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Pacific Odyssey 2010/2011
Follow the Larsens from Seattle to Australia and back.
Final Days in Vavau

We've been enjoying Vavau. We arrived in the country Monday August 9th and it is already the 30th. Yesterday we studied our charts and Eric put our speed and distance into one of his excel models to determine what time/day we should leave for Fiji; at 440 miles we estimate a 3 ½ day passage. Looks like we'll leave sometime end of this week. Tuesday is too soon, Wed and Thurs would mean we arrive on the weekend (customs is closed or may exact a hefty fee for after-hours entry) and Friday is not an auspicious departure day if you are a superstitious sailor. We have left on Fridays before. We'll next consult the weather charts and wind predictions before making our final decision.
Finn's 7th birthday is September 1st - it will be nice to be ashore for his celebration. He's wanted to have a special item on the breakfast menu at the Giggling Whale & Thirsty Turtle in Neiafu: chocolate covered French toast! Maybe we'll head to the Poolside Café later on that day for his favorite spaghetti Bolognese and a swim in the pool (the only one in town, about the size of 8 hot tubs.)

The Giggling Whale is owned by a couple who live 6 months here and 6 months in Banff for ski season. Turns out the proprietor is the President of the Ski Canada Association and was an official host at last year's winter Olympics. This we learned after asking him if he'd heard of Whistler/Blackcomb (duh.) The Poolside Café is owned by a nice Italian man. The Aquarium Café was built 7 years ago by a young couple from California who recently sold it to Mike who had lived in Gig Harbor, WA for years. The young kids now run the Kart Safari tour we took earlier this week as well as a couple of other endeavors. Word is they bought a small island and are building a house on it. The Coconut Café (for laundry, breakfast and cold beer) is run by Canadians (judging by the accent) and the Café Tropicana is run by a couple from New Zealand. There is a Moorings and Sunsail charter here too, apparently now under the same holding company in Germany. A few businesses are owned by locals, but the thriving places seem to be foreign- owned and managed. I've been wondering about this situation since we got here. Why is this the case? Is it good or bad for the Tongans?

Island life is largely subsistence living. There are no heating bills, plenty of fruit and vegetables; fish, pork and eggs can be had for free. The missionaries made certain that clothing was not optional so there is some expense there, but generally speaking, one could live without an income. Thus the incentive for working quite hard and making money is just not that strong. However, Vavau has highly desirable natural resources (beaches, coconuts, blue green seas, and migrating whales) that call out to sun-starved vacationers. Enter the foreigners who see an opportunity to serve their sun-starved cousins and live in the islands! Foreigners don't have the same access to the free food - every fruit bearing tree or taro plant is owned by someone local, even that papaya tree you might notice in the village square - so they have to provide a service and charge a fee, or show up with a trust or retirement fund.

I've concluded that the foreign-owned businesses most likely benefit the locals who are hired to fill out the workforce. The Tongans are getting some training and bringing home some money to help with what expenses they do have such as new shoes, clothes, school fees, potato chips, canned meats, soft drinks and unfortunately....liquor. (Alcohol abuse is an epidemic throughout the Pacific Islands.) But just as we notice at home when job security is high and consequences for not working hard are low, performance is weak. Most of the foreign shop owners work very hard to please, but often the local waitress forgets to tell us that they don't have what we ordered (20 minutes ago) for lunch, or the cashier counts out the wrong change (often in our favor to which we always alert them), or they just go AWOL in the middle of their shift like the guy who was supposed to be in charge of cleaning silverware the night one of the restaurants had a big feast. Suddenly they ran out of clean table settings and people couldn't dig in to their fish cakes. The worker was tracked down hanging out with his friends, the dancers, who'd come over from another island to provide the evening's entertainment.

We've heard people say that a couple of years ago Neiafu was a thriving town and that today it is much diminished. We've noticed in the outer lying islands that where the guide book says there is a resort or a restaurant; there is often just a deserted building or random people who look confused when you ask where to find it. We assume that the global recession has hit these islands as it has elsewhere. Compared to passage-making when our community is just the 5 of us, Neiafu seems like a bustling kind of place despite the alleged down turn.

We've had a beautiful week in the outer-lying islands, relaxing and filling the days with a summer like routine. Tonight I write this as we are back in Neiafu, planning Finn's 7th birthday. We'll have dinner together with our friends from Na Maka and maybe even get to surprise Finn with a birthday cake. We've had some gifts stored away in the Jenny P's hidey-holes since early May. It'll be fun to watch him enjoy his special day.

PS - the King of Spain's boat is now anchored in the harbor. We haven't heard any rumors about the King himself actually being aboard, but we did wonder if that wasn't one of those dream jobs for young, single people: sail the King's boat around the South Pacific and keep it nice for him just in case he wants a little "down time."

Making Friends
08/29/2010, Vavau

We found some wonderful anchorages here where the easiest access to shore is to swim, even for the kids. Freya prefers to swim next to me and sometimes take a break by climbing on my back. She has gotten braver though and will swim 30 feet from the boat to check out a coral head on her own. She has become an avid snorkeler, but did not like the 4 foot sea worm we saw yesterday. When she she saw it she left the safety of my back and swam away from me quickly. When I caught up to her she asked me if we had just seen a dragon.

Our initial impression that Wifi was everywhere here was incorrect. The last couple of anchorages have been radio silent. I have not posted blogs via the SSB radio because it is a hassle and I keep expecting to be back in full coverage soon. Tomorrow we will head into Nieafu to start re-provisioning for the trip to Fiji. If we get done by Thursday morning we will head back out to a remote anchorage for our last night and some swimming. I think this is unlikely as it is easy to get addicted to the towns, with restaurants, cold drinks, and Internet.

We have finally started meeting more families. Just before we left Nieafu last week, we met a French family on a catamaran called "Na Maka." Our kids were paddling around the harbor in their inflatable kayak in search of other kids on boats and found Na Maka. They quickly made friends with Leo, a ten year old. He had a sit on top kayak and was soon paddling with them. Na Maka is on their second boat already; they are on a multi-year cruise through the South Pacific.

A couple of days ago while we were anchored in Vaka'eitu, Christine and I watched Na Maka pull in. After they were anchored and settled we got the kids in the dinghy to "explore". I thought we might tip over when they realized who we were going see. The parents, Natalie and Gerome, invited us over for dinner. (kids: keep making friends!) We had a wonderful dinner -- complete with adult conversation -- while the kids played. Leo has two younger brothers Freya's age, so it is a good mix. The next day we hiked together to a pristine beach on the opposite side of the island. Later, Leo, Gerome, Sophie and I went snorkeling in the Coral Garden - a renowned spot here in Vavua. It did not disappoint. The entry and exit were a bit tricky. There was a coral ledge awash then a drop off. The ledge went from 0 to 2 feet deep with the waves, so we had to time entry and exit with the surge. Our timing was off on the exit and Sophie and I got a few coral cuts (which clean up best with lime or lemon juice) while our more experienced partners came out fine.

Yesterday Tristan, a ten year old Danish boy swam up as our kids were swimming around the boat. Soon he Finn, and Sophie were a hundred yards off working their way to the beach. After they tired themselves out they came back here for some snack and games.

Last night Na Maka pulled in (somewhat planned). The kids were excited to reunite on the beach this morning after "school". Just after lunch Tristan joined them and it looked like a regular neighborhood crew.

Flippers and a mask take the place of bikes out here. The kids swim between the boats, climbing aboard to play, eat and watch movies (when allowed), then hop in for a swim to the next boat once they are ready to move on. While the water is 30 feet deep or so, it is clear and there is nothing dangerous to prevent them swimming around. The 100 yards between Na Maka and the Jenny P is not an issue for Finn and Sophie, though Mom and Dad like to see them make the crossings with a partner, although this rule seems hard to remember.

Jerome played guide again and took the kids and I over to Swallow's cave. You can swim in on the surface for easy access. The pictures I took don't do justice to the beauty of the afternoon light streaming through the west facing openings in the rock.

Tomorrow we will head to Neiafu to re-provision and take care of some Internet planning work. Gerome and I are planning to go scuba diving together at some point this week. Once we leave Vavau we will miss these new friends.

Kart Safari
08/25/2010, Neiafu

On Tuesday we took a "Kart Safari" ride. Soa was our guide. I rode with Mom in a blue kart. Dad and Freya rode in a yellow kart. Sophie rode with Soa in the red kart. The red kart was first. Sophie got to drive a bit on the dirt road. We saw palm trees, broken down resorts, bats near the ocean cliff, and cows. One cow had to get up a move out of the road so we could drive by. Sometimes the karts went fast. Soa's front wheel cover fell off. Luckily Dad picked it up. We saw a big roller truck smashing ground coral into the big potholes on the main dirt road. When we were done we stopped at the Aquarium Café and had cinnamon rolls.

08/24/2010, Vavau, Tonga

Just before we left Nieafu, Finn dropped the ipod containing all of the audio books entertaining the kids and keeping Mom and Dad sane overboard. The salt water killed it instantly, and the water is about 100 feet here, so no diving for it. He forgot the rule about ipods not going above deck and felt really bad. I can't get too mad, I have dropped my share of things over the side, including my glasses in Hilo, which I did retrieve after 20 minutes of diving. Fortunately I have another ipod, though it can't hold all our books and music.

A bigger setback came though the day after my last post. I should not have been critical of sailing with chart plotters, as I am now having trouble with mine. We were planning next week's route to SavuSavu, Fiji. To do this I had to swap the cards in the chartplotter. When I put the new card in, it didn't load. Uh oh. I tried it in the PC, where I get a lower resolution version for planning, that worked, but it didn't work in the chart plotter. My card for Australia was doing the same thing. Christine reminded me that I saved fifty bucks on these buying them from an online reseller via Amazon versus Garmin. Double uh oh. Did I get a counterfeit card? Did the IT guy buy the wrong version of chip that was not compatible with his model plotter? We had paper charts and several backup GPS devices, but chart plotters are nice and, used responsibly, increase safety. We also have a sextant and reduction tables, and Christine and I technically know how to use it, although we are not practiced. I am quite confident we could use it to find the coast of Australia, though hitting a pass through the Great barrier Reef might be challenging.

After fumbling around a while I decided to methodically troubleshoot and put the Polynesia card back in. It no longer loaded. Now I was more concerned. It appears my machine is no longer reading any cards, although it does beep when I insert them. . It came preloaded with the US coasts and Hawaii but it has stopped reading the data cards containing the supplemental maps of out of the way, remote locales such as Tonga and Fiji.

I realized it was Friday night in Australia, and the regional Garmin support was already closed until Monday. Why can't things break on Mondays? With the date line we would have a few hours for US support in the morning. I emailed our installer, who told me that Garmin would want me to upgrade the software first, as this solved a lot of problems. Two issues there: I didn't have the software, and it had to be loaded via the card reader. He offered to help if I get stuck with their support. Garmin didn't have a support email on their website, so I tried to Skype the support desk, but my Internet connection wasn't good enough. So we motored back to Nieafu for a better connection. Skype still didn't work, so I called them on the Satellite phone. (ouch$) I had a fifteen minute call with one tech who was helpful, then we got cut off. Another call yielded some better understanding of options, including a full reset, then we were cut off and the prompt system would not accept any new calls. I did get an email address though. I would have to try to update the software and do the system reset before they will consider replacing my unit. But several several attempts to download the 87 MB file over Tonga's internet service have failed. Several tries got as much as 70 MB downloaded before the connection dropped. Finally I the file downloaded and installed on a card, but the chart plotter still wouldn't read it. I also tried full factory resets to no avail. A perplexing thing was that the unit still beeped every time I put in a card, so it didn't seem like a fully mechanical issue, but perhaps a software glitch.

We have an older, small chart plotter along. On the first attempt it would not read my map chips, but a software update to that (fortunately only a 50 MB file that I got on the first try) solved that issue. This was a good victory for me, as our redundancy worked, and my discount chips are not the issue. We are going from a 10inch screen to a 4.5 inch screen with fewer features, but we have a chart plotter. Mike form Carpe Vita also gave me a shareware vector charting program that I will load up shortly. Another good backup.

I tried loading the software update onto a really old SD card I had. It barely fit, but the chart plotter read it and loaded the software updates. My luck stopped there though, it still won't read the larger cards containing the maps. It looks like eventually I will have to mail the unit in to be repaired, but as it is also our radar display, we are reluctant to do that until we make Australia. We learned it would cost us around US$500 to ship the unit out of here priority. It is also quite hard to receive things here as customs tend to detain arriving packages. It could easily take a few weeks, or months, to turn the unit around. We hope to be in Australia in about two months.

With respect to another issue I did have a break through in tracking down the autopilot replacement parts Kevin sent me. Turns out the government added a prefix for mobile phones, which was why I couldn't call the mail stop he sent the gear to. I reached my mail contact and she is sending the part up on the plane. This is good, as we will likely not have time to sail down to Tongatapu.

Talking to other boats, many seem to have significant system failures: Carpe Vita is still having some engine trouble, Independence's water maker is out, and Compass Rose is without refrigeration. Getting by with issues seems to be part of the cruising life. At least we have a back up for our current issue. I wonder what else will be out when we reach Australia. A fellow sailor in Seattle once told me " right now something on my boat is breaking. I don't know what it is, but I will soon." Quite true.

Meanwhile we have found some fun things to do in town with the kids. Today we went on a kart tour, and saw some farms and inland areas via these motorized all terrain vehicles. The kids had a blast, and we will post more pictures soon. Tomorrow we will make a two hour sail to an anchorage where the kids can swim and snorkel. Despite the issues, we are enjoying Vavua and the time here is going fast.

Sailing by Numbers
08/20/2010, Mala Motu

Vavau is a group of islands with dozens of protected anchorages, all in close proximity. The transits are protected and typically less than two hours. This gunkholing reminds us of Washington's San Juan Islands. The appearance of the islands, sans the palm trees, and boat traffic is reminiscent as well. One surprising difference though is that WiFi hotspots exist in most of the anchorages here - Coverage was sparse outside of the main harbors in the San Juans. I think the coverage here is due to the charter fleet here, their customers on short holidays want to stay very connected. While the Moorings guide book is useful, a tragic influence of the charter companies is that beautiful names of the islands, bays and passes have been reduced to reference numbers. Three people today told me that a traditional Tongan feast was being held at #11 tonight.

Another difference with the San Juans is the wildlife. Yesterday morning the kids watched in awe as two sharks circled the boat during breakfast. They leaned over the lifelines for the better looks. We weren't too concerned as these reef sharks were all of two feet, but it was a nice show for the kids. Hopefully we will see some snorkeling. Inside the reef, the sharks are pretty harmless, but I do keep watch.

Neiafu (#1) was loud. Each night a different café seemed to host a dance party. Our mooring was a quarter mile from town, but inside the boat the music sounded like I had my stereo on just past the comfort point. The music choices are a mix of Island hip hop and 80s tunes. Last night I got to hear "Hey Ricky" twice. And just the other day there was a Karaoke competition in the afternoon to see who could do the best rendition of We are the World. I think there were at least 20 competitors.

Despite the tourism industry there are still cultural experience to be had. Last night we had dinner at a café where school children from another island come once a week to perform traditional dances to raise money for their school. While not as polished than the show at Aggies, the kids were amazing. An eight year old and a six year old were part of the show, and quite good.

Tonight in the quiet shadow of Mala Motu (sadly known as #6 to most of the cruisers here.) the kids are camping out in the cockpit. We told them we would let them start there, then haul them in as once the mosquito coils burns out they will be attacked. The mosquitoes here are plentiful, and we seem to react more strongly to the bites than we do at home. It is hard to imagine these islands without mosquitoes, as they were before the Europeans came. Outside of Neiafu Vavua is quite peaceful.

We can clearly see the bottom here, 30 feet down. This afternoon we snorkeled around the boat, and it was pretty good. Tomorrow morning we will dinghy over to some nearby reefs. There are a lot of jelly fish here, but the stings aren't too bad as they are moon jellys. Like a mild burn. Sophie, Finn, Freya and I all got hit while snorkeling off the boat. It took a couple of stings for us to realize what the discomfort was from, so clearly the pain is not great. Hopefully there will be fewer in the shallower water near the island.

Cleaning a jellyfish out of the water maker intake's seawater strainer rivals fixing the head as the most unpleasant maintenance job. Midway through making water the pump stated making a funny noise, and freshwater production dropped off. Nasty surprise. In addition to partially strained jelly, there were bits of plastic that may have come from a fishing lure. Still, I would not trade the water maker for collecting rain. Still a lot of boats out here doing just that.

I better check my engine intake for debris tomorrow, as I haven't for a while. In theory the engine is the auxiliary power source, but in these islands, like in the San Juans, it is easy to get lazy, turn on the engine, autopilot and chartplotter, and enjoy the ride. Maybe that's why those numbers are so popular.

P.S. Christine's back is steadily getting better.

Malo e lei lei from Vavau, Tonga
08/18/2010, Vavau, Tonga

Vavau is the Pacific playground for Australians and New Zealanders. Other people come here too, we've met some Belgians, but given its close proximity and adventure travel offerings, Aussies and Kiwis dominate. Vavau is like our backcountry Hawaii to them. In Neiafu Harbor alone there are approximately 50 boats, more than we've seen at one time since leaving San Francisco. Right now the humpback whales are in town so every day the local whale watching guides and the dive shops (which have suspended diving so they can make good money off whale watching) take visitors outside the reef to get a closer look. The going rate is $TOP 300 per person, about $150 US. In a country where bread costs $1 US, a restaurant meal around $10 US, and our mooring buoy around $7 US - this is crazy money. This is also a Marlin fishing Mecca. Lots of boats with multiple reels. Some of the local handicrafts are carved from the Marlin's spear. Unfortunately we didn't do any fishing on our day and a half trip from Niuatoputapu. We never go after Marlin, but we also gave up on the smaller stuff because Eric had his hands full with the basics. As we were leaving Niuatoputapiu's harbor, we had 25 kts winds with very steep seas in the shallow waters between the small islands. Given the wind direction and severe chop, we had to change our course enroute to fall off and run with the seas instead of pound into them. I was at the helm when a wave took us and just flopped us over on another angle - I allowed the most dangerous thing to happen - an accidental jibe. Our boom is high enough to clear our heads, but our main sheet slackens and when it did it grabbed me and threw me off the helmsman's seat (which I had already dubbed "the launch pad") and slammed me against the cockpit wall. I saw it coming but had little time to mitigate the consequences. I am so fortunate that I am only suffering from some painful, deep muscle issues instead of a broken back. (Mona, if you are reading this your core strength training saved me!!) We thought about turning back in instead of heading for Vavau, but then realized if I were injured worse than I thought, it would be better to be on our way to a more populated place with air service than to be at Niuatoputapu with very few options. I am now into day four of the injury and feel like I am getting better vs worse, so things are looking up. Thank goodness for ibuprofen. We have a med kit stocked with some serious painkillers for extreme emergencies--- all the names you see at the pharmacy with a sign that says they are under lock and key-- I continue to resist the temptation. While here in Neiafu we finally have a little internet time again, albeit at a snails pace. We enjoy reading the blog comments and thank everyone for continuing to support us on our journey. In response to the question about whether we are keeping our sense of humor, here is a funny moment thanks to Finn: At breakfast the other day, Finn was telling us about Senator Palpatine and Darth Sidious, how they are actually the same person in the Star Wars saga. Darth Sidious is clearly evil, and Senator Palpatine is his alter ego, disguised as a well meaning member of a federation. Only after he's been granted Emperor status does he reveal his true identity and evil intentions. I asked Finn if he knew what we called people who make you think they are on your side when they are really on another side. I expected to hear "traitor" or "spy." Finn thought a moment and in all seriousness replied, "Hmmm......a politician?" Eric and I laughed so hard we had to assure Finn that he had said nothing wrong; he was so startled by our outburst. Today we are off to a quieter anchorage for a few days. We'll likely stay in the Vavua Group until the end of August.

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Who: Eric, Christine and family
Port: Seattle, Washington
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