06/11/2012, Vavaú, Kingdom of Tonga
We are still in lovely Vava'u, Tonga and still in love with the place.
The rally get-together was another great night with a truly memorable welcome ceremony (despite Cava being involved - and we are not talking sparkling wine) followed by some good local music and really stunning local dancing by participants of all ages. The nice thing was that all monetary appreciation for the performance went to the local schools scholarship fund.
As expected, the prize giving must have been a bit of a nightmare to organise and as a result there was some truly 'interesting' categories. Peat Smoke won one for the best musical show given by a boat on arrival to an anchorage (to the tune of Sweet Caroline on arrival in Suwarrow). We actually got a first for our division, but we are completely ignoring the fact that we and Glamorous Galah had effectively created our own division when defecting from Group 1 boats to Group 2, courtesy of the storm forecast in Suwarrow. So we won division 1 and a half, narrowly beating the Galah boys, the only other boat in our division!
Since the Tonga rendezvous the boats have now divided into those from Group 1, who have already had a bit of time here, heading for Fiji to avoid possible bad weather on Wednesday/Thursday, and the rest of us who have been exploring the many good anchorages on the little islands and inlets around Vavau - and what beautiful place this is.
However yesterday had to be one of our top experiences when we snorkeled Mariners Cave. This cave can only be accessed by surface diving and swimming underwater, probably the equivalent of your boats keel, into what looks like a black hole under the surface. Needless to say, it is initially a bit of an act of faith. Fortunately I am married to my very own crash test dummy and Jonathan checked it out first before punters from Sapphire, Peat Smoke and yours truly attempted it. Inside it is magical and makes the blue grotto in Capri look a bit of a side show. The colour of the water is stunning and the clarity of the water (as it is illuminated by another underwater opening below) makes you feel as if you are floating on air. Then the weirdest of sensations, the whole cave goes misty and your ears pop, then a moment later it clears in the snap of the fingers - apparently swell has just passed. I am not sure why this phenomenon happens, but I have never experienced anything like it and was truly grateful for the opportunity.
The only thing to mar the enjoyment of the last few days however has been Jonathan contracting a bad cold and the effects of swimming the cave meant he had a truly awful night so we are going to take it easy over the next few days, which means missing a get together organised by Beatoo at a nearby anchorage that boasts a Spanish Restaurant.
Last night we came back to the town to watch a screening in a local restaurant of the first of a series of films on Vanuatu produced some time ago for the BBC by a British expat who now lives here. The first was chiefly about the John Frum cult in Tanna (where we will be visiting shortly). The Americans on the fleet must see this film, I think they may get a kick out of coming from a place that is so worshipped and revered.
Speaking of which, we witnessed the arrival of At Last, Zoe, Sophie, Southern Cross and Eva today and understand Samsara and Windancer are not too far behind - hurrah. I managed to catch up with At Last (the first proper conversation since Tahiti) and look forward to being a complete fleet again in the not too distant future. It would have been a terrible shame if they missed this place for having done such a good deed as escorting Ensemble to Samoa.
06/06/2012, Vavaú, Kingdom of Tonga
Vava'u is truly living up to being part of the Friendly Islands. Everybody always appears to be smiling, and bearing in mind that most people do not have a lot here, it makes you wonder what we are doing wrong in the 'first world'.
The rest of the fleet are all here safely and it has been great catching up with some of the guys we haven't seen since Tahiti or even before. This has led to some great evenings, but I think last night had to top the lot. After the skippers briefing we decided to have dinner and then go to a bar that had the Lei Girls performing.
How to describe? Basically the Lei Girls are cross-dressing men (which appears to be quite common in Polynesia) who during the day run a local hair salon but at night are transformed into the most seriously glamorous women performing a range of dances incorporating the traditional to the downright sexy (but not X rated). In appreciation you are expected (which I found quite uncomfortable) to show your appreciation by pinning/sticking notes about their person. Apparently this is an acceptable thing to do for any performer in this part of the world, not just the Lei Girls, and both local men and women were carrying this out as being perfectly natural.
I think my abiding memory of the evening will be of David from Peat Smoke trying to place some money on a 6 foot+ bespectacled dancing diva who in real life one might have thought was a well built accountant, if one overlooked the gold sequined off the shoulder mini dress being nearly worn complete with fishnet stockings and kick-ass stillettos. Ahh the memory.
06/05/2012, Vavaú, Kingdom of Tonga
Following the bad weather and assisting with Ensemble's repairs (it was amazing what was done, especially those guys who spent the best part of a day and a half in the sea repairing the holes underwater - I don't know how they did it), we at last managed to get underway to Niue. It was tinged with some sadness at leaving those who were going on to American Samoa with Ensemble. We really miss you guys and look forward to when we can all get back together again in Fiji.
All went well initially with lovely wind on the beam, but of course that didn't last and it eventually went to nothing, so on went the motor. However we were not too downhearted as wind was forecast, but of course when it came it was the wrong kind, squalls meant that you either had 4 knots or 24 knots from different directions in the twinkle of an eye. We seemed to be putting reefs in or taking them out every five minutes - exhausting with just the two of us especially as we have to go up to the mast to do it. Just to add to the fun, in these conditions any sort of autohelm struggles to cope so we ended up hand-helming most of the time. When the consistent wind finally filled in it came straight from Niue, together with a pretty strong current, so it was tack tack with no real progress and to put the tin hat on it, a lot of boats were using their engines to plough through, but when we tried it the propeller shaft started to make the most horrendous noise so we had to sail it - AARGH!
Funnily enough this didn't put us too far behind the other boats and we all arrived in Niue on the same day, but unfortunately we arrived too late for the arranged barbecue. The following morning, after a very roly and uncomfortable night on the moorings, we were still really exhausted and realised that, due to losing a day crossing the dateline, we would have to set off the following day to get to Tonga in time for get together. It hardly seemed worth the hassle and cost of setting up the dinghy, going through customs etc etc and whats more, the wind looked perfect for a great sail. So with a heavy heart at not seeing Niue we made the decision to set off again and was fortunately repaid by a day of great winds just where we like it, on the beam.
Coming into Vava'u, Tonga I am sure will remain one of our most enduring sailing memories. We made our way into the inlets around 3am under a full moon. It was like sailing on a silver lake with the most stunning backdrop and we had it all to ourselves. We had so much fun tacking around the islands (it was so bright I thought we might get moon-burnt) that when we reached the anchorage we were sorely tempted to do another turn.
The following day, thanks to Suzanne, getting cleared into Vava'u held no dramas and we are now happily moored (how I love mooring buoys) and looking forward to all the luxuries that civilisation can give us after the last few weeks away from it all.
05/26/2012, Suwarrow, Northern Cook Islands
If all things were to go to plan, we should be heading for Niue in about an hour or so (10am Sunday 26th May). We decided yesterday we would have more wind for longer, if we use some of the tail end of the unsettled weather here to make some progress South. The first of the expected unsettled weather hit the anchorage yesterday evening, and caught a few of us off guard...
It wasn't particularly bad, just 25 knots or so, but it came from the 'wrong' direction - blowing us all onto the shore from where we had originally anchored up to a week ago. So about half the fleet had to hastily up anchor and move to deeper water, i.e. away from the nasty breaking swell pushing us towards the shallow reef and coral beach, not to mention other boats. It was all very exciting and we discovered we were wrapped around several coral bommies (large boulders of coral) so it took some negotiating out. Just to add to the fun, when we did find a suitable place with sea room the swell was so bad that it broke our snubbing line on the anchor and the anchor chain ran out to its full length with only the last bit of line and shackles remaining; all very nerve-racking as we could have lost lost our main anchor and chain! As it is now, we have a lot of chain out wrapping round goodness knows what in 35m deep water.
We were fortunate to have the boys from Glam Galah nearby to help us out. They came over in their dinghy and helped Jonathan get some line around the end of the chain so we could lever it up (although Jonathan ended up snorkeling in the black waters to do it) - the snorkeling was fine, but the torch light reflected back lots of little eyes in the darkness, which was a bit unnerving! We then set up temporary snubbing lines and back-up snubbing lines (six in total!) and nervously watched the anchor drag alarm for most of the night. Thankfully we both managed to get a reasonably decent night's sleep though. We have heard this morning that a number of other boats here snapped their snubbing lines, so it's nice not to be the only one. (btw, a snubbing line is a soft but strong length of nylon rope which ties the end of the chain to the bow to provide some elasticity and shock absorbance; if only chain is used the noise is dreadful and the stress on the bow can be damaging).
Sadly though, our problems were minor compared with Ensemble, who did hit the coral and were holed in a few places. A team of volunteers has been working through the night to pump the water out and make repairs - it must be heartbreaking for David and Magali. Daytime has brought somewhat calmer conditions so we are all teaming together donating our repair materials, pairs of hands etc. to assist. Next decision is where to head for more permanent repairs, and whether to take the whole fleet as support.
Latest weather from Mike on Wind Dancer is that we may be holed up here till Wednesday now! There are lows developing all over the place between us and our next destination, so the conundrum remains - what to do?
Must get on as we have a lot to do and Jonathan is hoping to go over and help on Ensemble.
05/21/2012, Suwarrow, Northern Cook Islands
Along with Glamorous Galah, we decided not to leave in a hurry with the other Group 1 boats. The next weather information advised us to stay in Suwarrow until the weather system developed and passed, as it could cross our path to Niue with some challenging wind speeds. So we HAD to overstay our three days in Suwarrow, oh tragedy - we are now rapidly in danger of turning this place into a holiday camp.
The rest of the Group 2 boats arrived shortly after the Group 1 boats left and it has been barbecues on the beach every night (that's five nights in a row so far...). A non-ARC boat arrived a few days ago full of lads from Byron Bay who had caught a massive Marlin on the way over. This has fed the entire fleet for 2 nights in succession, aided wonderfully by some amazing marinade put together by the Galah boys. You can't teach the Aussies much about BBQs.
On Tuesday night Zoe decided to put on a drive-in (or dinghy-in) surfing movie by projecting it onto their sail and afterwards we were serenaded by the musicians on Royal Leopard. Peat Smoke put on a whisky tasting (now that they were out of French Polynesian waters and they could break the seals on their whisky stash) that led to a few sore heads the following day - the hospitality here is amazing.
Not that the days have been boring. Wind Dancer very kindly let us come with them and Ensemble to Bird Island - a series of small motos absolutely teeming with birds (mainly Frigates on the Island we got to). What a day. It was so still and the water went from emerald to sapphire to aquamarine with clarity so good we could easily see 20m+ down. We had packed a picnic and sat on the beach watching the comings and goings - particularly endearing were the baby Frigates, all fluff and attitude but with faces only a mother could love. Afterwards we decided to walk to an old wreck further along the reef. This turned out to be much further than anticipated and walking got quite hard work as we were wading along a coral shelf, albeit in very shallow water. This attracted baby black tip reef sharks and moray eels who thought we were fish in trouble. Very funny watching them come in to attack, then realising their mistake and fleeing even quicker. On the way back we motored through gin clear water among the most beautiful coral bommies, so agreed we must come back the next day to snorkel. So yesterday, along with the Sapphire crew we snorkeled back there and then did some drift snorkels along the entrance pass (whilst Glam Galah, the younger members of Zoe and Beatoo surfed in the distance). Today we are going out to snorkel a reef where two manta rays were seen yesterday. If this keeps up we will be developing webbed feet.
The skippers are having a meeting this morning to discuss the weather situation and it seems likely we will get away either tomorrow or Saturday. However I will never resent the extra time spent in Suwarrow; a very very special place.
05/20/2012, Suwarrow, Northern Cook Islands
We didn't have particularly high expectations of Suwarrow, in fact we almost decided to go to Rarotonga instead, but we're so glad we didn't. Once again we have found another "best so far" destination. The water is even clearer, which we wouldn't have thought possible, the fish and sharks more abundant, and the parties more fun!
When we arrived yesterday morning (19 May) we were the last boat to enter the anchorage from our group. Luckily the other 7 boats traveling with us held off until last night for a big barbecue and party. We helped the guys from Glamorous Galah get the fire going and explored the old cabin left over from WW2 "watchers" and subsequently occupied by Tom Neale of "An Island to One's Self" fame. The rest of the fleet joined us ashore at about 4pm and a wonderful Aussie Barbie was had, including a huge eel which had been caught by the Galah boys earlier in the day.
After a few hours of eating and drinking on the beach, including a game or two of Kub (a Swedish game like quoits with wooden blocks - great fun) we all retired back to Anastasia, the big cat on the fleet. Phil and Andrea were wonderful hosts and we drank and danced the night away while the reef sharks circled in the crystal clear water below.
We both woke today with nasty hangovers, which we cured with a snorkel into the island and more exploring ashore. It really is a fascinating place; a paradise which shows us how many of these islands must have been before modern human settlement, farming and over fishing. The abundance of sea life is stunning.
The less we say about the crossing here from Bora Bora the better; the wind was yet again not on our side, although it seems the second fleet are having even worse luck with the winds. The first boat from the second fleet, Sapphire, should arrive later today, in fact we've already had a chat with them on the VHF. The rest of the first fleet seem to be planning to leave today due to some weather information they have, although we are having some trouble understanding the decision to leave early... We will hang around until at least tomorrow, or perhaps Tuesday morning, when I think the winds are forecast to fill in a little more. We will be sailing once again in the company of Glamorous Galah, if we can keep up!