Tonga, Ha'apai, Pangai and Uoleva

Sat 18 Oct 2014 04:39
19:50.742S 174:24.882W

Evening light on the beach at Uoleva.

When you look at the Ha'apai group on the charts it looks awful to navigate. There are so many reefs and shoals between the islands and the words "NUMEROUS HAZARDS" appear in bold all over the place. We'd had quite a tiring night sailing down - it had been perfect until about 3 or 4 am then the wind and rain arrived and the swell got up and the wind shifted until it was right on the nose so we were pounding into the waves, the boat pitching and heeling. It was pitch black, no sign of lights anywhere and the rain was coming down in sheets - you had to breath in the rain along with the air. Otto the auto helm felt it was all too much for him and kept giving up, so the boat would suddenly swing around and heave to until we got her back on track. To make her more stable we turned away from the wind a little and then found ourself racing along at 9 knots away from where we wanted to be. Eventually we decided that Otto had the right idea and hove to to give ourselves some rest before we made our entry with the dawn. Heaving to puts the boat in an equilibrium with one sail trying to turn the boat one way and the other sail and the rudder trying to turn it the other way so it ends up going nowhere, just drifting a little with the current. The sails are full of wind so there's no flapping, all is calm. It's a great way of stopping for lunch on a windy day!

It turned out that the approach to Pangai wasn't nearly as bad as it looked on the chart. A passage leads onto a huge shelf in the bay of the islands and although there's lots of coral heads they aren't high enough to be a problem for us so we had no trouble setting the anchor just outside the town and heading in in the dinghy to check in, and out actually, because we were headed down to meet Julia and Michael in Tongatapu where they were flying in and we wouldn't have time to sail back up the islands to check out again. 

The Ha'apai group of Islands had a cyclone hit in January. The devastation is remarkable. They are still clearing the debris from some of the ruins of houses and empty lots consisting of just a concrete slab with some twisted metal work show where many more have been cleared away already. Some of the buildings that survived had the corrugated iron on the roofs peeled back like banana skins all around the edges. The headlands had bleached white whole trees washed up on them, branches intertwined and roots intermingled. We saw tents and canvas covered frames where folk are having to live until the re-bukiding program catches up. Sobering.

The customs were straightforwards, easy and welcoming. They were cool with us checking out even though we'd stop a few times on our way South and the customs official told us about when he travelled to Glasgow to play rugby with the Tonga under 21s many years before (Lochmarin is registered in Aberdeen). They stayed in The Hilton. It must have been astounding for a young man living in on a tiny South Pacific island, where the pigs run free through the streets and the sound of the surf is always in the children's ears. He spoke of the sun staying up past 10 o'clock at night, and getting up at 4 in the morning, instead of sensibly disappearing at 6 and coming back again at 6 like it does here.

Customs office in Pangai

We moved South a little to a wonderfully sheltered anchorage an island down, Uoleva. It had a stunning long beach and some interesting snorkelling because there was a new kind of coral. It grew a little like an upturned umbrella, in disks with the middle pushed in. Some were overenthusiastic and kept on turning as the dish grew, creating a shallow helix. They were from a foot to 5 feet across and provided wonderful shelter for the fish, who would dart under them as we approached. Good for the fish, less fun for us. But more importantly, we caught up with Field Trip so we were able to come over for tea and muffins to exchange news and for us to get to see what the kids had been working on in their school time. It should have been tea and scones, of course, but seeing they are Americans we let them off! ;-)

A strange thing happened whilst we sat having a sundowner on deck that evening. Out in the West huge islands appeared. There are a string of volcanoes to the West of Ha'apai. 

The way it works is this: remember the incredibly deep Tongan sea trench I told you about on passage here? The one 9 Km deep? That's where the Pacific Plate slides under the Indo-Australian Plate. Put your hands flat in the air in front of you and touch the tips of your fingers together. Your right hand is the Pacific Plate, your left the Indo-Australian Plate. Now put your right hand's fingers on top of your left hand's finger nails and gently slide your right hand under your left, allowing your left hand to curl up as you do so, stopping when your finger tips reach the left palm.. That's the Pacific Plate sliding under the Indo-Australian Plate. You can now see how the trough is formed and your left hand finger joints are the islands of Tonga peeping up out of the ocean. Where the left hand's knuckles are there's a line of volcanoes. All the friction of the plate sliding under creates heat and this bubbles up as molten rock. The beaches in Ha'apai have pumice stones washed up on them, they were spat out from the volcanoes then washed across, like in a giant bathtub. The volcanos are so far away that you can only see them when the setting sun shows their silhouette. Even stranger than these hidden volcanoes is one to the South of them, Fonuafo'ou. This volcano comes and goes. It was first spotted in 1885: where there had been a shallow patch there was suddenly an island 50m high. Then in 1894 it vanished, having been worn away by the waves, only to return 320m high a couple of years later. Over the years sometimes it's hardly there at all, other times it towers up. A tad disconcerting for sea farers!

Tofua and Kao making their appearance against the setting sun.