Neiafu, Vava'u, Kingdom of Tonga
October 22, 2017
The tourism season in Tonga is winding down. The anchorage in front of the village of Neiafu, once packed with around 75 yachts now has half or less as many. The outer anchorages are also lightly populated and the village itself feels like it is folding in on itself. Booking offices, dive companies, whale tours, a little boutique that sells nicely made crafts and clothes, all either have closed completely or are in the process of packing up and getting ready for the off season. Our conversations with other sailors is pretty much focused on what their plans are for sailing for New Zealand or in a few cases hauling their boats out to have them stored on the hard for the cyclone season.
We have spent almost two months in Tonga and have enjoyed being here. There are 61 islands all gathered together protected by an outer barrier of reef and islands, scattered southward of Neiafu the largest of the group. All these islands make for sheltered sailing and anchoring along sandy beaches, and stony shorelines, against islands all crazed with jungle growth. Coconut trees are abundant and mangroves trees cling to the rocks at the edge of most islands. The fragrance from the islands as we travel past can be a heady perfume of sweet jungle flowers, earth and decay. Intoxicating.
Most islands are unpopulated and where there is a village it tends to be rustic, with basic infrastructure, like the solar panels along the streets in Hunga, gifts from Japan. Otherwise, a couple dogs on the streets, fishermen tending nets and boats, women weaving palm fronds in the shade of a church. Neiafu is the main town with several small stores, a large fresh market, and all the basic services those of us out sailing need like diesel, butane, boat services and parts, all in a walkable village along one of the most sheltered harbors in the pacific.
That has been life in Tonga, an ebb and flow with visits to one of the islands, then back to town, mostly a week in a place. It's been a pretty good pattern. Mixed into that has been our preparation for sailing to New Zealand. Our intended passage window is approaching quickly, we plan to watch the weather for a good opening at the end of October. Sailing to New Zealand this time of year is complicated by weather forecasts that are really only accurate a few days out, after that there are all sorts of models but they tend to be open to variables after three or so days. We expect our passage to take around 10 days, we'll have a good sense of what we are getting ourselves into for the first few days, but as we get closer to New Zealand the weather will be in a new cycle. And of course close to New Zealand is where all the exciting weather happens.
One way to help break up the passage and improve our forecasting is to stop at Minerva Reef, about 400 miles from Tonga. The reef is an ocean oddity, rising out of the ocean in the middle of nowhere, providing sheltered anchorage and good snorkeling/diving. I talked with a sailor who had anchored there in 50 knot winds and gave it high ratings. Plan "A" is currently to make for Minerva and watch for weather developments in NZ, plan "B" is to head directly for NZ if we have favorable weather ahead.
Yesterday we left the mooring field at Neiafu and had an excellent sail to Tapana. The sun was out and the colors along the shore of all the little islands we passes were stunning. So many shades of turquoise, emerald and jade where the sea washes over reefs and up along the various shorelines, some little crescents of light sand, others sheer stone with jungle overhanging to a few feet above the water's edge - a ruler straight line of worn stone and clipped plants marking eons of high tides. Neiafu harbor is well protected and it isn't until we are out of the passage that we get a sense of the true winds. Yesterday was typical in that we unfurled the Genoa in 9 knots and over the next half hour watched the winds drop to 6 knots, pick up to 15 and soon settle at 18 gusting over 20, all a sweet downwind ride for a few miles until we jibed to port at Oto island and made our way south and around the southern end of Kapa island, where our pleasant beam reach switched to an exciting close haul as we made our way through the pass and for Tapana.
The Rabbits are on a mooring a couple of hundred yards away, it's pretty cool to think that we met them in Newport, OR last year and have been bumping into each other all over the pacific since then. It always makes us happy to find our way into a harbor and see Pino. Late in the afternoon Alex and Sarah on "Bob" arrived under sail and dropped anchor off our stern. Hats off to "Bob" for arriving in such style, it's always impressive to watch someone arrive to an anchorage, select their spot under sail and drop the main with confidence and kick the anchor off the bow.
There are several moorings here, a few are heavy duty "cyclone" strength. On these moorings a line connected to a float drops down to the sea bed and attaches to a large piece of metal, maybe an old engine block, from the heavy metal there run 8 long pieced of chain run out in every direction, at the end of each chain is a large anchor buried in the sand. If the winds pick up and a boat is pulled in one direction there will be resistance from several anchors if the first begins to drag. The moorings are well sheltered from all directions but west. To the east is the low lying Motuha that breaks any swell and cuts down most winds. To the west is Pangaimotu island, fairly high and wrapping around from the east, running westward with the build of the island to the north. To the south is Tapana island and it blocks any swell and most of the winds coming from that direction.
I've kayaked around Tapana a several times, it is beautiful and has only a couple homes in sight. There is a paella restaurant run by a Spanish couple and their beach has a few boats but otherwise the island appears left to nature. The eastern and southern shores were the most interesting to explore, with a few small sandy beaches and many small shelves of reef with coral up against the steep stone edge of the island.
Last week we were anchored out at Hunga lagoon, watching as another sailboat left the mooring. We were eying the boat and noticed they had a tiny radar reflector, there are all sorts of these devices on sailboats, usually up the mast, to help create a larger target for boats that might be scanning with radar - help the boats show up in the clutter of waves at sea. Douglas and I made a comment to each other about how such a small reflector probably doesn't do much good, certainly not as good as our fancy, high tech tri-lobe reflector. At which point Douglas leaned out of the cockpit, glancing up at the mast to take in our futuristic reflector, tilting his head to one side quizzically, then getting up, walking to the mast and staring upward, to where our fancy radar reflector used to be firmly bolted to its own platform and where it no longer was, for how long we have no idea. I climbed the mast to inspect the platform to see if there were signs of damage, perhaps the thing had been wrenched off by an albatross and there'd be bits of broken plastic? But no, it was cleanly gone, what ever sort of bolt system used to install it must have all dropped off, bounced off the deck and into the sea without us hearing a single thing. The lesson being not to question your neighbors undersized radar reflector, until you can confirm yours is still in place. Then, you can brag away.
It's been a year since we left California, we are looking forward to being in a place where we can source the parts we need for our various repairs and improvements. It has become a running joke, anything that isn't perfect we say we'll fix when we get to New Zealand, as though it is some Valhalla of answering all desires. Cheese! New Batteries! Kale! Delicious coffee! Thai Food! Hot Water! And a chorus line at the shore kicking up their legs and singing out "New Zealand"... I'm ready to do a tourist spot for the country focused on the needs of sailors. It is a common refrain among the sailors we meet. Ah the promised land. Of course, a day after landing and running through a grocery store, buying bags of ice and plugging into marina power we'll be staring off to the horizon crying about how we miss the gentle turquoise waters and remote anchorages of Tonga...
Last night we had a strong weather front move over Vava'u and we caught a large bucket of rainwater and watched lightening flickering across the sky. One blast was nearby and lit up Tumbleweed's interior but most were off in the distance and we couldn't hear the thunder. We met a sailor in Suwarrow who was struck by lightening in Panama and he went through the extensive list of every possible electrical device on his boat that was destroyed, extensive and sobering. He was able to replace or repair many systems but many of them were beyond his budget. It was a new yacht and his insurance had been cancelled not long before the strike.
With another week or so ahead before we sail for New Zealand I've been doing a mental inventory of our friends we've made crossing the pacific. Shindig, Pangaea, Magic, Tiger Beetle and Peregrine are either hauling out or anchoring in French Polynesia for the cyclone season. Zatara and Wiz have gone on to Australia, Wiz have bought a catamaran in Spain and will be heading for the med to cruise there for a while before sailing back this way. Zatara is looking at a cat in Florida. Several are "ahead" of us on the same plan to make for New Zealand, Alcyone arrived a couple days ago and had an a good trip with all sorts of weather, a couple other boats have left Vava'u and are in the Ha'apai group making their way to Tongatapu. Pino is still in Vava'u and we've been discussing weather and routing with them.
It's been a vibrant season and it's been an interesting group of people to travel with. We are looking forward to seeing many of them in New Zealand, and missing their company already. Since beginning this post we've seen the Rabbits head off for Minerva Reef. We are also watching what looks like a good weather window opening up in a few days, we are going to try to be ready for a Tuesday check out with maybe a Wednesday departure. It will at least get us in passage mode and get us focused on the final tasks we need to do to make us ready.