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The Two Captains



2C Update #143 - The Ha’apai – Part One   (July 9-Aug 1, 2006)

Passage Sunset

We didn’t really start our 2006 cruising season until we set sail for Tonga’s Ha’apai Island Group. The Ha’apai (Ha-a-pie) start about 60-some miles south of Vava’u and stretch in strands another sixty miles southward. Beyond the southernmost anchorage in the group – Kelefesia – it’s a 35-mile hop down to Nuku’alofa. Most cruising boats therefore visit the Ha’apai group during their southbound and northbound migrations to and from New Zealand at the end of one season or the beginning of the next.

We’d had a preview of the Ha’apai on our flights between Vava’u and Nuku’alofa. From the air it is very easy to see all the reef systems that give the group its reputation for complicated sailing. To the east is a long barrier reef that runs almost the whole length of the group, and on this strand are dotted a string of islands, including Lifuka, the main island of the group where are the airport and the town of Pangai, the Ha’apai’s administrative and commercial center. The rest of the Ha’apai’s 60 islands and reefs are scattered in cross strands to the west. And outside this coral maze some 20 miles even farther west two volcanic islands dominate the horizon, part of an arc of volcanic activity above and below the sea surface that parallels all of Tonga. The northernmost of the pair – Kao – has the more picturesque conical shape, but it is its flat-topped southern partner – Tofua – that produces columns of cloud to decorate the sunset.

Before departing from Vava’u, we’ were fortunate to be able to pick the brains of Sandy and Terry, veterans of fourteen years running the dive/sail charter boat Impetuous, a Beneteau 50, between Tongatapu and Vava’u (www.sailingtonga.com) . The Sailingbird Guide to Tonga, considered by all locals the best guidebook available, does a very good job documenting the Ha’apai’s anchorages, reefs, hazards and dive sites, but Sandy was able to annotate these. He added a few anchorages and gave us some qualitative assessments of the many varied UW attractions as well as a heads up on which navigation aids might not be working! In addition, I colored in our black and white chart copies with highlighters, a process that brought alive this complex group with hard to pronounce names. No number system in the Ha’apai!

In fact, more than any place we have been, paper charts were fundamental to our comfortably cruising in the Ha’apai. Our electronics charts, so useful everywhere else, could not give us enough detail at a scale that allowed us to see where we wanted to go. It was not that they were inaccurate. In fact, once I set the offset against one of the huge concrete-pylon nav aids in Pangai, the C-Map charts were close enough to be useful (if not utterly reliable!), and we were extremely grateful for the precious tracks in and out of places that the chartplotter plotted. It’s just the Ha’apai is so strung out, we’d lose important data at a scale broad enough for planning. (Note: we learned an important lesson about our chartplotter’s capacity to store tracks when we closed our loop back to Pangai only to discover that all the tracks we looked forward to re-using had been wiped out. Hence, seven years into using this chartplotter we learned about its important “Save Track as Route” function. The same applies to computer-based electronic charting.)

Our passage down – once we got going – went smoothly. We departed from Vava’u’s Port Maurelle anchorage at about four in the afternoon, with a course set west around Hunga before turning south. Although the distance between the island groups is one that many boats could manage in a daysail, we were not keen on possibly arriving in the unfamiliar anchorages of the Ha’apai after dark. (This proved to be wise after we saw firsthand the anchorages we might have counted on.) We had a good sail south, close-hauled in an east wind of about 15 knots, with a full-moon. Arriving early about four miles out, we hove-to to await good light, enjoying the spectacular dawn produced by heaping masses of clouds to the East.

Our first quasi stop was the anchorage at Ha’ano Island. Billed as a good rest stop, we picked our way in toward the mushroom-rock landmark. There were reefs to the right, reefs to the left, and reefs in the middle, plus deep water until there wasn’t, and, coupled with the chop from the southeasterly wind, there was little inviting about the place for our size boat. We turned and departed. I’d be lying if this first disappointing anchorage didn’t make us anxious about what else we’d find in the Ha’apai.

Fortunately, things got better. We decided that given the massing clouds, we might as well head straight for Pangai. The sail south across the bow-string course between Ha’ano and Muikuku Point was delightful, with brisk winds but small seas thanks to the protection by the almost connected islands of Foa and Lifuka. Entrance to Pangai’s anchorage area was far more straightforward than my charts -- with all the reefs highlighted in yellow and notations about missing markers -- would have suggested. We dropped the hook outside the harbor basin and got the boat put away just as a squall rolled through with cold heavy rain. We took the hint, and opted for lunch and a nap and didn’t clear in until the next day.

Pangai is a simple town a couple of blocks deep, but well strung out north and south. The interior harbor, defined by a substantial man-made breakwater, is big enough that several cruising boats can actually come inside and anchor. A larger group could med-moor. This becomes an attractive option should one get caught in Pangai with winds going to the West, the one direction there is little protection in this whole part of the Ha’apai. The wharf has two landing stages built to accommodate the changing tide. One (the better one, of course, for the wind conditions) was occupied by a family fishing, so we tied up on the other, setting a stern anchor to keep the dinghy out from under the massive beams.

Customs Office

We found our way a few blocks south to the customs office, a pleasant building under the shade of a huge spreading tree. In a back office we sat and chatted a bit with Sam, by far the friendliest official we have met in Tonga. Even though the Ha’apai is part of Tonga, cruisers are required to check in and out. This requirement is eased to a single stop for boats passing through one way or the other, but because we planned to go back to Vava’u, Sam wanted us to return before we left and held on to our papers. This was slightly inconvenient as, given the shape of the cruising ground, I had thought we might want to be free to sail back north from the western islands, maybe passing by Tofua, the Ha’apai currently active volcano, and perhaps had we felt strongly enough to make the point, Sam might have accommodated us. Indeed, I am fairly sure that some of the few boats we saw in the Ha’apai never checked in at all. How they get away with that at the next port, I have no clue! We prefer to play by the rules.


After our stop, we wandered around the simple but pleasant town. We thought to go find the hospital, which was the one building reported to have suffered major damage in the 7.9 earthquake that actually put Tonga in the headlines for a half day last May. We never found it, but we did find a building identified as the Afa Eli Historical Museum. We poked our noses in to find things in the museum were rather topsy turvy. Our first thought was earthquake damage, but we shortly learned that the woman who put together this little collection – Virginal Watkins – had just died! The funeral, a big affair, was only just over! Virginia’s daughter Rose, an American from England, was coping with consolidating huge piles of stuff into one room that she hoped they would be able to afford to keep open. She invited us in to poke around, speaking of our missing her mother as if the dignified woman had just stepped out to another village for the day!


Mariner's Inn
Trevor Gregory

The other highlight of Pangai is the Mariner’s Café, the only restaurant in town. Operated by Trevor Gregory, a cruiser who got snagged here eight years ago, the café is a major meeting place. A group of visiting teachers was conferring at a table in back, two med students interning from Fiji were lunching at another, a young Dutch couple on a two-year travel sabbatical waited for a taxi to take them to the airport, and we sat down to a couple of Mariner burgers, towering sandwiches with a bit too much bread and way too many French fries! We signed Trevor’s cruising log, and of course, flipped through exclaiming over all the boats we knew who’d passed through before us, while he told us a little about his history and how he’d like to sell the café and go cruising again.

T2 off Uoleva

After lunch we weighed anchor and moved about six miles south to the next island Uoleva, putting our hook down in the southern of its two anchorages. This is surely one of the most beautiful anchorages we have ever been in. It is a wide bight protected to the south and north by reef systems and headed by a long, perfectly-curving beach of golden sand. Huge coral heads loom up from the bottom as you enter the bay, but farther in we found plenty of clear sand about 25’ deep. No other boats were in sight, and the only signs of humans were the two backpacker “resorts” (camps) at the north end, a runabout parked on the edge of the woods, and a tent about one third of the way from the south end.

In the morning we dinghied ashore and, walking the beach, met the campers in the tent. This proved to be an American woman named Patty, her daughter and two grandchildren. Patty, who’d discovered Tonga while crewing on a cruising boat, had recently bought the eight acres on which she camped. Of course in Tonga, buying is actually leasing, but still, at

Uoleva Beach
Landowner Patty and Family

USD$58,000, with 500 feet of waterfront on both sides of the island, it seemed like a helluva deal, and she was full of plans of the fale resort she would build here. It sounded idyllic. Of course, if all the resorts (rustic and upscale) we have heard about being in the works actually get built, things will really change in Tonga. This particular spot is almost practical as the island is still very close to Pangai and its airport. Still, there are absolutely no services in place, construction materials would have to all be shipped in, and the low flat land struck us as very vulnerable to storm surges and tsunamis (earthquakes always on the mind), so it’s a big fantasy. Of course Don and I are no strangers to fantasy, and we allowed ourselves to borrow Patty’s for the next several days. The thing is, as entrancing as these land chances seem to be, to us it always comes back to the very big negative of being fixed in one place.

T2 Makes a Pretty View
Uoleva Sunset

The next day we snorkeled the big coral reef on the north side of the anchorage. Don brought along his spear gun but, finding nothing to aim at, was disappointed. My pleasure not being tied to hunting, I enjoyed myself, although the water was pretty darn cool. This set a tone for much of the rest of our time in the Ha’apai, -- that is Don having little interest in snorkeling if there weren’t fish to spear --with the result that I went mostly by myself.

The following day we crossed the Ava Auhanga Mea pass and entered the next island length of Ha’apai’s eastern reef that starts with Tatafa Island. West of Tatafa is a big boomerang-shaped sand and reef structure that Sandy of Impetuous had pointed out as a very important shelter to know about in the case of westerly winds. Given the fine weather report, we sailed on by down to another set of small islands: Tofanga, Uonukuhihifo and Uonukuhahake (these names become more manageable if you know that uo means lobster, hahake means east and hihifo means west, i.e. east and west lobster island!!)

Don on Tofanga's Windward Shore

We anchored first at Tofanga, and enjoyed a near perfect afternoon. Walking ashore we quickly found a spot to cross over to the windward side. Here was a scavenger’s heaven of mooring balls and buckets. Don collected a pile to take back to Vava’u for Larry of the Ark. Also, the coconut palms here were low enough that Don could easily reach with his machete to hack down a couple of green drinking nuts. There is nothing to beat a cool coconut water on a hot sunny day! The beach was fringed on the windward side by very shallow reefs and tiny sand sharks darted around in the four inches of water. A wide apron of sand at the north end was liberally sprinkled with shells, and as we rounded it our first whale of the season spouted and breeched a mile or two off.

Sand Sharks
Green Coconut Refreshment

In the afternoon we moved the boat a mile or two farther down to anchor behind a big sandbar connecting the two Uonuku Islands. Just as we pulled in a pod of dolphins came and went to the sw, the only dolphins we’ve ever seen in Tonga! Not willing to waste a moment of this beautiful day, I jumped in for a long snorkel around Uonukuhihifo’s south reef. Don, worrying about current, followed me for an hour in the dinghy, allowing me to swim all the way through the Ava Mata Mata Veka Pass and halfway along the coral wall on the windward side. Of course, this was the swim he should have brought his gun along. I saw hordes of large parrots in the rocks of the inner point, but although I looked intently I saw no Uo (lobster) anywhere along the dramatic coral wall of the outer reef. I did see my first Napoleon wrasse of the year, and as the afternoon light waned, my first shark. Don’t like sharks when I’m snorkeling. Time to get out!

T2 Alone off Tofanga

Sunset View of the Two Volcanos

Sunrise Boding Weather Change

It turned out to be a good thing we made the most of the day, because the weather changed the next, forcing us to backtrack in strengthening nor ‘easterlies up to Tatafa and the boomerang reef. As winds backed through the north into the west at twenty knots, we hunkered down first in the lee of Tatafa, and then, as the wind backed into the west, we moved to the elbow of the boomerang reef. Don was very skeptical that this submerged sand and reef cay would be enough to knock down the building seas. We felt like were sitting completely out in the open! But, amazingly, the boat sat steady for the duration: a little pitch, but no roll, becoming a little bouncy in about one foot of chop at high tide. I snorkeled the anchorage and found a near perfect bottom, heavy sand with almost no coral, except on the protecting bank itself. Unfortunately, because that was so shallow, most of the coral was skeletal. We remained behind the boomerang cay for two full days not minding a bit as we always have plenty to occupy us on board.



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