Kelly Wright 2010 travelogue 3 - Tonga

Kelly Wright
Sat 31 Jul 2010 14:17
2010 Travelogue 3 -- Tonga

In the last travelogue we had returned to New Zealand after sustaining
damage to Anna during a storm en route to Tonga and were in the process of
repairing her. It was only July 6th that we completed all the repairs and
were able to check out from NZ again and leave for Tonga a second time, a
voyage of 1100 nm. In the interim we explored more of New Zealand, became
quite familiar with Auckland, and did some work on the boat. The repairs I
jobbed out were much more expensive than I anticipated and budgeted for,
with one technician doubling the price on presentation of the bill after
quoting me what was already a hefty sum just ten days before. (To be fair,
I made a warranty claim on the sparmaker, King Composites, who agreed to pay
a portion of the bill.) And while I was taken aback by the expense of the
repairs, I must admit that I enjoyed our time in Auckland and can think of
no major city where I would rather be stuck repairing a boat. Every evening
we went out to escape the confines of the boat and so we sampled many, many
restaurants, cafes and pubs, but towards the end settled on a nice Irish pub
called The Muddy Farmer where we watched the soccer World Cup replays and
occasionally played pool - one of the tables was round!

When we finally shoved off from Auckland on the 6th we were very keen to get
back to the sea and warm weather - we had to use the heaters every night for
the last month or so living aboard in NZ - and on making our way out of the
Hauraki Gulf, which serves as the entrance to Auckland, our spirits were
quickly lifted as we first spotted orcas and later a pod of about a
half-dozen dolphins that accompanied us for about an hour, swimming in our
bow wakes and leaping out of the water. We had chosen to leave at the first
available weather window, on the tail of a low-pressure system, with
tailwinds from the SW but the winds were quite fresh, in the high 20's, low
30's and the seas quite strong, several meters high, and there was rain
daily so the entire voyage was rather miserable. Our daily maximum wind
speeds for the passage to Tonga were 36.7, 34.3, 33.2, 54.8, 28.1, 39.6,
39.6, and 19 knots. We think that the 54.8 was an aberration or the result
of a glitch in our anemometer, because none of us remember that day being
particularly bad, and two 39.6 readings in a row also seem suspect, but
nevertheless that is what we recorded. Unlike for windspeed we have no
technology to gauge the size of the seas, but they were always rough, from
several directions, never a nice, easy roll, and my crew did not find their
sea-legs until the final day of the trip when the wind and seas finally
relented. We estimated that the highest seas were about five meters, but
mostly just in the 3-4 meter range. Our max boat speed was 18.8 knots, and
Anna proved again her outstanding quality as a cruising boat.

About 275 nm SW of Tonga lie the Minerva Reefs, which show no land or
vegetation. We decided to explore them and so entered the southern one on a
rain-filled morning with poor visibility but passable seas. We anchored,
dropped the dinghy, erected the aft awning, and then Glen and I put on
swimsuits and rain-jackets and went for an exploratory trip around the
lagoon in the dinghy, the rain making us wish we had motorcycle or ski
goggles. First we put out our new 20-meter gill net, all rigged with new
anchors and lines and floats, expecting a fish windfall in this pristine
uninhabited atoll, then crossed the lagoon to see what a vague lump in the
distance was. It felt exhilarating being in the dinghy and getting out of
Anna after being thrown around so much for the previous several days. After
motoring as near as we could to the object, we anchored the dinghy and got
out and waded barefoot in the shallows where the lagoon meets the barrier
reef and we found a very old and dilapidated concrete platform and some
boiler equipment scattered about, encrusted with rust and marine growth. We
never learned what the structure had been. We ambled around a bit and
noticed that the tide was flooding into the lagoon from a nearby opening,
not big enough for a pass. Soon we returned to Anna and noticed that the
tide at the other end of the lagoon seemed to be doing just the opposite,
ebbing, as was obvious by checking the waterline on the fixed navigational
post that marks the lagoon entrance. We noticed also that the seas both in
and outside the lagoon were becoming rough, with the wind shifting so that
it was blowing right into the pass.

Once back on Anna, the winds picked up abruptly, increasing by ten knots in
just a few moments, and the seas started breaking and, because suddenly we
were on a lee shore, we determined that it was prudent for us to leave and
make it out of the pass while we could. So we raised the dinghy and hauled
the anchor and then fought to take down our rear deck awning. We assumed
this was just a squall, a temporary weather anomaly, and we could motor
around for awhile and return when the squall passed, find a better anchoring
spot and retrieve the gill net, and that if necessary we could go to North
Minerva Reef and spend a day or two and then return to South Minerva to get
our gear.

After clearing the pass and fighting to stow the awning and other equipment
off the decks, and generally going into near-crisis mode with the roaring
wind, the whistling rigging, and building seas, I was at the helm and tried
to turn the boat into the wind about 90 degrees to the North but the helm
did not react correctly and instead continued to turn until we were headed
due South, straight for the reef. I tried to turn the boat again and the
same thing happened - it turned and turned so that we were headed with the
wind towards the reef -- and I noticed that our boatspeed had dropped from
about 6 knots to only 2 knots without reducing the RPMs. We finally got the
boat to go where we wanted by using the engine controls - one engine full
ahead while the other was in neutral - and after about a half hour were
clear enough of the reef to relax a bit. On investigation it turns out a
quadrant (more properly, a radial drive) had slipped around one of the
rudders so that the rudder moved out of alignment, fighting the other rudder
and causing a lot of drag. By then, though, darkness had come on and the
seas had become terrible again, and so we decided just to motor away from
the reef and bide our time all night then try to re-align the quadrant on
the rudder the next day in what we hoped would be better weather.

The next morning the weather had eased only a bit but sufficient for us to
realign everything readily and tighten the bolts that affixed the quadrant
to the rudder. We decided we would go to North Minerva Reef, just a couple
of hours away, and anchor there for a couple of days, await better weather
and sort everything out, and then return to South Minerva and fetch our
fishing gear. But on arrival at North Minerva, the wind was blowing hard
out of the NW straight into the entrance to the lagoon and breakers
everywhere made it impossible to see the entrance even though we knew where
it was from our navigational equipment and had motored quite close for a
visual inspection. We had the choice of heaving-to or even riding to our
sea anchor, on the one hand, as we had done in the storm that had damaged
the boat, or continue on to Tonga, and when I asked John and Glen how they
voted, they both chose not to stick around, mostly because of fear of
continued rudder problems, so we headed to the NE, somewhat over a day away
from Tonga.

I feel badly about abandoning our gill net in the lagoon at South Minerva
both because I planned to use it a good deal and because I don't think it is
responsible to leave gear erected to trap fish that no one will eat. It is
very wasteful and destructive. I hope someone finds the net soon and keeps
it. The floats have "s/y Anna" written on them, and I halfway expect
someone someday to approach me at an anchorage and ask if my boat was ever
in South Minerva lagoon, and then tell me he found my net with lots of dead
fish in it, and why in the world would I ever leave a net deployed like

From Minerva we had a rather uneventful trip on into Tonga, although the
seas did not settle down until the evening before arrival. We wound our
way through reefs and islands, bypassing the southern group of islands in
Tonga centered around the main island of Tongatapu, to make landfall in the
more thinly-inhabited Ha'apai group in the middle of the long Tongan chain
with its port-of-call at the island of Lifuka.

We saw no boats or vessels of any kind all the way from Auckland until we
were just off Tongatapu, approximately 1000 nm. I find it amazing that,
even though the world is getting ever more crowded -- doubling its human
population since 1960 -- the oceans are so vacant of human presence.

I don't mean human artifacts, however, because no matter how isolated the
island, you will definitely encounter flotsam and jetsam from humans, trash
abounding on all windward shores. In order of occurrence I would say that
the most numerous human detritus in the ocean are plastic beverage
containers, next come flip-flop shoes, and third are buoys, line and net
from fishermen. On two adjacent uninhabited and footprint-free islands in
Tonga we beachcombed, we even found identical unbroken fluorescent light
bulbs, and we wondered if local fishermen somehow employed them either to
attract fish or to illuminate their work areas at night.

Although I love New Zealand, the sheer ruggedness of the voyage from there
to the tropics makes me hesitant to attempt it again, so that when I return
to NZ it may well be by air.

We left Lifuka as soon as we could after checking in with the authorities
(three of whom we had to ferry out to Anna on our dinghy for inspection of
our boat, which consisted of the officials sitting at our dining table and
us providing them with beer, Coke, and orange juice, filling out a few
forms, and the payment of about $50 US). We had enjoyed an abundance of
civilization in Auckland and now sought isolation so left Lifuka and found
uninhabited and boat-free islands to anchor off for our first week or so.
Every morning we would beachcomb on footprint-free beaches and usually in
the afternoon go for a scuba dive. Fishing was terrible and we harvested
nothing to eat but coconuts, but we had an enjoyable time anyway. One day
while beachcombing we chased down a dozen or so crabs of two different
varieties, but when we returned to the boat I read that several varieties of
crabs are poisonous, and without any way to identify our catch we freed
them. It was good fun and exercise, though, sprinting after the little
buggers, and I am tempted to do it again when I have nothing better to do.
They pinch but it is not painful.

On one of the islands there were prints in the coarse sand on the beach, but
not of feet - it was a cloven-hoofed animal which we figured for a goat at
first but later found holes where it had rooted so decided it must be a pig.
We ventured into the interior of the island looking for sweet water which we
knew the animal must have and found a pond with a very tame and friendly
black and white sow in it. She approached us and Glen cracked open a
coconut with our machete and the sow devoured it while voicing her pleasure
with many grunts and snorts. Further on we saw several piglets and found a
set of rude pens and a tarp extended tent-like, with a mound of coconuts
nearby. Evidently Tongans from nearby islands, having found a source of
fresh water on this island, use it to run some livestock. On another day we
even saw a calf walking along the beach.

From every anchorage we could look back to the west and the see the
symmetrical cone of the volcano Kao - 3380 feet (1030 meters) high -- with
steam wafting up from its peak, and the nearby flatter - only 1690 feet
(515) high but much longer -- volcano, Tofua, also with steam emanating from
its northern side. They were about 15 nm away from our westernmost
anchorage and served to set a beautiful sunset pictorama almost every
evening. Tofua is renowned for being the location where the mutiny on HMS
Bounty occurred in 1789, and where Capt. William Bligh and part of the crew
were set adrift in a longboat. (Thanks to my very able research assistant,
Michael Wright, for information on Kao and Tofua.)

Tonga is a monarchy, never colonized by the Great Powers, subsequently
receives no subsidies, and is therefore the poorest of the Polynesian
countries. I was here before on my previous boat, Green-on-Blue, and found
the people the least friendly of the Polynesians, this opinion confirmed
again on this visit, with many people refusing to return a wave, few smiles
visible, most everyone sullen, dishonesty (we prepaid - some fish hooks, a
hat, and some cigarettes from Glen - for a bunch of bananas that were never
delivered) and crime a problem. I think that at least part of the reason
for this tendency towards the morose, besides poverty and ignorance, is the
fact that Tonga is strictly divided by class: a person is born as a
commoner or an aristocrat and there is no vertical social mobility, so that
at birth one's fate is already largely determined, resulting in resignation,
even fatalism. Property is owned by the monarch, an obese king, and each
family is allotted two pieces of land, one on which to live and one on which
to garden.

Like all the Pacific Islanders I have encountered, Tongans have lost the
skill of sailing and, though dirt poor, totally rely on outboards and
expensive fuel. They could make adequate fishing vessels even if just
single-person rowing ones, like one sees occasionally in French Polynesia
and the Cook Islands, but I never saw a Tongan with paddles or a sail. When
I was here before, about eight years ago, I did see several traditional
outrigger canoes. A couple of teenage boys rowed out to visit us -- I
remember after reviewing photos from my previous trip -- in a dugout canoe
made from a single log, with smaller whole limbs for the outrigger and
connecting arms, and for paddles they used the stems of palm fronds. That
is apparently all gone now, although perhaps we just did not visit the right
islands to see such traditional sea skills. This must come from the new
industry of harvesting sea cucumbers for the Chinese market, which demands
searching far and wide among the islands and reefs, then hurrying the catch
to market. We saw these boats everywhere, relentlessly plying the
backwaters of the Ha'apai group.

After a week of beachcombing and snorkeling and diving, we decided we wanted
to try something else so moved to an anchorage off an inhabited island,
Ha'afeva, so we could sample remote village life and buy some fresh produce. On the
way we finally caught a nice tuna and saw humpback whales splashing their
flukes, which is normally a sign of aggression, probably males competing for
breeding rights. The anchorage at Ha'afeva is on the west side of the
island, the village the east, and to get from one to the other one must walk
about a kilometer along a road surrounded by dense jungle-like foliage and
occasional taro and yam and breadfruit gardens and one or two head of staked
grazing cattle, and the path can be suffocatingly hot. The island has a
population of only about 100 - at least one of whom had Down's Syndrome, we
noticed -- and has a small shop for packaged groceries and dry goods
managed, as is usual in the Pacific, by a Chinese. The store has no sign
but is painted bright commercial yellow, and to buy anything you stand
outside and speak through a window-like opening cut in the exterior wall and
tell the Chinese shopkeeper what you want - you are not allowed inside to
look, I suppose for fear of shoplifting. Trash littered the only street and
dogs and pigs ran freely everywhere, and the houses were mostly ramshackle.
There were at least three churches, the Mormons predominating, and as
everywhere in Tonga, Sunday is strictly enforced as a religious day of rest,
with no fishing, swimming, or anything other than perhaps a family picnic.
The economy is subsistence farming/gardening and fishing and, only recently,
the harvesting of sea cucumbers, as mentioned just above. Two Chinese men
were on the island as we walked through the village, working at sea cucumber
drying racks. The larger-scale farming appears to be of the slash-and-burn
variety, as one day our boat was inundated with ashes from farmers burning
large patches of the island, and I wonder how they keep up soil fertility
without intensive fertilization.

We went to the store looking for produce, using a list I had written out
earlier with the Tongan words for the items we sought, but the Chinese
shopkeeper had nothing fresh, only packaged goods. When I asked for fruit
he grabbed a jar of marmalade. Not far away we met a strange, small, wiry
man by a wharf with ice-cold hands who, with my list, communicated with a
strong stutter that he could procure for us papaya, breadfruit, and yams.
It turns out he had been fishing and just spread ice on some lobsters, and
we arranged to meet later after he stored the lobsters. Continuing on we
met another man whom we asked to buy fish, and he introduced us to some
people who had lobster but no fish and we bought one lobster for each of us,
and the people who sold them invited us to come for lunch the next day at
one. We eagerly accepted, looking forward to eating local food in a Tongan
home. Then we met up again with the cold-handed man and went to his house
where his mother and sister also asked us to come to lunch the next day, which we politely declined, then we went to his garden in the bush and got the produce, including the bitterest limes and oranges I have ever tasted. All this was done thanks to two women in the village who translated because the local men spoke only Tongan.

That evening the people who sold us the lobster came by in their small
fishing boat and asked if they could serve us on our boat instead of us
coming to their house, and we agreed, realizing that in a village of 100,
the chance to dine aboard a foreign yacht was likely a most alluring event.
And then the next morning they came by yet again and changed the time to
five in the evening, then ultimately a man and wife and her brother
surprised us early at 3:30 with a roasted whole piglet, taro leaves stuffed
with canned corned beef, yams in coconut milk, some fried fish, and
frankfurters stuffed with cheese. They joined us for the meal, occurring
much earlier than we preferred because, they said, they were going night
fishing, all of which the woman translated in about three-quarters
understandable English. We had been looking forward to eating a coconut-fed
pig since we encountered the sow on the island, but discerned no unique
taste, perhaps because this piglet had hardly been weaned. The only
leftover the Tongans took was the piglet's head.

The night before we had cooked the breadfruit and yams we had purchased,
boiling them with powdered soups to give the bland starches some flavor,
which turned out wonderfully flavorful, and had each eaten a lobster, so we
were rather inundated with local food. Our new Tongan friends invited us to
join them the next day to dive for sea cucumbers off an island about a half
hour away. They said the Chinese would pay $50 US for each one.

The next morning three Tongan men in their '30s picked us up in their
19-foot fiberglass launch powered by a 40-hp Yamaha with tiller steering.
It was almost identical to a boat we hired to take us scuba diving in Fiji
last year, tough and seaworthy, a thick hull with a nicely flared bow. The
area where we were to harvest the sea cucumbers was from 60 to 80 feet deep,
and rather than free-dive - an impossibility at such depths for all three of
us from Anna and difficult for even these native young men - two of the
Tongans had homemade barbed spikes about 5 inches long on an 18-inch-long
shaft with a homemade funnel-shaped lead weight that was probably about one
pound heavy, and a line about 100 feet long. We just snorkeled near the
surface until they found a suspect below then dropped the spike and tried to
spear the sea cucumber. Over about two hours they brought in four, but also
lost about the same number that slipped off the smallish barb on the spike
during the long haul up. I was the bag man and stayed with the Tongans the
entire time while Glen and John put on scuba gear and dove, but I never
could discern a sea cucumber from our height, and was impressed with these
young men's vision if nothing else. The sea cucumbers they hunted (I think
they were of the species "Actinopyga lecanora" from my limited books aboard)
look similar to an artisanal loaf of bread, oval and brown, with a series of
nipples around the edges on the ventral side. The third Tongan man stayed
aboard the boat the entire time and was retching from seasickness when I
returned to it. The whole expedition took only about three hours but proved
good hearty exercise for me trying to keep up with the Tongans.

The reefs in the Ha'apai group -- both within the lagoon and on the
fore-reef and the wall outside -- besides being just about fished out, were
beaten up in February when a cyclone passed through and the varied reef life
is not in good condition. We enjoyed them nevertheless after the long
absence from any reefs at all. I did see an amazing four-foot-long wrasse
that I had never seen the likes of before. The maximum water temperature in
a lagoon was about 82 deg. Fahrenheit (28 deg. Celsius).

John, our crewman, had determined at the insistence of his wife that he must
return home when we arrived at Niue, which is to be our next stop after
Tonga. Niue is rather isolated, however, and when we reached Lifuka island
the second time to check out from Tonga for the trip to Niue, we searched at
an internet café for flights and found that Niue has just one flight a
week -- it goes to Auckland -- and was booked until August 20th. Rather
than wait that long, John decided to leave us there in Tonga because he
could arrange flights home in just a few days time via a more direct route
through Fiji.

John is a great crewman with excellent technical skills, cooks good meals
and tasty breads, and has a wonderfully pleasant personality, so he will be
sorely missed. I can't say enough good about the man, and hope he will
return as crew.

His departure makes passagemaking a bit more difficult for Glen and me, as
raising the mainsail is better done with three, and now we have six-hour
rather than four-hour watches so, for example, rather than being on watch
from midnight until four a.m. with an eight-hour respite before my next
watch, I now am on watch from midnight until six a.m. and then get only a
six-hour respite.

As I write Glen and I are underway to Niue, 250 nm East of the Ha'apai group
in Tonga, going against the prevailing southeasterlies so in headwinds all
the way, and the passage is a lumpy one, the winds around 20 knots. We
visited Niue last year (this will be my third visit) and are returning
because we have volunteered the use of Anna as a platform for a humpback
whale survey through the group Oceanswatch which is assisting the Niue
Fisheries Department in doing basic research that should lead to more
tourism for the small island. We will have professional researchers aboard
and will go out each day for three weeks and try to catalog all the
humpbacks we see, largely based on the tail flukes, although we may also do
some DNA sampling.

Our log reads 10,933 nm since we left Chile.