Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A still night at Taunga

We sailed south to a new island anchorage yesterday - four long tacks into a light south west wind. It took more than two hours to accomplish what had taken 45 minutes a few days before when the winds were stronger and from the north. There were virtually no waves and the wind was so light that we chose to hand steer to make the most distance on each tack.

We have on board now a new set of charts for Tonga, created from surveys carried out by the New Zealand navy. Mike on 'Kokoamo', a Scot who spends his time between here and New Zealand, had watched as the navy ship cruised through the islands taking soundings a few years ago. New Zealand has made the charts available for free and when I visited Mike on his boat, he copied the charts onto our hard drive. These are raster charts that come as a series of '.kap' files. I believe these are simply image files with some extra meta-data (such as their location and scale) to make them usable with charting software.

We use excellent free charting software named 'OpenCPN'. To add the new charts, you simply specify the directory in which they are located and the software displays these charts along with others you previously loaded. This makes comparison between charts easy and it is clear that the older surveys of Tonga are not perfectly accurate. We are often shown as being anchored on the land or as passing over reefs when in fact we are in deeper water. You can see this by toggling between the CM93 vector charts of Tonga and the new ones. In the area we are in now, the old charts are transposed by a couple of hundred meters to the northwest on average.

When I snorkeled the anchor, the wind had vanished and the water was so still that I could lie with half my mask in one world and half in the other. I cannot recall another time on this trip when I have swum in still water. Later we sat on deck watching the sun dip into the clouds and a full moon rise. Beams of moonlight filtered through the high scudding clouds and the anchorage was lit by the reflections dancing lightly on the lapping water. As night descended, the bird songs quieted and a gentle chorus of insects took their place reaching across the bay from the nearby jungle. We feel so lucky at times like this.

Today we must find water, for our tanks are running low. We know of a cistern on an island a few miles from here, so will sail there when the wind returns.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Tapana part 2

The anchorage at Tapana (#11 on the Moorings charts - S 18 42.5 W 173 59.2) is most things one would want in an anchorage. Good shelter, a bay in which you can sail a small dinghy on flat waters but with good breezes, sand beaches, some snorkeling, access to Neaifu, about 5 kms away by paved road, a nearby (Spanish) restaurant, and good holding in sand.

An American couple has operated a floating art gallery here on a little houseboat, along with 9 moorings that you can hire if you would rather not anchor. This operation is now for sale as the couple has decided to retire. I hope for the sake of the cruisers, who use these moorings as a hurricane-safe place for their boats, that someone buys the operation and keeps up the moorings.

Going ashore on Ano beach, you can scramble up a cliff to the right of the beach and hike through tall grasses to a dirt tractor road that runs along the peninsula of the main island. The road takes you through small plantations of coconut, mango, taro, potatoes, and pineapples. We even saw a garden with tomatoes and pepper plants. Many of the mangos were picked for shipping to the capital last week, but there were still enough wind-falls left to make another batch of mango chutney yesterday.

To some New Zealanders, Tonga serves the same purpose as Mexico does to a west coast Canadian cruiser. It is a wintering place where you can pretty well be guaranteed good weather and warm waters while it is wet and cold at home. One of our neighbors, Mike, lives here 6 months of the year and spends the other 6 in New Zealand. He is actually a Scott from near Aberdeen, but is retired and has been living this lifestyle for 5 or 6 years. He lives on a 40 foot plywood/glass boat that has 800 liters of water tankage - enough to last him for several months without refill. Our other neighbors here are also on their way back to New Zealand. They sail a similar boat to Ladybug - a 32 foot double ended WestSail. This year, one of the owners sailed her solo non-stop from New Zealand to Victoria, BC - our home port. This was about a 60 day passage! He sailed due north from New Zealand to somewhere around Midway island (about 1000 miles west of Hawaii) and then turned and sailed for Juan de Fuca. His wife, sensibly, flew across and after the season in BC they turned around and sailed her back to Tonga. This makes our passages look puny by comparison.

We are now waiting for some wind to sail south - probably around the end of this week.

Tapana part 1

We have been anchored in Tapana now for 4 nights, with one brief foray down to another anchorage that proved to be untenable in the prevailing winds.

First - a little about our foray. We hauled up the anchor, drifted backwards a little, and then unfurled the jib, running downwind and out of the bay in a nice 10 knot breeze from the north east. A low was passing through the area and the prevailing south east trades had been replaced by gradually clocking winds which were forecast to swing into the west. The run down to Taunga Island was straightforward except for a charted reef over which we could probably pass (18 feet on the charts), but which we would rather not. We sighted the reef easily from the foredeck despite a grey sky that made it more difficult to see differences in water colour. It looks like some coral heads have grown on the reef since the chart was made as we saw a couple of patches of brown water over the more comforting green - light browns should definitely be avoided! We passed the reef a hundred meters off in deep water.

When we arrived at the point behind which the anchorage was located on the south east side of Taunga, it was clear that this was going to be a tricky place to enter. the entire anchorage was a shallow plane of sand with scattered coral heads. The wind was now about 12-15 knots from dead aft, so we rolled up most of the jib and finally furled it entirely, Rani steering us in under motor, while I directed us around the coral heads from the foredeck. Even with minimal power we were going too fast for comfort and as the water shoaled to only a meter below the keel, Rani made it clear that this was not a place she wanted to stay. We had one of our 'discussions', but in the end Rani's common sense won out and we hoisted a 2-reefed main and beat back up to our old anchorage at Tapana.

Saturday, October 27, 2012


I am inspired to write a little about food today at 'Chez Ladybug'.

We breakfasted today on home-made scones. I attempted to re-create the marvelous scones, which I used to enjoy at 'Satisfaction Feast' - a Buddhist restaurant in Halifax. When I was straight out of school and trying to find a position in the working world, I used to visit this place a couple of times a week, meeting a friend or my girlfriend there around lunch-time. The restaurant had a lovely atmosphere with skylights and plants and photos of Sri Chimnoy lifting hundreds of pounds above his head with one hand. The Waitresses tolerated a penurious regular who nursed his coffee and scone for far too long. The food was very good - the scones in particular offered both delightful taste and good value - large and weighty, yet moist and beautifully flavored. I am sorry to say that today's imitation did not come close, but I will keep trying.

Lunch was a re-heated carnivorous stir-fry - Rani's veggie one with a can of Kirkland chicken added. This canned chicken is delicious - completely different from the canned meats I used to buy for cruising up in Canada, which all seemed to taste the same - halfway between over-cooked salty ham and spam. The Kirkland chicken actually tastes and even looks sort of like chicken. For desert there was a fruit cup made from fresh local mangoes and bananas.

Supper was tamale pie - made from a recipe that we were given by our dear friends Ardy and Marv who cruised with us in Mexico on their sailing boat, 'Odyssey'. Every time we make this dish we think of times we shared in the Sea of Cortez. We now make the pie in a cast iron skillet on the stove top and it tastes as good as when done in the oven but uses much less propane. Tamale pie is spicy and made with corn, corn meal, black olives, and tomato sauce - delicious served with greens or a side salad and washed down with a robust red wine or Mexican beer.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

More reading

Two recent books I would recommend:

Economics Without Illusions by Joseph Heath - looks at fallacies that pervade and distort our understanding of modern economics. From the table of contents:

1. CAPITALISM IS NATURAL - Why the market actually depends on government
2. INCENTIVES MATTER -… except when they don't
3. THE FRICTIONLESS PLANE FALLACY - Why more competition is not always better
4. TAXES ARE TOO HIGH - The myth of the government as consumer
5. UNCOMPETITIVE IN EVERYTHING -Why international competitiveness doesn't matter
6. PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY - How the right misunderstands moral hazard

7. THE JUST PRICE FALLACY - The temptation to fiddle with prices, and why it should be resisted
8. THE "PSYCHOPATHIC" PURSUIT OF PROFIT - Why making money is not so bad after all
9. CAPITALISM IS DOOMED - Why "the system" is unlikely to collapse (despite appearances to the contrary)
10. EQUAL PAY - Why some jobs must suck, in every aspect
11. SHARING THE WEALTH - Why capitalism produces so few capitalists
12. LEVELING DOWN - The wrong way to promote equality

I found the second part to be most interesting because as a left-leaning person, I tend to be blind to these fallacies while quite aware of those of the right :) This book opened my eyes and I would highly recommend it. Interestingly, it was written by a Canadian Philosophy professor who has studied the issues as an outsider. Perhaps this is why it reveals more than some of the works by 'insiders'. Heath does not have complete solutions to the issues that confront any society that strives for a just but effective economic system. However, he does a great job explaining these issues and how governments have tried to deal with them.

Voyage for Madmen by Peter Nichols - chronicles the first solo around the world non-stop sailing race. In the mid-60's a small group of amateur sailors set off from the UK to see who would be the first to sail around the world. There was to be a prize also for the fastest passage. The book does a better job than any previous account I have read to get into the minds of the people taking part. It is a well told story and one of interest not just to sailors but to anyone who is curious about the limits of human endurance. The characters, in particular Robin Knox-Johnston, Bernard Moitessier, and Donald Crowhurst are the stuff of legend. I have read Moitessier's and Johnston's accounts as well as "The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst", but this book pulls it all together.

Mariner's Cave

Yesterday we made an afternoon trip in Ladybug to Swallows and Mariner's caves with friends on Picara and a Moorings charter catamaran that is sharing the anchorage with us us. Mariner's cave has been on my to-visit list for more than a decade - since I read about it in the book, "Trekka Round the World", by John Guzzwell. Guzzwell sailed a tiny wooden sailboat that he had built himself around the world in the early 1950's. He had visited Vava'u and Mariner's cave on that voyage and his description of his trip to the cave makes great reading.

Things were a little different here when Guzzwell arrived. Because the cave entrance is under water and impossible to find without local knowledge, he approached the cave across the island of Nuapapu with about 50 locals and a fisherman guide named Benny. We had a GPS waypoint, which allowed us to approach from the sea. His guide, Benny, had lost his arm when the dynamite he was fishing with blew up in his hand. Judging by the quality of the corals here, dynamite is no longer used for that purpose in the islands. The Tongans who accompanied Guzzwell had also never seen snorkeling flippers before and were delighted by how much easier it made it to swim.

Some things have not changed, however. You still have to swim down into a huge dark opening with no clear idea of how deep or far you need to go because the cave is completely sealed from the outside world and hence unlit. It was quite rough off the cliffs that run along this coast, with the waves reflecting pushing up a two foot chop. The friends we had on board Ladybug were reluctant to try the entrance. However, Falcon, our athletic friend off 'Beau Soleil' had paddled over in his outrigger canoe and he pointed out where the entrance was and encouraged us to give it a try (he had swum into the cave a couple of weeks ago). I made the first attempt, taking several deep breathes before following Falcon into the black depths, while the others kept Ladybug hove to off the cliffs. You swim down about 8 feet and along maybe 12 or 15 feet into the cave - no problem if you are used to shallow free dives while snorkeling, but still intimidating the first time.

Once inside the cave it was exactly as described by Guzzwell - a lovely blue light from the entrance lit the cave once your eyes became adjusted. The cave is quite large - about as big as a small church with a 30 foot ceiling from which hang ranks of small stalactites. Because there is no land exit, when the swell rises, your ears pop from the pressure change and as the pressure oscillates, water vapour condenses and clears periodically creating a mist that makes it feel like you are losing your vision. Leaving the cave is easier because the tunnel is backlit by the outside light. The best time to visit is in the afternoon when the sun brightens the entrance. I swam out upside down admiring the roof of the entrance tunnel.

Once outside I had to swim back to the boat to convince our friends to join us. Mike from Picara and Dan and Monica from a Moorings charter catamaran eventually swam over and I entered the cave with them a second time. They had no problems entering either and we floated around inside together marvelling at the quiet and unusual beauty of the place.

We sailed Ladybug back to Port Maurelle picking up a mooring under sail (thanks to the able assistance of Mike and Marny on Picara). A delightful ending to a trip I have looked forward to for so many years.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Observations on sailing a Coast 34

We have had several pleasurable day-sails amongst the islands here in the Vava'u group of Tonga, during which I have noted a few things about the sailing of our Coast 34. One note for other Coast 34 owners is that Ladybug II has a rig that is over one meter taller than the original.

Like many sailboats with the main mast set back near mid-ships, Ladybug sails well on most points of sail with just a jib or genoa. The advantage of this, for those lazy day sails between nearby islands is that the main can remain covered and flaked down on the boom - no hoisting and re-flaking. The disadvantage is that beating up-wind is not all that efficient. Because there is no main up to keep you moving upwind, you tend to fall way off the wind on each tack and cranking in even the small 110% jib is a chore when filled with 15 knots of breeze! Still - for downwind and reaching work, the jib on its own has much to recommend it when the wind is strong enough. There is no main to blanket the sail, which seems to happen anytime you sail within about 30 degrees of dead-downwind. Also, the wind vane or autopilot works less hard because there is less weather helm. Surprisingly, on our Coast 34 anyway, there is still a good deal of weather helm with just the 110% jib. This decreases as one turns off the wind or rolls in the jib, both of which move the center of effort forward.

We had to sail into Neiafu yesterday , which saw us sailing on all points, from a dead downwind run out of our anchorage at Tapana island, jibing around the reef that lies south of Kappa, broad reaching and then beam reaching between Oto and Ava islands, and finally beating our way under 2-reefed main and full jib up the channel into the town. When sailing through these islands, we try to stay out of their wind-shadows, but this is not always possible, and we often end up in fluky winds as they swirl around points or curl over the hills. It is much like lake or river sailing where you must always be thinking of topography of the nearby land and plan your course accordingly. I learned to sail from my Dad on a river/canal/lake system in England called the Norfolk Broads as well as on a lake in Nova Scotia, so this kind of sailing is familiar.

When beating up a channel it is tempting to try for the longest tacks, so that you have to do less of them. However, the channels here have coral reefs along their edges and tall land, too, so that is is easy to get in the lee of the land if you hold onto one tack too long. For our beat up to Neiafu, Rani stood on the foredeck watching for green or brown water. I would wait until the panic in her voice reached a certain level before asking her to come aft and help bring the boat around onto the new tack. This takes fine judgment.

Close hauled, we find we have to reef at about 10 knots of actual wind and put the second reef in at 15 or so. Otherwise, we end up with an overpowered boat and way too much weather helm. It helps to move the traveler off to leeward to reduce the angle of attack of the mainsail, but during short-handed close tacking, this is a bad idea as the traveler then has to be moved during each tack. Also, we usually start hand-steering when beating amongst the islands because our little autopilot cannot cope with sudden wind shifts and we have ended up in irons and accidentally tacking when we rely on it to steer.

We buried the rail once on the way up to Neiafu, but managed to tack up the channel and through the narrows, even staying the right side of the navigation marks! Rani tolerates this kind of sailing because she knows it makes me happy and there will be a pay-back of some sort. Yesterday it was ice cream.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Kenutu Island

Kenutu Island is on the far east side of Vava'u - marked as anchorage 30 on the Moorings chart and guide. It is a wild place, reminding us of the outer islands in Barclay Sound on Vancouver Island. Surf pounds on the outside of the islands and breaks fiercely across the reef that joins this island to its neighbors. Kenutu is formed of volcanic rock that is bubbled and twisted into incredibly sharp jagged formations. This makes walking hazardous, especially near the edges of the island where the rocks are a tumble of jagged boulders each sprouting dozens of tiny spires that feel like they could easily pass through the sole of your shoe.

The anchorage is very good with excellent holding in sand and no coral patches that we could find - only some light weed. It is well sheltered in the prevailing easterlies, with a slight chop and high tide when water makes it in over the reefs. There is a lovely path across the island from a sheltered beach on the leeward side near the anchorage. The island is covered in pandanus and pine-like casuarina trees and the leaves of the former and needles of the latter form a thick carpet that makes walking feasible. The trail leads to series of stunning look-offs over inlets on the windward side. Even in moderate winds, the sea here is an awesome sight - a cauldron of white-topped standing waves and endless surging violence. The water explodes on the cliffs, cutting deep flat ledges over which it then cascades into the ocean. It is easy to see how an island can be eroded by such forces and the counter-balancing forces of vulcanism and tectonics are the only reason these islands are still here. In contrast, little black and white butterflies flutter along the edges of the cliffs and tiny birds call from overhanging trees.

Speaking of vulcanism and tectonics, there have been two earthquakes nearby in the last couple of weeks - both 5 point something on the Richter scale. Some cruisers felt the last one although we were in a rough anchorage and did not even notice it, despite the epicenter being only 100 miles off.

Back to Kenutu. At low tide you can walk along the beach and out to the reefs that join either end of the island to its neighbors. The corals exposed here are small but lovely - bouquets of pink and purple flowers. On the south side, the islets are narrow and the surf erupts through blow holes in the dark volcanic rock. In one place there are two vents - nostrils through which a blast of air erupts with each large swell - like the roar of a dragon's breath. On the north end we saw a humpback whale making its way along the coast through rough seas.

We left Kenutu yesterday and are making our way back to Neiafu to check out.

Product endorsements

I thought I would plug a few things that we are very pleased with.

Nestle Nido - Mexican whole dried milk (leche entera). This keeps 7 months without refrigeration and still actually tastes like milk when made up with some nice cold water. Not sure we can buy this in Canada or the US?

Alpenglow lights. I have said good things about these before, but it is worth restating that these folks, based out of the US, make wonderful interior lights that take little power, provide pleasant warm light, and are reasonably priced - I wish there were more companies like this that actually made good stuff in North America.

Garhauer - our hard vang, main sheet blocks, and running backstays are all made by Garhauer - another US company that makes marvelous stuff at good prices. No problems with any of their products beyond some wear to some fibre glass spacer washers in the vang assembly. They are made of good steel with oversized bearing races that require little or no maintenance beyond an occasional wash down. Other gear under similar loads (the traveler assembly) has not fared so well.

Monitor wind vane - another US built product that is very well engineered, requires almost no maintenance, and works well in most wind conditions, so long as one makes an effort to balance the boat and keep the weather helm within reason. We have had friends with other wind vanes who have had nothing but trouble getting their vanes to steer the boat, even in moderate conditions. Several friends fitted a vane made by an English manufacturer whose vane uses a secondary rudder to steer the boat. A couple of them are happy, but most have had major difficulties with the vane and one told me they only use it as a back-up for their electric auto-pilot. The Monitor is a servo pendulum vane, which uses water forces to amplify the steering force of the wind. This gives it the power to handle heavy conditions. The product is made of stainless steel with plastic bushings and pulleys. So far, we have sailed more than 7000 miles under vane steering and have had no maintenance to do other than end-for-ending the steering lines due to chafe and re-lashing the turning blocks to the stanchions when my lashings chafed through. The vane on our boat was second hand when installed and we still have the complete re-build kit that comes with the new product, so I would guess it has worked for at least 10,000 hours with no rebuild.

PrincetonTec waterproof flashlight. Had this for 7 years and use it every day on the boat - one bulb change. Still waterproof.

Whale foot pumps - we use these in the galley every day as we have no pressure system. They allow two handed washing and have been completely reliable. I suspect they are original to the boat (25 years old). I believe they are made in the UK.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Big Five-O in Tonga!

We celebrated my fiftieth birthday (18th October) in the Vava'u Group of Tonga. I was a little concerned that we may not be able to get ashore as the wind gusted through a gap between Mafana and Ofu Islands and we were anchored quite far out from the landing beach on Ofu. However, Chris has had plenty of rowing practice in heavy winds, so we visited the manicured little village in Ofu that morning. It was lovely walking on the newly mown grass path hugging the shoreline, occasionally peaking into open houses where up to six ladies sat on the floor weaving pandanus mats. They work as a co-operative to make the large floor mats for sale or use in their own homes. These can take up to a week to complete. In one hut, a little girl, Peta, was threading coconut fibre through sweet scented frangipani flowers to make leis. She gave one to her grandmother, who insisted upon giving it to me. They gave another to Chris but he is not a lei kind of guy, so I ended up with both around my neck and the perfume was divine.

We explored a well trodden path behind the village which led to coconut and pandanus plantations. The trail was covered with ripe mangoes falling from the many trees along the way. We picked the good ones to eat as we walked, peeling back the skin with our teeth, sweet juice dribbling down our faces. Mangoes are my favourite fruit so it was like mana from heaven. There were several types of trees bearing fruit of distinct flavour and we decided we would gather a bunch on the return trek, leaving markers close to our favourite trees. But we got turned around somewhere and looped back into the village along a different trail. We had to back track to gather the fruit from some of the closer trees.

After a glass of wine, lunch and snooze on board Ladybug, we sailed downwind to the back harbour of Neiafu. Due to an extensive reef nearer the town, we anchored on a 4 fathom (24ft) shelf across the bay in the northeast corner. This meant that Chris had to row half a mile to take me out for a nice meal. His biceps are bulging these days! We chose the Aquarium Cafe which serves very tasty pizza and has a great atmosphere. A local music group played Tongan melodies on guitar, ukelele and banjo, fuelled by the mellow effects of kava. Brad and Gloria from Kindred Spirit bought me a glass of red wine to go with my brownie and ice-cream dessert. It was a perfect ending to a great birthday!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Star-studded Snorkeling

What amazes me is the variety of colours, shapes and textures of the sea life we have seen during the last five days in the Vava'u Group of Tonga. Sapphire blue stars, soft pink and mustard yellow pillow stars lie contentedly next to rust red pencil urchins on the reef and decorate the white sandy sea floor.

Snorkeling over the coral beds is like gliding over a garden of blooming heather bushes of blush pink and lavender, graceful bonsai trees in turquoise, blue and rich dark purple, ruffled lettuce patches, mushrooms and toadstools of many hues. Under and amongst them hover tiny fishes like the sparkling blue-green chromis and fluttering damsels. Occasionally we see an anemone swaying along the reef's edge and a clown fish or two darting about, just like Nemo and his dad.

As for the fish, some are half royal blue and half yellow with golden fins and blue eyes, others sport a raiment of sparkling spots, speckles and stripes. Then there are those that resemble raccoons with their big bright eyes and long noses with white patches. We see new patterns and colour combinations every day and marvel at their complexity. Picasso would have enjoyed these abstract forms.

Amongst the most exotic creatures we have seen so far are a giant multi-coloured shrimp about 6 inches long, black and white banded snakes (venomous), and a 2 meter lemon- coloured shark with black spots that gave us a fright when it swam rapidly toward us during a reef snorkel.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Sailing in Vava'u

Vava'u is a group of more than 20 islands and dozens of reefs. The main island lies to the north and has a well protected bay on which the capitol, Nieafu is situated. This is where the charter yacht companies, sports fishing, and whale watchers are also located. 'Moorings', a large charter yacht operation publishes a very useful guide and map to the islands that shows the location of 42 anchorages of which about half are day stops and the remainder suitable for overnight use. The anchorages are numbered, which certainly makes it easier to describe where one is going to, but does remove some of the romance. For example, we are in day anchorage 40 now, more properly described as 'off the white sand beach on the east side of Avalau island'.

Sailing between the islands is a treat because the reefs and islands block the open ocean swell, but the trade winds blow for much of the sailing season. It is a bit like sailing on an island studded lake. While you do get some fetch across the larger reaches, the sailing during the week or so we have been here has been superb - steady 10-15 knot winds and only an hour or two between anchorages. Many boats only roll out their jib, not bothering to hoist the main, and we have taken to doing this for most passages.

When you arrive at an anchorage, there is usually a white sand beach to explore and nearby snorkeling opportunities. The current island we are anchored off has both and, unlike some anchorages, you can reach some great corals without having to wait for high tide to swim across a reef. This anchorage and the one we stayed in the night before are both marked as day stops, probably because they are more rolly than the overnight ones, but the holding is good in sand and the rolling goes down when the tide drops and the reef begins to block any fetch.

We went on a ramble this morning following the goat trails between palm, pandanus and pine trees on Avalau Island and it reminded me of the deer trails in the forests of Vancouver Island. We counted 14 goats and kids sitting under a large tree off the beach. It would have made an idyllic pastoral painting. One of the kids was suckling on his mamma's teats and it was tempting to get some goat milk for cheese but Chris was not fast enough!

Friday, October 12, 2012

Tongan economics

Tonga, like much of Polynesia, appears to be a semi-cash/semi-subsistence economy. When you walk through a village here, it is clear that most of what the people eat they grow or catch in the sea. We have talked to several men who have told us that they travel to New Zealand to make money to buy things like outboard motors and to send cash home to their families. To make money here, Tongan families travel to the market in Neiafu and sell fruits, handcrafts, and vegetables. Villages on the outer islands also put on 'Tongan feasts' featuring suckling pig, fish dishes, taro, and other fruit and veggie dishes. The feasts are attended mainly by cuisers and other tourists - one recent Saturday feast on little Lape island (population 30) drew 94 Palangi tourists.

Most of the business in Neiafu outside the market is sewn up by Chinese storekeepers, foreign owned sports fishing and whale watching operations (mainly New Zealanders and Australians, judging by the accents we hear on the VHF reporting marlin catches and whale sightings), and restaurants owned by Americans and Germans.

The locals in Vava' appear to build their own boats. These are usually launches, with small cabins forward and seaworthy hull shapes - either V-bottomed with hard chines or round bottomed plank and batten construction. Boats are vital in Vava'u where the population is widely spread over dozens of islands.

Land in Tonga is owned by Tongans and leased to foreigners when necessary. Even the resorts are built on land leased for a long term (20 or 30 years). When we visited Kapa island, we found the most lovely piece of land on a point, with good soil and about 2 acres that could be easily cleared for planting. We imagined ourselves growing our own food here and running a small Indian restaurant catering to yachties. When we asked a local about the land, he told us that it belonged to a 90 year old man who lived now in Neiafu. He allowed kayakers to camp on the land and enjoy the sand beaches, but had turned down offers to lease it.

One disturbing thing we saw in the villages was a series of large holes dug outside of all the houses. These holes were there so that a concrete pad to support solar panels could be poured. The Japanese were funding this project and we were told they were doing this to secure Tonga's vote at an International commission on whaling. Japan 'harvests' whales for 'scientific' purposes, in the face of international protest. It appears that they would like to legitimize this.

Foreign fishing is also an issue here. We could not get a straight answer from anyone on what is happening, but it appears that Asian vessels are fishing with long lines (up to 14 miles long!) in nearby waters. One sports fishing guide was complaining that they pay a tiny fraction of what such a license would cost in New Zealand. I would hazard a guess that the same charter operator also benefits from low Tongan prices!

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Snorkeling in Surf

It has been a while since we did any snorkeling, so we were excited when our friends Mike and Karen on 'Chapter 2' suggested we join them for a dive trip to a nearby reef. They picked us up in their inflatable and we motored across choppy seas toward a reef on which the surf was breaking about a foot or two high. Picking a spot where the bottom was coral rubble and sand, we anchored the dinghy and while Karen and Mike put on their dive gear, Rani and I swam towards the surf line to find a suitable spot to cross over onto the outside of the reef.

Even though it was near high tide, the corals under us seemed awfully close as we approached the surf. Holding each other's hands and kicking furiously we were able to punch through two lines of surf without too much difficulty, although Rani was breathing furiously on the other side. As we passed over the edge of the reef, the water suddenly transformed from frothy white into a startling blue and acres of colorful coral gardens sloped off into the depths.

Mike soon joined us, but it was apparent that Karen was having trouble getting across with her gear. She was pushed back by each wave and kept standing up, unable to keep swimming against the surging water. I offered to swim back to her and help her by bringing her gear across the reef and Mike consented. When I reached Karen, she was out of breath and exhausted from the ordeal, but eventually I coaxed her into trying the swim without the gear. I strapped on her BCD and tanks and set off across the reef with her, but soon found I had too much weight on with my own 4 pounds + her 12. By the time I realized this, though, I was in the surf and being pulled down under with each big wave. My snorkel kept filling with water and I started to panic as I ran out of oxygen due to swimming too hard ad breathing too little.

It is remarkable how quickly you can go from feeling in control of a situation to outright panic. I should have stopped and inflated the BCD fully to compensate for the extra weight, but instead I thrashed my way across the reef lunging through each wave and gasping for air. When I finally made it into deeper water, my legs cut up from the coral, I felt like I could not stay afloat with the extra weight pulling me down. Fortunately Rani swam to me and found the right hose to inflate the BCD. Lesson learned - don't volunteer to wear dive gear if you are not comfortable with its operation. Although I have had a brief lesson in using a BCD, I could not find the right button to press when panicked. I could also have breathed from the tanks, which would have avoided swallowing water through the snorkel.

After we had recovered from the crossing, we spent an hour or so swimming along the reef, Mike and Karen below us at about 25 to 30 feet. Rani and I would free dive down to maybe 10-20 feet to get closer to the corals and to listen to the distant songs of humpback whales. We were able to distinguish both the more melodious songs of the males and the shorter talk of the females communicating with their calves - magical. The corals on this reef were varied in form and color, looking like they had been carefully planted, perhaps in the rock garden area of a botanical gardens. Most were only a foot or two in diameter and there were hundreds of such formations in all directions, with the occasional canyon dividing one garden from another.

The return trip across the reef was easier with the waves pushing us across and we all felt much better after a tot of brandy and a bowl of warm mulligatawny soup on board Ladybug.

Friday, October 5, 2012


We have finally left our lovely little island of Niuatoputapu and sailed for about 32 hours to Vava'u, another groups of islands in Tonga, about 160 miles south.

We left early on Tuesday morning, following two other yachts out of the pass. With 160-170 miles to run, we hoped to be in Vava'u before dark the next day. The passage was a rough one with 12 hours straight of rain and lightning that evening. The winds alternated between light and moderate as we passed in and out of squalls and was mostly in front of the beam. Then about 20 miles out the predicted very light tail winds materialized and we realized that we would not make it in before dark unless we motored. As we approached, the Vava'u group was hidden by squall after squall with one real whopper where the winds and rain whipped the ocean into a froth and we hurriedly covered the little tiller-autopilot with towels and a plastic bag to keep out the rain. Visibility was down to less than a quarter of a mile, making us quite nervous as we approached the obscured harbour entrance. A small fishing boat materialised out of the vapour. I was naked in the rain and yelled to Rani for a pair of briefs and shorts to avoid embarrassing the conservative Tongans.

The islands in Vava'u are lovely, even seen through the rain and mist of that first day. There are dozens of them, rising straight up from the ocean, ranging from tiny tea-cup shaped lumps to the main island, which has several bays and peninsulas and stretches for about 10 miles in all directions. The climate here is noticeably cooler and we finally feel like we are heading south and into a more temperate world.

Vava'u is a center for various charter fleets and Moorings publishes a guide to the area in which all their recommended anchorages are numbered. There is such a large yachting community here that they have their own morning radio net on VHF channel 26, which is also the de facto hailing frequency. Unfortunately it is also the chatting frequency for several of the ex-pats who make this their home and it has only taken me one day to get annoyed enough that I will probably keep the radio off or tuned to a different frequency.

For various reasons, most boats doing the passage to New Zealand will be leaving in or around early November. Because Tonga is a popular jumping off point, we are now back amongst a congregation of the cruising fleet, many of whom we have met in various other points along the coconut milk run. It will be fun to catch up with our friends and listen to their stories. We will likely stay in Vava'u for a couple of weeks moving between islands, exploring the caves, hiking, and snorkeling.