Bye bye, lovely Niue. Hello, Kingdom of Tonga!
We were sad to leave Niue. We delayed our departure by meeting the lovely Jackie and Alan for the last time, going to the shops for a few last minute bits and then deciding to stay a little longer and have breakfast in The Crazy Uga café (Uga, pronounced Oonga, is the coconut crab) overlooking the bay. We watched with interest the manoeuvring of the supply ship which had come in the previous night. The arrival of this monthly supply ship creates some excitement on the island and people had stopped their cars on top of the hill to watch the tug come in with the first load of containers. Earlier in the week I had watched a bulldozer pull a huge trailer through Alofi to the dock with giant gas tanks on board, secured only with one ratchet strap. One had already slipped to a jaunty angle. Good thing that the ‘First World’ ‘Elf ‘n’ Safety nitpickers have not yet made it to Niue.
We negotiated our way past the Australian Police (!?) cordon to retrieve our dinghy from the now very active dockside and reluctantly put it back into the water to return to our boat, packed the dinghy away, secured everything inside and outside the boat and cast off our mooring ball with heavy hearts. We really loved being here. Never mind, pastures new – and the World ARC fleet! – beckon
Later, in a SSB radio chat with Tin Tin (an Ovni with two charming brothers of a certain vintage (Paul & Mark), Paul’s beautiful daughter (Emily) and her lovely boyfriend (Julian)) that, had we left as early as we had originally intended, we would have sailed straight out into 50kts of wind. Luckily for us, the omelettes and coffee at The Crazy Uga are excellent and should be enjoyed slowly
Our original plan was to sail direct to Fiji. The most direct route took us through Tonga, between the northernmost island group (Niua) and the Vava’u group. The wind however was encouraging us further south and a quick check of the pilot books and the World ARC folder and we realised that stopping around Vava’u probably would be quite easy. Why not? We still had a few days in hand before we had to be in Musket Cove for the fleet rendezvous and – despite losing a day as we had now crossed the International Date Line into tomorrow (!)- we could afford to spend a day or two there.
The sailing on the way was not terribly much fun – it was overcast and not very warm and again we had changeable wind conditions, a couple of slightly alarming barometric pressure falls and waves which kept trying to climb into the boat. A wind speed range of 10-30 knots kept us from falling asleep on watch and the waves did their best to keep you from falling asleep even when you were meant to be off watch
As we neared Tonga, we were also keeping a sharp look out for fishing floats, FADs (Fish Attraction Devices) and their associated fishing boats. Then we realised that we were sailing into Sunday, where work and any related activity is strictly banned on the Sabbath so we were probably fairly safe. We sailed over the edge of the Capricorn Seamount, an uprising from the 6,000m deep ocean floor that comes within 200m of the surface, and Dietmar caught a huge and stunning mahi-mahi. I had been asleep and didn’t even realise he had put a line out. I woke a few minutes before an impressive zzzeeeeeeeeee and we both knew it was going to be a big one. This time, I was organised and even managed to take a photo! Another beautiful fish. Thank you, Poseidon/Petrus/any other responsible deities
We decided to make for Vava’u and all its little islets. It’s the second most populated island in the archipelago and we saw that we could not approach from the east because of the reefs, so set our course to sail around the top of the island group and down the west side. Thirty miles out and the wind died completely. It had previously dropped several times ahead of big clouds, but this time it was misty and still and with only 5kts of apparent wind we decided to start the engine. The wind never picked up again so we chugged along at 6kts with our iron sail the remainder of the way, through rain and a beautiful, dramatic dawn. By 7am we were threading our way through the lush green fjord-like channels of the Vava’u group, keeping a close eye on the depth sounder. Tired, we fancied a little peace and quiet and could see a couple of yachts in a bay. We knew we would be unable to check in on the Sabbath so instead of heading up the channel to the main town, we dropped anchor next to Mala Island, to the sound of beautiful hymn singing from the church. Blue skies with fluffy white clouds, waters so clear I could see the anchor on the bottom with no problem, lush little islands with palm trees and small houses, the scent of tropical flowers on the light breeze. And breathe
Tonga is the sole remaining Polynesian kingdom and escaped the rash of colonisations by Holland/Spain/England etc. Not being an ex-colony has, I am sure, its advantages, but also means that there is no guilty ex-colonial power sending funds from abroad and therefore Tonga is noticeably poorer than its neighbours. The islands have been settled since at least 2500BC but the first Europeans to see the Tongan archipelago, which now comprises 4 distinct groups of islands, about 170 in total, from the Niua islands in the north to the Tongatapu islands in the south, were Dutch sailors in 1616. Abel Tasman, the Dutch explorer, landed on the main island, Tongatapu, in 1643. Captain Cook visited the islands in 1773 for the first time and was so impressed by the welcoming nature of the locals that he named them the ‘Friendly Islands.’ Legend has it that they were actually not as friendly as he thought and that they were deliberately luring him into a false sense of security so they could attack, but that the chiefs could not agree on whether to attack by day or night and he set sail before they could decide! Serendipity.
One of Tonga’s other claims to fame, aside from a formidable rugby team, is that in 1789 (interestingly the same year as the French revolution), the famous mutiny on the Bounty took place in the waters of the Haapai group between the islands of Nomuka and Tofua. Must have been something in the air that year.
Geologically, the islands are interesting. On the edge of a subducting tectonic plate (just east of Tonga we sailed over a sea floor over 9,000m below us), the island chain was formed by a combination of tectonic plate and volcanic activity. The islands to the east are visibly on the wonk, sinking into the sea, while volcanic activity constantly forms new cone-shaped islands in the west. There is an active, permanently rumbling and smoking volcano in the Haapai group (south of us), and at least two sizeable islands which form and disappear again beneath the waves depending on how their respective volcanoes are feeling. We were happy not to be sailing in the vicinity! Here in the Vava’u group of more than 50 islands, the islands are not very high but offer some protection against the wind.
Our anchor had been set for about five minutes before we were joined by Hamish, a curious (about the boat) and genial Kiwi, here with his yacht ADAMITE, who swam over to admire CESARINA. This was the beginning of a typical sailors’ friendship – you meet, you like each other, you hang out, you leave. Maybe one day, somewhere, your paths might cross again but you don’t know. Later, after taping up the hole at the bottom of the mast to stop the hornets flying into the saloon (I wish that was a joke), we went snorkelling with him and his wife and a couple from a catamaran (HALO) who had recently dropped anchor. Someone had told Dietmar that buying Cesarina would mean lonely sailing as no one would want to talk to him. The exact opposite is true
Much later that afternoon, after beers on board the catamaran, I convinced Dietmar that it would be a good idea to join our new friends in their little 2 boat convoy and motor the five miles or so up the channel to Neaifu to pick up a mooring ball so we could clear in easily the next (Monday) morning. Our new friends wanted to go up so they could watch the Americas Cup in a bar at 6am the next morning. I just wanted to check in have a look around as I knew we were only here for a day. I was also concerned about the hornets in the bay that we had seen flying in and out of our mast and trying to come into the saloon. I had killed four that afternoon. I think they were house-hunting, which is probably considered work in the Tongan constitution and therefore forbidden but judging from their demeanour, they didn’t seem at all inclined to cow-tow to anyone, not even the King of Tonga. Dietmar is allergic to their stings and I wanted to be somewhere nearer to land in case we had a problem.
We raised anchor (by the way, the new windlass Dietmar installed in Tahiti is fantastic) and tucked in between HALO and ADAMITE to motor up to Neiafu, which, incidentally, is also a recognised hurricane hole – not that we expected to need that particular facility but it’s always good to know. I hadn’t reckoned on how quickly it was going to get dark. Enormous bats flew overhead. We could hear beautiful singing coming from the couple of churches on the way, smell the lush vegetation, but we could see less and less. By the time we arrived, it was almost pitch black and the mooring field, contrary to expectations, was chocka. This was not good. There were a few lights on the shore, but most boats on moorings didn’t have any kind of light on. The mooring balls were yellow, but most had no reflective stripe and certainly no light. We weaved our way carefully – and in Dietmar’s case, increasingly impatiently (this was my idea and clearly not my best) – through the mooring field looking for a free spot and it took us much longer than expected.
We motored through enormous clouds of jellyfish and I made a mental note not to fall in. The first mooring we picked up, which was the only one we could see, didn’t really look like a rentable mooring, and had ‘DAMN’ written on it in big letters. My thoughts exactly. We untied from this and heard from ADAMITE that the mooring ball next to them at the eastern end of the mooring field was free so we picked our way gingerly through the sleeping boats and eventually tied up safely. It was windless, and hot. I cooked mahi-mahi again (and was happy that we had given away about half of the fish to Hamish earlier – there’s a limit to how many times in a row a girl wants to cook the same thing a different way) and whipped up a little meal with the rest of the deliciously fresh pak choi and kale from the hydroponics farm on Niue and some mashed potato. We drank the last of the red wine from Avi’s sushi restaurant and admired the stars.
One assuaged captain with a full tummy, one safely tied up boat. Welcome to Tonga. So far, so very good. Tomorrow, on the other hand, was bound to be an adventure