Photo: On the way to Pangai, several humpback whales breached very close to Tregoning
Despite the relatively small land area of the Ha’apai Group of Islands (110 sq km or 43 sq miles), because they are spread over a 60-nm wide swath of ocean (northeast to southwest) and because some islands contain freshwater springs or lakes, they have been a popular landfall for mariners. At the south end of Lifuka Island, evidence has been found of settlement by the Lapita people from more than 3,000 years ago.
Europeans started arriving after Abel Tasman’s visit in 1643, and many stopped at Nomuka in the southwestern part of the Ha’apai Group to get freshwater from a spring there. Captain Cook visited the Tongan Islands on the second and third of his voyages of exploration in the Pacific. In October 1773, he stopped at the Tongatapu Islands for five days and on his return eight months later, he stopped at Nomuka. During his third and final voyage, in 1777 he spent five weeks in the Ha’apai Group visiting five islands, including Lifuka, and almost running aground on a reef. Continuing south to the Tongatapu Group, he then spent four weeks at Pangaimotu followed by a week at the island of ‘Eua.
It was Cook who came up with the moniker of the “Friendly Isles” for Tonga (still used widely by the Tongan tourism industry) after he had been treated by Chief Finau to lavish foods and entertainments during his stay in Lifuka. However, it was revealed later, that some of the festivities were part of a plan for the Tongans to gather and distract Cook’s crew so that they could be killed and the ships Resolution and Discovery looted. A last-minute dispute between Finau and his nobles, however, caused the plan to be abandoned and the Europeans left without any knowledge of the intended unfriendliness.
The plot was only revealed several decades later when a British sailor named William Mariner published a book, “An Account of the Natives of the Tonga Islands”, that gave intimate details about life in Tonga in the early nineteenth century. Mariner was 15 years old in 1805 when he went to sea on the privateer Port-au-Prince. After rounding Cape Horn and visiting the Hawaiian Islands, the ship stopped at the northern end of Lifuka Island. The crew was immediately welcomed with feasts of yams and barbecued pork. However, a few days later, while 300 Tongans were aboard the ship, an attack was launched and most of the crew were massacred. The young William Mariner happened to be dressed in his uniform and so was captured and taken ashore. The chief of Ha’apai, Finau ‘Ulukalala I, assumed that the well-dressed young man was the captain’s son and spared his life.
For four years, Mariner accompanied the chief on his travels so that, after quickly learning the language, he was in a good position to observe the details of Tongan ceremony and protocol. After Finau died, his son permitted Mariner to leave Tonga on a passing English vessel. Back in Britain, an amateur anthropologist, Dr. John Martin, was so fascinated by Mariner’s tales that they collaborated on the aforementioned book. As an extremely valuable account of a pre-Christian culture that was otherwise scarcely documented, their book came to be regarded as a masterpiece of Pacific literature.
The arrival of missionaries on Lifuka and the baptism of Taufa’ahau, the ruler of the Ha’apai Group in 1831, made the Ha’apais the first Tongan islands to convert to Christianity. Taufa’ahau took the Christian-name of George (Siaosi in Tongan) and his baptized wife became Charlotte (Salote), after the King and Queen of England. As King George Tupou I, he united Tonga and established the royal line that still continues.
Not all foreign visitors to Tonga and other South Pacific Islands were explorers or missionaries. Traders followed on the heels of the explorers, along with whalers, who eventually overexploited the Pacific whale populations, frequently stopped at the islands from the late 18th to late 19th centuries. The most terrifying visitors, however, must have been the “Blackbirders”.
In the late nineteenth century, after slavery was abolished in the US, slave traders turned to South America and Australia to maintain this vicious market, mostly for work in mines and plantations. Blackbirders were ships that plundered South Pacific Islands either taking the natives by force or by deceit, such as promising good jobs on bigger islands, such as Fiji, Samoa, or New Caledonia, or inviting islanders on board ships for feasting or trading. Some chiefs simply betrayed some of their islanders in exchange for iron or foreign trinkets. Kidnapped islanders were forced to work for little pay on long contracts, with no organized means of returning home after their indenture.
Remote islands were particularly susceptible. For example, ‘Ata (the volcanic island that we passed on our way from Minerva Reef to Tongatapu) had lost 40% of its population to Blackbirders. Eventually, King George Tupou I ordered some Tongan villages to consolidate and some islands, such as ‘Ata, were evacuated and remain uninhabited to this day.
Largely as a result of petitioning by missionaries, Blackbirding was outlawed in 1872 by Britain’s Pacific Islanders’ Protection Act. The British government enforced the law by regular patrols of the region to prevent unscrupulous blackbirders. Overseas labor-recruitment was eventually banned to Australia (1904), Samoa (1913), and Fiji (1916), although between 1879 and 1916 the large plantations on Fiji had imported more than 60,000 indentured laborers from India. So while some Pacific Islands lost large and valuable portions of their populations overseas during this period, others like Fiji, received an influx of immigrants. Both of these patterns have had long-term influences on the global distribution of Pacific Islanders and the mixture of races on some Pacific Islands.
Apparently, artifacts from blackbirding ships are scattered around the Ha’apai Islands. If it was possible for the islanders to attack these ships and kill the crews, items such as cannons were saved and have, for example, shown-up in churchyards in ‘Uiha (in the southern part of the Lifuka Island chain) where they are now used as flowerpots.
Having thoroughly enjoyed our stay in Ha’afeva, on Friday (11th August), we finally crept out of the north entrance to the anchorage. We went slowly because the chart was a little inaccurate and the channel was quite a bit shallower than we had expected (12 feet or 3 m rather than 40 feet or 12 m). Still, once in open water we enjoyed a beautiful morning of sailing. We tacked between various islands to the north-northeast of Ha’afeva and then motored east into the wind to make our final approach to the south end of Lifuka Island.
Underside of a humpback whale breaching close to Tregoning
On the way, we saw plenty of whales, including some breaching closer to Tregoning than we had ever experienced before. Although their proximity allowed me to take some better photos, it was a little unnerving to have such huge creatures launching themselves into the air so nearby. One cannot help thinking about sailboats that have been destroyed by impacts from breaching whales and, yet, it is hard not to interpret the behavior as something joyous.
Continuing our “Voyage of Superlatives”, we also noted a huge, blue-hulled schooner anchored by Uoleva (the island immediately south of Lifuka). The AIS showed the vessel to be called Eos and when I checked online, we found that it is the largest privately owned sailing vessel in the world and is not for charter. Built in 2006, this aluminum-hulled superyacht is 305 feet long (93 m) by 44 feet (13.5 m) wide, with three masts that are 200 feet (61 m) tall. Owned (as of 2009) by the movie and media billionaire Barry Diller, the creator of Fox Broadcasting Company, and his fashion designer wife, Eos a carries 16 guests and more than 20 crew members. Judging by the launch that was buzzing around the area, someone from the vessel was out whale-watching. Otherwise, we wondered what a ship that was more commonly seen in the Mediterranean, Caribbean, and the big coastal cities of the world was doing in the Ha’apai Islands.
Superyacht Eos at Uoleva
After weaving around the reefs that flank the southern entrance to the anchorage off Pangai Villiage, about mid-way along Lifuka Island, we set the anchor in sand about 0.5 nm away from the entrance to the small inner-harbor. The long island provides a good barrier to swells from the northeast to south so it was very pleasant to not have any rolling on Tregoning while the wind was blowing from the east.
Looking across part of the inner harbor at Pangai to the anchorage (Tregoning on right)
Being a Friday afternoon, we quickly launched the dinghy and went ashore to find the Customs Office. Despite the small size of Pangai Village, we had to ask several people before we finally located the correct red and white building immediately north of the Police Station (just north of the furthest concrete dock where one can tie-up a dinghy). The officer took our exit paper from Tongatapu, wrote on it our arrival time in Pangai (ignoring the fact that it was more than four weeks since the document had been issued), and told us to return to get our exit-paper when we had an intended date for leaving the Ha’apai Group.
Having accomplished our administrative task for the day, we wandered around Pangai for a little while. We passed by the market, which had little produce left at 4 pm, several small grocery stores run by Chinese people, a couple of schools, and several churches. One of the churches had signs directing us to a concrete cross that had appeared on the lawn one morning in 1975. It was not possible to see the actual 30-feet long (9m) white cross lying on the grass due to the surrounding fences but an interpretive sign with a picture explained that the “…Mystery Cross is the only known and confirmed imprimatur cross delivered by angel hosts from heaven. It is God’s gift to the People of Tonga.” So there you go…
Sign about the Mystery Cross in Pangai
Needing refreshment after such an astounding revelation, we made our way to Mariner’s Café (named after William Mariner). Here we sipped beer and cider and ate dinner (our selections sounded a bit better than they tasted) in the pleasant company of Penny and Nigel on SV Venture. They were part of the Oyster Rally going around the world (starting and ending in Antigua in the Caribbean) in two years. They were leaving the Ha’apai Group that night to join about 30 other Oyster boats, which are made in Britain, that were to be gathering in Vava’u the following weekend.
We were pleased to find that someone at the guesthouse associated with the Mariner’s Café would take-in laundry so I was relieved to get that done the next day for a very reasonable rate. Mariner’s Café is also the base for the Ha’apai Yacht Club. We were not quite sure how active this Club was, perhaps more along the lines of Big Mama’s Yacht Club at Tongatapu, but we did sign-in to their log book, noting several familiar boat names list from over the last three years.
Satsumas neatly tied to a stick from the Saturday morning market in Pangai Village
With good Digicel cellphone coverage and a calm anchorage in the prevailing southeasterly to easterly winds, Pangai Village was a good place for us to hang-out for a few days and reconnect with the rest of the world through the internet. The snorkeling was not going to be very good in the area so once we had caught-up with the online world, we were looking to try some of the other anchorages north and south along the Lifuka Group of Islands.
However, Gulf Harbor Radio was forecasting that on Wednesday and Thursday a front would pass over Tonga causing winds to back from east to north, to west, and eventually to south, with gusts up to 35 knots. This sounded very similar to what we experienced in Minerva Reef. Patricia and David said that in these conditions, they would consider moving on to Vava’u where more complete shelter can be found on the lee side of some of the higher islands or in the well-protected Neiafu Harbour. This suggestion did not take into account that the Vava’u anchorages might be getting a little crowded with the 30 boats of the Oyster Rally, boats like us that had come from New Zealand, and boats starting to arrive from the 2017 Pacific Puddle Jump.
Our GRIB files show the same wind directions but did not predict the wind to be as strong as David forecast (a similar situation to Minerva – for which David was correct). So we will wait until the forecasts on Monday morning. At worst, we can rush up to Vava’u that night or at best we stay in the Lifuka Island chain and move south to the neighboring Uoleva for some reef-protection from northerly and westerly waves. More likely, we will return to Ha’afeva, ready to anchor on either the west or east side of the island as the winds rotate, or find some other anchorages that will protect us from the strongest winds. Whatever else happens, compared to our harrowing experience at Minerva Reef, we will anticipate the west winds earlier and have the dinghy and outboard stowed.