08/05/2010, Neiafu, Vava'u, Tonga
(Last night) We are 20 miles from the Kingdom of Tonga, visible in the darkness only because a soft light glows on the horizon -- the late-night lights of a small Tongan town, although I'm not sure which. Alpha and Beta Centauri have just slid below the horizon, and the Milky Way dominates the sky above, like a cloudy umbrella. We lost our wind, the seas have laid down, and we're motoring slowly in calm water and warm night air toward the northern tip of the island.
This is the time of night I always become extra vigilant, nearing daylight, knowing that around the world the fisherman are waking up and heading out in their small boats for the mornings' catch. Not to mention, the capsized catamaran still hasn't been sighted, although in our radio conversations last night with a few other cruisers headed this way we all agreed the current was actually a SW drift, so the boat should be way south of us, and quite likely embedded on a reef fringing the eastern shore. Not a cheerful thought, but one that has the scavengers starting to talk.
(Later) We've arrived in Neiafu, Vava'u (Va-va-oo) and it's -- really, it's the best. I think I have cruiseheimers bad, really really scary bad, because I'm like the idiot who forgets the joke you told them yesterday, so you can tell it again today and they laugh just as heartily. I love everyplace I go and forget how much I loved the previous one. I seem to have no ability to compare, I just take each new place as it comes and feel like a kid in a candy store, it's really sort of pathetic, but it's fun for me. And amusing for others, no doubt.
Tonga looks much like Niue from the sea, but rather than one long flat pancake it's a whole lot of pancakes tossed about. Low-slung, palm tree encrusted lumps of land are everywhere, some with a few houses on them, many uninhabited. We snaked around on blissfully glassy water through the channel that leads back to Neiafu and saw almost no one, and then we rounded the last corner and came face-to-face with one of the most popular cruising meccas in the South Pacific. They even have a morning Cruisers Radio Net here, which we haven't encountered since Puerto Vallarta. We tuned in at 8:30 as we motored through the fiords, and got the scoop on who's having a BBQ, where to swap books, get transmission fluid, and even got some info on the check in process. We understand Tonga is much like the popular cruising spots in Mexico where cruisers go, fall in love with the place and forget to actually go cruising, or go home. They stay. They buy businesses, volunteer in the community, set up services for cruisers, hang out. Tonga apparently has a very well-embedded sailing community from around the world. They arrange benefit dinners for education and school supplies for the local kids, set up trash pick-up days, hold yoga classes and boat swap meets.
We tied to the wharf and were immediately visited by the Quarantine guy and the Customs guys. Over cold Cokes (nice to have an ice maker aboard ...) they took all our info, gave us some official paperwork and told us we could pay our fees later when we get money. We left the wharf and picked up a mooring, of which there are many in this quiet, protected harbor, and set off to get said money and pay our debts, as well as be available to help the boats coming in behind us. The exchange rate is very good for us, and it will be an affordable stay, which will be nice.
S/v's Paikea Mist, Serenity, and Curious came in an hour or so behind us, and we greeted them and set off for lunch. The Aquarium Cafe is right near our boat, and is one of many waterfront cafe's with a dinghy dock, great food, and free wifi. So here I sit, working on my second Mata Maka, the local Tongan brew, having polished off a delicious fish curry. Allan is napping on the boat and I'm trying to beat my battery to the punch and get this posted.
The breeze is blowing softly, spinning the wind generators on the cruising yachts in the harbor into a gentle whirl, and wafting the scents of Tonga onto this second-floor open-air deck where I am camped. Scents of fragrant trees, cooking food, lush vegetation. Yeah, I could be one of those people who forget to leave ...
08/05/2010, Enroute to Tonga
We're not really sure what day it is because we can't find any accurate depictions of the exact position of the International Dateline on board, so we are just floating somewhere between the 3rd and the 5th of August. Other than some squalls, some rain and the subsequent loss of all of our wind, not much has happened today. We've been looking for the capsized catamaran but no sightings, although it was sort of weird that the weather got dark and stormy just north of the boats' last reported position. There is is still some daylight left, we may see it yet, but our calculations have it almost to Tonga by now if the 1-knot NW current was anywhere near accurate.
It's been a nice day at sea. Got our finances caught up, wrote a few letters, and took some naps -- all those usual things we do when we're not hanging on for dear life, which is thankfully not too often. Still not catching any fish. We've been dragging a line since forever and sometimes we get a bite but it always gets away in seconds. Perhaps it's my fault, I'm not so good at the whole fish-killing thing. Or maybe it's the lure. This lure is not very alluring, I guess. Someone suggested we dress it up with bits of yarn and coral, then it will be irresistible and fish will be fighting over it. Guess that's my job, go through my little collection of pink coral from the Tuomotus and adorn the dinner-catcher.
Next report from Tonga.
08/04/2010, Enroute to Tonga
On the road again. Had a big brekkie and a flat white, bought some t-shirts, checked out with Immigration and Customs, said goodbye to Mamata at the Yacht Club and "see you in Neiafu" to our friends, went for one last swim with the snakes and fish near our boat, and off we went.
We took a little detour along the coast first, because, wouldn't you know -- the whales have begun to arrive. We went to where they were spotted a bit earlier but didn't find them. Maybe in the days to come we'll hear some stories, but for us, no diving with whales. Tonga, however, is reputed to have lots of Humpbacks this time of year, so there's still hope of some good whale sightings.
The sea and air are very welcoming today, we've had a nice sail so far and are moving along at a steady 6.5 - 7 knots with a following 15 knot wind. Sails are wing-and-wing again, and overall, the boat is happy. It helps that the swells are not trying to throw us off the boat or into the walls.
Although the trip to Neiafu, Tonga in the Vava'u group of islands in Northern Tonga is about a 44 hour sail for us, putting us in on Thursday morning, we will arrive Friday. About halfway between here and there we come upon the invisible International Dateline, where we leave Thursday in a heap with all the other days people have lost as they cross westbound. I always wondered if we pick them up on the way back, certainly I've had the opportunity to test that theory many times in my career, but so far I can't say I have tangible evidence that it works that way. You do get a day back, but not the same one. So we'll deposit Thursday, and maybe someone else will grab it going east.
Several of our friends are leaving 14 hours behind us, the boats that have 6 - 15 feet of waterline more than we do and are inherently faster. They'll arrive in the afternoon on Friday, but for now, we have the wide ocean to ourselves. We've marked the last reported position of the abandoned 57-foot catamaran that capsized last Saturday, since it now represents a hazard with it's blue bottom-paint facing up and not much to otherwise catch one's eye. Of course, it's adrift and will not be in that same spot, but we can guesstimate current and elapsed time and block out an area in which to be extra vigilant.
We had the unique opportunity to speak with the owner, Kelly, and his crewman Glen, who arrived Monday on the supply ship that rescued them. The same night that we were all besieged by huge wind gusts and rocking seas in the anchorage, they were caught in a fierce squall, halfway between Niue and Tonga. The winds went from 18 to 62-plus knots in a few short minutes, and they literally didn't have enough time to reef or even release the sails before the wind blew them over. The story is amazing and they are both incredibly lucky to be safe and alive with only a few scrapes and bruises. They were adrift for 18 hours on their upside- down boat. The main thing they want at this point is their wallets and passports.
And surely, things like this get people talking. Wondering what happened, how to avoid such a thing from happening to them, wives, especially, (or maybe just more vocally) worrying about the next crossing, and even more so those with little kids, and all comparing notes about how they would have handled it. Armchair quarterbacks, armchair pilots, armchair sailors -- we all do it and it's a questionable practice at best, although it can help us learn. It was nice that Kelly and Glen were there, and quite in the midst of it since they're staying with Mamata, and are able to answer questions directly. They seem very willing to do so, and it's good therapy. Hearsay is kept at bay, and it helps everyone process this unfortunate and scary event.
But fear not, for us, the weather is lovely, the radar is clear, the forecast is excellent, and I'm just sitting here pondering the wallet/passport thing.
Before I forget, we put up some new pictures in the Photo Gallery entitled "Rarotonga, Beveridge Reef & Niue." I'll add a few more photos in the next 24 hours I hope.
We had a nice Sunday here in Niue, after a raucus night in the anchorage Saturday night with winds gusting up to 35 knots. Allan and I gave up on sleep and watched a movie until 2am, periodically going out to see if the boat in front of us, who was anchored, was still at a safe distance. Down below, it was like being at sea on a bad day. So we just turned up the volume and got lost in a movie adventure which was distracting enough to keep us occupied. By 2am the storm was slowly abating and we got some sleep, but slept through the church call the next morning.
The supply ship that was due in Sunday was delayed a day, having been diverted on a search and rescue mission. They arrived today with the recuees, 2 men from a large catamaran that was "turtled" (flipped upside-down) in huge seas and winds in excess of 62 knots. They are unharmed, the boat is still afloat, upside-down and drifting west. Not sure if they'll be able to save the boat or not, but in the meantime, the two are being housed and fed here until Air New Zealand flies out on Friday to whisk them home. They are full of adventure stories and in need of some clothes. The guys on the supply ship gave them something to wear, and loaned them some money. I haven't heard the whole story so I won't relate unfounded facts or speculations. Just glad they're okay.
The whales we'd hoped to see here, and dive with, have not arrived. Some say the water is still too warm. We could wait for weeks for them to arrive, and have decided, reluctantly, to press on to Tonga tomorrow, a two-day voyage.
We'll have about 4 weeks in Tonga, which, according to many, is just barely enough. The maps of the Kingdom of Tonga make it look vast and complicated, with lots of nooks and crannies to explore. We understand over 1000 boats visit Tonga yearly, but it's still possible to have an out-of-the-way anchorage all to yourself.
Tonga is the last place we will see many of the friends we've made in the last 10 months, as most are headed next to New Zealand, where they'll wait out the cyclone season and then come back up to cruise Fiji, Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Australia next season. Some are also going north and heading toward Melanesia. Only a few are going our way, to northern Australia. But who knows -- we changed our minds once, and turned right instead of left. Who's to say we won't go south instead of west?
The fair land of Niue, known locally as "The Rock," is simple, quiet, pretty, small and also, if I forgot to say, very quiet. A few restaurants, a few stores, a post office, police station, government building, schools, and even a small satellite campus of the University of the Pacific. Happy and well-fed dogs roam the streets, all collared, as well as some friendly cats. The locals smile like they already know you.
We've made the acquaintance of Keith Vial, Commodore of the Niue Yacht Club, "The Biggest Little Yacht Club in the World." But he's a lot more than Commodore: he's a tourism advocate, trying to promote this small island paradise; he's a cruiser's advocate, working to encourage visiting yachts, and to liaison between cruisers and the community -- fisherman, locals, and businesses in town. He knows everyone, and seems to have some pull. He works very hard to communicate with the cruisers, meeting everyone as soon as they come ashore, sending email messages regularly that keep inbound boats abreast of the availability of moorings, and letting everyone in the anchorage know what's what.
For tomorrow, What's What is the supply ship that's due in to port in the afternoon, and the news that we can't go ashore while it's here. The wharf is small, and high. There's a quite functional lift system in place for dinghies, and once they're ashore you roll them off into little parking spots near the wharf. But with the supply ship in port they need all that space, so they have asked that we remain on board for the day. Not to mention, there's a "No Boating" law on Sunday in Niue, this to encourage everyone -- fishermen especially -- to go to church. So Brian on m/v Furthur is offering a shuttle service for cruisers who want to go to church tomorrow, sanctioned by Commodore Keith, making only one dinghy moving about, and all before the ship arrives, anyhow.
It's all very simple and yet quite complicated, so we're just following the rules. In the meantime, we've made a few dives, and taken some spectacular hikes on this unique coral island. The snorkeling in the anchorage is good, with deep coral canyons, fish, snakes and white tip reef sharks right off the bow of the boat. The dives are wondrous; everyone is coming back from their dive with the Niue Dive company with glowing reports of caves and caverns and some of the best coral we've all seen since Fakarava. And lots of striped sea snakes.
The snakes are getting mixed reviews. I think they're great, and have even gently handled a few of them, since they can't bite us (mouths too small) despite the fact that they're poisonous. Others keep a wide berth, not trusting that "mouths too small" thing at all. And some won't even go in the water. The snakes are beautiful swimmers and are really quite sweet -- and curious. They will swim toward you and sometimes follow you, but in truth, they don't want to be touched. The minute I touch one of them they turn and swim away, quickly snuggling under a nearby rock. One of our dives was in "Snake Alley,' a canyon where they seem to congregate, and there were numerous nests of them sleeping under ledges, their flat tails poking out. We didn't reach into any of the nests of sleeping snakes, in case you were wondering.
The cave diving is exciting, although none of us are doing anything daring since cave diving can be quite dangerous, so we stick to wide caves with multiple exits. The one we swam into, under the tutelage of the dive master, was full of huge lobster and furry shrimp, as well as schools of big-eyed red fish hiding in the darkness. And the coral gardens are fairylands. The reefs were badly damaged by a cyclone recently, and Annie at Niue Dive says it takes 20 years to regrow a good coral reef, but it's definitely coming along.
The island itself is an amazing landscape, with some great short hikes from road to shore through lush tropical jungles and past ancient coral formations. Some of the places are right out of a movie set, they're so beautiful and unreal. The jungle is reclaiming much of the land that used to be populated, since most Niueans now live in New Zealand. Many homes appear abandoned, rotting and overgrown with vines, some with palm trees spouting right through the windows and out through rusted metal roofs. There is a large protected forest of old mahogany trees, so dense that people are advised not to go in without a guide. And most interestingly, Niue has the unique goal of becoming the first all-organic island in the Pacific.
All the land is family-owned, and I suppose there's a chance some heir could one day realize they own a slice of a tropical island paradise and return to live the good life, wondering why anyone would leave. But until then, only 1200 people live here, down from 5000 before the airport was built a number of years ago, and many more in times past. Air New Zealand flies in once a week, and last year brought a total of 1700 tourists; the rest were family on holiday from New Zealand. Cruisers accounted for a almost 600 visitors, which is why Keith is working so hard to develop Niue as a cruiser destination and not, as he jokes, "a place you come because you were either lost or diverted."
Everyone in the anchorage (over 20 boats) was invited to a birthday party at the yacht club this afternoon, thrown by the crews from s/v Visions of Johanna and s/v Curious, since they both had wives with August birthdays. When they heard I was an August baby, with only a week until I add a year to my total, they generously included me, and then a few others in the anchorage with upcoming birthdays. They provided a fantastic array of skewered meats and fish, and everyone brought side dishes. The yacht club bar and ice cream parlor were in full swing, and both Keith, and Mamata, the sweet woman who owns the yacht club restaurant, were instrumental in making it all happen.
And now it's evening, were all back on our boats and dealing with a nice enthusiastic storm; winds gusting to 28 knots with sporadic heavy rain. Every boat in the anchorage is rocking like we're all underway. We've got things battened down here inside the cabin and are trying to hang onto our computer mouses as they continuously leap off the table. The boat is creaking and complaining with every swell, and I think everyone here is looking forward to the next weather window so we can get to Tonga, where protected anchorages are plentiful. Niue is, after all, only a tiny rock in the middle of the Pacific.
By the way, the Internet is down here, so this is being posted via HF radio on our Sailmail, hence, no picture. Rumor has it things will be up and running Monday, and we'll try to get the photo gallery posted then. (Imagine the all the folks in the anchorage tomorrow, holed up on their boats while the supply ship dominates the wharf, the law restricts boating, and the rain keeps us down anyhow, and all this with no Internet! This can't be cruising in the new millennium ... we'll all have to read or something!
Destination Niue achieved.
The island of Niue came into view just after sunrise on Allan's watch, and we were stunned to note that it's a giant flat pancake slapped on the surface of a choppy ocean. For some reason we all had visions of something more, oh, Moorea-like, perhaps. But Niue is a mesa of sorts, a straight-topped, lush green slab of coral. As we came along the southeastern shore, the waves were huge; crashing into the sheer coral cliffs and into caves, creating massive blowholes that spewed hundreds of feet into the air. The mist that remained from each explosion wafted along, making it all look very prehistoric.
So far we don't have a lot else to report. Tomorrow we'll know much more, like whether the pod of 8 whales that are being tracked and are on their way from Rarotonga arrive soon. And whether we can go diving with them. Niue is one of 3 places in the world where you can legally dive with whales, and this is the very beginning of the season. Since it's not a big place, and not many tourists (mostly cruisers, and not many of us) the whales won't be inundated by a bunch of idiotic flailing humans. Mostly whale researchers and curious, eager sailors.
Our friend Brian on Further has been keeping track of the whales, and has arranged for all of us to go out with the dive masters here on the island the minute they arrive, which could be tomorrow. If not, we have plans to go on a cave dive with Brian, who has been here a few days already and wastes no time getting the lay of the land and sea anywhere he is. He's definitely the guy to send ahead, an ambitious and enthusiastic scout.
There is not much here, otherwise. Many of the 22,000 Niueans have left for New Zealand, leaving hundreds of family homes empty all over the island. And since it's not a tourist destination, although they have tried hard to make it one, it's quite special, in a very small, private way. We met Keith, the Commodore of the Niue Yacht Club today, and he's packed full of information on what to do, where to go, what not to do, and who to meet. They say everyone in Niue knows everyone else. Soon enough, I assume we'd know them all, too. And between Keith and Brian, we have our week made.