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The Two Captains


2C Update #136 - Vava'u, Tonga  Part 5  (September 15 - November 29, 2005)
Change of Plans

During the course of October, Don and I continued to make plans to depart for Fiji where we had a haul-out reservation at Vuda Point Marina.  We poured over charts with friends who’d spent time there, read the guide book, and started thinking about making the 450 mile passage.  Even as we did so, we found ourselves increasingly entwined with the community here in Vava’u, and the same time sensitive about all the anchorages in the archipelago to which we hadn’t yet been.  We started hypothesizing about how feasible it would be to backtrack next year.

In October, Vava’u fills with the final waves of trans-Pacific cruisers, most preparing to make a left turn to head south to New Zealand for cyclone season.  Friends we’d been traveling with all season were departing to Tongatapu, Tonga’s southernmost island and the usual jumping off point for the New Zealand passage, even as stragglers we’d known in Mexico were just arriving.
Tackless II at Sisia

Although New Zealand is a place that we would very much like to visit, little we have heard about it makes it sound like a place these two tropical Cs want to do by boat.  The passage to New Zealand can be a tough one.  No matter how closely one watches the weather, the odds are unlikely of making the trip without encountering contrary winds or a bad blow somewhere along the way.  And bad blows in that part of the world regularly reach 50-60 knots or worse as opposed to the 35 knots that shake up sailors in the tropics.  It’s bad enough the journey down can be nasty, but, once you get there, even though December to April is their summer, all the reports we’d heard from friends in previous years made the coastal weather sound too chilly and blustery for our tastes and the  unheated, un-insulated interior of Tackless II.   Hence the plan to haul and store the boat in Fiji.

Among the southbound, conversations centered on weather windows, weather routers and whether or not to take on extra crew for the potentially arduous passage.  All this is particularly hard to take as you sit in Vava’u’s idyllic surroundings.  Why ever would you want to leave?  Well, okay, every week or so we were already getting low pressure systems that blew hard and dumped tons of rain.  (On Tackless, we kept our water tanks full for weeks just by opening the scuppers, a first since Panama!)  But in between, Vava’u was more beautiful than ever.

This is probably how spin-off conversations got started about staying through cyclone season in Vava’u.  Like the Virgin Islands in the Atlantic/Caribbean, Vava’u is definitely in the South Pacific cyclone zone.  There’s no kidding yourself that it’s not. But the locals claim that a bad storm hits the group only once every ten years. They also say the South Pacific cyclones are much smaller than Caribbean mega-storms, and the region being so much bigger reduces the odds of a direct hit. We knew, of course, that it can happen.  Our friends Baker and Cindy had arrived in Vava’u in December of 2001, just in time to sit out Cyclone Waka, a category V hurricane that dragged most of the boats and their moorings in Neiafu from one side of the harbor to the other!  We also knew, first-hand thanks to Hurricane Marilyn in the VI 1995, that a direct hit even by a small storm if it’s a nasty one can do plenty of damage.  Still, Ben and Lisa of Waking Dream had stayed last year with no problem and were busy putting down cyclone mooring in Neiafu for themselves and other friends that were forswearing heading south, and of course we knew that our buddies Mike and Mary had left their boat de la Mer on a mooring at Tapana in the care of Larry Schneider.


And so, just about the time we should have been taking off for Fiji, we found ourselves changing all our plans.  After confirming everything with our insurance company, we made arrangements with Larry to leave Tackless one of his three cyclone moorings for the five months we expected to be back in the States.  Larry’s mooring field in Anchorage #11 struck us as at least as protected as the main harbor if not more so, and it had the distinct advantage, should the worst happen and we get a direct hit, of having far fewer other boats to break free or structures to blow apart to cause havoc.    Larry would open the boat up to air every day possible, run the engine in gear every week, and fire up the generator once a month.  We had never before left the boat in the water like this, and we were nervous about the gamble, but our hope was (after the mess we’d come back to in Raiatea (see Update #126)) that T2 would actually be happier.

With this big decision came the bonus of six extra weeks in Tonga, since we already had our air tickets back to Tampa for early December.  What to do?

Comparison of Anchorages
Tapana in foreground, Neiafu in the distance

Like kids on vacation we used the time to wander about the rapidly emptying anchorages of Vava’u.  We snorkeled the reef of Sisia, a charming day anchorage we’d passed by a dozen times. We checked out the Japanese garden snorkeling site of Mala Island and binged on a steak dinner in front of the resort’s giant projection TV (one of the very few TVs in Vava’u) where we watched reports on Hurricane Wilma on CNN by satellite.  In Vaka Eitu we crossed paths with Antares Royale one of the boats that had been crunched in the Panama Canal just before we left in 2001 (See the end of Update #39), all put back together (after four years’ work!) and cruising happily!

One afternoon, we hid from wind behind round little Lape Island on the bight between Vaka Eitu an Nuapapu islands.  In the late afternoon, a local fisherman crept by and begged some gasoline from us.  His story was that he’d gotten some water in his tank and was having trouble making in back to his village on Nuapapu.  We gave him our jug and said we’d pick it up from him the next day.  Yes, it crossed our mind that we might never see the jug again, and yes, that’s gallons of fuel at about $4 a gallon that we just gave away, but it is part of the ethic of these islands that if you have something and someone needs it you share it with them.

Don and I have not spent much time exploring the scattered villages of Vava’u, but the next day we puttered across the windswept channel and tucked in front of Matamaka village.  One of the boats at anchor looked rather like the one we’d lent fuel to, but who’d know for sure, and how, we wondered, would we find its owner.  The only life in sight was a youngster playing cowboy on the beach, bareback on a horse loaded with coconuts!

Vaka Eitu left and
Nuapapu Islands with Lape in center

We needn’t have worried.  In the short time it took us to dinghy ashore, we were met at the rocky jetty by an attractive woman and her two children.  This was Va’aki, the wife of Ben the fisherman, and yes they had our jug, and would we please come to church and Sunday dinner with them tomorrow. 

Matamaka is not a large village: a  dirt track down the middle, one school, one little store that was closer to a stand, and only two hundred people in 40 families.  Houses are very simple affairs. Yet there are five churches.  The most prosperous looking ones were the Methodist church – which was having a big event that day -- and the brand new Mormon church with a mowed-grass lawn behind its brand new chain link fence.  None of them were big, but Ben and Va’aki and their three girls belonged to the Assembly of God Church which, all the way at the opposite end of the village from their house, was no larger than a house itself (about 15’x30’) and seemed actually to be built in Ben’s parents’ back yard. We deduced that most of the members were from the one extended family.  Up front was an altar bedecked in plastic flowers, the windows were draped with white curtains, and seating was on the floor on pandanus mats. 

It was a long service.  Like most church services in the South Pacific, singing was a huge part of things, and it matters little that you don’t know the language since you don’t know the tunes either.  In the Catholic church we attended in Pangai, the congregation was well over a hundred, so the music just washed over you like surf.  In Matamaka’s Assembly of God gathering, there were only six adult voices singing (6-part!) harmony to a guitar.  It was still fairly pleasing, although with so few in the chorus, individual voices tended to stand out….which is not always good.  Ben and Va’aki tried to translate the sermon as it went on – something along the gist of how devotion to Jesus takes precedence over daily chores (!), -- all this while sitting on the floor.  One of the neat things about this service was how small children were allowed to wander in and out at will, with older siblings tending them.  It provided us with some distraction.







Ben & Va’aki’s house and family

Back at Ben and Va’aki’s tiny house, she had prepared quite the feast with yam, taro, ota ika (Tongan ceviche in coconut milk) along with crab and lobster.    It was a bit disconcerting to be presented with lobster and crab in their shells with only a plastic fork provided as a tool.   And it didn’t help that Tongan hosts usually don’t eat while their guests do.   No clues, you see.  But somehow, we managed.  That afternoon, Ben, Va’aki, and what looked like about forty adults, all in their Sunday finery, departed for Neiafu on a boat surely built for no more than twelve.  However this apparently is something they do at least once a month to attend the monthly gathering of ALL the Vava’u Assembly of God members in “downtown” Neiafu!  The wind was still gusting and it looked mighty precarious to us!  When they still weren’t back the next morning, we left our grocery bags of thank-you gifts on their front stoop.  The charm of the whole experience was somewhat marred when we later learned those the bags got pilfered before they got home!  It makes for an ironic lesson on trust, doesn’t it?

Another highlight of our bonus time was the five days we spent in Vava’u’s “Eastern Anchorages”.  Because reaching this part of the archipelago involves transit of the tricky Fanua Tapu Pass through low-lying shoals, many boats never get the weather (or gumption) to bother.  Both arrived to us together on Sunday November 13, when we ventured through the pass and then onward past Ofu Island through the maze of reefs to Kenutu, the southernmost of a string of islands that make up the windward edge of Vava’u. 

It was a glorious spot with sunny weather, a bit of breeze, and golden beaches backed by coconut trees.  And we had it all to ourselves!.

The leeward beach at Kenutu...Don finds coconuts!

Kenutu and its sister islands present rugged cliff-fronts to the open ocean.  One of the first things we did was scout out the path said to lead through the forest to the top, which, once found, led us to an overlook reminiscent of Baja’s rugged islands, except framed in tropical green. (Sorry, forgot the camera!) Below swirled blues and emeralds around rocks and reefs in inaccessible coves, and offshore banks of coral sloped away to the blue deep.  On a day with more wind and swell, it would be quite the spectacle.

The shoals between Kenutu and Umuna from Umuna


Back on the sandy western sides of the islands,  we found we could walk from Kenutu across drying shallows studded with tide pools of blue starfish and black sea cucumbers to neighboring Umuna.  On Umuna is a path leading to a cave with a fresh water pool.  We’d pictured something like the ones on Western Samoa…something one might want to swim in.  Instead it proved to be a deep hole in the side of the hill, choked by saplings and populated by bats.

Umuna’s Cave!

Don climbed down to check for the pool (I’d foolishly (or not) only brought my sunglasses and it was too dark for me to see) and sure enough it was there, just studded with rocks and leaf debris.  Instead we wandered Umana’s beach to its northern end where a fabulous spit of sand curled a couple hundred feet out into the water.

Left: Umanu's Sand Spit


The guidebook promised good snorkeling and even diving if you had conditions that allowed you to get outside the reef south of Kenutu.  We had perfect conditions, but being the only boat in sight made us reluctant to be daring.  We did snorkel through the wave break to the outside one late afternoon, which was exciting.  And the next day we snuck up on the trough between Kenutu and its little satellite Lolo where the swell crashes in a torrent that nourishes a vibrant little coral garden in its foam…replete with a population of reef sharks swirling in the fizz!

Not until we were joined by two other boats – Rise ‘n Shine and Sandpiper, two other American boats committed to staying through the season, did we take the dinghy out around the reef though a shallow channel to the outside.  Here we found a tongue of deeper water thrusting into the reef, framed by coral cliffs.  On the top edge of the northern cliff was one of the most memorable mini-coral-scapes I have ever seen.  In no more than six feet of water, Mother Nature had arranged two simple types of coral – small flat table corals and upright staghorn-like corals – in what looked for all the world like an intentional arrangement of lily pads and candelabra!  Hopefully it will survive the off season and we can get back with a camera!  Farther out was a coral plateau probably forty feet deep.  Hopefully THAT will also be waiting for us when we get back next year with scuba gear.

After four days we left Kenutu to the other two boats, and checked out the other eastern anchorages, leeward of the next string of islands in – Ofu, Mafana, and ‘Olo’ua.  Ofu and ‘Olo’ua both have small villages on them who access the backside of Neiafu through a deep bay to the north known as Old Harbor.  We spent the day snorkeling around Mafana.  In a long swim that took us two-thirds the way around the island, we never found any pretty corals, but we saw a sequence of interesting things including our first lionfish of the season, three large permit fish (always a surprise to see big fish in shallow water), a huge bubble ball maybe 18 inches in diameter that I take to be some kind of algae or maybe some kind of anemone.  (Never seen the likes of it before. ) And, while floating on our backs speculating on whether we could swim all the way around, a colony of flying foxes (large fruit bats) hanging out (literally) and chattering in the trees above us!  We ended up the day by anchoring in a tricky sort of spot between ‘Olo’ua and a peninsula of the main island where islets around us literally came and went with the tides.

Aerial view of our ‘Olo’ua anchorage


Tackless II on the mooring at Tapana

After three weeks of play, we again began to feel the clock ticking down.  We had just weeks before our flight to Fiji, so there was no changing our minds again.   We were committed to leaving the boat.   And there was lots to do to get her ready.  So back we sailed to Tapana, taking the Fanua tapu pass under sail, and picked up the mooring on which Tackless would float for the next six months.



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