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 started 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 there is 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, Palmerston 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


Sunday, 11 September 2016

Bold, Beautiful & Busy Bora Bora ….. August 2016

04 – 12 Aug 2016:  Moving Around Bora Bora – 16 30S  151 46W


Our expectations of Bora Bora, the jewel of the Society Islands, weren't very high.  It is a high end tourist destination, parts of the coastline are littered with over water bungalows belonging to high end resorts.  P8100777There is also one of the largest charter yacht fleets in the Southern Hemisphere based within these sheltered lagoon waters.  This is a seriously promoted tourist destination for holiday makers world wide but Bora Bora is balancing its popularity with retaining its natural charms,  nothing can take away from the absolute beauty of this tropical paradise.  It all adds to the blend of making Bora Bora a very special island and well worthy of a stopover. 

We anchored the first couple of nights in the sheltered crystal clear lagoon off Toopua Island, a small island adjacent to Bora Bora within the same greater outlying reef.  Balvenie lay floating in calm water a dozen shades of blue, drinks were poured as the sun dipped low into the west, what a welcoming.P8060761

Stingrays and Black Tip Sharks swam nearby, a steady stream of small tour boats passed by to feed them in the shallows as they pottered around on their reef tours. 

A neighbouring tiny motu (island) was set up to host visiting cruise ship passengers ~ artisans displayed their wares under swaying coconut palms, large bar-b-que grills were ready to ignite, long tables and chairs were set up in the shade, sun loungers lined the white sandy beach and a handful of tables and chairs sat in a foot of warm water.  With not a tourist in sight it all seemed somewhat surreal but we couldn’t miss that photo opportunity now could we, but where are the cocktails and the sunny sky?

P8080766Moving Round the Moorings

After a couple of days of undertaking some repairs combined with relaxing  we moved over to town.  As with Raiatea and Tahaa the water is deep close to the islands making anchoring difficult but because there are so many charter boats here various “yacht clubs” and restaurants have put in mooring buoys to attract business. 

So we did a tour of the mooring fields starting with a few nights at the Mai Kai Marina, the marina that isn’t actually a marina, from here it was a short walk into the main town (a dozen shops, 2 reasonable sized supermarkets, a few black pearl stores and little else sums up “town”).  

Another weather system came through, the wind built and changed to the south and life onboard Balvenie got somewhat bumpy so we left in company with Out of the Bag to explore the shallow lagoon on the east of the island.  Not such a success for us, with OOTB blazing the trail and calling the depths in front of us we bailed out when they got down to 2.6m which would give us less than 10cm under the keel ~P8080764 we haven’t been many places that our deep draft has restricted us and we probably would have been fine but we played it safe, turned around and found shelter on a buoy at the Bora Bora Yacht Club for a few nights.

Taking advantage of the coolness offered by a cloudy day we took our folding bikes ashore and set off to circumnavigate Bora Bora by pedal power.  First stop was the famous Bloody Marys for coffee, boards at the entrance are engraved with names of celebrity after celebrity who have sat on these hard wooden chairs supping on a Bloody Mary, before feasting on fresh fish.  Probably the odd stiletto heel has snapped off on the soft sand floor, and amazingly it is not an open air establishment taking advantage of the spectacular view from its entrance.  Someone did an outstanding job of marketing this great spot for the rich and famous – and the rest of us, oh the coffee was excellent and the cheapest yet in French Poly!

P8100793Once back in the saddle the weather went downhill, the cool cloud cover soon became cold drizzly rain, on we went along the southern then eastern shores of Bora Bora.  Resorts lined the coast, some  5 star, others a little shabby, a couple totally deserted and becoming derelict. 

Yachts anchored out in the grey lagoon were lost in the rain, not one of Bora Boras better days.  A few small restaurants were scattered along the roadside, until we were hungry then there was nothing on the seldom used pot holed road along the north and north west coast.  By the time we got back to town lunch service was over, we packed up our muddy bikes in the rain, returned to Balvenie for hot baked beans on toast, and ticked off Bora Bora as being seen!P8100804 

The Bora Bora Blues

The weather changed for the better, winds eased, clouds moved away, stunning clear skies returned.  Skippers were busy searching the perfect weather window to start the journey west across the Pacific, Admirals were desperately trying to find excuses to stay and play longer in paradise.   Several of us headed down to the moorings at Bloody Marys.  There is a short steep walk nearby that had to be done, what an absolutely amazing view, just a little height gives such a different perspective from living life at sea level.

P8100783 P8100784P8100786P8100787

Bye Bye Bora BoraP8100779

After an excellent night out with fellow cruisers Lanny & Ginger on Swiftsure, Johnny & Deb on Laros, Bill & Gene on Out of the Bag and Jay & Irwin on Winsome at Bloody Marys (no one famous spotted) it was time to get this show on the road.  We returned the couple of miles back to Mai Kai for a night, looked at the weather forecast yet again, did final provisioning and checked out of French Polynesia.  We had been in this incredible country for 1 year and 1 day, visited 41 anchorages on 14 islands throughout the 3 archipelagos of the Marquesas, Tuamotus and Societies and journeyed 1650 miles across its expanse.

P8100778It was very tempting to stay another year in this tropical paradise and delay the end of this  marvellous journey we are undertaking but Balvenie, Skipper and Admiral are all getting older and starting to feel a little worn out, we are in our 13th year of being sea gypsies, its time to head on home.


 Farewell French Polynesia We Enjoyed Our Year In Your Waters