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drua journey

COVID 19 has thoroughly tuned the sailing world upside down. From cancelling some regattas and delaying others while immobilizing cruisers the world over, this global pandemic has left an inauspicious mark on the sport. Whenever any door closes in life however – if you look hard enough – you’ll see that another door has opened.

Such is the case down in the South Pacific island nation of Fiji, where the only traditional sailing drua still in operation is planning it’s most significant voyage to date. A professionally built, historically accurate and commercially surveyed replica of the most recent boat to be built in the traditional sense – Ratu Finau, which rests in the national museum in Suva – i Vola Sigavou is both a work of art and a culturally significant living piece of Fijian maritime history.

“Because of COVID 19, we’re not expecting any international tourists for the next 6 months or so… so we thought to ourselves this could be the perfect time to go to the Lau Group and collect all the evidence and all the knowledge that’s still available”, says Setareki Corvus Ledua, or ‘Seta’ for short. Seta is the captain of i Vola Sigavou, which is a 40-foot long sailing drua launched in 2016.

Translated literally, i Vola Sigavou means ‘the new rising star’, and represents a rebirth of drua culture. Operating as a commercial charter boat out of Vuda Point – the first landing point for native Fijians – Seta and his crew have seen their livelihood, and that of the boat and drua program, completely dry up as a result of the pandemic.

It’s no secret that the first blue water fleets on earth were comprised of canoes in the Pacific. Of these first boats to cross oceans, none were more grand than the Fijian drua. Like their human counterparts who dominate on the rugby pitch, the Fijian boats were revered around the Pacific for their size, speed and power.

Growing to more than 120 feet in length and capable of carrying 200 Fijian warriors to windward at 15 knots, the ancient Fijian drua remain some of the most incredible boats to ever sail the oceans. Their spiritual home resides in the Lau Group of eastern Fiji; a stunningly beautiful group of islands, many of which are limestone-based and not volcanic like the rest of Fiji. This difference in soil composition allows different types of woods to grow, providing the best timber in Fiji for building boats

“Back in the olden days, the Lau Group used to be the building center for traditional boat builders. Boat builders from Samoa and Tonga, as well as Fiji, used to settle in the Lau Group and build the big drua that would sail throughout central Oceania. This sailing in October, we call it ‘na lesu tale’,  which means a home coming.

No one actually knows when the last time was that a drua sailed into the Lau Group, but we have many records of when each of them sailed out of the Lau Group”, Seta tells me. One by one, drua left for various reasons, but sadly none have made their way back. The last one that left came to the main island of Viti Levu to search for greener economic pastures in the 1990s, but instead ended up destroyed on a reef in western Fiji after a cyclone. Time and time again, sad stories like this have repeated themselves, with each drua reaching it’s destruction in one way or another, until there were none left. 

With Ratu Finau – the last boat built in the traditional sense in the Lau Group back in 1913 – slowly deteriorating in a museum in Suva, it’s replica i Vola Sigavou is now on a mission to take things full circle and complete a voyage of discovery back to the Lau Group.

As well as a home coming and a celebration of drua culture, the purpose of the voyage is to gather what drua knowledge and culture still exists in 2020, before it all dies out, and preserve it to pass on to future generations. The end goal of the program is to have a proper boat shed and funding to create a school to teach the youth how to sail druas, but also how to build them, and to perpetuate drua culture in Fiji. 

As with almost all programs of this nature, i Vola Sigavou and her upcoming voyage need your support. With the sailing portion slated to take place in October and the research portion to run through into the new year, i Vola Sigavou and it’s parent program, the non-profit Drua Experience need your help. The program is trying to raise about $24,000 US Dollars to help the boat and the crew see this voyage through on a good financial footing. If you can spare a couple of bucks, please hit up the PayPal account here and help out.

This campaign is just recently announced and is beginning to gain traction both within Fiji and overseas, so please hit up the PayPal and help these guys build some momentum! If all goes well, yours truly will be on board as a media man to help document this voyage. I joined a few days ago on a light-air day sail out of Vuda and made a brief teaser video which can be seen here. I plan to sail some more with the boys and make a full-blown trailer and film effort for the project soon. 

Vinaka vaka levu for helping out i Vola Sigavou and the Drua Experience make, and preserve, history!

– Ronnie Simpson