Saturday, March 21, 2009

Newz from New Zealand

The lack of news from New Zealand over the past 5 months is not meant to reflect a lack of news, just a lack of time.  But I mean to remedy this. 

First things first.  Shortly after our landfall in NZ I visited a doctor to confirm the suspected…holy cow, I’m pregnant!  With a due date of June 20th, that places conception somewhere in Tonga.  Hmmm, I picture Pangaea at anchor, nestled in a coral garden before an uninhabited tropical island.  I suppose that lends itself to romance.  Funny what happens when you have so much time on your hands.   We settled into our surprise, fought back irrational fears, accepted the rational ones, and faced the news with a sense of adventure.  That is, after all, what this year and a half has been all about.  We found ourselves an ob-gyn, Dereck Souter, who endeared us with his warmth, intelligence, and a hilarious chuckle that really sealed the deal.  Aside from a touch of the queasies, a distaste for meat, and a 24-hour puke-fest set off by the slightest motion at sea, I felt pretty normal otherwise.  As a consequence it took some time for the reality to set in.  We headed south to the big metropolis to await an oncoming wave of visitors.  It seemed a good time to spread  the news (and avoid the sea).

So, there we were (and still are, as of this writing): Auckland.  A city.  Oooh - the glory of convenience and accessibility.  Flashing lights, skyscrapers, scantily clad fashionistas, traffic.  I wouldn’t call Auckland a polluted city, as far as cities go, but my lungs noticed an immediate change in the air and I developed a nice little cough.  Hard to compete with a mid-ocean breeze for clean and fresh.  Strangely, and despite our downtown location, we found the internet frustratingly hard to tap into from the boat.  But, we absolutely delighted in our culinary options with the grocer’s selection of vegetables at our local market, not to mention quality meats found in pre-freezer burn condition.  Oh, and the dairy: fresh milk (enough of this boxed UHT crap), yogurt and cheese, oh my! A break from our staple diet of cabbage, carrots and potatoes, and all things dried, canned and preserved.  A city-sized swarm of restaurants beckoned with a cosmopolitan array of cuisines (especially Asian – no surprise).  Our heads were spinning with options, but rather than shrink away in sensory-overload we did a little dance of joy.  I’ve never been one to complain about choice and quality when it comes to food.

And yet, the city drew us here with a job to be done: find a broker and prepare our beloved Pangaea to brave the vagaries of the market.  Was it planned?  Kind of.  We knew our travels would need a stopping point and we had never planned for points beyond NZ.  But to bring her back to Seattle?  Not unheard of…just difficult.  You see, we took the easy way down here, ie downwind, via the trades.  Going back up is just that, up—upwind and against the current.  We had always toyed with the idea of selling her here in NZ, a venue that has proven to be as receptive as we had anticipated.  That is, Pangaea is a Kiwi boat – both built and designed.  Hamish, her first owner, raced her through the late 80’s and 90’s as Jessie James, and we found that she is well-remembered and readily recognized here in Auckland.  We were tickled by the attention she received, and Aucklanders were tickled that we cruised her, a race boat, all the way here to NZ.  Pangaea, née Jessie James, received a warm welcome.  And yet, does that mean we can sell her here in this relatively small market, a race boat now loaded down with cruising amenities?  A race boat less likely to be competitive with the youngsters out there plying the waters of the Hauraki Gulf?  Well, with a bun in the oven, so to speak, there was a little more reason to put her on the market after all.  A couple years unemployed leaves the coffers a little bare.  A little money in our pocket for our return to Seattle and the working world would go a long way toward settling in for the changes on our horizon.  

I need not mention that the recent upheaval in the economy, which began heaving shortly before our arrival in NZ, has added a layer of complexity to our plans to sell Pangaea.  No doubt the market is not ripe to sell a boat, ie a luxury item.  This stark reality, alongside a weakening NZ dollar, has left us dubious that a sale at a price we can live with is in Pangaea’s near-future.  In other words, we’re crossing our fingers but not holding our breaths. 

Auckland itself?  Green, bustling, seaside, clean, international, friendly, manageable in size and girth.  It struck me, and strikes me still, very much like Seattle, minus the mountains.  Even the summertime weather has its parallels to my damp hometown.  It surely surpasses Seattle in the local addiction to SAILING, however.  You see, Seattle boasts the highest boat ownership per capita in the US.  Well, Auckland boasts the highest in the world, and it shows.  The marinas are expansive and packed, and the Hauraki Gulf is teeming with boats, both sail and power.  Wednesday and Friday nights (and of course every weekend) find many Aucklanders out on the water, competing, then drinking.  Ben was in his element.  He took to gawking and drooling at the race boats during his daily strolls along the Viaduct waterfront.  He crewed on Moonduster for Bay of Islands race week, accepted invitations to crew on our Westhaven Marina neighbors’ yacht Wednesday nights, helped decommission BT, the crippled Vendée Globe Open 60, and later we anchored out mid-Gulf to watch the buoy races of the Louis Vuitton Pacific Series.  (The Kiwis won, in case you’re wondering).  World class stuff – very cool. 

What about Aucklanders (and Kiwis in general)?  Open, helpful, welcoming and friendly, with not a touch of the insincere; proud; quick to laugh; boisterous; easy-going.  Quite fond of drink, with a strange predilection for costumes, at any time of year.  Funny, while I wouldn’t call the Kiwi accent thick, the language is obscured by a serious nation-wide mumbling habit.  So be it. 

Mid-December my mom arrived from Seattle to spend a summer-time Christmas with us in the southern hemisphere.  Our first visitor since Mexico to the Marquesas!  Lovely for Ben and I to get a break from ourselves, and each other.  (You must understand we’ve had a lot of solo, one-on-one time to contemplate each other’s navels – thus the pregnancy). Despite the vast distance traveled, the time change was only 3 hours, making her jet-lag adjustment pretty tolerable.  We relaxed in style in a downtown Auckland hotel for the first few nights.  Aaaaahhh….a bed (and we opted for King-size)…oooohhhh….a shower that doesn’t require a coin!  We drank lattes in the morning, explored the city by day, sampled local restaurants by night.  Talked, chatted and gossiped as girls are wont to do.  It was great to see my mom!  While Ben single-handed Pangaea back up to the Bay of Islands, mom and I drove the car up to Kerikeri where we settled into a cozy B & B, admiring the lush, Eire-like, sheep-peppered pastoral countryside along the way. 

Christmas approached and we awaited the rest of the family, with the Souquets en route from disparate points around the globe.  And, oi, did the members of the Souquet family brave Odyssean obstacles to get here.  First to miss his flight was Jonathan, who had left his American passport back home in Blackpool and learned that, though his touch-down in the States was nothing more than a lay-over between London and Auckland, he wouldn’t be allowed through customs an American citizen on a French passport.  Sharon, an anxious flyer, braved the day-plus journey with baby Evie and toddler Kyan  in tow on her own, with Jacques and Marianne, just in from France, along to help.  Jonathan took an extra flight to meet us in the Bay of Islands, and arrived a day late, but made it all the same.  A 12-hour time difference was harder for our European visitors to surmount, but accomplished nonetheless.  The Seattleites fared worse, as it turns out the Pacific Northwest had just been subject to the snow storm of the decade.  Ooooh, bad timing for folks with holiday plans.  Despite exhaustive efforts, hours on the phone and fraying nerves, Tim and the 5 Smiths failed to find alternative flights from Seattle, or Vancouver, or Portland….. In the end they braved the elements, climbed in the car (not a single rental was to be had through the Puget Sound region), and made the long, 19-hour journey to San Francisco to catch a flight there.  What a hassle!  Luckily Chloé, Théo and tiny, new Daphné went with the flow.  Two days late and several dollars short, but happily welcomed on Christmas morning. 

We stayed on the shores of Parekura Bay, with Pangaea anchored alongside, in a holiday house rental spacious enough to accommodate the 15 of us.  We packed the Christmas/New Year holiday with day trips around the lovely Bay of Islands: a day cruise on Pangaea, a dolphin-seeking tour, kayaking, caving for glow worms, scuba diving, Maori entertainment, sight-seeing and dune-boarding, always peppered with festive holiday family meals, games and, of course, presents!  My mom left a couple days before the New Year and, after some time spent exploring Auckland, the Souquets scattered back across the globe. 

We relocated ourselves and Pangaea back into the marina in Auckland and had a few days to tend to ourselves before our next guest: Liz, arriving all the way from France, this time via Hong Kong.  (Really it’s six of one, half dozen of another, as France lies pretty much exactly opposite NZ on the globe – just as well go one way as the other).  Liz arrived a little under the weather, having picked up something flu-like in China, and sharing it with us.  That set us back a little but we re-energized and saw some of the sights more local to Auckland, including a day trip to the coast, and a few days south in Rotorua, to see the geothermal parks and soak in sulfur and mud.  As per usual, most of our time with Liz was spent chatting, strolling and philosophizing, lovely and relaxing as always. 

Before Liz’s departure we were joined by Reme and David, our friends the Spanish expatriates from Shanghai, an impromptu visit that we were lucky they could squeeze in over the Chinese New Year.  We visited nearby vineyards and coastline, then cruised to Waiheke Island in the Hauraki Gulf on Pangaea for a lovely time on the water – it had been awhile!  And by now, trimester 2, with my belly now quietly displaying its contents, the sea didn’t turn my stomach.  What a relief.


We dropped Reme and David at the airport, and stuck around to pick up our friend Denny, flying in from Portland.  Again, catching up was the order of the day, as there was plenty of that to be done, starting with good ol’ fashioned gossip, and spanning to include stories of travels, relationship travails, veterinary medicine, and strategizing our NZ explorations.  These included the geothermals, Waitomo caves, coast watching, beach walking, sailing, hiking and, of course, cooking and eating, as always the highlight of the day, especially with Ben at the galley stove.  During Denny’s visit I had my 20-week ultrasound, finding that the little creature in my belly was most likely human (I’d kinda been rooting for a kitten, specifically a fluffy one) and a girl!  Now we could start the name game in earnest.  Ben had taken to using a new name for each reference made to the baby in conversation.  Funny enough, Cunegonde and Consuela didn’t make the cut. 

Denny set off for solo travels on the South Island and we set to several boat-related and other chores put off for some time by our slew of visitors.  Little more than a week went by after Denny’s departure before we hosted our next guests: Jennifer and Rod in from Seattle.  The highlight of their visit was our long-anticipated journey together to the South Island, New Zealand’s other half.  We rented a car in Christchurch and made our way to the southern tip of the island, to visit Rod’s hometown on the outskirts of Invercargill.  We visited seaside sights as we hopped down the coast, and then veered north to Fiordland, home to mountains and, naturally, fiords.  We hiked from here to there, through lush forests, up rocky mountain-sides, along coastal bluffs, around placid lakes and alongside deafening waterfalls.  By this time, my uterus was competing for space, winning the war against my other organs, including my diaphragm.  I found it harder to catch my breath but managed to heave myself about, a step or two behind my friends.  Unfortunately their time was short so we delivered them back to Dunedin for their flight home, and turned back to Queenstown, capital of adrenaline sports, to exchange our rental car for a campervan. 

We explored Queenstown and neighboring Glenorchy, home to hobbits, elves, ents, dwarves and wizards.  We didn’t stumble upon Gollum, or stoop to pick up any magical rings, but we marveled in the rugged beauty of Middle Earth.  Next stop: Fox Glacier on the South Island’s west coast.  Sleeping in the campervan along the way we discovered why no one really lives on the west coast – a fear of blood-letting!  After a fitful night of buzzing in our ears, we awoke to find the inside of our camper had been colonized by mosquitoes.  And I don’t mean just a few.  First we freaked out, opening the van’s side door in a panic, only to be enveloped, seriously, by a swarm of fucking sand flies that were stupid enough not to figure out how to violate our sleeping quarters overnight.  After flailing and gyrating, which didn’t manage to dislodge these more vicious blood-suckers, we hastily retreated back into our nest of mosquitoes.  We manually squashed upwards of 200 of the blood-suckers.  They appeared sluggish compared to the sand flies, likely in a post-prandial stupor because they had already feasted overnight.  

We finally made it to Fox Glacier, scratching ourselves raw but up for new adventures.  This region is relatively free of the otherwise omnipresent sheep and pastureland, draped in trees, mosses and ferns in a lush exuberance of temperate rain forest.  Slicing, inching and crushing a swath down through the greenery are Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers, among others peppered throughout the Southern Alps.  We signed up for a guided hike on Fox Glacier, laced up the boots provided and clamped on our cramp-ons.  A 4-plus hour hike took us along the valley floor, along the edge of the glacial river, scootching around rock falls, and up the side-edge (not the temperamental front) of the glacier.  It was otherworldly and sooooo cool!  

The weather was iffy but managed to hold; rain threatened but the sun briefly won out.  While ice-hiking we witnessed the aftermath of a significant collapse at the glacier’s terminal face.  We weren’t close to that edge so we couldn’t see it directly from our vantage point, but there were some brave/stupid souls close by the face on the valley floor.  They managed to get out of the way as the wall of ice fell, and then flooded the river flowing from the glacier’s terminus.  We watched as huge boulders of ice flowed downstream and the river expanded to flood the hiking trail we had taken to approach the glacier on the way up.  No one hurt – what earth-shattering excitement!!  We made a detour around the flooded zone on the way down.  (We learned the following week that someone perished in a rock fall hiking up to that glacier).  And a couple people were crushed just a few weeks before.  Dodgy things, glaciers. 

Onward we drove further north, via Haast Pass, to Nelson, where we stayed the night on MV New Paige, paying a visit to our cruising friends Joan, Roger and Paige, the Allards.  We enjoyed a home-cooked meal, friendly company, a hot shower (and the use of their washer/dryer!).  The next day we drove to Abel Tasman Park, hiked to Pu Pu Springs and a short way along Farewell Spit.  The park surely deserved more time than we gave it but our time was ticking away so we left the next day for lovely Marlborough Sound on the South Island’s northeast coast, home to quaint little Picton and NZ’s most famous vineyards (growing predominantly sauvignon blanc).  Ben did a little wine-tasting, and I a little wine-sipping, and then we closed the loop as we ventured south again, back to Christchurch along the island’s east coast. 

Now we find ourselves back in Auckland, bracing ourselves for the bittersweet: a mix of emotions as we look forward to seeing our long lost loved ones, and bid a sad farewell to Pangaea and her adventures.  It may be our last glimpse of her, now that she competes in this shaky market for a buyer.  Or, she may be our reason for a future return to New Zealand, to bring her back home.  We shall see…. ;-)

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Rites of Passage

October 28—Puke-a-Rama

We set off from a pristine out-of-the-way anchorage in the southern Vava’u group yesterday: Destination New Zealand. As we turned the corner and hung a left we saw we would be chasing down John and Nancy and their girls on Meridian. We snapped photos of each other as we overtook Meridian and waved greetings, with promises to meet again in NZ. The conditions were comfortable but blowing enough for us to zip right along at a nice pace.

The following day conditions were apace, but lightening up after nightfall. Just as the wind started to droop into the single digits and Ben considered turning on the motor to maintain our progress, the wind did a sudden turnabout, shifting forward about 40 degrees. Ben was quick to decide to take down the jib top, the largest of our foresails, and we dropped it in the nick of time; as he stuffed the sail down the hatch the wind climbed to 15, 20, 25, 30… Of course we weren’t quite prepared for the sudden shift and were caught with our pants down (I mean our foulies off) so we were fully drenched by the end of this little sail change. Well, it wasn’t just a squall as it lasted about 5 hours, gusting up to 36 knots. In the meantime we set the autopilot to the task of maintaining our course and we holed up below. Now usually it takes me a day to get over my queasy land legs whenever we set out on a passage. This usually entails spending most time above decks and avoiding tasks down below. I had been feeling quite fine until this weather overtook us and, with the cockpit awash in salt water, forced me below. This is how the puking began. Need I elaborate?

October 29—Minerva Reef

The next morning I was feeling a little weak in the knees and unsettled in the midriff but on the track to feeling better. By the light of day we could see that the main sail was, once again, losing a batten (the one Ben had built in Neiafu). The leech seam was also unraveling along the edge. Following our fellow cruisers’ chatter over the SSB receiver and VHF we found that a number of yachts were congregating in North Minerva Reef, a popular hidey-hole to wait out the unfavorable weather that often plagues this passage to New Zealand. Our friends on Moonduster and Shilling had already arrived from their various points of departure and we decided to join them there. The system had already blown through but we thought it an opportune moment to make the little repairs that were needed and allow us to take a serious gander at the weather to expect in a few days time further south, where a low was expected to blow through with heavy weather on the nose. The question: where and when? Is it best to wait that system out here or rush along to beat its arrival at NZ’s North Island? When we arrived that afternoon we were the 7th boat to join the gathering. There are two formations that comprise the Minerva Reefs (North and South). These are seriously mid-oceanic wonders, rising up from the depths to form rock and coral outcrops. The North Minerva Reef is a perfect circle with a pass at its northwestern rim. The shallows of the interior lagoon naturally glow light blue to turquoise and it spans a diameter of about a mile and a half. At low tide you can walk along the reef to collect a lobster feast but the wind wasn’t quite settled enough for a stroll. We hear large sharks can be found lingering about the pass. We didn’t jump in to find out. The reef breaches the water’s surface no more than a couple feet so it affords no protection from prevailing winds, but the swell is reduced to nil and the holding is good.

We met up with Wayne for a celebratory gourmet meal aboard Moonduster. As it turns out he had made his entrance into the reef the night before completely blind, with no moonlight and no beacon lights to navigate by, and the pass no wider than 100 yards. Gutsy or stupid, but luckily successful. On a sad note we heard that Meridian hadn’t fared as well through the squall and had some damage that required turning back to Tonga. They sailed back disappointed but in amazingly good spirits for the ordeal they had endured. Luckily all damage was of the reparable nature and they will soon be turning back south.

The next morning we got to work stitching and cutting down a larger batten. With another look at the most recent weather reports and upon comparing notes with others, it seemed best to get back on the road ASAP. After a bit of lunch, we lifted anchor and we were the last of all eight of us to leave. The wind was blowing 15 knots just ahead of the beam – perfect conditions for us. One by one we caught up with and passed Pegasus, then Iris, Moonduster, Shilling, Lindisfarne, Tracen J, Linda…..We left ‘em in our wake. It’s awesome being fast.

October 30—Rites of Passage

Sometime in the wee hours we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn, and with it the warm temperatures of the Tropics edge downward, as if ashamed of the romp, rot and exuberant growth produced by its steamy transequatorial heat . We’re now decked out in fleece, with foulies on as needed for wetter points of sail. The staid and civilized of temperate climes lie ahead.

At some other point in the wee hours we crossed the Date Line. That’s the longitude otherwise labeled 180 degrees, marking the transition between 179 degrees west and, now, 179 degrees east. East meets West…and the start of each new day on Earth.

November 2—Knocked down a peg

Many cruising boats check in to a SSB net (like a chat room for sailors) to report their positions and weather conditions. We don’t have a SSB but we do have a receiver so we can listen in. Over the past few days we’ve managed to catch up with and overtake more boats that had been formerly ahead. Earlier in the evening we approached a small but predicted low. The wind stuck around longer than forecast and gave us quite a ride, through some gusty winds and underneath splashes of sheet lightning. (That always makes me nervous.) I think we may have been snickering and congratulating ourselves about how much further ahead we were pulling away. But, oh, how weather is the great equalizer. Last night the wind finally petered out, as predicted. We were mentally prepared to motor the remaining 190 miles to NZ, just a little over one day away. On came the engine and, shortly thereafter, on came an alarm. Same old problem—the impellor is spewing our salty engine cooling water everywhere, only worse than before. Not so good for the engine, needless to say. So, off went the noisemaker and back up went the sails. By a scrap of luck the absent wind filled in to become a little wind. We could manage to sail, that is, rather than simply drift. Unfortunately we couldn’t sail in the direction we wanted. By morning Ben had a bright idea: he rigged the water maker’s pump in to replace the impellor pump as a temporary fix: so far, so good. Now we can motor toward the mark, albeit at a snail’s pace, or so it feels. The weather forecast suggests we will remain windless until just off Opua. Our lead diminishes with the wind. Oh well. 159 nautical miles to go…..

November 3—Not so windless after all

Well, the wind filled back in and by afternoon we find ourselves well under sail once again, doing 7.5 knots (much better than the 5 knots we fared under power). We called NZ customs to give advance notice of our arrival. It looks like we’ll make it there earlier than the noontime we had predicted. Once we were within VHF range we heard a reported alert to all mariners of a rapidly dropping low, with gale warnings all around. Lucky for us we’ll arrive in the nick of time, just before the gale starts blowing. Such is the unpredictable nature of temperate weather.

November 4—Confiscations

At 0645 this morning we sailed into the Bay of Islands, embraced by wooded hillsides, rocky bluffs and quaint towns, hemmed in by building clouds behind us preparing to blow. The smell of land is like a kiss of greeting, a familiar act even among strangers. We meandered our way to the head of the bay, where the tiny town of Opua sits. This town offers one convenience store, a sandwich shop, a restaurant, several marine-related services and…..customs. This point of entry is hopping at just this time, as the fleet of yachts cruising the South Pacific Islands converges in an effort to flee cyclones that occasionally wreak havoc during the austral summer to the north. I think most Kiwis haven’t heard of Opua, but we cruisers have. Extra Customs officials are shipped north from Auckland to process this month-long deluge of incoming foreign and domestic boaters.

We queued up along the Q (quarantine) pier, with a half dozen others and more arriving all the time, and waited our turn. To underscore the nature of this seasonal visitation by foreigners, a film crew was waiting at the dock to document the influx. Customs boarded first and asked the routine questions while we filled out the requisite forms. It got interesting when Biosecurity came around. First they rifled through our food stores, in the end confiscating fewer items than we had expected. They poked around through our personal effects, looked at the shells we had collected, debated whether the skull we had found was a pelican or a pipe fish, and chatted in general. Then the question: “So, you’re a vet? Have you been handling any animals?” “Yes,” I replied. “Do you have animal remedies on board? We’ll need to see it all.” In the end, they not only saw it all, they took it all. I spent the next morning in the customs office, rifling through it all in their presence, cross-referencing the contents of my gear against a list they had requested I produce. I had anticipated a problem with the controlled drugs I have on board but was a bit surprised they wanted to keep it all. No matter, they very graciously promised my supplies would be well cared for, placed under bond at the local police station. Upon our departure from NZ it will be returned to our custody. In the meantime the vetting will be on hold; I’m not licensed to practice in NZ so a hiatus was expected.

So, now we look forward to hot showers, a dinner on the town, scoping out a venue to watch the elections tomorrow…. and to future explorations!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Aotearoa Awaits

Back in Neiafu we’ve had our hands full. Sixteen ligatures and eight snips equals four castrations. Voilà! Tropicana café was closed for the day so we commandeered a café table and Moppy, Reynold and Solitia were anesthetized and prepped, assembly-line style, and the deed was done. Rusty (DaMojo’s rescue) was castrated at Mala Island Resort, his new home, with a couple of guests playing curious onlookers. We were invited back the next evening to partake in the resort’s beachside “Tongan feast,” food for medicine, as usual. All pooches fared well and don’t seem the wiser.

Kiara, owned by Treena and her husband Scott, the pharmacist, has been a greater challenge. She has an ovarian remnant producing estrogen willy-nilly despite a spay, and a second exploratory surgery, by the vet from Tongatapu (he visits Neiafu twice yearly from the capital down south). Unfortunately the problem isn’t solved and she experiences heats, male “advances” and, most recently, vaginal hyperplasia. A third surgery isn’t an option so I’m investigating hormonal therapies. In the meantime she has had a little procedure at the vulva and has the distinction (and humiliation) of being the first Tongan dog to wear an E. collar.

Now that we have provisioned, fueled up and checked out we are close to saying our farewells to Tonga. Sunday is likely the day for departure, but the plan, as always, is open to revision based on the weather’s whims. The passage to New Zealand should be a challenge—1200 nautical miles with a transition into temperate seas. We anticipate an added layer of cloths for every degree south, and will likely be decked out in full foul weather gear by the time we get there. Every cruiser has an eye to the “weather window” so it’s the talk of the town. The trick is to time the passage around the brisk advancement of lows blowing in from the southwest. We’ll play it safe and report on our progress…

Aotearoa awaits!!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Lord of the Flies

We left Lofanga to get situated in a more protected anchorage and dropped anchor a couple hours away off Uiha island. Some exploring there revealed more churches and more pigs—lots of pigs. Then came the rains and a couple days of dreariness. A partial break in the weather gave us an opportunity to head south, where we anchored off a string of pearly, pristine islands: Uonukuhihifo, Uonukuhahake and Tofanga. The Uo’s are joined by a sandy strip, and are separated from the latter by a narrow and turbulent channel, striated by blues and greens.

We walked around Uonukuhihifo on our first afternoon, enjoying occasional outbursts of sunshine whenever the cloud cover faltered. The next morning we woke to an unusual sight: two cows, yes cows, taking a stroll, without a care to the incongruent image they presented, across the Uo’s sand bar. There is one human inhabitant on these islands. His beachfront shack on Uonukuhahake showed recent signs of habitation but no one was to be found. To our delight, our approach was met by a 9-month old puppy scooting toward us, obviously overjoyed, at a gallop, tail wagging and peeing submissively. She was beside herself. A few minutes later a sickly piglet showed up. It was clear that whoever lived here was not on the island, probably making a trip to town, we figured. The puppy looked well fed but the piglet, on the other hand, was emaciated. Ben found a hatchet and set about cracking coconuts. The piglet ate hungrily, attracting a horde of hogs to the scene. Coconuts for all. Cow manure was scattered about but the manure producers never showed themselves after that first morning. We filled the parched water trough and took the puppy on a walk around the island.

Each morning thereafter we made our way to the shack to feed the puppy (nicknamed “Pooper”) and the pigs. We loaded Pooper up in the dinghy and took her to neighboring Tofanga, where we beachcombed a treasure trove of seashells—the best we’ve encountered so far. Finally Pooper’s owner returned and the weather forecast showed improving conditions (more sun and less wind)—time to move along.

Limu was our next destination—yet another uninhabited and diminutive island. We crashed a party of black-tips sharks as we landed our dinghy and they scattered. We circled the white sands, startling terns, harassing hermit crabs and downing coconuts along the way. A few more shells found their way into our pockets; hopefully NZ customs will find it in their hearts not to confiscate them. The little island, like most others here in Ha’apai, sits on the leeward side of an extensive line of reefs. The coral branches off in an intricate web, striping, spotting and checkerboarding the turquoise shallows, effectively surrounding the islands on all sides. Bare sandy stretches here and there are a haven for boats, accessed by the pale blue trails we scent out, with a lookout on the bow, pointing port, starboard or straight ahead as we approach. Unlike the other island groups we have visited so far, these islands, for the most part, are not volcanic in origin. They are being steadily and infinitesimally shoved up from the sea floor by a tectonic struggle of sorts. Skirting the archipelago to the east lies the Tongan trench, the second deepest of all oceanic trenches. Imagine what bizarre creatures from the deep must wash up on these shores after a cyclone blows through.

For those lovers of trivia out there: Tonga is comprised of 176 islands. Thirty are inhabited. Twelve have electricity. Seven have cars.

We took the dinghy out a narrow break in the reef, with a wary eye to the breaking rollers on either side. Passes are usually a lovely spots to snorkel. All you have to do is float and the current does the rest. We drifted along, towing the dinghy alongside, and enjoyed a view of the deeper, and bigger, pelagic fish. They looked meaty and mighty tasty. Wayne fetched his spear gun and the hunting began. His efforts landed us a medium-sized parrotfish and we ate well that night.

A couple days later we sailed to Kelefesia, the most southerly, and most stunning, of Ha’apai’s islands. Here we were delighted, once again, to be greeted by dogs. They looked to be young siblings, perhaps 9 – 10 months of age, with a tag-along puppy of about 12 weeks. They were skinny, but not as emaciated as some of the more obviously owned dogs in Tonga. But, where was the owner?? The older pair didn’t look to be of the breeding age as of yet. Who was this puppy’s mother? Where were the other puppies? We knew the island to be owned but the residence did not look recently inhabited by our estimations. Were they really fending for themselves? Could they subsist? We were more dismayed, even, when we came upon a small enclosure containing 2 pigs and a piglet. They had no food or water. They were emaciated and weak. Why, why, why? The island was otherwise crawling with portly pigs. These evidently were fending for themselves quite well, thank you. What was the point of this? Certainly this was no type of effective quarantine, if that was the thinking. Perhaps a culling measure? Well, we cracked more coconuts, filled up a water trough from the island’s rain-water cistern, and took the dogs on a walk. And whom would we encounter along the way but a cat, of course. He was of the purry, lovey camp of cats and he accompanied us on our walk as well.

Later we brought a rice and kitten kibble mélange, laced with dewormer, which became our daily routine. The dogs lived on the beach by day, scouting out new arrivals and giddily greeting dinghy-loads of cruisers as they came and went. They howled and barked whenever we motored back to the boat. The enclosed pigs weren’t in good shape but they seemed to be gaining in strength. Still, we fretted about the dogs in particular, uncertain whether they were adequately feeding themselves or were making-do with handouts from cruisers. Should we steal them? NZ won’t allow them. In reality, most Tongan dogs back in town look worse off—skinnier, mangy and criss-crossed with dog-fight and vehicular scars—and eventually end up on the dinner table. Are they better off here? We were somewhat relieved to see feathers in their poops, and we watched them dart after scolding terns on the beach. We thought they might manage to pick off a roaming piglet now and then (but mostly they just played with them). We had found our Lord of the Flies.

We spent our days feeding the pigs and the dogs, playing with the dogs, photographing the dogs, and snorkeling (without the dogs). We were fed by the fruits of another spear-fishing spree and managed to avoid any encounters with sharks. After much discussion we decided the dogs were best off being their own bosses on this lush tropical island. But before we said our farewells we masterminded a jail break. Ben dismantled one side of the enclosure and the pigs were liberated. Even if they don’t make it, they’ll be nutritious eating for the dogs and the other pigs if their time comes.

A couple more stops after Kelefesia found us heading back north, back to Vava’u. As Ha’apai blurred into the distance we were lucky audience to a breaching humpback. What a finale. Quite the encore. Bravo!

Friday, October 17, 2008

Whale Song Serenade

We weighed anchor in predawn silver blue hues, with enough light to grope our way around Euakafa Island. The dimmer was turned up as we hoisted our sails, giving us the visibility we needed to avoid the litter of coral patches and reefs, and the Vava’u island group fell away to the north. With obstacles behind us we braced ourselves for a joy ride, sailing a close reach in 18 knots of wind, and averaging 8-9.5 knots of speed.

This day trip, a 70-mile passage to Ha’apai, was made caravan-style, a novel experience for us. We had departed Vava’u with a bevy of boats, namely Libertine (Dutch), Shilling (British) and Moonduster (Californian). So, we spent a good deal of the passage comparing notes on the VHF and, since testosterone was involved, racing each other to the “finish line.” We are happy to report we left everyone in our wake.

The welcome committee was especially welcoming that day. As we approached the northern tip of the Ha’apai a humpback whale made a spectacle of herself, parting the waters with sheer force of bulk and will. The portentous display lasted several minutes and left us giddy.

The Ha’apai island group is known for its navigational hazards. As a result many mariners avoid it altogether, rendering Ha’apai rarely visited and sparsely populated. What with imprecise charts, about a quarter mile off, it makes avoidance of charted coral a greater challenge. Compounded by the presence of many uncharted coral heads, a lookout on the bow and the sun overhead is paramount. Lucky for us, so many sailors don’t know what they’re missing.

Sadly, the weather has been a little glum. Ho hum. Overcast skies, gusty tradewinds and intermittent downpours have limited our enjoyment of these wondrous outdoors, keeping us in hunkered-down mode more than we’d like. And yet, when the sun shakes off its veil and the whitecaps wander away, all the more spectacular the scenery becomes; simply put, it shimmers. We anchored off Pangai village, the most populated, on Lifuka Island, to check in with customs. We wandered through town, confirming that, as warned, there’s little there. And then we hunkered down. The horizon closed in, wind and rain blew through and we sat it out. After a couple nights the sun made its appearance and was forecast to stick around for a few days so we high-tailed it out of Pangai to get the most out of the clement weather.

Our first stop was an anchorage at the southern end of Uoleva Island, a short 6-mile journey. En route we passed by a whale cow and her calf, no more than 100 feet from our stern. We dropped anchor in turquoise waters along an expansive white sand beach, slipped into our bathing suits and dinghied to the reef opposite the shore. There the coral grew in life-affirming, orgiastic profusion. The rippling sunlight fractured into a dazzling confetti of rainbows, like paparazzi flashbulbs. It’s tricky to smile with a snorkel in one’s mouth but possible, I found. We swam with Wayne who reported, after we plopped ourselves back in the dinghy, that he had spied a shark following Ben (unawares) at a steady 15-foot distance. Evidently it was a small one (~4.5 feet) and probably just satisfying its curiosity. Without any major hemorrhage, I guess he didn’t find Ben all that interesting after all.

The next morning, in the midst of preparing a departure to the next anchorage on our agenda, we heard a distress call on Channel 16. The sailboat Talismano had run aground, on a reef just outside Pangai village. They requested assistance with wavering voices that underscored how very afraid they were. We were anchored about an hour away but we heard no other response to their distress call. Ben and Wayne took the dinghy to board Shilling, anchored nearby, who then set a course for the grounded vessel. We were all relieved when, 30 minutes later, Talismano reported that a local powerboat nearby had managed to dislodge them from their rock-jawed snare and all was well. Shilling turned back and we shared a morning coffee aboard before the three of us (Shilling, Moonduster and Pangaea) set out for Huaka Lehi, another 6 miles away.

Our approach to Nukupule, one of two diminutive islands that share Huaka Lehi’s lagoon, was auspicious. Once again a whale greeted us, as we skirted the reef and found the bight in which to drop anchor. We jumped in for a cool-off swim and then jumped in our dinghy to explore the sands of Nukupule. As we neared shore a cloud of flying foxes (fruit bats) scattered from their arboreal roosts with some scolding chatter. They circled above as we circumambulated the tiny island, and finally settled down in resignation.

We agreed to a little afternoon entertainment to follow our explorations, as Wayne offered us flying lessons (ie, spinnaker flying) aboard Moonduster. He retied his anchor to his stern to invite the wind from behind, hoisted the spinnaker, tied a boatswain’s chair through a line connecting the spinnaker’s two clews and told me to jump in the water. I wriggled into the boatswain’s chair and adjusted the two ends of the line from which I was suspended to fill the sail. With a little trial and error, and with a soft gust of wind, I was lifted out of the water, in front of the bow, dangling from the billowing spinnaker above. The motion was so gentle I felt almost cradled. After some squeals of mixed delight and terror, I settled in and enjoyed the view. The excitement was short-lived as the soft gust blew by and I was lowered back into the tepid water. Janet from Shilling was next but her lift-off was a little feeble as the afternoon winds were settling down for the night. Ben gave it a go, but it was a no-go. We agreed to reconvene for a potluck dinner aboard Shilling and returned to our various vessels.

Right upon clambering back aboard our cockpit we heard a shout from Shilling. “Whales!!” We watched excitedly as a cow and her calf sauntered lazily into our anchorage – Mom alternately floating and diving, while Junior practiced his belly-rolling, tail-slapping and flipper-flapping, to our delight. After a few minutes it was evident the whales would be sticking around. Ben jumped in the dinghy with his mask and snorkel, paddled over to the whales and quietly slipped in the water. He watched from a reasonable distance and the two took little notice. Eventually, Junior’s curiosity was piqued and he decided to check Ben out. Mom thought better of this and approached Ben as well, effectively steering Junior off his intended course. Close encounter! Ben paddled back to the boat while I hesitated. Should I? Shouldn’t I? I half expected the whales to drift away but instead they approached closer, weaving their way between our boats and that decided it for me. Time to swim with the whales. Apprehension lingered about but I swam to the whales nonetheless. Other than the occasional “PHWhoooosh” of their blows, and Junior’s carefree splashing, there was no sound to be heard besides my heart trying to beat out of my chest. I could see their bulk above water. They seemed close by but below the surface the water was a slightly murky blue facing into the slanting afternoon sun and it required a continued approach before their forms solidified into view. It was pretty shallow here, about 30 feet deep over sand. Finally I could make them out, a few whale-lengths away. A rush of exhilaration flowed through my veins and tickled my nerve endings. Afloat in the shadow of giants. Mom hung in animated suspension close to the sea bottom while Junior performed his acrobatics above her. He continued to belly-roll, flipper-flap and tail-slap, but his favorite position appeared to be upside down, a vertical dangle. I kept a constant distance and simply observed. Mom and Junior took no notice and eventually my heart rate slowed to a comfortable rate and rhythm. Eventually Wayne joined me and, just like a man, thought he’d see what would happen if he approached. I hung back, more respectful, less intrusive (and more fearful, to be honest). Needless to say, mom had the final word and removed a little further out.

Our dinner plans were slightly delayed by the cetacean encounter – no complaints there. We enjoyed our evening, toasting the whales into the night. Before heading back to our respective homes we heard the familiar “PHWhooosh,” and suspected we’d be having a sleep-over with whales. Ben and I lounged at our bow, watching the sleeping mother’s bulky shadow in the moonlight, and watching Junior cautiously explore in his midnight insomnia. We sent up our words of thanks.

The next morning, sipping coffee in the cockpit, another shout of “Whales!!” was issued. This time a pod of 5 or 6, traveling through the channel adjacent to our anchorage, was greeting the morning with exuberance. We don’t know if Mom and Junior had joined their number but we suspect so. For close to an hour we watched as they breached, and breached, and breached, until they were dots on the horizon. The forecast foretold of crummy weather on its way, to be expected late in the day. We wanted to eke as much play time out of the sunshine as possible. Shilling needed to head back to Vava’u so we parted company and caravanned with Moonduster to Lofanga Island, a 3 mile trip across Ava Mata Nukupule channel, where the whales had just passed us by.

We saw another whale lingering at the point, adjacent to our new anchorage, but couldn’t pinpoint where he’d gone. As soon as we dropped anchor in this beautiful cove we jumped in the water for a snorkel along Lofanga’s southeastern reef. Here, too, the coral was on proud display with a veritable side show of piscine freaks to entertain us. Wait….I heard something. Was that a squeal? “Ben? Did you hear that?” It took a couple minutes before it dawned on me—whale song!! A whale song serenade. I couldn’t pick out whether it was two voices, one deep, one shrill, a mother and calf I suppose, or if this was the range of one whale. And what is the range of a song, to a human’s ear? How far away? Her voice echoed all around us but the diva that crooned this lullaby remains anonymous.

After our swim we hiked along a trail up a hill from the beach, worn through the grass into a skein of red soil. After letting ourselves in through a sliding gait we wandered our way through Lofanga village. Tongan villages are encircled by fencing to keep the pigs from wandering away, and each home, in turn, is fenced to keep the pigs from wandering in. It seemed a languid day. Our arrival prompted some glances and a few timid waves. “Malo e leilei,” a Tongan hello. It wasn’t until we passed a residence swarming with children further along that the interactions began. Tongans are taught English as a second language throughout their schooling, but the use of English is so limited here in the remote Ha’apai that conversation doesn’t tend to extend much beyond the niceties. We learned the children’s names and ages, determined that they were home from school (in uniform) for their lunch break, explained where we were from and that we came by sailboat. We were offered mangoes, and then their mother approached us with smiles and a gift of bananas. The life here is simple, scratched out of the earth and shared with pigs, chickens and dogs. There is a notable lack of industriousness, but little pressing need as the fundamentals are easily obtained from the surroundings. The quality of life is spare and could use some improving—the Peace Corps sends its troops for this purpose—but whether the locals feel it needs improving is a question we can’t answer. Some Palangi (ex-pats in Tonga) are cynical, as incoming aid to Tonga is evidently quite plentiful, but funds seldom make it to their intended target. The village of Hunga received aid to create a more usable and sorely needed track from the beach; it went instead to a big screen TV. Oh well.