way from anyone. It’s been a good test of our teamwork.”
After a nomadic six weeks exploring the beautiful islands of Fiji, the 110 or so crew from 12 different nations will get together again at Musket Cove Island Resort and Marina in early October, where they will obtain clearance out of the country. The visit to Malolo Lailai Island near Port Denarau will give the fleet, by now more of a community, a chance to relax, regroup and share tales of their adventures so far.
The interesting news for any Australians contemplating joining the rally is that for some owners their journey will come to an end in New Zealand, meaning that there may be some second-hand Oyster beauties on the market in the coming few months.