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One of the success stories of the post-war South Pacific tourist industry has been Blue Lagoon Cruises in Fiji. The pioneer of Fijian cruising was Captain Trevor Withers, a lawyer and wartime flying officer from New Zealand, who came to Fiji in the late 1940s with the intention of establishing a fishing industry.
His business partner was Harold Gatty, also a pilot, who gained fame in 1931 by flying around the world in eight days with renowned American Wiley Post.
Withers and Gatty were told that large schools of yellowfin and skipjack tuna were to be found in the uncharted waters of the Yasawa group of islands, off the west coast of Viti Levu, the main Fijian island. Withers went to the Yasawas to meet the local chiefs and obtain their permission to fish in local waters, but after four years of surveying the potential fishing industry the two men realised they could not establish a viable fishing industry in the area.
However, Withers was so taken by the beauty of the Yasawas, he decided to establish a cruise operation around the islands from Lautoka. At the time there was virtually no tourist industry in Fiji at all, and only one hotel of international standard, which was located in Suva. The only visitors were passengers on liners passing through Suva for a day on their way somewhere else. Gatty could see no future in the cruises, but went on to establish Fiji Airways, the forerunner of Air Pacific.
In New Zealand in 1950, Withers purchased a 42-foot long American-built fast crash boat, powered by twin diesel engines. It was brought to Suva, refitted with cabin accommodation for six passengers, and a crew of four, and renamed Turaga Levu.
In 1948, Blue Lagoon, starring Jean Simmons, had been filmed in the Yasawas, and became a world-wide hit, so Withers decided to call his operation Blue Lagoon Cruises. For the first departure there were no paying passengers on the wharf at Lautoka, but, aware that celebrations had been prepared to greet the boat in the Yasawas, Withers offered six Fijian men he knew who were on the wharf the opportunity to be the first passengers. At 10am on that Monday morning, Turaga Levu left the Lautoka wharf.
Withers advertised departures from Lautoka every Monday morning, returning Thursday afternoon, and although the boat left on a regular basis, for weeks the only passengers were Fijians making the one-way trip to or from the Yasawas.
Finally, an American colonel and his wife became the first fare-paying passengers. Checking to make sure everything was perfect, Withers decided the toilet seat needed repainting, and shortly after Turaga Levu left Lautoka. Later in the day there were cries of pain from the ships toilet, where the colonel was firmly stuck to the seat. It was a delicate and painful procedure to free him, and they had to return to Lautoka for medical attention. After treatment, the colonel decided to rejoin the vessel and continue the cruise.
Over the next three months, Turaga Levu made 12 cruises, but only carried 27 passengers, and Captain Withers was facing financial ruin. Having already sold his car, Withers sold the rest of his possessions, while the four crew members agreed to receive half wages. Withers went to the United States, and in five weeks hosted 31 cocktail parties in various west coast cities, during which he showed slides of the Yasawas and extolled the cruise he operated.
Continued next month
Read the rest of this article with additional pictures in Sea Breezes Magazine - October 2011 Issue
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