Archive for August, 2010

Ha’apai (and we know it)

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

The Ha’apai Group has climbed within the top three best stops on our Pacific route.  We can sort of understand why Fletcher Christian gave Bligh the boot here rather than return to merry (but chilly) old England.  We love the combination of vibrant reefs, easy anchorages, low tourist and shark counts, high whale count, and fabulous beaches.

We started with a walk on the beach at Uoleva Island.

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Followed by some grilled lamb ribs (judging from the coolers in the stores these Ha’apai Tongans are crazy for lamb ribs).  While we were waiting for our ribs, we took some Cokes over to two boys who were waiting on the beach while their dad went spear fishing on the reef.  When Dad got back he gave us some fish in return.

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The next day we sailed slowly off to Meama island for the promise of a remote anchorage and a tiny uninhabited island.  The diagram in our guide book didn’t show an anchorage at Meama, but there was one sentence that coyly suggested, “it is possible to anchor a boat in the reef’s small opening…”  Intrigued, we went over to check it out and were rewarded with a rather spacious but well protected anchorage with plenty (30+ ft) of water between us and the sandy bottom.  And we had it all to ourselves.

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The reef inside the ringing atoll was shallow and pristine, like a 5 square mile aquarium.   We continued to find new-to-us types of fishes and corals every time we went snorkeling.  We swam through the breakers to the deep side of the reef once, but stayed just long enough to be inspected by a fearless 3 ft Giant Trevally.

The island itself had great views of the volcano on Kao.

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This volcano dominates the horizon…

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…forcing an early sunset on its shoulder.

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19°45.40′S 174°34.20′W   30-Aug-10 03:45 UTC

Some Tongan Whales

Monday, August 30th, 2010

We had a fine overnight sail from Luahiapo island in Vava’u down to the Ha’apai group of islands, 60 nm to the south.  As we approached the first of the Ha’apai islands early in the morning we were treated to the sight of humpback whales slapping the sea with their tails, and the sounds of their grunts emanating from the water.

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We’re trying hard to get a good picture of these whales but it’s not easy.

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There really isn’t much to see of a whale unless they breach. When this happens we stand slack jawed in the cockpit in awe of the force launching something the size of Bint al Khamseen 30 ft in the air. Until we receive the miraculous coincidence of flying whale, camera in hand, focus, shutter and reflex, then you fair reader will have to make due with blurry tails, whale bumps…

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… spouts

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and fin waving.

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The good news is that Tonga is absolutely rotten with whales and we have a decent chance of getting a good picture before it’s all over.  We see them every day and often  hear them singing when we are in the water.

K missed a great photo opportunity while trolling in the dinghy outside the reef off Meama island.

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It was a glassy calm morning, and minding his own business, he was, with images of mahi and tuna dancing in his head …

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…when a great whale surfaced 50 ft away on course to plow right under the dinghy.

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K and the whale continued to surprise each other for a hour and a half as they went about there respective tasks outside the reef.

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In full disclosure, the weak documentation was due in equal parts to fear, adrenaline, and the wrong camera. It’s a very humbling thing to be in a small blow-up boat miles out in the wide Pacific with a huge beast popping up here and there.  An experience not soon forgotten.

19°45.70′S 174°31.90′W   31-Aug-10 05:05 UTC

Kenutu Island, Vava’u Group, Tonga

Monday, August 23rd, 2010

From K’s first glance at the Tonga charts, Kenutu was on the short list of anchorages to visit. It lies on the far east side of group, facing the Tonga trench. It has a rare pass to the offshore side of the reef, and it has a great name.

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Sadly our underwater camera sucked in a load of seawater soon after we arrived in Tonga, leaving us with only memories of the Tonga beneath the sea. It was very bad timing because although the visibility here is not exceptional we’re seeing are many more species of coral and reef fish than we did farther east.  Much of the Vava’u Group coral was damaged in a recent succession of cyclones, but after weeks of searching we found a couple of excellent reefs located conveniently near our anchorages.  While S nursed a headcold (!), K spent several days in the Kenutu pass inspecting Leopard sharks and other deep water residents in the surfy offshore channel. It seemed like the perfect place for a Tiger shark to live, but it was relatively shark free in spite of local expert opinion that Bronze Whalers and other pelagic species could be expected.

Nestled among many reefs, Kenutu is remote among the islands in the group for deep draft boats, but quite close to Neiafu by small boat due to a series of shallow passes that cut across the long island strings. Fisherman commuted to the island every day and stayed until after sundown.

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We never tire of watching the residents of these island communities in their daily life on the water. Countless heavily-laden wooden launches move people and goods between the island villages.

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While the exhausted adult commuters take advantage of the transit time to catch a nap forward of the wheelhouse…

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or on the port gunwale…

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the youngest ones stay awake for the adventure and make friends with yachties.

 

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There is a deep current of traditional seamanship that still runs through Polynesia and it was great to see efforts underway to carry this heritage forward at a time when poverty and outside cultures threaten to change the focus of society.

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Yachties form seagoing communities of a similar but different type. Many have been sailing similar routes for months – or even years – and have formed clusters of multi-boat convoys. We had Belgian friends in the anchorage that we met in Fr. Poly, and they invited us to a bonfire with their Vava’u convoy of 4 boats.

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Willem uncorked the inaugural batch of his delightfully unusual homemade Pamplemouse aperitif.

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The beach was crawling with jolly blond Europeans that night and S was very much at home with her yellow haired sisters from Quarter Moon and A Small Nest. 

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The next morning we all rallied up for a quick trip to Kenutu’s subterranean swimming hole before the Small Nest (were)wolf pack moved on.

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It was a grand way to wrap up a grand time in the Vava’u Group. 

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18°42.10′S 173°55.80′W   23-Aug-10 03:45 UTC

Return to Neiafu

Tuesday, August 17th, 2010

All too soon, our time with David and Marian was over, and we returned them to Neiafu to catch their flight.  We were feeling a bit blue after we said goodbye so we decided to chillax and take advantage of the town amenities before moving on.

Wednesday night we went to the Giggling Whale, which the owner describes as a “gastropub,” to hear a local band and watch a group of students perform traditional dances.  The kids take donations which they put in a bank account to fund their schooling.

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We were sorry our hula connections (yes we have hula connections!)  weren’t with us to explain the finer points.

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The remainder of the week was spent doing boat chores.  In addition to the usual cleaning and laundry, we hit the market several times, buying locally-woven baskets

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and other essentials. 

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We were serenaded throughout the week by the nearby high school band practicing “Por Ti Volare” and ragtime riffs. 

After our busy week, we decided to have a good old-fashioned laid-back Sunday. 

As with most of the islands we visited, religion is a prominent part of life in Tonga.  Ten o’clock Mass at St. Joseph’s was entirely in Tongan, but it gave us the opportunity to stop and reflect on the events of the past 12 months since we left our slip in Seattle.  The singing was divine.

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After lunch we followed the road out of town to see what lay beyond the touristy waterfront.  It was well worth the effort.

We’re waiting on Allison and Sam to clue us in on these nervous blue kingfisher type birds.

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This family stopped to chat while out on an old fashioned Sunday drive.  Little girls love a Sunday drive, and this family appreciated the story about S’s Dad taking her on Sunday drives to the country to feed apples to the roadside horses of northwestern Pennsylvania.

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This guy didn’t want to miss the chance to show us his puppy walking technique.

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And these guys didn’t want to miss the chance to flex their pecks and throw some gang signs.

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After miles of walking we thought this comfort hound had the best Sunday afternoon program on the whole island.

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18°39.54′S 173°59.00′W   17-Aug-10 03:45 UTC

A Quiet Anchorage

Saturday, August 7th, 2010

The visiting crew was taking a break from their incredibly hectic professional and family lives so we thought it would be fun to show them how we slow things down on Bint al Khamseen when we have the chance.

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It requires a sail…

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a seacave…

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a swim…

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blue water…

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good cooking…

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sea stories…

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hot boat chicks…

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a tiny bit of personal hygiene…

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and a beach…

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Of course we couldn’t let the opportunity of having crew pass without a few chores. On the way back to town the lads hopped in the dinghy to get some rare underway sailing pics.

 

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The girls plowed through the channel, past caves…

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and island passes.

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The boys just managed to not get run down by the sailboat

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and to keep the cameras and the photographer out of the drink.

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18°51.00′S 174°00.00′W   07-Aug-10 03:45 UTC

Dive Day

Thursday, August 5th, 2010

Diving from a private yacht is not easy in the Pacific. There is a natural tension between dive operators who make their living on healthy dive sites and sailors who tend to anchor in them. It’s also less appealing for a dive shop to rent out a bunch of tanks for us to use when they are charging 100 USD to run people out to the same dive sites we visit on our own.  After weak and failed attempts to rent tanks all the way across the Pacific we finally won over a local shop and headed out for a couple of days of diving.

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It was great to spend quality time with the residents below the 40 ft level, although we notice that they are much more accepting of us when we freedive without bubbles.

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The California divers demonstrated their experience with a tough surf entry.

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Brother Manfish.

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There was a quick run back to town to unload the tubes.

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And pick up some extra provisions

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18°41.00′S 174°06.00′W   05-Aug-10 03:45 UTC

 

 

Neiafu, Vava’u Island, Tonga

Wednesday, August 4th, 2010

The town of Neiafu is tucked up in a long sound at the heart of an archipelago peppered with limestone islands.

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The channel to town was painted in our favorite colors.

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We spent a couple of days wandering the dusty streets of Neiafu, waiting for clear weather to explore the islands. The day started with a provisioning stop at the bustling produce market.

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While the very hippest of Tongans like their veg…

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… the bigger ones are always ready for a fish sammich.

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Island life can be a little mind numbing when your day is spent moving watermelon.

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We saw a mix of western wear and traditional Tongan dress. Actually the lad on the far right is not in a dress but a traditional school uniform.

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The suburbs were overgrown and shady. Just the kind of place for a smiling Comfort Pig to take a nap.

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Or watch the tourists.

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All matters of pig society were under the bright watchful eye of this wise old boar.

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Life in these parts appears to be a struggle to prevent the jungle from reclaiming the homestead.

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This venerable chap was doing his part.

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The Vava’u Club was in slow decay…

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but the good people at S.A.S. Finance were aware of this and are standing by to help with that second mortgage or car loan.

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While houses erupt and then return to the bush in a regular cycle, familial memories run deep here and the lost are not forgotten.

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There was nice view of town from the top of a hill. We were glad not to be tied to the wretched container dock, clearing customs with Dreamcatcher.

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It was time for us to leave and we saw ourselves as a proud speck in the universal fraternity of seafarers who share the common struggle to get underway.

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It’s an ancient fraternity including Noah, Lord Nelson, Dreamcatcher, Bint Al Khamseen and these Tongan seapups.

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18°39.00′S 173°59.00′W   04-Aug-10 03:45 UTC

To Tonga

Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010

We reluctantly said goodbye to Niue after only six days.  We would’ve liked to stay longer but we wanted to get to Tonga and get ready for K’s brother David and his wife Marian who were flying in to join us in Nieafu.  But before we left, we had one more get-together of our friends from Fine Gold (Leisha and Greg) and Dreamcatcher KM (Karsten, Jarrod, Floss, and Ben).  K treated them to some Jordanian soul food: homemade lamb kebabs, hummus, and khubbuz (pita bread), topped off with an offering of his fine home brew.

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Early the next morning Karsten treated us to a round of his delicious cappuccinos aboard Dreamcatcher before we set sail (this cruising life’s tough at times). 

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After saying “Ta-ta for now” to Karsten and crew, S demonstrated an alternative technique for disembarking from a tall yacht to a short dinghy (much soggier than the usual method).  K thought it looked fun so he joined her for a quick dip.

We had a good two-day passage with plenty of breeze and reasonably well-behaved seas.  Just before sunset on the second afternoon, one of the control lines on our wind-vane chafed through.  The line runs through the dark, cramped, nether regions under the cockpit, but we were back underway in less than an hour thanks to this dollar-store doodad (officially known aboard Khamseen as “the grabby thingy”):

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We counted ourselves lucky that the line broke while it was still daylight and before the winds picked up – with gusts to 30 knots.  The windy conditions provided a great opportunity to give a trial run to the reef points K installed in our staysail.  We’re happy to report that the shortened sail worked great! 

We were in for several surprises when we reached Tonga.  First, a low gray rain cloud rolled in as the morning sky lightened so that, except for being a few degrees warmer, the islands of  the Vava’u group more closely resembled the San Juans back in the Pacific Northwest than a tropical paradise. Second, we discovered we’d unknowingly crossed a dogleg in the international dateline overnight and we’d lost a whole day!  And third, not all customs docks are set up with a small boat in mind. 

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Vava’u’s dock doubles as a container ship dock with huge rubber bumpers jutting out from it like gaping, solar-panel-eating teeth.

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We had a hair-raising time trying to pry ourselves off the quay against the 20-knot wind on the starboard beam and did indeed come within millimeters of peeling off the vulnerable panel – several times – on those rubber teeth during our attempts to get away.  It seemed nothing short of miraculous that we still had all our panels intact as we headed for the anchorage in front of town.

We spent several days getting to know the town of Nieafu (“nee-AH-foo”), hanging out with the Dreamcatcher folks (who arrived in Tonga shortly after we did although they left a Niue day later), and preparing Khamseen for David and Marian’s arrival.  

We’d been looking forward to this reunion for many months, and it showed.

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That night we were all invited to a farewell happy hour on Dreamcatcher (photo by Karsten), where Floss had made a half dozen plates of hors d’oeuvres, including wee small bite sized beef wellingtons.The following day they sailed for Fiji.  We were sad to see them go but are really glad for the time we had together.

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18°32.42′S 173°59.05′W   3-Aug-10 08:00 UTC