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.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Blame it on the Weather

After nearly a month in the Vava’u group of Tonga we have finally made our short farewells to explore more southerly shores of these South Seas. We have our sights on the Ha’apai group, the lonely and lovely Cinderella step-sister to Vava’u in the north and Tongatapu in the south. But our goodbyes are to be short-lived, as we will return (just a short 70-mile sail) to Neiafu, in Vava’u, in a few weeks’ time to pick up a package and check out of the country before our departure for Aotearoa (New Zealand to us white folk).

We do a have a couple engagements that draw us back to Neiafu as well, namely castrations. Lisa, the Kiwi owner of the Tropicana café in town has asked that we neuter her newest rescued puppy, Moppy. Also, if our paths cross, we’ve got our eyes on the gonads of little Rusty, another rescue fostered by the folks on DaMojo. Just a satisfying snip, and one less contributor to the gene pool. I’ve been dispensing dewormer as if to satisfy a personal vendetta against all nematodes great and small (insert wicked snicker). DIE, parasites, DIE!

As we gybed our way out of Neiafu in 18 knots of wind, I reflected on the taste this part of Tonga has left in my mouth so far – fruity, with a touch of halitosis. The backdrop is beautiful, with coves, islets, bays and lagoons tightly clustered in a labyrinth of sea, sand, spits, caves and false passes. You clear a point and set quickly to reorienting, as the landmarks by which you navigate rearrange themselves in the blink of an eye, luring you to the reef that you thought was a pass – something like tracking the stone under the coconut. Keep chart in hand and all is well. While the nautical mileage from anchorage to anchorage never exceeds single digits, we always take the trouble to hoist the sails because the prevailing winds and comfortable temperatures (mid- to upper seventies, for the most part) make the sailing quite a pleasure here.

In some ways, though, a gray pall dulls our experience of Vava’u—literally, the clouds hang low and overcast skies, bathed intermittently in sprinkles or downpours, draw a damp and mildewed shroud over the mood of the people and the place. In Vava’u our social interactions have centered more narrowly than we’d like around fellow cruisers and palangis (expats in Tonga). Of course, as I’ve described, this harbor is a bustling one, in the way of yachties, so it is a good opportunity to meet and be met, discuss future routes and compare notes. And yet, it’s no surprise that this creates a vortex of gossip and melodrama, not-so-intriguing intrigue. It doesn’t take much of this before I need “OUT!” And yet the conveniences of town tend to draw us back, back into the thick of things. *Sigh*

Then of course there are the palangis, who we encounter as the, seemingly, only business owners in Tonga. So, internet, laundry, restaurants and shops—palangis of British, German, Aussie, Swiss, American or Kiwi provenance, always a recipe for nationalistic comparisons and complaints. *Yawn* The invisible barrier between palangis and local Tongans is barely invisible, and really quite discouraging. Often a barrage of complaints about local lassitude, thieving and ignorance is peppered with “but we love it here” and, as I’ve mentioned before, alternates with complaints about other palangis of whatever other nationality. So, whatever. But then, when we think about it, what about our own interactions with local Tongans? Well, that’s been pretty spare as well. In general, the Tongan’s keep us at arm’s length, in contrast to the welcome embrace of other Pacific islanders we’ve met. Not to say we’ve encountered any type of open hostility, mind you. Perhaps that can be easily understood as a sort of “foreigner fatigue.” But even when we castrated “Beauty” for the immigration official, his attitude toward us was hardly what you’d call warm. While we have met some open Tongans, our interactions are simply more aloof than any we had with Samoans and French Polynesians, who were quite easy to get to know. Samisi, a Tongan married to a German Palangi, summed it up nicely. He felt his horizons had been broadened substantially by his mixed marriage, to the now unfortunate position of feeling disdain for his fellow Tongans, and for the quibbling Palangis as well. In other words, he belonged nowhere outside of his own household.

And then there are the pigs and dogs. I won’t go into detail but the Tongan relationship with animals is not only negligent but openly abusive. With few exceptions my veterinary skills are only sought out by palangis, no wonder.

Here’s the scoop on George Tupou, V, recently crowned King of Tonga. Evidently he’s a drunk; when he travels, he carts his booze along. He is known to pad his pocket and, while his grandmother, conscientious when queen, extracted a modest salary from the Tongan government (she even took out, and repaid, a loan of $20,000 to buy her NZ residence), the monarch is now worth ~ 500 million US dollars. An international agency has rated the Tongan monarchy the 4th most corrupt government in the world. Interestingly, but not uncharacteristically, when paying a visit to Ika Lahi Lodge (where we’d met the friendly Kiwi proprietors Steve and Caroline), he racked up a tab of $2000 and left without paying the bill. Recently, while falconing in the middle east, he made a disparaging remark in an interview about his “ignorant” subjects. Word got out, inciting numerous riots, and spurring New Zealand to send peace-keeping troops. Not to worry, all’s quiet on this front at this time.

Call me “Debbie Downer” but here’s my last complaint: we came in 4th on the Friday night regatta! It was a hard fall with all the inflated expectation of our fellow cruisers, who had laid it on thick and assumed we’d leave everyone in our wake. Unfortunately we guffed the start with a poorly-led jib sheet and that’s all she wrote—couldn’t come back from that. But, we had an upbeat crew (9 of us altogether) and had a great time. We were awarded a Vava’u whale-watching DVD for our efforts and spent the night out on the town, celebrating our 4th place in grand style.

Anyway, time to move on—toward sunnier climes and sunnier moods.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Vetting in Vava'u

We left American Samoa with Nuiatoputapu (New Potato, to cruisers), the northernmost island of Tonga, on the agenda. We knew it was close by, something like a day sail away, so we were pretty casual about pinning it down on the chart. Ben had it in his head it was 98 miles away so we aimed for an afternoon departure. Finally I checked it out to be sure of the distance and, lo and behold, it was actually 152 miles away. Oops! We should have left earlier in that case, to avoid a nighttime landfall. So, instead we left late the next morning. Once on the “road,” Ben set to creating a track on our navigation program and he discovered I had chosen the wrong waypoint in my measurement and it was actually a passage of 200 miles. Well, shit, in that case we should have left at the crack of dawn.

We spent the first day out struggling to make quick time to Nuiatoputapu in hopes of arriving in daylight hours. But, the conditions proved unfavorable and, once again, way too light. We did see in the forecast strong winds approaching and, with further review, this made a visit to Nuiatoputapu seem unwise anyway, as it would make the next passage, from Nuiatoputapu to Vava’u, impossible, or at least foolhardy, for some time to come. As usual, plans change—on to Vava’u instead.

Vava’u is the main island and namesake of the closely clustered northern group of islands that help comprise the Kingdom of Tonga. This is a true monarchy so I guess that would make the locals here subjects instead of citizens. The king parcels out 8 acres of land to every male inhabitant on which to build or cultivate as he chooses. This king, George Tatoupu V, was newly crowned this year; we have yet to hear a kind word said about him. The land over which he reigns, however, is beautiful indeed, and made up of three island groups, from north to south: Vava’u, Ha’apai and Tongatapu.

Our arrival in Vava’u came with an untimely surprise. Although Tonga is located at 174° west, six degrees shy of the date line, Tonga has aligned itself temporally with Fiji, New Zealand and Australia. For all intents and purposes, Thursday, August 28th, vanished into thin air. That put our arrival sometime late in the day on Friday, with customs and immigration officials tapping their watches, looking anxiously ahead to their weekend of leisure. A weekend arrival means a hefty “overtime” fee and self-imposed “house arrest,” confining ourselves to our boat in the midst of town. Our day was spent calculating our speed and remaining distance, pushing into head winds and, with a little luck, we just made it, the last boat to check in the for the week.

Our arrival in Vava’u came with another surprise. As we rounded the corner we saw a mighty tangle of yachts, 103 (yes, we counted) strong. Outside of Tahiti, this was the greatest conglomeration of cruisers we had encountered. I guess the northern reaches of Tonga could not technically be called the “middle of nowhere,” despite temptation. Most boats were tied to mooring buoys so we picked our way through the fleet and finally found a buoy to hitch up to. Here we found ourselves reunited with many of the cruisers we had encountered along the way.

Anytime a location is packed with this many yachties, a “cruisers’ net” is bound to pop up. This means a VHF radio channel is selected for a daily reporting of weather and local events, and as a vehicle for making contacts with other boats, seeking out parts and spares, selling or trading unwanted items etc. So, I got on the net and announced my veterinary services. This set the ball in motion and we were soon in high demand—with cruisers, palangis (expats in Tonga) and a couple locals. Every day brought new patients: Max with a broken leg, Bailey with heart failure, Melino with a plant toxicity, Tess with an ear infection, TC with a lameness, Benzeni with an eye problem and Beauty with testicles that begged removal. We hadn’t seen ourselves this busy for awhile and, believe you me, the animals around here could sure use the help. Packs of dogs roam the streets here with packs of pigs, like the Jets and the Sharks. All are neglected and likely abused, and both grace the tables of Tongan feasts. A group of locals and palangis pitch in to bring the one “veterinarian” from Tongatapu here once a year, usually to spay and neuter. After we castrated the immigration official’s dog, he suggested we advertise on the local FM radio station. But, man, we were busy enough for our time and resources and not quite ready for an inundation.

Outside of our vetting we spent time socializing, patronizing the plethora of palangi-owned restaurants (the locals don’t seem to be as entrepreneurial) and busying ourselves with the boat’s needs. We did a little hull-scrubbing (but handily avoided finishing the job when the weather turned foul), batten-building and outboard motor-cleaning (our dinghy flipped over in the wind, giving the outboard a nice, lengthy soak in salt water—oops!). Oh yes, and I spent the week limping about after stepping on the edge of a sidewalk in the dark. I sprained my ankle pretty well and wrapped it to keep the swelling and bruising down. We hunkered down at the Aquarium Café when the torrential rains blew through. A couple boats dragged anchor that night and one boat lost it’s foresail as it unfurled and flogged itself into strips of sail cloth. If we had left our dinghy full of water that night, perhaps it wouldn’t have flipped. This was the weather that we had avoided by redirecting our passage directly to Vava’u and, luckily, this main harbor at Neiafu is especially protected. A few poor souls attempted the passage to Vava’u from Nuiatoputapu; some turned back and others braved the weather and limped in exhausted, sea sick and a little worse for wear.

We met a couple on a racy looking boat from Auckland, NZ, a boat named Blizzard. Ben had been eyeballing this boat all week. Our own racy boat had originally been owned by a Kiwi, who had raced her in Auckland. We dinghied alongside Blizzard and Ben said “I bet you’ve raced against our boat before! Back then she was called Jesse James.” Well, damn right. Not only had they competed against our boat, they had raced on her as well and are good friends with Hamish “Moosh”, her original owner. “Jesse James! We thought she looked familiar!” We talked sailing into the night and now have another good contact for arrival in NZ.

After a week in Neiafu the weather finally lifted and we set off to enjoy this gem-like cluster of outer islands. There is a plentitude of anchorages peppered around these coves and islets, all just hours from each other, with steady easterly trade winds promising a lovely sail from spot to spot. Our first visit was to the island of Tapana, about 3 hours from Neiafu. We followed in our friend Moonduster’s wake…and then passed him. Hee hee. Our first inclination was to dive in for a dip, as two weeks in Pago Pago and a week in Neiafu harbor had left us craving a leisurely swim in tropical waters. Later we visited with Wayne and his guests Charlie and Helen, a young British couple crewing their way around the world, and had dinner with another large group of cruisers (in costume, for some reason) at the Spanish-owned tapas and paella restaurant. Dinner was followed by Spanish guitar music and dancing. The next day we snorkeled, hiked (gently and a little gimpy on my part) and picked shells on the beach. We planned to scrub the hull but a few too many jellyfish made an appearance in the anchorage. We hosted Moonduster, Helen and Charlie, and the next night Andy, Sandy and Emma from Imagine for dinner aboard. We soon came to realize we hadn’t had an evening to ourselves since our arrival in Tonga. Time to move on and get some solo time.

We sailed to our next anchorage of choice at Vaka’eitu, just an hour from Tapana. I saw a whale breach in the distance and, as we approached the spot, we tacked by a couple whale watching boats in proximity to a humpback cow and her calf. Exhilerating!! The humpbacks make this their winter birthing and breeding grounds, weaving around all us cruisers, and guides offer the chance to snorkel with the behemoths. I long to do this but the price is steep… Vaka’eitu proved to be my favorite anchorage here so far. A short dinghy ride away is the “coral garden.” If you brave climbing in and out via the rocky shelf in the surf, sustaining some coral cuts along the way, it’s well worth the effort. The variety of fish is about the same mix we’ve seen elsewhere, in moderate numbers, but really the coral backdrop makes all the difference. The best coral we’ve encountered so far would have to be Tahaa and Huahine, in the Society Islands, but the vast majority, even in the most remote of waters, tends to look tired, faded or downright dead. It’s a sad state of affairs; the apocalyptic reports of the loss of our coral reefs is no exaggeration. So, anytime the coral blooms and blossoms, shouldering out it’s encroaching coral neighbors in fierce competition, in splashes and swaths of color, we consider ourselves, and the resident fish, lucky. Later we hiked over the ridge adjacent to our anchorage to an idyllic beach, with luxuriant, suede-like white sand abutting turquoise shallows. After beating our way through the lush vegetation to get there, we dropped our gear and dove in for another swim. More coral beckoned. We had our first night to ourselves but, on the second, we joined the other boats around us for a bonfire potluck on the beach. We found ourselves outnumbered by Scandinavians and enjoyed the mixed company.

As we find ourselves closing back in on continental land masses to the west, we find an increasing variety of wildlife. There is a nice array of birdlife here, from kingfishers to parrots to owls (What, owls? Don’t ask me—they must have been introduced). Fruit bats (flying foxes) grace the twilight skies, a personal favorite of mine. Funny enough, if you squint so as to blur out the palm trees, these islands feel strangely familiar, just like gunkholing through the San Juan and Gulf Islands. Of course you’d have to ignore the turquoise reefs to make the mental leap.

Now we find ourselves back in Neiafu, back in town to compete in the weekly Friday night yacht race. I’ll let you know how we make out….

Saturday, August 23, 2008

America, the Tropical

We made landfall in American Samoa with bluster and fanfare. The first few days of our passage were a real snooze, with trade winds eerily absent, asleep on the job. But we stole a joy ride for the remainder, finally exceeding the elusive 200-mile day with gusto, logging 221 miles in a 24-hour period. For you land-lubbers, this sounds pretty paltry. For you mariners, you can imagine the thrill, averaging 9.2 knots. Ben hogged the helm overnight, which was fine by me. Our timing was off for a visit to Suwarrow, as we would have entered the pass at nightfall on the crest of heaving swell.

So, we continued along the rhumb-line to Pago Pago harbor on the island of Tutuila, the largest of American Samoa’s three islands. We thought we might try to slow down to ensure a daylight arrival but the squalls would have none of it. With rain and wind overtaking us every 20 minutes, and with reduced sail, the island was looming in a hurry. So, time to navigate; we don’t have brakes. We skirted the edge of a reef and found our lighted sightings (at least the ones that were working), with wind and waves propelling us toward the lee shore. As I was on the helm I was the first to notice a change in our speed, right as we were passing through the narrow channel between the reef and the island. With a little investigation we found we had had a 1-1/4” line and float caught on our keel, impossible to avoid in the dark. Oops. So we backed up, snagged the line and cut it free. But that was wet business since backing into waves invites a fair bit of water into the cockpit. Finally we wended our way into the harbor’s entrance, luckily long, angled and protected from the surging swell. Then, midnight, time to drop anchor. This we had heard to be a fair challenge as Pago Pago harbor is a commercial port known for poor holding and an obstacle course of garbage to contend with. We got lucky on our first go but were chased off by another cruiser who was convinced our anchor would drag in his direction. We didn’t agree but, tant pis, we moved to keep the peace. This proved to be more of a challenge, as I detached our anchor from plastic bags and a chunk of rug, but finally we were settled.

Two things about Pago Pago jump out. First, it’s surrounded by mountains, verdant with tropical growth, really a beautiful backdrop to this protected harbor. Second, but first to assault the senses, is the odor. Starkist and Chicken of the Sea operate their canneries here. They seem to be improving their practices (now separating fish oils out of their effluent to use as biofuel, thus powering the plants), but they reek, and the smell permeates all. It keeps you fully aware of the wind’s direction; a minor shift alters one’s olfactory experience profoundly. The canneries have been packing tuna for 60 years, providing a slew of jobs and drawing Western Samoans (the independent nation next door) here for work. There is a constant line-up of tuna clippers, awaiting their turn to drop their load and head back out to sea for another 80-day stint. This is serious business; each load of fish figures in the millions. Some boats come equipped with a helicopter used to scout out schools of tuna. The tuna don’t stand a chance. Interestingly, NOAA has a field office here and there is a NOAA observer assigned to every boat to monitor by-catch and fishing procedures on these ships.

Another thing stands out about American Samoa. Well, it’s America. Samoan is the native language but everyone speaks English here as well, and currency is paid in American dollars. This is also the first “territory” we’ve encountered in which the inhabitants adore their empire. There seems to be a basic recognition that this island economy couldn’t make it on its own and they’re pleased to be subsidized, and yet left to govern as they choose. Each year a contingent of Samoan chiefs makes their way to Congress, dressed in traditional regalia, to make their budgetary requests. Apparently this event is relished by our Congressmen and the budget is routinely approved. What that funding means here in American Samoa, for example, is a 10-dollar membership to receive full, life-time medical coverage. It’s not a free ride, though, as many Samoans are currently fighting in Iraq, and yellow ribbons abound. We met an American guy, married to a Samoan, who relocated here after his wife delivered a baby 3 months premature. They couldn’t afford the $3000/month premiums for a premie back home so they sought out medical care here. So far, so good. So, I guess it is America, and yet not America.

The other common thread? Football. Everyone knows the Samoans are big-boned and heavy-set. This makes them ideal linemen. Walking down the street Ben saw a young guy wearing a jersey numbered 51. “Lofa Tatupu!” Ben yelled. (A Seattle Seahawk, and middle linebacker, in case you’re not up on the NFL). The kid yelled back, “That’s my brother!”

We met up with Wayne from Moonduster, the cruiser we had first met back in Ensenada Mexico. We got the introduction to Pago Pago from Wayne, caught up on our various travels, and cooked some fabulous meals. We shared a rental car and took a tour of the island, finding the scenery increasingly pastoral and pristine shortly after leaving town and its environs. Along the road the approach to each village is gaily painted and adorned with colorful coconuts, along with Samoan and English words of welcome – Talofa! Each village has at least one church, and these are usually pretty grandiose affairs. Along the road each family builds an open-air, roofed structure supported by pillars constructed for funerals, weddings and family celebrations – a “Samoan House,” it’s called. We saw a gathering of formally dressed Samoans as we entered one village and decided to check it out. One man, holding a staff, stood surrounded by gifts, addressing another staff-holding man, just opposite, also surrounded by gifts. We learned that these were two chiefs, and this was a ceremony and celebration, as one village was “giving” their church’s reverend to this village’s church. All age groups were present and it seemed a happy occasion. The villagers made us welcome and were happy to explain the proceedings. We marveled at their flower-adorned roast pigs and traditional costumes, and were never made to feel intruders. In the end we were sent on our way with gifts of food and drink.

Other noteworthy anthropological points of interest: Public service announcements grace every billboard in town and beyond, warning of teenage pregnancy, drunk driving, domestic abuse; encouraging seat-belts and vaccination. Elections are taken seriously and campaign signs cover any stationary surface. Men (even too cool teens) wear lavalavas (sarongs for men). Locals spend a good deal of their free time in the water – it’s certainly a well-used natural resource. Interestingly, they swim fully clothed.

A couple forces have converged to keep us in American Samoa longer than we had planned. What’s new, right? We had arranged for a new membrane (for our watermaker) to be sent to American Samoa. It arrived, alright, but FedEx failed to hold the package for us and it had already been sent back to the States before our arrival. Glitch number one. Furthermore, our dinghy, the ever-abhorred and much abused, sputtered its last, whistling gasp, giving us the ‘ol raspberry on its way out. After some scrambling we convinced a fellow cruiser to sell us his. It’s smaller, and promises a wet ride, but who’s complaining; it beats the doggie paddle. So, one week became two, and here we are in Pago Pago.

In the meantime we’ve been meeting other cruisers, a jumble of Canadians, South Africans, Brits and Americans, for the most part. You see, Pago Pago gets a bad rap with its commercial harbor, so American Samoa if off the tourist-beaten path. There really aren’t any hotels or resorts here to speak of. But the island is lovely and the people go out of their way to be helpful; most cruisers don’t know what they’re missing. We took an outing with some friends we’d made, en masse, to the Barefoot Bar on the beach. The owner (a woman named Tisa and chief of her village) prepared a traditional Samoan meal, meats cooked on hot rocks placed in a hole in the sand -- an Umu, in Samoan. This is covered with banana leaves and left to cook through the day. We feasted on pork, chicken, turkey, octopus, seafood (cooked in coconut cups), as well as roasted breadfruit, taro, papaya and bananas. A feast indeed.

The outlook for our departure? Monday or Tuesday (Aug 25th or so) is the day. We’ll attempt to scrub our anchor chain free of gobbledygook and whatever mutant creatures breed in this murky brew but I’m afraid we’ll be trailing Pago Pago’s odor along with us for the ride. From here we’ll be making a two-day hop, skip and jump to Vava’u, the northern island group in the Kingdom of Tonga. More as it happens.