Snow Leopard
Fri 19 Nov 2010 02:58

Tonga and the trip south to New Zealand



The two most noticeable aspects of the trip from Niue to Tonga were the nasty squalls which we kept having to avoid, and crossing the International Dateline. Saturday 2nd of October lasted about two hours, and then across the dateline and it was Sunday 3rd October. To make things even more confusing we were still in the Western Hemisphere! This is because Tonga has elected to be on the same time as New Zealand and so pushed itself prematurely across the Dateline!


One final squall was to be avoided before we entered the island-strewn Vava’u archipelago and headed up to the main town of Neiafu, with a landlocked perfectly sheltered harbour.


Tonga consists of 171 islands, or thereabouts (more about that later), the majority uninhabited, and innumerable reefs and rocks There are 4 main groups if islands stretching over 300 miles in a vaguely north-south alignment. In the far north is Niuatopatapu (colloquially called ‘New Potatoes’), 150 miles further south lie the Vava’u group of islands, then a long string of the Ha’apai Islands south to Tongatapu, where the capital and main town, Nuku’alofa is situated.


We were going to spend some time in the Vava’u group, the main sailing area. Friends form Cornwall, David and Kay, were going to join us there for 10 days. We had a week to relax and sort the boat out before they arrived.


Neiafu is the ‘Clapham Junction’ of trans-Pacific sailing. After Tahiti boats take various routes through the Cook Islands before arriving at Neiafu. Then the fleet will split either headed for New Zealand or Fiji and on to Australia. There are also a number of boats coming down from Fiji going to New Zealand. It all makes for a busy harbour and the opportunity to meet old friends and make new ones.


After the sophistication and relative wealth of French Polynesia, and even of the Cook Islands and Niue (heavily supported by New Zealand), Tonga is definitely third world, but no less charming for that. It’s a bit scruffy, the infra-structure is not so great and services somewhat haphazard, but the local people are friendly, if a little reserved, and the islands are beautiful.


Due to the concentrated yachtie population there is a good selection of cafes, bars and restaurants, along with many other support businesses – almost all run by ex-pats from all over the world, who usually washed up here on a yacht sometime ago and decided to stay.


Tongan kids at play, using a polystyrene fish box as a dinghy



Restaurants with names such as the ‘Dancing Rooster’ (owned by Gunter from Switzerland) or the ‘Giggling Whale’ (Sandy an itinerant Lancastrian who pretends he’s from Canada), are interspersed with café/bars called the Crows Nest, the Mermaid, the Aquarium, and the Coconet. Plenty of choice where to drink, meet and eat. It was great to spend a few days catching up with friends over a cold beer (it was very hot and humid) interspersed with a bit of boat maintenance and cleaning.


Neiafu is pretty much a one street town, with a few churches, a couple of schools and a number of shops that don’t sell much and a lot of pigs, usually just wandering along the road.


One of the ‘must-dos’ on Vava’u is whale-watching. Humpback whales come to the warm sheltered waters around the islands in large numbers to mate and then, a year later to give birth and rear their calves. When David and Kay arrived we booked a day on a dive boat to go and see, and hopefully swim with these huge, magnificent creatures. We were getting to the end of the season, but hoped there would still be some whales around. We needn’t have worried. Paul our guide found 8 Humpbacks, some of which performed beautifully, breaching (leaping virtually out of the water and returning with an almighty splash, repeated tail-slapping (that’s the tarty females) and even a pair that decided on synchronised fin-slapping for our entertainment. However none appeared to want to hang around long enough for us to get in the water (fully-wet-suited up and ready to go at a moments notice) and swim with these leviathans. Although wonderful to see these magnificent beast it did look as though we were going to be frustrated in getting close up in the water, until at the end of the day a mother and young calve decided to slow down and give us a chance. Perched on the side of the boat we awaited the call –


 ‘Go, go .go’. We were in the water and swimming like mad following our guide towards the whales. Suddenly beneath us loomed a huge fin, followed by an even huger body, and then to cap it all the calf, only about 6 weeks old but already very big (they suckle 50 kilos of milk a day) swam up past the mother towards us. Just amazing! It only lasted a few minutes before the mother raised her head out of the water for a final look at us and then elegantly dived deep with a final tail flourish. The adrenalin was pumping and the excitement of being in the water so close to there huge, gentle creatures was an experience never to be forgotten. Back on the boat it was high-fives and smiles all round.


Very difficult to capture, but the above photo shows two humpback whales enjoying a spot of synchronised fin slapping!


A wave (sic) goodbye


We do not have an underwater camera, so the following two pictures were taken by some friends, and I have included them here just to show what it is like to swim with these extraordinary creatures. Many thanks to Trish and Steve on s/y Curious for these photos.







Over the next week, with David and Kay on board we toured some of the many islands in the Vava’u group. The larger ones maybe had a couple of small villages, but most were deserted with white sand beaches and thick, forested interiors. We snorkelled off the best coral reef we had seen in the Pacific and Kay beach combed for some beautiful shells. Unfortunately the weather didn’t exactly play ball. Whilst hot there was little or no wind (we only sailed twice in a week) and numerous downpours.


David about to go snorkelling, plus hat!


David and Kay on foredeck


Then it was back to Neiafu, to say goodbye to David and Kay and to re-provision and sort the boat out for the forthcoming trip to New Zealand.


We had originally intended to spend some time sailing down through the Ha’apai islands to Tongatapu and wait there for a suitable weather window for the 1100-mile passage to New Zealand, but plans change.

The weather had been extremely unstable with Tonga sat under a branch of the tropical convergence zone bringing thunderstorms, variable winds, from 0 to 30 knots and a lot of rain. The meteorologists had pronounced that this was a strong ‘La Nina’ year in the Pacific with higher than usual water temperatures, a consequence of which is an increased chance of cyclones in the western Pacific. The cyclone season starts in November and with the unstable weather conditions it looked as if that season may start early.


Bob McDavitt, a yacht-friendly New Zealand meteorologist was predicting a good weather window with easterly winds for at least a week. It was too good an opportunity to miss, and we had reached the stage of just wanting to get to New Zealand, so we decided to take this chance and sail direct from Neiafu to Opua, some 1200 miles to the south.


We checked out with the Tongan authorities and sailed round to a quiet anchorage to wait for the wind to fill in from the south-east, which was the indication that the inclement weather had passed and the trade winds were back.


Lucy, dreaming of what? The anchorage at Neiafu, Tonga


Tongan sunset


The trip south

On the morning of Friday 22nd October, the anticipated change in the weather arrived so at mid-day we up-anchored and set sail.


For the first couple of days we romped along on a reach, but with a pretty big swell to keep things lively. On the third morning we noticed the part of the leach on the jib (I’ll explain it to you later, Liz) had become unstitched. In order to limit the damage we decided to part-furl the jib, but in doing so it flapped once and the leach tape split all the way up! Now it was a case of saving the whole sail so the jib was fully furled.


We were still making 8 – 10 knots under a reefed main alone, so progress was fine. It continued that way until some 250 miles out from New Zealand it became more and more obvious that we were going to arrive in the middle of the night. Now I don’t like entering strange ports for the first time in the dark, even ones as supposedly well marked and lit as Opua, so we decided to slow down more in order to ensure a daylight arrival. In the process of putting a second reef in the main, the reefing line snagged a baton and popped it from its sleeve. This now meant we had to take the main right down to get the baton right in. Somehow, idiotically, whilst doing this we managed to put a metre-long tear into the mainsail! So we were now limited to a triple-reefed mainsail (very small) and no jib. Progress had slowed dramatically and we were down to 5 knots with a forecast of a lessening breeze as we approached New Zealand. There was no option but to undertake a temporary repair so Lucy gallantly spent 4 hours on deck painstakingly stitching up the rip.


On the 5th morning at about 6 a.m. the strangest thing happened: Lucy had just gone off watch and was sleeping soundly. The wind had dropped to a whisper and we were barely making 4 knots. I went inside to make a cup of tea. When I returned to the cockpit to my shock and great surprise there was a man sitting in the corner of the cockpit! How I didn’t drop my tea I’ll never know. He was very deeply tanned, wearing long lycra-type silver-black pants. He was wet all over and had obviously just got out of the sea! He lay back in the corner of the cockpit in the early-morning sun with his eyes closed. He had long black hair, a large aquiline nose and very rugged features on a very fit body. He seemed completely unaware of my presence. Not knowing what to say, and not wishing to shock him as he had me, I coughed gently. Instantly his eyes opened and he appeared fully alert. He looked at me through the most astonishing, huge jet-black eyes I’d ever seen. I smiled and gestured towards him in an enquiring way, but he just stared at me through those big eyes. It was as if he was looking through me, not at me and it felt quite intimidating.


I sat down on the opposite side of the cockpit. I really did not know what to do. Who was he? Where had we come from? What did he want? I asked him a couple of questions in English, which elicited absolutely no response. I tried the same questions in French and Spanish, but still no reaction. He just continued to stare at me.


I decided that my best course of action was to just sit and watch and wait. After a few minutes he seemed to visibly relax and closed his eyes once again. I sat patiently for about 20 minutes, before deciding I must have a look around. As soon as I moved he was awake and alert again and gave me such a look as to ensure that I kept my distance from him. Again I tried to smile reassuringly, and again that was met with a blank, cold stare.


I sat down again and waited. After another half an hour or so the wind started to get up, and we started to move once again at a decent speed. Suddenly, without warning the man jumped up and walked quickly to the stern. He turned, raised his arm, which was his one and only acknowledgement of my presence, and dived into the water.  


I rushed to the back of the cockpit but there was no sign of him. Should I stop the boat? Should I call ‘man overboard’ (explain that to Lucy!). I did nothing and carried on our course.


Why? Well, I knew, you see. When he raised his hand in that final wave I noticed that between each finger, almost to the tip of the digit, was a fine brown web of skin!


Lucy awoke an hour or so later and coming on deck said that she had the strangest dream. It was as if I was talking to some one else on the boat.


Definitely time to get to New Zealand!!!


The rest of the trip was uneventful and it was wonderful to see the coast of New Zealand at day-break on our 6th day.


We motored the last few miles through the Bay of Islands to Opua. Once moored alongside the ‘Q’ dock the various authorities, Customs, Immigration and Agriculture were quickly on board. As we expected all our remaining fresh fruit, vegetables, eggs and meat were confiscated. Checks were made the rest of our provisions to ensure we were not bringing any uninvited guests, bugs, rats, ants etc into New Zealand and then we were free to go and moor up in the marina.


What joy, being able to just step off and on the boat at will without the need of a dinghy ride, for the first time in 6 months. Everyone made us most welcome especially the Opua Cruising Club.


The most surprising aspect of the trip south from Tonga was the cold. By the first night we were in long trousers and socks, and by the time we reached New Zealand it was as many layers as possible, including full oilskins – just to keep warm! I know we have been in the Tropics for a year, but this was a very nasty shock. We nearly turned around and went back!


Our first impressions of New Zealand are all positive, and we are loving the fact that we have reached such a milestone in our journey. We shall stay in Opua and the Bay of Islands for a while (certainly until it gets warmer, then head down to Auckland, where we have a marina berth reserved for us. Once there, probably by the beginning of December we shall start doing some refit projects on the boat and go and see New Zealand properly – by car!