We left Suwarrow on 20th August bound for Neiafu in the Vava’u group, northern Tonga. It is about 700 miles and our detour via Suwarrow had cost us 100miles, but with the violent conditions we experienced there, we were glad to have stopped
Although the weather predictions on the grib files were not perfect we felt good about leaving and were ready. As is so often the case, the time to leave is when you feel it is right. That morning felt good and after plenty of beach time, the boys were ready. We always try and give them a good day on the beach with plenty of swimming and play before a passage. It wears them out and, being different, makes their days on board more interesting. We expected light winds with a moderate swell for the first few days, then the passing of a front with the wind backing swiftly and intensifying. With such variable conditions I knew I was in for a physically demanding few days.
We had light shifty winds for the first 3 days, so plenty of kite work, then the wind filled in early on day 4 and came on the nose at 20 kts. Pegasus is pretty swift and 20kts on the nose is 28-30 apparent so its windy, and we slowed down to 7-8 kts, which is more comfortable and less bouncy. There is a tendency to jump waves at over 8 kts, which is not what you want to be doing with the family asleep on a windy moonless night! The wind backed and by the early evening it was a beam with a moderate sea and so we were back up to speed. We kept the wind through day 5 and in the afternoon arrived in Tonga after quite a work out. On our approach we saw a large humpback whale, our first, breaching some 100 meters from the boat. We all felt good.
Although strenuous, it was great sailing after the slow passage to Suwarrow and I was pleased to be back in the saddle, so to speak, after so long without a really good sail. We caught good fish with 3 Wahoo and a Tuna (8-12 kg range), so the freezer was full and we were all looking forward to some local cruising around the islands, some time in town, the internet etc. and a few meals out. After tying up alongside the container wharf and completing our quarantine, customs and immigration duties we headed up to town and picked up a buoy opposite a restaurant bar called the aquarium.. Lucy Blue had arrived the day before and the Vagabonds were at anchor in a bay having been there for a few days. We had been in touch on the SSB and had loose plans to cruise the islands together.
We arrived on 25th August (GMT –12), but because Tonga sensibly, wants to be in the same time zone as its neighbours it jumps the dateline so although actually 174 degrees west of Greenwich, it pretends to be 180 degrees East, therefore it was 26th August, (GMT +.13).
Up to this point our GPS and charting software had been accurate, but we knew from others that this would not always be the case and that in Tonga, and Fiji certainly, the offset would be different. In the past this had lead to boats running up on reefs and floundering, as the GPS is accurate but the charts, although new, are based on surveys that in some cases are hundreds of years old so the island appear in the wrong place. Our charting software was out by a few hundred yards, but it made little difference as most of the navigation in the reef-strewn waters is by eye. What was important was that we could get a fix on the degree of inaccuracy, so had a reference for the region. This would be important at each island group we went to.
Neiafu the capital of the Vava’u group is really quite small and compact. There are a number of supermarkets which are not really super…you know , 6ft of corned beef on one shelf followed by 6ft of powdered milk…great. That evening we went for dinner at the Vava’u yacht club; a bar called the Mermaid, and had a jolly evening with Lucy Blue. Their trip to Tonga had been a nightmare. Expecting light winds Buc had diverted to Pago Pago in American Samoa to buy diesel. Quite a detour. After checking in and out, paying wharfage, agents etc he finally got away after 24 hours and a few hundred dollars lighter to be faced with 56 hours of headwinds. Bill on Vagabond who was only 60 odd miles from Buc at the point of detour, carried his own wind all the way to Tonga and had a great trip!!! That’s cruising!
The following morning the boys and I went ashore to find bread eggs and bacon. We found delicious white loaves freshly baked, bacon, but no eggs…apparently there was a shortage. In fact there was a shortage of many items. We learnt that the new supply boat bought by the Tongans from the Fijians was, in fact, not quite so new, and on its second trip it sank on route to Neiafu. It was a local tragedy, with 80 Tongans killed, and everyone in Neiafu had family or neighbours who perished. To add insult to injury, the new ambulance for the hospital was aboard and thus lost as well. It was a tragedy backed by scandal as it was rumoured that senior government officials had been involved in what was seen to be a “persuaded” decision to purchase the vessel. No doubt the inquiry will bring out the truth.
The result was that the shops were empty and they were waiting for new supplies due in a day or two. That afternoon we wandered round town to discover that the Vava’u Regatta was to be held after the weekend. It all sounded quite jolly with many events, a kids day and a race to an outer island where a full moon party was to be held the following Saturday. It was Friday so we planned to spend the weekend at a few anchorages then head back to town for Tuesday night and participate in the regatta.
Vagabond Heart arrived in town and we all went to a Tongan feast for dinner. It was set up by the catering college as a trial run for their service skills, and a bit of a home grown affair. I enjoyed it and the food was good although it was “trestle tables and plastic cutlery in the assembly room”. There was some traditional Tongan dancing (this is just not as alluring as the French Polynesian dancing and I guess age and diet has something to do with it!) and a Kava area. The whole affair was organised by an American Peace Volunteer. I had not come across them before but basically they are young Americans (Mid / late 20’s) who volunteer to live in outlying villages and add to the community in a variety of ways, teaching skills and language to the populace. I was shocked to learn that many of them had spent over 2 years in their current posts.
Kava is big in this part of the pacific. Basically it’s a root that’s masticated and reduced to a pulp. Its then added to water and the men sit around drinking it in a ritual with a prescribed format. Its quite peppery and had a numbing effect, and I’m sure if you sat around all night drinking the stuff you would sleep quite soundly, and probably have quite a good evening. It does, however, taste filthy and I think I would have to be a long way from civilisation to be persuaded of its virtues! It is very popular, and is what the men do most evenings…sit in a circle, drink Kava and play guitar.
We headed off the following morning in convoy some 5 miles to a beautiful anchorage in a deeply protected horseshoe bay called Port Morrell. There was a sandy beach, good coral to snorkel and not too distant, some caves to explore. We launched the dinghy and headed off to a cave called Swallows cave. We could motor right inside and besides the graffiti it was stunning. On our way back we snorkelled in some smaller caves en famille before returning to spend the rest of the afternoon on the beach.. That night we all gathered on the beach and lit a large fire, enjoyed a drink and watched the sun dip over the distant west horizon. It was all pretty perfect and we decided to stay another night and have a BBQ the following evening. Another day on the beach and a great BBQ and we were ready to move on.
Having decided to go and find Mariners cave, the following day we all departed on Lucy Blue for the 8-mile trip to the elusive cave. The directions to the cave were a bit sketchy and with the entrance 2 meters underwater it was a bit tricky, but when we approached the area Bill and I took the dingy and found the entrance. The weather was still and we dived down to check it out. We had read that it’s about 4 meters through the rock to access the cave, but even so it takes an act of faith to swim into the black not knowing if there’s any cave or air at the end of the tunnel. We both popped up inside the cave 40 seconds later thinking the whole experience was quite surreal. Inside the air was damp and the condensation formed mist as the swell compressed the air…quite weird. Swimming out was easier as the entrance appeared as a turquoise pool of light, and once outside we headed off to get the children.
After the vagabond and the Blues had swam, I took JJ into the water. Asking him if he wanted to do it, he said yes, put his head under and swam into the dark, closely followed by me. Quite amazing really that at just 5 he could swim 2 meters down and 4 meters into the unknown!! It was pretty exciting for him to be in the cave, but it was the swim that did it for him and on surfacing outside he looked pretty pleased with himself. Louis, although fully kitted up in the dinghy, was just too young for that sort of stuff, but he enjoyed being in the dinghy and part of the action. While having lunch on Lucy Blue we headed back to the anchorage all feeling good that we had found and swam Mariners cave.
We spent the following few nights at anchorages in the outer islands and when the weather closed in we headed back to town for shopping, internet and a bit of regatta fun. It was wet and windy, but in the relative calm of the harbour, being close to town and the action was probably the best place to be. As part of the regatta, which was more of a local festival really, there were craft markets, BBQ’s, a few races and a good social programme. The Craft market was great and we bought a traditional, carved Tongan sword / dagger made from the bill of a broad bill fish. I’m not sure what we will do with it, but you have just got to buy these things when you see them.
I’m not really that keen to Race Pegasus, as she is our home, but I thought it would be fun to race down to Vakaeitu Island where we were going to go to the Full Moon Party. I was a bit wary at the start with 30 boats in the close harbour, and Pegasus is not really suited to short tacking, but we got the hang of it and avoided any mishap, arriving top third of fleet at the anchorage and finish.
At sundown we took the dinghy round to the small beach and landed at the full moon party. Set in a natural bowl straddling the small peninsular with a lagoon and ocean beach the setting was perfect. Valet parking for dinghy’s, two sound systems, Bar, BBQ, big screen images and entertainments…looked like a great party, and it was. There were lots of children, and we knew plenty of people so we all had a great time. After midnight we headed back to Pegasus vaguely surprised to find that we had the right dinghy. A great night enjoyed by all.
A swim and breakfast freshened us up and we headed off to spend a few days at Euakafa Island, 5 miles to the SE. This uninhabited island is absolutely stunning, although not a great anchorage. We were in the lea of the island, so quite comfortable, and while it was windy and there was the worry of the anchor dragging, the beauty and water clarity made it quite special. We shelled on the beach, walking round the island, and climbed through the jungle, past the tomb of a historic Tongan queen, to a fantastic look out over the islands and anchorages of the Vava’u group. A large humpback whale and its calf swam down the channel north of the island for 2 hours and we watched as the wale and calf dived and surfaced 200 meters from our boats. On the way back it rained and we made jungle umbrellas out of young palm fronds. Lighting a fire on the beach and having a BBQ was a step too far and as the heavens opened again 13 wet bodies and the remains of the BBQ decamped to Lucy Blue for another good evening with our friends.
The vagabonds wanted to head out to another island but we thought that with the windy wet weather the best place was in town, so upped sticks and headed back to Neiafu. We had to take on a few supplies and get ready to leave, so we picked up another buoy and headed into town. That evening, as part of the regatta, we had been invited to a reception hosted by the Governor, so dressed in our finery, with the boys as pirates, we attended the reception and prize giving. Everyone won a prize, of course, and after dinner we returned to Pegasus feeling like it was time to leave and push on to Fiji. We had to complete our customs and immigration duties and tied up on the wharf again, to take on the duty free fuel we had organised. We did a bulk purchase with the Vagabonds and the Blues, and after a couple of hours we were ready to go. With so much rain we had filled our tanks with the water catcher, and we had stores, the only thing stopping us was the weather. With the delay over fuel it was 4pm (and Friday!) so we headed up to Port Morrell again to wait and see what the morning would bring.
Saturday and still windy. We were well sheltered but out at sea it was blowing a full 30+kts….let’s look at tomorrow. Sunday 12th September looked good, and Lucy Blue with Vagabond Heart left at about 11am. I had developed Tonsillitis and was on antibiotics again, the second time since leaving Bora Bora. Once they kicked in later that afternoon, it was time to go. We put up the main, pulled up the anchor and headed through the islands in 20kts on the port aft quarter heading for Fiji via the Lakemba passage in the Lau group. The weather looked steady at 20’s from the ESE, then easing on the final day or so to 12-16Kts ESE. Sounded perfect. Although feeling weak I knew that the steady conditions meant a less physical passage, and it felt good… the right time.
We really only saw the true beauty of the Vava’u group once, standing on top of the mountain on Euakafa Island. The skies cleared briefly and as the sun broke through, the water shone turquoise with the reef clear and apparent. We saw the island stretching into the distance in the beautiful water and it felt like paradise waiting to be explored. Most of our time there it had been windy and wet with the SPCZ hovering overhead, so that the true beauty had eluded us. With the convergence zone heading NE we hoped for fine weather, and that our time in Fiji would be different.
See our photographs of Vavau Tonga at