Thursday, December 03, 2009

Dispatch 50 North Minerva Reef

Nov 6 - Nov 12, 2009
Minerva Reef is a place we have both dreamed about for years. The
description of it always made us curious to see it and, as it is en route to New Zealand, it is frequently a stopping off point for yachts. Before we arrived, 22 yachts had been anchored inside the reef. There are both
North and South Minervas. They are the remains of old atolls which
have all but sunk into the sea leaving a very dangerous navigational obstacle, a nearly circular
reef which doesn’t even show at high tide. At low tide, the reef is visible a couple feet above the level of the ocean. There is one area of small sand beach and a navigational light
placed here by Tonga, the
titular owners of the reefs. When we approached by sea, it appeared to be a hole in the ocean which was calm; the boats anchored there looked for all the world like they were anchored in the middle of the ocean. While we had considered carrying on past the reef as our passage was going well, we decided to stop and have a look.

We had left Nuku’alofa in a very good wind on a very rainy day. The passage here was notable for reasonable winds and seas and gloriously, no seasickness!

Within North Minerva were anchored some boats that were friends of ours including our
friends of 4 years, Bruce and Alene on a boat called Migration. We pulled in, anchored (there is room for probably hundreds of boats here) and were immediately invited for hot showers and dinner aboard Migration. We had made dinner for them upon arrival to Nuku’alofa after their passage and it is such a luxury to be treated so well when one is sleep deprived and exhausted. We accepted. The next day we had a jubilant visit from them to invite us to a party the following day. With a little encouragement, they finally told us the reason for the party—they had become engaged that very morning! Bruce, ever the trickster, had thrown a bottle overboard with a message in it. He got Alene to notice the bottle and they fished it out. The
message said, “WYMM” (will you marry me) and she had said an enthusiastic “yes”! While we walked on the reef that afternoon, we told them that some other friends of ours also anchored here at Minerva were both ship’s captains and had performed a wedding ceremony at Suwarrow, legally marrying another cruising couple. Their eyes lit up but they needed to think about it more.

The reef is fascinating. We were able to walk on it at low tide. It was a few hundred feet wide blocking the ocean swells from reaching inside except for a little bobble at high tide. We snorkeled just inside the reef and found a little microenvironment there. As we swam back to our boats, we splashed quite a bit because we were cold and swimming hard. Alene called out “shark” when she saw the gray shark that had come to investigate the sudden splashing. As we stopped and hung in the water quietly, he swam silently away. Later we snorkeled outside the reef where we found gorgeous and healthy coral in abundance.

Bruce and Alene decided that the opportunity was too great to pass up and they decided to get married in the middle of the ocean. So within a day, the whole random group of boats
assembled there conspired to make a wedding. I made a 2 tiered white wedding cake as Alene

requested and decorated it with a little Ecuadorian couple woven from straw that we had on our boat as well as shells collected in Panama with Bruce and Alene. Everyone brought nibbles to enjoy after the midday wedding, performed on their trimaran, we all witnessed their union in one of the most remote places on earth. It was a stellar day. For the wedding reception, they motored their boat towing about 5
dingys and all the guests to the pass, anchored, and everyone snorkeled outside on the reef. What a day! We were so happy to be there to share that great moment with them.

While we were snorkeling another day, a New Zealand Air Force Orion airplane made several low passes over Minerva Reef. They called to each of the sailboats there to verify their identity. While on our passage to New Zealand we were flown over by a customs plane who also called
to us. While some may feel paranoid from the surveillance, we found the attention comforting—were we to have trouble en route to New Zealand, obviously they were aware of our presence and available to help. Eventually, it came time to leave and head on passage to New Zealand. Everyone takes this passage very seriously and we all watched the weather like hawks. Richard and I had engaged the services of a weather router to help us pick our moment to leave, but it still felt uncertain as nobody can know the weather for sure and several boats left the day before we did. As luck would have it, our delay meant we were just at the outside of the one major frontal system that passed through when we approached New Zealand.

The passage to NZ was very calm. We had been looking for a mild weather window and we found it. If anything, the problem was too little wind. We ended up motoring 113 hours to try to move forward on the calm seas with no wind. We sailed the rest of the time on light wind
except for one day where, although gales had been predicted (35-45 knot winds), and even our weather router wrote a special e-mail to warn us about this, we experienced nothing of the sort, no wind over 26 knots and that from behind, so we counted ourselves mighty lucky to have missed that little storm. Apparently, the weather was fairly extreme in NZ because we received a couple, “hang in there” type e-mails from friends assuming we’d really been blasted. We were not and for that we are eternally grateful. As Richard said, “It’s better to be lucky than good.” Our main frustration on the passage was the slow going, but, we were rewarded in the end with a passage without boat damage and arrival, at last, after 4 ½ years of travel with this as our destination, at the Bay of Islands, NZ. It is an amazing feeling to have achieved this final goal in our travels by boat.

Check-in to New Zealand was friendly, professional and efficient. Rumors had abounded about
the many things that would be scrutinized and removed from the boat, but the officials were polite and rational and, other than all fresh produce and our garbage, nothing was taken away.

So our next chapter includes travel in New Zealand to see more of the country and, possibly, if my license is finally approved (in the final stages at this point), some work here in the country. As always, our plans are fluid and we’ll continue to keep in touch.

Dispatch 49 Tonga (Ha’apai and Nuku’alofa)

Oct 18 - Oct 26, 2009
Briefly we stopped in the long set of islands and reefs between Vava’u and Tongatapu called the Ha’apai group. These islands are small and lovely with white sand beaches and have extensive reef surrounding them. The navigation is a little more challenging because of the reefs. We only stopped at 3 of these islands but enjoyed long beach walks and shell collecting here. There were whales here as well although no close encounters for us. We stopped at one island with a village and were accosted by the local children once again asking our names, our ages and asking for lollies. We were impressed with the English these children had at a much younger age than elsewhere, then learned there was a Peace Corps worker on the island teaching them English. We also met the nurse practitioner who provides th
e health care here and at about 6 other islands (around 1800 people altogether) and found her with a whistle around her neck left over from her athletic event with the children that morning. Part of her health program is to get the kids out every morning to do some kind of sport. I also learned the expression for no smoking in Tongan at the health center: Tapu Ifi Tapaka.
Our stay in this group of islands was short and sweet because we were on a schedule to arrive in the capital in time for the big “end of the season” party. As luck would have it, the party was scheduled for my birthday and it is also called a “birthday” party for the resort that hosts it—its 7th birthday. The resort is called Big Mama’s Resort on a little island called Pangaimotu. When I e-mailed to RSVP our attendance I mentioned that the day was my birthday and was promptly e-mailed back that Big Mama’s chef wanted to bake me a cake. Wow, what fun.

Pangaimotu is a 15 minute ferry ride from the capital city of Nuku’alofa. Big Mama has figured out all the things that cruisers need to make life happier and she offers them at her resort. Besides the obvious food and drink, they offer to fill jerry cans of fuel, arrange for larger fill-ups at the town
dock, do laundry, sell crafts, offer several ferry rides into town for grocery shopping and will do virtually anything to make your stay better, for a price of course. From the moment we arrived we felt taken care of—the anchorage was calm and full of our friends and Big Mama was very warm and friendly. We got a few things done before the party, but some of our time had to be spent with Big Mama because she had bought some fabric to make a traditional Tongan outfit for me to wear at the party and to take as a gift. I was floored by her generosity.On my birthday, we spent the day shopping in town, came back for a final fitting of my outfit and got ready for the party which was a costume party for Halloween. One other cruiser who had helped arrange the party had a Tonga outfit made for her too and she and I were treated like queens. We had a traditional woven skirt covers put on with beautiful woven belts and were seated on “thrones” in places of honor. The woven skirt covers are thick, hot, and awkward in case anyone wants to know—as best I could tell, they are indistinguishable from the weavings that are used as floor coverings! Dinner was a traditional Tongan feast preceded as usual with speeches of thank you by Big Mama, etc. I forgot to mention that this whole evening is FREE. Marcy, the other “queen for the day” and I sat on our thrones wondering whether and when we could go partake of some food, when, magically plates full of food
arrived in front of us and our drink orders were filled. WOW! To cap the whole thing off, Big Mama had made a cake for her resort’s birthday and another cake for mine— chocolate because that’s the only type she likes. A woman after my own heart! As more speeches were made, a group of my girlfriends from this cruising season came up and presented me with their birthday gift: a lei of giant chocolate bars purchased in town and decorated with ribbon. I was blown away. At last I was free to take off my overskirt and, as there was a live band, we danced until the party ended. It was a birthday I will long remember.At the birthday party, I met a Tongan woman named Malaia who had lived much of her adult life in the US and had married a US man. They have since become divorced and her two boys live with him while her daughter has moved back to Tonga with her. She had some amazing stories to tell. She was working for a company as a secretary when they had some embezzlement and fraud issues. Because of her role in the company, her name was on fraudulent documents so she was indicted with the rest of the employees. But, as a green card alien, she became immediately deportable and was considered a foreign detainee. Because her husband and children were living in the US, she opted to go to prison in the US as a detainee rather than be immediately deported to Tonga. She spent 5 years in prison and has written a memoir, I was an Alien to describe her experience which, as she told it to us over the next couple days, sounded pretty deplorable. She, for some reason, took to me and invited Richard and me to church and then a traditional Tongan Sunday meal afterward. Our friends from the boat Migration, Bruce and Alene, joined us as well.

Malaia brought us to the church in town where the King usually attends although he was out of town and not there, but his mom (the Queen mum) was in attendance. We were seated in an area where the nobles usually sit and listened to, as usual, the beautiful singing and the Methodist service. After the service, we went to Malaia’s boyfriend’s house where we enjoyed the Sunday feast of food cooked over the umu (oven in the earth). Her boyfriend was a banker, now retired, who is distantly part of the noble family. Interestingly, his house burned down over a year ago, and, in contradistinction to how any of us would have dealt with that, especially given that he was a banker and clearly of a socioeconomic strata one would expect something different of, his house remained a shell and he was living in some temporary shelters on the property along with his pigs and dogs and many children. He came from a family of 10 kids and he has, I think, 11 children and many grandchildren. We met several of the family members during our lunch.
The Sunday feast took place out in the driveway on a folding table and featured exquisite food. Malaia understood that we would enjoy taking part in a “regular” family occasion and this was just an ordinary Sunday luncheon at a Tongan family house. Dish after dish was pulled from the umu with pork, chicken, corned beef, veggies, all cooked in this earth oven within packets of taro leaves, some with coconut milk to flavor them. We ate until we were stuffed and then were brought back to the ferry dock to go back to our boats. The next day, Malaia took us on a tour with Sio, her boyfriend. We saw most of the island with them. We saw a tree where the flying foxes nest, then went to an area where there were blowholes. I had almost
encouraged them to skip the blowholes since we had seen plenty in our marine travels. But, this coastline was astonishing. There were about 4 miles of coast with a cliff/porous rock material that create infinite blowholes. When the waves hit the coast, the blowholes spout all the way down the coastline in sequence and it is quite spectacular. There were 10 foot waves hitting and the reflected waves combined with them to give some 20 ft waves or so for our viewing
pleasure. It was quite a scene! We also saw the Trilathon, a Stonehenge type gateway of very
huge stone that nobody quite knows the purpose of. At a lovely protected bay we learned that Captain Cook formed a favorable impression of these islands (calling them the Friendly
Islands). Meanwhile, unbeknownst to him, the locals were plotting his murder, thwarted
only by their own disorganization.
Over the next several days, we enjoyed visiting with various friends while we readied t
he boat for the next big passage to New Zealand. When we finally felt ready enough, we checked out from Tonga. In the end, we spent nearly 2 ½ months in the country and would happily return!

Dispatch 48 Tonga (Vava’u Group)

Sept 4 - Oct 17, 2009
Just 160 or so miles south of Niuatoputapu lies the next group of islands in the Kingdom of Tonga, the Vava’u group. The Vava’u group consists of about 150 islands. We arrived there after a 2 day passage that was a bit rough (seems they all are in this part of the world) and featured a 4 hour storm with 20-25 knot winds and rain that ended with one lightning strike very near the boat. This island group immediately reminded us of the Pacific Northwest and the waters in the San Juan Islands. It consists of islands close together with protected waters between and many secluded and lovely anchorages. As this is a world renowned cruising ground with charter sailboat companies, there is not much privacy. At this time of year, there are hundreds of yachts here and we have hooked up with many of the friends we’ve met along the way. Dinners, potlucks, parties on the beach abound and a good time is being had by all.

On the second day after our arrival and about 2 hours after we had settled into the anchorage at the main town, a calm peaceful Sunday morning, we were just preparing to go to church to hear the beautiful singing when a drama unfolded. There had been a big party the night before after a sailboat race to an outlying island, part of the festivities of welcoming the cruisers, when, in the morning, one of the revelers had dropped a heavy hatch on his finger nearly severing the finger. He had immediate “first response” care that was appropriate and someone mentioned that we had a doctor on our boat. So help was rallied to race him back to town where we were moored and he arrived, via a large power boat at 25 kts., within an hour of the accident. The hospital, like nearly everything except churches, was closed on Sunday and nobody was able to locate the town doctor.

So, with our friends on a yacht named Solace, both of whom are nurses,
we put our equipment together, set up an operating table in their salon, and our patient William arrived for treatment. We had everything we needed, his wound was pretty clean and, to be honest, Solace’s crew Paul and Gina had an amazing first aid equipment supply. We irrigated the wound and I was able to suture the end of his finger back on with Paul and Gina’s great support. William was stoic and all went well and we are hoping he’ll be able to keep his whole finger but time will tell. So much for a quiet Sunday morning. The Tongan law says that there is no work done on Sundays so no services are open and people are not allowed to swim either. But sewing up a finger can’t wait.

Gina and I again visited the local hospital. Very similar to Samoa, the hospital equipment looks like donated old equipment from the rest of the world. The vinyl hospital mattresses were often torn with the stuffing hanging out. The exam tables were the ones most offices in the US had replaced 20 years ago. The head doctor was a jack of all trades (his own laughing admission “and master of none” or so he said.) He was trained as a GP, had some general surgery experience and had also had training as a radiologist in Australia. He was doing a pregnant woman’s ultrasound when we first arrived and did minor surgery, took care of patients on ventilators, did amputations of bad diabetic feet if it was required, managed the diabetic sepsis, and delivered babies or did caesarians when needed. There were 2 other doctors there and some visiting medical students, a dentist and, at the time we were there, a visiting team of eye doctors going to the outlying villages and doing exams and cataract operations. Edgar, the head doctor, admitted to us that he was often short of supplies, but, as in Samoa, they did the best they could. Definitely it looked like challenging work conditions.

We were amazed that Vava’u, this island group, seemed to have a good amount of supplies. When we had left Niuatoputapu, they had been nearly out of flour, gasoline, lard for cooking and most other basics. There was little hope of a supply ship there in the near future as the supply ship and passenger ferry had sunk a couple of months earlier, with a large number of casualties. By contrast, the stores here seemed extremely well-supplied and a ship came in soon after we arrived. We are told that the supplies are a little thin here as well, but, compared to N, this place is paradise for shopping. We can’t figure out why the King cannot arrange for supplies to be delivered just 160 miles further north from here, but that is the way it seems to be.

One of the highlights of visiting this part of the ocean is that, at this time of year, the humpback whales migrate here to calf and mate. Tonga is one of the only places where one is able to swim with whales. So one day we went out on a whale watching boat with friends from another cruising boat to swim with the whales. It was a very windy day, but, much to our delight, one of the only sunny days we had experienced in a week and a half. Whales are hard to spot on windy days, but a female and calf were spotted and we waited our turn to go in and swim with them. We felt a little guilty that boat after boat would drive up to the whales and let people in the water to look at them up close, but we were so eager to do it, we tried not to feel too badly about it.

While we waited for our turn, we opted to visit another “not to miss site” called Mariner’s Cave, a cave within the rocks that is only entered by going through an opening 6 feet under water and swimming about 15 feet into the cave under water. It is not a hard swim, but psychologically, especially on the way in where it is dark, it takes a leap of faith. We tread water outside getting psyched, then dive down to the blue underwater opening. We swam hard with anxiety, not sure when we could rise without hitting our head on the rocks, and finally surface, inevitably, many feet further inside than we needed to go, but the margin of safety is a good thing. The cave is huge and does not communicate to the outside, thus it has an airlock feeling inside. As the water surges with the waves, one feels the pressure in one’s ears and the air in the cave mists up then clears within seconds. It was magical. We could also hear the whales singing while we were underwater!

At last it was our turn with the whales. We slipped into the water and were treated to a view of a young calf (they thought maybe only a week old), its mother and an “escort” whale, likely a male waiting for the female to be receptive according to our guide. We have seen many whales in our boating and kayaking lives, with some quite close encounters from our kayaks, but there was still nothing quite as exciting as swimming with these huge animals so nearby. Like an iceberg, the major bulk of a whale is underwater and being next to them only underscored how small we are and how big they are. With lazy tail flicks, they move faster than we can swim and, despite their bulk, are amazingly graceful. It was a marvelous experience, but one we savored without the pressure of trying to take pictures too. Sorry.

We’ve become very fond of Tonga and Tongans. I love walking through the market and saying hello in their language (Malo e leilei), how are you? fine, thank you, etc. They have been gracious at teaching me these few phrases and appreciative when we try to speak their language. They are friendly and welcoming. I finally attended the Catholic church service one Sunday where a hundred voices raised in harmony through much of the service. It was heavenly. The produce market here has a welcome assortment of so many of the foods we like and many we haven’t seen for months: green peppers, apples (imported from New Zealand), lettuce of all kinds, fresh herbs including basil, dill, cilantro, thyme, parsley, beautiful tomatoes, cucumbers and zucchini. There are the ubiquitous bananas, papayas, pineapples, and coconuts. Town has its gravitational pull on us all as the center of our social life—often we put off leaving after we come in for provisions because we are invited to just one more event—and the place where we can all access internet from our boat. We befriended most of the “palangi” (foreigner) restaurant owners and it would be nothing to sit down to a cup of coffee and a 3 hour conversation about how in the world they came to live and run a business in Tonga and share our experiences with them. With all the cruisers passing through they were always interested in our stories as well.

One of the restaurant owners is from Southern India and holds a weekly Indian cooking class. We returned to town specifically so I could take part in the class. Not only was it a marvelous bonding experience with various women from boats I had not met previously, but the dinner was delicious and has led to more tasty experiments on the boat. Richard has been quite pleased with the change.

Our last sojourn into town came days early when we experienced a “fatal error” with our shipboard computer with which we communicate by SSB radio for weather information. Indeed, the hard drive had crashed irreparably in this 6 or 7 year old computer. We had a distressing and rather expensive few days of learning the fate of the computer and making the decision to replace it via Amazon and have a crew member on another boat who would be flying into the capital city at the end of the month bring it with him. We have become so dependent on computer technology in general, and, at this moment on the verge of our passage to New Zealand, we did not want to do without a computer to download the weather information while underway. It was a “birthday present”, Richard said, a new Toshiba netbook, similar to the stove I and the boat got several years ago, also a “present”.

The outlying anchorages in this area of Tonga vary from very protected harbors to wild islands exposed to the tumultuous Pacific on their outer side. We have often seen whales with some of our friends having had close encounters while swimming. The coral in one spot was the most beautiful we have seen and we went back several times to enjoy it. At another anchorage, we spent the night alone enclosed in a “one boat anchorage” within a reef “lagoon” hearing the swell break just behind our boat. That island could be circumnavigated in a 20 minute walk on a white sand beach. There are so many “bite-sized” islands in this country that are little gems. We walked between two islands at another anchorage, carefully navigating the bridging reef in ankle deep water. As we walked across the reef in the flat water of low tide, just 30 yards away from us the ocean waves were angrily breaking “outside” so that it looked like the ocean water was several feet higher than the reef level. Mirroring the water, the beach was placid and flat on the “inside” and the terrain was wild and rocky on the “outside” where the ocean batters it. Fortunately, we timed the tide right and the waves didn’t approach us as we walked up and down the 2 mile other island and back across to our “home” island. There are many long sandy beaches that invite walks and hours of shell collecting.

Besides the whales, other wildlife is interesting. The flying fox, a type of fruit bat, is ubiquitous here, and, at sunset each night, they fly from their nests to islands where they can feed. They are the most bizarre flying animal we’ve seen, looking just like little foxes but with a 3 foot wing span. We searched for and found one of their roosting trees where they hang upside down grooming and sleeping during the day. While snorkeling, we’ve found lion fish, pipefish, sea snakes, squid and new fish nearly every immersion. And last but certainly not least, every little village has its collection of pigs, piglets and very mangy dogs along with chickens and roosters, occasional cats, cows and horses. Sadly for us dog lovers, Tongans eat dogs as well as pigs. In fact, one of the store owners we befriended told us how her adopted stray dog had nearly ended up in the “umu” (underground oven), having been plucked from the street and taken to an off-island. Fortunately, one of the passengers on the little “ferry” to the island recognized the dog as a pet, its collar and recent surgical scar from being spayed, and insisted the dog be returned to town.

Tonga is truly an endless playground with pleasures to enjoy in air, land and sea and wonderful, generous people living much as they’ve lived for centuries. We are so lucky to be able to enjoy it. And this island group has allowed us to sail placidly between anchorages (5 to 10 miles apart) in protected waters. This is as good as it gets!