Thursday, October 25, 2018

Passage to Minerva Reef

[Kyle]The morning we left Tongatapu, the wind was still howling through the rigging. As soon as we cleared the anchorage at Big Mama’s, we set the mainsail flying with two reefs taken in, which easily made the engines unnecessary. With only one sail up, it was easier to gybe from one tack to the other as we wove our way along the channel through the coral heads.

Once we were outside in the deep ocean, we unrolled the jib to two reefs and had a nice, fast sail along Tongatapu’s northwest coast in the protection of its lee.

As we approached the island’s westernmost point, everything started to change. The big swell moving past the blowholes along that coast wrapped around the corner and slammed into Duff Reef just as a smaller swell hit from the other direction. These waves would curl over and slam headfirst into one another, exploding majestically into jets of water thrown straight up twice the height of our mast. The high winds would then catch all of this water and disperse it towards us in a fine mist as gentle as a morning fog by the time it reached us a mile later. The reflected swell from these impacts bounced every which way back into the sea, turning it into a sloppy mess of waves of random heights from random directions that increased in ferocity with each passing minute. The drag cut our speed in half. It was a good thirty minutes before the swell organized itself into one direction and we were able to go fast again through a beam sea that rolled us just a little too far and a little too quick to be able to trust our footing or to sleep peacefully.

Two days later, we arrived at South Minerva reef. As we sailed into its lee, we were glad to finally get some relief from the tedious and annoying swell.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Exploring Tongatapu Island, Tonga

[Kyle]We found a cheap car rental for a day (FAB rentals - $40TOT), and did a complete circuit of Tongatapu Island. We managed to see everything on our map of sights to see and still got the car back with dozens of seconds left until the rental company closed. The island is the perfect size for a day trip.

The ancient Terraced Tombs (near Lapaha),
and one of the Fishing Pigs (near Talafo'ou)

One of my favorite things was our cave swim. Maryanne was prescient enough to bring masks, snorkels and an underwater flashlight, so we had lots of fun among the stalagmites and ‘tites. Unfortunately ALL of our underwater cameras are playing up so if you want to see what we saw, you have to come to Tonga. You’ll love it. The people are all really nice.

After a quick tour of the Ha'amonga Trilithon,
we spent an hour exploring and swimming in Anahulu Cave (A rare fresh water swim!)

Hafangalupe Natural Land bridge (a cave roof collapsed), and the spectacular nearby Lookout

Also, they have a whole section of coast that is blowholes and crazy crashing surf as far as the eye can see. We have a couple of pictures that look like big waterfalls, but they’re just the spray running down the rocks after a big wave.

We stopped at several of the sites along the coast where blowholes were visible - our favorite was the "Whistle of the Noble" (Mapu a Vaea) Blowholes (Houma, Tongatapu, Tonga)

Tsunami Rock is the largest tsunami displaced boulder in the world (see the car to the bottom right) - when that landed was not a good day to be exploring the coast!
Then we went to visit the Flying Foxes (fruit bats) on the island - apparently they are all the property of the King!

As if all of the scenery weren’t entertainment enough, the WHOLE island was decked out in decorations. Tonga and Australia were scheduled to play their first rugby league match and the whole island was covered in the Tongan colors of red and white. It was like Christmas, with almost every house, business and vehicle trying to outdo the rest.

It seemed the whole of Tonga were looking forward to the Rugby League match: Tonga v. Australia

We watched the match at Big Mama’s on Pangaimotu Island. It was a good game, although Tonga fell behind right at the beginning and despite playing a really good second half, were never able to close the gap. Most of the Tongans didn’t care. The overwhelming sentiment amongst them was that they were proud of their team for being good enough to play a team at Australia’s level. They are the most gracious losers I’ve ever seen. Everyone was still all smiles the next day.

For us, what was even more entertaining than the big game was the crowd at Big Mama’s, particularly one happy Tongan woman who is our own one woman stadium. She giggled and cheered the whole way through at full volume. That woman has got some lungs on her! She was cheering for Australia. I think it was to wind up her friends, the Tonga fans. Every time Tonga scored, though, she switched sides like a snitch in a gangster movie and started waving her Tonga flags and yelling “Yeeeee-Hooooo!!!” Everyone left with big smiles and ears ringing like they’d been to a rock concert.

Tongan flags were still everywhere we went into Nuku’alofa to clear out. As for the weather, the region has been experiencing a meteorological phenomenon known as “reinforced trades”. It’s been blowing like Hell for days now. You can go any direction you want as long as it is west. We’re going southwest. Close enough.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Exploring Nuku'Alofa, Tonga

[Kyle]After clearing into the Tongatapu group, we had the remainder of the day to explore Nuku’alofa (the capital of the country and location of the royal palace. Maryanne was prepared for this and had a list of all of the possible tourist attractions at hand.

We found most of them to be closed or in a state of disrepair following damage from the cyclone earlier this year. We ended up with plenty of time left over to just stroll around and pick up some nice, fresh veggies for dinner. We also squeezed in another trip to Friends (the central cafe).

{Maryanne:Last year's visit we'd barely stopped in town with enough time to clear out with the port authorities and grab some groceries, this time I was determined to see more of the town.. it just turned out that there wasn't that much more to see.}

We found a nice relaxed joint (Bullfish) to play darts and grab a bite, and managed to sneak in a picture of the Palace.

The royal burial grounds(Tombs), and the Basilica of t Anthony of Padua

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Sailing through the Ha'apai Island Group

{Maryanne: Last year we had a fantastic time in the Ha'apai island group and we were hoping to repeat that this year. Unfortunately strong winds from the wrong direction, rain, and generally lousy weather (and forecasts) prevented that for the most part this year. We had to work with what we had, and make the most of it - which would mostly mean some rougher than we'd like passages and hanging out on the boat waiting for better weather.}

[Kyle]We left the Vava'u island group late morning for the overnight sail to Nomuka, just south of the middle of the Ha’apai island group. The wind was a bit forward of where we would have liked it to be, but it was strong and steady, so we were at least able to go nice and fast with just a scrap of each sail flying. The beam waves were the only downside. Once we were out of the protection of the islands of the Vava’u group, the endless rolling became increasingly annoying. It was good to know we only had to put up with it until morning.

When Maryanne handed Begonia over to me at midnight, we were almost there. She had been sailing fast under star filled skies and we only had a dozen or so miles to go. I rolled up the jib completely to slow us down. We were still going too fast, so I finished my coffee and pulled the mainsail down, too. My plan was to unroll the jib to the size of a couple of beach towels and coast in.

It didn’t work out that way. As soon as I released the mainsail halyard, not only did the main come down, but also the starboard half of the sail bag. I figured out later that the mainsail had been out a little too far. The lazy jack line that holds up the bag got pinned between one of the battens and the spreader on the mast and almost chafed through. When I lowered the sail, it parted.

With no bag in which to go, the sail spilled out all over the deck. After much wrestling with it, I came to the conclusion that I needed to gybe so the wind would help me push the sail into the good half of the bag. My choices for getting back to the cockpit were to dive under it and fight my way through or go to the other side. That side was the side taking all of the spray, but what could I do?

At length and with much effort, I managed to get the sail into the bag. I tied the fallen starboard side to the intact port side and got the whole thing zipped up. I unrolled the two beach towels worth of jib and we were back in business.

To add to the fun, it was raining the whole time this was all going on. It wasn’t a little drizzle, either. It was huge rain being swirled around by the wind so that it came from every direction at once, even below. Thunder and lightning were pretty much constant. I spent the rest of my watch cold and drenched. I stopped trying to go inside and dry off because I knew I’d be soaked the minute I stepped back into the cockpit. No point getting more than one outfit wet.

As soon as the sun came up, the skies cleared and we were able to eyeball our way to a nice sandy spot behind the reef at Nomuka Iti. We did the checklist and then I went up the mast to replace the lazy jack line. Now we were ready for the next leg.

Our nice northeast wind was forecast to shift to the south early the next morning, so we would have to be up early to make the most of it. In the meantime, we shook off the cobwebs of the night watches and had a snorkel on the reef.

Wow! It was exactly what we had missed in the Blue Lagoon. There were giant areas of healthy coral everywhere with lots of fish. Maryanne made the comment that it was like we were swimming in an aquarium. It really was and it completely made up for the last place.

Hanging out in Namuka Iti where there is one of our favorite reefs. Shallow enough to appreciate while snorkelling and giant (imagine a soccer field size to explore close up), it has plenty of fish and nearly complete coverage of healthy corals

We left at first light for Kelefesia. Our northeast tailwinds lasted about a mile and then shifted to increasing direct headwinds. Fleh! The current was against us, so sailing wasn’t working. After a while the wind got so strong that we had to start the second engine just to keep moving.

We would have turned back, but the wind was forecast to double within the next twenty-four hours, so we just hunkered down and endured it.

At Kelefesia, we dropped the anchor in our old spot and then I swam on it to make sure it wasn’t just set, but buried. There’s little room to drag. I swam over to the coral heads ringing the little anchorage and confirmed that Kelefesia was still a beautiful underwater spot. It was starting to get rough, though and the sea was a bit churned up, so the visibility wasn’t the best. Perhaps we’d go for a proper swim later.

Rest stop at Kelefesia - awaiting better weather

That never happened. The wind was blowing into the mid twenties. We felt uncomfortable leaving the boat, so we just stayed aboard and fretted. The nights were particularly hard. High tide came then. Some swell would make it past the reefs and roll us around and we could hear big waves breaking on the reef astern. Every time one of us would get a little too nervous, we’d go out on deck with a spotlight to check on things. We were always fine, but the sound of the wind and waves made it seem worse when we were in bed where we couldn’t see out.

On our last day there, I took another swim to look at the anchor again. The visibility was so bad that I had to pull myself along the chain just to see the bottom. Our anchor was still where we put it and the end of the chain on that side wasn’t even pulling hard. I never would have guessed it from the surface. Snorkeling for fun was out, though. Maybe next time.

By the time the sun came up the next morning, the seas had been building for three days and we were past ready to get out of Kelefesia. We started the motors and made sure they were well warmed up before pulling up the anchor. We did not want to be at the mercy of the wind.

Everything was going well until we were almost in deep water. Then we got hit by THE WAVE.

The Ha’apai has examples of a phenomenon known as blind rollers. Mostly, these are dangerous because they are hard to see from the back, so it’s necessary to use caution when going into anchorages where they are known to be. The other reason they’re dangerous is that they seem to come out of nowhere. Everything will be nice and tranquil for a while and then all of the accumulated water will start draining through narrow gaps in the reefs. When that happens, a kind of standing wave is created, seemingly out of nowhere.

When our wave hit, we were motoring along in a gentle one meter swell. Then I noticed the waves to port were looking a little aggressive. We rolled over a big one and then the one behind it just kept rising and rising. It was one of those totally awesome surfer’s waves with a pipe big enough to stand up in. This is the wave of my nightmares. Well, maybe a 2/3 version of it, but there was no time to take a measurement.

The top disappeared behind the bimini and all we could see was a vertical wall of blue water barreling toward us. We both knew there was no way we were going to just float over this one. I put the helm hard over and managed to get us about thirty degrees from perpendicular when the wall hit the port bow. Maryanne was inside watching through the cabin windows. She laid her torso over the fridge and held on. I grabbed the wheel with both hands and planted both feet as far apart as I could get them. There wasn’t enough time to fully process what was happening so we weren’t even properly scared yet.

Then everything went white. The crest of the wave broke over the cabin, over the bimini, over the boom. For a brief second, the only part of the boat above the surface was the top three-quarters of the mast. I knew the wave wouldn’t be big enough to flip us, but in that tiny fraction of a second, I remember having time to hope I remembered that number correctly. I also had time to worry about damage. We might not be flipping, but a wave like that could tear the bimini off, or the solar panels, or the dinghy, or rip one of the windows off and fill the cabin. Through the wheel, I could feel that the rudders were going through all sorts of havoc and hoping our new extra strong ones were strong enough. If anything happened to them or our engines or our props, we would never survive being washed onto the reef to starboard.

With most of the boat under, the air in the cabin gave us lots of buoyancy to pop out the backside like a cork. I didn’t get washed out of my seat. My glasses even stayed on. We took no damage, but everything outside got really wet. There’s another set of dry clothes dunked. {Maryanne: and one of our precious headsets has not worked again since!}

Our engines kept running like nothing had happened. Another biggish wave splashed the foredeck and then we were motoring along in serene one meter seas again. Yeesh! By the time the next roller came, we were a quarter of a mile away in the safety of deep water.

The rest of our sail to Tongatapu seemed sedate by comparison. With double reefed sails, we screamed along to the distant safety of Nuku’alofa harbor. I got doused frequently enough that I was still dripping wet when we set anchor at Big Mama’s on Pangaimotu Island (Royal Island). Maryanne made a hot meal while I changed into dry clothes and in no time, the whole day seemed like it must have been a bad dream.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Snorkelling the outer Islands in Vava'u

[Kyle]We skipped out of Neiafu a day before the festival officially ended. I’m sure we would have had a good time, but the time to move further south was fast approaching and we wanted to be able to enjoy a few days anchored out in some of the Vava’u islands before doing the longer passages between the island groups.

We stopped first at Nuku Island, where we had enjoyed brilliant snorkeling the year before. When we came around the corner, we saw one other boat anchored there. It was Green Duck, Ludger’s boat. We searched and searched for a good spot to anchor that would preserve both of our privacy, but in the end, we ended up anchoring practically on top of them. He and his crew, Christiana, insisted they didn’t mind. They were leaving the next morning at first light and we would have Nuku to ourselves. They invited us over for sundowners and we didn’t even get to demonstrate our fixed Torqeedo. Ten pulls on the oars and we were there.

Christiana is heading back to work in a week from Fiji and was already dreading the adjustment from tropical cruising. We spent a lot of time talking about the German cruising grounds in the Baltic. They have a section that looks like the Outer Banks of North Carolina, except with castles.

We're back at the beautiful Island of Nuku (but so are various Jellies!

After Green Duck left for Fiji the next morning, Maryanne and I went for a long snorkel. We found most of the cool stuff we had seen there before, plus a couple of other cool things. We found a little angler fish that was too shy to be photographed. While we were enjoying a bunch of clown fish nervously backing into their anemone, we spotted a strange shape moving around in another anemone. It turned out to be a little shrimp. It was half clear and half a bunch of crazy colors and patterns. We had to stare at it a while or flush it onto the sand do discern its shrimpy shape.

As we continued around the island, we also started to notice a lot of plankton in the water near the surface. The layer got thicker and thicker and the little iridescent blobs grew larger and larger. It wasn’t long before we realized we had stumbled into a big bloom of jellies that was growing more populous by the minute. Then they started stinging. Maryanne asked me if I was being stung with the same calm she used to announce she was being electrocuted when she was using our old malfunctioning sewing machine. Yeah. They were getting my head and legs a lot. I was glad I was wearing a long-sleeved shirt to protect myself from the sun. Most of the stings were mild, like scraping past a thorn or getting a sudden patch of mild sunburn. Others were worse. I got one on my upper lip that felt like I had tried to kiss a light socket. That one stopped me cold. They did no lasting damage. Neither of us ended up with any welts or rashes.

The Usual suspects found when snorkelling, but also (new to us) the Peacock Shrimp
Hiding in the anemone and then alongside Kyle's fingers

Some play, some work - normal life aboard

We headed back to Begonia, which was in the clear and found an adorable little family of cuttlefish trying to communicate with us in pictures. We decided to scrub off some of the bottom growth that had accumulated since the last time we mowed the lawn. They seemed to enjoy the free salad. I tried to make the shape for “Help yourselves, even if we’re not here.” I hope they got it.

Next, we tried to go to a place known as the coral gardens. It’s got coral right in the name, so we knew anchoring was going to be a challenge. When we showed up, we were pleased to find three government moorings set up to protect said coral. One was occupied and the owners were about, so we sidled up next to them to ask about the other two.

“They’re available, but they were too shallow for us. Have a good look around before you leave the boat unattended.”

We picked up the nearest one and then I went in to have a look. The lagoon side was deep enough, but the shore side looked marginal. I grabbed Begonia’s stern and used my fins to propel her around the swinging circle. Right at the end, I had to dig my fins into the bottom and push hard with my shoulder to keep a big coral head from contacting our starboard rudder.

We cast off the mooring and searched around for somewhere we could put our anchor. We couldn’t find any patches of sand big enough, so we headed around the corner to a place Maryanne had proposed as a backup on the way in.

It was great! We anchored in the gap between Vaka’eitu Island and Lanukungito’o Island. There’s a reef there connecting the two islands. Behind it, there’s a big shelf of deposited sand two to three meters down with no coral whatsoever. We watched our anchor kick up a cloud of it as it hit the bottom in the crystal clear water and then let out way more chain than we needed, just because we could.

The view here is amazing! The shallow shelf of white sand makes Begonia look like she’s floating above a beach in a tropical sky. On each island on either side are perfect little deserted beaches, each surrounded with stunning rock features eroded into the uplifted coral by the millennia. Through the gap in each direction, we can see another twenty or so islands at various distances, some with a sailboat or two anchored nearby. Places like this seem to pretty to be real.

Enjoying the snorkelling, especially the little critters,
But take a look at that last picture (and the video) while the picture and video isn't great - you can just about make out the little fish (a Goby) and the shrimp that share a burrow and are found all over the place here

We went for a swim and found plenty of coral at the barrier to entertain us for hours. Maryanne had the find of the day when she spotted a Lion Fish. Those are not to be touched. We made a point of putting the only footprints on our favorite beach. We returned to the boat only when we knew we were getting too much direct sunlight. When we got there, we found another family of cuttlefish. These individuals were three times the size of the ones in Nuku. Oh, if we hadn’t just cleaned the hulls…

We spent the remainder of our time sitting in the cockpit and sighing at the view every third breath or so. Every now and then, we hear a “Pfft!” and spot a big sea turtle surfacing nearby.

We couldn’t bear to leave just yet, so we decided we needed an extra day here, just to appreciate it fully.

After a glorious couple of days at Langito’o, we moved a few miles west to an anchorage at the western extreme of the Vava’u group known as the Blue Lagoon. We were looking forward to this as one of our guides calls it one of the prettiest spots in Tonga. The Moorings charter company classifies it as a “Don’t Miss”.

Okay. I think Blue Lagoon was named in the same spirit as Greenland. If you can get people to come, your restaurant will always have a little business. Hey, we fell for it.

There are a couple of lovely beaches and resorts on either side that have pastel-colored cabanas on stilts tucked into the trees. Although we were the first to anchor in the lagoon, since this place is on everybody’s list, it quickly filled up. By the time we actually got our fins on and got into the water, we had to dodge dinghies and kayaks from the other boats.

We were really disappointed with the snorkeling. We spent ages hoping to find something good. The Blue lagoon has LOTS of coral, but at least 99% of it is dead and covered in silt and algae. This place would have been an incredible thing to see when all of the coral was alive and brightly colored. Lots of fish remain, though, and we did see one sea turtle napping on the bottom. He took off when he spotted us.

In the middle of the longest stretch of beach, the view is marred by a “No Littering” sign posted in front of a cave. Closer examination of the cave revealed it to be cluttered with half burned detritus from the beach bonfires of some very inconsiderate people. By the looks of the rubbish, it seems to not be locals, but spoiled boaters who are expecting the locals to be their maid service once they’ve gone. Shame on them!

All of the other boats left mid afternoon to go elsewhere. Charter boats trying to tick off all of the anchorages have to go to two or three a day. Had we not been tired from our long snorkel and averse to the idea of undoing all of the work we had done that morning to get there, we would have gone the five miles back to the picture perfect anchorage at Langito’o. We were making the big jump to Ha’apai in another day, so we decided to stay put and rest up for the overnight sail.