Thursday, October 31, 2013

Minerva Reef pit stop

Lying 275 nautical miles southwest of Tonga, a reef with a colorful history peeks above the surface of the ocean and provides a much-needed rest stop on the route to New Zealand.

Far-flung Minerva Reef doesn't have any land to speak of (only the top of the reef is exposed, and waves crash over at high tide), yet the Fijian and Tongan governments fought over this ring of coral for years. Tonga has always laid claim to the reef, but a few years ago, Fiji decided to fight this. War ships were stationed here. The navigation light was blown up, rebuilt and blown up again. But finally, after appealing to the international community, Tonga was able to reestablish its legal rights to the reef. Talking to Tongans about Minerva Reef makes them puff with national pride (and irritation at Fiji).

As I'm sure you guessed, we're anchored in the small coral cove formed by Minerva Reef right now. After a wet, loud, boisterous two-day passage from Nuku'alofa where we had to be in full foul-weather gear to fend off the green water streaming over the deck and splashing through the cockpit, we're loving the calm turquoise water of the lagoon. High tide brings a gentle rocking as waves break over the reef, but it's comfortable. Besides needing a quick pit stop, it feels pretty cool to be here in this super-remote anchorage in the middle of the ocean.

The weather in the stretch of ocean between Tonga and New Zealand is complicated, and if you're not careful, it can be dangerous. We'd planned to be on our way this morning, but from the latest weather forecast, it looks like we might be "stuck" here for a few more days. I'm itchy to get this passage over with -- we still have at least 800 miles to go -- and although it's the right thing to do, waiting for weather is a little frustrating. Plus NZ has extremely strict regulations on what foodstuffs you can bring into the country, so we're running on fumes in the food department. We have lots of canned corn, dried black beans and pasta, but I'm not sure how creative I can get. The good news? Nyon and Dream Time will be here in a few hours! That should make the time fly. And maybe I can bum a carrot off of them.

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Monday, October 28, 2013

Goodbye to Tonga … and the tropics

By Nicole

So guess what I just did, here on the boat in 80-degree weather with sunshine streaming in the portlights and an icy gin and tonic providing moral support. No guesses? Okay, I’ll tell you.

I pulled out my Patagonia long underwear. And not one but three black fleeces. (What? I’m from Seattle. A black fleece is part of the dress code.) I also dug out my puffer jacket, rank with the smell of mildew from being crammed in a bag for, like, 2+ years, my insulated, lobster-claw sailing gloves and a couple dozen of those Little Hottie pocket heater things. <sigh> We’re leaving the tropics for chilly New Zealand in a matter of days.

But before we sail back to so-called temperate waters (you say “temperate,” I say “bloody cold”), here’s a recap of our last tropical days in Tonga’s southern island group, Tongatapu.

We hauled down from Neiafu in brisk 22–28-knot winds, getting tossed around a bit by the rough seas. It was actually a pretty comfortable passage, and after taking a quick trip to the rail after lunch (ahem), I felt surprisingly good for the conditions. The next day found us anchored off lovely Pangiamotu Island, one mile from the busy Nuku’alofa town wharf.

Pangiamotu Island, home of Big Mama’s Yacht Club

Bella Star and My Muse at anchor

Anchor-down beer at Big Mama’s

And a cheeseburger in paradise


Close to a dozen wrecks from past cyclones litter the bay. Which is exactly why we we’re getting out of town!

The bar at Big Mama’s serves up cold beers …

Cruiser Beer – brewed here in Nuku’alofa for the cruisers, not made of the cruisers

I think I want a dart set for Christmas. Graham from My Muse and I went 1 for 1. Rematch!

The bustling capital city of Nuku’alofa sprawls along the waterfront and although it’s a bit dusty around the edges, it’s charming in its own way. The people are super friendly, and the kids love to smile and wave at the foreigners saying, “Hi, palangi!” even though they sometimes say “bye” when they mean “hi.” It’s hard not to like it here.

First floor at the Talamahu market – the largest market we’ve seen since Mexico

It’s watermelon season!

Taro. Lots and lots of taro. (Each of these baskets is woven from one palm frond – cool.)



The day’s fresh produce haul < $10US

One of the fun things about browsing around produce markets is finding new foods to try. When I spotted fresh peanuts, I knew I had to buy them. So novel! At least for me. Well, I can tell you with certainty that people roast peanuts for a reason. Fresh from the vine, they taste exactly the way wet dirt smells – which I like very much as a scent but certainly not as a flavor.

So I roasted them.

Fresh peanuts, just snipped from the vine


Roasted, salted peanuts (still warm from the oven)

Betcha can’t eat just one.

Along the main road leading into town, a wood carver named Wes has a small studio. He carves beautiful sculptures of humpback whales, elaborate fish hooks and traditional war clubs. Most of his work comes from custom projects, and once we met him, we knew we wanted him to carve something for us. Aaron kicked around the idea of a whale or an octopus, but no, that wasn’t quite right. Then it came to him … a pig! He’d have Wes carve the ubiquitous Tongan momma pig.

Aaron poses with the artist and his carved momma pig

It’s perfect! The “lifelike quality” of certain body parts was the source of much giggling. Boys.

Boats are starting to pile up here in Nuku’alofa like cordwood while they wait for an acceptable weather window to head to New Zealand. That’s great, though, because it means lots of fun people to hang out with (like our buddies Kyra and Rick on s/v Nyon). While poking around town with them the other day, we came across the best bar in Tonga. Well, probably.

PA230605Truth in advertising?

Friends on Dream Time organized a trip out to ‘Oholei Beach and Hina Cave for a dinner feast and cultural show … in a cave! Sure it was a bit touristy, but we all had a fantastic time. The Tongan buffet was delicious (I may have had thirds of the ‘oto ika raw fish), and after dinner, we moved into a neighboring cave for the show. With sand under our feet and torches illuminating the limestone walls, we were treated to a performance featuring traditional music, dance and a pretty sweet fire show.

PA240620Kyra and I were super jazzed to eat in a cave.

PA240624Hands up! I’m not sure why exactly Rick and I were doing that.

Fun cave night with the crews of
Dream Time, Nyon and Tohora (and two lovely, sunburned Kiwis)




The 1,100-mile passage to New Zealand isn’t something to take lightly, so while we’ve been having fun, we’ve also been ticking items off the pre-departure check list. One of the things on that list was to go up the mast for an inspection (and going aloft is always a great reason to take some cool pictures).

PA250691Good news! The Lego guys are still in position defending us from lightning.

We were lucky enough to find dock space in the harbor (it’s all who you know)


Nuku’alofa Harbour, with boats med-moored to the breakwater on the right

Don’t get me wrong. Although I’m complaining about the upcoming cold weather and leaving the flip-flop zone of the South Pacific, it’s not all bad. In fact, we’re sailing into summer in New Zealand! I’m super excited to travel the country, meet the people, go wine tasting, visit farmers markets and settle down for a bit. Before we sail off though, we wanted to toast the Kingdom of Tonga and say thanks for two fantastic months. ‘Ofa atu! With love to you.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Cruising the Kingdom

By Nicole

The Kingdom of Tonga. An impressive name for an impressive country – one made up of 176 islands, dozens of picture-postcard anchorages and thousands of friendly people. We spent six weeks meandering around Vava’u, one of the four main island groups in Tonga, and found ourselves smitten with this beautiful and charming South Pacific nation.

Chart of Vava’u, Tonga – look at all those anchorages!

For those familiar with Vancouver Island in Canada, Vava’u is a little like a tropical version of Barkley Sound. The water is protected, the islands are wooded and fantastic anchorages are scattered only a few hours apart. Add in the rich Tongan culture and vibrant underwater life, and you have a the makings of an idyllic cruising destination.

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The two-day passage from Niue was remarkably smooth, and gone were the confused seas that we’d grown all-too accustomed to since leaving Bora Bora (that means no barfing for me!). I was on watch at sunrise as we made our approach and the smudge of green on the horizon resolved into a lush, palm-tree studded island. Up ahead, I watched three humpback whales breach in succession and almost hit a sea turtle that was obliviously paddling by. I threaded my way between two islands and entered the winding channel leading to the main town of Neiafu, all with a huge smile on my face. Wow, we made it to Tonga.


We arrived on a Saturday, meaning we couldn’t officially check in until Monday, so we settled onto a mooring ball, hoisted our bright yellow Q flag and proceeded to take in our surroundings. I’m pretty sure we had an anchor-down beer, too, despite the fact that it wasn’t yet noon and that we were technically on a mooring ball.

A typical calm morning in Neiafu

With the officialdom taken care of on Monday (requiring a trip to the customs dock and a few hours for all the various agencies to visit the boat), we got right to catching up with Bravo and Mystic Moon over drinks and Mexican food (!) at the cruiser-friendly Aquarium Café (a great restaurant where we wiled away many an evening overlooking the bay and hanging with friends). The next few days found us poking around town, taking a whale watching trip (a dud, seeing as how I saw more whales on our passage in than we did on the tour boat) and relishing the flat calm waters of the bay.

Bella Star on a mooring in Neiafu Bay

Aaron goes whale watching

Look closely. Those are BATS! These super cute “flying foxes” are the only land mammals native to Tonga. Aaron thinks they look like flying Dachshunds. Don’t worry – they only eat fruit and nectar.

It’s sweet-smelling plumeria season in Tonga. Which is great, considering it’s my favorite flower.

A quiet day at the market. You can get pretty much anything here, from cilantro and ginger to pineapples and rocket. They even have beautiful woven baskets, bone and wood carvings and traditional tapa cloth.

Sunset over Neiafu Bay and Mt. Talau

The ornate Catholic church perched on a hill. Tongans are known for their exquisite singing voices, and on Sundays, their songs drift down across the bay.

The Neiafu post office. The two mail slots read “Air Mail” and “Sea Mail.” I guess that covers it.

Writing a birthday card to my mom outside the post office.

Who needs charts when you have navigation aids like this?

Before too long, we’d checked off the items on our town to-do list (shopping, getting the laundry done, buying a local phone, dumping the garbage, filling up with water and gas, blah, blah, blah), and it was time to sail back out the channel and into the outer islands for some serious exploring.

Cotton-candy pink sunrise over Taunga Island

The next week or so was spent popping from one anchorage to the next, enjoying dinners with friends, having beach parties, snorkeling reefs, beachcombing and meeting some of the wonderful locals who live on the outlying islands. They don’t call Tonga the Friendly Islands for nothing!

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Windy arm shot

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Playing a little beach stickball

Mushroom rock

The perfect spot to tie the dinghy




This little guy looked like he was asking for a hug …

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… So I of course obliged.

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I wasn’t too keen to love on this urchin, though.

Or this grumpy crab

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Looking across the Ark Galley mooring field. The blue houseboat on the left is actually a tiny art gallery!

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After more than 13,000 miles, it was time to renew a bit of stitching on the jib.
Carol Hasse, you and your staff at Port Townsend Sails make the finest sails around. Love them!

It’s easy to get scattered in this vast ocean – some people choose to go north to Samoa, some go to Palmerston or Suwarrow or Niue. But there are certain places that pull cruisers back together, and one of those places is Tonga. With cyclone season fast approaching, Tonga is the perfect staging ground for the last big hop, which for most people is either Australia or New Zealand. What does that mean? Just that it’s been like old home week around here! We’ve been able to reconnect with friends we haven’t seen for thousands of miles and spend quality time with people who always seemed to be coming when we were going (or vice versa). We’re part of a fantastic community, and while the cultures we visit and the things we see are extraordinary, our friends are what make this trip truly memorable. To Bravo, Mystic Moon, My Muse, Compass Rosey, Double Diamond, Bella Vita, Osprey, Nyon, Exit Strategy, Minnie B, Spruce, Andromeda, Millennium, Dream Time, Sea Whisper and everyone else, it’s been great catching up! We’ll see you down the line.

Speaking of friends, who out there remembers Panache, our buddy boat from Mexico and Central America? Well guess who happened to show up in Tonga? We hadn’t seen Zack since he sailed off from Costa Rica on his way across the Pacific more than a year ago, so we had lots of lost time to make up for. So. Much. Fun.

Reunion drinks at the Aquarium Café. And yes, Zack is drinking hard cider from a glass with a kitten sticker.

Let’s segue, ungracefully, to pigs for a minute. In most other Polynesian islands we’ve visited, chickens are what you find running amok. Hundreds of them. Thousands! Everywhere you go, you’ll find roosters cock-a-doodle-dooing at all times of the day while hens scratch around on the side of the road or in yards with their baby chicks. These “jungle fowl,” as my Tongan bird identification guide terms them, are ubiquitous across the South Pacific. Make no mistake, Tonga has its fair share of free-range chickens, but the pigs are what we need to talk about.

Pigs are highly prized and are an important part of Tongan culture. They are roasted for feasts and other special occasions, and we even know two very lucky pet pigs (Charlie and Angel). You can find these critters rooting around in the bushes, foraging on beaches and rummaging through literally every open space. Huge momma pigs herd broods of piglets here and there in search of food, and I never get tired of spotting them. So cute! Apparently all the pigs in Tonga are owned and, after a full day of scrounging around the countryside for foodstuffs, they return to their owners. I don’t know about that, but in any case, pigs here lead a pretty good life. You’d almost say Tonga was hog heaven. (Sorry.)

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This is Angel, who gets treated like a little pig princess by the owners of the Coconet Café. She’s almost out of the “cute piglet” stage, though. Aaron says she’s transitioning from “cute” to “delicious.”

Angel getting all kinds of loving from Aaron and Zack

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I’m always partial to the ginger piglets

After a week or so in town, we were ready to do some sightseeing, especially Zack, who’d been elbow-deep in boat projects and needed a change of scenery. The island of Vava’u is surprisingly large, and without a robust bus service, the best way to see the island is to rent a car. It’s inexpensive and easy, and unlike Niue, you don’t even need a local license! Since Tongans drive on the left side of the road, and since Zack had the most experience with that sort of thing, we nominated him as the driver. Old habits die hard, though, so we penalized him a drink each time he signaled and the windshield wipers came on. (To be consumed later, of course.)

Our first stop was the ’Ene’io Botanical Garden, founded and proudly run by Haniteli Fa’anunu, the former Minister of Agriculture for Tonga. We were fortunate to have Haniteli himself lead our private tour and thoroughly enjoyed hearing stories of how he decided to develop the garden on this land when he was 8 years old and how he’s traveled the world collecting various specimens and meeting foreign dignitaries ever since. His passion for preserving Tongan flora is inspirational, and it was a special treat to visit his botanical garden.

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Haniteli Fa’anunu giving us the grand tour of his impressive botanical garden

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Day-Glo pineapple bromeliad

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‘Ene’io Beach, which literally translates to “tickle me, yes.” Love it.

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Huge spider (sorry, Dad)

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Moses-in-a-Basket flower (aptly named)

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One of Haniteli’s boys was fascinated by Aaron’s tattoo. He even scratched at it to see if it would come off.

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After the tour, we sipped on local Popao beer (pronounced pa-POW) and snacked on homemade taro chips.

Having packed a picnic lunch, it was time to head to a “secret” beach we’d learned about on the north side of the island. I’m sure it’s not really a secret, considering there’s a dirt road leading to a trail, but in any case, it sounded like the perfect spot for a picnic. We hiked through the woods and down a steep track to a secluded beach fronted by warm turquoise water and rimmed with white coral sand. We tucked ourselves under a shady tree and proceeded to eat and nap and lounge. Lovely.

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Clam shell sea treasure

Taking a fork in the trail on our way back to the car led to an incredible viewpoint where we looked for whales, but only saw bats flying around and screeching below us.

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Looking down on our picnic beach

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The boys keep an eye on the bats

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What? You don’t hike with red wine?

So what sounds good after a long day of exploring and hiking? A swim in a freshwater cave, of course. Yeah, we did that. And yeah, it was a little dark and creepy.

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A night out to say goodbye to Adam and Cindi on Bravo was in order, since they were making the trek to New Zealand a bit earlier than we were. They suggested a quiet and remote resort, where we could snorkel during the day and dine on fabulous local food at night. We were totally in! And when they offered to take us all over on Bravo and anchor off the resort, we were doubly in. The people at the Tongan Beach Resort were generous hosts, letting us take hot showers before dinner (well, everyone except Adam, since Princess Aaron took a ridiculously long shower and used all the hot water). Plus dinner was amazing … ota ika (Tongan ceviche with fresh coconut milk) and octopus salad to start, followed by succulent grilled tuna steaks and banana fritters with locally grown vanilla-flavored ice cream for dessert. Delicious. Relaxing. Perfect.

The Tongan Beach Resort at sunset


You can’t beat that view! That’s Bravo anchored off the beach.

Fresh and clean and ready for dinner

With our land assault off Vava’u complete, and with Panache in working order again, it was time to cast off our moorings and head back out to the islands. Fruits and vegetables? Check. Eggs and milk? Check. Beer? Triple check.

Kingdom Lager … at a mere US$.52/can, it’s the best beer value we’ve seen since Panama. Getting it all back to the boat was interesting. I’m laughing because I’m totally squished. Also because I’m carrying 3 cases of beer.

A trip to the propane-filling station was also on the pre-departure list, so we buzzed down to the end of the bay in the dinghy. It was just short walk through someone’s backyard, out their front gate and down the road to get to the station, where Zack had his French Polynesian tanks outfitted with Tongan fittings (well, sort of). In any event, we managed to put a checkmark next to this item and were ready to cast off.

6,850 days since the last accident, the sign says. “We’ve been accident free since we opened,” the guy filling our tanks said, “or at least no one has died.” Details, details.

Bella Star and Panache finally make it out of the harbor!

A tense game of Gobblet aboard Bella Star

Sunny day in Port Maurelle

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Taking a break from firewood collecting and playing Smashball to admire the scenery

Dinghy adventures

Beachcombing and snorkeling stop on gorgeous Nuku Island

While the northern islands of Tonga are volcanic in origin, the islands of the Vava’u group are made of limestone and coral. This means that, like Niue, Vava’u is riddled with caves and caverns … and has amazingly clear water. Since we’re not ones to pass up an opportunity to snorkel in caves, we hopped in the dinghy and zipped out to three of the most famous, Swallows Cave, Swallows’ little sister and Mariners Cave.

Approaching the entrance to Swallows Cave

The crew of Osprey enters Swallows Cave on an earlier trip

Sailboat cruising past the mouth to Swallows Cave

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That’s me, snorkeling over the edge while Aaron dives into the deep.


The demure little sister to Swallows Cave, just a short swim around the corner

Looking skyward

The allure of Mariners Cave had us buzzing ever since we first heard about it from Bravo. It’s a submerged cavern, only accessible by blindly diving down, swimming underwater into the blackness and then breaking the surface into a stalagmite- and stalactite-filled cave. The only light emanates from outside, bathing the cavern in a hazy blue glow. But the most spectacular thing about this cave? The way it breathes with every wave that enters. As you stand on the rocks and a swell breaks against the outside, the water is forced into the cave, compressing the air inside and turning it into fog. The pressure increases, your ears pop and then, as the swell retreats, the cavern suddenly clears and the pressure drops to normal. Like magic (or science), the cycle repeats with each crashing wave. Incredible.

Aaron and Zack getting ready to dive. See the pink arrow on the rock? It marks the hidden opening.

Manning the dinghy while the boys dive into Mariners Cave

Swimming out of Mariners Cave

Zack on his ascent from Mariners Cave

I can’t think of a more appropriate way to warm up after a day of snorkeling than with a beach bonfire. And since we’d diligently collected wood earlier in the day, all that was left was to send the boys to shore to start the inferno while I made dinner. No fish were killed during our outing, so we didn’t have anything to cook over the fire. But no one complained, since we had hearty bowls of chili and rum drinks to fill our bellies. Simultaneously watching the flames and the starry sky while lounging on a blanket and talking proved to be the perfect end to a perfect day.

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Lighting beach bonfires in Tonga takes large sticks, rum drinks and matching shirts

All too soon, though, it was time for Panache to catch the trade winds for Fiji. We kicked around the idea of hitting Fiji before New Zealand, but with cyclone season on the way and our autopilot causing us headaches, we didn’t feel that we should push it. So with Bella Star going one way and Panache going the other, we said our sad goodbyes. Again. I thought I was prepared to watch him sail away, since I’d done it once before, but I still found my voice cracking as we said our final goodbyes over the radio. We’d easily fallen back into our tight friendship the second he arrived, and the empty space next to us in the anchorage felt enormous.

The bonds you forge with people out here are insanely strong though, and I know our paths are intertwined. Knowing that doesn’t make us miss him any less, but it does make us excited for our next reunion. Fair winds to Australia, Zack! We’ll see you when we see you.

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The gang poses for an arm shot

Lots of islands means lots of conquering – consider Vava’u sufficiently conquered! Next stop, the southern island group of Tongatapu, where we’ll wait for weather to make our second-longest crossing ever … we’re almost New Zealand-bound. (Which means we’re soaking up the last of the tropical sun. Sigh.)


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Bye, Vava’u!