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The Two Captains



2C Update #144 - The Ha’apai – Part Two    (July 9-Aug 1, 2006)

Fishing with the Yoyo

After two days taking shelter from west winds behind the “boomerang reef” near Tatafa Island, we decided the wind had backed far enough south that we could sail the 21 miles southwestward to the Lulunga sub-group, the largest of the Ha’apai’s western island groups. Unfortunately, we were a little too optimistic, and the point of sail was too tight for our old condo, so, after four tacks got us nowhere, we had to resort to motorsailing. We trolled a line behind the boat for the first time in ages, although we did not anticipate enticing anything to bite since we were going slower than optimum fishing speed.

About half way across, we smelled smoke, always a heart-stopping moment. There’s no blaming it on a fire ashore when you are that far out in the open. Quick investigation revealed the engine room filled acrid smoke evidently from a short in the alternator, prompting an immediate shutdown. Luckily, we have a switch to shut off the alternator output, so after letting things cool down (and air out), we were able to resume motoring. As if in consolation, we did catch a fish, a kawakawa, according to our fish chart, a good eating smaller tuna! Obviously, a slow-witted fish!

The Lulunga Island group has five inhabited islands in several clusters, with lots of little uninhabited ones scattered around, and here the Ha’apai’s two volcanoes loom much closer on the horizon. We had planned to anchor at Ha’afeva, but the winds were still too southerly, so we continued on to Matuku whose anchorage -- a narrow sand ledge over a steep drop-off -- was protected to the south. We could see the roofs of the small village tucked behind the trees, and for the first time we found ourselves sharing an anchorage with another boat, a trim German cutter called Finte, although they were gone before coffee the next morning.

Matuku Island
View of T2 from Matuku

The day was a pretty one, the boat pointing again southeastward as the weather system of the previous four days finally let go its grip. We dinghied ashore to stretch our legs by walking the perimeter of the small island. We hadn’t made it one-third the way around when a trio of kids and several dogs caught up with us. The boy, older, ventured some conversation in hesitant English, but the girls mostly giggled. By the time we came back around to the dinghy the boy had negotiated me out of one of my strainers that he said his mother needed. I had hopes we would get some fruit in exchange, but that didn’t happen.

Hiking Around Matuku
Joined by Kids

After lunch we moved back up to Ha’afeva. It always amazes me how quickly the seas quiet down after a wind shift. Now the lee was the lee. We anchored just north of a serious looking pier, and dinghied over to it to try our luck on this island. We found a nice track leading inland from the pier to the village on the other side.

Haafeva Track

About halfway through, the jungle-y vegetation opened up to criss-crossing tracks and the villagers’ garden plots, most of them fenced off with barbed wire. Men were at work, hoeing and burning, but almost all took a moment to wave and call “hello” or “malo e lei lei.” At a cross road we were picked up by a pack of small boys who had the usual repertoire of English-isms, “Hello. How are you? My name is___. What’s your name?” and “Lolly?” We expressed interest in seeing their school and the boys lead us into the village holding hands with Don. (In Tonga it is inappropriate for couples to hold hands in public, but entirely acceptable for hand-holding between members of the same sex!)

The village was large and orderly, strung out along a sand track on the island’s eastern shore. Most houses had fenced-off yards with flowers planted. There was no sign of the falekoloas (stores) I’d hoped to find, and as popular as we were with the kids (the group was steadily growing), we got little more than a nod from any adult!

However at the school we fared better. Rousted from his house on the school grounds, the school principal Vinz seemed pleased to give us a tour. The school, housed in a long cement-block building, held three decent-sized classrooms. Each classroom has one teacher and two grades. Right now the school has 42 kids in six classes. Any kids wishing schooling beyond that go to Lifuka where they board during the week. The walls of the classroom looked like any school, with teaching aids and colorful posters filling every bit of wall space.

Haafeva Classroom with School Principal

One had colors in English and Tongan, another numbers, and so on. It’s no wonder everybody’s English is tentative when you realize the principal only learned his English in secondary school. In a village this remote, where the only English speakers they meet are the occasional cruiser, what little school English folks learn grows rusty pretty quickly!

From the school we escaped our entourage, which had gotten involved in a game of rugby on the school playing field, and wended our way back to the wharf and the boat. From there we watched as several trucks arrived from town with loads of stuff that was then piled up on the wharf before sunset. After dark there was no light.

We woke at five am to find the wharf all ablaze with light from a pretty large ferry that was docked to it! It always amazes us that these large vessels can sneak in without our hearing them! An hour later we sat up to watch it depart again! After our morning chores we geared up to go snorkeling. The guidebook had recommended spots all around Ha’afeva. We opted for the one to the north, checking out a tiny islet on the reef edge first. It reminded us of the Galapagos, all coral rock and saltwort, and it looked like there should be sea lions basking on the sand. Instead, the only life was a couple of terns that flew away and a moray eel swimming in a tide pool.

We stopped on the way back to snorkel a large reef that bulged southward between the cay and the pass. We nearly dismissed it for being another of those shallow, skeletal-but-dead reefs, but in fact there proved to be tons of fish. When we reached the end, we moved south to the next bulge of reef north of the anchorage. This reef, too, was dead, although it took a much more intriguing shape that made me think of space cities from sci-fi movies. We swam toward the boat, towing the dinghy, fascinated with the remains of what must have been some kind of pillar coral and the spreading colonies of pink and gray-green leather corals. However, there were very few fish here, although we did see our first turtle in ages.

Although there are tons of snorkeling and diving opportunities marked in the guidebook around Ha’afeva’s island group, we found ourselves feeling gun-shy about the brief window of good weather and so decided to motor right on south to Wickham Reef which Sandy of Impetuous described as “the best dive in the Ha’apai.” Wickham Reef is a stand-alone reef structure some three miles long bordering the north side of a five-mile swath of open water dividing the Lulunga island group from the southernmost section of the Ha’apai. It was a beautiful morning with hardly any wind at all, perfect conditions to anchor on a reef system far from any island, and so we motored ten miles south and to look for an anchoring spot on Wichkam Reef’s north side.

Don on the Bow, Watching for Reefs

As we were motoring in, we saw a sail on the horizon and, hailing them, discovered it was Ventana, a dark-hulled ketch sailed by two women, Rachel and her vigorous young Norwegian crew Elizabeth. Divers themselves they were glad to stop and share the diving with us, one team down and one up. Don and I loaded up and dinghied around to the SW corner and dropped down on the healthiest bank of coral I have seen in a long time. Beautiful hard corals interspersed by soft corals covered great humps, dimpled deeply by gorges, that sloped away southward to deep water. Plenty of the usual colorful tropical fish populated the coral and several white tips skirted by us, but, disappointingly, the great expanse of deep did not produce the schools of pelagic fish we hoped to see, nor any whales, nor even any whale song. And by golly, the water was chilly! As good as it was, we found ourselves surfacing long before we had to!

By the time the girls were up from their dive, the wind had begun to freshen and a line of cloud had rolled in from the south, dashing any fantasies we might have entertained about staying there for the night. Both boats sailed north for shelter in an anchorage west of O’ua Island, where we shared a nice evening of snacks and cocktails while we watched the threatening clouds pass us by.

Don Reads the Bounty Trilogy

The next morning dawned gray, but we pushed on southward another seventeen miles to the small Nomuka Group. Although we feared our weather window might be running out, we didn’t want to miss seeing this spot, since it was the last anchorage of the HMS Bounty before the famous mutiny. The Bounty anchored in the mile-wide roadstead between Nomuka and Nomuka Iki and took on water from the fresh springs at the base of a hill near the present day village. Today’s cruising boats actually anchor in the more accessible depths of Nomuka Iki, a small island shadowing Nomuka’s south west face and wrapped around by some extensive reefs.

Unfortunately, we arrived on Saturday evening, and Sunday is never a good day to visit island villages uninvited. The sky stayed gray, and a huge so’westerly swell rolled past making great ice-blue rollers break on the islands’ rocky tips and reefs. Even Nomuka Iki’s inviting beach looked dicey for landing the dinghy, so mostly we stayed aboard and enjoyed

Ice Blue Swell Breaks on the Cay North of Nomuka Iki
Anchored off Nomuka Iki

T2 Motors Past Village on Nomuku on Sunday

Another Weather Change on the Way!

 the view. Then Monday’s weather forecast predicted strong easterly trades to fill back on Tuesday which would make it very difficult sail back to Pangai, so we were forced to hightail it out of there without ever getting ashore! Oh, well, we came, we saw and we photographed.

Our sail in the southerly winds from Nomouka back northeast to Uonukuhihifo was one of the best sails we’ve had in a long time. Our course required some jigging and jogging to clear the various reefs systems lying across our route, but we sailed beautifully along, the winds for once working in our favor.

A Fast Sail
Hiking Around Uonukuhihifo

Sure enough the winds settled back into the east the next day, but we had no regrets about being back in this beautiful anchorage, where our time had been cut short a mere ten days before. We hiked around Hihifo finding on the windward beach not the lobster carapaces the guidebook predicted, but hordes of snails snugged up tight behind exposed rocks. We also did not find the conveniently low coconuts we’d found on Tafanga, but Don still managed to whack up a couple of fallen nuts to munch on.

With our stores getting low it was time to start working our way back. We sailed north up to Uolveva again, where this time we found three boats – including Ventana and Finte – sheltering from the strong easterlies. Patty and her family were gone from their campsite, so this time we walked north and checked out the backpacker camps. If remote is your thing, (remote and rustic!), and apparently it is for lots of people, the Captain Cook backpacker Resort, is for you. There is absolutely nothing to do here

but walk the beach, swim and snorkel, and sit around the nightly bonfire. We met a young Dutch couple our own kids’ age, in the midst of a round the world trip, with their baby girl (exactly Kai’s age) in a baby-seat back pack! Also retirees from New Zealand who brought their own aluminum skiff to fish from. And an Englishman sprawled alone under a palm tree with an open book. It’s a rough life, eh?

Uoleva's Beach

Dutch Travelers

From Uoleva we motored north to take in another historical anchorage, Muikuku Point. This sandy point projects west from Lifuka Island a mile or so north of Pangai. A large reef continues seaward from the beach making for that first tricky navigation we’d encountered upon our arrival here three weeks before. Captain Cook anchored here on his three visits to the Ha’apai, and this was also the anchorage at which the privateer Port au Prince was attacked and burned in 1806, leading to the wonderful account of Tongan life by William Mariner, a fourteen-year-old clerk who was spared. I just wanted to be able to say I had been there. On our way into Pangai during the gray squally weather it had looked uninviting, but today it seemed almost as idyllic as Uoleva. We anchored Tackless II well in in 20’ of water and took the dinghy to a clear landing on the golden beach that stretched from the back of some houses in a grand curve out to the point itself. With the sun out, it was a beautiful walk. A few local fishing boats were moored picturesquely, and the even the simple houses looked pretty in their gardens.

Dinghy moored on the beach at Muikuku
(Note kids’ interest)

Local fishing boat with Muikuku in background

Don on Muikuku Point at low tide

Out on the point we discovered that Pangai’s airport begins just a few feet inshore when the gooney bird (DC3) of Peau Vava’u Airlines roared to earth over our heads!

I did my best to shoot panoramas of Tackless II anchored in this famous bit of water, the point allowing me a great vantage from which I could shoot the boat with the curving beach almost behind it.

Panorama of Bay from Muikuku Point

Legacy of the Port Au Prince! Mischief or message?


At which point we noticed the kids playing in the dinghy. This is an occupational hazard of leaving a blow-up boat, so different than the wooden boats familiar to them, within reach of shore. They are fun to bounce on and make great diving platforms for agile swimmers. However we had left the dinghy beached so couldn’t quite make out what was up. As we got closer, it looked like they were throwing sand! Don gave a shout and the kids – little kids, maybe three to five years old – scattered. When we reached the boat we found it plastered – PLASTERED – with sand. They couldn’t have done the job more effectively with a spray gun. Our initial resignation passed as we realized how bad it was.

There was sand on every inch of the engine, the gas tank, the pontoons and the floor…this dinghy we keep so tidy! The thought of the sand getting imbedded between the hard floor and the hypalon made us queasy. We stripped the cover from the pontoons and dunked it in the sea and pulled the anchor bag, tank and oars out to likewise rinse. The

kids watched from the bank about a hundred yards away as we cleaned up their mischief. As we thought about it a bit, we realized how naughty a thing it was. It was surely something they would never think to do to their father or uncle’s fishing boat.

So Don decided to seek out an adult. The children ran as he approached, and he simply followed them. He found two women sitting on the stoop, who fortunately spoke English, and calmly described what the kids had done and how it wasn’t a good thing. As he spoke, the little imp, clearly the leader, lost all his bravado and was quaking and wailing. They shook their heads and promised to tell the parents, because, of course, they weren’t their kids. All in all it was an unfortunate event…and made us feel like we’d experienced our own mini-betrayal of trust, of the same nature if not scale as the Port au Prince. Back at the boat, we hoisted the dinghy out of the water, pulled the plug and flushed it and all its trappings with water. Within an hour, our deserted beach was busy with adults and children walking to the point, but no one came out to apologize.

Having lost a little enthusiasm for the place, we gave up on our plan to find the cemetery where the Port Au Prince sailors, as well as other palangi like the recently deceased Virginia Watkins, are buried, and moved back down to Pangai. Ashore, we made the circuit of town preparatory to checkout, stopping to chat with Sam at Customs, to buy a few bananas (Pangai’s main market day is Saturday and there isn’t much available in between) and for the obligatory burger at Mariner’s Café. This time we were joined at the table by the German couple from Finte, the shipshape ketch we had seen twice before during our stay. Hans and Eva had come to the Pacific by a very different route than we, the real way, some would say, across the Atlantic, down the coast of South America, around the Horn and up to the tropics by way of Pitcairn Island. Since I’d had the Bounty on my mind during all of our stay in Ha’apai (plus Don had used the occasion to read the Bounty Trilogy for the first time), I asked about Pitcairn.

Pitcairn, as you may know, was settled by the mutineers of the Bounty. After they seized the ship and set Captain Bligh and 18 loyal seaman adrift in an open boat, Fletcher Christian and his sailors returned to Tahiti, left off the unwilling crew, and the nine remaining mutineers took aboard twelve Tahitian women and six Tahitian men and went to sea looking for a place to hide from England’s retribution. Eventually they discovered Pitcairn, many miles from its charted position, and set up their little “colony” there, moving everything they could off the ship and burning hulk. Pitcairn is a rugged island with no anchorage, and I have always marveled at cruisers who choose to sail so far to find it only to be unable to count on going ashore. Hans and Eva were lucky to be able to. The Pitcairn islanders sent out a boat to collect them, and their landing was indeed hairy, through big surf into a slot-like slipway from which the boat is yanked out of the water! Apparently, when cruise ships visit Pitcairn, the passengers do not come ashore at all. Instead the islanders come out to the ship to do their show and sell handicrafts! Hans and Eva were, however, not much impressed with the place.

After Hans and Eva finished their coffee, Trevor, the café’s proprietor sat down to talk with us. We told him of our interest in things historical, and that our chief regret was not being able to sail by Tofua, the volcanic island in whose shadow the actual mutiny took place. Tofua, the flat-topped volcano whose current crater kept up a stream of emissions into our western horizon for the duration of our stay, was the first place Bligh and his men tried to get ashore for food and water. It is another hard place to stop. There is not much of a protected place to anchor, and, at 26-miles to the west, it’s a long way to beat back for a fly-by visit.

It turned out that Trevor was the perfect person to whine to about this. In addition to the Mariner’s Café, Trevor has a business that takes people camping on Tofua (www.tongacamping.com )! The trip is made in a local boat, which then hangs around fishing for three or four days, while the tourists set up camp on shore and climb to the crater. Trevor had files and files of beautiful digital photographs of Tofua which he most kindly copied for me. After viewing them all, it made us feel like we’d made the climb ourselves. Trevor told us that many cruising boats do actually make the trip on their own, but of course unless you have an extra person you can leave aboard, the boat is pretty vulnerable to weather shifts while you climb. Imagine being an hour and a half up and seeing bad things happen from on high!

Tofua Volcano
(photographs courtesy of Trevor Gregory, Mariner Café, tongacamping.com)

Back aboard T2, the weather forecast called for the east winds to continue and strengthen. Although the direction was ideal for the trip to Vava;u, the force was a little more than we like. Plus since the return trip should be faster, I wanted to get up early and make the trip during the day, while Don still preferred the less-pressured night passage option. In a compromise move, we moved north to Ha’ano, the anchorage the guidebook touts for departures and arrivals, thinking to get a partial night’s sleep and then follow our track out into clear water for an early start.

Well, that was the plan. Shortly after sunset, the wind that was supposed to be well east, veered back into the southeast, just far enough that it wrapped around into the anchorage and set us a bobbing. As the tide came up it got worse and worse, with seas building to several feet, and Tackless II was pitching and rolling violently. Then, just to add interest, we started getting squalls with winds up to 25 knots. It was not a nice night. Don let out extra chain, and we used the chartplotter’s anchor watch for the first time. Neither of us slept.

Come daylight, it was clearly a bad idea to set sail. Instead we tucked our tail between our legs and struggled back south through squall after squall to Pangai’s protected harbor. So much for weather reports! We slept through the day, and when we woke, the wind was still up and squalls still rolled through. The next morning, I woke early, but Don could not be persuaded to try the daytime run, especially with the extra eight miles between Pangai and Haano tacked on. We waited through the day, diverting ourselves with computers and books, and finally raised the anchor to get around Muikuku Point in daylight.

The sky was definitely more benign than it had been for the previous days, but the wind was still smoking. We’d expected this from our GRIB files, but the forecast was for even more, so we were determined not to turn back again. Instead we took the third reef in the main, set the staysail, and pulled out maybe 2’ of genoa. As we left Ha’ano behind and got the wind full bore, T2 was making 7+ knots in a fairly steady 30 knots of wind. The seas were plenty big, but after the sun went down fast we only saw the crests breaking in moonlight! Out of sight, out of mind? Well not exactly.

It was a very fast trip. By 3AM we were hove to in the lee of Hunga Island. Any fantasy we had of going on in into familiar territory was doused with the setting of our quarter moon. Dark is really dark at sea, even with radar! We took turns sleeping until we estimated that we and sunrise would meet, and then motor sailed the rest of the way into town.

Returning to Vava’u felt very much like coming home. But after nearly a month in the Ha’apai where we’d seen maybe a half dozen boats total (including from afar), tiny Neiafu with probably a hundred moored boats, felt…and sounded …like a metropolis! As for the second time in a week, we climbed into our bunk with portholes shaded to catch our sleep during the day, we wondered if sleep would be possible all the racket of engines, voices, dogs, boat, cars, trucks, pigs……zzzzzzzz.




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