Pacific Crossing 2011-12
Apia, Sunday September 25th – Saturday, October 1st
It was only a seventy-five mile shot to Apia, Samoa so we headed out of Pago Pago in the mid-afternoon Saturday the 24th. Blissfully the anchor again came off the bottom of the Harbor without a fight. Needless to say I had spent a good deal of time worrying about being stuck so of course we weren’t. The first leg of the trip was downwind once again but after we passed the northwest corner of Tutuila it became a broad reach. We were thrilled. Just before sunset we encountered humpback whales lolling around in our path. They were “waving” and sort of messing around. I had to change course to avoid them. I was unsettled as dusk fell and I passed another pair headed south in the opposite “lane”. I hoped we would all miss one another in the impending darkness. It proved to be a beautiful night of sailing despite the fact that both of us seem to have acquired some sort of flu in Pago Pago.
We arrived outside of Apia at 8:00 am, which was apparently newly 9:00 am Apia time. We hailed Apia Port Control and they told us to hail them again when we were headed in on the range and they would send an escort out. It turns out that our electronic charts were way off and we sort of hunted and pecked our way in until we were met by the Customs boat which guided us to the Marina. It was a bit like old home week once we were tied to the dock. Quicksilver and Dream Away were just getting ready to head out so we were able to catch up briefly. Soggy Paws and Chesapeake had arrived a few days before us so it was a rather festive Sunday morning.
We spent Monday morning entertaining an array of Samoan officials. Everyone but Immigration had turned up by noon. By three we finally received word that we should take ourselves to the Immigration Office downtown so we piled into a taxi with another recent arrival and took care of our business. By five pm we were free to move about Samoa.
Samoa (formerly Western Samoa) is a good deal larger than American Samoa with a land area of 2,800 square km and a population of 175,000. Unlike American Samoa it is an independent nation.
Given the size of the Island we decided to share a rental car with Soggy Paws for several days to take in as many sights as we could. Our first cultural event required neither car nor map. Just across the street from the marina was an ice cream parlor which sponsored a weekly fire dance. In an attempt to preserve the culture a local group was training Samoan kids in traditional dances, singing and fire handling. Cruisers as well as locals gathered one evening to watch the performance. The kids were terrific and very proud of their skills. Flaming batons flew through the air, spun behind backs, between legs and were eventually extinguished by one body part or another. It was a fun event.
The car tour was a two day extravaganza. The plan was to tour the east end of the Island followed by the south coast where we’d spend the night in a traditional fale. Day two would take us west and over to Manono Island then back to Apia. All went well the first morning. We went for a dip in the Piula Cave Pool under the Methodist Theological College then headed out a fairly remote track towards the village of Uafato which is famous for its woodcarving. It was at about this time that we realized we had neglected to fill up the gas tank. Things hadn’t reached crisis levels but they were not great. There is almost no commerce to speak of in the countryside of Samoa. There appears to be subsistence farming and that’s about it. We talked to the car rental place and they couldn’t think of a gas station in our neighborhood. Several locals we asked said to go to Aliepata, the more populous area on the east coast. Off we went, trying to estimate the approximate mpgs of our nifty Toyota SUV as we sped southeast. Lunchtime and no gas station yet. We ate at Litia’s in Lalomanu, watching the whales offshore and speculating about our fate. After lunch we wended our way from the east coast and along the south coast. We eventually stumbled upon a gas station but he had no gas. He was able to assure us that there was another gas station not too far away. Fingers were crossed.
At about two in the afternoon we found our lucky gas station. This one actually had fuel. There was much joy. Our focus now shifted to finding a place to stay for the night. It wasn’t necessarily going to be easy since much of the coastline was still in shambles from the tsunami which had struck two years ago to the day. Many people were killed and huge swaths of roadway and property were carried out to sea. We stopped at several likely spots but without success. Finally at about six pm we stopped at a small store to ask for suggestions. John Pisina, the proprietor, said that his family had a number of beach fales at the end of the 3km dirt road across the way. Off we went in search of the Matareva Beach Fales. John’s Sister and her Husband were running the fales after recently returning from many years of living in Seattle. They were just what we were looking for. John’s Sister took our dinner orders and phoned up to the convenience store where our meals would be cooked and then delivered. Mattresses, bedding and mosquito nets were carried out to the fales while we went for a swim. The couple’s two year old daughter, Diana, walked the beach with us and we all enjoyed what turned out to be a successful day.
After a peaceful, mosquito-free night we gathered for a breakfast of green papayas, bread and Samoan cocoa. The couple described their recent experience of having hosted a large number of the Survivor TV show crew for several months. They still seemed to be cleaning up after the experience.
By nine we had packed up and headed on our way, glad to have tried rustic fale living. Day two of our tour included a drive through the agricultural interior of the western end of the Island and a boat ride over to Manono Island for a walk and lunch. At the small boat dock facing Manono Island we hired a man to take us across and bring us back after our walk. The Island is quite small and requires only about two hours to trek all the way around. Naturally we arrived at high noon with the sun blazing overhead. It was a beautiful walk with great water views. There are no cars, horses or dogs on the Island so the walking is easy. As with everyone we had met over the last few days the greeting we exchanged was “Go Manu!” instead of the traditional “Talofa” or hello. There was quite a bit of excitement in Samoa in anticipation of the upcoming South Africa – Samoa rugby match. Kids in particular found our greeting to be very amusing. We finally found the Sunset Beach Fales and our long awaited lunch. We chatted with the only other customers, the crew of the Swedish yacht Mary. They were tied up across from us in Apia and were also doing a bit of land touring. They had spent the night on the Island and were waiting for their ride ashore. After lunch we made our way back to the dock and found our boat waiting for us. “Would it be ok”, our Captain asked,” if my cousin came along for the ride back to the mainland?” “Not a problem”, we said. Soon we were joined by several of the Captain’s cousins, someone’s grandmother, a giant pile of weaving and two cartons of canned fish. We spent an enjoyable crossing talking to the women and answering their questions about our travels. As we arrived at our destination one of the women, dressed in a long, traditional Samoan dress, went to the bow and heaved a large anchor made of rebar over the side. The Captain then swung the stern into the pier and we all made our way ashore. Ferry rides differ greatly from place to place. The Manono Island ferries were no exception.
We pointed the rental eastward and back to Apia. This was the big night. We were going to watch (on the big screen) our first rugby match. At nine-thirty pm several yachties headed to a big tent which had been erected across the street from the Marina. There was a large screen set up and several locals selling Manu t-shirts around the edge of the tent. The place was packed with Samoans of all ages. Many people were sitting in the grass while others sat at tables further back under the tent. Compared to US sporting events the crowd was definitely a wholesome one. I lasted through the first half before I began to nod off. I left Roger and Dave to cheer in my absence. Sadly Samoa lost but I’m told they played well and the locals were happy despite the outcome.
The next day we rounded out our Samoa tour with a visit to Robert Louis Stevenson’s house and a hike to his tomb on the hillside above. Stevenson spent the last years of his life living in Samoa and was beloved by the locals. He must have been popular given what it would take to carry a coffin to the top of the hill. Quick stops at the Papapapai Waterfall overlook, The Baha’i house of worship and dinner at a good Indian restaurant and we were done.
Saturday, October 1st we made a final trip to the vegetable market for some final provisioning before leaving for Tonga on the 2nd.
Passage to Niuatoputapu, Sunday, October 2nd – Tuesday, October 4th*
We left Apia bright and early Sunday morning for the one hundred and seventy-five mile passage to Niuatoputapu (very sacred coconut). The Island is the largest in the Niuas Group of Northern Tonga. Initially there was absolutely no wind which then became wind astern. Soggy Paws was not too far astern. We knew we were going to be making a left hand turn around the western end of the Island so we opted to leave the pole on deck and set the sails when we rounded the corner. What a sail it was. We deployed full main and genoa in Apollima passage between Samoa and Savaii and were able to maintain the same set all the way to our destination the following day. Despite the trip taking only thirty hours we suddenly found ourselves in the midst of Tuesday instead of Monday. Tonga sits just west of the international dateline so Monday, October 3rd was gone but not forgotten. A few hours before our landfall we crossed paths with a westbound sailboat. It turned out to be Helena, our Belgian/Venezuelan friends, heading for Lautoka in Fiji. Just east of the volcanic Island of Tafahi and one hour before Niuatoputapu Roger hooked a Wahoo. It was a beautiful fish and swiftly became beautiful fillets.
The entrance to Niuatoputapu was narrow but we had good waypoints and the range markers were in place. The sun was high since it was just about one pm so we had no problems entering. There were half a dozen boats already at anchor and we dropped the hook and waited for the officials to come to the boat, which they did at about three pm. After Roger dispatched some of his catch to Soggy Paws and Dream Away we sat down to an appetizer of fresh sushi followed by marinated Wahoo on the grill. This was followed by an early bedtime.
On Wednesday morning Averill from Dream Away took Sherry and I to check in with the health officer and to pay our bill at Customs/Immigration/Quarantine while the guys repaired a hole in a local runabout. Hitching a ride on Niuatoputapu is a fairly easy affair and we made our rounds in no time. Av pointed out a variety of sights including the extensive tsunami damage. The same tsunami which struck the Samoas two years ago also hit Niuatoputapu, killing nine people and flattening several villages.
A local woman named Sia and her husband, Nico are very helpful to cruisers. When you arrive in the harbor they hail you with a welcome and contact the officials for you. They provide the venue for pot luck gatherings and hold pig roasts which are well attended. One of the errands (acquired via the cruiser grapevine) that Shango and Soggy Paws ran while we had the rental car in Samoa was to go to the auto parts store to buy Sia a new battery for her solar panels which power, among other things, her VHF radio. Roger went to each boat in Niuatoputapu harbor after we arrived and "offered" each cruiser the opportunity to chip in to cover the cost. The battery was presented at Wednesday evening’s pot luck. It was very well received.
On Thursday morning they guys moved from runabout repair to mechanical work. The engine which powers the kava grinder in front of Father Lawrence’s rectory had come to grief and required attention. The problem seemed to be a malfunctioning injector but after several days of fiddling there was no joy. After the initial work session Father Lawrence dropped the crews of Shango, Soggy Paws and Dream Away at the fresh water spring at the far end of the Island. After we swam and were nibbled by a few fish we walked back to “our” village via the back side of the central “range” of hills. The Island is pretty small so it didn’t take more than a few hours.
On Friday morning we, along with Soggy Paws and Karen from Yolo hitched a ride to the high school and followed the path from there to a trailhead which takes you up to a ridge walk along the top of the Island’s hills. The trip is obviously not a particularly popular one for the locals and we had a hard time staying on the trail. After several false starts and wrong turns we finally made it to the ridge top. The trail was a bit more obvious on the ridge and we were able, once again, to hike our way home. The views were spectacular from the ridge. We even spotted some whales blowing offshore.
Friday evening we attended a pig roast at Sia’s. Pigs are everywhere on Niuatoputapu. They are free range pigs for the most part. They walk down the street, they forage on the beach, they sleep under the few cars that are around. The locals keep the big pigs for breeding so if they want to eat a pig they dispatch a small one. This is in part because they roast them on a spit which is spun by hand. Nobody wants to spin a large sized pig. Two small pigs had been done in for our dinner and fifteen cruisers made sure that nothing went to waste.
We spent Saturday preparing for our passage south to the Vava’u Group of Tonga.
Passage to Vava’u, Sunday, October 9th – Tuesday, October 11th
In September we had (for the most part) made the decision that we would to stay in Tonga for the cyclone season instead of heading to New Zealand. We wanted to stay in the warm weather and get our dive certificates before continuing our travels next season. We had been told about some cyclone moorings in Vava’u that came highly recommended so we thought we would take a look at them and make a final decision.
Because of our change in plans the passage to Vava’u would be our last for the season and the one which would bring to a close the first year of our trip. What we hoped was that it would be a re-run of our previous passage, a beam reach for all one hundred sixty five miles. I can tell you right up front that that is not what we got. What follows is our tale of the thirty hour passage which became the forty-eight hour passage. As I begin many of our passage logs, “We left Niuatoputapu bright and early on Sunday morning… Several other boats in the anchorage were headed out as well. In front of us were Aphrodite, Soggy Paws and Far Fetched. Behind us was Chesapeake. We rounded the eastern end of the Island and pointed south. There was a spectacular whale performance off the tip of the Island that made us pause and watch. Eventually we got the sails set for a fairly close hauled starboard tack. We wished there was a bit more wind but it was forecast to increase through the day.
At about one in the afternoon and thirtyish miles south of Niuatoputapu we heard a faint transmission on the VHF Radio. “Sailboat, can you see me? Hello, hello, hello!” “engine problems” At this point the transmission ceased. We craned our necks in every direction looking for a likely source. Nothing. We could see five or six sailboats around us but we knew that none of their crews had Tongan accents. Soggy Paws seemed to have the best (read: only) reception of the mystery boat at this point. They managed to get a position and a description of the problem. It was a Tongan fishing boat from Nuku ‘alofa (hundreds of miles south). What to do? There was no Tongan Coast Guard. No one in Niuatoputapu had more than a runabout with an out board. Three of us decided that we would go to the fishing boat and see if we could help them get their engine going. Soggy Paws, Shango and Chesapeake went as a group since we didn’t know what this detour would eventually entail. With a combination of radar and a reasonable lat/lon we arrived on the scene in about an hour. Lesila, our drifting Tongan fishing boat, was a thirty-three foot metal craft that none of us had the willingness or ability to tow which was their fervent desire. Tools were tossed from Soggy to Lesila. The three of us bobbed around in less than calm seas while repairs were attempted. No good. If nothing else, the fly wheel needed to be welded. We offered to take any or all of them back to Niuatoputapu. The Captain (not his boat) decided that two of them would take a lift and the other two would stay onboard. The two crew donned their “swim jackets” and jumped into the water. Roger hauled them up the swim ladder and we headed back in the direction we’d just come.
Chesapeake, the fastest of the three of us went ahead to try to raise Sia on her newly energized VHF while Shango and Soggy Paws followed. Our hope was to raise either Sia or one of the cruisers in the harbor to arrange a handoff outside the pass so we could turn around and head south again. We had a nice time chatting with our new “crew”. It seemed that this sort of things is just a normal part of being a Tongan fisherman.
Chesapeake managed to raise Eric on Secret Agent Man who in turn alerted Nico who got his runabout and a few crew ready to come out to meet us. Within several hours we were back at point A. Nico and Eric and several others I could not identify came alongside and picked up our friends and headed back in the pass. How the story was going to end, we had no clue.
It was ten o’clock at night and the three of us were beginning our journeys south once again. On the bright side the wind had improved and we weren’t so close hauled. The velocity had increased, which was also good. Things went along reasonably until Monday afternoon. The weather had been a bit squally during the day but nothing horrible. Roger decided to start the engine to make some headway out of a particularly ugly but windless area. Click, click. The engine wouldn’t start. Roger got on the VHF with Soggy Paws and the solenoid and the starter became prime suspects. Roger tried a variety of things including Dave’s old Volkswagen starting trick. Zippo. The seas were rather unappealing and with only about seventy-five miles left to go Roger decided that, unlike Lesila, we were a sailboat and we’d deal with the repairs once we were in Neiafu. It was a long night but at five am we were at the entrance to the Vava’u Group. The wind at the entrance was on the nose so, as we expected, Soggy Paws took us in tow and we made our way into Neiafu Harbor. Once again Chesapeake went ahead to organize some help. This time it was for several dinghies to attach themselves to our beam and guide us through the mooring field and stop us once we had made the pick-up. Aphrodite, Challenger, Far Star and Far Fetched all met us and tucked us in. By ten am, Tuesday, October 11th we were secure and hazily but happily surveying our new home, thanks to the ever helpful cruising community. Welcome to Neiafu…Finally.
Tapana, Vava’u, Thursday, October 20th
Update: One week later. It turned out that our engine failure was in fact a failed starter. Roger and Dave tackled the job the day after we arrived. Dave was particularly tickled by the amount of carnage inside the dead unit. Happily, Roger had a spare onboard so we were back in business by the end of the day.
Our friendly fishermen were returned to their boat by Eric on Secret Agent Man one day after they left. He hove to overnight to see if they were successful in their repair efforts. No such luck. By this time various authorities had been alerted to Lesila’s plight, and after four days of drifting around a little piece of the Pacific the Tongan Navy turned up and took them in tow back to Nuku ‘alofa. A Happy ending.
Once we could focus on our surroundings instead of boat issues we realized that we were back together with almost every boat we had left the Galapagos with last March. Quicksilver, the first boat we met on this trip was here. Spirare, our French Polynesia cruising partners were around the corner. Our fellow New Englanders on Kite were on a mooring in front of us. There were just too many to name. There was no end to the reunion celebrations. Add to that the Rugby World Cup fever that was sweeping the anchorage and there was no rest for the weary. After a week we disentangled ourselves from the mooring in Neiafu and headed to the tranquility of Tapana, a mere twelve miles south. Tapana is the location of Larry & Sheri's Ark Gallery and their cyclone moorings. Roger and Dave spent a good amount of time examining the moorings and were happy with what they found. The ground tackle was very impressive. So that was it. Tonga would be our home for the next six months.
On Wednesday, October 19th we celebrated the end of our first year away. It has been a terrific adventure. We’ve met an amazing array of people and experienced a variety of cultures, all of them interesting. Shango has fulfilled all of our expectations and we continue to appreciate the safety and comfort she provides to us. The sailing has, as always, run the gamut. Once we entered the Pacific downwind sailing predominated but we have had some sweet, sea-free lagoon trips and a few terrific beam reaches that cheered us greatly. Last, but certainly not least, the friendships, knowledge and help we have gained from our fellow cruisers has been wonderful. We genuinely appreciate them all.
That pretty well covers the 2010-2011 season. We are off to the States until the end of the year when we’ll return to Tonga for the bulk of the southern summer. Fingers are crossed that a combination of good preparation and a dose of luck in the mild weather department will allow us to continue our journey in May. Stay tuned. Fiji is next.
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