Arrival in Tonga!

We have made it to Tonga! The T-bar that Larry and Sue gave us for our rigging worked a charm and we made the two-day passage with no drama. There was a period of reaching for the first day which was a treat compared to the rolly down-wind passages that we have become accustomed to. This was followed by a day of down-wind sailing, but under mainsail only this time rather than a poled-out headsail as usual. We think it was a touch more comfortable so we’re going to adopt this tactic in future despite the more difficult reefing and the movement of the centre of effort aft, which gives the boat more of a tendency to round up in gusts.

Tonga (properly pronounced with a soft ‘g’, as in the words ‘long’ or ‘pong’) consists of three main island groups. The Southern group of TongaTapu houses the administrative capital of Nuku Alofa. In the middle is the least developed group, Haapa’i, and in the North (some 170 miles from TongaTapu) is VaVa’U, which is where we made our landfall.

If there is a cruisers capital in the South Pacific for English-speaking cruisers (Tahiti being the French-speaking capital) then VaVa’U is probably it. The infrstructure is middling – a handful of bars and restaurants, two and a half banks, a medium-sized produce market and a few little shops selling odds and ends – but there is an extensive network of islands and reefs offering enough beautifully-protected anchorages that one could easily spend a year exploring them and not exhaust the options. There are several swim-through caves, excellent diving and, at this time of year, a semi-resident humpback whale population of considerable size. Unfortunately it is strictly illegal to swim with whales from a private yacht, but they can often be heard when you’re in the water doing something else, and hey, maybe one will turn up one day as we’re innocently looking at a fish, a bit of coral, or checking on the anchor 🙂

As well as being a great destination in its own right, Tonga is also the primary staging ground for yachts such as ourselves who are planning to spend the cyclone season in New Zealand. Yachts trickle in over the season, wait for the weather to break around the end of October and then all make the dash South when it looks like they have a good ‘window’.

Our original itinerary included visiting Fiji this year. We are still undecided, but although it would be a great shame to miss out on this unique destination we are seriously considering skipping it and heading to New Zealand directly from TongaTapu. Visiting Fiji would add about an extra 600 miles to the total distance that we need to cover to make it to New Zealand. That’s an extra 600 miles of rigging fatigue which, given our experiences over the past couple of months, might not be a good thing.

We’re not the only ones with problems it seems. Steve and Sheryl Westwood suffered a broken forestay last week while en-route from Tonga to American Samoa, and Josh aboard his little boat ‘Maistral’ discovered a few broken wire strands on his forward lower shrouds two days ago. Another boat has a kaput engine, another has rudder problems, another a ripped mainsail……… the list goes on. We’ve all done a lot of miles to get here and things just start to wear and break down over those miles. Couple that with the poor quality of modern fittings (the rigging on Anja and Tomas’ boat ‘Robusta’ is from 1989 and it looks in perfect condition – much less corrosion and in generally better shape than our rigging which is only 2 ½ years old) and I doubt there’s a single boat here with nothing that needs fixing. We’ve all got some work to do in New Zealand.*1

Tonga, meanwhile, is a lovely place to spend some time. We cleared customs on August 14th in Neiafu, the primary town in VaVa’U and have since done a little exploring and treated ourselves to some indulgence. The prices here are not too bad – certainly the lowest we’ve seen for a while – so we’ve treated ourselves to a couple of restaurant meals. There’s also a dive shop very near by where we can fill both our tanks for 20 panga (about $10US). We’ve just filled them there for the second time and are looking forward to getting back out to the Southern and Eastern VaVa’Uan islands next week to do another dive somewhere. So far we’ve done one dive here, at the ‘coral gardens’ off the island of Vakaeitu (which was spectacular), snorkeled several reefs, had a beach barbeque with friends, visited a Tongan village, swum and snorkeled in two really cool caves (one of which is not visible from the outside – you have to swim underwater for a few metres to reach it), had a dock party and made some really great new friends – Steve, who sailed up here to escape the winter in New Zealand, Murray and Jenny from Dunedin, NZ South Island, Nick and Jess on Te Mana, whose cutlass bearing I helped to replace*2, and the crew of Infinity who were kind enough to re-fill our dive tank following that cutlass bearing job. Look them up on line – they do some really cool stuff. Currently one crew member is doing a PhD on ocean plastics pollution while the bulk of them are involved with a really great community outreach project; they are visiting small, inaccessible islands and training the local populations to deal with medical problems that might otherwise become more serious and necessitate transport to a hospital – something that is not easy to achieve for many of the locals due to the cost and the lack of transport options. The website for Infinity is www.infinityexpedition.org

We’ll be here for a few weeks yet I suspect and then we’ll decide what to do next. Stay in Tonga or push on to visit Fiji? We needn’t decide now. At the moment the most pressing question I’m asking myself is whether the beer I put in the fridge half an hour ago is cold enough yet to drink. I think I’m going to go with ‘yes’.

Here’s Josh aboard Maistral:

This picture was actually taken in Tahiti but I don’t think it matters. This year Josh has sailed single-handed from Mexico, so far as far as Tonga. He has now fixed his rigging by simply cutting off some wire and re-making the terminal connections. We’ve donated a bit of dyneema to him in case he has issues while en-route to New Zealand and needs to make an emergency repair. For his next boat Josh wants something even smaller and simpler; either a cat boat or a Hobie Cat. He would not be the first to use such a craft for ocean voyages. In the 1980’s an entire family of three turned up at Palmerston Atoll aboard a 16-foot Hobie Cat!

 

This is Port Maurelle, with Murray and Jenny in the foreground coming in to the beach for a walk with us to the village and a beer at a fancy resort that we decided to grace with our custom. Bob is anchored way out on the left – the speck between the blue-hulled boat and the white one on the far left:

 

A beach barbeque with some friends, organised by Steve and Cheryl Westwood whom we first met in the Gambier Islands just over a year ago. Steve, by chance, served with my father as an aviator in the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy (819 squadron was it?) back when I was yet to exist:

 

Me swimming the entrance to ‘Mariner’s Cave’. Screenshot from a video taken using the GoPro that was so generously donated to us by Olivia and David (s/v El Nido).

 

Entrance to ‘Swallow Cave’. This one we could get into with Numpty, the dinghy. The snorkelers in the picture are tourists on an organised tour with a tour company (welcome back to the world of commercialism!):

 

Inside the Swallow Cave. What a shame about the graffiti! A really cool spot nonetheless:

 

Anja and Tomas organised a dock party to celebrate Anja’s birthday (I’ve no idea which one!). Represented in this picture are Bermuda, the UK, Australia, the US (guess who? anyone?), Switzerland, Germany and Tunisia:

 

Finally, Anja, the birthday girl herself 🙂 :

 

 

 

 

 

 

*1: The biggest job we need to do is re-design and replace some, if not all of our standing rigging. Are there any other WI36 owners reading this who have made modifications to improve the rig? In particular I’d like to split the lower shrouds into two parts – forward and aft – and install additional chainplates external to the hull to support them. Has anyone done this?

*2: The cutlass bearing replacement was done in the water and required removing the entire shaft. Contrary to expectations I can report that shaft removal with the boat still in the water was actually a lot easier than expected (on a Beneteau Oceanis. It would not be easy on Bob). The amount of water that entered the boat was probably less than a litre in total.

We Love Niue

Just a small photo to truely demonstrate the title

Niue was a bit of a hidden gem for us. We hadn’t heard much about this place during our travels – few of our friends had visited before and those that have did so many years ago when anchoring was difficult and the island catered very little to general tourism, let alone to cruisers. Now things are a little different. Anchoring at this small exposed island has been made much simpler by the availability of mooring buoys allowing up to 12 boats to safely moor in this less-than-sheltered bay. Having said that, any sea swell coming from anywhere west of south causes the boats here to roll violently. Bob was no exception. Trying to cook dinner on what is comparable to a child’s seesaw (whilst standing up) can get tiring very quickly! I wish I could say that was the worst of our problems but unfortunately the rolling made apparent yet another rigging failure which, under the wrong circumstances, could have lead to the collapse of the entire rig. Whilst having to deal with yet another broken piece of rigging in this remote place is less than ideal, we were grateful that the failure didn’t happen at sea and a simple solution was just round the corner.

Each year more cruisers and tourists visit this unique raised atoll to enjoy all that Niue has to offer. This is the highest atoll in the world and this has led to a rather unusual topography with vibrant coral reefs bordering the island, a network of caves on the coast to be explored and interesting landscapes to scramble around in.

The raised atoll of Niue with its creviced coastline and it’s network of caverns and caves

The strange topography of the terrestrial landscape

The wildlife here is also very unique with a number of endemic skinks, birds and marine life. The flat-tailed sea snake (locally known as ‘Katuali’) is an endemic species of sea snake found only in Niue. They are locally abundant and their venom, as with all sea snakes, is the one of the most potent in the world and is capable of killing a fully grown adult human with as little as 1.5 milligrams! To make matters worse, I don’t believe there’s an antidote. Luckily, these sea snakes are very friendly and not in the least bit aggressive. Most people are happy to swim with them and I heard that some of the locals playfully ‘tickle’ them in the water – each to their own I suppose! Apparently you would have to stick your fingers right down their throat for them to bite you which is a lucky thing because these little beasts are very curious and would often swim within inches of us when we were snorkelling.

The friendly but deathly flat tailed sea snake – aka Katuali

As Niue is the only land mass for hundreds of miles it is also a sanctuary for breeding humpbacks and many tourists visit Niue specifically to swim with the whales. Oma Tafua is a Niuean non-profit organisation dedicated to the protection of marine mammals and literally translated means ‘to treasure whales’. When we first arrived we noticed a sign at the local yacht club (which was run by the wonderful Alexa – a volunteer from New Zealand looking after the place until the commodore returned from vacation) which pleaded to private yacht owners to volunteer their boat to Oma Tafua for a day or two to help with the whale monitoring scheme. We jumped at the chance! Rather than paying lots of money to a tour operator to see the whales we decided to volunteer Bob to the conservation cause. What better way to see the whales than by doing it from your own boat with an organisation whose sole purpose is to protect and conserve these wonderful creatures. I’m surprised more boat owners aren’t jumping at the chance to help with this project – Oma Tafua reimburse fuel and mooring costs, they teach you all about the whales, how to approach them, how their research contributes to conservation and, personally, I can’t think of a more rewarding way to see these magnificent and awe-inspiring animals.

Bob was the Whale Research Boat for the day. This is Fia, the president of Oma Tafua and the leader of the data collection in Niue. On the left is Libby, one of the volunteers who came along for the experience.

Fia recording the whale song

Alexa (the yacht club volunteer who also came along for the day) looking for whales in the distance

We photographed the tail flukes as each one has its own unique markings, just like human finger prints. The photos can then be used to individually identify each whale. This data is then used to get local population estimates which can be compared over the years.

For the first time in my life I saw a whale breach fully out of the water. I was on deck and heard a very loud noise in the distance, almost like a bomb explosion. I quickly looked round to see lots of water ‘mist’ suspended in the air, slowly falling back down to earth about half a mile away from where we were moored. Whales often breach in unison and once the first one does it, others often follow. As I perplexedly looked at the suspended water wondering what had just happened, another enormous humpback leaped clear into the air, rotated its body and landed on its back in the water creating the most enormous splash. Just amazing!

As well as the most incredible wildlife, I was also taken in by how friendly everyone is on this island. Tourism is still new to the people here and perhaps as a result they still see tourists as ‘real people’ rather than having an ‘us and them’ attitude which is unfortunately the case in so many places nowadays. We made some really good friends with the locals in our short 10 day visit and their kindness and generosity is unparallel to anywhere we’ve visited so far. Fia and Alexa were wonderfully welcoming and we really enjoyed hanging out with them. Fia took us to a wildlife presentation she was giving and even offered us the use of her car and a room in her house to sleep in (although we politely declined as we didn’t want to put her out). Alexa was also fabulous, giving us lots of friendly advice, driving us round to get our scuba tanks filled and she even came on board to help out with the whale research. I hope that we’ll see her again soon as she expects to be in New Zealand when we arrive in a few months time.

Finally, we met a really fantastic woman called Nadia when visiting a local hardware store one day at the beginning of our stay. After explaining where we were trying to get to, she offered to take us to our destination when her shift finished in half an hour’s time. We had a great chat with her and even though we didn’t even buy anything from her shop she was more than happy to ferry us to our destination. But that wasn’t all, she insisted on showing us her village and introducing us to her large family. We ended up spending a lot of time with her and her husband (Francis) and their four children over the coming days. We were invited to a barbeque and a family feast and they even spent a day taking us round the island on our own private guided car tour. We were able to repay the favour a little bit by having Nadia and Francis over to Bob for evening drinks and once we fixed Bob’s broken rig, Nadia even helped us take her for a test sail. Despite the fact that Francis is a fisherman Nadia had never before set foot on a boat of any kind. When we had had them both over for an evening drink Nadia had promptly succumbed to sea sickness, so when we had her out again for a sail we made her stand on the dock and eat two ginger snaps and a seasickness pill before she was allowed into the dinghy. This time she was fine, and even proved herself a gifted helmswoman on her very first sailing trip.

The climb down to Togo Chasm

This is Togo Chasm. Nadia and Francis have never actually visited here despite living in Niue for many years. It was nice to show the locals round 🙂

Alex and Nadia by some lovely salt water pools. It was a little too cold for us to take a swim.

Nadia and Francis on board for sunset drinks. She is putting on a very braved face and you wouldn’t be able to tell how sick she is feeling when this photo was taken.

Me and Nadia taking Bob for a test sail. Once loaded up with anti sea sickness drugs she felt much better and was an absolutely natural on the helm.

We are so grateful to Nadia and her family for making our experience in Niue truly authentic and enjoyable. The people here are fantastic and I wish we could have stayed longer but unfortunately, even with the new moorings, the bay is not suitable for boats to stay for the long term and we were lucky to be able to stay a whole 10 days – most cruisers manage just two or three.

We left Niue after 10 days, leaving behind our new found friends. We set sail for the VaVa’U Islands in Tonga which we’ve been enjoying now for the past few weeks.

The Uncertainty of Stainless Steel

We’re here in Niue and have been thoroughly enjoying ourselves for the last month or so, meandering West in a zig-zag pattern in the general direction of Tonga. It’s been exclusively down-wind sailing since we left Rarotonga. In fact, the mainsail had stayed in the bag on the boom for the entirety of that period until we decided to set it for the final few hours of our passage from Beveridge to Niue, mostly to give it an airing but also to provide some stability while we flew the spinnaker. Bob rolls with a sharp, fast motion and it seems I’m the only one who doesn’t mind it too much. Sarah is not a fan of rolling and it seems that Bob isn’t either. We have suffered our second major rigging failure in as many months, while moored in the Bay at Niue.

 

This 5/8″ T-bar appears to have suffered a fatigue failure just as the sta-lock fitting failed a couple of months ago. Sarah and I were on shore and arrived back to Bob after dark to be greeted by the sound of something banging against the mast. At first I thought it must be a halyard that I had neglected to secure properly, but we were both dismayed (to say the least) to discover that it was in fact our Starboard lower shroud – the other end of the same shroud that failed en-route to Raiatea.

Now, one failure of a 2 1/2 year-old fitting could be put down to very bad luck. Two failures implies a very serious problem with the design of the rig. I have always had my doubts about it but figured it would be OK since it has been so for the past 40 years with no particular problems. Mind you, none of these boats, to my knowledge, has ever travelled so far as Bob. And then, most are probably no longer sporting their original 1970’s masts. Only a single set of spreaders and a single set of lower shrouds. A baby stay, intermediate shrouds and running backstays help to stabilise things but it was never going to be great on account of the fact that not only are the chainplates set forward of the mast (so all of the shrouds serve to pull the mast slightly forward instead of the usual aft, or directly out to the side) but the builder didn’t even put them equidistant from the mast, which means the shroud tensions are by necessity unequal. Not ideal. Between the mass of the mast flopping back and forth with every roll and probably some flex in the hull moving the chain plates themselves by a tiny amount, the shrouds load and unload repeatedly, not just at sea but in any rolly anchorage. Unfortunately the only thing that I have any control over at present is the shroud tensions. It is possible that I had them a touch tight (though still nowhere near the ’15-20% of the breaking strain of the wire’ that is apparently officially recommended for shroud tension) so I’ll back off on that a little. We now find ourselves hoping we can make it to New Zealand with the current setup so that it can be completely re-designed and re-built there. I’m thinking of two additional chain plates on the outside of the hull, one forward and one aft for split lower shrouds. We will also look very closely at the feasibility of installing ‘soft’ (non-wire) standing rigging, depending on price, the danger of chafe and it’s resistance to fatigue failures of the sort that Bob’s rigging appears to be prone to. For now, Larry and Sue from s/v Serengeti have given us their spare second-hand T-bar fitting so we should be back in business shortly. If these swells from the SW ever die down and we stop rolling violently back and forth I’ll go aloft and make a close inspection of all the stainless fittings. I’ll also install dyneema straps as backups around as many fittings as possible so that if another one goes while we’re sailing at least we’ll hopefully save the mast.

 

Until the rig looked like it might fall down, the most pressing maintenance issue was a duff VHF aerial. We’d noticed that our VHF range and AIS reception range had plummeted from about 25 miles to about 4. With the help of some advice from Yahav (s/v Cheeky Monkey) and Larry (s/v Serengeti) I was able to diagnose the aerial itself as being the problem component, and, since there was nothing to lose from a non-expert bodge (and no hope of getting a new one for some time yet) I figured I might as well take it to pieces and see if it was salvageable. Unfortunately I didn’t think to take pictures for the blog while I was in the process of butchering it but I can tell interested parties that VHF aerials are actually fairly simple affairs. Some water had managed to get into ours through a tiny crack in the plastic housing at the top (cracked due to relentless UV exposure) and, I think, broken a capacitor which appears to be the only electronic component in the whole thing. I removed the capacitor, soldered a few things to a few other things that may or may not be supposed to be soldered together, patched up all the holes that I’d drilled and/or pried in the housing and stuck it back together with the liberal application of duct tape, hose clamps and sikaflex sealant. It remains to be seen whether this mess constitutes an improvement or an effective destruction of our fixed radio apparatus. We shall see! In the meantime here’s a picture of the result:

 

 

Beveridge Reef and the ecology of the Pacific

The next landfall for us after Palmerston is a small self-governing island called Niue, however, this was not the next place we set anchor! En route to Niue is a little submerged atoll with no land at all known as Beveridge Reef. This atoll is very similar to the Tuamotus in structure and formation – with an external reef, a lagoon in the centre and a pass to allow us to enter…………… just no land. At all. Not even a rock poking its head above the surface. This didn’t deter us in the slightest however, and as the inside of the atoll contained a convenient sandy shelf only 11 feet deep, we decided it was a perfect place to anchor. Alex was keen to see what it felt like to be anchored in the middle of the ocean and I was keen to do fish and coral surveys in a part of the world with minimal human interference. I had a little bit of trepidation about surveying this particular reef as the sharks have a reputation of being somewhat aggressive and dangerous. The atoll is home to an abundance of gray reef sharks and one of the recorded attacks in the ‘official world shark attack register’ is from this particular reef. In fact, one of our good friends (Josh from s/v Maistral) was anchored near us and had a close encounter one afternoon when he was out spear fishing. After catching a small jack an inquisitive shark came up to him, mouth wide open and attempted a number of times to steal his well earned fish. After seeing the sharks teeth more times than he cared for, Josh decided to forfeit his fish to the shark in the hope that it would then leave him alone. Big mistake! The shark instantly gobbled the fish up and in the process attracted two more even larger sharks. All three sharks then started to aggressively circle around Josh less than 30cm from him, touching their bodies against his. As if that wasn’t scary enough, he was all by himself and his boat was a good 50m swim away! Despite punching the shark’s faces a few times and jabbing them with his spear they still persisted next to him until he was only 10 feet from his boat. Luckily he made it with no loss of life or limbs! Note to self – no spear fishing in isolated reefs! The sharks don’t appear to have developed any fear of humans at all.

Beveridge Reef – you can see the sandy shelf and breakers from the barrier reef, but no land.

Since the very beginning of our voyage I’ve been trying my best to do species and abundance surveys for the fish that occupy the reefs in the islands of the Pacific and also do coral bleaching assessments to evaluate the health of the reefs. As an ecologist I wanted to use this voyage as a means of diversifying my knowledge and to learn more about marine ecology. Not only does it keep me active, but it’s a good way to develop my own skills and who knows, maybe those skills will come in handy one day when looking for work. The main thing is that it’s contributing to conservation and improving data about an area of the world that’s seldom surveyed – and, of course, I absolutely love doing it.

Me using the coral colour chart for the coral bleaching survey

I didn’t want to let Josh’s experience put me off doing my survey at Beveridge. I had been looking forward to it for months and as I wasn’t planning on spear fishing I thought it probably wouldn’t be a problem. Besides, I took Alex with me as my own personal body guard.  After two surveys, one in the shallows near the barrier reef and another in the 40 foot deep lagoon with scattered coral heads, it became clear that there were a lot of gray reef sharks and not a whole lot of large reef fish for them to eat. Many of the fish appeared to be juveniles and any fully grown adults were usually small by nature, so not a whole lot of prey available and perhaps this explains their desperation for Josh’s fish! I got my surveys done without any harm, although we counted over 10 grey reef sharks during our scuba dive and many were very inquisitive. Although they never acted aggressively towards us, many came much closer than I was comfortable with. Luckily Alex was always right next to me keeping a beady eye on them ready to jump to my defence if needed – my hero!

Ready for my scuba survey at Beveridge Reef

Alex chasing off the gray reef sharks

I don’t want to give the wrong impression about sharks. While the ones at Beveridge were unusually inquisitive and even aggressive towards our spear-fishing friend, we have swum with literally hundreds of sharks, perhaps a thousand, and have never once experienced overly aggressive behaviour ourselves. With very few exceptions every shark attack on record is a case of mistaken identity (eg. The propeller of our dinghy – see earlier post from Nuku Hiva, Marquesas) or are associated with humans putting large amounts of blood into the water through fishing activity. Sharks are a beautiful and exciting feature whenever they are encountered on a dive or snorkel, and their presence is an excellent indicator of a healthy reef ecosystem. The reefs of the tropical Pacific are some of the most healthy and diverse in the world. The fish and others creatures we encounter are numerous, colourful and diverse – the variety of life is just amazing and the species so unusual it’s like being on an alien planet. Snorkelling and diving around coral reefs is an absolutely fabulous experience that’s not to be missed.

I’ve added a few extra pages to the website which might be useful to other cruisers wanting to see what fish they are encountering as they explore their local coral reefs. I’ve collated my photo collection and created a small fish ID guide which I will continue to add to as we progress through our voyage which you can see here. I would highly recommend doing a structured survey of the reef when out snorkelling or scuba diving. They’re a lot of fun, very easy to do and you can learn a great deal about the reef habitat and the weird and wonderful species living within it. The data can then be submitted to conservation organisations where it can be used to benefit the environment. If you’re interested in learning how to do this, see here for instructions on how to do fish surveys and here for instructions on how to do coral bleaching assessments.

On a slightly separate note, even though we were in the middle of the Pacific anchored at an atoll with no land we still managed to celebrate YORKSHIRE DAY on the 1st of August. Hope the rest of you Yorkies didn’t forget!