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The Two Captains



2C Update #145 - Vava'u Farewell   (Aug 2 - 24, 2006)    Photos coming soon!

Typical west-about cruisers rarely have the opportunity to return to places they’ve already been.  It’s a pleasure we’d been able to experience in our two seasons in the Sea of Cortez, upon our return to Raiatea, and by coming back to Tonga at the beginning of the season.  Our month-long getaway to the Ha’apai and back indulged us in another “return” to Vava’u.  How quickly we slipped in the routine of town!:  breakfasts at the Crow’s Nest, lunches at Compass Rose, internet time and ice cream treats at Aquarium.  At each of these places gathered people we now counted as friends, and as if that weren’t enough, new boats (not a few with familiar faces) were pulling in every day.  Vava’u’s cruiser season was just getting going!

Ironically, as the number of boats swelled in the harbor, the foodstuffs stocked in Neiafu’s stores began to dwindle.  In the four weeks we’d been gone, for example, every vestige of cheese had disappeared (pretty well putting the pizza places out of business!) The explanation was not simply the influx of boats wanting to provision, but a change in the scheduling of the supply ship.  In the past the huge freighter Southern Cross had come to town from New Zealand once every week.  Now a smaller freighter came more often, but it was a quarter the size.  Acquaintances like Kevin, a Crow’s Nest breakfast regular who was building a kayak resort on Kapa Island, had been waiting months for his container of building materials to transship up from Tongatapu!  You never knew for sure what was going to get bumped!

The other undercurrent of disruption was the rumor about the King’s declining health..  It was said he was about to be removed from life support, and speculation about what would transpire with the King’s death was rampant.  Tonga has clung proudly to their monarchy – the last true monarchy in the world, but the country’s economy has been struggling in this rapidly changing world  Fundamental inequalities in the system  -- with all property officially in the hands of the noble class – is catching up to them.  From what little we saw, while the King himself was respected, the same did not seem to be true of the Crown Prince. 

Even if nothing political were to erupt from the King’s passing, the traditions of Tongan mourning had the potential to bring daily life to a standstill.  It seemed it might be prudent to move on.  Yet there were things we hadn’t done yet, anchorages we still hadn’t seen, favorites we hadn’t revisited. Really how bad would it be to “get stuck” here another year?  In this mood of ambivalence, we pushed ourselves to tick a few important things off the list.

Vava’u Adventures’ Kart Tour

A major one was taking Ben’s Kart Tour.  Our friends Ben and Lisa Newton, formerly cruising buddies on Waking Dream and now Neiafu entrepreneurs, had in the year we’d been in Tonga busily been diversifying their endeavors.  Their most visible business was the Aquarium Internet Café.  Housed in a building – recently painted red and blue – at the south end of town, Aquarium had expanded from coffee and dessert offerings to full breakfast and lunches on their deck.  Bobbing at the dock was a small fleet of sailing dinghies dubbed the Flying Coconuts in which we’d had some fun racing around the harbor last year.  Out in the “country”, Ben and his guys had been laboring to wrap up construction on his Tonga Sphere Recreational Park centered around Zorb-type balls that you climb inside and roll down the hill.  In a land where everything grows lushly, the opening of Tonga Sphere was delayed by efforts to get the grass to grow back on the sphere’s banked track!  Meanwhile, Ben – letting no grass grow under his feet (Ha-ha…couldn’t resist!) --had imported a fleet of single and double passenger go-karts with which he was leading tours through the countryside. 

Having bided our time until he got his operation shook out, we decided that a Kart Tour was now at the top of our To-Do list….especially since we’d bid on it at the charity fundraiser on the King’s Birthday and had a voucher for which we’d paid about twice the face value!  And so, on a beautiful Friday we lowered ourselves into the seats of one of Ben’s double Karts and followed him up the Aquarium’s steep driveway, through the streets of Neiafu, out through Vava’u’s outlying villages and finally into the ‘bush” of the back country.

What a blast!!!!  Who knew?  We weren’t just driving down existing roads; Ben and his guys had been hard at work negotiating deals with village heads and plantation owners to clear out overgrown tracks and cut new ones in order to put together a veritable maze of adventure driving opportunities!  We explored parts of Vava’u we had only glimpsed from the airplane, buzzing though villages where school children ran and waved, scooting along the sides of far flung “gardens’ where villagers travel on horseback to cultivate the family’s foodstuffs, spinning figure eights in a bowl of red clay just for the hell of it, and finally emerging at the top of the world, the startling cliff top of Vava’u’s sheer north face!  Wow!  Ben’s got himself a winner with this business!

Tapana Farewell

Next on our wind-up agenda was a visit back to what we now thought of as our “home base”, a mooring off Larry & Sheri’s Ark Gallery in Tapana’s Anchorage #11.  Don had collected a deckload of buoys and buckets from one of the Ha’apai’s windward junk beaches and brought them all the way “home” for Larry’s collection.  Don had also commissioned a portrait of Tackless by Sheri, which was said to be nearing completion.  Upon our arrival we found Concerto, a Swan 65 on “our” mooring.  It seems Robert and Linda, old friends of Larry and Sheri’s, had “sailed down from British Columbia to visit”!  They’d arrived about the time we’d left for the Ha’apai, and now were thinking about the return trip!  Imagine!  Commuting down and back just for a month in Tapana!  The home brew was flowing, and our custom portrait of Tackless II turned out to be a delightful vignette of our time in Tapana with T2 on a mooring, the figure of Don on deck, me in the water, Sheri herself poised to jump in and join me for a snorkel, Larry on his trimaran Orion, and the two cats Castaway and Cheeto watching from the deck of the Ark.  (Sorry, no photo, thanks to a sad story to be related later!)

Blue Lagoon Blowout

After a few restful days in Tapana, we sailed to Hunga’s Blue Lagoon to meet up with Mike and Kathleen of Content.  We’d met Mike and Kathleen in Tapana last year before their trip down to New Zealand, and they’d arrived back in Vava’u just before we’d left for the Ha’apai.  While we were gone, they had gotten themselves scuba certified, so we were determined to get them out diving.  Our favorite dive in Tonga had been the one outside the pass into Hunga Lagoon, but since Hunga’s Blue Lagoon anchorage was on our “Haven’t-done-yet” list, we decided to rendezvous there and dinghy to the dive site.

The rendezvous part worked well, both boats getting our anchors down with time for an afternoon dive.  However, the tide was against us, and the pass between the anchorages too shallow for the dinghies to pass.  So instead we dove on the eastern entrance reef instead, which proved not very exciting.  No problem, right?  There’s always the morrow!

Wrong!  A weather front forecast to be mild, rolled through during the night, swinging the anchored boats 180 degrees and sending in huge seas from the south! Probably 60% of the Blue Lagoon’s “protection” is reef only, so at high tide the rollers were marching through with little to slow them.  It was not a pretty situation.  We all decided to abort the dive plan and hightail it out of there to the more protected waters of nearby Vaka Eitu.

Not our best call.  We got the anchor up on Tackless II, and motored toward the pass, only to discover that out of the lee of the little islands the wind was up to 27 knots and had backed just enough to be pounding huge breakers across the entrance!  We did not realize how bad it was until we were in it!   A narrow entrance to begin bordered by reefs on either side, it was all buried in the white spume of the huge breaking swells.  With shoals to leeward there was no bearing off, no changing our mind and turning around!  T2, her engine screaming, seemed to inch her way out, climbing and plunging and rolling from gunnel to gunnel.  It was one of the most terrifying moments in our mutual careers!

Gradually we clawed clear enough to turn downwind and, with a quarter of the jib pulled out, ran down the chute between Hunga and Nuapapu until we managed to slide over into the lee north of the latter island!  Whew!  We ended up traveling fourteen miles the long way around to get to the Vaka Eitu anchorage, which was probably no more than three miles from Blue Lagoon the direct way!

Of course everybody in the Vaka Eitu anchorage had not only heard my terse radio call on 16 to Content to “Stay put!”, they’d seen us go by rolling down the “chute” on the other side of Vaka Eitu’s western reef.  The good news was that most of them were friends and they came by to commiserate.  The other good news was our early arrival in Vaka Eitu afforded us good position for the season’s first Full Moon Party!

Full Moon Party Redux

It may have been the season’s first, but it was our third (See #132 & 135)  And given the fact that it was THE third, we were as old hands as the organizers.  By now Ben and Lisa and their collaborator Pete “the Meat”, had the setup routine pretty well worked out.  As before we stepped in to help, reprising our dinghy mooring system and helping with all the land-based set up from toilets to lights to sound booth.  The weather abated and the party was a success, although thanks to the actual full moon being midweek, the moonrise by Saturday was pretty late, keeping the party mighty dark for its first four hours!  Well, what can you expected on a deserted island!  Once again we drank mucho “moonjuice”, danced for hours, filled up on Pete’s BBQ and generally did our best to make it to midnight.

Don’s Birthday

The next day was Don’s birthday, so most of our “newest best friends” were conveniently on hand for a spontaneous birthday party I whipped up with a little help from friends.  Mike of Content distracted Don with breakdown of the Full Moon party stuff while I baked hamburger buns (from scratch!) and Kathleen made our traditional chocolate brownie cake.  Kent Harris of Convergence paddled over with a birthday voucher for a back massage by his Mom Sally Christine, so while Don was indulging in that on Convergence’s back deck, I also put together a four bean salad, a pasta salad, and patties of canned fish and frozen hamburger to put inside the buns, while the Kurt & Katie from Interlude contributed chicken patties and Burger and Nancy of Hale Kai brought Cole slaw!   Even Ben & Lisa, who as hosts had obviously had to last out the night festivities, were able to straggle in!  Thus, despite having not provisioned for the celebration, Don ended up with a might fine fete.

Swimming with the Humpbacks

The very last, and perhaps most memorable, thing we managed to fit in before our departure from Tonga was another whale watch trip.  Another chance to swim with the humpbacks was actually our main excuse for lingering a second year!  We chose to go again with Whale Watch Vava’u, this time on the second boat with the owner Alan, who’s been doing this over twenty years.  We picked up three whales – a mother, calf and “escort” almost immediately.  While Alan positioned the boat nearby to acclimatize the whales to us, the “escort”  (who would really be better described as a “consort” since he has no concern for the calf and just wants to get lucky with mama!) put on quite a show, leaping and breeching and spouting repeatedly within yards of the drifting boat!   We’d seen nothing close to this last year.  If it had been all we’d gotten, we’d have been happy, but we were lucky enough to be able to stay with these same whales most of the day, following at a distance to give them space, and then coming closer for chances at a swim encounter.  This time, each swimmer was able to get in not once, not twice, but THREE times!!!! 

Being experienced at this AND being strong swimmers, Don and I definitely got the best of the in water opportunities.  Last year, being late in the season, both our “encounters” were with whales “underway”.  This time we hoped we’d luck into a chance to be in the water with a resting pair, and indeed that chance came our way our second time in.   How incredible is it to be up close and personal with a huge humpback whale and her calf in crystal clear water!  Mama floated just under the surface with her baby nuzzling around her chin, while the escort lurked (sulked?) far below.  The group of four swimmers and our guide kept a respectful distance, but with a creature that size it all seems pretty close!  All the nodules on the head not to mention the huge pectoral fins are in sharp detail. Then, as she seemed to drift nearer still, I noticed out of the corner of my eye the escort coming up from below with the definite appearance of targeting Don!  Jealous?  Hey, fella, my guy’s a big guy, but he’s not in your league! I got Don’s attention and we discreetly moved away!


So, I guess you can tell that, while last year’s experience was great, this year’s encounter surpassed it by far.  And of course... I not only took lots of pictures, I took hours of video.   Which brings me to my sad story.  Somehow, my trusty Canon Powershot got a couple of droplets of water on it despite being in its custom, waterproof housing.  Just a couple of drops!  And I got it out and dried off right away, but it was for naught! Not only did I lose my camera for the rest of the season, but all the pix that were on the chip seem to have disappeared, too!  No worries, we’ve got video, right?  Well, something went screwy with the video, too, and many of the clips have lines through the frame.!!!!  Take my word for it.  The shots were AWESOME.  I guess you’ll just have to go to Vava’u and experience the humpbacks yourselves!

Moving On?

To go or to stay?  The question nagged us daily as the days passed.  It would be so easy to stay.  Over morning coffee we would resolve to go, but through the day so many complications and simple attachments would erode our resolution.  The most legitimate complication was the eruption of an underwater volcano at Home Reef along the same chain of activity between Tonga and Fiji as the Ha’apai’s Tofua (see last update).  The submarine belch had released into the sea loads of lava, which had hardened into fields of floating pumice.  Boats making the passage west had reported huge acres of floating boulders.  No one seemed to have any idea how long it might take for the pumice to disperse or even which way.  On our whale watch trip, a late afternoon pass through open water south of the islands had given us our first look at the evidence: golf-ball-sized floaters dotting the surface of the swell.  It was unexpected that they would have traveled eastward!

We went back to town and watched the weather reports.  Don wanted conditions to be just right.  He had been fretting all season about a distorted front motor mount.  Although he’d brought the replacements back with us from the US, everybody had discouraged him from messing with the status quo here in the “backwaters” of Vava’u.  If something went wrong (e.g. a bolt breaking off in the engine block), what recourse would we have?  So Don wanted enough wind to ensure we wouldn’t have to motor for four days, but also he didn’t want four days of the of E-ride we’d experienced coming up from the Ha’apai.  To complicate things further, we needed to check out of Tonga on a weekday AND, more importantly, ARRIVE 3-4 days later in strict Fiji on a weekday to avoid heavy overtime surcharges.  It was quite the mental juggling job, especially given our ambivalence.

We had actually given up on the week and motored back to Tapana for a breather when a seemingly perfect weather window popped up.  We had been in and out of customs and immigration to check out (and abort the checkout) so many times, that the officials -- usually so strict that they insisted on departing boats coming to the dock -- allowed Don to taxi into town to do it! 

And thus, with surprisingly little hoopla (well, how many farewell parties can you have?), we set sail on a cloudy afternoon and sailed out of Tapana, out of Vava’u and away from Tonga, Tackless II’s home for nearly a year!


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