Friday, October 06, 2017

Ngau Island

[Kyle]We left Tapana in a strong breeze for the short sail to Ngau Island. I had been expecting quite a few boats to be there, but we ended up being the only one. It turned out to be a good thing. The anchorage is actually quite small, with shallow coral on three sides. We had to be very careful about laying out our chain to keep it from getting fouled.

We snorkelled to make sure everything was fine and then, of course, decided to have a look around afterwards. The underwater life at Ngau seemed to be struggling more than at our last two stops. The protected nature of the anchorage kept a lot of current from flowing through and there also seemed to be a lot of silt. This makes it hard for the coral and reduces visibility. Once we got fairly far from the boat, things cleared up a bit and we were able to find several spots where swaying anemones protected adorable fish that not to be able to decide between guarding their spots like tough guy bouncers or cowering in the anemone so that only their faces could be seen.

As we were enjoying these antics, a charter catamaran came into the anchorage. They paused for a bit sensibly far behind Begonia before eventually deciding the best spot for their anchor was pretty much right where ours was. This left them at a distance that would have put them two boats away had we been in a marina. That was way too close. Maryanne guessed that they may have been making a lunch stop, so we decided to start off friendly and swam over to introduce ourselves. On the way, we would swim over their anchor to see if it was actually as close as it had looked form where we had seen them drop it.

We found their chain and followed it down to their anchor. It turned out to be a lot shorter trip than we had expected. It ran down from the bows at about a forty-five degree angle until it reached the anchor, only the tip of which was actually touching the bottom, as it skipped along the sea bed. Behind it was a long trough. Maryanne introduced herself. They were very nice. They explained that they were only planning to stay for lunch and a for some of them to take quick trip to the beach. They knew they were dragging, but someone would always be aboard and they wouldn't be long. Fine, we'll go back to our boat and try our best to appear nonchalant about the whole thing as it drifted closer and closer to us.

After a while, we were just starting to think we may need to get out some fenders when they upped anchor and went back to their original spot to repeat the process. Wouldn't it have been a lot easier to put out enough chain to begin with so they wouldn't drag in the first place? By the second time they got too close, lunch was done and they were all back aboard, so they left to resume their vacation elsewhere.

As they were leaving, we could see another boat making a beeline for us from deep water. It turned out to be the same monohull that we had passed the day before. They did the same as the charter cat when they arrived, scouting out a place to drop anchor. After rejecting a couple of spots, they headed ahead of us. There was not much room up there that was deep enough for their keel. We tried again to keep a close eye on things while at the same time appearing unconcerned assuming they were only scouting the area.

At some point, the guy at the helm spotted our anchor float and made a big turn to go see what it was. These floats serve several purposes: they make it clear where our anchor is set, and they connect a line to the forward part of our anchor which we can use as a trip-line, i.e. to recover the anchor if ever it gets stuck or we have to disconnect the boat from the anchor at the other end of the chain. We were worried this other boat would think the floats were a mooring ball, even though we have taken some care to keep it from looking like one. They approached and stopped. The guy on the bow stared at it for a while and then they drove over it and dropped their anchor. I lunged for the radio, but Maryanne beat me to it, which was probably best. They didn't answer, so she went to the bow and shouted that she was trying to call them. I was ready, but she took the microphone and told them they may want to check their prop, because they just ran over our trip line. I thought that was a very diplomatic way of saying they had just put their anchor on top of ours. My version of the transmission was probably going to start with, “Hey, morons...”

We were worried they had pulled our anchor off of the bottom and that we would both be stuck together, unable to manoeuvre and dragging. Our anchor floats popped up and didn't actually seem to be as close to them as I had thought. I watched them for a while and then I realized they were getting closer. Then it dawned on me that they were drifting toward us. Maryanne, who had just finished getting dry from her last swim, went back in the sea to check the situation and recover our floats that were by now drifting off.

When she got to our anchor, she found them lying alongside about a boat width away. After cutting our line, they must've dragged our floats a couple of boat lengths before they dropped their anchor, so they were close, but not nearly as close as we had feared. I thought she was then going to swim over to them to talk to them about it, but she came straight back. She told me it was because she wouldn't have been able to be nice to them just then. As she was in the water near them, someone from their boat went in, checked their prop and came back out, all without even acknowledging Maryanne's presence or going anywhere near their anchor.

As Maryanne was swimming back, the guy called me on the radio to tell me not to worry, everything was fine with his prop.

'That's great, but you ran right over our trip line floats and cut the line.”

“My prop's fine.”

“Okay, but you ran over my line and cut it, which could have pulled our anchor off of the bottom and then you dropped yours almost on top of ours.

“I didn't see them.”

“I SAW you see them! You looked at them, stopped, turned toward them, went over to them, stopped to look at them some more and then ran right over them!”

“I didn't see them.”

Liar! I then went down below, got a grenade and lobbed it into their cockpit. What? I didn't pull the pin or anything.

Many boats are equipped with line cutters on their prop shafts to keep their props from getting fouled with fishing lines, pot buoys and the like. Maryanne didn't get close enough to check while she was swimming, but I think they may have had one. The cut on ours was pretty clean and I think there's a chance the guy may have done it deliberately to get rid of obstructions in his potential swing area, or just to make some kind of point.

When they all loaded into their dinghy later, we thought they may swing by and offer some sort of apology, but they went about their business acting like we were not even there.

The cruising community down here is pretty small. It didn't take long for us all to know the name of the boat that helped itself to everything it could steal off of the wreck in Beveridge after the ten boats before them left it unmolested. It's not going to take long for people to find out this guy is a selfish liar.

While we were still stewing over that incident, another boat, a catamaran, came in and went through the same process of trying several spots before dropping their anchor very near ours. I was in no mood for this. They were new and had nothing to do with the other guy, so I decided to force myself to be calm and hope they figure it out on their own that they are way too close, the way we would if the roles were reversed. When they backed down and came to rest a boat length ahead, they decided to re-anchor without any prompting from us. They found a new spot a little ahead, but were still over our anchor.

This time, it was my turn to swim again. I swam the length of our chain and back. Their anchor was ahead of ours and their chain ran parallel so that their boat rode behind and just to one side of where our anchor was buried. Maryanne and I had a little chat about my findings and then I swam back to talk to them.

They were very nice. They had been searching all day for somewhere suitable to anchor, but had repeatedly come up short, including at all of the places we had considered to shorten our next leg. I told them we didn't need them to move just then (the first boat in an anchorage takes precedence over the next and so on), but we warned them that we were planning to leave very early the next morning. They might have to get up so they could nudge to one side so we could retrieve our anchor. When I told them we were planning on going in the dark at five a.m., I expected snorts of disapproval, but they said it would be good motivation for them to get an early start themselves. It turned out they were planning on doing the same sail as us. Our next stop was the Ha'apai group. Ordinarily, it would require an overnight sail, but the wind forecast was such that we had a small window where we thought we may be able to do it in one day, but we would have to get an early enough start to ensure we got there in daylight. Their boat was a slightly bigger Fountaine Pajot of roughly the same vintage as Begonia, so their performance would be similar.

Thursday, October 05, 2017


[Kyle]From Nuku we continued our tour of Tonga's Vava'u group by heading east to the south side of Tapana Island. More scenery. This time, the trip was short and upwind, so we motored. As we were doing so, we overtook a big monohull that seemed to be going in the same general direction. That was strange, we never pass anyone under power. They were taking a shorter route by cutting closer to the reefs than we were comfortable trying, so we kept getting just past them and then having to turn toward them. We attempted to call them on the radio just to let them know our intentions (no reply!). I was doing my best to put on a “We're not trying to hit you” face, but they seemed to either not notice or not care. I was worried they would end up following us into the anchorage, but they kept going straight ahead after we made our last turn. We ended up anchoring in a spot where the only other boats we could see were through the gap on the other side of Mala.

We had an afternoon snorkel and walk on the beach and had a repeat of our lovely experience at Nuku. Our big find was a large and very nervous looking lobster. We left him on his own to get larger and more nervous.

The little rock of coral and bushes at the end of the island we took to calling Chicken Rock

We took a swim ashore, and Kyle climbs a tree! Yikes!

More snorkelling, and more star fish

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Exploring the Caves, and on to Nuku Island

[Kyle]From Mala, we took the long way to Nuku Island. Our first stop was Swallows' Cave, just around the corner from Mala.

The water outside Swallows' is 80m deep right up to the cliff face, so it was not possible for us to anchor. Instead, we swam into the cave in turns while the other loitered nearby in Begonia. I went first. Swallows' Cave is a tall gash in the cliff side. I swam over the lip at the entrance and entered a huge chamber that was about equal parts above and below the water's surface. My entering disturbed the birds inside and they flitted in and out nervously. Underwater, schools of fish mirrored the behavior of their airborne cousins. I swam to the far back of the cave, where the light was too dim to make out many of the features. There is a dry ledge beyond, which apparently was used as a location for feasting and entertaining visiting nobility. The meal was lowered down through a hole in the ceiling on an large platform like a dumb waiter. The coral was sharp and I hadn't brought shoes in which to change, so I had to satisfy myself with a tippy-toed peek over the lip before swimming back toward the exit.

When we were looking for the entrance to Swallows' Cave, we noted that there was a smaller cave to the north that seemed to have far more birds coming and going. Just to be sure we had the right one, I swam there now. It turned out to be open at the top, which I suppose makes it not a cave at all. All of the birds coming and going were swooping through from both directions. There may have been many many tasty insects in there, but it seemed they were really doing it just for the fun of it.

Swallows' Cave

When I was done, I emerged to find a red sailboat headed our way. We know some Belgian cruisers on red boat called Pirlouit. I thought it was them, but as I boarded Begonia, I could see that it was three times Pirlouit's size. It was an enormous steel ketch of probably just under a hundred feet overall. Maryanne said they had been heading right at her and it took her three tries on the radio to get a response and a course change. There is a lot of boat forward of the helm. She may have been in a blind spot.

Maryanne then had her go at both caves while I stood by. She had the idea of taking our good waterproof flashlight with her, which meant she was gone a lot longer exploring all of the little corners. She returned to say the flashlight still worked but it was not waterproof. {Maryanne: Shortly afterwards if failed completely and we've had to trash it}

We then took Begonia over to Mariner's Cave, where we again alternated swims while the other loitered around in Begonia. Just before we arrived there, I smelled a slight whiff of diesel and asked Maryanne to take over while I had a look. The high pressure fuel hose on the starboard engine had sprung a small leak. This is when it's nice to have two engines. We shut it down, closed the main fuel valve to that side and continued on one engine. We would deal with it once we were anchored. We were a little slower and left turns were slower, so we made a point of keeping the cliffs on that side while the other swam.

I went first. Unlike Swallows' Cave, Mariner's has nothing obvious above the water marking the entrance, so I had so swim around a bit until I found it. It revealed itself as a big hole starting about four feet below the surface. Although we had been assured that the swim was doable by anyone with average snorkeling skills, it is a bit of a leap of faith on the hope that somewhere in the darkness, the rock above would recede and an air cavity would appear in which to surface.

Since we were at the lowest state of the tide, it wasn't bad at all. I thought it was way easier than diving down to the anchor in most places. I was in the cave before I even started to strain for breath. The cave was smaller than Swallows' and with no above-water entrance, completely devoid of swallows. The light coming through the entrance was the only illumination, revealing a low ceiling in wobbly light.

I took another long look at it and decided that I had now exhausted all that Mariner's Cave had to offer. That and I knew Maryanne would be getting a little nervous about why she hadn't seen me reappear yet. Getting out was way easier than getting in. It was just a matter of swimming toward the light.

Mariner's Cave

When it came time for Maryanne's turn, she made a couple of attempts before she finally disappeared for a good, long while. As I was waiting for her near the cliff, a tour boat approached that seemed determined to get between me and the cliff. I thought it was pretty apparent that I was waiting for someone, but he looked like he was about to physically push me aside, so I relented and circled around to make another pass.

Wouldn't you know, the moment I got furthest away, Maryanne reappeared out of the cave to unexpectedly find the sky filled with a boat full of tourists donning their masks and fins. She made her way around the boat to find me gingerly edging toward the cliff where she was. Once she was back aboard, we headed off to our next anchorage at Nuku Island.

Some guide we have says Nuku is the most photographed island in Tonga. It says this not because it is true, but because nobody even has such data, making it impossible to disprove. Other sources have repeated the claim and now it's accepted wisdom. Okay, so there's a chance Nuku could actually be the most photographed island in Tonga, even though it's uninhabited and even though less than fifty people a day must pass within sight of it. IF it's true, it must be some pretty island, indeed.

As we approached, Nuku did indeed look pretty, but just as much so as any of the other islands around here. It wasn't until we approached our intended anchoring spot that it suddenly blossomed. From the specific viewpoint of the anchorage, Nuku was a perfectly proportioned little gem of a tropical island. A wide stretch of turquoise water led up to a beach of powdery, blinding white sand. Leaning out above the beach at a aesthetically rakish angle were a few tall coconut palms with their fronds shooshing in the breeze. Behind all of this, the sand gave way to rock that flared out as it was undercut over the ages by the lapping waves. It was so beautiful we thought, “We've got to get a picture of this.”

I wanted to take a better look, but of course, I had a fuel line to replace. It only took ten minutes to do, but the fittings leaked like crazy. I did it over and over again until I was burned and bleeding from close encounters with the adjacent hose clamps for the cooling system. Once I had paid enough of a physical toll and shouted enough swear words, everything worked just fine. Why does it always have to be like that?

Exploring Nuku Island

In the morning, we swam ashore to give Nuku a proper look. We ducked under low hanging branches and then the overhanging shelf of coral rock as we circled the island. When we finished, we got back in the water and spent a happy couple of hours enjoying the sea life. This area has just about the best variety of coral we have seen this year. Also, there was a much better diversity of other life we haven't seen in a while. We saw several different species of sea stars, anemones, sponges, urchins and a bunch of things even Maryanne was at a loss to categorize, all interspersed with the different fish that call each one home. It really was a joy to see a marine ecosystem that seemed to be thriving. The blue Linckia sea star are all over the place here in Tonga, and we even found some with only 4 arms, not where the 5th was damaged, but where they only have 4 arms from the get-go!

Snorkelling Nuku Island - lots of Anemone fish, and feather stars, almost every meter we'd find something new

Monday, October 02, 2017


[Kyle]From Viamolo, we motored a short distance to an anchorage off Mala Island, which is situated in an indentation between two larger islands just off of the main channel into Neiafu.

Once we were settled, we swam on the anchor, mostly to be certain we would have enough depth over the sand shelf should the current funneling between the islands reverse. Apart from the anchor, there wasn't a whole lot of interest from a snorkeling standpoint. What coral there was was a bit too far away, too sparse and only accessible by fighting a strong current. The sandy bottom was speckled with lots and lots of sea stars. The sand was white and the stars were black, so it looked like a negative of a child's drawing of the night sky. I suppose if I had been a bit more industrious, I could have arranged them into the constellations of the southern sky. I wonder how long it would take them to migrate into a new sky.

The real thing there turned out to be to do at Mala is just sit and enjoy the scenery. From our position, we had long views through the gaps between the bigger islands to the smaller islets in the distance. In the gaps between them, even farther islands could be seen. In the shallow spots, the deep blue water would change to turquoise and green over the sand and coral beneath. It was impossible not to see it and let out a sigh of contentment.

During the night, I was suffering from what Maryanne calls “Monkey Brain” (She got it from her sister, Sarah). That is to say, I woke up, started thinking about WAY too many things, and couldn't fall bact to sleep for a while. Usually, I tough it out until I fall back to sleep again, but for some reason, I knew I had a serious case, so I got up.

I was enjoying coffee under the moonless night sky when I heard drums. I looked at my watch: 0430. The singing started at 0500. It wasn't even trying to be light yet. It was Sunday. Everything is closed on Sunday in Tonga. Everything except church. I actually think they get up earlier on Sunday than any other day of the week. My stargazing and the subsequent sunrise were all accompanied by the most beautiful heavenly choir music. It seems the people who wrote the score to my planetarium show have been doing this for a while. When they finished, I was sufficiently relaxed enough to go back to bed to finish my night's sleep. There was another service around noon and then another at sunset. No wonder a lot of the businesses around here are also closed Mondays.