Poised to Pounce

We set sail from VaVa’U on October 14th and have spent the last couple of weeks slowly working our way South, hopping from island to island following the ridge of volcanic activity that spawned some of the Tongan islands many years ago and which continues to spawn new ones to this day. Every now and then a spurt of activity yields a new one. Many break apart and sink (or even float off into the pacific!) but some are more firmly rooted to the seabed and look set to endure for millennia to come. The most recent was ejected from the bowels of the Earth in March 2015. It’s about 2 square kilometres in area and of course does not appear on our old charts. We know it’s there though, and don’t worry – we won’t hit it!


Here we have the volcano island of Kao (on the right!), which we sailed past at a distance. Sarah managed to snap this shot as the haze lifted and I think it looks quite striking. Most of the volcanoes here underwater but some, like this one, project well above it:

We day-sailed down to the Ha’apai Group and spent a little over a week there before making the final hop to Nukualofa, the administrative and commercial capital of Tonga. Being also the closest point to New Zealand (a mere 1020 miles as the whale swims) it’s a good spot to gather ourselves while waiting for the right mix of weather to present itself. Once that opportunity arises we intend to pounce on it to set sail for the Minerva Reefs, followed by the final leg to the North Island of New Zealand.

We are expecting it to be bitter-sweet. We’re leaving behind several friends who have decided to either head for different ports or stay here for the cyclone season. Gone will be the soft-sand beaches bathed in golden sunlight, coconut palms lining every shoreline, warm Polynesian welcomes and wonderful swimming, diving and fishing. On the other hand we are looking forward to supermarkets, open landscapes (other than watery ones) and tucking Bob away on a mooring for a little while and exploring by land for a few months. Sarah’s family recently moved to Thailand, so we intend to fly there for two months. My brother recently moved to Australia so I’ll take the opportunity to visit him over Christmas. New Zealand will be cold and rainy, and we have a lot of work to do on Bob before she’ll be ready for the Torres Straits, Indian Ocean and around the Cape of Good Hope back into the Atlantic. We’ve a long way yet to sail and she’s showing her age. There’s some work to do.

We also intend to spend a good deal of time exploring New Zealand. We’ve bought a camper van (here’s a link to an old add for our van: https://www.facebook.com/groups/480823782015631/permalink/1197657770332225/?sale_post_id=1197657770332225 ) and are really looking forward to travelling by land for a bit. I am particularly looking forward to it because it means I can take a back seat (literally as well as figuratively) and allow Sarah to take over the planning and scheduling of our travels. It’ll be quite a treat to have minimal responsibilities. I have aspirations of lounging in bed reading a book and sipping on a beer while being chauffeured around New Zealand from picturesque spot to picturesque spot……….. perhaps it’s more of a fantasy than an aspiration, but regardless it’ll be great.

As I write this we are experiencing a bit of a blow – 25 knots sustained with gusts up to 30 or 35. Bob is neatly lying to her anchor, protected from the seas by a reef half a mile to windward and a motu (island) just off the port bow. Such weather is not unusual at this time of year, when strong high-pressure systems between us and New Zealand reinforce the trade winds along their Northern edges. There are quite a few boats here with us – perhaps 20 – and we all have the same agenda. Some people have light-displacement modern boats and are looking for 12 to 15 knots of wind for their onward journey. Others have heavily-built steel or fibreglass ‘tanks’ which do better in 25 knots. Bob is somewhere in the middle – we like 15 to 20 knots aft of the beam – but all 20 of us are waiting for our chance. Traditionally, the later in the season one departs for New Zealand the more comfortable the passage and the lower the chance of being caught out in a strong low-pressure system. But, the later you leave it the greater the chance (though still small) of encountering a tropical cyclone. The first tropical low (not a cyclone, or even a tropical storm, just a tropical low) of the season looks to be forming over the next week about 800 miles to our WSW. Some forecasts are predicting 60-knot gusts at Minerva, so we’re all watching the development of that with a close eye. If it fails to materialise then early next week looks like it might be a good opportunity to launch. Otherwise it might be another week from now. As always, our lives are managed by ourselves but dictated by the weather. Battling the elements doesn’t really enter into it. If they choose to take up arms, we don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell.


Here’s the view forward, taken just after I finished writing this post. The island on the left is Pangaimotu, and houses the famous (for cruisers!) ‘Big Momma’s Restaurant and Bar’. Like many other places that cater to yachts they also do laundry, sell water, take trash, fill cooking gas cylinders, sell diesel and generally provide a host of esoteric services just for us.



And here’s the view aft, showing some of the other boats in the anchorage. The big catamaran on the right is ‘Prati’ with Magdalena and Carlos on board, whom we first met way back in the Gambier Islands. Far right is ‘Local Talent’ with Gail and Dean on board – two new friends whom we have enjoyed spending a good bit of time with recently. The fourth boat from the right (quite far away) is our very good friends Herbert, Asma and their two boys Adam and Sammy on board ‘Maya’. We first ‘met’ them by radio as they passed by Pitcairn Island in August 2016 and have since spent many enjoyable hours with them at various points along our voyage, as our paths have often crossed. It really is a small world.

The joys of filing a UK tax return

Of course the lifestyle of any ocean vagabond such as ourselves is fraught with various complications, dangers and difficulties – it’s not all about tropical islands, sunshine and frolicking with fishes! The most pressing difficulty for us over the previous 6 weeks has been how to fill in our UK tax return.

I, having submitted self assessment tax returns in the UK many times before, thought I was quite familiar with the system and knew exactly what I needed to do to comply with the rules and regulations of Her Majesties Revenue & Customs. Bah! How naive of me. It turns out that I am, in fact, no longer a UK resident at all despite having no residency in any other country. This means that instead of filing the online tax return by the 30th January 2018, HMRC are requesting I send them ORIGINAL paper copies in the post by 31st October 2017 or risk a hefty fine. Is this not a little backwards? Surely being out of the country means there’s a good chance that I don’t have access to a reliable postal service that will successfully deliver documents to the UK, such as in our current location – the northern islands of Tonga. Still, it was nice of them to tell me about this new deadline when I registered myself as overseas back in February 2016. Oh! Wait a second….. no they didn’t! Moreover, Alex’s overseas registration documents apparently never reached the HMRC, despite being sent at exactly the same time and from the exact same post box as mine.

Ah, the joys of HMRC and British bureaucracy. For a very meagre profit (so meagre, in fact, that we’re a long way from being liable to pay any tax in the first place), Alex and I have had to make about 4 Skype calls (in the middle of the night because of the time difference between the UK and Tonga) which has required us to borrow other peoples phones as we don’t own a long-distance-capable one ourselves, after sailing for half a day to reach an island where the phone signal is good enough to make the call in the first place. Of course it’s not as simple as just filling in our tax return, we first had to fill in a form that issues us with a ‘magic number’ that will then allow us to fill in our tax return. We wait. One week goes by, then two…. still no ‘magic number’ and the deadline is looming ever closer. We make another Skype call to find out where it is.

“Good morning Miss Brooks” (it’s actually almost midnight here)

“You can sign up for an online account which will show you your [magic number] and allow you to fill in your tax return”

The next day we make our way to the internet cafe to sign up for our online account. The webpage reads:

“Please provide a phone number so that we can send you a [magic code] so that you can log into your online account” (We have no phone).

“Otherwise, please download our ‘app’ which will generate a [magic code] so that you can log into your online account” (luckily, this is something we can do on our tablet).

45 minutes later and the ‘app’ has finally managed to download itself onto our tablet through the frustratingly slow internet connection. So, let’s log on to our new online account. We bring up the login page, enter our details and use the ‘app’ to generate a magic code that will allow us to enter our online account so that we can retrieve our elusive ‘magic number’ so that we can then, finally, file our tax return. We enter the code shown in the app…

“Sorry, the [magic code] you have entered is incorrect” (You’re fricking kidding me! It IS the correct code)

We do this 10 more times, still no luck.

We tried to use the online help function, but it didn’t work. We tried to speak to someone using their online ‘chat’ service, but it didn’t work. Eventually, we did manage to logon using the magic code from the ‘app’ and guess what! Our long awaited ‘magic number’ that will actually allow us to file a tax return is NOWHERE TO BE SEEN! At this point Alex slits his wrists and throws himself from the top window of the internet cafe. Only kidding, but I will say that he may have uttered one or two choice phrases that had the rest of the customers either smirking or covering their children’s ears.

After another midnight Skype call we are eventually given the fantastical ‘magic number’ that allows us to actually fill in our tax return. Finally, after a frustrating and painful 6 weeks, our forms are ready to go. We’ve had to fill in a total of 8 forms between us and many of the seemingly straight forward questions were in fact rather difficult for us to answer. For example, “Do you have a home abroad?” Is our boat classed as a home? If so, what’s the address?

We filled in the forms in the most accurate way we possibly could, structuring our answers in a style that HMRC should be very familiar with. Now we just have to figure out how to get them to the UK by the worryingly close deadline in 20 days’ time.

Alex is near suicidal as he desperately tries to make sense of all the HMRC tax forms


Do you think these answers will suffice…?

How we Choose to Waste our Time

You may be wondering what we do with our time? We post these blogs, and in them we tell tales of gallant exploration of far-flung paradisaical islands, exciting hitherto-unknown life forms, life-threatening nautical exploits and of course haughty camaraderie with fellow adventurers. But what about the rest of the time?

Well, the rest is fairly uninspiring to be honest. We spend our time much as I hope retirement will pan out if we ever get around to making any money, ‘providing’ for our futures and having the luxury of retiring properly, at the appropriate age, as tradition dictates.

We get up every day at about 8:30am, sit around for a bit, have some breakfast, sit around some more, check the weather forecast if one is available, decide what we’d like to do that day and then come up with a plan for doing those things. We sleep for about 9 or 10 hours every night, watch films, TV shows or play cards in the evenings and talk a lot of gumpf about politics (well, Sarah talks and I say ‘ungh’ every now and then), the merits of various anchor designs (now our roles are reversed), rant about the injustices of the world, or we talk about science. Science is a popular topic on Bob, since we’re both verified geeks. Last night’s topic of conversation is one that we both found particularly stimulating, and which I thought I might share with you all here for the simple reason that I think it’s pretty cool.

As we were wandering back from town yesterday afternoon we were contemplating the laws of physics, when one of us mentioned that by the time we arrived back at the beach we could expect the tide to have risen. Then a question popped into my head. We know that the tides are caused (mainly) by the gravitational pull of the moon pulling water one way or another across the surface of the Earth. And, we have learned from Isaac Newton that energy cannot be created or destroyed (yes yes, I know it really can be, but for all practical purposes let’s stick with classical Newtonian Physics). We also know that in order for stuff to be accelerated, and moved from one place to another (work done) requires an input of energy. Where, therefore, does the energy necessary to move all those millions of tons of water every day come from? Sarah got the answer pretty quickly, but I wasn’t convinced. She thought it must come from the Earth itself. Or rather, the momentum of the Earth spinning on it’s own axis (to simplify things). But surely, if the energy is coming from the rotation of the Earth then the Earth must be slowing down? Rapidly. After all, there’s a lot of ocean that needs to be moved about twice every day.

According to our (very) rough calculations: Let’s assume that 70% of the surface of the Earth is covered by oceans, and that the average oceanic tidal range is 0.6m. That corresponds to a total of about 440 trillion tons of water moved every day. That’s a really big number! But is it? Well, a quick Google search (we can do Google on board now, for as long as we’re in Tonga) told us that the mass of the Earth is a whopping 5.927 x 1024Kg (that is, 5,927 with 21 zeros after it!). So the total tidal movement of water, daily, is only 0.00000742 percent of the mass of the Earth. Not so much after all.* In fact, another Google search told us that the Earth is slowing down, as Sarah’s hypothesis would demand. When the Earth and moon were relatively new 4.5 billion years ago each day (each rotation of the earth) lasted only 5 hours. Our days are getting longer. 2 milliseconds every 100 years to be precise. Furthermore, we are losing the moon, which is being pushed out from it’s orbit at the rate of a few centimetres per year. Sooner or later it will break free from the clutches of it’s possessor and spin off all by itself into space.

So, that’s how we sometimes spend our time. Not much use to anyone, but occasionally kind of cool nonetheless 🙂

Finally, since this post might be a touch tedious without the addition of some aesthetically-pleasing visual stimulus, here’s a lovely picture of the moon that Sarah snapped a few days ago, complete with well-timed bat flying across it:


* Most of the energy is in fact conserved. The water doesn’t get accelerated and displaced in one direction and then accelerated and displaced in another. If it did, we’d slow down by about 24 hours per year according to our calculations. I’m guessing the much smaller figure of 2ms every 100 years might be because the water actually moves as a continuous tidal wave around the planet. The kinetic energy is conserved. Hence, the only energy losses are friction losses in the form of heat. Alternative views, musings and rebuttals are welcome!

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.