Thursday, May 30, 2019

Avalau Island - Vava'u Group, Tonga

{Maryanne: Firstly the name... Some books and charts call this Ovalau Island, while others call it Avalau. We can't find a definitive truth (for now) so we'll stick with Avalau and cross our fingers! For cruisers visiting the area it is also known as anchorage #40}

[Kyle]Our sail from Maninita was very similar to our original arrival in Vava’u. The closer in we got to the island group’s protected center, the smoother the seas became until there was no noticeable motion at all. Our last leg was dead downwind. Rather than trying to deal with keeping the sails on the razor’s edge between filling and gybing, we furled everything and finished under bare poles. That’s the way to keep any strain off of the rig.

Although most of our cruising info said the anchorage at Avalau was pretty deep and filled with bommies, it looked like there was a shallow shelf of clear sand close to the beach which our shallow draft would allow us to reach.

Avalau Island - we're pinching ourselves at just how lucky we are!

Aaahhh, that beach! Avalau has the most perfectly picturesque beach. Most of the island is green with big, leafy breadfruit, wild almond and sprawling banyan trees. On one perfect corner is a grove of fifteen or so coconut palms, each sprouting a top of dark green fronds with rust colored tips. Many of them are leaning steeply out over a soft beach of golden sand in a manner that brings to mind a chaise reclined to the perfect angle for a decadent afternoon nap in the tropical shade. It is the scene we all have hard wired into us as a dream of Paradise.

We ended up being the only boat to anchor off of the uninhabited island. Our floating home was resting in water the color of the sky turned upside down. This place is so pretty it makes our hearts ache every time we see it.

We took the dinghy to the beach in the morning and marveled at how every slight change in position or perspective creates a whole new scene. The same familiar trees and sand and rock morph from one paradise to another as we move around.

We walked to the end of the beach. There, we decided we hadn’t had enough, so we scrambled up the hill towards the light coming through the undergrowth. We were hoping to find some kind of clearing with a great view enhanced by a little elevation. We never really found it because the coverage of the canopy was too complete.

Since not too much light made it to ground level, the undergrowth was not too thick. We slowly picked our way between tree trunks on a route that ran the perimeter of the island. We had made it about 2/3rds of the way around when we came to a challenging spot where we had to push through some denser growth to get to a clearing on the other side. Just as I brushed a branch aside, I got a terrible stabbing pain in the back of my right arm that made me stop thinking about anything else.

We had been occasionally brushing through spider webs along the way and I assumed I had had the misfortune of upsetting the builder of an occupied one. Maryanne told me it had actually been a wasp that stung me. Ow!

Almost as soon as she was done with her sentence, she got stung as well. That one got her in the back of her left arm. Those little buggers know where it hurts!

We continued on for a bit and then inspected one another. No stingers had been left behind and we each had a big red spot around the site. Maryanne’s was starting to swell as well. Well, there was nothing we could do about it in the meantime, so we just kept walking.

Thirty minutes later, 95% of the pain was gone and thirty minutes after that, we were hard pressed to even find the sting sites. It was like the whole thing had never happened. That was good, but we still get that those wasps do NOT like you messing with their tree.

Back at the beach, we gathered enough fresh coconuts to keep us going for a while and then headed back to Begonia for a day of light housework and tropical loafing.

When we started feeling a little restless, I set up the sailing kit on the dinghy (a Portland Pudgy). We spent a couple of hours tacking through and around the coral reefs in the shallows between Avalau and adjacent Mounu Islands. Mounu has a resort, somewhat like Fetoko, only finished.

We had mixed reports about whether we would be welcome or even allowed on the island. One source said, “It’s a private resort. Please respect their privacy.” Another said, “Sailors welcome for drinks.” They had a very nice looking open air dining area and we had spent ages crawling our way against wind and current to get there, so we thought we’d land and give it a try. {Maryanne: I was hopeful, and a little biased given it was very early in the season, I was hoping they had no guests to disturb, and I really wanted to spend a bit of money on a a beautiful cocktail in paradise}

We sailed the dingy over to Mouna Island - to see if we could enjoy a cocktail

While I stowed the mast and sails, Maryanne walked up the beach and asked if it was okay to land. The response she got from the young lady in the restaurant was, “I’m not sure. The owner isn’t here.”

She then said that it was okay to do a little looking around while we have a rest before sailing back to wherever we had come from. We took a few photos of the beach and the restaurant and even ventured over to see one of their parrots in a nearby aviary. I couldn’t help but notice that the further we got from the restaurant area, the more nervous the woman looked.

So, it may be that we would indeed have been welcomed, but it was clearly not her call. She just kept saying, “The owner will be back later.”, which we took to mean, “Please feel free to try again then.”, not, “Feel free to wait until then.”. {Maryanne: We were so excited to be here - and it had been a long, wet, slog upwind in the dinghy, but we didn't want to get anyone in trouble either. Alas, my attempt at a tropical cocktail failed again!}

Having done all we could, we left her so she wouldn’t have to explain us to the boss when he arrived.

The sail back was all downwind, so it seemed like it was over as soon as it started. I stowed the dinghy and the sail kit and we donned mask and fins for a snorkel around the anchorage. There was plenty of the usual stuff along with a few especially good patches of coral. Mostly, the swim was worth it for its value in cooling us off. Our favorite thing, though, was that the area is full of little bulldozers. There is a species of fish here that is a type of goby that forms a cooperative relationship with a shrimp. The shrimp has poor eyesight, so it shares a burrow with the much more keen-eyed fish, keeping a feeler on the fish’s back. The goby will twitch when danger approaches and the nervous shrimp will back into the burrow. When the coast is clear, the shrimp resumes an almost constant digging, pushing sand out of the burrow with its claws like a little bulldozer. We can hover over them for ages watching them.

Snorkelling around Avalau Island

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Maninita (Vava'u Group, Tonga)

[Kyle]From Kenutu, we sailed way down to Maninita Island. The Vava’u group is shaped kind of like a jellyfish. Neiafu is inside of the bell of the main island. Maninita is at the furthest tip of the longest tentacle. Not only that, but it is past a lot of other islands with no safe anchorage, so it feels even more way out there.

Maninita - way at the southern tip of the Vava'u Group of islands

Maninita's anchorage isn't particularly great either, but at least it has one. To get there, we had to cross the Fonua Unga gap, which is a break in the fringing reef protecting Vava’u from the open sea. The chart in that area has lots of areas labeled “Blind Rollers” and “Breakers”. The sea had not calmed down fully, so I was pretty nervous about transiting the area. It turned out okay, but we did have a couple of waves roll us a little more than we would have liked. We were glad to get back behind the reef again.

The anchorage at Maninita is accessed by a winding route through shallow reefs. Once inside, there is just enough room for one or two boats over the sandy patch. Since the wind was up and since we were planning on spending at least one night there, we put our anchor down on one side of the patch and stretched it over as close as we dared to the other side. When we were done, we had breaking surf hitting the reef just over a boat length behind us and to one side. The noise and sight of it was a little nerve-wracking when it was high tide. At low tide, the reef broke the surface and the water was nice and smooth.

I had a swim to make sure our anchor was well dug in and to check for obstructions within our swinging arc. Then I swam over to the island to do a lap on foot, just in case we didn’t get a chance later. We were both too nervous to leave Begonia unattended until we had had a chance to watch her motion for a while. Maryanne elected to stay aboard while I was ashore.

Our first coconuts of 2019!!!

It didn’t take long to circle the island, collect a couple of coconuts and confirm that there were definitely no other humans on the island. I must’ve come too close to the nests of some Blue Footed Boobies, though, because a few of them came down to get a really good look at me. I was walking downwind, so they were able to fly right down and look at me face to face. They would stop and hover there for four or five seconds before moving on. They weren’t being aggressive or dive-bombing me, just having a look. They were close enough that I could have reached right out and touched them if I had been fast enough and so inclined.

I had another good look around on the swim back to double check our anchor and swinging room again. Double is the minimum number of checks in my opinion. On second thought, I decided to go for a third look before I got out of the water.

We studied Begonia’s motion until a pre-determined decision time which would have allowed us enough daylight to move on if necessary. We agreed that we would be safe to stay the night.

What a night it was! The sky was gloriously clear. We lounged in the breeze on the trampoline marveling at the spectacle of the night sky undiminished by light pollution or the need to stop periodically to keep an eye on where we are going, like we do while on passage. The trees rattled in the wind and we could hear the birds making ever softer chatter to each other as they roosted for the night and fell asleep.

In the morning, we both left the boat for a long snorkel among the reefs and a walk together around the island. We found many more booby nests, but few seemed brave enough to approach the pair of us as they were for just me, so Maryanne missed out on the great face to face encounter I got. Too bad. She would have liked that.

Snorkel about the reef all around us!

We swam the long way back to Begonia on a different route. She was still safe and sound, but both the wind and the strong currents sweeping around the island seemed determined to nudge us closer to the reef behind us than we liked. The wind was supposed to swing slightly the wrong way over the next day or so. We had a better handle on how we were swinging, so we decided we would sleep a lot better if we moved the anchor to a different edge of the anchorage’s sand patch.

After further discussion, we agreed we’d sleep even better if we left completely and went somewhere where there wasn’t a giant reef right behind us which was topped by breaking waves. That cut our stay shorter than we had originally planned, but we were happy we had pretty much seen everything at Maninita.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Kenutu Island (Vava'u Group, Tonga)

[Kyle]Ofu was too crowded, so we moved to easternmost anchorage of Vava’u, the uninhabited island of Kenutu. Almost all of the other cruising boats in Vava’u were hiding out in well-protected Neiafu Harbor from Tropical Disturbance 12. Fetoko and Ofu were visible from Kenutu, but it faces the unpopulated sides of each, so it felt like we were a lot further away from the crowds than we actually were.

{Maryanne: Oh boy, yes, Ofu which is totally off the grid and with a population of just 171 people - too crowded for Kyle! He wanted an uninhabited hideaway - so we set off for a place we knew of...}

We weaved our way through the many coral reefs between Ofu and Kenutu until we finally pulled up to a shallow spot in the sand, where we were able to anchor just off of the beach.

Kenutu Island (from the sheltered side)
A black noddy hangs out with us, and while sheltered ourselves, we can see the waves crashing through the gap at the southern end of Kenutu

At the beach, there is a short trail to the cliffs on the windward side. We took it and then spent a couple of hours poking around the perimeters of various inlets, looking at the views marveling at the power of the surf. TD12 had whipped up quite a sea and massive waves were pounding into the rock and then exploding into spray. {Maryanne: Kenutu is an island on the far East side of Vava'u - and as such it gets the full force of the trade winds sculpting its cliffs. We were anchored on the sheltered side, but the short walk took us to the 'wild-side' for sure! It was great to see.}

Kenutu - the trail to the wild side!
Amazingly we came across the nesting Brown Booby (bird) on top of one of the cliffs

After we returned to the beach, we took the dinghy as close as we dared to the gap between Kenutu and the next island of Lolo to the south. The approaching swell was funneled and magnified there as it approached the opening. By the time they reached the islands, the waves had grown to the 7-8 meter range. Many were breaking completely over nine-meter Lolo, often sending plumes of spray to twice that height. The reef forms a wall across the gap, so it was possible to stand on it in ankle-deep water and face off against giant, curling breakers as they boomed towards us. It took some will to fight the instinct to run, or duck, or something as they towered overhead. But then the wave would fan out once it got through the gap and the reef would dissipate most of the rest of the energy. All that would be left is three inches of water racing across our shins.

Getting a closer view of the chaos between the islands

I scrambled up the rocks on the Kenutu side to get a look at the windward side of the gap from up above. It was a pretty impressive thing to see. That was definitely NOT swimming water. I was climbing down when I got a text from Maryanne. That was strange. I guess I’m not used to realizing we have a phone signal out here. Anyway, it said, “We need to get out of here – Come back”

Kyle climbs the cliff for an even closer look!


Even though the tide was falling, the waves seemed to be building. A particularly big one had dunked her and thrown her into the wall. It looked like my route back was about to be underwater, so she summoned me back. I got down with no issue, but only with her acting as a wave lookout, timing it carefully and then moving fast when I came down.

We decided to have a look around the reefs with a snorkel the next day. The seas had calmed a lot, but the current through the gap between Kenutu and Lolo was still so strong we could barely make way against it. We swam as hard as we could as far as we could and then turned for the free sleigh ride back to the boat, floating over sea stars and coral and colonies of surprised-looking fish.

Another boat showed up, breaking our bubble of solitude. We swam over to say hi. They were cordial, but not particularly welcoming. We talked a bit from the water and learned they had just sailed up from the Ha’apai group and were soon to leave for Fiji. We told them we were planning on going to the next island tomorrow. “Our” uninhabited island would then become “their” uninhabited island.

We spent the last hours of daylight mesmerized by the spectacle of the waves pouring in between Kenutu and Lolo. Man, that’s a lot of water!

Snorkelling the calmer waters