WHEN the chorus of Happy Birthday rang out over the waters off Honiara, Iva Vunikura was a bag of mixed feelings.
Turning 31 on a day the Te Mana O Te Moana voyage came to an end after more than three years was not something she wished to celebrate.
It was a day to part from friends who had now become family.
"Saying goodbye is not an easy thing to do," said the former champion powerlifter. "I have had an experience of a lifetime coming on this voyage and made friends who are so close to me. These are my brothers and my sisters."
For the only girl in a home of two brothers, the emotional farewell at the A Oval beach in Honiara on Monday was the saddest and happiest time in her life.
She had travelled more than 45,000km across the world, more than once around it at the equator, on the Uto Ni Yalo's second tour since 2010.
As a watch captain on this traditional sailing vaka, this woman from Vione in Gau had done her family, at home in Fiji and on the ocean, proud.
"It has been an honour sailing the ocean and realising just how important it is to our survival," she said.
"When I first joined the voyage, I never took it seriously. Not until I stepped out into the world on the Uto Ni Yalo to see first-hand the damage that is being caused to our ocean by our own doing.
"I visited places I never imagined I would ever see, saw how people in different places around the world lived, how they damaged the environment without any care and how others persevered to protect theirs.
"We have learnt so much in this long voyage and I can't wait to get home and share my experience with anyone who cares to listen and learn to protect our most precious resource."
Ms Vunikura witnessed how the struggling people of some Pacific islands are learning to cope with the effect of climate change, what the Galapagos has done to protect some of the world's endangered species and encountered rogue cops who robbed some members of the Uto Ni Yalo in Cabo San Lucas in Mexico.
"It's been a hell of a ride and one that I will not give up for anything," she said.
As the Pacific Voyagers, minus the Samoans who have sailed home towards Apia, head towards New Caledonia , Ms Vunikura's resolve is as firm as her hand on the uli.
For now, she wants to continue preaching the gospel on the Uto ni Yalo and settle down and have a family of her own with whom she can share her achievements.
And, of course, the story of her first true love — the ocean, veimuana, which means where the bow of your canoe takes you.
It's the story of her emancipation.