Meteorology at Mama’s

This morning I opened our last pack of Englsh tea bags, what surer sign could there be that it’s time to return to civilisation for a while. Our passports have been stamped, Raya is full of fuel, five passage meals sit in the freezer, it’s now just down to the weather. Tonight there is going to be a BBQ at Big Mama’s Yacht Club for all the waiting cruisers, as if collectively we can will the weather to suit our plans.

Veranda at Big Mama’s Yacht Club

After a year of relatively stable trade wind sailing, we are venturing back out into less predictable weather. The weather systems that cross over Australia and New Zealand from the Southern Ocean to just below the tropics are on the face of it simple, a high pressure system follows a low pressure system, follows a high pressure, follows a low pressure etc. etc. all travelling west to east. The reality is of course much more complex, firstly we must remember that each system rotates in the opposite direction to those of the northern hemisphere, so for the best departure we wait for the top of a high pressure to bring us SE-E-NE winds to whisk us south west from Tonga. Then the timing becomes crucial because between the high we are using and the following low there is often a trough of high winds and if the systems squash up or travels too quickly you face south winds straight on the nose as you approach your destination. The general advice is to sail a dog leg, going well west of the rhumb line before turning south, the magic waypoint being around 30S 173E. The skill is to know when in the system to leave and then exactly how far west to sail. Add to all that the seemingly infinite other vagaries that affect the weather and the fact that our ‘at sea’ weather forecast app is having a crisis about spanning the dateline, we have decided for the first time, to use the help of a weather router. Bob McDavitt is a weather guru located in New Zealand, he looks at your particular passage requirements – destination, boat type, average passage speed, etc. and with his years of experience analysing the weather patterns he suggests a departure date, best route and updates as necessary along the way. At the moment it is firming up for us to leave on Monday, heading for Opua in Northern New Zealand.

Needless to say the weather is the main topic of conversation in the bar at Big Mama’s Yacht Club, everybody anchored at Pangaimotu, the main stopping off point to take off for New Zealand, is on more or less the same track. However it wasn’t just passage weather that has been the topic of interest, the forecasted low pressure screamed through Tonga last Monday night with gusts in the high thirties and lashings of rain. With plenty of warning everybody had time to prepare and we all sat tight as it past over. 

Stormy morning

By Wednesday all was calm and we could venture out to prepare for our exit. The small boat harbour unfortunately hadn’t weathered the storm as well, the dodgy dock had become completely detached from its link to shore and had lost large sections of its length, the attached small boats sinking and floating out to sea. Getting on to dry land was precarious to say the least. In the heat we then spent 3hrs traipsing between, Nuku’alofa Port Authority, the Customs shed and other official offices in a seemingly random order, filling in numerous forms and collecting countless stamps as we went. The system for checking out has another fundamental problem, to get duty free fuel you need to have custom clearance, to get custom clearance you need a departure time within the next 24hrs. Unfortunately it takes a day to organise the fuel, a day to get it onboard, there is no fuel or custom service at the weekend and the weather windows change almost hourly. We took the decision to check out early and sit hopefully inconspicuously at anchor. 

We were quite pleased we did, it took us all day Thursday to fill the fuel tanks. Firstly it took Rick and Russ, from A Train and also filling up, three trips in the dingy over to the harbour to clear a space at the wharf big enough to fit us on. We then had to wait for the tide to come in a little to give us enough depth, while we waited the delivery truck arrived and finding us not there, left and had to be called back, finally we had to pump 600l of diesel from three large drums into our tank by hand, all in the scorching afternoon sun.

It was an exhausting and frustrating couple of days but now we are prepared and looking forward to casting off. New Zealand here we come, please warm up a bit for us, the current Spring temperature in Opua of 18 degrees is going to seem very cold!

United States Naval Ship Pililaau

Sunday 9th October 2016

Yesterday, we spent an amazing couple of hours aboard the enormous US military support vessel USNS Pililaau. The night before we happened to be spending the evening with Russ and Gwen on board their yacht A-Train, when three of the slightly inebriated US crew whom Russ had befriended the night before, came by to invite them to have a look around. Rather surprised to be invited on a military vessel and with a three mile dingy ride across open choppy seas we nearly declined. We were so glad we decided to go. It was a completely, in the original sense of the word, awesome experience, the whole environment was totally alien to us in almost every way, but for the occasional feature that reminded us this was a ship that had to moor up, anchor, navigate and stay safely afloat just like us.

USNS Piliaau

USNS Pililaau is 950ft long and 106ft wide, the deck stands about 100ft above the water. She is run by a civilian crew of thirty and Mike our friendly and enthusiastic host is the First Mate. Her task in life is to keep the US military flexible, by being one of 18 supply ships that are held in constant operational readiness around the world. Currently she has 40 Marines onboard that are involved in training exercises with local military units throughout the Pacific Islands.

We arrived at a landing pontoon on her port side, the dingies minute against her massive black hull and climbed a long steep ladder to a gate in the rail high above us. We stepped onto a clear area of her enormous deck, the helipads for two helicopters, the rest of the deck was jammed packed with containers and equipment required in the logistics of disembarking and loading all the military cargo she carries in her massive hold.

View from the bridge

We went through a small door in the superstructure, entering into a maze of corridors and steep steps. Here is housed the bridge, offices, hospital, cafeteria, and living quarters. Mike’s cabin was surprisingly large, the Marines however were crammed twelve to a small room containing just bunks and lockers. The bridge was huge, with large windows giving a clear view of the deck below and the surrounding area,  but was surprisingly un-hightech. She was controlled with just two throttles, two bow thrusters and a tiny wheel. What the rest of the switches, knobs and lights that filled the 50 ft control panel did was a mystery but the chart plotter was just a larger version of ours with a route plotted between waypoints exactly as we would do.  

The five floors of cargo holds run the length and breadth of the ship. Mike took us through two of them and the scale of the operation became clear. Talk about boys toys, they were jam packed with military vericles, armour plated jeeps, bomb proof troop carriers, cranes, diggers and much more, at the far end were about fifty containers of just ammunition. The whole space felt like the set of a Hollywood movie. We resurfaced at the bows where two mighty anchors had been deployed on massive chains each individual link being about two foot long. The scale of everything on the ship was mind blowing, the industrial surroundings severe and the noise in some areas deafening, a stark but fascinating contrast to our other recent exploits.

Giant cranes dominate the deck

Our tour ended on a light note as Mike proudly led us the nearly quarter of a mile back to the stern to show us the ‘swimming pool’. Tucked in a corner was a cut down container Mike had purloined, lined with fibreglass and painted blue, it was complete with steps to a raised deck and homemade sun loungers.

Back on Raya we are sitting out a low pressure system, bringing rain and high winds to Tonga, busily preparing for the trip down to New Zealand. We have taken a few trips into town, much bigger and more crowded than Neiafu but equally lacking in any town planning. A few areas have been modernised and a lot of building is taking place, as far as we can see totally under the control of the Chinese. The supermarkets and shops were as empty and uninspiring as we have come to expect, the bank as chaotic but we did have an extremely good lunch at the Friends Cafe. 

And exiting the dingy, tied up in the small boat harbour, we immediately realised we have another candidate to add to our growing list of dodgy docks.

Nuku’alofa, small boats harbour

Reefs and Wrecks

Tuesday 4th October 2016

The sea was much calmer for our return visit to Ha’afeva, we planned to stay overnight on Saturday to break the thirty five mile trip down to Nomuku Iki. We were pleased to find the bouncy anchorage of just a week ago was now pleasantly smooth. At low tide, revealed on the reef to the west, is the wreck of the Korean fishing boat Eikiaki. It is marked on our guide as a good snorkelling spot, so we decided to dingy across and investigate..

It turned out to be the best snorkelling we had done in Tonga, not just the spectacle of a boat being gradually claimed by the sea but the coral that has been so poor elsewhere, here was very much alive, multi-coloured and multi-structured.

Flurishing coral at Ha’afeva

The rusting hulk of the Eikiaki sat on the sea floor, its small amount of remaining superstructure poking out of the water. We tied the dingy to a crumbling rail and snorkelled a meter or so above its deck. Fish swam in and out of the hatches and openings into the hold, coral flourished on every surface and old cables wound through the chaos of metalwork. 

Snorkeling above the Eikiaki

The next morning we moved on to Nomuku Iki, or small Nomuku. A channel runs between the large and small island and winds around extensive reefs. On one side the busy village with ferries and fishing boats dashing in and out, on the other where we were anchored yet another deserted pristine white beach. And, we were surprised to find, another wrecked fishing boat. This one sat high up on the sand looking rather like a huge stranded bath tub.

Just behind it through a break in the trees was a clearing, a shack, some copra drying racks and fishing nets. Nobody was at home except a huge sow who frightened the life out of us as it appeared suddenly through the thick jungle of trees. We ventured further in, admiring the long straight trunks of the palms and soaking up the cathedral like atmosphere, until, after just a few hundred meters, all traces of a path disappeared, the floor a mass of coconut husks and the way forward a tangle of undergrowth. Having left the machete at home we turned back.

The interior of Nomuku Iki Island

Nomuku Iki was our last desert island for this year as we have now reached Nuku’alofa where we shall prepare for our sail down to New Zealand. It was not however our last wreck, not wanting to quite leave tropical islands behind instead of mooring off the town quay we have anchored, a mile NE off of Pangaimotu and Big Mamas Yacht club. No normal sign above the door here. It seems to have been a week of wrecks.

Wreck off Pangaimotu

Highlights and Hazards in Ha’apai 

Saturday 1st October 2016

Early Friday morning I wrote sitting anchored off two picture perfect islands, we were the only yacht for miles around. There was no wind and as I waited for the sun to rise higher in the sky, a misty damp haze hung low and thick in the stillness. The sea was very calm, a slight swell undulated across its glassy surface and with no breeze to hold her, Raya drifted beam on and rocked to and fro. Seven meters below us the sea floor was so clear I could easily see the bright yellow and black angel fish swimming around a patch of coral.

I was distracted by the sound of splashing, a dozen small silver fish that leapt from the water quickly followed by four or five eighteen inch tuna. I put out a fishing hook, more in hope than expectation, our rod and lure are designed for ocean trawling. As I returned to the cockpit I hear a whale blow, I grab the camera but no close encounters or acrobatics today, he just cruises by about 200m away. When I finally return to my scribbling the moment I described above had gone. The sun was beginning to burn off the mist, the smallest breeze was rippling the water, it was going to be a fine day.

In this beautifully settled weather Ha’apai is turning out to be the South Pacific we dreamed of before we left, clear azure seas, white beaches and palm trees but paradise is not without its challenges. Each anchorage has, as always, to be assessed for protection from the wind for the length of our stay, entry and exit must be timed to coincide with a high sun, preferably behind you and in a cloudless sky.

Last Sunday we arrived in Ha’afeva to discover a rather uncomfortable anchorage, the island had been described as a good place to sit out west winds and the main attraction was the village ashore. We have discovered that we are naturalists rather than anthropologists, we are much more interested in the wildlife and the geology of the islands than the human inhabitants, another Tongan village didn’t overly excite us. We decided to back track, the anchorage at Luangahu was calmer and equally protected from the westerlies and with the wind now on the beam gave us the added bonus of a great sail. Again there were whales all around, one of which, made us jump as he appeared to check us out just twenty meters away. 

Sun set behind Luangahu

Luangahu is an amazingly beautiful spot and it was easy to while away the time until the wind returned to the east and we could move on to our next spot. Leaving the island however turned out to be as difficult as our original arrival. The first task was to unwind our anchor chain that had with the 180 degree change in wind direction wound itself around a small coral bommie. We very slowly eased around it and the anchor came up fine, but as we threaded our way out to deeper. water the engine stuttered  and choked, we took our eyes off the road and instantly clunk we had banged into some coral. We returned to the anchorage, Rick check the fuel filters and dived in to check the keel, all seemed well. With the engine running normally we slowly, very slowly tried again. 

Not what you want to see when you check the anchor chain

Just as we breathed a sigh of relief at clearing the shallows, in front of us we spotted two sleeping whales, a small boat sat on the  reef, it took no notice of us, we assumed he was fishing,  until a moment later when we spotted just in time there were swimmers in with the whales. We turned north, another whale appeared in front of us, we turned south, finally with nerves by now rather frayed, we extracted ourselves from Luangahu’s grip and set off for the twin islands of Uonukuhahaki and Uonukuhihifo, or Lobster Island East and Lobster Island West.

After our thankfully straight forward arrival, we went to explore ashore. The two pretty islands are long and thin and linked by a bar of white coral sand, on the far side is a rocky lagoon which is where the lobsters can be found. A brief search produced no signs, luckily, as after an equally brief discussion we realise we have no clue how to catch one, we have visions of large snapping claws and lost fingers.

Stunning sand bar linking the two lobster islands

The early misty morning did turn into a spectacular day. We decided to take advantage of the calm water to put on our scuba gear and clean the hull fittings and propeller. We need a clean hull to enter New Zealand, hopefully we can find a diver to give it a good going over in Nuku’alofa as we didn’t have enough air in our tanks to do more than the essentials. We have to admit we did waste some air by diving a small bommie just off the boat. Yesterday I had snorkelled the area to check the anchor and the depth of the coral patches close by. I came accross one bommie that was just delightful but a little deep to appreciate from the surface. It was great to be back down at eye level with the fish, it’s been a while since we have dived. This small clump of coral just twenty foot in diameter was bursting with fish of all shape and sizes. The bright sun light shone through the clear, shallow water catching a rainbow of colours as the fish ducked and dived around the contours of the corals and made for perfect conditions for Rick, with our underwater camera that seems to be having a new lease of life, to capture a great video.

Diving under the boat for a bit of a clean

We move on again today back to spend a night at Ha’afeva the halfway point to our next and final island Numuka Iki.

N.B. I have just updated the last post with some pictures.

Island Hopping through Whale Soup

Sunday 25th September 2016

Unusually, the weather is treating us to perfect conditions for island hopping around this remote and exposed area of Tonga, the Ha’apai Island group. We have plenty of sunshine and the winds are light. The islands are low lying, overgrown with palms, shrubs unknown and bind weed, tons of bind weed, they are surrounded by beautiful sandy beaches and treacherous reefs. Mostly uninhabited, you almost expect Robinson Crusoe to appear, at any moment, from the interior undergrowth.The sky is huge and filled with wispy clouds, the sea is clear and full of whales. On the two hour trip from Luangahui island to Ha’afeva today, we saw nine separate groups of whales, it was like sailing through whale soup.

Having got our cruising permit, Tuesday morning we popped back into Pangai to pick up some fresh bread, before setting off to explore the islands. We are assuming there will be no  more services until we reach Nuku’alofa in a couple of weeks. Unfortunately popping is not something we can achieve very easily. The tide was high and the dingy dock and cleats sat under a couple of feet of water, paddling and wall climbing were required to secure the dingy safely. At the first store a request for bread was met with blank looks, at the second it was as if we had enquired about some rare and exotic ingredient. Finally we were guided to the ‘green’ store and bread was purchased. In our absence the dock had filled with local boats, getting back into the dingy necessitated an ungainly scramble down four feet of wall while limboing under several lines.

Another dodgy dingy dock, Pangai Ha’apai

At midday we finally lifted the anchor and motored five miles south to Uoleva island. The beach here is a mile and a half of golden sand, it is littered with amazing fallen trees that have been gradually buried in the sand, bleached and smoothed by the wind and sea. Tiny crabs run at lightening speed up and down in time with the waves. A palm filled jungle fills the interior.

Fantastic drift wood on beautiful Uoleva Beach

From the boat the island looks uninhabited but for, rather strangely, three volley ball nets spaced along the shore. On closer inspection amongst the trees, hidden from sight, there is a back packers resort one end of the island and a camp site the other. Right in the middle of the bay is the small Sea Change Resort and Uoleva Yacht Club, which comprised of a couple of cabins and the best beach bar we have yet found in the Pacific. The young English couple, that had just newly arrived as managers, gave us an extremely friendly welcome, it was beachcomber in style and the food was excellent. 

Sea Change resort/Uoleva Yacht Club

The only problem was yet again finding a safe spot for the dingy. The beach was steep and the swell was big enough to create breaking waves. At lunch time we anchored a way off and swam to the beach, but we didn’t want to eat dinner in wet swimmers so we risked anchoring closer in. This turned out to be a mistake, while we chatted at the bar with the resort guests, the dingy was pushed by the swell too near to the beach and the waves slowly filled it with water, Rick spent the rest of the evening bailing.

Back at the boat we had a large friend to entertain us, a 5ft long Great Barracuda had taken up residence under our dingy, we tempted him out with bacon and as he snapped it up his rather large teeth were revealed, all thoughts of a cooling swim were forgotten. 

Baz the Barracuda

With the wind turning to the west the anchorage off Uoleva became a bit of exposed, so we moved on towards the tiny island of Luangahui. The anchorage here is encircled by reef, using the information from a couple of Tongan cruising guides, our two sets of electronic charts and Google Earth, I carefully plotted a route in. When we got there however, we for some reason ignored all that, missed the channel in and found ourselves surrounded by bommies and with only a meter under our keel. Rick very carefully  menouvered us into deeper water and we decided perhaps this spot was not for us. But just as we turned away I spotted a dingy racing out towards us from the one boat that was already in the anchorage, Tony assured us the channel was fine and explained where the entrance was. We felt slightly vindicated when the next day the large motor boat, Iceberg, came round the corner and tried to do exactly the same thing as we did, it was now our turn to help them out.

We owe a big thank you to Tony and Angela on Tanavika, we were so glad we stayed, it really was an idyllic spot. Luangahui is only 200m across, we walked around it in just 20 minutes, the water was crystal clear and sparkled pale green in the sunlight. We were anchored in just 4.5m, a bit out of our comfort zone, but shallow water made for great swimming and snorkelling from the boat. As we have found everywhere in Tonga the coral is not in good shape, damaged either by the cyclone that swept through a few years ago or bleached by rising water temperatures. The underwater landscape however was fascinating  with large ravines and a miriad of different coral structures reminisant of an alien cityscape. The fish were small but plentiful. As Rick cooked us steaks on the BBQ, we watched whales fin slapping and breaching just outside the reef and in the evenings we were treated yet again by spectacular sunsets. A special couple of days.

Anchored off Langahu Island

Today we motored in very light winds to another island, Ha’afeva. With a calm sea it was easy to spot whale activity and there was literally whales everywhere we looked, we turned off the engine a couple of times to see if they would approach us but they all kept their distance. We have decide they are well named as humbacks, despite their gregarious behaviour, slapping and jumping, the only thing we seem to catch on camera are their humped backs.

Whales for Breakfast

Monday 19th September 2016

The travails of yesterday’s trip were soon forgotten. As we entered the anchorage off Ha’ano Island at the most northerly tip of the Ha’apai group, it’s crescent shape protecting us from the turbulent ocean beyond, we sighed with relief. As a large red sun set dramatically highlighting the perfect volcano shaped island of Kao, thoughts of our rough sail began to fade. This morning when whales joined us for breakfast we would happily have sailed it all again. 

Whales swimming through the anchorage off Ha’ano just metres from the boat

Our departure from Vava’u started on Friday. We very slowly, using as little petrol as possible, went into Neiafu to check out at customs and do a final shop. At the dock things were getting heated, four yachts including our friends on Nina were trying to fill up with their ordered dutyfree diesel before departing to Fiji. Unfortunately diesel was now also getting low and the tankers of fuel were being restricted. So started the long process of carrying it all by jerry can, from the petrol station up the road back to the dock. Finally full, Nina joined us in Port Maurelle for a last night in Vava’u. Port Maurelle is the anchorage of choice for departing yachts as there is clear deep water leading safely out of the island group. Most boats, on the normal route across the Pacific to New Zealand, were going to Fiji, but we wanted to explore the more remote islands of Ha’apai, we will return to Fiji next year.

Goodbye drinks onboard Raya with the crews on Nina and Paw Paw

It was quite emotional watching the boats sail off Saturday morning especially Nina who we first met in Las Palmas at the beginning of the Atlantic crossing. It felt a bit like the last day of school with everyone having supported each other and experienced the Pacific together, now going there own way. Most of the friends we have met are now ahead of us, the majority of Australian boats, with further to go, left a few weeks ago, many more have departed to see a bit of Fiji before dropping down to New Zealand, hopefully we’ll bump into some of the boats again somewhere on our travels

We were expecting the sail 70 nm to Ha’apai to be challenging and we weren’t disappointed, after six weeks motoring around the protected waters of Vava’u and a year of down wind sailing, we would now be heading south and pretty much into the wind. We left at 4 am and before we had even cleared the islands things felt wrong, suddenly it dawned on me what was different, the sun was rising in the wrong place, the lightening of the horizon was happening off our beam, we have been sailing so long heading west it felt completely odd not to see it rise off our stern. 

As we entered open waters the forecasted winds of 17kt were actually in the low thirties, we were well reefed and sailing fast but the sea was lumpy with a 6ft swell and choppy wind waves. We were unused to the movement and the heel of the boat, we found moving about difficult and despite the seasick pills after an hour or so I became sick. Rick not wanting to risk the same, made trips below only to grab water and biscuits. If this is typical of our sail down to New Zealand we could be in for a tiring and hungry week. Luckily my second line of defence against nausea, pills I tuck under my top lip where the drug is absorbed through my gum, did the trick and suddenly I began to feel better. But we were very pleased after nearly ten hours to see the low, palm clad islands appearing in the distance. 

The shore line on the stretch of Ha’ano where we were anchored is dominated by a large top heavy rock commonly known as The Mushroom, behind it lie small beaches and craggy inlets. We sat eating our breakfast admiring the view, but the toast was forgotten when we spotted three whales, a 15m mum, a 10m male and a 3m calf, just 50m away. We jumped up to watch as they leisurely swam past and tucked themselves up behind the reef, stopped and seemingly went to sleep on the surface. A whale swim boat arrived and its lucky occupants had a marvellous snorkel with the whales hardly moving. About half an hour later they swam out from the reef and turned back towards us. We could hardly believe our eyes as they swam straight for us going under the boat and just a few inches from our stern. Up close they looked so big, their black shapes and white flippers clear as they passed beneath us, we were tempted to get in the water but with the whale watch boat so close we couldn’t really flaunt the law so obviously and we stayed on deck, cameras clicking, big smiles on our faces.

Mother and calf passing the stern

Once we had come back down to earth we prepared to lift the anchor and set off on the short trip down to Pangai the capital to find customs and check in. The route through the coral looked torturous but turned out to be straight forward and we had the anchor back down less than two hours later. The small town was sleepy and hot, the roads dusty, the buildings in patched up disrepair. There was a slow gentle feel to the place, everyone was friendly, the customs officers helpful and the local Mariners cafe, the only place to eat in town, had cold beer and good curry. What more could we want, oh yes, petrol, we found the fuel station and they had that as well. A fantastic day and worth every moment of yesterday’s discomfort.

Running on Vapours in Vava’u 

Wednesday 14th September 2016

I’m sitting on the boat waiting for Rick to return from town and contemplating our rowing skills. There is a severe petrol shortage in Vava’u and following the arrival of a ferry last night, rumour has it that they may have bought a few barrels in with them. Like the rest of the island our supplies for the dingy are very low. The whale watch operations have been forced to stop, the local fisherman are stuck on land and only diesel engine cars are on the roads. Despite the whole place gradually grinding to a halt, the government in Nuku’alofa, the capital 160nm to the south, seems reluctant to do anything with any urgency. As far as we can tell the normal boat that delivers fuel broke down a few months ago, it was finally replaced with another boat but this was too big to enter the pass, passenger ferries for safety reasons cannot officially carry petrol. Rick returned empty handed, if any did come in during the night, it was squirrelled away in the small hours by locals in the know. He said the petrol station reminded him of our last few weeks in Iran, many moons ago just before the revolution, hundreds of frustrated people milling around cans in hand, trying to pick up even a few litres of fuel.

No luck at the petrol station

Our dilemma revolves around our departure to the Ha’apai group of islands, we have already missed one weather window waiting for petrol, the radio chatter this morning is of a delivery coming in Monday but who knows. We have plenty of deisel for the yacht but the longer we stay in Neiafu the more petrol we use getting in and out of the harbour in the dingy. The Ha’apai are a string of remote coral atolls and small volcanic islands. Most are uninhabited and the capital Pangai is tiny, will it have petrol?

Neiafu is a strange place, the water front and all the marine businesses are completely dominated by expatriates, the grocery stores are owned almost exclusively by the Chineese community. The Tongans appear to have surrendered large portions of thier town to outsiders. Yachties and tourists are cocooned in this world of foreigners that run everything we need from the VHF channel 26 net, to the laundry, to 100% of the restaurants but not the petrol stations.

The fruit and veg market is however a local enterprise and full to bursting with the familiar – tomatoes, peppers, carrots and cabbages, papaya, melons and bananas and the less familiar – Tarrow roots and leaves, yams and strange unnamed fruits. Today they even had broccoli. It is a good job the market is full because with the lack of ferries means not only is petrol in short supply, the shelves of the stores are almost completely empty also.

Neiafu Market

One group of people that did have fuel are the sports fisherman that gathered in Neiafu for the 25th International Bill Fish Tounament at the weekend. The action was played out on the radio, with the boats reporting in each fish they hooked up and then landed throughout the day. At five each afternoon they arrived back in town to have thier catch weighed. Yellow Fin Tuna and Maui Maui suddenly appeared on the menu of all the restaurants. Bill fish apparently are not that great to eat so the points favour a tag and release system but on the last day a particularly large Blue Marlin was caught and bought into be weighed. It was hooked up by one of the smaller boats and at about ten foot long and 200 kilos it completely filled the deck, it is difficult to imagine how they landed it.

Huge Blue Marlin wieghing in at nearly 200 kg

This afternoons weather forecast is looking good for a departure on Sunday/Monday. As we are sailing south we need the wind to be as far around to the east as possible and by Sunday the prevailing SE winds are backing slightly so we have decided to go and just keep our fingers crossed that Ha’apai will have some petrol. Otherwise it will be out with the oars!

Turquoise Tonga

Thursday 9th September 2016

As we started to plan our passage down to New Zealand a few weeks ago, the weather here, as if to prepare us for more southerly latitudes, became quite cold. Well, not cold, but cool enough to discourage us from a casual swim, to put on wetsuits for snorkelling and long sleeve tops in the evening.

But it has meant that the rain that has plagued us for the past month has cleared, so for the last week we have been cruising around the outer islands of Vava’u enjoying quiet bays and stunning white beaches. 

Anchored off Ovalua island

We have had a great time taking the dingy slowly along the shoreline investigating the caves, shallows and forests. On Pangaimotu we spotted a bright blue Tongan Kingfisher perched above our heads, had a herd of cows wander along the beach and marvelled at how the shrubs and trees appeared to grow straight out of the rock.

Shoreline near Aisea Beach, Pangaimotu

On Nuku Island were flocks of seabirds, we approached slowly until they took to the air, leaving the beach empty for us to walk barefoot on soft pristine coral sand. 

Crested terns on the beach at Nuku Island, the shadow in the sea is a bait ball of millions of tiny fish

We have snorkelled the local reefs, the coral and fish life here is not as spectacular as French Polynesia but enjoyable nevertheless. We have had fun spotting some unusual and in some cases less savoury creatures. We have seen starfish in many shapes and sizes, from the long legged blue ones famous in Tonga, to a plump pink variety, to large richly patterned brown and black species.

Tongan starfish

The sea floor is littered with the rather unappealing sea cucumbers, including many giants that reach two to three foot long. In the crevasses of the coral heads are brightly coloured clams, spiked sea urchins and beautiful feathered stars

And then back at the boat we have been scrubbing our very disgusting keel that has grown its very own ecosystem. Jelly like fingers hung off the waterline which was coated with a thick green slimy weed, barnacles had sprouted soft branched structures and a multicoloured fuzz had coated everything. 

Mostly however, we have just been enjoying the incredible turquoise views from the cockpit.

La Paella, Tapana Island

Friday 2nd September 2016

We never quite know what we are going to find when we arrive at a new anchorage but our evening at La Paella Restaurant, perched above the beach on Tapana Island, was certainly unexpected. We had heard rumours that it was a great place to visit but looking up from the boat it appeared rather like a dilapidated, deserted shack. We have learnt that in Tonga appearances can be deceptive, so we hailed them on the radio, yes we were told, they could take us for dinner that night. We tied the dingy up at the beach, followed the path up through a garden, with lovely views of the yachts bathing in the pink of another glorious sunset. A pig, a goat and half a dozen chickens ran out to greet us, so far, so Tongan. The moment we entered the restaurant however, we were in a different world, an eccentric, atmospheric, ramshackle world. The smell of wood smoke filled our noses, the bare bones of its timber frame on display, our old house at Ongley flashed through our minds. The furniture was all home made, wonkey and at different heights. An eclectic mix of objects filled every nook and cranny, Basque fabrics decorated the tables and walls, nautical flags hung from the ceiling and Brazillian Samba played in the background. We loved it.

A Spanish couple have been running the restaurant ever since they moved to Tonga 26 years ago. Maria is a fantastic cook and served us six different Tapas, including a delicious Lobster salad, then bought us a large dish of Paella that been cooked over the open fire. As we were served a dessert of Raspberry sorbet two curtains were whipped back from a small stage in the corner of the room and the husband picked up his guitar and started to sing and play an enthusiastic rendition of old Santana numbers. He was really rather good but the scene was so surreal we started to giggle, just as we managed to regain a straight face, Maria stepped out on to the stage and joined in with the maracas. We could hardly contain ourselves, luckily I had a pole to hide behind but Rick had to muffle his smiles in his napkin. We have since learnt they used to have a pet goat who would also join in, I think we would have died. What a fantastic night.

On the Edge at Kenutu.

Wednesday 31st August 2016

Throughout our travels we have been stunned and impressed by the accuracy of our Navionics charts, we have come to trust and rely on them. That is, until we reached Tonga, here we are beginning to find anomalies between the charts on the chart plotter, the charts on my iPad and real life. Last week approaching Vakaeitu the shallow area on the chart plotter turned out to be a small island, trees and all. The island was on my iPad chart but that chart had us anchored on the beach, things were obviously slightly askew. So it was with slight trepidation we ventured out Monday to a recommended anchorage at Kenutu island through a maze of shallows and reefs. We had been given waypoints that when plotted on the chart took us straight across areas marked as having only 1m depth and strewn with coral heads. Luckily the sun was shining brightly, the reefs were easy to see in the good light and the waypoints were spot on, we didn’t need to depend on our charts.

As payment for our efforts we dropped our anchor in one of the prettiest spots of our journey so far, surrounded by low wooded islands the basin is shallow resulting in a sea of the most wonderous range of blues. Low tide reveals white sand beaches and the pale turquoises that form over the many reefs. The calm water is full of small dark rays that leap high into the air and in the shallows, wading, slate grey, pacific reef herons stalk thier prey. Between the islets in front of us we have the magnificent sight of the surf crashing through the gap and onto the rocks. We sit reflecting yet again on how privileged we are to be in these incredible places.

Raya anchored off Kenutu Island

However as the tide comes in the swell creeps over the reef and the anchorage becomes a little rolly. In the fading light of the late afternoon, the sea turns grey and the turquoise of the shallows disappears. For some reason we both feel ill at ease. We are on the most easterly edge of Vava’u, with just the outer reef and a string of small islands standing between us and thousands of miles of Pacific Ocean. Whether our unsettled feelings are due to the odd movement of the boat, the constant roar of the ocean crashing onto the nearby islands, the closeness of the now unseen reefs or a combination of them all, we are unsure.

As the morning sun rises the next day we are back in our picture perfect bay and we go ashore to follow the short trail up and over the top of Kenutu. The contrast from the Pacific idyll on the leaward side couldn’t be more extreme, the cliffs drop 100ft straight into coves of clear blue sea, waves crashing over the rocks and ledges in spectacular fashion.

Rugged east coast of Tonga

 The top of the cliff is a very different environment from the tropical forest we have just walked through. The trees and scrub only just hanging on to live in this exposed place. All around us are amazing gnarlly, bleached remnants of fallen branches, Rick caresses them wistfully, mentally whisking them back to his shed. The sharp ragged rock provides a precarious platform to view the coldrum of swell and spray below but with the wind in our hair we perch on the edge exhilarated of the sight below.

Bleached branches on top of the cliff

Unfortunately today our apprehension has returned, I sat writing this as lightening flashes and thunder claps all around us, I hate lightening especially when our mast is the highest thing around. We had planned to leave Kenutu today but negotiating our path out, even with our recorded track to follow, seems foolish. I think the sky is brightening, perhaps we will have our beautiful bay back in time for sun downers, we can leave tomorrow.