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 CafĂ© 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….