Saturday, June 29, 2013

Vava'u by water

After 3 days in Neiafu, we were ready to explore some of Vava'u's other attractions. We spent our first day near Kapa Island, which has several anchorages and lots of snorkeling  and diving possibilities. Our first stop was the tiny island of Nuku, with a nice beach and clear water.
After lunch, we decided to anchor at Port Maurelle, and use the dinghy for exploring. With flat seas, we decided to don our scuba gear and dive Swallows' Cave. Outside the cave was a vertical wall going down over 200 feet. For our safety stop, we explored the inside of the cave. Oops, forgot the camera for this one. The next day, the wind went light as predicted. My first priority was Mariner's Cave, whose entrance is 6 feet underwater and 20 feet long. Vicki stood off in Southern Cross, as there is nowhere to anchor within a couple of miles. This cave is justly famous for being airtight. Swells compress the air inside the cave, popping your ears and forming a momentary fog as the humidity condenses. Unique in my experience.
Next, we anchored at Luamoko, a nearby island, for some snorkeling along a shallow reef. Wow, amazingly healthy coral!
From here, we motored all the way to the eastern edge of the archipelago, making use of the calm conditions to explore some of the trickiest and most exposed areas. Fanua Tapu pass would not have been too difficult, had not all 3 nav aids gone missing! We tiptoed through, dead slow, with a constant lookout for coral bommies. Our destination was Kenutu Island, approached through a zigzag maze of coral and clear water. The main attraction here was a hike to the windward side, where we gazed out over the open Pacific from high cliffs.
The pandanus trees looked like something from a Dr. Seuss book.
The next day, Saturday, the winds were even lighter, so we decided to continue our exploration of Vava'u's reef-strewn eastern side. We motored south to Fonua Unga Pass. Even with reliable waypoints, this was a tricky pass to navigate. Just south of the pass, we anchored off the shore of tiny Fonua Fo'ou, where the only inhabitants were black noddies, black-naped terns, and a single eastern curlew.
We motored back to Kapa Island and anchored off Falevai ("water house") village. A walk in the village reminded us that Tonga is a far less prosperous place than French Polynesia.
Now we're back to Neiafu for a few days. Here's a typical sight in the harbor, a water taxi bringing in people from one of the outlying islands.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

First impressions of Vava'u

We knew we would like it here and we have not been disappointed. The Kingdom of Tonga was one of the few parts of the South Pacific that was not colonized by a European power. The only downside is that it is not as materially well-off as some of the present or former colonies, but the upside is that it has a unique character in terms of people and culture. The people are VERY friendly and hospitable. The landscape is verdant. Neiafu has all of the basic amenities for cruising sailors: safe harbor with strong moorings, ATMs, fresh fruits and veggies, Internet cafes, dining, entertainment, rental cars. We have taken a few days to sample what is here, and its all good! Yesterday we shared a car with our friends Barb and Sieg on Sorceress. Mostly what we saw were modest homes and very productive agriculture. The giant taro is amazing! School was out this week, so we weren't able to visit a classroom, which is something all four of us were interested in. Maybe next week. We're headed out to explore some of the outlying islands and anchorages that Vava'u is famous for. Back with another report in a few days.

Monday, June 24, 2013

passage to Tonga

Five days on Niue was just enough to experience most of the hikes and to do some diving, so with a good weather forecast, we decided to move on to Tonga. But Niue is another place that we will hold dear in our memories, and we would love to come back someday. Lucky Kiwis - only a 3 1/2 hour flight for them! The forecast called for winds under 15 knots - perfect for our boat. We even ended up sailing part of this passage with an unreefed main, a first for us in the South Pacific. The only obstacle along the way was the Capricorn Seamount, where an underwater mountain comes within 750 feet of the surface. Amazing that something so far down can affect the surface, but we weren't taking any chances. We plotted a course to dodge the seamount. We also enjoyed the light from the full moon on this passage. Much easier to see our way around the boat! About halfway through the passage we crossed the International Dateline, and "lost" a day (we'll get it back when we fly home in September). We made landfall at Vava'u just before dawn on Monday morning. Impulsive, an Australian yacht completing her 8-year circumnavigation, appeared off our port side as we neared the coast. From here, we had another 2 hours of motoring around the NW coast and into the Port of Refuge, one of the most protected harbors in the South Pacific. As we entered Neiafu, we could see that the Customs dock was crowded. We ended up rafting 5 deep while awaiting clearance. Some of the other yachts were boats we had met in Mopelia. One by one, we invited various officials aboard: Immigration, Quarantine, Health, and Customs. Each had a sheaf of paperwork to fill out, and a lot of questions. We offered hot drinks and cookies to each, and enjoyed pleasant conversations with all of them. Now we are tied to a mooring in the deep harbor. Neiafu seems like a very pleasant town, with a lot of amenities for cruising sailors.

Thursday, June 20, 2013


After our first full night of sleep in a week, we awoke refreshed and ready to see a new place. We radioed a request for clearance, then rowed the dinghy to the wharf. Because the wharf is exposed to the open sea, no boats can be left in the water here. Conditions may change quickly. We had to hoist the dinghy out of the water using an electric crane, then move it to a parking area using a very nice trolley. Customs and quarantine agents were awaiting us, and we quickly filled in the required paperwork. The next step was to visit the Niue Yacht Club, who manage the moorings and serve as a clearinghouse of information for visiting yachts. Ira kindly answered our questions and helped us find a rental car. Our next step was unusual - we slept ashore for the rest of our stay, in a house we rented from Stafford at the Coral Gardens (the Sails Bar here is one of the nicest hangouts on the island). After hearing reports from the other cruisers who stayed on their boats, we are glad we took this unconventional route, although it was somewhat stressful leaving the boat unattended. The main attractions in Niue, besides the very friendly inhabitants, are the limestone caves and other formations, and the extraordinarily clear water. It is not unusual to have over 200-foot visibility. We pocked up a map from the visitor center and headed out in our rental car. The first thing we appreciated was the remarkable signage and other tourist infrastructure. There are toilets at every trailhead, and showers at locations where you can swim. Trailhead signs give you a clear idea of what to expect in terms of difficulty and time required. We did several of the "sea tracks" over the course of the next few days, and swam at a number of locations. I won't go into great detail, as you can easily Google such information. Suffice it to say that every hike was unique, unlike anything we had ever seen, and the swimming and snorkeling was  as good as anything I've ever experienced, and that includes the Tuamotus. Another thing we noticed was the high number of abandoned homes. We did a count along one 5 mile stretch of road, and the abandoned homes greeatly outnumbered the occupied ones. There are more than 10 Niueans living in New Zealand for every one here. The main reason is economic necessity, as there are very few ways to earn money here. Some of the homes were rendered uninhabitable by the most recent cyclone in 2004, which hit the island withi 100-foot high waves. Tuesday night we went to a traditional foods buffet, with some dancing afterward. The food was delicious and the dancers were fun to watch. Wednesday we did some more hiking and snorkeling, but there was a lot of heavy rain. We had to wait until Thursday to go diving with the small local operation. It was worth it, if only for the amazing viz and the sea snakes. There were not many fish, but there was a lot of live coral. Unfortunately, it was overcast, so the underwater colors were muted. We wish we had hit Niue during better weather. This is a beautiful place. But it has been stressful leaving the boat on a mooring in unsettled weather, and the swells are predicted to build up from the "wrong" direction (directly into the harbor). So we have cleared with Customs and will depart Friday morning. It should take us 2 days and 2 nights to reach Neiafu, Vavau, Tonga. Ther isa small chance we will alter course for Lifuka in the Haapai island group of Tonga, if wind and swell are more comfortable for us going in that direction.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Passage to Niue

After 10 days at Mopelia, we were ready to get underway. My only regret is that conditions were not favorable for diving on the famous German shipwreck Seeadler, just outside the pass. I doubt I'll ever have that chance again. We have had a lot of discussion regarding the route west from French Polynesia. As the route passes through the Cook Islands, it seemed only natural that we would visit at least one of them. I had always intended to visit Suwarrow, an uninhabited (except for two park wardens in the cruising season) atoll in the Northern Cooks. But the route from there would take us to the very rainy Samoas, in which I had very little interest, and it would be a potentially difficult passage from there south to Tonga. Friends who visited Suwarrow last year reported a lot of bad weather, and the guidebooks cautioned against staying in the anchorage in anything but settled weather. So we decided against Suwarrow. We also considered Rarotonga, in the southern Cooks, where our friends on Sorceress had gone a few weeks ago and enjoyed it. But you have to med moor in a very small crowded harbor, and our friends reported very rocky and rolly conditions, so we decided against that route. That left only Aitutaki, whose entrance channel is too shallow for our draft, and Palmerston, where you have to stay in the open sea on a mooring that is unsafe in a westerly. Having ruled out these stops, we were faced with an 1150-mile passage to the Vavau island group in Tonga. This would be our second-longest passage on Southern Cross, and by far our longest double-handed passage. We set an intermediate waypoint at Niue, but we would only stop there if conditions were good. Although the weather along the route was still not ideal, we decided to head out while conditions looked so good for the early part of the passage. And our first two days were very nice: light tradewinds and very moderate seas. We averaged nearly 6 knots for the first 48hours, sailing conservatively with a single reef the entire time.
Luckily it was at this time that I discovered that the pesky screw in the mast track was coming loose again. I had already tried Loctite, so my only option at this point was to climb the mast and remove the screw. Thank God it was only just above the first spreader. Even in light seas it was very hard to cling to the mast while aloft. Conditions went lighter the 3rd day out, and our mileage dropped, even with a full main and a full 140% genoa. On day 4, we had to motor a few times as we moved into the influence of the low pressure system to our west. Winds backed to the NE and we saw our first squalls. On day 5, the winds continued backing to the SW, and we had to motor some more. The sky had the most dramatically varied clouds I had ever seen.
Toward the end of day 5 we spotted Palmerston Island, which we had set as an intermediate waypoint. It was just as well we had not planned on stopping here, as conditions quickly deteriorated just beyond the island. The seas were wickedly confused from the recent changes in wind direction, and even traveling at a measly 4 knots it was a very uncomfortable ride. At 3 in the morning, the wind filled in from the SE, indicating that we were out of the frontal system and back into the tradewinds. Day 6 was a beautiful sail at 6+ knots. As dusk fell, though, the winds strengthened and the seas built to a steep 3-meter height. Waves crashed over the boat and we just had to hold on as best we could. Winds abated to around 20 knots by morning, and Day 7 was another good day of tradewind sailing, although too wet to enjoy the ride from anywhere except the companionway. Things settled a bit by dusk, and we had a very easy sail through the night, for a change. Day 8 brought continued tradewinds, and it looked like the last 2 days would be easy. But we looked at the chart, and there was Niue, only 30 miles south. We re-read the descriptions in the guidebooks, and before we knew it, we had altered course for one of the smallest independent countries in the world (they are in "free association" with New Zealand, and use NZ dollars as currency). By 4pm we were tied to a mooring and awaiting clearance from customs and immigration.

Sunday, June 9, 2013


We decided to take off for Mopelia before the next set of 5-meter high swells arrived, which would trap us on Maupiti for another week. We like it here, but we are officially checked out of the country, and are almost out of francs. We looked forward to visiting a more unspoiled and wild place as our last stop in Polynesia. We had a fairly easy passage, making the 100nm in 19 hours. We couldn't slow the boat down enough, because the winds were stronger than predicted, so we ended up arriving outside the pass at 4am; we would have to stand off until daylight. I started the engine so that we could lower the main and lie ahull, but the sail wouldn't come down, meaning that we would have to continue tacking back and forth as slowly as possible, luffing up but trying not to get too close to the reef. I tried to start the engine at the end of one tack, but it wouldn't start. I decided to wait until daylight to bleed the engine. Having two malfunctions at the same time, plus a difficult pass to negotiate, and knowing that we would be sailing into deteriorating weather if we were not able to enter the pass, all combined to increase my anxiety to an uncomfortable level. Soon after dawn, Andreas and Janet on Calusa motored through the pass and reported only 3 knots of current against them. I got the engine started but still could not lower the main, so we had to motorsail through the pass.
As we approached the pass, Vicki went forward to help guide me. I had been told to hug the left hand side in order to minimize the current against us. Unfortunately, I got too close, and did not see Vicki's signal to move right. The keel grated against the coral bottom, further heightening my anxiety. Luckily we weren't moving very fast, and the blow was only glancing. I moved the boat into the center of the channel and we made it into the lagoon. It took nearly another hour to reach the anchorage at the south end of the lagoon, and we were amazed to see 9 other boats. Besides Calusa, a German motorsailer named Freydis, and us, the rest of the fleet was French.
We got the hook down, then I went up the mast to free the sail. A screw had backed out of the track, just above the lower spreader. This had caused trouble once before, and I had replaced the screw. I tightened this one back up, and slid the cars past, lowering the sail. Next, I went over the side with mask and fins to check the anchor and the keel. The keel looked okay, except for a chip out of the putty at the leading edge of the bottom, exposing a small area of lead underneath. The hull to keel joint looked fine. As I swam back to the boarding ladder, 3 blacktip reef sharks swam quickly in my direction. They seemed a bit too curious, so I scooted out of the water. Reggie and Jeanne from Xe soon dinghied over to greet us (we had met them in the Marquesas last year, and again in Huahine this year). Jeanne had heard us on the radio with Calusa last night, and was worried that we had attempted the pass without an engine. After a nap, we went ashore, where Reggie and Jeanne introduced us to Hina, a Tahitian woman who has lived here for 10 years. We would have stayed longer, but for the swarming flies!
We next dinghied over to Calusa and met Hio, a good looking young Tahitian man whose mother, father, and two sisters also live on Mopelia. Andreas and Janet had brought packages for them from Maupiti.  The next day, the seas began to rise, as predicted. The wind kept blowing about 20 knots. Five of the ten boats pulled anchor. The Germans and one of the French boats left for their next passage; Calusa and two more French boats headed to the north anchorage. We thought we might follow in a day or so. But Saturday brought higher winds and higher seas. Now about 5 meters (16 feet), the seas were breaking over the top of the reef and sending waves into the lagoon. The water level rose about 4 feet and the beach disappeared. It was too rough to land the dinghy, so we were boat bound. Sunday the seas calmed a bit, and the beach re-appeared, so we took a long walk. We snorkeled afterward, but the visibility was only about 10 feet due to the turbulent water in the lagoon. Too bad, because this was some of the most healthy coral we have ever seen, including a lot of staghorn corals. Even though the weather was slightly better, I hit a low point today, stressing about the problems we had encountered so far, the long difficult passages that lie ahead, and wondering if the boat and the crew are up to it. Monday, Pierre from Kea came by to tell us that we were invited to come along with Hina on a fishing trip. We all hiked down to the southern tip of the atoll, where Hina tried to net fish in some shallow pools. After an hour or two, she had only six small fish, so we figured out there would probably not be a potluck afterwards. But it was interesting to talk to these highly experienced sailors. Jacque and Elisabeth are on their 4th passage through Polynesia and have done two circumnavigations. Pierre is a solo sailor based here in Polynesia. He sailed non-stop between the Marquesas and Victoria, BC on his way to Alaska, and then back the other way. Tuesday, we walked all the way to the north end of the atoll, which Hio told us was 8km one way. There were a surprising number of abandoned buildings along the way, one with a very large cistern from which we may get water if we stay here much longer. There were three areas that looked to be currently occupied, but we didn't see any people. We saw a bucket full of baby sea turtles, and a pack of dogs at Hio's family's main camp. We could see Hio's boat tied up behind one of the catamarans in the anchorage; apparently the whole family was with him. We looked around their camp and admired the comforts they had constructed from local materials and the occasional shipwreck. 
We didn't know how long they would be gone, so we started walking back to the southern end of the atoll. About this time, the large gray monohull (Pasha, with Maurice and Amelia) pulled anchor and headed down to the southern anchorage. Later in the afternoon, Chamalou and Calusa also moved back down to our anchorage. Apparently conditions are better here. Amelia, on Pasha, gave us some bananas. Hio, who hitched a ride from the north end with Calusa, gave us some seabird eggs. He assured us that he only harvests from species which will lay a new egg, and that he would not take more eggs than could be replaced. We did not want to be rude, but felt uncomfortable taking these eggs without knowing for sure that we are not harming the bird population. At any rate, there had been a shortage of eggs elsewhere in Polynesia, and these were delicious. I finally discovered the time and frequency for this year's radio network for English-speaking cruisers (such nets form and die each year as most English-speakers are only transiting the area). This has really helped us feel more connected. We know many other boats in the South Pacific, but they are all hundreds of miles to the east. We spoke with Bravo out of Seattle, and Estrellita out of Victoria. Estrellita agreed to send an email for us, and Bravo relayed weather information. Wednesday we dinghied about 2.5 miles north, where we had found an abandoned house with a large rainwater cistern. We did laundry, and I carried back 25 gallons of water, while Vicki walked back on the road. Returning against the 20-knot wind and chop, I got thoroughly soaked (the laundry was protected inside a plastic bag. Afterward, we invited Hio over for lunch, and had a very interesting visit. He is exceptionally kind and thoughtful for a 24 year old. He really enjoys meeting sailors from all over the world, and told us that he has a Russian girlfriend on a boat that called here last month. He's also quite intelligent and resourceful, and is completely confident about making his living in this isolated outpost, even with the threat of an occasional hurricane.
Janet and Andreas on Calusa invited us to dinner. She made a nice pie with leftover pork from the pig that Hio's family had roasted for the cruisers in the other anchorage a few days ago. We had fun doing a blind taste test with the two different brands of cheap boxed red wine we had. Andreas and I discovered that we had both been trekking near Pokhara in Nepal in the fall of 1978 - perhaps we had crossed paths or stayed in the same teahouse, who knows? Thursday: we've now been here one week, and from the weather forecast, it looks like we will be here another week at least. There is a low pressure system forming to the west, which will cause light and fluky winds, confused seas, and generally less favorable conditions for sailing. One of the French catamarans, Chamalou,  departed yesterday, hoping to sail to Samoa before the low forms (a good cat can sail 40-50% faster than we can). The other French cat, Tereva with Philippe and Michelle aboard, departed in the afternoon for Aitutaki, Cook Islands. Hio took Andreas, Janet, Vicki and me to shore in his skiff. Janet and Vicki set off on the road toward the north village, while Andreas and I helped Hio prepare for tonight's dinner. We swept out his large shed and brought in a table and some benches. Then we cleaned up the area, piling the palm leaves, old cocnuts and other plant debris for a bonfire later on. We then felled two small coconut palms and cut out the heart of palm. Later Hio showed us his garden: a breadfruit tree, noni, lemon, papaya, and banana, along with some vanilla vines and a few pots with pineapple plants. The afternoon wore on, and finally Andreas and Hio went to get the beef for tonight's dinner from Calusa's fridge. While they were gone, the island's sole functional auto, a double-cab pickup, drove up, with Hio's mother Adrienne, his two sisters Fiamano and Puaiti, and 5 French boaters in back.
The sisters  brought some banana cake for us, and told me that Vicki and Janet were walking back. They then piled into the truck and drove back to the north end. Hio got the fire going and put rice on to boil, and cut some drinking nuts. By the time Vicki and Janet arrived, tired both from walking and from helping Hio's family with the copra harvesting, dinner was nearly ready. Hina and Kevin (one of the other fishermen who lives here) came by, carrying a coconut crab and both high on "bush beer", but Hio sent them on their way. He warned us that the bush beer had made many cruisers quite ill. Vicki, Andreas and I had nice showers using Hio's water before sitting down to dinner. Afterward, we sat on the beach watching the sunset, then prepared to go hunting for kaveu (coconut crab). We found quite a few, but only brought back the two largest ones, which Hio said were about 15 years old.
We hung them up, alive, in the shed, to await a future meal. They will stay alive for a week in this manner. After such a long day, it was good to get back to our boat and to bed. Hio slept on Calusa for a second night in a row. Friday dawned sunny and with less wind than we have had since arriving, only about 15 knots. It is supposed to decrease further as the low pressure forms to the west. We helped Hio and Andreas with copra processing - gathering coconuts into a large pile, splitting them with an axe, then scraping out the meat - for a couple of hours, but we tired of working so hard in such heat, and retreated to the boat. Despite our small contribution of labor, we were still invited to join the crab feast on Calusa in the evening. Saturday, our tenth day here, the wind subsided to about 10kts as predicted, so we decided to move to the north anchorage for a change of scene. Just as we arrived, a catamaran approached the pass and entered the lagoon. This was Camini, with Nicolas, his wife Marie, and their two kids Titouan and Juliette, along with George, all of whom we had met at George's home in Maupiti 2 weeks ago. We also met another Andreas on his German catamaran Gemeos. He's an avid diver who already has 5 hours of underwater video of the Seeadler, a WWII-vintage shipwreck just outside the pass. I asked if I could accompany him on today's dive, but he declined. What a different season this has been from the last one, when I had so many great shared adventures with fellow cruisers! After 10 days at Mopelia, it finally appears that the weather is right for our next passage, which will be the longest one of the season.