Hi from the Happy Ha’apais

July 21, 2013

Pangai, Lifuka Island, Tonga

We’re anchored just off Pangai, the ‘capital’ of the Ha’apai Group of islands, which lie to the north of Tongatapu and south of Vava’u. It’s blowing 30+ knots (sound familiar?) and raining. Not quite what was advertised in the brochure…

I know it’s been a little while since the last update, but we continue to be severely bandwidth-impaired – we’ve had no internet for a whole month, since leaving Tongatapu until a few days ago, which was when we found out we have a new (recycled?) Prime Minister!

To give you an idea of what it’s like, a few days ago, we took the dinghy into Pangai, the afore-mentioned ‘capital’ of the Ha’apais. It’s hardly what you’d call a thriving metropolis: most of the buildings are dilapidated weatherboard with peeling paint and no windows and there are at least as many pigs in the street as people, but it’s actually kinda charming in its own decrepit way….

We have SIM cards for both the national communications carriers – Diginet (I think equivalent of Vodafone) and TCC (equivalent of Telstra). We went to the TCC office as we have been getting texts from them but have been unable to access phone (even customer service) or email.

The nice lady told us that mobile internet was not working in Ha’apai at the moment. We’d been told in Tongatapu that it was. “Really?” we said. “How long has it been down?” (expecting to hear ‘a couple of days’).

“Oh,” she said with a shrug, “Since last year.”

Are you getting the picture?

Anyway, the good news is that we are now able to connect to the outside world, if only at snail mail pace.

And our adventures – and mis-adventures – continue! Seems sailing in the tropics isn’t all roses and pina coladas… Not that we thought it would be….

We left Tongatapu (Nuku’alofa) and headed north to the Ha’apai Group, which is much less developed and much less visited (I wouldn’t use the word ‘touristy’ since, apart from a handful of cruising yachties, we’ve seen only half a dozen tourists, which is great!) than either Tongatapu or Vava’u to the north.

It’s very beautiful – stereotypical tropical islands strewn across clear opalescent ocean, white sand beaches and lovely coral reefs to snorkel on. But unfortunately the weather has been, by and large, spectacularly ordinary. Very, very windy and, since the highest thing around here is a palm tree, there isn’t much protection to be had from it.

It’s not that unusual to get strong trade winds here – 15-25 knots, even up to 30 knots – but it is unusual for them to be so consistently persistent! It’s been blowing upwards of 20 knots pretty well constantly since we left Nuku’alofa, apart from a handful of calmer (not actually ‘calm’) days.

The cruising guide says that the Ha’apais are a ‘challenging’ place to sail, only for experienced sailors. (Guess we should have read that bit before we left home…). Apart from the lack of protected anchorages, there are countless reefs with ‘blind rollers’ (waves breaking on reefs that can only be seen from the windward side of them) and coral bommies, many of them either not marked on the charts, or marked incorrectly: in places, the available charts date back to Captains Cook and Bligh!

It makes for interesting times getting into anchorages, with one of us posted on the bow looking for coral heads (and then making the split-second decision: go left? go right? go a hull either side?). Times like that, it really does feel like we’re driving a tennis court!  And it’s quite disconcerting to be anchored with breaking waves on three sides, which is what many places are like: you nose your way into a bight in the reef, so you get protection from the swell, if not the wind. Needless to say, we’ve had a few sleepless nights when the wind picked up and we just hoped that the anchor didn’t drag…

Speaking of anchors, we’ve had particular fun with our windlass (the winch that brings the anchor up, for any landlubber readers). It started when we were anchored in O’ua. The charts for the lagoon are so poor that our state-of-the-art chart plotter actually had us track across, and then anchor, on the green bit of the chart – i.e. high and dry on the reef!

In fact, there is a narrow (very narrow) channel through the reef that places you in one of the better-protected anchorages around. Except when the wind swings to the SSE…. So we arrived and anchored in calm waters, went for a swim and had sundowners with some other yachties (four boats in the lagoon – a veritable crowd!). Lovely. Next day was absolutely, totally calm. So we hopped in the kayaks and paddled across turquoise water to a nearby island, where there were baby sharks swimming in the shallows, and we had a picnic on the beach. On the way back, it was breathlessly calm – yep, that old ‘calm before the storm’ cliche!

A couple of hours later, the wind had turned SSE and was over 25 knots and we were on a lee shore (really NOT what you want…). But with fading light, we couldn’t leave as we needed to eyeball our way through the channel. No problem – we were getting used to being surrounded by reefs. But next morning we really wanted to make a run for it, or we’d have been stuck and unable to exit the channel as breaking waves block it if the strong winds are sustained.

So we go to pull up the anchor – it’s now blowing nearly 30 knots – and the windlass decides to crap itself: for every 2 metres of chain we pull up, 10 metres strips off the drum (despite taking up the strain by motoring up to it). Meanwhile, the reefs on either side and behind us are looming closer… Fun and games, NOT!

Anyway, we managed to get the anchor up and negotiate our way through the channel, probably just in time. We then headed to Ha’afeva, another island that promised better protection, which it did. Big sigh of relief! We spent a few days there and were invited to lunch by Lucy, a local lady, at her house (think cassava lumps and pig fat – yummo). It was great to get a bit of a look at local life and spend some time with her and her kids, who were a riot.

And we were there on a Sunday, when EVERYONE here goes to church. We didn’t stay for the full service (all in Tongan) but the hymn singing just about took the roof off!

Things got interesting when it came time to leave, though… We tried to bring the anchor up and same problem – the chain kept stripping off the drum. This time we gave up and decided to stay put and have a more serious go at fixing the windlass. Problem was, that in all the messing around, the chain managed to get caught around a rock – it looked like the chain was actually going through a tunnel in the rock.

Our anchor chain, encased by boulder

Our anchor chain, encased by boulder

Turned out, a big boulder had cracked and tumbled onto the chain, burying it at a depth of about 20-25ft.  We had to enlist the help of a fellow yachtie (who thankfully also had his own scuba gear) and it took him and Damian basically all day to get it free – at one stage it was looking very much like we were going to have to unshackle the anchor and try to thread the chain through the ‘tunnel’ – with no guarantee that that would work either. Anyway, we finally got it out and the windlass now seems to be OK after having been stripped down and put back together.

So we’ve had a few dramas, but when things are going right and the weather is behaving, it’s a pretty special part of the world.

PS: Click on Images in the menu bar at the top of the page to see our photo albums of the Ha’apais and of the Ha’afeva Kids.

~~~ ><(((°>  ><(((°> ><(((°> ~~~

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