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Tonga: More whales and preparation for New Zealand passage

Humpback whales in our anchorage at Mushroom rock, Ha'apai (photo courtesy of  Pasi, SV Balance 3)
Humpback whales in our anchorage at Mushroom rock, Ha'apai (photo courtesy of Pasi, SV Balance 3)

Since our first post from Tonga, we visited a couple of other anchorages in the Vava’u islands group. The nicest was Kenutu (#30) way over to the east. The passage into the anchorage is moderately tricky and the Navionics chart is not accurate so satellite images and a bright, overhead sun are recommended. The anchorage is on the leeward side of the last island to the east. If you cross to the windward side then you are treated to a coastline ravaged by big seas and strong winds. There are blowholes, crashing waves, etc

The windward side of Kenutu (anchorage #30)
The windward side of Kenutu (anchorage #30)

However, after 16 days here (September 19th), we were ready to leave and explore the Ha’apai island group further south. Unfortunately the weather was not cooperating. With 30 knots blowing around the islands we decided to hole up in Neiafu and wait it out. Actually, this turned out to be no great hardship.

We already mentioned how the Vava’u group is an important hub for those cruising the Pacific. We can illustrate this with the GPS tracking of various boats which we follow:

Map shows Vava'u at crossroads of Pacific
Vava'u (V on map) at the crossroads. These are the GPS tracks of friends' boats crossing the Pacific.

Whether the final destination of the season is Fiji (F), New Zealand or Australia, and whether the previous destination was Suwarrow (Su), Samoa (S), Nuie (Nu), Raitonga (R) or French Polynesia, all tracks lead through Vava'u (V)! (Note, one boat went to Nuke'alofa (N) instead of Vava'u because they had gear failure and wanted to order spares in the capital. Then they came north to join the rest of us).

Consequently, whichever bar or restaurant we would walk into, there was always someone we knew. In addition, there were an assortment of social events running regularly at this time of year.

Wednesday evenings was the weekly drag show. For reasons only known to Tongans, in a family with sons and no daughter, the third son is treated as a daughter. She is dressed as a girl, encouraged to do 'girly' things, etc. Therefore it is no surprise that there is an unusual abundance of transvestites in Tonga. The Neiafu Drag show is hardly a star studded event but an opportunity for some of the local bar and restaurant staff to 'strut their stuff'. It was great fun.

Drag show in Neiafu, Vava'u
Drag show in Neiafu, Vava'u

Thursday night is quiz night. It did pay to put together a team with USA, Antipodean and British/Irish roots to have a chance . We (SV Grainne Mhaol, SV Skyfall and either SV Freya or SV Athena) took a very respectable 2nd place two weeks running, losing out both times to a team put together by the owners so they did not actually have to give away the free beer on offer as first prize!

With so many boats congregating in the area in late September, the local Boatyard organises an annual ‘Blue water festival’ which started on the 22nd. Representatives from both the Bay of Islands and Whangarei (in NZ) are invited to pitch the services on offer in their areas. There are also sessions explaining the complicated weather systems which we will likely encounter sailing to New Zealand, tips on route planning and an explanation of the Biosecurity measures we will be subjected to on arrival. All this mixed in with various opportunities to eat and drink and with two ‘fun’ yacht races.

We attended the first four days of the festival but, on the Wednesday, the wind was perfect to sail south. We encountered whales several times during the day. Sometimes they surfaced so close to Skyfall that I can only conclude that they were curious and keen to inspect us up close. Our first anchorage in the Ha’apai group was ‘Mushroom Rock’, Ha’ ano Island. Although you are supposed to go to Pangai first, this safe anchorage is 10nm closer and only 60nm from Neiafu, There are several reefs and rocks marking the approach to Pangai and these are best done in daylight. Therefore, unless the wind is perfect, most boats find it easier to get to Mushroom rock before sunset.

We were very fortunate. SV Balance 3 had just anchored and Pasi was in the water, checking his anchor. The bottom is a mixture of sand and coral and, from the water, he kindly helped find us a nice sandy patch to ‘drop the hook’. All through the night we heard the sounds of whales around us but nothing prepared us for the next morning. As we came above deck for breakfast we saw at least five whales close to our boats.

Whale and Calf approach SV Sipi at Mushroom Rock, Haano Island
Whale and Calf approach SV Sipi at Mushroom Rock, Haano Island

Then, one mother and calf decided they wanted to give SV Sipi (anchored next to us) a closer inspection. If the mother had known that Santeri is a dedicted hunter (they have 30 fishing rods and multiple spear guns on board), then she might have chosen a different boat! It was so tempting to jump in the water for a second ‘swimming with whales’ experience but ,of course, it is illegal without a professional guide. So, instead, nearly everyone decided to put on their snorkelling gear and ‘inspect the anchor’!

Everyone except Pasi. He went straight for his drone. Having a catamaran makes it much easier to fly from the boat (especially at anchor) and he took some amazing footage. (The top photo is a frame from one of the clips. Visit our 2022/23 RTW/Tonga page for more).

After mother and calf finally decided they had spent enough time around the boats, it was time to raise the anchor and head for Pangai to complete formalities. In Tonga it is necessary, not only to clear into and out of the country, but also to clear into and out of each separate island group. We did not want to return to Pangai as we wanted to visit the Ha'apai islands in an order which would continue taking us south. Fortunately, they allowed us to clear in and out at the same time.

Pangai itself does not have much to recommend it with the exception of an ice cream parlour with some of the best ice cream we have had since Bonaire (Gio's gelataria in Bonaire is highly recommended). There is one restaurant, two chinese stores, a run-down medical centre and, of course, three well maintained churches.

After lunch we headed off to Uoleva, which is the next island along with a beautiful and relatively well protected anchorage (if the wind is in the south or east). There are three different ‘eco’ resorts on the island. Clients come for swimming with whales (multiple days), diving and general relaxation. There are two reefs at either end of the bay and simply following the reef out from the beach on the inside, protected side gives reasonable snorkelling. It is also possible to take a three hour walk around the island.

After a couple of days we headed west. Away from the main islands and into (almost) isolation. Ha’aveva island has a great anchorage on the leeward side. There is the remains of a pier, built in 1997, which has been rendered unusable by either a cyclone or a tsunami. In previous posts I have expressed my lack of understanding on the relative wealth of the various Pacific island groups. Here, it is easy to see why Tonga is so poor.

Tongan house on the beach in the small village on Ha’aveva island
Tongan house on the beach in the small village on Ha’aveva island

This country is prone to more cyclones than any other country in the South Pacific. There was a recent, devastating Tsunami. Why invest in infrastructure if, after only a few years, it is destroyed? Then there is the unique Tongan ‘kingdom model’, where the King owns nearly all the land. Businesses can purchase a 90 year lease but can never own anything outright. Finally there is the 'overhed' of supporting two or three churches for every hamlet. It is no surprise that the few inhabitants on the islands survive on fishing, subsistence agriculture and tourism.

The two volcanic islands, Tofua and Kao, provided a perfect backdrop to our sundowners at the end of the day. Mount Tofua (on the left) erupted 20,000 years ago and the whole moutain was converted into ash which covered the surrounding islands. The ash is very fertile and has made it easy for the islanders to grow crops. The Lonely Planet lists climbing Tofua, and descending down to the lake inside, as one of the ‘must do’ experiences of Tonga. There are no decent anchorages but it is possible to take a boat from Pangai. It is a long day with a 2-3 hour boat ride each way and a 6 hour hike. It is also a fixed price for the boat and guide, which makes it quite expensive for a couple. You need to arrange a group to share the costs. So that is something we will have to save for next time!

Sunset over the volcanic islands of Tofua and Kao, Ha'apai
Sunset over the volcanic islands of Tofua and Kao, Ha'apai

As we left Ha’aveva the wind had swung round to the south so we had a 30nm ‘uphill’ sail to our next anchorage, sheltered between Nomuka Island and the smaller Nomuka Ito. The anchorage is the last place the ‘Bounty’ stopped before the famous mutiny. They came to take on water from the source on Nomuka, close to where the village is situated today. It was on passage between Nomuka and Timor that the crew put Captain Bligh and his officers into a longboat and altered course for Pitcairn, where they lived out their days in relative peace. In a remarkable feat of seamanship, Captain Bligh managed to bring the longboat to a friendly port from where he could return to England.

The smaller island used to be a prison and has a small plantation of fruit trees. Supposedly, there are mangos and oranges galore to be harvested. We arrived in time for a late lunch and by the time the boat was put away and we had eaten the wind was again picking up. By teatime there was 20+ knots blowing through the anchorage. As we were the only boat here, I did not fancy launching the dinghy, having the outboard fail and ending up half way to Fiji! So we were confined to observing the beautiful island from the safety of Skyfall.

Nomuka anchorage with much wind
Nomuka, Ha'apai was an exposed anchorage. the protective reef was 300m away allowing a short 'chop' to build up with 20+ knots from the south east

We were less than 60nm from Nuku’alofa but, the next morning, it did not seem like a good idea to head south. It is the first time I have woken up to fully charged batteries despite having the freezer on. The wind turbine had worked overtime putting out 10-15A through the night! Once again, it was time to ‘wait it out’, this time with the opportunity to simply enjoy each others company without the distraction of any social events.

The following day, October 3rd, we had 'itchy feet'. According to the forecast the wind would shift ESE (from SSE) for one day only. Wind strength was still supposed to be around 20 knots but we wanted to get to Nuku'alofa, forget whales and start our preparations for the passage from Tonga to New Zealand. The wind direction should allow us to reach (wind blowing accross the boat) most of the way. As part of the preparations for the passage to NZ, we have signed up with a NZ weather router (John Martin) and he also offered his advice for this 60nm sail. There is a notable west to east current through the Tongan islands which accelerates significantly in shoal or shallow areas. With a strong, prevailing easterly wind there is, therefore, a wind-against-current scenario which will build up steep and confused seas in these shallower waters. He recommended a route that took us west of the rhumb line, beyond the 100m (deep) contour. The only downside was that we would be hard on the wind for the final 10nm.

With three reefs in the main and half a genoa showing we set off. As soon as we cleared the island of Nomuka Ito, it became obvious that we were going to see much more wind than had been forecast. Instead of 18-22 knots we had 20-25 knots with gusts up to 28. I was so pleased we had been conservative with our sail plan. The route choice turned out to be good and, despite waves over 3m with a relatively short period, we only took a handful of waves over the sprayhood. The final 10nm were indeed hard on the wind. Fortunately, by then the waves were much smaller as we were in the lee of the Tongatapu group of islands so, again, the sail was not too bad. On occasions like this though, I would like to be able to change out the genoa for a jib as the reefed genoa has a terrible shape and the boat does not point well. In my next life, we will buy a boat with a cutter rig!

Map showing SV Skyfall's route cruising the Tongan Islands
SV Skyfall's route cruising the Tongan Islands

As we were approaching our anchorage we were treated to a mother teaching her calf to breach. She jumped clean out of the water less than 50m from us. The almighty splash had not subsided when her calf attempted the same trick, getting about two thirds of her body out of the water. Unfortunately it all happened too quickly to have any photos.

The harbour in Nuku'alofa was also wrecked by the Tsunami two years ago and all the pontoons are gone. Most yachts choose to anchor outside. The book talks about the anchorage off Pangaimotu Island and the 'Yacht Club' run by Big Mama. It is suggested there is a nice restaurant, laundry and the ability to fill gas bottles. Unfortunately, we discovered that the same tsunami also wiped everything away on this island. Today Big Mama has built a home and beach bar from tin sheets and are trying to get re-established but without finance to do anything properly. One of the boats here, SV Tin Lizzy, organised food for a communal beach meal. Big Mama did the cooking and made money selling beer. SV Skyfall regarded this as a great cause. Annick and I tried to support by ensuring all her beer was drunk before we left. It had been a tough sail.

The following morning we went to customs (by dinghy) to complete the inter island clearance procedure. We found a laundrette, did our first round of provisioning, and had a brief look around town. We only had two days before our planned departure ((to Minerva reef) and had so much to do that our sight seeing was 'cursory' at best.Although there is not much to see, Nuku'alofa does boast that, as it is the first country just over the dateline, the world's day starts here.

Clock advertising international dteline in Nuku'alofa
International dateline runs through Nuku'alofa

Our list of jobs to get ready for the NZ passage went something like:

- fill up with diesel (done in Neiafu)

- fill up with water

- 3 weeks provisioning (to allow for time on Minerva Reef)

- engage a weather router (done in Ha'apai)

- run a second (backup) main halyard (done in Neiafu)

- engine checks

- rigging checks

- clean the bottom of the boat (partially done at each anchorage)

It was the rigging check that gave us the most concern. Just because of what we had seen in Neiafu. There were FIVE boats there with rigging problems. two were dismasted en route to Tonga. Two more lost the forestay yet their mast was saved thanks to a second forestay (one cutter, one solent rig). Finally, a fifth boat discovered broken wire strands doing their rigging check before departing Vava'u. Rigging failures are hard to prevent with inspections (although you should still do them). You cannot see corrosion inside stainless steel. The recommended solution is to completely change out your standing rigging every 11-15 years (depending on how and where the boat is used and your appetite for risk). Skyfall is 11 years old and the rigging replacement is planned for NZ. We just have to get there without the mast falling down! I saw nothing untoward and the stays are grossly over-dimensioned for the size of rig so, fingers crossed, all is OK.

We spent our last Tongan money on a beer before heading back to the anchorage for our last night in Tonga. Tomorrow, early, we sail for Minerva reef

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