Leaving Vava’u

Aside

Neaifu, Tonga

Just a quick note to say we’re off: heading back to NZ, leaving tomorrow (Friday) – very, very sadly! Vava’u has been great and we’re very sorry to be leaving.

I will write a longer email while we’re at sea – it should take us about a week to get to Whangarei (yeah, right – just like the trip up….). Well hopefully NOT like the trip up. We’re leaving all of a sudden as Bruce, our weather man, reckons there is a good weather window to get to NZ without getting hit by anything really horrid, and it may be the best opportunity for a while, so we’re taking it….

Mou faka’au a e for now.

~~~ ><(((°>  ><(((°> ><(((°> ~~~

Swimming with the Whales

Vava’u, Tonga

By: Kerry

Whales-090190

The mother humpback whale floating below us had been feeding her calf around 200 litres of high fat, high protein milk per day for the past month, during which time her boisterous, one-tonne, three-metre-long newborn had put on about half a tonne, grown a metre… and she herself hadn’t eaten a thing.

So it was easy to imagine her looking a little weary as she rolled on her side and took a long, lazy look at the five swimmers treading water a few metres above her.

But while she lay languidly suspended, Junior just wanted to play…

One of the main reasons we’d chosen Tonga as our first cruising destination was the opportunity it presented to swim with humpback whales, which migrate annually north from Antarctica to the warm, clear waters of Vava’u to mate, calve and feed up their young’uns to be strong enough to make the 6000 km trek back to the ice.

Unfortuntately for us, this year Tonga introduced a new law forbidding cruising yachties to swim with the whales: now, you are only allowed to go whale swimming with a certified whale watching company. It’s been a point of contention this season, especially since some of the commercial operators appear to harass the whales far more than any sensible cruiser would, and especially when the commercial operators charge $300 a head, with no guarantees!

We have seen lots of whales throughout the season – breaching, blowing and fluke slapping – and on a couple of occasions they’ve swum right through the anchorage we’ve been in, coming within a stone’s throw of the boat.

Approaching the end of the season, we still haven’t been in the water with them, so we bit the bullet, signed on the dotted line and went out with the longest-established commercial operator in Vava’u.

The morning started with us floating above a ‘singer’ – a male humpback, lying completely still at about 15m below the surface and ‘singing’ his little heart out in a range of whoops and squeals ranging from baritone to pipsqueak.

Whales ‘sing’ through their belly and chest, not their throat, and their complex songs can be heard across great distances. We had been woken in the night on several occasions by whale song reverberating through the hull of the boat, and had free-dived down to hear the eery distant sounds of whales communicating with one another. But we’d never been in the mosh pit at the concert, until now.

We hovered above this singing whale and dived down to get a closer look. It was incredible to hear – and FEEL – the song. We hung out for about 10 minutes and then he slowly, slowly rose up – just kind of floated to the surface, rolled on his side, took a look at us and then slowly swam away.

There was a mother and calf nearby, but there were already a couple of other boats waiting to swim with them, so we headed down south – a lot of open ocean for a lot of time and not a lot of sightings (turns out it was a slow day for whales – we only saw a couple of whales whereas a couple of days earlier they’d seen 19 in a day).

So we headed back up north into ‘Whale Alley’ where we have regularly seen whales blowing and breaching, and found a mother and calf, who were just hanging out. We jumped in the water and swam towards them. I think Mum was having a well-deserved nap, since she didn’t take any notice of us. But Junior came directly toward us. We thought we were supposed to try to get out of his way, so we were back-peddling as he came closer…and closer…. so close to me, nose to nose, that I could have touched him. I wriggled side to side and he did the same, then he swam away a bit to take a breath or two, swam down to cuddle up to Mum, then he came back up for another look at us and actually swam between us, splitting the group of four divers and our guide.

Then I think Mum decided she’d had enough: she rolled – wearily, it seemed – on her side and looked straight at us, eyeball to eyeball only a couple of metres away. Then she slowly turned and swam away. I could so easily have touched her tail as she turned – could see all the details of the barnacles – and we felt the wash of her tail as she swam away from us.

It’s hard to describe what it feels like to be floating above a 15-metre, 40-tonne whale. Her bottle-shaped bulk looked bloated and lethargic, but when she moved, it was effortless: sinuous, graceful and massively powerful. It was exhilarating and – literally – breath-taking (I think I was squeaking into my snorkel with excitement by this stage).

We climbed back on the boat and followed her briefly until she stopped again, and the two of them were fluke and tail slapping. We jumped back into the water and the calf came up to us again, wanting to play, but then Mum started swimming away.

This time she didn’t stop, so we let her go.

~~~ ><(((°>  ><(((°> ><(((°> ~~~

La Paella

Vava’u, Tonga

Even more hilarious than the Faka Leiti show was our dinner (with Pete and Gwyn) at La Paella, a local restaurant where one of the patrons was dancing, hoof in hand, with a sheep called Socrates, who was dancing on his hind legs but who was actually more interested in getting it on with a she-goat called Chiquita who was hiding under our table, while Torito (Little Bull) the dog was running around trying to figure out what the pigs under the floor were squealing about. But that’s a story for another time….

~~~ ><(((°>  ><(((°> ><(((°> ~~~

The Faka Leiti Show

Neiafu, Tonga

In complete cultural contrast to the King’s visit, for Pete and Gwyn’s last night we surprised them by taking them to a show….

The Faka Leiti show.

Yes, you say it just like that. And it’s a show put on by the Faka Leitis: the lady boys!

I haven’t been able to figure it out, but all through the Pacific there are a lot of ‘middle sex’ people – hard to say whether they are men or women, but basically they are the equivalent of ‘lady boys’. Some say that it’s the youngest child in a family of sons that is brought up as a girl; others say it’s a genetic anomaly prevalent in Polynesian cultures. Whatever, there are a lot of them around and there appears to be no discrimination against them by the rest of the population.

And the show was fantastic – absolutely hilarious and everyone – performers and participating audience (think tips tucked into bras) – had a blast.

~~~ ><(((°>  ><(((°> ><(((°> ~~~

The King Comes to Town

September 1, 2013.

Neiafu, Vava’u, Tonga

By: Kerry

A couple of weekends ago, we went to town to the Agricultural Fair – the Tongan equivalent of the Royal Easter Show, without the rides, rip offs, shysters or show bags. Apparently this was the first show to be held in years, so there was much excitement the week prior. The King and Queen arrived on the inter-island ferry the day before (we didn’t see them when they arrived, but we were talking to the owner of the Tropicana cafe/laundry when a flunky dropped off the king’s laundry in a duffle bag…).

The fair was held at the high school football field just out of town. Walking out there, the street was lined with matching school children: all the girls in blue tunics with identically-braided hair and the boys in green sarongs with white shirts and the traditional woven pandanus ta’ovala around their waists. The ta’ovala are ‘waist mats’ worn by both men and women and are often so large and bulky that the wearer appears to be walking in a large basket. It’s hard to imagine how the tradition originated as they appear to be hideously impractical and uncomfortable to wear, much less sit in: it’s fascinating to watch these large, basket-clad people fold themselves into cars.

(Apparently, the tradition derives from Polynesian sailors, who used the woven mats as sails and, when they went ashore, took the sails with them, and used them as shelter or sleeping mats).

We followed a whole crowd of strolling baskets and arrived just as the speeches got underway, which was bad timing as they were long, monotonous and in Tongan.

But then the King said a few words and went walkabout, with the Queen and entourage, to inspect all the produce and handicraft displays. Most of the displays were fairly, um, modest, but the King smiled and nodded and made (I assume) polite comments. Just like our Liz, really. Oddly, the thing that distinguishes him from his subjects is not that he’s about two metres tall and a similar circumference. It’s not that his body basket was more elaborate (in fact it was quite plain) or that he wore proper shoes instead of thongs. It was that he had the pallor of a gambler – the fairest face at the fair!

Nevertheless, he did seem to be very affable and certainly his subjects were all very respectful and excited to see him. The nicest thing was the lack of fear factor: no security checks; no fences or cordons; no cctv (even the TV cameramen were wearing traditional costume, including belly baskets); no guns or weapons of any kind. And everyone was perfectly well-behaved.

I don’t suppose there are too many countries in the world where the King can catch the local ferry to the fair, and just stroll around and not worry that some nutter is going to have a go at him….

~~~ ><(((°>  ><(((°> ><(((°> ~~~

What a Difference

August 29, 2013

Neiafu, Vava’u, Tonga

By: Kerry

Ngau Island

Amazing what a difference some decent weather makes! Since the last update from the Ha’apais, we haven’t seen anything like the relentless 30 knot winds (those euphemistically named ‘enhanced trades’). It’s been positively benign, with plenty of sunshine and protected anchorages that have greatly increased the ratio of decent nights’ sleeps!

It really is GORGEOUS here. It’s very different to the Ha’apais, which are mostly coral atolls and therefore don’t offer much protection from wind or waves. Here, it’s a tight group of more substantial islands – kind of like Pittwater in the Tropics in Technicolor. Everything’s close together, it can be blowing like stink but there’s always a sheltered little bay to escape it. We have to keep pinching ourselves at the sheer beauty of it:  we’ve dropped anchor in two or three metres depth and floated suspended in colour that ranges from luminous turquoise to deepest cobalt and it’s so clear we can see starfish on the bottom in 20 metres.

Many of the limestone islands that are strewn across this dazzling blue have been eroded by the sea into mushroom shapes and other weird rocky outcrops. Almost all are thick with coconut palms and virulent green forest and creepers and the fringing beaches are glaringly white. Unlike most ‘tropical paradises’ these days, there is very little development – most islands are deserted or have small villages; there are no large resorts and the few small resorts are very low key.

We’ve been doing lots of exploring: there are dozens and dozens of perfect, deserted beaches that are better than any brochure; there is great snorkelling with beautiful corals and myriad madly-coloured fish (yesterday we were ‘herding’ a school of several hundred tiny, iridescent blue chromis fish through the water) and walks through forests of coconut palms (Damian is getting pretty good with a machete: Cut down coconut. Chop top off coconut. Fill with rum…).

We still haven’t swum with whales, though we’ve seen plenty – a couple of days ago we were anchored and a mother, calf and escort came within a few hundred metres of us, showing us their tails. Even better, we have been woken up at night on a few occasions by them singing! It’s the most eery sound and reverberates through the hull of the boat.

Rock gift-wrapped in anchor chain

Rock gift-wrapped in anchor chain

And we’re feeling so much more confident (cautiously confident, I should say,) with maneuvering the boat – particularly anchoring, after our debacles in the Ha’apais. Having said that, our anchor chain did manage to crochet itself around a rock the other day. This time, we hauled the rock to the surface – it must have weighed about 60-70 kg – and it came up looking like it was gift-wrapped in chain. Damian managed to break it up with a bit of help from a crow bar and chisel (yes, we had both on board…).

We’re even getting more confident at negotiating some of the er, ‘interesting’ passes through the reefs: particularly interesting when the marker buoys have totally disappeared, the waypoints in the cruising guide are inaccurate, the channel is only a couple of metres wider than the boat and the charts have us going over green bits (i.e. ‘land’). One of us stands on the bow keeping a lookout while the other is steering and watching the chart plotter. The interesting bit starts when all of a sudden there are reefs where they’re not supposed to be and no reefs where the chart says there should be…

There’s a pass that has to be negotiated to get out to the Eastern islands, which we had some fun with last week. Usual story: markers have vanished and charts are off by an indeterminate distance. We’d come through the same pass (which does a double dog leg around barely submerged reefs) a few days previously, but it was at high tide. Coming back, at low tide, we tried to follow our same track in reverse (following the chart plotter). Damian was driving and following the track. I was on the bow eyeballing the actual route. It got interesting when I said, ‘turn right’ and D said ‘no, that’s not on our track’. I said, “TURN RIGHT NOW!!!!!!!!!!”  as I could see barely-submerged coral just ahead of us. There was some short, colourful negotiation, but eventually (just in time) he turned right…

The fishing, unfortunately, has been pretty disappointing. Damian has caught a couple of skipjack tuna, but after eating one, we’ve tossed the others back – fussy, perhaps, but they really weren’t nice… This past week, we’ve had friends from Sydney – Pete and Gwyn – on board, which has been fantastic. Damian and Pete got into the fishing, with the result that they caught a dog-tooth tuna as we came through a pass in the dinghy. I should say that ‘caught’ is a relative term: poor fish was jagged through his side, and had been dragged sideways over the rocks so he came up all scuffed and was dead (presumed drowned) within minutes of landing in the boat. Nevertheless, he was delicious!

We caught him just as we were returning from Mariner’s Cave, a partly underwater cave accessible by diving down (with snorkel and mask) about three metres, swimming through a hole in the rock face and coming up inside the cave. Once inside, the exit to the outside is framed by black rock in the shape of a heart, while the water is the sort of vivid refracted blue that you see in the Blue Grotto in Capri. And when the swell comes in, it compresses and condenses the air in the cave so that it forms a mist with each wave – it’s like the ocean is breathing!

On the downside, the ripples of the GFC are still being keenly felt here – the economy is in shambles and the ‘town’ of Neiafu is very run down. But the people we’ve met have been upbeat, friendly and welcoming. The yachtie community is very strong and tight knit, which is fantastic. Each morning on the VHF radio there is a ‘cruisers’ information net’, hosted by local businesses who volunteer their time. It starts off with any calls for emergencies – more on that later – and covers the weather, then moves on to ‘buy, sell or give away’, where anyone can ask or offer just about anything, from spare parts to spear guns, yoga mats (we donated one of ours to someone who needed one) to empty glass jars for a local man who’s starting up a honey business. Improvisation is the name of the game here: so many things that you take for granted back home are impossible to acquire here – even the simplest of spare parts – so everyone bands together to help each other out.

MV Dorothea hauling stranded yacht, Paje off the reef

MV Dorothea hauling stranded yacht, Paje off the reef

A few weeks ago, a Canadian boat went up on a reef (we’re still not sure why – they went up at 04:30 in the pitch dark, when everyone knows that the first rule of sailing among the islands is ONLY do it in daylight). The call for help went out over the cruisers’ net. Over the next three days, so many people volunteered their time, equipment and labour to get the boat off – it was amazing to see. Luckily, there was a super yacht in town which was able to pull it off without too much damage – if they hadn’t volunteered to help, the Canadian yacht would undoubtedly still be high and dry.

Enough already! Suffice to say, we’re having a great time, feeling a whole lot more relaxed and feeling – finally – like we’re doing what we set out to do.

~~~ ><(((°>  ><(((°> ><(((°> ~~~

PS: Click on Images in the menu bar to see our photo album of Vava’u.

Hi from the Happy Ha’apais – Part II

July 21, 2013

Pangai, Lifuka Island, Tonga

Our next stop saw us anchored off a little sand spit joining Uonukuhihifo Island and Uonukuhahake Island (A prize for anyone who can pronounce either correctly!). At last: the stereotypical deserted tropical island. And we had not one, but TWO of them to ourselves! That’s not an easy scenario to come by, these days. Palm trees, white sand… perfect. We walked around the island – beautiful beach and thickly covered in coconut palms – and were very thankful we were anchored on the leeward side! From the boat we could see the huge surf pounding the reef just on the other side of the spit – in fact, it looked like the sea level was several metres higher on that side than our side!

Our desert isle

From there, we went to Uoleva Island, and anchored off another postcard perfect, palm-fringed beach. When you’re actually on the beach, out of the wind, it really is gorgeous and with the sun out, it’s heaven!

One of the main reasons we’ve come to Tonga is that it is one of the few places in the world where you can actually swim with humpback whales – something I’ve been dying to do for years, and I had hoped that I might be able to make it coincide with my 50th, but that didn’t work out….But the whales are finally arriving and we’ve been seeing them spout and breach from a distance while we’ve been at anchor.

While we were at Uoleva, we had one of our handful of cracker weather days. Some yachtie friends, Jan and Trevor (old hands in these waters) invited us out on their boat for the day and we went in search of whales. We saw quite a few, some quite close to the boat, and including one guy who was slapping his tail and then slamming his pectoral fin on the water – amazing. We haven’t managed to actually swim with them yet, but hopefully that will happen soon. On that same day, we anchored off a tiny deserted island and went for a snorkel on the surrounding reef – beautiful corals in pristine condition, and incredible visibility. We hope to do a whole lot more of that, too, when this weather finally breaks!

So now we’re just waiting for a weather window to head north to Vava’u. It’s only a 60-70 mile run, but it’s over open ocean, with no protection from any fringing reefs or islands, and the seas have been up around five metres and the winds very strong (really don’t need more of that stuff, after our passage from NZ), so we have just been keeping our heads down, waiting.

The Vava’u Islands are much more substantial than the Ha’apais, in that they aren’t just coral atolls, and there are plenty of very well-protected anchorages, all close to one another (we’ve been travelling 20 miles between anchorages here). So the promise of calm nights and calm waters for diving and snorkelling is very appealing!

That’s about it for news for now. As you can imagine, our learning curve continues to be exponential, and it’s rarely a dull moment, but hey, what doesn’t kill you makes you fat, right? Despite the ‘challenges’, we’re having fun and expect to have a whole lot more before the season’s out!

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.

~~~ ><(((°>  ><(((°> ><(((°> ~~~

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.

~~~ ><(((°>  ><(((°> ><(((°> ~~~

Let the Fun Begin!

June 15, 2013

Pangaimotu, Tongatapu, Tonga.

By: Kerry

We’re now anchored off Pangaimotu Island – a little palm-covered islet about a mile from down-town Nuku’alofa. Though it’s the capital, Nuku’alofa isn’t renowned as a highlight of Tonga. We have been in to town a few times – it’s not much of a town to speak of: very dilapidated and poor, though no beggars or homeless people to be seen (family and church are big here).

The locals are very warm and welcoming – people on the street say hello and the girl that helped me on our first day in the Digicel (phone/internet) shop came around the counter to give me a hug when I went back the second time. You don’t get that too often in Sydney!

We did a little trip yesterday – caught a ‘bus’ (Econovan) out of town to what the guide book says is Tonga’s most important archaeological site. Right. Don’t think I’ve ever been so underwhelmed by an historical site before. We struggled to find it – the sign for it was scribbled on a piece of plywood.  So we struck out on foot in the direction of one of the southern beaches – walked about 10-15km all up – and that was nice, though we didn’t stay long as we were afraid we’d never get back to town (infrequent buses).

The day before we put the kayaks in the water – at last! – and discovered they float, at least. And went for a paddle across to a nearby island – it was a gorgeous day and the water was all the shades of turquoise it’s supposed to be in the tropics.

At this stage, we think we’ll head out of here on Monday (?) and head north to the Ha’apai group of islands, which are supposed to be idyllic, though very basic and mostly uninhabited. We’ll work our way north from there towards the Vava’u group. Don’t know if we’ll stay here in Tonga the whole season or move on to Fiji – that’s the No Plan Plan!  I am still really keen to go swimming with the whales!

~~~ ><(((°>  ><(((°> ><(((°> ~~~

Malo e leilei from Tonga

June 10, 2013

Pangaimotu, Tongatapu, Tonga

By: Kerry

We have arrived in Tonga – finally got in last Friday – but didn’t end up stopping at Minerva Reef – the weather wasn’t in our favour and after the crap we’d been through, we were keen just to get to Tongatapu.

Our inaugural passage turned out to be a baptism by fire (or rather, salt). We had thought it would take about six or seven days, but it took nine as we ended up doing the capital ‘S’ for scenic route of the South Pacific, thanks to the several nasty weather systems that came through. We headed east out of Whangarei for the first 24 hours, turned north, then had to turn back west to get around a big tropical low, then back east again – literally a big ‘S’. At one point, we were closer to Norfolk Island than Tonga and at another, we were equidistant between Noumea, Vanuatu and Tonga, and west of Fiji. Nuts.

It was a trip of extremes: at one point, we had no wind (motored for 24 hours) at others we were trying desperately to slow the boat down! And most of the time the sea state was large, lumpy and mean – not nice easy rollers, but nasty stuff coming at us from all directions (technical term, I decided, is ‘shitful’). For about 48 hours, we were hurtling along with two reefs in the main, no headsail at all, and still we were hitting 19 knots on occasion – the acceleration is phenomenal – we can be doing 5.5 knots and then literally three or four seconds later, we’re tipping 19 as we slide down a wave. Quite scary at times…

But the boat was great – really impressed with how it handled the conditions (even in the shitful seas and up to 40 knot gusts, we never actually took a wave over us, which was quite extraordinary).

The boat felt really solid when it needed to be – going over the shitty stuff it felt like we were in a big 4WD Hummer or an army tank (and the noise, at times, was similar) – but she’ll also pick up and fly with very little encouragement.

We had a weather guru, Bruce Buckley doing the weather for us (daily reports via satellite phone), for which we were very grateful. He had us slow the boat down and then head west when the tropical low intensified, so we caught the edge of it rather than the full blast. We heard from other boats that left the same day as us, who fared a lot worse, some sustaining damage.

I turned 50 surrounded, 360 degrees, by endless ocean. My birthday ‘fun’ started at midnight when Damian woke me for my watch. The wind was getting up and, in the course of changing sails, the headsail furler jammed and we ended up having to cut it and re-lead it (luckily it was still long enough… just).  Two hours later, we were still on the foredeck trying to sort it out. D went to bed at 4.00am and I stayed at the helm for the rest of the night as numerous squalls swept over us, with gusts up to 30 knots.

 

Damian had said he’d cook me breakfast, lunch and dinner (which was to be the mahi mahi he’d caught the day before), but he got as far as breakfast… I did lunch and dinner  but it ended up being re-heated spag bol as it was too rough to worry about fancy stuff. So a REALLY exciting birthday. First alcohol-free birthday I can remember!

The only plus was that we crossed 180 degrees longitude: ‘technically’ we crossed into yesterday so I got to celebrate twice – how very Gemini! Sadly, I didn’t realise the possibilities until too late… and it probably wouldn’t have made much difference anyway!

So, one way or another, a LOT of making up to do!!!

~~~ ><(((°>  ><(((°> ><(((°> ~~~