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.

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:

 

 

Polynesian Spirit

We’ve made it to Rarotonga!

Our arrival here is a bit of a milestone. It marks our exit from French Polynesia, where we have been exclusively sailing for about a year. That means not only a change in language, but a change in cultural influences (New Zealand rather than French), food supplies (imported from New Zealand instead of France) and weather. It’s a very chilly 26 degrees Celsius as I write this, so we’re decked out in woolly jumpers and long trousers. Most importantly for me, however, it marks the furthest West that I have ever sailed. In 2003 I ended a 5-month voyage aboard the sail training ship Picton Castle here in Rarotonga in order to return to the UK and begin my enrolment at university in London. That journey, however, planted the seed that was to eventually become the driving force that has inspired this voyage which we are currently undertaking. It was here, 14 years ago, at the age of 19, that I vowed to myself that one day I would own my own boat and sail back here to the Pacific on my own terms. Onward from here, therefore, is entirely unknown territory. We have very little idea of what Customs and cultures we can expect in the island groups to our West, but I have no doubt that the indomitable Polynesian spirit which drove me to make that vow to myself all those years ago will pervade. That incredible spirit of generosity is ubiquitous here, and is demonstrated quintessentially by the little old lady featured in the following account:

Our final day in Raiatea was spent preparing for sea, and then in the evening we headed into town to watch some of the dancing at the Heiva. The dancing really is phenomenal in Polynesia – in this case about 40 men and women spinning, stamping and wiggling, each adorned in the most fantastical costumes. The music is strongly percussion-based but some tunes also feature ukulele or some other local instrument to carry a tune. There was also a beer tent, a pool hall and candy floss too. A thoroughly enjoyable way to spend an evening.

In order to get around the island we have been becoming more and more accustomed to hitch-hiking as a means of transport, and have met some truly lovely people in doing so. As we travelled back from the shops on our final day, our driver was a chatty older lady who beamed in a perpetual toothy smile and didn’t seem in the least bit phased by the fact that I could only understand every 5th word at best. We had a good chat, she went out of her way to drop us off right where our dinghy was tied up and we bid farewell. We soon discovered that we had left our two baguettes in her car once we arrived back on board Bob, but it was no big deal. Sarah made some bread and we enjoyed our last dinner in French Polynesia; fresh-baked bread and garlic-roasted Camembert.

The next morning we awoke a little earlier than usual and I began to prepare Bob for leaving the mooring and motoring the 9 miles to the South end of the island, where we hoped to pick up a light breeze that would waft us along to the reef pass and out to sea in the general direction of Rarotonga. But there was a figure on the shoreline shouting something at me. Close inspection revealed, to my horror, a little old lady shouting and waving a package that looked ominously baguette-shaped. I should have known. The Polynesians are just such incredibly kind people. It turned out that she had come back to the fishing port the previous evening upon her discovery that our baguettes were in her car, but we’d already left for the Heiva. So, she came again the following morning and would not hear of keeping them for herself but insisted on us taking them from her. I’m pretty sure that if we had attempted once more to respectfully and apologetically refuse her baguette-delivery services she would have plopped into the water and swum them out to us. Such is the kindness and hospitality of the Polynesian people. Needless to say we felt horribly guilty for having put this little old lady so far out of her way for the sake of two (now stale) baguettes. We could hardly ask her to throw them in the bin either (she claimed she didn’t like them and didn’t want them!) after all the trouble she’d been through to return them to us. We manoeuvred Bob right in to the little dock by the shore to effect the transfer, thanked her profusely and waved exuberantly as she climbed back into her car with a big smile on her face. The funny thing is, I know from the look on her face that she got just as much enjoyment out of doing that for us as we felt for her having done it. It’s the way the world should be!

So, we were on our way (with plenty of bread). The winds on-passage were better than expected and we made excellent time for the first three days, reaching on a port tack. On the fourth day the wind died, as expected, and we decided to motor rather than bob in Bob because the forecast looked incredibly light for the next three days and we were only 120 miles from our destination. 6 hours of wind during the night gave us a bit of respite from the droning, as well as an opportunity to test, for the first (and hopefully last) time the temporary repairs done to the starboard lower shroud. They held without any more drama, and the following afternoon saw us arrive in Rarotonga, the first English-speaking country either of us have seen since Pitcairn one year ago, and the first English-speaking port since I left St. Martin in February last year. Words cannot express (see what I’m doing here? Har har har!) how wonderful it is to have the freedom to have a conversation with ANYONE! We can eavesdrop on other people’s conversations, laugh over their arguments, and listen to the children swearing profusely as they insult and abuse one another as only children can do. It’s bliss.

We’ve rented a scooter and spent the day yesterday driving around the island and stopping at a few spots that looked interesting. Today we’re going to go to a golf course and I, the golf expert (not) am going to try to ‘teach’ Sarah how one of the most silly games ever invented (search YouTube for Robin Williams on golf) is played. Tomorrow might be rained out, but it’ll give me an opportunity to remove the alternator (oh yes, that’s been the most recent thing to break) for testing and possible replacement. Right now, Sarah is eating a bowl of cereal with real, non-UHT milk for the first time since Panama, and I’m about to follow suit.

 

Below is a photo of the kinds of costumes and the dancing that is typical of a Polynesian Heiva. Sarah actually took this photo in Tahiti but it’s the same idea. A large part of the Heiva, which is a festival that lasts for a month, consists of dancing competitions between the various local and invited dance troops. All of them are of a high standard and feature dances by children, teenagers, young adults and ‘mamas’ – ladies of more mature years.

 

 

 

Update later in the day: The golf course was closed. Fortunately a proxy was found in short order which was more to Sarah’s liking. Our roles were reversed, and she had the opportunity to teach me how to play ‘real’ golf.

 

On a completely different note, we think we have deduced a bit of Disney trivia from our very (VERY!) limited knowledge of the various languages of the French Polynesian island groups we have visited so far. The island below is Huahine, and it is apparently the one that the latest Disney film, Moana (or ‘Vaiana’ as it is called in Tahiti), was based on. ‘Huahine’ apparently means ‘sleeping woman’ and inspired the character of Tefiti. Can you see it in this picture that Sarah snapped as we were leaving to sail to Raiatea?

Moana’ is a very common word that one sees all over the place in French Polynesia. My tattoo artist in Nuku Hiva is named Moana. In both Tahitian and Marquesan it means ‘water’. You may also have noticed our use of the word ‘motu’ in previous posts, and as part of the name of the group of islands called the Tuamotus. A motu is simply an island. Nui means ‘big’ or ‘grand’. Hence, the ocean is ‘Moana Nui’. The name of our friend’s boat (also mentioned in a previous post), ‘Mana O Te Moana Nui’ means, loosely, ‘Power of the Ocean’. The name of the island that the Disney character Moana is from is ‘Motu Nui’, which simply means ‘big island’. I’m sure there are many, many more subtle linguistic tidbits in the film that we have missed. If you can think of any, let us know. We have watched it several times now and will most likely watch it several more 🙂

Broken Bits-of-Bob Development

Well, this is what the guys at Alu-Inox in Raiatea have come up with. Unfortunately they couldn’t fabricate a brand new piece but I think it’s not a bad effort.

 

 

With luck this will get us to somewhere that we can more easily do a proper fix. In the meantime I’ll back it up with a piece of fancy rope (dyneema) so that if it breaks again we hopefully won’t lose the whole mast. I’ll also slather it in grease so that it doesn’t corrode in the no-time-at-all in which thing seem to turn into piles of mush in this environment. It would be decidedly inconvenient if the mast came crashing down in the middle of the South Pacific. Or………. anywhere for that matter!

I really should have been true to my tallship roots and tarred the whole rig. Ah well. Wish us luck for the next leg. We have our port clearance papers in order and the weather forecast is for stable trade winds following a trough later this week. We will see…………….. I’m not a fan of that crack that you can see in the picture across the top of the ‘U’.

Update, July 1st: Sta-lock USA are apparently ‘horrified’ by this failure. Apparently it’s the first occurrence of such a thing. They have apologised profusely and are shipping a new fitting to Rarotonga ahead of us at our request (we didn’t want it sent here because getting stuff imported into French Polynesia is very expensive and bureaucratic). Their response has encouraged me considerably regarding the strength and reliability of the rest of the rig.

Still Stuck

The gods are becoming more and more inventive in their bid to prevent us from leaving French Polynesia. I hope there isn’t some underlying omen behind all this. We are making progress to the West, but slowly. The winds over the past month or so have been terrible for making any sort of long-distance crossing. Periods of good winds for three days at the most have been forecast but these have been invariably followed by long periods of calm, or strong winds from the South – a phenomenon known locally as a Maramu which occurs normally at this time of year. So, we have been island hopping during the good periods and have made it as far as the island of Raiatea, which is almost as far West as it is possible to go in French Polynesia before one must make the 4-5 day hop (in good winds) to the Cook Islands. Finally, last week, the forecast looked great for a run to Rarotonga, but there was something I wanted to check first. During the sail from Huahine to Raiatea (just 22 miles) I heard an unusual ‘pop!’ from somewhere in the rigging, so I went aloft yesterday to double check all the fixtures and fittings and quickly discovered the source of the sound. This toggle fitting has failed in a very worrying way.

 

Like the rest of the rigging it is only 2 1/2 years old, so there really is no excuse for this. I’ve spent the best part of the last 24 hours mulling it over in my mind and can come to no other conclusion than it being a manufacturing defect – the result of poor quality materials and/or poor manufacturing processes. But if this one has failed, what about the rest of the rig? The wire at the base of the terminals is showing disturbing signs of rust despite being rinsed down with fresh water after every dousing with salt. It’s supposed to be top-quality 316-grade stainless steel. We’re not the only ones with these problems either – our friends Mark (s/v Pilas) and Mario (s/v Ann Cailleach (or something like that!)) have both found that their new rigging, only a few years old, looks to be in a similar condition to the old rigging that they removed and replaced, and which had been in service for more than a decade. Mark has even kept his old rigging and it is clear to see that the quality of the steel that his old rigging was made from is superior to what he has now. And he didn’t skimp on price when he purchased his new rigging.

Not only are we going to miss out on our weather window, but fixing our problem might not be an easy one. Our fitting is imperial, not metric, so it’s unlikely that one will be found in Tahiti, never mind here in Raiatea. We could order one in, but to get it here in any kind of decent time we’d have to FedEX it, and French customs charge a percentage of the freight cost as well as the value of the item. A $100 item such as this, plus a $200 FedEX charge from the States ends up costing $400 after customs duties are paid. To make matters worse, this fitting (a sta-lock terminal fitting for 3/8″ wire and a 5/8″ pin, which should be overkill for our boat) is not as simple as it appears. The whole thing from the toggle to the wire terminal is a single unit, with the threads welded in place at the factory so that it cannot be disassembled. Well, we’ll see about that. I’ll be taking it in to a local machine shop first thing on Monday morning. With luck the guys here can come up with something that will be strong enough to get us to somewhere with better access to a replacement fitting. We’ve got a couple of ideas that we think should get us there. Fortunately, the next leg should see us on a port tack the whole way. If we can’t get something sent to Rarotonga maybe I’ll switch the shrouds from side to side for the next leg to Palmerston, back again to Beveridge, back again to Niue and we might just be able to make it all the way to Tonga without ever putting too much pressure on the ‘bad’ side 🙂

It’s not all bad though. We had the most amazing experience as we were hitch-hiking into town yesterday to try to find somewhere with internet so that we could email some friends in Tahiti and ask them to try to source this part for us. We were picked up by a young local couple, Marjorie and Loik. First, they insisted on stopping at a shop and buying us a beer. They then drove us into town, but, on discovering that everywhere including the cafes was closed due to it being a Saturday, they took us on to their house on the other side of the island where we met their family and were able to send our emails. It turned out that the lady of the house had served us pizza the previous night at a fast-food takeaway at an event ground, and although she spoke no English we managed to have a good laugh over this serendipity. The next thing we knew we were having dinner, more beer and were driven back to Bob feeling very, very welcome indeed. I sincerely hope we can get Marjorie and Loik out to Bob at some point before we leave, in order to reciprocate their generosity in some small way. Maybe we’ll have ample time to do so. Fortunately it is possible to FedEX stuff to Raiatea……………. but it still takes 2 weeks.