09/03/2010, Vava'u, Tonga
Funny thing, how time moves independent of your perception of it. Time is the one of those reference points which allows us to make some sense out of our existence. Friendships, good ones that is, seem to act the same way, pointing us like a compass in the right direction.
Friendships forged while cruising are unique. You almost always spend disproportionately large amounts of time together, especially if you share the same interests and goals. Under these circumstances new friendships are put to the test, and it doesn't take long for the litmus paper to ascertain the kind of friendship you will have. As you make new passages across the oceans, or chose new anchorages together, you learn to rely and trust one and another, in a way that is not often required in land based friendships. From analyzing weather before departure and route planning, to sundowners and potluck dinners -these are the kinds of things that make friendships made at sea stick together like magic glue. A good cruising friend knows without question that the other will be there to help out in any given moment of need. We know without saying that even after several more ocean passages, ports of calls and cruising destinations, the kernel of the friendship lies in waiting, and only the slightest spark will be needed to maintain or re- ignite it.
Today we said 'Aufwiedersehen' to two very special friends, ones we have been enjoying the company of since our first meeting in the Sea of Cortez, Mexico. Finally after months of linking up with Fly Aweigh at various ports along the way, we are off in distinctly different directions. Fly Aweigh heads for Fiji and eventually Australia, while we will stay in Tonga and head south to New Zealand this November. One of the first times we sailed together on a night passage was unplanned, but our AIS systems found both boats bound for the magical island of Isla Isabella one windy and electrified night off the coast of Mexico. On my night watch, with lightning shows from all quadrants, I took great comfort in knowing that the other boat with us had two pilots on board! At anchor, after a thrilling day exploring the island, and observing the birdlife, we invited Allan and Alison over for sundowners. Our combined enthusiasm for the joys of discovery on the small island was palpable, and our friendship continued to expand from there. Months later, we would both sail over a ½ day out of our way to the zone of totality to witness the total eclipse of the sun. Although we were over a hundred miles away from each other, the experience was so uniquely pivotal it will likely stand as the candle to which all else will be measured.
Friendships always teach you something about life, or at least how to approach it. Alison showed me how to slow down and see the small stuff of discovery. Who else would find a lobster, no larger than a centimeter long in a small tidal pool on a reef, having kayaked there at night (under a full moon no less). While everyone else looked for the big guys, Alison and I poked around, admiring the tinsy tiny spectrum of life with our flashlights. From our first snorkeling and diving adventures together, Allan taught me how to move and breathe underwater. I still have a long way to go to meet his particular standard, as he is more or less a fish under water with or without scuba gear! But ultimately, his encouragement gave me the gift of enjoying the underwater landscape to its fullest. He and Alison also reminded both of us about keeping promises, no matter how sacrificial that might be on your own personal enjoyment of life. So the small stuff, and the big stuff - all in one friendship - you have to love that. Together, they reinforced our belief to embrace life, take chances and move through life with passion and honesty.
The next few days and weeks will be yet another time of adjustment for Michael and I. Cruising seems to teach this lesson relentlessly. Rather than waking up with our friends 'next door', sharing coffee on the stern step while planning our next adventure or discussing the mysteries of life, we will be relying on sailmail and far flung stories to continue to sew the fabric of our friendship. If it is true that the secret to life is enjoying the passage of time, friends surely must be the unit of measurement required to mark its passage. Thanks Fly Aweigh.
08/24/2010, Va'Vau Tonga
The plump and satisfied Tongan woman sat with her friend in the middle of the trail, orange peels dropped at the crook of their crossed feet. "Malo a lelei, good morning" she says lifting her head to look up at us, greeting us with a wide smile, "Are you out for your morning exercise?' The two women sat barefooted , taking what appeared to be a Tongan form of a "coffee break", along with two small dogs, a pile of miniature mandarin oranges, a bag of harvested fruit and a large machete. Having seen orange coloured lemons before in the tropics, I asked if the fruit they were eating were lemons or oranges. She gave me the tongan name for the fruit, and offered me one. Firmer than our mandarin oranges, with lots of pits and less juice, they nevertheless provided a thirst quenching burst of sweetness as I bit my way through their leathery pulp. Aware that we would have to pass the resting women if we were to continue our run, I enquired if we could continue running along their path, and she swept her welcoming arm in the direction we were headed and bid us a good day. "Malo, Malo Aupito!" (Thank you, thank you very much) I said as I dropped my head to indicate both my respect and thankfulness.
Eventually the trail led us to a wooden gate. We slowed down and eventually stopped. Hands on our hips, we wondered if this was to be the turn around point of our run. From the small plantation to our side, yet another voice enthusiastically rang out "Good Morning!" This time the friendly voice came from a youngish man, perhaps in his early thirties, wearing long pants and a dark T-shirt, all wrapped in the traditional tongan waist mat known as a ta'ovala. He was working his plantation, collecting waste material and weeds from his rows of pineapples, which lazily burned in a long strip beside us. "May we go through the gate into the village?" I asked, and again was answered with a welcoming "yes". The village on the other side of the gate was delightfully small, consisting of 6 or 7 immaculately kept family homes, all connected with foot paths. The village grass was green and clean, the land sloping ever so gently to the water's edge. Pigs and dogs roamed freely, perhaps communally owned by all the villagers, perhaps not. A small boy with gorgeous dark eyes stood outside his home, wearing only a shirt, and glanced at us shyly; his furtive smile was easy to miss as it slipped from his lips almost as quickly as it was formed. "Malo a lelei!'' I rang out, knowing this time I would be the enthusiastic one.
When we finished the run, we climbed back into our kayaks and lackadaisically paddled along the water's edge. With the wind and tide in our favour, it was a free ride as we steered through a maze of volcanic rock, carved by the seas hand with interesting patterns and formations. As I relaxed into the softness of my inflatable kayak, I took a moment to reflect on the last twenty four hours, a habit I have gotten into over the course of our journey down the coast of North America and across the South Pacific. I am once again humbled and in awe of the passage of time we are graced with, such are the scope of variety and the magic of the moments. Yesterday a humpback whale sang to us while we were scuba diving. Later we sailed around the outer islands of the Vavau group in a brisk refreshing wind against reddy brown cliffs that towered beside us. In this game, I can pick any 24 hours, every day has offered its own reward, oftentimes in multiples. Sometimes I think I must be dreaming, but I guess that's why they call it, 'living the dream'. Go ahead, pinch me, because it is one dream after another. Just now as I write, a needle fish leaps out of the water, performing an Olympian long jump of at least 12 feet, his silvery sides sparkling in the tropical sun. Which reminds me, earlier today as the sun cast its early morning light on the reef beside Paikea Mist, I marveled as a brown footed booby rocketed down from above dropping like a stone into the water, resurfacing with a small fish between its beak. Twenty four hours, any twenty four hours.
In one of my favorite James Taylor songs, he quotes Richie Havens when he sings "the secret of life is enjoying the passage of time". I'm pretty sure Tongans know this secret, and have for a very long time. Malo, malo aupito.
08/16/2010, Tonga- Vavau
The story of the abandoned catamaran has slowly unfolded amongst fellow cruisers, and as they say a picture tells a thousand words. With the deck and rigging completely stripped from the boat, the old girl lies on a small sandy islet in the Vavau group. The wreck leaves a big question mark- is anything left worth pulling it off the island. Will keep you posted.
08/16/2010, Tonga- Vavau
In the Eye of a Whale
As the sun rose over the eastern sky, on a bright clear day hundreds of years ago, a curious Tongan man climbed into his canoe and paddled out to the great creature he had been watching performing spectacular breaches from his island. As he drew nearer he saw that it was a mother and her young calf, now gently resting together in his sheltered bay. He carefully slipped into the water and dove gently down to get a better look. In an ancient dance with the mighty thing, he stayed under the water as long as his breath would allow, his eyes never loosing contact with hers. Day by day he went to greet the magnificent creature, to look into her mysterious eye. As he got closer to the whale their spirits soared together, until one day the whale offered him a ride.
I've had dreams of looking into the eye of a whale while it swims by me underwater. The relationship between man and whale is complex, and most breathing human beings on this planet share a deep fascination with them. I like to think that in the very beginning, Man swam side by side the whale, equals in all respects, or maybe even that man fell under the pectoral fin of the whale, as snug as I now know that a calf resides under the gentle guidance of its mother.
What seems impossible is that these creatures have been anything but revered and protected by man. The sad truth is that not long ago human kind were slaughtering whales in great numbers. Whaling still continues on in some countries in the world today. Japan calls it scientific research, others are brave enough to call it whaling. One such account is the last legal slaughter of humpbacks by Russian whalers. The fleet was given permission to take 140 whales, but private notations have indicated that one slaughter numbered as high as 40,000 whales! Why? Oh Why? Thankfully the majority of people shudder at the prospect of such massive slaughters. This one thing I know to be true, there were once many, many more whales in our oceans than there are today. I feel certain that given the amazing beauty of these marine mammals, and given the inborn curiosity of both man and whale, that early humans got in the water with these creatures, and swam together.
Somewhere man lost that connection and the slaughtering began, and mercifully our generation has relented somewhat. And so the humpback whale lives on, mating and birthing in predictable cycles every year. The southern members gorge themselves on krill in Antartica before swimming north to the shelter and protection of the warm waters of such places as Niue, and Tonga. While they are here, they give birth to and rear their young. The activity creates a huge interest in all sorts of communities, all the way from whale researches who spend their entire careers on the study of whales , to cruisers like us who happen to be in the right place at the right time. By the time you have travelled this far on a sailboat, you don't just notice nature, you are part of it. In between the cruiser and the researchers are a significant number of nature enthusiasts who will pay top dollar to leave their couches and fly into a place like Tonga to have the privilege of seeing the whales in their natural habitat.
Here in Tonga, there is an ongoing debate amongst the cruising boats, as to whether the industry governing the practice of swimming with whales, (which is legal in Tonga) is problematic for the whales, and just who is and isn't allowed to swim with the whales. Part of the cruising community believes that if they pass by a whale they have every right to interact with the whale, as long as that interaction does not disturb the creature. The dive boats who take people out are clear that they are the only ones who should be approaching the whales, as they have a marine biologist on board to monitor the interaction. Beyond these debates, lies a whole group of people who believe we should not be in the water at all. And yet there is that fascination, that connection that I spoke of earlier that pulls us to want to see them.
Having snorkeled and gone scuba diving now with so many marine creatures, we decided we would make the decision with firsthand information, and today we went out on a dive boat to swim with the humpbacks.
Let me break by saying this was simply THE most amazing day of our entire trip, having left Vancouver over a year ago. The fellow cruisers who swam with the whales today are bonded forever: Allan, Alison (Fly Aweigh), Trish and Steve (Curious) and Gordon and Sherry (Serenity), and of course the two of us.
Our morning started early, leaving the dock just before 8 am. We sped out in the dive boat to the outer islands, and immediately spotted a mother and her calf in the protected waters behind one of the small islets. The dive boat approached slowly, initially about 2-300 feet off, to see how the mother would react. Docile as can be, she stayed on top of the water , with her 10 day old calf playing around her. Her behavior was relaxed, and her movements very gentle. We gently lowered ourselves into the water , small groups of four, each with a marine biologist guiding us. We were told to initially stay on the opposite side of the mother as the calf, but it wasn't long before the mother and calf were completely relaxed with the humans, and the calf became rather curious. At one spectacular moment, the mother nudged the baby towards us, and he swam within meters of the swimmers. Mother watched the first pass, and it wasn't until the second pass, which was within an arm's reach that she came up to move the little one away. Later she hovered about 15- 20 feet under the water and watched us, one eye open to the action, while she rested and her baby suckled and swam around her.
The relationship between mother and calf was gentle, and enormously tactile. At times the mother would cradle the calf between her pectoral fins, at other times we watched as the baby rolled playfully down the back of her mother at the surface of the water. The calf practiced many of the typical humpback moves, including spy hoping, breaching and rolling over, all to our utter amazement and complete and humble gratitude. Under water we could see her suckling, nudging her mothers mammary glands for milk, and then resurfacing for air, only to go down for more. A humpback calf will need to gain about 25 kilos a day, all of the nutrients coming from the mother. She is no longer feeding, and relying solely on all that gorging in Antartica. Gaining a kilo an hour every day is no easy job, and the calf will grow so quickly that his skin actually sheds into the water (and sticks to our fins as we climb back onto the dive boat). On one incredible tactile pass, we watched as the calf ran its much smaller pectoral fin down the course of his mother's immense body, in a way that looked just as enjoyable for the mother as it did for the calf. Later the mother blew bubbles under her calf, a bubble bath of sorts. Later in life the baby will grow up and use the technique to raise krill out of the water, a feat that is carried out in unison with other humpbacks, allowing one of them at a time to surface through the middle of the bubble zone to capture all the raised krill in their giant mouths.
Was this an interaction that was in any way harmful for the mother and calf? You will all have to make your own decision about this. Scientific evidence reveals that any observation of another living thing changes the behavior of the one observed, so of course there is always going to be some kind of impact. Did it harm this mother? I think not. Should we tread lightly on their lives and habitat? Absolutely. Did I learn and observe a whole lot about whales and whale behavior today? Without a doubt. Was it heart rendering and thrilling? You bet. Somehow, the experience was one that felt shared with the whale, this mother seemed to be quite content to have us near, actively participating. For several hours, this remarkably gracious mother made no attempts to leave once we arrived, and did not show any signs of concern that we were in the water with her and her calf, other than the one time that her young babe ventured too close. When we eventually left the two of them, the baby made several spy hops, followed by the mother making dramatic flaps with her pectoral fins. Was she happily waving good riddance or calling us back? You be the judge. The one thing I know is that these great creatures are intelligent, and utterly aware of us. They are here on the same planet with us, yet make no demands. When a whale submerges, they call the clear calm patch he makes in the water his footprint. I wonder, if more people could have the opportunity to share time with these magnificent creatures, perhaps they would they find it easier to leave a smaller footprint themselves.
08/15/2010, Nieafu Bay, Tonga
The big excitement in Nieafu Bay today is that the catamaran that was lost at sea before we left from Niue has been found. Not only that, our Canadian friends on Mary Powell are the lucky ones to spot it, and the last we heard Steve was sitting upon the hull which had landed on a nearby island, with Malva on the radio with the salvage company. The exact details are yet to be confirmed, but speculation is wild. Radio chatter this afternoon has made Mary Powell instantly famous! According to the salvage rules, the boat now officially belongs to Mary Powell, all 57 feet of her! Of course Steve and Malva can't exactly right it themselves or even tow it anywhere, and that is where the speculation comes in. The insurance company has valued the capsized catamaran at ½ million and was offering a significant reward to the finder. There is a salvage company here in Tonga who has been scouring the coast for days now looking for the wreck, and they were on their way out to meet Mary Powell late this afternoon. We are keeping our fingers crossed that Steve is careful in his dealings with the salvage company and ensures at least a finders fee is agreed upon, signed and sealed. Steve is a smart guy and we are pretty sure he will have the I's dotted and the t's crossed before he parts with his new find. In the cruising world, this really could not have happened to a more deserving couple, we are estactic for them, and of course can't wait to hear the full story. Until then, its all speculation.
08/05/2010, Neiafu, Vavau
The winds we enjoyed on the initial part of our leg evnetually died off, and we had to start motor sailing, then finally motor the last 100nm to Tonga. It just seemed amazing that this same route had such horrific weather a few days ago that the large catamaran was turtled and left floating its own way through paradise. Last night had a couple of remarkable points of entry. We went over the Tonga Trench, the second deepest trench in the world's oceans. Next to it was a seamount; the combination might have explained all the current we had against us as we slowly motored at 6.2 knots. The second honorable mention was crossing the international date line about 90 miles out of Tonga, and putting the clock ahead 24 hours! As the early morning progressed, the ocean was amazingly calm, and the moon and stars sparkled on the surface, lighting the way for us. The calm ride was with out any exaggeration the best opportunity for a good sleep in a long time for us! We always have an awake watch, but it sure was tempting! Other than Curious, a 56 Oyster who we had sailed with during the day, there were no other boats seen until we got close to the island. Curious motored by us at about 4:30 am, doing their "happy speed" of 8.5 knots. When the sun came up in the morning we were 30 miles off shore, but could make out Va'Vau in the distance. By the time we turned the first corner, the water was like a lake as we came into the bay. I have to tell you, this was such a welcome sight after several passages and rolly anchorages over the past 5 weeks. I know it sounds like all we do is have a good time, but the tough passages combined with rolly nights at anchor has worn down the best of us. The island is very dramatic from sea, with huge cliffs, overhangs and sea caves. We are now happily tied up to a mooring buoy in Nieafu Bay, and have completed all the formalities of customs, immigration, quarantine and health. This involved tying up to the wharf and entertaining a series of officials onboard. We set out cookies and chips, and as it was Friday afternoon, Michael offered cold beers, which surprisingly were accepted and gulped down, extras even taken for 'later'! The officials were all very friendly and we enjoyed their company, but they did seem to take their time doing their job. I think we will get used to this new Tongan time, as we are staying here for at least the next couple of months. Stay tuned!