Some visual impressions of Tonga

Tonga has been a lovely home for us over the last two and a half months but now it’s time to say goodbye. We’re heading even further south, first to another submerged atoll called Minerva Reef, then onto New Zealand. We’ll probably be at sea for at least two weeks but we’ll use the new blog feature to make posts during that time via the satellite phone. If you don’t hear from us in the next couple of weeks, it’s probably because that new feature isn’t working properly. But then again, it may be because the boat has sunk and we’re drifting around the Pacific in a bright orange floating bouncy castle.

They say “a picture tells a thousand words”. So before we go, I thought I’d leave you with some visual impressions of Tonga from the many photos I’ve taken over the past few months.

Vava’u Island Group

We spent over 2 months enjoying the Vava’u islands. They are a collection of one large island and many smaller ones in the northern part of Tonga. Polynesian legend explains that the islands were created by the god ‘Maui’ who used his magical hook to fish the islands from the depths of the ocean. The reality is just as cool – the islands are raised atolls formed through tectonic forces which have sculpted the Earth’s landscape to elevate land above sea level along the Tongan Trench.

Neiafu

The administrative capital of Vava’u is called Neiafu and it’s also the second largest town in the whole of Tonga. Here we were able to enjoy a number of shops, boutiques, bars, restaurants and a large produce market. There’s even a fine meats deli and of course we can’t forget about the infamous ‘Tropicana’ internet cafe, which provides a whole host of yacht services, but best of all is owned and run by Hugh Laurie.

It’s really him!….. Isn’t it?

Village life

A number of small rustic villages lie around the various islands of Vava’u, each with their own distinctive character. As with many of the islands throughout Polynesia, religion is taken very seriously and every community gathers for the Sunday morning church service.

Blue Water Festival

Each year various companies in New Zealand and local businesses in Tonga fund the ‘Blue Water Festival’. This amazing festival is all about having fun with fellow sailors, exploring the local cultures and learning about how to make a safe passage to New Zealand.

  1. The Race

We teamed up with fellow cruisers Rick and Jasna from s/v Calypso for the annual Blue Water Festival regatta in which we raced their beautiful, but rather heavy, 36-foot Hans Christian cutter. As expected, we weren’t very fast and despite being given a 2 minute head-start, most of the other boats overtook us rather quickly. Still, we had a very special tactic to discourage the other boats from overtaking us by attempting to blind them with the white glare from our… ehem… posteriors. We didn’t win the race, but we did win $100 worth of vouchers for the ‘most naked’ crew 🙂 You might not want to look too closely at the next photo. 

2. The School Show

Part of the local cultural experience was a trip to the local school to see a dance performance by the children. The costumes were as vibrant as the dancing and they even got the audience involved. It was great fun.

3. Kava

Also part of the local culture is an intoxicating drink made from the ground roots of the kava plant. The drink is supposed to have sedative, anesthetic, euphoriant and entheogenic properties but despite making kava at twice the recommended strength, we experienced nothing but a slightly numb tongue.  No amount of photo editing can make this drink look appetising and believe me, it tastes even worse than it looks.

Wildlife

The wildlife in Tonga is really impressive, particularly in Vava’u. The sprightly insular flying fox (aka fruit bat) is highly abundant in this part of the world and can often be seen languishing in the tree branches or flying overhead in the late afternoon.

 

Maninita is one of the islands in the south of Vava’u and is one of few places where the invasive Pacific rat has been completely eradicated. It’s now a haven for breeding sea birds. The abundance and diversity of species at this newly acclaimed bird reserve is really wonderful to see.

Mount Talau National Park

The highest point in Vava’u and the most spectacular views can be found at the top of Mount Talau. Alex and I took the short hike to reach the peak of the mountain – although I’m not sure that 669 feet can really be classed as a mountain! Still, we took great pleasure in walking through the rural villages, immersing ourselves in the tropical flora and fauna of the national park and enjoying the magnificent views of Neiafu from the summit of Mt Talau.

Diving

The diving here is spectacular. I’m recording more diversity on my fish surveys than ever before and I’m seeing soft corals and fan corals in reasonable numbers for the first time on this trip. The underwater caves here are magical. The colours created by the lighting in Mariners Cave and Swallows Cave are really stunning.

Ha’apai

We made our way south to the Ha’apai island group in central Tonga where we spent about a week. It’s the quietest and least developed area of Tonga and is brimming with unspoilt coastline and diverse turquoise waters.

Happy Halloween in Tongatapu

Our final destination in Tonga is the island group known as Tongatapu, home to the main capital of Nukualofa. This is the most developed part of Tonga but although there are many shops here it is by no means a metropolis. The town centre is vibrant and busy, but there’s a lack of chain superstores and the place has a very rustic feel to it. It’s very different from London, Paris, Madrid and other capital cities that we’re more familiar with. It’s the perfect place to stock up for the long sea passage to New Zealand and also to find some hidden treats such as Camembert and baguette – which I enjoyed all to myself as a birthday breakfast on the 1st of November. The weather was misreble, I made pumpkin soup out of the Halloween jack o lantern from the night before and we even had some boat trick or treaters! All in all it was a great birthday that reminded me a little of home.

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…?

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.