Tuesday, 18 October 2016

VIP Visitor in Vava’u ….. Sep & Oct 2016


19 Sep – 15 Oct:  Various Spots Around Vava’u ~ 18 42S  173 55W


Exploring the Outer Islands

From mid September to mid October we had a fabulous spell of weather except for just a couple of days when a frontal system came through, clouds rolled in and the skies opened.  During the rains the laundry was done, boats were given bubble baths, water tanks were filled to overflowing everything sparkled and then the clouds cleared and sensational clear days with light breezes returned, just magic.

We made the most of the settled conditions to leave Neiafu Harbour and venture a little further out and visit some of the more exposed anchorages   We had a marvellous few days anchored off Kenutu Island in company with Kinabalu, Confidence & Amarula.


This is one of the eastern barrier islands, it is fringed by reef and the water colours were exceptional.  We had beach bonfires, reef snorkels, island walks and a dingy excursion to find hidden caves and instead found the most hospitable Oz/NZ couple who proudly showed us through their amazing newly built property with one of the best views we have ever seen from a home, (plus they have the cave in their back garden!)P9221066We moved on to explore the Blue Lagoon and South Hunga Island, beautiful spots but disappointing snorkelling.   P9191024Recent batterings by cyclones and possible warmer water temperatures seem to have taken their toll on the coral around these parts, the vibrant live coral we had hoped to see was no where to be found, fish life was varied but not plentiful.

We snorkelled the reef at the Coral Gardens on Vaka’eitu Island, this was the best we saw in Vava’u, but still nothing special.  The highlight of our underwater snorkelling excursions was visiting Swallows Cave, the late afternoon sun sends shards of light piercing through the water down into the depths of the cave.  P9191009PA121249

Huge schools of small fish form tight balls, the light reflects off them and the inky blackness is a magical backdrop, IMG_8730you feel like you are floating in outer space surrounded by thousands of shiny silver torpedoes ~ quite something.

We’ve Got A Visitor

My sister Denise decided to fly up from Auckland and visit us for a few days, it was just going to be a quick trip to catch up with us and have a little peak at Vava’u.  Unfortunately it was made even shorter when her flight from Nukualofa to Vava’u was cancelled because there wasn’t enough wind to land!  Luckily she was able to rebook on the first flight the next morning so we just lost one night.

P9301132It was great to have Denise onboard, she came laden with all sorts of goodies – mainly that we could eat and drink, yummy.  We had worked out a short itinerary for her visit so off we went from Neiafu shortly after her arrival.  Skipper couldn’t resist raising all the sails in the perfect conditions and we had a wonderful sail down to Vaka’eitu arriving in plenty of time for bubbles onboard Balvenie before venturing ashore for the Saturday night Tongan Traditional Pig Roast.   PA011135  

Next morning us girls left skipper in peace to read the Sunday papers (the joys of modern technology!) and we did a walk over the island to a lovely long white sandy beach on the windward side, then we found a short trail across to the lagoon side to a tiny beach with lovely clear water where a few yachts were anchored off.  We had a relaxing dip in the warm waters and dried off in the sun, quite a treat for me, we rarely go ashore for a swim (just jump off Balvenie) and never sit in the sun during the heat of the day – it was lovely for a change!PA021143

Mid afternoon entertainment saw us racing friends on Tactical Directions and Ta-B as we all moved around to the beautiful anchorage at Port Maurelle, staging point for us all for our big excursion the following day.  Tactical Directions cheated and put his main up, instant disqualification – therefore Balvenie won!!

As the sun dipped over the horizon and reddened the sky we drank more bubbles and feasted on local fresh lobster, life’s good.

Swimming With the Whales – WowIMG_8759

Next morning it was an early start, us along with crews on Tactical Directions and Ta-B were all collected at 7.30am by Beluga Diving and off we speed on our Whale Watching day trip.  This has been on my “bucket list” for a very long time, and I understand that Tonga is the only country that actually allows you to get in the water with the whales to observe them.  It was an opportunity that just couldn’t be missed and we hadn’t spoken to anyone who hadn’t swam with the whales on a day tour in the past couple of months – but we were reaching the end of the season, so fingers crossed we wouldn’t be the first!.  Again we were blessed by excellent weather and calm seas, but unfortunately the whales wanted to play hide and seek with us.PA021159 It was a long day with several false starts.  We found whales but none of the mothers with calves were in a “resting state”, it seems they were all giving swimming lessons to their babies, after all they have a big trip to Antarctica coming up soon.  PA021188Our guides found a couple lying about, but as soon as we got in to observe them they shied away, gone in a flash.

Mid afternoon, just as we were giving up hope, we found a resting mother with a playful calf.  In we got as quick as a flash and we spent about half an hour lying in the water watching these giants.  The mother was stationery but the calf moved around, roaming off to have a look around and check us out then returning to mum to report.

Unfortunately the visibility wasn’t great, but the shear size of these ocean wanderers, even as babies will be etched in our memories forever.   There was much excitement as the mother rose for air, PA021190suddenly this giant below us became a mega giant just a few feet away as we all scattered to get out of her way, now that was quite a moment and left the adrenaline pumping for the entire journey home!

Next day it was back to Neiafu for Denise to catch her afternoon flight home.  It had just been a short stay but we fitted lots in and had a great time, thanks for coming Denise and experiencing a little slice of our life. 

Festival Time

PA071205I picked up a nasty bug and was flat on my back for several days while the annual Blue Water Festival activities carried on around me.  Mark raced onboard Tactical Directions in the “Round the Islands” Race, with a gun boat and best crew it was no surprise that they took line honours, well done.

I made it to the final event, the prize giving. It was a great evening with a local school band set up in the carpark providing the music.  They were just great and all under 15!  Tactical Directions picked up the top prize, spot prizes were handed out to nearly everyone, a fun night was had by all. PA071201

More provisioning for fresh produce was done, everyone was talking about leaving.  Some were going to Fiji, some directly to New Zealand, others to Minerva Reef, a few were heading north to the Marshalls.  All were getting ready to leave soon with the cyclone season approaching. 

We had one final big gathering in Port Maurelle, a farewell bonfire for sundowners.  Vava’u has certainly been a special place, we are all sad to leave.

Time To Think About Heading South To The Ha’apai Group


Friday, 14 October 2016

A Taste of Tonga ….. September 2016


07 –18 Sept 2016:  Neiafu, Vava’u, Northern Tonga ~ 18 39S  173 58WP9160962

Flat Waters Again – Yippee

Arriving into the sheltered waters of the Vava’u Group was such a treat after the exposed anchorages of Palmerston and Niue. Loads of islands, big and tiny litter this area, protected by substantial islands to the west and reefs to the east.  Some islands are steep sided and drop straight into the deep waters, others have sandy beaches and shallow ledges for anchoring, the variety is vast. 

P9150960Our first impressions of the main harbour area and town of Neiafu weren’t great.  It was a grey day, it turned into a grey week, the harbour was very busy with cruising yachts, buildings in town were well worn, “free range” chickens and pigs roamed around and there was rubbish lying everywhere, (not a rubbish bin in sight, so no hope).  It was such a contrast to quiet and orderly Niue and Palmerston and super clean French Polynesia.  We had arrived in the ramshackle Polynesia islands we remembered from the first year of our circumnavigation, no EU or NZ money propping up the local economy here.P9150961

Impressions Change

As the days passed by and we got through the latest list of boat jobs Neiafu grew on us.  Everyone was so helpful, sail repairs were completed speedily, the ladies in the open air market were delightful and welcoming, the school children had a one day sponsored clean-a-thon and the streets were clean ~ for a day!     Several businesses are run by ex pats ~ cafes, bars, laundries, whale watching tours and tourist accommodations.  They work in harmony with the locals, and although I wouldn’t go so far as to say Neiafu has a cosmopolitan feel to it, its a functioning small town with an interesting blend of people. 


P9170984The Sun Returned

After days of gloom and cooler weather the skies cleared and the temperatures rose about 10 degrees.  I did the walk to the top of  nearby Mt Talau in company with David and Betty-Ann on Confidence, modest houses lined the road all in need of a paint job but most in a tidy state, small gardens were well fenced to keep all the roaming pigs and chickens out, children safely played on the streets and ran to us to practice their English, beaten up cars passed at a snails pace so they didn’t fall apart as they hit a pot hole ~ life ticks over here at a friendly & leisurely pace. P9160967 

The view from the top of Mt Talau was outstanding, hardly a cloud in the sky and we could see for miles.   When we arrived from Niue on that gloomy morning it had felt like we were going up a river to enter the inner harbour in Neiafu.  But now from high up we could clearly see all the islands, bold blue waters breaking up the clusters of gorgeous green islands, sandy golden fringes dotted here and there.  It was all there waiting to be explored.

With all our jobs completed for now we stocked with fresh produce, let our mooring line go, rolled out the headsail and drifted off in flat water down to Port Maurelle.

What an Introduction To Cruising Around Vava’u  


Thursday, 29 September 2016

The Nooks & Crannies of Niue ….. Aug/Sep 2016

25 Aug – 07 Sep 2016:  Alofi Mooring Field ~ 19 03S 169 55W

Another 400 Miles WestP9020901

We stayed in Palmerston Atoll over a week hoping the strong winds would lessen so we could enjoy more of what this isolated atoll has to offer.  But the weather always has the final say in this life we lead so with no sign of easing in the enhanced trade winds we farewelled these remote shores and set sail in company with Laros and Swiftsure, Niue bound.

It was a fast, lively and rolly sail, squalls at times and 3 metre seas but 60 hours later it was over.  We rounded the top of another tiny spec in the mighty Pacific Ocean, finally sailed into flat water and attached ourselves to a mooring ball during the dead of the night off the capital of Niue, Alofi.


Welcome Ashore

From the moment we starting conversing by radio with the officials we fell under Niue's charm, everyone was just so pleasant and helpful.  We had the first day onboard, it was Sunday, and NOTHING happens on Sunday except for church services so it was a welcome day of leisure after our passage.

Monday morning saw all us new arrivals making our way ashore to complete arrival formalities.  We had been forewarned about the “Niue Crane”.  There is generally quite a swell coming into the dock making it unsuitable to leave the dinghy in the water and no beach to land small boats,IMG_20160903_120659 so they have installed a crane to lift the local fishing boats out and we get to use it for our dinghies.   Captain Cook named Niue the Savage Islands because of its inhospitable coastline and lack of shore access, guess they didn’t have the crane back then!

This is how it works – Skipper drives dinghy to the docks big concrete steps where Admiral jumps out and climbs up without being washed away and the dinghy being dumped onto the steps.  Admiral then puts on Crane Driver hat and pushes crane out over the water and dinghy, then operates controls to drop line and shackle down to dinghy until Skipper can clip it on to a brace we have put across dinghy.  Skipper then does big jump out onto steps and Admiral starts lifting dinghy with controls before it bashes into the dock. 

P9020918Sounds straight forward but this is where it can all go horribly wrong on the first excursion ashore.  If you haven't quite got the lifting point in the right place, when you start lifting the dinghy it can try to tip itself over, much to the amusement of the officials who were waiting to clear us in, I expect they have seen it all before. 

Once you have it in the right place you lift it until it clears the concrete dock, pull it inboard till its over the dock, place the dinghy trailer under it, lower it onto trailer, undo shackle and pull dinghy over to designated dinghy parking area, slide dinghy off trailer and return trailer for next boat!!!   Phew, you guessed it, we didn’t make any unnecessary outings ashore!!!IMG_20160904_113933

A Teeny Weeny Slice of New Zealand

With our feet (and dinghy) on solid ground and our passports stamped at the dock we were free to explore the worlds smallest independent nation where they have the highest ratio of politicians in the world with one MP for every 65 residents.

For us it was like wandering around a very small beach community in NZ, we were home but we weren’t!  Everyone has kiwi accents, NZ money is used,  the handful of shops all stock familiar NZ products (yes, skipper has more Marmite!), the worlds smallest Yacht Club warmly welcomes us cruisers and a funky cliff top cafe with surrounding bush & glorious sea views serves excellent lattes & muffins ~ what more could we want?P9020914  The temperature was even cooler, we definitely felt as if we had finally left the tropics.  If only it had an all round protected flat anchorage, then it would have been a perfect paradise found and we may still be there.

Out Exploring Caves & Chasms

Niue is one of the largest raised coral atolls in the worlds, it juts up abruptly from some of the deepest waters on our planet, it is totally unique.  Towering limestone cliffs line its shores but shallow reefy pool areas form as the tides change, sea life comes and goes with the rising and falling of the water levels.  Hidden along this shoreline maze are some incredible caves, caverns and ravines and some excellent walkways have been introduced to provide access to these gems .


Where Have All the Niueans Gone?

This little “Rock of Polynesian” has supported human inhabitants for over a 1000 years, the population (in recorded times) peaked in the 1960’s at 5,200, nowadays its around 1,500. P9020908 In 2004 they took a direct hit from Cyclone Heta, 30 metre waves pounded the shores, vegetation was stripped from the island, homes ruined, lives lost.  Rebuilding has been a long, hard & slow process but these islanders are tough.

On our tour of the island by hire car we estimate about 80% of the properties lie abandoned in the outlying villages, but instead of having a neglected feelP9020920 to them these small communities suggested they were just waiting for better times to return, times when maybe some of the 20,000+ Niueans return from NZ and a few thousand more come home from Australian.  That won’t happen of course, but what a difference a return of even 5% would make to boost the economy. For now tourism and fish exports are the main earners.

P9020905Time To Go To Tonga

Niue is somewhere we could have stayed much longer had it had a protected anchorage, but its just a short flight from Auckland, maybe we will return again by plane one day. 

Another 260 miles west lies the Northern Tongan island group of Vava’u.  With our headsails poled out we floated off downwind with 12 – 20 knots of wind from behind.  The sea had some very lumpy patches as we passed over the Tongan Trench where the seafloor contours resemble the mighty Himalayas with a 8,000 metre variation.

About 40 hours later we sighted the lush islands of Northern Tonga, a day disappeared from our lives forever as we crossed the International Dateline.

     We Have Reached Tonga ~ The Last Country on Our Circumnavigation

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Whale of a Time at Palmerston Atoll ….. Aug 2016

12 – 25 August: Palmerston Atoll, Cook Islands – 18 02S 163 11W

P8190847First ~ The Getting There

P8150820When you leave French Polynesia  to head west there is a huge expanse of ocean to be covered with just a few isolated atolls offering limited safe haven before arriving in Tonga 1300 miles away.  The trade winds blow from the south east offering shelter on the western side of these atolls but during winter in this part of the Pacific they are constantly affected by deep lows rolling across the Southern Ocean bringing large southerly swells and westerly winds.

Therefore a stop at any of these atolls is very weather dependent with the safer option to remain at sea and tough it out.  P8160821There are 4 choices for undertaking this journey, straight through and deal with what comes (surprisingly quite a popular option) or you can study the weather forecast until you suffer from analysis paralysis and finally choose either the north, south or middle route through the Cook Islands, stopping in the Cooks if conditions permit.

P8140815We left from Bora Bora late in the day, the trades were looking gentle, the southern swell unavoidable, cloud cover likely, squalls possible – off we went heading due west 561 miles to Palmerston Atoll.  We had a good passage, if anything the winds were just a little too light so we rolled around in the pesky ever present swell, but all up a good trip.P8190845 

After 4 nights at sea we spotted the 7 small islands on the horizon that make up the amazing Palmerston Atoll group of the Cook Islands.  There is no passage into the lagoon for big boats so we picked up a mooring provided by the locals located outside the reef off the village on the sheltered side of Palmerton Island.

A Necessary History Lesson

To understand how special this place is I have to share a short history lesson.  James Cook first sighted this atoll in 1774 but didn’t land there until passing in 1777, he found it uninhabited but there were signs of previous human presence.  Incidentally, in the whole of the vastly spread out island group that bears his name, the Cook Islands, Palmerton Island is the only island that Captain Cook ever landed on.

P8240873Moving on 90 years to 1863 a carpenter & barrel maker from England named William Marsters came to settle in this remote spot firstly with 2 Polynesian wives, then with a third.  He gave his wives an island each and set about to populate this tiny outcrop.

He sired 23 children that survived childhood and forbade interbreeding. Outsiders from other Cook Island settlements were brought in for marriages.  All went well and when William’s youngest daughter died in 1973 there were over 1000 descendants of William Marsters spread throughout the Cooks and New Zealand.  Thinking ahead he also planted mahogany seedlings so there would be an on going timber supply, today a small forest of amazing 150 year old mahogany trees cools the island and provides a fertile, compost rich soil.  Smart lad was William.


Modern Day Politics

Nowadays everyone lives on just the one island and there are three MarsterP8180840s families that rule the roost, Edward, Bill and Bob descend from each of Williams wives.  There is an island council with 6 members, and issues are democratically voted on.  The small population increased during our stay as the resident nurse delivered two babies, the population is now 53.

It has been a long tradition for the families to host any visitors to these shores, we were adopted by Edward, his wife Shirley and their sons .  The passing yachts are about all the traffic they see, there is no airstrip or helipad,  no ferry service, just small freighters from Rarotonga that can come as irregularly as 5 months apart and then occasionally the weather is too rough to land the supplies.  Therefore there is no need for tourist accommodation, eateries, shops ~ just 53 people trying to survive in absolutely the middle of nowhere!


Remote As We Have Ever Been

The weather during our stay was challenging, on our second day we came back from a full day ashore and there had been a considerable wind switch to the north west.  P8190852Waves were building from the open ocean and we were all lying in shallow water with our sterns just metres from the reef – this was no place to be on a lee shore and get shipwrecked!  3 of our friends let their lines go and headed to sea, westward bound, 2 of us stayed.  For us we just didn’t want to leave this incredible place so soon.

Our host Edward Marsters guided us around the southern edge of the outside reef to a shelf where were could anchor in calm waters.   The long lazy southern swell rolled in under us, thundering as it crashed onto the reef just 50 metres from our bow, the wind held us steady off at a safe distance but it was hardly relaxing. 

P8240882We stayed 2 nights in this remote location, on the 2nd night we were the only yacht left, never before have we been so “alone”, but we weren’t really alone the whales came to play and we spent our 2 days boat bound whale watching and enjoyed some magnificent displays by these mighty creatures.  We gave up trying to photograph them and just sat back and enjoyed the on going aquatic display first hand, truly one of life's magic moments.   

On our 3rd night a front was due to pass over, the winds would back to the west then south and finally the trades should re-establish from the south-east. P8240893 We could not stay where we were or return to the mooring field until it passed so we lifted anchor at dusk and went to sea for the night, bobbing around on the eastern side of the atoll until the front passed over.  At 5am we finally returned to the mooring field off the village, it had been an interesting but sleep deprived 3 days!

More New Joiners Arriving

We knew from our daily cruisers net on our SSB Radio that we had friends on Laros, Swiftsure and Pitufa arriving after dark, never an easy undertaking but with the boats nudging forward into the anchorage at snails pace and our spotlight illuminating the mooring buoys everyone got tucked up safely.P8230870 

Bad weather continued to plague us, the convergence zone dropped down above us, winds howled from the south east, the swell wrapped round the reef making it very bumpy and then the skies opened.  We hooked onto a 2nd mooring for double safety, bobbed up and down and sat it out. 

The weather finally cleared but the temperature dropped dramatically.  We had another day visiting ashore.

How Everything Works

We checked out the school, they have 23 pupils ranging in age from 5 to 18 years, the older pupils follow a correspondence course curriculum which seems to work well.P8240877

Kat the principal is from New Zealand and is married to Arthur who runs the government administration office, then there is an American/South African couple on a 2 year contract who are both teaching and seem to have settled into island life well. 

The only other “total outsider” is Will from New Zealand who is enjoying his third visit here, he is doing odd jobs to cover his board and seems to be the driving force in promoting vegetable patches, just why they haven’t been growing their own produce before this amazes us but Will seems to have got the interest and momentum going, for now.  P8240891

There is a fine collection of heavy machinery that was shipped up and barged ashore (quite an undertaking we are told) to prepare the ground and install the farm of solar panels that were donated by an Australian Aid organisation last year. The machinery remains, the cost and logistics of removing them outweigh the value of the machinery, guess they will sit and rust away like we have seen in many remote places before.

P8240888This seems to be a well run, organised community, but it still feels like they are just teetering on the edge of the world, hanging on by their toenails. 

Until 5 years ago the only outside contact they had was a SSB Radio like we have on our boats.  Modern communications have improved, they now have telephone and very expensive extremely slow internet via satellite, televisions now dominate their living rooms and many residents have been to Rarotonga or New Zealand.

P8180829P8240884However they rely heavily on the freighters from Rarotonga for all their supplies, it was a week late when we were there and the families were running out of staples, we cruisers helped supply everything we could spare and luckily the ship arrived the following week.  There will not be another delivery until next year.

P8250894Both Arthur and Edward had severe toothache while we were there, the only option was to pull the tooth which the nurse finally agreed to do (successfully), if they went to Rarotonga to the dentist they would be gone about 10 months.   When we asked Arthur what happens if you get really ill his response was “you just bend over and kiss your arse goodbye!”, then next stops would be quaint church & the fascinating cemetery in the above photos.

With the weather settled we had the dilemma of whether to stay and finally enjoy the water activities or use the winds to head to Niue, a further 400 miles west.  It was a tough decision to leave but we had been here a week, new horizons beckoned.  We left in company with Laros and Swiftsure, oh no, not another race!

Possibly the Most Interesting, Remote & Hospitable Place We Have Ever Visited