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.

Vakaeitu – David’s Island 

Anchorage at Vakaeitu

Friday 26th August 2016 

I awoke Wednesday morning to an amusing sight. We are anchored off the beautiful island of Vakaeitu and the sun is finally shinning but fantastic as the view is, what tickled me this morning, was the sight of the husband and wife who live on the island wandering along the beach with the pet pig trotting along behind them. This pig thinks he’s just another one of the family dogs. Not only does he go for a walk each morning, he sits at the family’s feet as they work creating handicrafts and when you land on the island he runs up to you for a stroke. 

David, his wife and daughter live in a small house made from a wooden frame and corrugated iron panels, set just off the beach in the shade cast by the magnificent trees that grow all around.  They are the only inhabitants of the island that has been the family home for a hundred and fifty years, a clearing in the hill with a cross, marks his Grandfather and Great Grandfathers graves. David worked for the national Tongan airline but has recently moved back to the island and now lives a subsistence life growing and harvesting from the land and sea. They make handicrafts to sell and prepare a Tongan Feast for the yachties anchored in the bay. 

We joined one on Monday night and had great fun, despite the rather makeshift organisation, wonky chairs, disparate collection of plates and bowls and a selection of dogs and pigs around our feet. Along with the essential spit roast suckling pig his wife, an ex-chef, cooked a delicious fish curry, sweet and sour fish, a crab salad and a dozen other dishes. To accompany the food they entertained us with traditional songs, David played his guitar and his daughter, with a touch of teenage shyness, gave us a demonstration of Tongan dancing. At the end of the meal they made an appeal for any mechanics to look at their outboard that had broken down, without their small boat they are dependent on others to get off the island. Rick dingied accross to help Tony from s/y Cetacea have a look, they both concluded it was the carburettor and unfortunately needed more skill than they could provide but we did at least manage to charge his phone for them.

Vakaeitu is semicircular in shape and with the other islands in the group were once the edge of a volcanic crater, so we are completely surrounded by wooded islands and are protected from the brisk winds that have at last cleared out the rain. We spent our first days here windows wide open, everything from curtains to mattresses on deck, drying out the damp and cleaning away the mould that had suddenly appeared on items and spots through out the boat. 

With Raya fresh and clean we started to explore. The beach has a shallow band of rock and coral running right around it and with over a metre of tide, runs ashore have to be timed well to avoid either stranding our dingy high and dry or having to wade thigh deep to retrieve it. So yesterday at twelve, an hour before high tide, we anchored the dingy a few metres out and tied to a tree. Behind David’s house is a trail through the tropical forest, up over the ridge, to a stunning secluded beach on the SE coast of the island. The trail took us through a tangle of countless species of trees and shrubs, tropical bird song filtered down with the sunlight from the canopy above, tiny lizards with luminescent blue tails skitted through the thick leaf litter at our feet and bright burnt orange butterflies filled the air.  

As we reached the crest of the hill we were hit by the cooling breeze from the southeasterly wind and carefully decended the steep muddy path down to the delightful beach below. The white sand was soft, our feet sinking deep as the waves lapped around our ankles, we regretted not bringing our snorkelling gear, reef stretched out from the rocks. 

On our return David was waiting for us with an opened coconut to quench our thirst. With sun back out the true Tonga is shinning through.

Stunning white beach on the SE coast

Tipping it Down in Tonga

Saturday 20th August 2016

The sky was dark and heavy with clouds, the air enveloping us was totally windless, thick and damp, the water was a dark green mirror, Raya drifted aimlessly around her anchor chain, nothing else moved. It felt strangly like we existed within a bubble that had been dropped into a world that had stopped. We were anchored off Aisea beach, deep inside another of Vava’u’s convoluted inlets, we were the only boat. The quiet stillness continued into the evening and then suddenly the wind picked up, a cloud opened and the rain came down, the world outside had started up again.

Sailing around these islands with their associated coral reefs in bad light is not a good idea, so Tuesday we grabbed a brief thinning of the clouds to move from Port Maurelle a few miles around the corner for a change of view. I’m sure the view at Aisea Beach is normally beautiful, as I’m sure is the rest of Tonga but we unfortunately have had only short glimpses of this pacific paradise with the sun shining.

It is now Saturday and the rain is still tipping down. We thank our lucky stars that we are not just here on holiday, there has been little sunshine for two weeks, just rain and more rain. At least we have not be feeling up to doing very much, yes of course, I caught the cold too.

We did have one day of nice weather, keen to get off the boat despite feeling a bit fragile, we took the dingy out to snorkel and explore the cliffs around the area. The geology here results in amazing shoreline features, Vava’u is comprised of 60 low lying coral limestone islands, that sit on volcanic bedrock. Most of the shore is formed of steep wooded cliff faces that plunge straight down into the sea making for deep coastal waters, where there are no reefs it is often 50m deep right up to the shore. As the sea erodes the relatively soft limestone, over millennia a notch has appeared that runs all around the islands, it is punctuated with caves some of which run far under the cliffs. Close up the rock is heavily pitted and looks quite soft but is actually razor sharp, as we discovered trying to investigate under one of the many ledges, ouch!

The notch worn by the tide clearly visable in the cliffs at Port Maurelle.

Looking up through the woodland we spotted a colony of fruit bats hanging from the trees above us. Each bat is a good foot long with a much larger wing span, when flying they are rather spectacular and live up to their common name of flying foxes. Asleep however they resemble bits of decaying leather tangled in the branches.

Tongan Fruit Bats

On the rocks were a pair of white Black Naped Terns. We must have been a little too near to thier nest as they squawked loudly flapping their wings at us, refusing to move from their spot while we past by. Terns of various varieties have been entertaining us since we arrived in Polynesia, their flight is extremely graceful and often performed in perfect formation with a second or third bird.

Black Naped Terns standing guard

With no sign of a let up in the weather we returned to Neiafu, using the rainy days to stock back up with fresh food, so we can spend the sunny days that must arrive soon out at the more remote islands. We also went to immigration and extended our visa for a further two months which will take us to the end of October and our departure for New Zealand.

Bumping into friends we were persuaded to join them at the Thursday night quiz at the Bounty Bar, with considerable help from the two youngsters off the catamaran Do Over, our team was victorious. Our prize made us feel as if we were in the tropics even if the weather didn’t, free rum punches all round. 

Sniffing and Soggy in Port Maurelle.

Saturday 13th August 2016

It is a bit of a relief to see a patch of blue sky amongst the grey clouds this morning, we’ve had unsettled weather for about five days now, we are again being effected by the South Pacific convergence zone, that is running SE all the way from Northern Australia to the Southern Cook Island straight over Tonga. Yesterday it drizzled in true English style all day, the boat feels damp, the cockpit is soggy and Rick sits with a heavy cold  huddled in bed, head pounding and his nose streaming almost as fast as the rain outside.

We moved out of the harbour at Neiafu on Wednesday and are now anchored in a pretty cove just a few miles south, tucked behind a thin headland on the island of Kapa. Fangakima is also known as Port Maurelle, named after the first European to land in Vava’u in 1781. Maurelle and his crew anchored here and found a valuable source of fresh water in the, now overgrown, spring fed swamp nearby.

Anchored in Port Maurelle

The bay is currently crowded with yachts escaping the bad weather but when we arrived it was almost empty. We took the opportunity of a break in the clouds to take the dingy across to the deserted beach to stretch our legs, the sand was soft and washed clean by the tide, our foot prints the only break in its smooth surface. The beach and sides of the cove are backed by thick wooded slopes, amongst the palms, hibiscus, figs and many spindly unidentified trees were surprisingly large specimens with thick branches, hanging out over the water they cried out for a hammock or swing.

Far S end of the beach at Port Maurelle

Port Maurelle is also popular for a couple of snorkelling spots. At the furtherest point of the headland is Swallows Cave a large cave that you can swim into, we were taken there to round off our whale watching day. A roof of a hundred stalactites streaked with red and a floor of deep blue water full of huge shoals of tiny fish. Still in awe of the whales we had just seen and sharing it with another tour group, it’s full spender passed us by, we hope to give it another visit. The guide book also describes a good reef with a dramatic drop off on the north coast of the small nieghbouring island of A’Ai, so we need both the weather and Rick’s cold to improve.

As another black cloud darkens the sky I think comfort food is probably the order of the day, so to celebrate finding real potatoes at the market a few days ago I made a shepherds pie. We have discovered, especially when it’s just the two of us, it is great to have ready prepared food on passage so I make plenty and pop one in our now functioning freezer.

In the mean time I am trying my best to follow the Oympics, I’ve always been a big fan, not just of the swimming and athletics but the opportunity to enjoy so many other sports. No chance of video with my three bars of Tongan Digicel 3G so the best I can do is follow the BBC’s live text feed. Much as I am delighted by a trampolining silver it’s difficult to really appreciate it through the sticarto medium of written commentary. And hearing the exciting start to the heptathlon two hours after the event can’t compare to watching it live in the stadium four years ago.

Worry not however we’ve just found two old series of Dr Who that Rach put on to a hard drive for us a few years ago, so we have something to keep us occupied until the sun and Rick are ready to come out to play.

In With the Whales

Tuesday 9th August 2016

We woke this morning to the sound of  rain pounding on the hatch, it continues to pour, the sky is dark grey, but we have smiles on our faces, our spirits are still sky high from the incredible experience we had yesterday. 

We started our two ‘Vava’u tourist days’ attending the  Ene’lo botanical garden’s Sunday Tongan Feast. This comprised of spit roasted suckling pig, fish poached in coconut milk, chicken curry, corned beef wrapped in Tarrow leaves, salad and much more, we washed it down with a coconut rum cocktail served in the shell. All very delicious but our hearts weren’t in it, I had just drowned our camera by taking it for a swim with the battery cover loose. We have two underwater cameras, one that we thought was coming to the end of its life and a new one kindly brought out to Panama for us ( P.S. Peter and Jonko you still haven’t billed us for it!). The old one is still doing fine so we have been using whichever one comes to hand, guess which one I took swimming!

That evening we readied ourselves for a 7.20am start the next day, wetsuits, towels, suncream and fully charged batteries for our remaining cameras, we were hoping for some great shots, we were going swimming with the whales.

Well the shots aren’t brilliant, photography became a definite afterthought, we were far too busy and distracted by the amazing show going on around us. During the southern winter the humpback whales leave their feeding grounds in Antarctica and swim north to calf and mate in the warm seas of the Tropics, with its deep, calm, protected waters Tonga attracks thousands of whales each year. August and September is  height of the whale spotting season, all boats have to be licensed, it is strictly forbidden for you to approach whales in your own boat.

The Vaka Vave whale watch and swimming motor boat, crewed by Robert, Izzie, and Jay, picked up our friends from Nina and then us from Raya and the six of us sat excitedly as Izzie the Tongan guide gave us instructions and the plan for the day. We headed out to the best areas for spotting whales, everyones eyes peeled for any signs of whale like activity. We have all sailed from Europe and have spent many an hour staring out over miles of blue ocean, it was a familiar pastime.

This time however, within minutes of reaching Faihava passage we saw our first blow, two males were swimming a couple of hundred metres away. The boat slowed and Izzie assessed the situation, it is of course of prime importance not to distress the whales in any way, so it’s a waiting game to see what the whales are doing and let them decide if they are happy with the boats presence. These whales turned out to be on a mission they quickly dived. While we had been watching  them out of the front, Robert and Jay had spotted a much calmer female behind us. So we turned and slowly approached, suddenly the were three whales the two males had joined her. In fact they had come to impress her, we couldn’t tell if she was won over but we certainly were, they breached high out of the water, slapped there long slender fins and dived around her. 

Impressing the females with whale acrobatics

When the boat was close enough, in groups of four, we took it in turns to enter the water. We caught a fleeting glimpse as one dived below us, we returned to the boat and waited for the whales to resurface. The trick we learnt was to move quickly and try to follow Jay as closely as possible as he led the way. Second time in we did better, we couldn’t believe it, we were swimming with whales. They were so huge we rarely caught site of the whole animal, but with three in the water we were surrounded by whale bits. Then with a hardly visible flap of the tail they were gone, it had been astonishing but so brief, having wetted our appetites we wanted more.

We motored further south, seeing nothing for about half an hour, then over the hum of the engine we heard whale song. We took to the water and there 10m below us was a singing male, the sound under the water was incredible, haunting, you were immersed in the sound as if it was part of the ocean. He hung there for a minute or two before disappearing into depths. It was a breathtakingly beautiful moment.

Magnificent humpback whale just 10m away

There was more to come however, our final few swims were with a large group, four males, a female and her calf and an adolescent that arrived on our beam and dived directly under the boat. They were extremely active and gave us a full display on the surface, it was difficult to know which way to look, as they breached, slapped their fins, rolled and dived. In the water we were completely surrounded by whales they were underneath us, in front and behind us. They were incredibly graceful and so obviously at one with their environment, one came so close I felt I could reach out and touch him, another swam below upside down, displaying his large white underside. No more than twenty meters away the female swam with her calf tight at her side. At around fifteen meters long and weighing twenty five tons they could have easily batted us out of the way, as one swam directly beneath us a moment of fear flashed through me as I contemplated him deciding to surface but they nonchalantly kept their distance.  

Jay, Lin and Steve snorkelling towards the mother and calf

We were in the water with them for about ten minutes before they moved away. Ten minutes of our lives we are extremely privileged to have experienced and that will never be forgotten, despite the lack of good photos.

The King Comes to Town

As we entered Faihava passage Rick spotted more whales, I rushed to the bows with the camera but they dived and were gone. The islands of Vava’u surrounded us, compared with French Polynesia they are relatively low and flat, but there are hundreds of them, some tiny, all topped with trees and encased in deep blue sea. We wound our way down a channel and motored through the narrow pass into the protected harbour of Neiafu.

Our first job was to check in at customs to formally enter Tonga. The concrete dock looked high and unforgiving, we did a circle as the two yachts already there squeezed up for us, Rick parked us perfectly as I rushed around lifting the fenders as high as I could to protect the rail. The wharf had deep grooves for the fenders to slip into and a lip perfectly placed to catch a yacht on the rising tide. Luckily the formalities were achieved quickly by the friendly officials and within an hour our passports were stamped, Raya had passed her health inspection, we had drawn out 500 Tongan Pa’anga and the yellow quarantine flag was lowered.

The customs inspectors informed us to make sure we attended Vava’u’s premier event of the year, to be held tomorrow, the Royal Horticultural Show, the King of Tonga, King George Tupou V, would be there to officially open it. The Tongan people dress conservatively and we were advised to ensure our knees and shoulders were covered. A ripple of panic spread through the cruising community as the normal uniform of shorts and T shirts was discarded.

Dressed in our Sunday best we walked the fifteen minutes to the high school playing fields. The show was delightful, a small version of a county show, with rows of stalls displaying fruit, vegetables, fish, and handicrafts. 

Islanders ware set out for the judges, the odd things strung out in the lower right picture are squid.

Food stalls BBQ chicken kebabs, hotdogs and other less recognizable fare, the cake stalls had cinnamon buns, coconut cake and drinks, people milled around the attractions and jostled for patches of shade, all waiting for the Kings arrival. About a half an hour late his cavalcade of jeeps and cars drove right into the centre of the show ground and escorted by a large entourage he took his place in his especially decorated small pavilion. The Tongan national anthem was played and a series of long speeches ensued. Flagging in the heat, after about the sixth one having not understood a word, we quietly slipped away back to the boat. 

We are hooked up to a sturdy mooring bouy in the middle of the mooring field close to town. It is very settled with land on all sides it feels like we are tied up on a lake. The surrounding hills are covered in trees out of which fly rather strange, large black birds. On closer inspection we notice they land oddly in the fruit trees, out come the binoculars, they are large fruit bats and the source of the high screeching we can hear.

Town planning and health and safety have yet to reached Tonga. Visually at least it appears less sophisticated than French Polynesia and without the European influence feels a lot more ‘foreign’. It is an independent Kingdom, with a close relationship to New Zealand who help with defence and foreign affairs. The GDP struggles, the largest part of the countries income comes from money sent back from relatives abroad, the most profitable export crop is vanilla but world demand fluctuates wildly. The majority of buildings are made of concrete, all different shapes, sizes and colours and all occupying ground at different levels. They are accessed up short steep hills, down winding staircases and over uneven kerbs. Dogs and pigs wander the streets, cars often old and rickety pass by slowly.  There is a sense of higledypigeldyness. 

Main street in Neiafu, with the yachts moored in the bay

Having been weaned off Waitrose months ago the empty shelves of the small stores no longer horrify us, if we see something we may need we buy it there and then, menus are set once the shopping is completed and stand-in ingredients rule. Rick’s phone won’t connect to the local network and you have to pay for the local businesses to take away your rubbish. Strangly although as I said there are pigs in the streets, you see them in people’s garden and scavenging along the shore, pork is the ‘special’ on every restaurant menu but we can’t find any to buy. Smillarly there is the continuous chorus of cockerels wherever we go but no fresh chicken and rarely eggs. On the upside there are plenty of restaurants around and the fruit and veg market is quite well stocked, here in town we have expensive but reasonable internet and with few tourists the town focuses on being well set up to help the yachts and their crews.

We have plenty of time to enjoy Tonga so we have spent the past week slowly sorting ourselves out, Internet, laundry, charts etc… We have cleaned the boat and carried out routine maintenance and there has been a lot of socialising with the many friends, we have met along the way. 

This weekend we are going to play the tourist game, joining a Tongan feast on the beach and at great expense, going on a whale watch boat with the hope of swimming with the hump back whales, that as we have already seen, frequent these waters at this time of year. They come to enjoy the warm calm sea to rear their young and are apparently unphased by people swimming close by. We can’t wait.

Landfall Tonga

Friday 29th July 2016

Our life afloat has many special moments, I suppose in a way that’s what we are doing it all for. This was not a wow special moment however. No sharks circling the boat, no formation boobies diving a few feet away, no magnicant rock formations towering above us, this was a much more subtle and precious moment.

The last couple of days of our passage were quite intense, pushing hard to keep our speed up to ensure a daylight landfall we were half reefed in 25 gusting 35kt winds. The waves had built and as we headed slightly further south came further on to the beam, sleeping was fitful, normal life hard work. 

Pacific swell loomimg over the stern

Still out of sight of land we picked up chatter on VHF Ch26, the radio net that is boosted to cover the whole of the Tongan Vava’u group and the main means of boat to boat and boat to business communication there. After a week at sea it was good to hear familiar boat names even familiar voices over the airwaves. Then through the haze the two hundred meter high flat chunk of rock that is the eastern shore of  Vava’u came into sight. A sense of excited anticipation ran through us. 

Sunset was at 6.20pm so although we knew from the chart that we were going to make it before dark, we still faced the unknown of our arrival. We had picked Vaiutukakau bay as an anchorage from the chart in the NW of the island where we should in theory be sheltered from the SE winds and swell but you can never be really sure until you get there. The chart showed the bay was deep with just a couple of shallow ledges, would they be sand, coral, rock, would they be suitable to anchor in, would the bay be full of other yachts, fishing bouys or other hazards? We had no time for a plan B.

It is difficult to express the feeling of euphoria of rounding a headland after a period at sea being bashed by the wind and waves to find the calm expanse inside a protected bay. And what a spot this turned out to be, the bay was serene as the sun sank below the horizon. There was not a sign of human intervention any where, not a hut, a fence, a radio tower, even a boat insight, the water was flat and crystal clear. The shore was a vertical limestone cliff covered in trees that somehow clung to every crevice, the air was full of tropical bird song and the shore line was dotted with white sand beaches and caves. After a week at sea this was a special moment indeed.

Enjoying my ‘got here beer’, just got in before sunset.

We warmed up a chilli, drank a glass of red wine and then slept like the dead for twelve hours. We would loved to have stayed but we were yet to check into Tonga and so reluctantly at 9 the next morning we started to raise the anchor. As if in protest to my statement earlier accusing Vaiutukakau Bay of lacking the wow factor, a pod of humpback whales appeared a couple of hundred meters away, they treated us to the full show spouting water, slapping fins and fluking. 

Good start Tonga.

Rays, rain and referendum results

Tuesday 21st June 2016

I watch as two coconuts bob by, or is one a turtles head popped up for a breath of air, so common place are these occurrences that we hardly acknowledge them any more. We no longer sit in blue clear water, we are surrounded by a thick brown soup. Waterfalls have appeared in the mountain sides around us, the rivers at the head of the bay’s gush thier reddy, brown contents into the sea. We have had 3 days of rain, our whole world is soggy and damp and I have a cold, we have been remarkably healthy since we left the UK hardly a sniffle between us,  unfortunately I seem to have caught one in Tahiti and as it has poured with rain outside, my eyes and nose have streamed inside. 

On Saturday the wind began to pick up but the sun still shone, in an attempt to clear my head a little we dingied over to a sting ray feeding area. A patch of shallow sand in the lagoon where the tour boats come armed with tinned sardines to hand feed the large ray’s and inevitably the local black tip shark population. Today there were no tour boats but the sound of our engine was enough to attract attention, we were immediately surrounded by over a dozen or so black tip sharks and four or five large sting rays. We hadn’t bought any food with us but to be honest with sharks outweighing the rays by about four to one the prospect of jumping in the water hands full of sardines seemed rather foolish. We were happy enough to just see them at such close quarters sitting in the dingy.

Sting rays mobbing the dingy

That night the combination of my sneezing, the rain clattering on the hatch and the wind howling through the rigging made for a rather sleepless night. The next day we decided to up anchor and move to the protection inside the bay. The wind still gusted down through the mountains spinning us this way and that but the holding was good and the scenery, when we could make it out through the gloom was fantastic.

By Monday with the weather still not good enough for the crossing to our next island Huahini (pronounced Wuahini, we are told) but unable to make drinking water from the muddy water  around us in the bay, we decided to go off shore for an hour, make water, empty black tanks and then re-anchor in the other deep bay on the north coast of Moorea, two miles to the east, Cooks Bay. 

Cooks Bay is slightly wider and the surrounding mountains less steep giving it a more open feel and it is slightly more built up. Next to our anchorage is the Bali Hai Hotel, yes Moorea is yet another island that claims to be the setting of the movie South Pacific, they have a dingy dock, a bar, restaurant and book exchange, with a small supermarket up the road there was everything we needed.

Clouds building over the peaks in Cooks Bay

Thursday 23rd June

The weather broke Wednesday afternoon so we departed for Huahini that evening, we left at ten, the light of the full moon guiding us out of the bay. The crossing was 87nm so we were sailing through the night to arrive to enter the pass in the reef surrounding the island in daylight. There was little wind and the night passed without incidence however as dawn arrived the sky darkened and we had an extremely wet last few hours. We are anchored off the pretty town beach and coincidentally  we have the best internet we have had since the Carribbean, enough in fact to watch the unfolding drama of the UK vote to leave the EU. Blimey that wil take some digesting!

A wet arrival in Fare , Huahini

Variety of Views

Friday 17th June 2016

The clue should have been in the guide book title – hike to mountain view point. We are not overly keen walkers especially when the word mountain is in the sentence, so I’m not sure how we found ourselves pounding, in temperatures approaching 30C, the path 5 km up the road to the Moorea Belvedere, with its ‘spectacular views of rare natural beauty’. The road took us initially through gently sloping farm land, cows grazed, meadows lined the route, all was well. Gradually the road got steeper and was bordered with tall firs, fast running streams snaked to and fro, pineapple groves dropped down into the valleys. The final two km rose more sharply zigzagging upwards through jungle. We passed flowers of bright yellow, red and orange, shrubs with leaves the same size as us and others bright green one side, purple the other, large Banyan trees, stately Acacia and 30m high clumps of bamboo. At each bend and between each tree was the ever present dominance of the craggy slabs of rock that form the peaks here. Unfortunately our enjoyment of our surroundings gradually decreased in proportion to the steepness of the road, by the time we arrived puffing and soaked in sweat at the viewing point our ability to appreciate its splendour was seriously reduced.

Tall firs line the road on the lower slopes

Still we are appreciating the mountains from sea level, the peaks fill our sky line and we have a couple of sleek Superyachts in the foreground to enhance the view. On Wednesday morning we went right into the bay, it is one mile long and quite narrow, the sides are steep and the water is deep, dark and still, the mountains reflect in its surface. Around the edge the undergrowth hangs low over the water, lightoccasionally finds a  gap and highlights points of grass, green leaves and yellow sand, we creep slowly along the coast enjoying the cool, slightly spooky ambiance.

The head of Opunohu Bay

We had taken the dingy to the black sand beach at its head to a shrimp farm to buy the large fresh prawns for supper. The plan was to BBQ them but as seems to happen everywhere in the world the very mention of a BBQ immediately produces rain and we ended up eating below, fried in butter, lemon and garlic they were still delicious.

Rainbow proceding the deluge to come

Taking the dingy out along the reef is more hazardous, coral heads lurk just below the surface ready to catch your propeller the moment you lose concentration. Markers have been laid to guide the numerous rental jet skis and tour boats that zoom back and forth to snorkelling areas. But finding your way in and out of the channels is a case of painstakingly winding through the maze of bommies. It took us a good half hour to find a route into the Hilton for lunch, it would have been quicker to walk, aching feet and all!

Enjoying a Mojito at the Hilton

Moorea at last

Tuesday 14th June 2016

As I came up on deck this morning I was struck by a novel feeling – there was a chill in the air. It only lasted about half an hour, as the sun rose higher, by 7.15 I was again seeking out the shade but the cool breeze was sweeping down off the top of the jagged mountains that tower 2000ft above us. We have finally escaped the marina. 

The oceanic swell continued to increase as forecast and by Thursday night Raya was been battered and jolted uncomfortably by not only the incoming waves but their reflections as they bounced off the wall of the dock. As day dawned the next morning, the cost of the night was revealed, we had sustained more damage in those few hours than in last six months of cruising. The port quarter fairlead had been pulled lose (luckily not completely off and lost to the depths of Taina marina), the passeralle although raised for the night had taken a bashing and its attachment point on the swim deck ladder had come apart. Rick determinedly marched around to the marina office and finally a spot large enough for us in the inner marina was found and we spent our final few days in a still if not quite so salubrious spot. 

Not quite the view of superyachts we had had but calm, calm, calm.

In French Polynesia we have found that their balance of work to play definitely comes down on the play side. Lunch break is often from 11am-2pm and the end of the day can be as early as 4.30pm, 11am on Fridays and Saturdays. The chance of us getting materials or manpower before the beginning of the next week was remote. We were itching to get out of the marina and we probably won’t be in one again until New Zealand, so the need for fairleads and pasarelles was minimal. We opted for Rick making temporary fixes.

The 4m swells were forecast to decrease to 2m by Monday, we spent the weekend readying to leave. This included me winching Rick up to the top of the mast. Being scared of heights, to the extent of being scared when seeing other people at heights, especially when I’m responsible for that person, make this one of my most nerve racking jobs. All went smoothly thank goodness and the fixtures and fittings aloft were all in good order.

Rick checking out the fittings at the top of the mast

The short crossing to Moorea was lumpy with at one point, off the northern tip of Tahiti, the 2m swell coming at us from two directions at once, but inside the outer protective reef of Baie D’Opunohu is stunning, it is lovely to be back surrounded by dramatic peaks. 

Entering the pass into Opunohu Bay

The geography of French Polynesia is interesting. All the islands were formed by volcanoes. The Marquesas group are relatively young the mighty peaks still soar 4000 ft into the sky, the coastlines are deep and there hasn’t been enough time for reefs to form. The Tuamotu lie at the other extreme, created by much earlier eruptions the volcanoes themselves have been completely eroded and have collapsed leaving just the circular reefs above sea level. The Society Islands, where we sit now, are at an in between stage, the islands are formed of high craggy mountains still a few thousand feet high, but there has been enough time for a surrounding reef to form. Inside these reefs there are beautiful protected lagoons full of clear turquoise water, with the added bonus of great mountain views. Moorea is more developed than the islands we have visited so far, the anchorage can’t be called isolated however this does mean a short dingy tide away is a five star Hilton Hotel. It has required digging deep through the wardrobe for something decent to wear, but we are off now to treat ourselves to lunch.

Still (very) tied up in Tahiti

Pacific weather chart for Monday night

Purple is not a colour you want to see on a weather chart, especially when you live on a yacht. The centre of this weather system may be nearly a thousand miles away but repercussions are being felt throughout the South Pacific. We have decided to stay in the marina until its effects have past by.

Not that that means things are comfortable, even in the marina its very bouncy. The waves are crashing over the outer reef that circles Tahiti, creating swell which slams into the dock, jolting us violently. We are stern-to at the dock and trussed up like a turkey. Securing our bows we have two slime lines and our anchor, at the stern we have seven warps in a spiders web to keep us square and try to spread the loads as we rock. Rick has applied washing up liquid liberally to the fairleads and cleats to reduce the graunching that kept us awake last night and our passeralle is suspended high off the ground to stop it hitting the bollards but making it quite hairy to get on and off the boat. There are periods of beautiful sunshine and then intense downpours, our dingy filled with over a foot of rain overnight on Sunday. If we lift the dingy onto the davits then it will drain but we definitely won’t be able to get ashore, so it remains bobbing dramatically at our side.

The super yacht crews diligently continue to tweak their lines, trying to keep the boats perfectly straight, knotted brows of the skippers checking and rechecking. Out in the marina anchorage, the boats look very uncomfortable and mooring buoys are breaking free, the chatter is of night anchor watches and delayed departures. And things are forecast to get worse with more wind, rain and sadly bigger waves over the next couple of days, so we are getting out the scrabble, lining up the books and hunkering down.