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.