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Powerful Cyclone Hits the Solomons, Vanuatu, Fiji, Tonga

Solomon Islands

The most powerful storm to develop in the South Pacific basin in more than two years, severe Tropical Cyclone Harold has now left a trail of destruction across four nations. After developing between the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea on April 1, Harold almost immediately claimed 27 lives in the Solomon Islands. A ferry defied cyclone warnings, departed the densely-populated capital of Honiara in deteriorating conditions, and lost 27 souls overboard to a large wave.

Harold's predicted track
The cyclone’s track as predicted on April 6.
© 2020 Courtesy Ronnie Simpson


Having claimed life in the Solomons, Harold continued on toward Vanuatu. Rapidly intensifying, it became a Category 5 storm before it stalled out west of Vanuatu as a ridge of high pressure halted its progress eastward. Dumping significant amounts of rain and bringing winds over 150 knots, Harold battered Vanuatu for days before finally making landfall and moving farther southeast. Particularly affected was the large island of Espiritu Santo. Some 70 percent of the structures in the nation’s second-largest city of Luganville have been damaged, with many buildings in the city of 16,500 reduced to their foundations. Official reports on lives lost and damage are understandably delayed.


After its brief encounter with land in Vanuatu, Harold re-intensified and aimed at Fiji. The majority of local cruising yachts in western Fiji headed for the mangroves at Port Denarau, near the city of Nadi. This writer weathered the cyclone at the cruising hotspot of Musket Cove, all the way on the inside lagoon. Cruising yachts at both spots fared well, seeing winds of around and over 60 knots, though with virtually no sea state.

aerial shot of boats tied up in mangroves
Drone picture of much of the local cruising fleet seeking refuge in the mangroves near Fiji’s Port Denarau. 2015 Baja Ha-Ha veteran and 2016 Pacific Puddle Jump veteran Jose Miguel Castello of the San Francisco-based Beneteau 423 Carthago took the photo. Going by the name ‘Sailing Seabattical’ on Instagram and Facebook, Jose’s social media feeds offer an in-depth look at cruising Fiji and the South Pacific. He’s one of the cruisers leading the local charge to create a relief effort.
© 2020 Jose Miguel Castello

Port Denarau and Musket Cove themselves both suffered similar fates as (fortunately) empty and evacuated docks ripped apart during the intense conditions of the storm. Five miles away from Musket Cove, the famous surf and kiting resort at Namotu Island claims to have seen winds of around 100 mph. Incredibly, the surf-contest scoring tower at the world-famous wave ‘Cloudbreak’ — an iconic landmark that had stood at the reef for decades — is no longer there.

broken docks
The main marina at Musket Cove emptied of all boats, as damage was expected. Moving up and down in the choppy seas created within Musket Cove, especially at the high tide from the full moon, the docks sustained some damage. They should be fully repaired in short order. Whether any yachts will be able to come use them this year remains to be seen.
© 2020 Ronnie Simpson

While Fiji’s main island of Viti Levu sustained a lot of damage, it was the fourth-largest island in the country, Kadavu, that got hit the hardest. Cyclone Harold basically rolled over the top of Kadavu as a strong Category 4, bringing devastating damage. As with the Solomons and Vanuatu, details out of Kadavu are slow to emerge, though relief and assessment efforts are already underway. As well as the cyclone, at least three tornadoes — very rare for Fiji — ripped through the country. One severely damaged a school and community. After Fiji, Harold made his way toward Tonga, where he again left a trail of destruction. The full extent of the damage won’t be known for some time yet.

Fiji storm graphic
The cyclone passes Fiji and aims for Tonga.
© 2020 Courtesy Ronnie Simpson

Tropical Cyclone Harold was an incredibly powerful and devastating storm in a region that is already dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. With resources spread thin, neighboring countries such as Australia and New Zealand have already stepped up with much-needed support. Some cruisers in the local community (including this writer) are beginning to identify needs and how cruisers may play a role in also helping out. More on that in a future installment.

Coconuts strew the grass
One of the few silver linings in a tropical cyclonic is that there are literally thousands of coconuts littered about after the storm passes. On a hot, sunny afternoon after Harold’s passing, this writer enjoyed an all-you-can-drink coconut party with a few of the local Fijians at Musket Cove. During the storm, however, these coconuts are a major hazard to anyone who may be outdoors. Flying coconuts are definitely a thing, and it is well advised to walk to windward of a coconut palm.
© 2020 Ronnie Simpson

God bless Fiji.

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