Thursday, 19 June 2003

"Happenings" Number 7 - 2003

Into The South Pacific - 2003

April 23, coincidentally six months to the day of ‘Envy’s’ arrival in New Zealand, finds us departing Auckland and heading the 50 nm to Great Barrier Island, and the beginning of the next phase of our South Pacific adventure. A few days there at the Barrier resulted in 32 fillets, mostly Snapper, going into the freezer before sailing overnight back up to The Bay of Islands where we relaxed and slowly re-adjusted back into ‘sea mode’ for two weeks, prior to clearing New Zealand Customs at Opua.

Light breezes were forecast for the following few days as we farewelled New Zealand from The Bay of Islands on May 13, in brilliant sunshine and friendly seas bound for Tonga 1080 nautical miles away, concluding a wonderful 203 day ‘kiwi experience.

By noon the next day ‘Envy’ was close hauled and bashing into squally 30kt headwinds, which blew continuously for the next 36 hours (so much for the forecast), after which they turned gale force E/NE gusting 40 knots (74 km / hr) ‘on the nose’ for the following two days, so we ‘hove to’ with tiny storm sails up (as did other yachts), drifting at 2 knots in the wrong direction going nowhere, but at least it was more comfortable than taking a pasting, and we caught up on some sleep.

And so it was to be, beating close hauled all the way to Tonga, 16 days and nights at sea with mostly strong headwinds and sailing zigzag more than 1300 nautical miles to get there. Merely balancing on the toilet took the strength and agility of a gymnast, to say nothing of Audrey’s balance skills whilst strapped into the galley reheating prepared meals, and having to hang on to avoid being thrown about with the boat’s constant pitching during the worst of it. By now we’d become accustomed to the ship’s noise and movement so sleeping wasn’t too difficult, and the only time of any decent relaxation.

Crossing the notorious Tasman last year was child’s play by comparison. Fortunately we don’t suffer seasickness to any extent, we ate well and slept well, and I hasten to say that at no time did we or the yacht feel compromised from a safety point of view; indeed “Envy” handled it very well – t’was just the crew that found the going tedious and uncomfortable.

The one highlight of the passage was on day 12 at sea when we stopped overnight in the large lagoon of North Minerva Reef, out in the middle of nowhere in the ocean and the only passage break on our entire route. We treated ourselves to a roast beef dinner that night, and 9 hours of ‘watch-free’ deep uninterrupted sleep!

We sailed into Nuku’alofa, capital of the Kingdom of Tonga, refreshed and happy on Wednesday 28 May, the passage taking 5 days longer than expected. By the time we were ready to ‘Clear In’ with Customs later that afternoon, seems like all three government officials wanted to finish early, so they all just stamped our entry papers ashore, without even coming aboard to check our quarantine items!

We’d been told Nuku’alofa, on Tongatapu Island, was a fairly ordinary place that many yachties don’t bother to visit but since it’s the first landfall coming from New Zealand and a Custom’s entry port as well, it seemed a logical stop for us. The town appears old, tired and dirty, like so many developing countries, yet offers the contradiction of a well-maintained causeway along the scenic reef strewn waterfront, and isolated pockets of civic pride.

The King’s Palace is an attractive 19th century, architecturally grand three-storied iron roofed timber complex, occupying extensive open lawns on the beachfront at the edge of town. Nuku’alofa’s business centre comprises a half dozen blocks of one and two storey mostly old poorly maintained shops, cafes and government buildings, interspersed with large shade trees, with the focal point of the large central market where locals sell a good variety of fresh produce, including fruit, green and salad vegetables, eggs, clothing, arts & crafts, woven baskets, mats, carvings and all sorts of local cultural artefacts.

Nuku’alofa’s topography is quite flat, town streets are basic bitumen sealed, there is a general profusion of broad leafed tropical green trees and colourful variegated flora with small grassy-lawned house blocks neatly aligned, and domestic pigs, scrawny half-starved dogs and happy, smiling children are everywhere. Several large churches dominate the town area, whose size and grandeur by comparison with all other town buildings reflect the importance of religion to this pious nation.

The Tongan people, though quite conservative but very friendly, and often big framed, are keen Rugby fans, live in small modest western style houses, drive mostly old Japanese wrecks of cars and enjoy a fairly easy-going lifestyle; they are very devout with church the only thing that happens throughout the nation on a Sunday, and though they sing with gusto and superb harmony, by all accounts many embrace an indifferent work ethic with a commercial culture frustratingly ‘laid back’, not that there’s any depth or variety of business activity here beyond the basic necessities.

In order to keep the country’s economy viable and competitive, the Tongan Pa’anga (dollar) is well over-valued, being pegged close to the ‘Kiwi’ dollar, resulting in a not so cheap cost of living other than for those fortunate enough to have strong currencies like the US dollar or UK pounds to spend.

Our second day in Nuku’alofa fortuitously coincided with the annual ‘Opening of Parliament’ by the King. This occasion is celebrated with a public holiday and a large Procession through the town streets, led by the 85 year old King’s motorcade and Foreign Dignitaries, followed by several marching Brass Bands with the Armed Services, hundreds of colourfully uniformed school children, church groups and other civic bodies marching in the one and a half hour long procession through waving crowds. What an interesting introduction to Tonga, their culture, customs and traditional dress.

Next job was to find someone to re-sew our Genoa headsail that suffered some stitching failure during the gale enroute from NZ, but since there’s no sailmakers here, we settled for a Pakistani shirtmaker who did a good job on it. While ‘Med moored’ in the tiny Nuku’alofa boat basin we discovered a bunch of nylon fishing line wrapped tightly around the propeller and shaft and, believe me, the half hour it took diving down in that filthy water to clear it was excessive punishment for all my past sins. Yuk!

One evening we joined several other yachties and went to The Tongan Cultural Centre in Nuku’alofa for a traditional feast and cultural night where we were treated to a great meal of local Tongan dishes followed by traditional dancing. Another interesting experience for T$ 20 per person, incl taxi fare.

After 10 interesting days in the capital, it was time to move on and see ‘the real Tonga’ – the multitude of islands that make up the four main groups, Tongatapu, Ha’apai, Vava’u and Niuatoputapu, as they stretch some 320 n/miles northwards, in that order, to comprise The Kingdom of Tonga.

The central cluster of Tongan Islands known as the Ha’apai (Har/pie) Group are interspersed with numerous coral reefs and unchartered shoals, so many cruising yachties bypass them for the safer, less hazardous Vava’u islands farther north. However, we joined two other yachts, ‘Dream Catcher’ and ‘Paula’, heading northwards from Tongatapu and day sailed up through the coral to tiny uninhabited Tau Island (15 nm away) where we anchored off overnight, then another 35nm on to Kelefesia Island, (uninhabited & 3km around) where we stayed two nights, followed by a lovely sail 20nm to Nomuka Iki Island, uninhabited site of an abandoned prison, once again going ashore to look around as usual.

Next morning found us sailing 15nm in a gentle 15kt breeze to O’ua Island, with its ‘S’ bend entry 1km long through the coral reef, where we stayed 2 days. Going ashore to meet the locals the following morning, we found a team of men building an 8 metre wooden fishing boat out of ‘scrap’ wood, which they assured us would give at least 15 years of service. Amazing! Their village covered about half a sq./km and was completely boundary fenced to contain the scores of domestic pigs that freely roamed the village. We were invited to visit the primary school here, much to the enjoyment of the children, who gazed in amazement at instantly seeing their photograph on the screen of our digital camera.

Sailing at six knots the 19 nm to Tofanga Island the next morning, ‘Paula’s’ trolling line caught a Wahoo, a game fish of international repute. A powerful swimmer, it took a lot of time and effort to land this over 4ft. specimen, and we all enjoyed its high quality, fine-grained white flesh.

Word got around on ship’s radio one of the several yachties sailing ‘loosely together’ through the Ha’apai was celebrating his birthday with a beach BBQ, bonfire and sing-a-long on the magnificent palm-lined sandy beach at Uoleva Island (they’re all like that over here), about nine miles northwards, so several boats gravitated there for a night to remember. There were perhaps 40 yachties there from Sweden, Canada, USA, NZ, Australia and Switzerland, and it was a night to remember.

After three days there soaking up this sandy, turquoise part of paradise ‘Envy’ headed a further eight miles north to Pangai township, the administrative centre of the Ha’apai Group, on Lifuka Island. We anchored 300 metres off shore in 4 mtr of crystal clear water on a sandy bottom. Pangai’s an attractive small village with a grassy waterfront shaded by large fig trees, surrounding clusters of romantic old timber government buildings with shaded courtyards where women swept leaves off the well-kept lawns. Churches were again the dominant feature of the landscape, and the people always so friendly. Big brawny Tonga football players were warming up for a game as we passed by, and I mentally cringed at the thought of playing against them.

Then it was on to Ofolanga Island, a short 15-mile sail from Lifuka, and our last Ha’apai destination, where we spent two days. This is another typical tropical small sandy coral island with a fringing reef around which we walked in 90 minutes, and an ideal departure point for our next leg, a 63-mile sail overnight up to the Vava’u Group. Here again, as in much of Tonga with its volcanic origins, many anchorages are quite deep, 15 to 25 metres not uncommon. We weighed anchor just before midnight so as to arrive at the Vava’u group in daylight to negotiate the many small islands and reefs enroute, and enjoyed a perfect overnight sail arriving at the cosy anchorage of Port Mourelle around noon. Our anchorage here was 14 mtr deep (45ft) but you could clearly see the sandy bottom, and we slept well that night after the previous overnight passage.

Next morning we motored the five miles or so around to Neiafu, the administrative centre of these northern Vava’u islands, where we again had to clear in with Customs. Unlike most places in the world, even though one doesn’t leave the country, it is necessary to ‘clear in’ and ‘clear out’ with Customs as you travel between each of the 4 Tonga Island groups.

The harbour at Neiafu is considered one of the pick anchorages of the south Pacific, and it’s not difficult to understand why. It is very scenically attractive, deep, safe, and wonderfully sheltered from all directions; kidney shaped and about 2km long by 600 mtr wide, its clear waters are surrounded by low hills all around with the township built into them on one side, offering magnificent panoramas overlooking the clean harbour and across to a verdant landscape of coconut palms interspersed with various tropical trees on the other side.

Vava’u (Var-var-oo) is a Mecca for international yachties and, for most cruisers, Vava’u is Tonga. There are perhaps 35 yachts here at the moment, of which four are mega-yachts - two huge motor yachts and two huge sailing yachts, one of the latter being larger than any we saw in Auckland during the America’s Cup, more than twenty times the volume of ‘Envy’, and more than twenty million $$’s I’ll bet. How our heart goes out to those troubled people, we feel terribly sorry for them; so much to go wrong, so much to look after, so much to worry about !! We’re blessed to be poor!

Accompanying the food, fun and facilities of Neiafu, with its waterfront bars and restaurants, are over 40 anchorages just hours or less away. The nearby ones are situated amongst the fjords of the main island, whilst the others are small islands surrounded by reef. Vava’u is considered one of the worlds best viewing spots for Humpback Whales, and its hills and shorelines are riddled with caves and crevices. Most are little more than shallow holes, but two of them are unique enough to have obtained near legendary status, and we enjoyed the exhilarating experience to swim in both of them

Swallows Cave near Port Mourelle on Kapa Island is large enough to take several dinghies into. It is a very attractive cave, particularly when its eroded limestone walls and high cathedral like ceiling are lit by the afternoon sun, which shines down through its quiet crystal clear waters to the floor 10 mtrs below. Many thousands of baby fish make the cave their home, and their extensive schools all but hide the bottom from view.

Mariner’s Cave is the most famous of the Vava’u caves, and also the most difficult to find and get into. The cave entrance is about 2 metres underwater and, to get inside, requires a dive similar to swimming from one side of a yacht to the other, passing under the keel. Entering Mariner’s is mentally difficult as what to expect is unknown, and there’s little light inside until ones eyes adjust to the dimness. But it certainly is a buzz to achieve it.

As I write this we’ve now been in Vava’u two weeks, spending most of the time around several of the island anchorages in picturesque, sandy palm-lined bays, and have experienced a couple more Tongan feasts. Yesterday one of the other yachties went trolling and caught a 3 metre Sailfish, looks similar to a Marlin with its ‘sword’ bill, but generally fishing for table fish is not so rewarding.

We’ll depart here for Samoa in about 10 days’ time.