Pacific Crossing 2010-12
November 2011 - April 2012 Logs
Cyclone Season in Vava’u, Tonga
November 2011- April 2012
As we finish up our final projects and wait for a weather window to head south to Tonga’s Ha’apai Group we thought it was time for an end of season wrap-up of our stay here in Vava’u.
When we made the decision to remain in Tonga back in October it was with two simple goals in mind; to stay warm and to get our diving certificates. I am happy to report that we have remained very warm and that we can now swim with the fish. Beyond that we have had a wonderful time shifting gears into “Tonga Time.”
Our “off season” began in mid-November with a trip home to the States. We spent six weeks visiting with family and friends, eating excessively, buying gear and getting Roger’s hand operated on. All this in the frigid New England weather we had fled in the fall of 2010. As we stood at an airport shuttle bus stop on a sub-zero Montreal evening shortly after Christmas, clad only in a layer of fleece and windbreakers, our minds no longer focused on missing our loved ones and instead prayed for any bus to appear to transport us back to our appointment with Tonga.
Back in Tonga -Taking the Plunge
After spending the first week of the New Year hacking and moaning through airline-induced illnesses in what seemed to be weather slightly warmer than we had ordered, things began to look up. We made a date with Karen and Paul of Dive Vava’u to begin our dive certification course. We read the book and watched the video and were ready to take the next step. Unfortunately when we attempted to move the boat to Neiafu Harbor to spend the duration of our course the shaft seal gave way and we began to sink. Not in a critical “we’re going down” sort of way but in a “Babe, can you go fetch the emergency bilge pump” sort of way. Once the flow of water was stemmed, we turned around (using the dinghy tied amidships) and headed back the two miles to the mooring we had left just a few minutes before. Dive classes were postponed until the more pressing shaft seal issue was resolved.
One week later. Two shaft seals were retrieved from Customs. One was successfully installed and one was held in reserve for a possible “next time.” Diving classes were commenced. According to the video on learning to dive there is a very gentle introduction to the “underwater” experience by putting one’s face underwater in a pool while breathing through a regulator. Not so here in Tonga. Karen, our wonderful instructor is definitely not of the wimpy video persuasion. After a few mornings of technical discussion we boarded the dive boat DevOcean and headed to the site of our first dive. Naturally there was no pool thing. We donned all our gear (which, I have to tell you, weighs a ton) and were told to take a giant step off the back of the boat. It must be obvious that we survived our introductory course and even made our way through the advanced open water one as well. Between Dive Vava’u and, when they disappeared to the Antarctic for vacation, Riki of Riki Tiki Diving, we made dozens of terrific dives around Vava’u over the season. Now we’re ready for Micronesia and beyond.
November through April is summer in Tonga. The weather warms up, as does the water making for nice (80+) swimming and diving temps. Unfortunately warm water breeds cyclones in the South Pacific. Think Florida in September. Everyone watches the weather much more closely and low pressure systems are given very suspicious looks. Happily, given modern forecasting tools, cyclones can be forecast thus planned for several days in advance. At least that’s what people say. Meet Cyril.
We spent the morning of Sunday, February 5th debating whether we should take a taxi into town a day early for the NFL Superbowl. Monday the 6th (Superbowl Monday in Tonga) was forecast to have thirty knot winds and be perhaps a bit too damp for a pleasant dinghy ride. We decided to batten down the hatches, secure the dinghy on deck, tie down the wind generator, bulk up the mooring lines and head in to cheer for the New England Patriots. Our friends on Soggy Paws volunteered to take their dinghy to the beach since it had its small engine on it and would be easier to carry up the beach to stash away from the weather. We spent the night at K&L Accommodations and made our way to the Aquarium Café at noon on Monday for the game. The wind was blowy in the morning but dropped by afternoon. After an unfortunate loss by the home team we made our way back to the boats which were none the worse for wear. The forecast was for diminishing wind overnight. Roger loosed the wind generator and we settled in for the night.
The wind did diminish…but only for a while. At six a.m. the wind woke us both. Baker, an expat who provides the weather on the morning net, suddenly announced over VHF ch. 16 that we were in the midst of a cyclone warning. Because we had secured above-decks for our trip to the Superbowl the previous day we were in better shape than we might have been otherwise. The dinghy was on deck, there was no loose equipment above-decks, the mooring pennants, though not in cyclone mode, were very well protected by chafe gear. Our mainsail was still below, having been removed for our trip home, but our genoa had gone back up just the week before. There were about one million wraps on it so our fingers were crossed. At any rate, Cyril was already upon us with his 65-70 knot winds so there was nothing we could really do. The only regret we had was that the wind generator wasn’t tied down. By the time we had our undies and raincoats on there was no getting near it without risking life and limb. Our digital barometer was really a sight to see. Meanwhile things were not as good for our neighbors on Soggy Paws and Sea Flyer. Soggy Paws found themselves on the bow of Sea Flyer doing neither any good. Dave on Soggy Paws dove to extract Sea Flyer’s mooring line from in front of their rudder, finally freeing them. This left Dave aboard Sea Flyer (stern platform gone from Soggy so no way to reboard) watching as his first mate, Sherry, tacked back and forth on their mooring trying to avoid further encounters with their neighbor. All in all it was a morning we’d rather not repeat. On a positive note no one was hurt and the cyclone lasted only a few hours when they can sometimes hang around for days.
By mid-February the weather took a turn for the better with lots of sun to dry us out. The wind was negligible but with only our genoa up and no wind generator we were resigned to a certain amount of engine time anyway. The benign weather and good light provided us with the opportunity to do some exploring.
One of our favorite spots was the Island of Vaka Eitu. The anchorage itself was good, with protection from most directions. The bottom had a fair number of coral heads but we found if we stayed in water over forty feet we were fine. The big draw for us was the snorkeling/diving. On the west side of the Island was a wonderful reef with healthy coral and a huge variety of fish. In order to get to the west side we had to make our way across to the outside of the reef. We did this once by swimming and several times by dinghy. Crossing on a relatively calm day around high tide seemed to work the best.
We made our way to the south end of the Vava’u Group during a particularly calm period and anchored at Fonua ‘One’ One. The scenery there was breathtaking. We anchored on the northwestern end in sand behind an outcropping of reef. We spent the afternoon snorkeling at the neighboring Island of Fangasito which was pretty but really deserved scuba gear because of the depth. Unfortunately, with the rise of the tide our nifty anchorage had become a bit rolly and we took advantage of the remaining good light to head back north to a more protected spot.
Among our favorite anchorages were the west side of Nuku, the northeast end of Taunga and the west side of Ovalau. They each had lovely scenery and nice holding in sand. Ovalau even had a resident goat population which was fun to spy on. We enjoyed Kenutu for its great views of the ocean from spectacular cliffs. The bottom line on Vava’u cruising during cyclone season is that if the weather is good to travel you are often the only boat at whatever anchorage you choose to visit.
Late in February the 4’x4’x8’ crate that we had filled with our stateside purchases arrived by ship in Vava’u’s main town, Neiafu. (We owe a big Thank You to Amy’s cousin Mike for hauling us from LAX down to Long Beach during our return flight layover to pack it with the boxes that S.F. Enterprises had received for us.) The crate held, among other things, two 185 watt solar panels, scuba gear, spare parts, cruising guides and selected non-perishable food products. If we had any hope of finding a needed tool or a required widget to assist us in our projects it would be in Neiafu so we anchored ourselves in town with our new trove of treasures and set to work.
The most important of the projects was the installation of the two additional solar panels. This was especially pressing since we had lost the use of our wind generator (read: no longer had blades or a tail) during the Cyril incident. After a week of bimini frame changes, creating a way to attach the solar panels to the bimini and the minor detail of wiring it all up, Roger successfully brought our solar power capacity up to 500 watts. There was great excitement aboard but for Roger’s back which had several complaints.
Neiafu is a very laid back place to spend time, especially in the “off” season. We found Tongan people to be quiet but friendly and extremely helpful. They are very family oriented and traditional in their dress and lifestyle. We took a day-long car tour of the Island with Primrose who is a weaver at the handicraft market. His insight into Tongan culture was very helpful in our education.
During our stay in Vava’u the King of Tonga passed away and a period of mourning was instituted. This entailed wearing black clothing and draping buildings in black and royal purple fabric, among other things. Hundreds of locals boarded a specially scheduled ferry to attend the funeral in Tongatapu, a few hundred miles to the south. We own only one black tee-shirt each and thus made minimal trips to town during this stretch. There does seem to be some flexibility in the dress code as we noted that Isaac, our taxi driver, picked us up during the mourning period wearing a black Red Hot Chili Peppers concert tee-shirt .
The expat community is small but very visible since they run the bulk of the restaurants along the waterfront as well as the few resorts in the area. Kiwis, Aussies, British and Americans seem to predominate. The missionaries, of whom there is no shortage, are less visible. As in all small communities gossip is what it is and you can’t be here long without hearing more than you want to know.
The Inevitable Food Discussion
The Tongans have root vegetables embossed on one of their coins. Root vegetables are very important to Tongans. We are talking GIANT root vegetables. The ’Utukalongalu Vegetable Market, located on the Neiafu waterfront, is a constant source of entertainment for Amy. The vendors on the sidewalk outside the Market deal mainly in the larger roots. Manioc, Taro, etc. Inside under a roofed area are the vendors who sell Palangi (foreigner) vegetables. By about February the Tongan climate takes its toll on our exotic veggies. Small piles of gumball sized green tomatoes are made desirable by the addition of one pink tomato on top. If a head of lettuce appears on a table the response is akin to the running of the bride’s at Filene’s Basement. As adaptable cruisers however, we have made great strides in learning to use some of the (smaller) Tongan vegetables. Our favorite among these is Pele, also known as Tongan spinach. Sometimes you can buy it in tidy bunches, other times you have to take the shrub home and strip it yourself. Kumara, the Tongan sweet potato is yummy as is its larger friend the Ufi (Yam). The snake beans (1’ long) are a great improvement on our traditional beans, labor-wise. Cucumbers and eggplants somehow continue to turn up with great consistency throughout the season. With the help of the market ladies, Ahake, Mina, Tema, Pelelini and innumerable others we have staved off possible starvation. We’ve stopped eating meat and cheese for now so happily we haven’t had to deal with that side of the equation.
Ha’apai & Fiji Bound
Over the last several weeks we’ve been preparing for our next destinations. Unlike the more well traveled areas of the world, navigational charts for the places we’ve been recently and the places we’ll be going for the foreseeable future are fairly unreliable. Reliable waypoints are very helpful and good visibility is a must. We try to collect references to places that are particularly bad and make notes. We have also started downloading Google Earth “photos” to overlay on our electronic charts. Any additional tool is worth trying as we attempt to get ourselves safely from point A to point B.
With possible itineraries in our minds we finish our last tasks before departure. As we look forward to new adventures we also look back at our decision to spend the season in Tonga. Though we had some scary moments we also take with us some wonderful memories of the Tongan people, their simple way of life and the beautiful Islands that they call home.
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