Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Minerva Reef to New Zealand

With an early-season, tropical low and its associated strong wind and rough seas forecast for the area around Minerva reef, we raised anchor after a stay of just 2 nights and began our 800 mile passage to New Zealand.  Ironically, on the morning of our departure, the sun was shinning brightly though the cloudless sky, the winds were completely calm and the seas flat and glassy.  It was a perfect day for a motorboat ride.  Unfortunately, our motorboat ride nearly ended as quickly as it began when, after motoring the 2 miles from our anchorage across the lagoon to the reef pass leading to the open ocean, we noticed that our engine’s water temperature had risen to well above normal.  After a quick check to verify that cooling water was still coming from “Blue Rodeo’s” exhaust (it was normal) Mark shut down the engine and hurried below to investigate the problem,  Fortunately, with the calm conditions, we were in an area that allowed us to drift about, free of any hazards while Mark worked below.  Once our engine compartment was opened, it took but a moment for Mark to discover and fix the problem.  Earlier that morning, while trying to solve a slipping alternator belt problem, Mark had removed a common belt that also drove the engine’s internal, fresh water pump.  Without the belt, water was not circulating through the engine, leading to the rise in temperature.  Mark briefly kicked himself for making a rather “bone-headed” mistake and reinstalled the belt restoring normal operation of the pump.  In order to solve the slipping problem caused by the loads imposed by the alternator, he simply disabled it by removing its field wire allowing it to rotate with little resistance.  At that point, he searched through our ample supply of V-belts and was disappointed to find that there were no more spares of the correct size to replace the cracked and brittle ones in use.  As we resumed motoring out of the lagoon and pointed our bow toward New Zealand, we were resolved to make-do with what we had until we received a radio call for friends Ed and Fran on the vessel “Aka” who had left the anchorage a short time after us.  They had heard our communication with another yacht explaining our reason for stopping and were quick to offer any spare belts they had aboard.  After getting the dimensions of the belt we needed, Ed searched through his spares finding several that would work for us.  We gladly accepted his offer to make an “at-sea” transfer and slowed “Blue Rodeo” to allow “Aka” to catch up.  With Fran at the bow of their boat and the belts suspended from a boat pole, the transfer went without a hitch.  After offering a sincere “thank you”, we accelerated back to normal speed feeling more comfortable that we had a spare or two if needed.  This was a good example of nearly daily occurrences within the cruising community when parts, assistance and advise are shared with others.  How fortunate we are to among so many generous and caring folks!

For the next 20, windless hours we motored peacefully, enjoying the pleasant and comfortable conditions.  It was during this time that we began so see an amazing sight.  Scattered about the surface of the sea were meandering streams of floating rocks.  Pumice rocks, ranging in size from tiny pebbles to some nearly the size of basket balls, had been ejected from an undersea volcano hundreds of miles from us and were now being pushed by the winds and currents over a huge area of the South Pacific.  While quite interesting, the sight of the pumice made us worry about ingesting some of the material into our water intakes and think how frightening it would be to be sailing near the volcano when the eruption occurred.

The wind forecast for the next five days showed south-easterlies rising in strength to around 30 knots before shifting to the south.  With that in mind, when the winds began to build, we shut down our engine and trimmed our sails to sail as close to the wind as possible, staying close to the rhumb line to our destination of Opua on New Zealand’s North Island.  With winds increasing in strength, “Blue Rodeo” was soon flying right along, occasionally crashing into the troughs between swells or partially burying her bow into the front of oncoming waves.  Our pleasant ride of the first day had been replaced by a bucking bronco, blue rodeo sort of ride.  Soon, moving about the boat required care and effort and chores and meal preparation became a physical challenge.  Fortunately, Anne had pre-cooked enough dinners for the passage and we were able to zap them in our microwave oven with minimal effort and mess. Like with any multi-day passage, we settled-in to a watch schedule, watching for traffic, trimming sails and navigating while the off-watch person slept. 

Before we even reached the mid-point of the passage, the winds had increased to strengths well above forecast, reaching full gale force.  As the winds increased and the associated seas grew, we reduced our sail area by reefing our main sail to the triple-reef point and rolling our jib most of the way up.  While doing this one morning, one of our jib sheets (control lines) disconnected from the sail’s clew ring when the snap shackle at its end opened accidentally.  With the winds shrieking in excess of 40 knots and the sail flogging badly, the other sheet’s shackle also disconnected leaving Mark no choice but to go forward from the safety of the cockpit to reattach them.  After several minutes of foredeck gymnastics, including standing atop our wave-washed, stainless steel bow pulpit, Mark was able to reattach the sheets and, with Anne’s help, properly reef the sail.

Each morning and afternoon, we listened on our SSB radio to other boats enroute to New Zealand report their positions and sea conditions hoping for some insight as to what conditions we might expect up ahead.  As we continued to sail close-hauled, pointing as near to the wind as possible, our ride remained uncomfortable.  After months of downwind sailing, this heavy-weather, sailing to windward stuff was beating us up.  Also, despite Marks efforts to damn-up small openings where water on deck can find its way into the boat, we experienced annoying leaks that kept us scurrying about, sopping up small puddles with towels.  At one point, as we pounded ahead, several of the wedges used to position our aluminum mast in the collar through the deck came loose causing the mast to pump and flex with each plunge into the wave troughs.  This created a cascade of water down the mast and into our sleeping cabin until Mark was able to make a temporary repair and stop-up the leaks. During this time, wave impact also broke out our cockpit’s forward, port-side dodger window allowing spray and occasional waves to enter the cockpit unimpeded.  The dodger’s window had been compromised by a few age-related cracks and failing, glued seams and was no match for the wave impact.  From that point on, during the stormy conditions, we had to keep our companionway boarded-up and closed to minimize more water intrusion.  Unfortunately, with our constant heal angle, water would still find its way in and drip from the ceiling onto our galley stove, countertop and floor.  Before conditions improved, we had resorted to using shower curtains to catch the drips and had soaked nearly every towel we had aboard.  It was during this time that Anne looked at Mark and asked, “Are you liking this?”.  To her relief, Mark answered no and that driving around a countryside in an RV was sounding really good to him at that point.  We guess that misery really does love company and we could, a least still have a chuckle over our situation. 

Despite the rough conditions, “Blue Rodeo” continued to prove her worth and seaworthiness and continued swiftly toward our destination.  Less capable boats that had left at about the same time we did were struggling and forced to head further west to make progress.  In the end, we would arrive at our destination several days ahead of these boats showing, once again how fortunate we are to have the boat we do.  Even though our passage was less than comfortable, those to the north of us were experiencing even worse conditions.  We had about 36-48 hours of winds in excess of 30 knots with a recorded gust of 45.1 knots.  Our estimated sea heights remained less than 20 feet.  The real drama took place a few hundred miles north where a 40 foot sailboat, with a couple from New Zealand aboard, was knocked down (possibly rolled) by 30 foot waves and winds over 50 knots.  They were injured during the incident and the boat was damaged leading to a “mayday” call for help.  Various agencies, including the New Zealand Air Force rallied to their aide and one small cruising boat bravely bashed 30 miles back into the storm to render assistance.  In the end, a rescue was accomplished by a container ship that had been diverted to help but Bruce and Marcel, aboard the boat “Adventure Bound” that had stood by in case needed, had to endure many extra days at sea in awful weather conditions once the stricken couple was safe aboard the large ship.  Ten days later, when “Adventure Bound” finally reached Opua, New Zealand, we were on hand to give them the hero’s welcome they deserved and prevent them with gifts donated by the cruising community to commend them for their selfless actions.  While we forged ahead listening to the saga of “Adventure Bound” returning to offer help, we talked about how, if we’d been the closest boat, would have certainly done the same.  That is just what mariners do. 

Eventually, the nasty weather conditions eased and, as the coast of New Zealand came into sight, winds dropped to a zephyr and we started our motor for the final few miles past Cape Brett and into the beautiful Bay of Islands.  What thrill it was to return!  Mark had been envisioning this for several years since his arrival with friend Steve aboard his boat “Elusive”.  During those last few miles, we had the opportunity to tidy-up “Blue Rodeo” and sort through the assorted food items that were likely to be confiscated by New Zealand Customs officials upon our arrival.  Anne hurriedly baked our remaining apples into fruit and oat bars and we fed the fish with a few veggies.  Thinking that nuts would be confiscated, Mark ate nearly half a jar of his favorite roasted almonds that had recently been found in one of our lockers, only to later learn that the nuts were on the “Allowed” list.  He still remembers the resulting stomach ache.

Our passage concluded by tying up at the custom’s dock after 5 days and 4 hours of sailing from Minerva Reef.  We felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment and some relief in being back in “civilization” and the land of plentiful boat parts and supplies.  The next several days were filled with nearly nonstop socializing and joyful reunions as sailing friends trickled-in.  Everyone had stories to tell, as did many boats that looked worse for the wear with shredded sails and torn canvas.  For the next two weeks, we began a series of boat repairs and improvements, bought a car, and proceeded to indulge ourselves nightly with burgers, fish and chips and curried specialties while sharing beer and wine with many friends at the “Cruising Club” headquarters overlooking Opua’s beautiful bay.   Soon it would be time to sail “Blue Rodeo” down the coast to the town of Whangarei where we’d made arrangements for a marina slip to leave her during our trip home to the States and some land touring on our return.

It will, no doubt, take months for the scope of our South Pacific sailing adventure to sink in.  We are loving this life and already looking forward to next season’s travel to Fiji, Vanuatu and New Caledonia.  

Monday, December 3, 2012

Nuku'alofa and Minerva Reef

Since the beginning of the time when sailors first began to cross bodies of water, away from the shelter of land, voyages were planned with regard to the weather’s current conditions and seasonal patterns.  As modern sailors, we are no different.  So, when making plans to sail south from Neiafu, Tonga to Tongatapu and the country’s capital city of Nuku’alofa, we took into account a forecast that indicated a hasty departure was in order.  By leaving soon, we’d likely have good winds for a swift, overnight passage but would have to forgo stopping at some of the islands we’d missed in the Ha’apai area during our first visit.  Delaying our departure would mean either motoring in calm conditions or waiting for another favorable window.

Our trip to Nuku’alofa worked out pretty much as planned with the exception of an approaching area of high winds and rain that enveloped us during the last few hours of our sail.  As we wound our way between the reefs and through the channels leading to the anchorage off “Big Mama’s” resort on the island of Pangaimotu near Nuku’alofa’s harbor, we began to experience winds in excess of 30 knots and were fortunate to get our anchor set just as we began to be pelted by heavy rain.  During the next stormy hour, visibility dropped to just a few hundred feet and several boats in the anchorage began to drag their anchors requiring them to move and reset.  Before long, the worst of the weather had passed and, by late afternoon, a few rays of sunshine were even illuminating the area.

Since beginning our South Pacific trip, Mark had looked forward to returning to this place with Anne aboard “Blue Rodeo”.  Four years ago, he had flown to Tonga and joined his good friend Steve aboard his boat “Ellusive”, anchored off Pangaimotu and the two then sailed the boat to New Zealand.  At that time, Mark and Anne were still boat shopping and dreaming of cruising and arriving here aboard “Blue Rodeo” was truly a “dream come true”. 

While at Pangaimotu, we had to opportunity to reconnect with many cruising friends and  join in the festivities at “Big Mama’s” one evening when she put on an extravagant anniversary dinner complete with a complimentary buffet including the usual Tongan specialties and several roast pigs.  A band was even brought to the island for the occasion and we partied and danced in the sand until well past our normal bed-times.  Places we’ve visited this year are often described as “cruiser-friendly” but few live up to the charm and genuine hospitality displayed at “Big Mama’s”.

With apprehension about the long and often stormy passage to New Zealand weighing heavily on everyone’s minds, daily analysis and discussions of “weather windows” was the common topic among cruisers over the next several days.  Our hope was to sail the 280 miles from Nuku’alofa to Minerva Reef where we’d hoped to spend a week or more before continuing another 800 miles to New Zealand.  It was based on that plan that we set sail from Pangaimotu, bound for Minerva Reef, with fresh breezes pushing us steadily along for the first portion of the trip.  Not far from the islands that make up Tongatapu, Anne’s good fishing luck continued when she successfully landed a thirty-plus pound, Big-Eyed Tuna.  We would later dine on delicious, seared tuna steaks served with a Wasabi and rice wine vinegar sauce.   During the next two days, winds shifted to a direction causing us to tack back and forth to make progress toward Minerva and seas grew quite choppy and confused leaving us with a rather uncomfortable ride.  Eventually, as expected, the winds lightened forcing us to start our motor and motorsail the remaining few miles to our destination.  We had hoped to reach the narrow pass entrance through the reef into Minerva’s lagoon during daylight hours but it wasn’t until after midnight that we arrived.  Aided by bright moonlight and armed with accurate GPS waypoints and his knowledge from having been to Minerva before, Mark felt comfortable entering after dark and proceeding the two miles across the lagoon to the southeast side where six other cruising boats were anchored.  It was a beautiful sight to see starlight reflected on the sea around us and the twinkle of the boats’ anchor lights beckoning from a distance.    Before long, we were anchored and settling into our bed for a sound and peaceful night’s sleep.  With the reef encircling us and calm, flat water around us, we felt as though we were anchored in a lake in the middle of the ocean.

We spent the next day snorkeling in the crystal-clear water inside Minerva’s lagoon seeing rays, eels and huge lobster and surprising several sharks sleeping in caves along the reef’s undercut edges.  The calm conditions and truly spectacular water color and clarity provided a visual feast.  After our snorkeling excursion and while driving our speeding dinghy from a standing position to better see the shallow areas, Mark had to sit down to quell a momentary feeling of vertigo caused by racing over the glassy- smooth water and the incredible detail of the bottom topography rushing by underneath us.  He said he felt as though we had become airborne and had no idea how high we were above the surface.  It was quite a surreal sensation.

Our plans to enjoy Minerva reef for a few days longer changed that night when we hosted dinner aboard “Blue Rodeo” and we joined by friends John and Lisa from the yacht “Orcinius” and Mike and Karen from “Chapter Two”.  Lisa brought along her IPad with a picture of the latest weather forecast for our area that she had downloaded via satellite phone and computer.  Our group intently studied the wind forecast map showing a tropical low pressure area (precursor to a cyclone or hurricane) forming within days and forecast to head our way.  It looked as though the only prudent thing to do would be to leave for New Zealand sooner than planned and put as many miles between us and the storm as possible.  So, with that in mind, we shared a delicious meal of Anne’s chicken curry while engaging in light-hearted conversation.  Inside each of our minds though was the beginning of the mental preparation necessary for leaving Minerva and the passage ahead.  Such is the life that we have now grown accustomed to...good times balanced with a nearly-constant need to assess the environment around us to insure our safety and security.  

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Vava'u with Friends

We spent our last two nights in Tonga’s Ha’apai Island group at an anchorage off the most northern island of Ha’ano positioning us for a easy, one-day trip back to the Vava’u island group where we’d meet friends from our home town of McCall, Idaho who were flying in to do a week-long Moorings charter.  Our stay at Ha’ano was made extra special when we were joined by Kiwi friends Chris and Irene from the yacht “Cuttyhunk” who were heading toward Fiji and on to New Zealand where they’d complete an amazing voyage that began several years ago when they sailed their speedy Farr 44 all of the way to Barcelona, Spain to watch the America’s Cup yacht race competition.  Those familiar with the challenges of sailing east from New Zealand will appreciate what an accomplishment this is and what fine sailors they are.  Having often shared Chris and Irene’s company in larger groups, we were so pleased to have them aboard “Blue Rodeo” for dinner and lively one on one conversation the evening before our departure.  While at Ha’ano, we also shared the anchorage with two splendid catamarans, the smaller of which was a 65 foot Lagoon and the larger was an amazing 112 foot Sunreef, one on the largest in the word.  It was quite a sight to see!  As it approached, Mark studied the nicely proportioned vessel with binoculars, unsure as to its size.  As it came closer, he realized that what looked like ants atop the catamaran’s fly bridge were really full grown adults standing upright.

After raising anchor on the morning of our departure and motor sailing out of the lee of the island, we were just about to shut down our engine when Anne noticed water on the galley floor near the engine enclosure.  Since water inside a boat is never a good thing, Mark responded quickly searching to identify the source.  It turned out to be a leaking shaft seal in the motor’s sea water cooling pump that was dripping badly enough to quickly fill the shallow bilge near the galley and slosh water onto the floor boards.  Shutting down the engine and closing the thru-hull intake valve quickly solved the water ingress problem and soon we had dried the affected area and were happily sailing along.  This proved to be another example of how we are often glad that we are a sail boat and not completely reliant on motorized propulsion.

With favorable winds, we were able to sail the 70 miles north to Neiafu in just over 8 hours, arriving in the early afternoon.  We were even able to sail to within a few hundred yards of a vacant mooring ball and only need to run our engine for a few short minutes while we approached and tied to it.  We breathed a sigh of relief knowing that we would now have time to remove, disassemble and rebuild the leaking pump at our convenience and not while rolling and pitching at sea.  Over the next few days, Mark would sort through our numerous bins of spare parts, fortunately finding what he needed and successfully rebuild the pump.  We guess that this is just another example of cruising really being just doing boat repairs in exotic parts of the world.

Since we still had a few days remaining before our friend’s arrival, we headed away from town and back out into the islands, anxious to explore places we had missed during our first visit to Vava’u.  Several days were spent with good friends,Pat and John from “The Rose”, snorkeling, beach combing and hiking ashore.  When we finally returned to Neiafu, we were armed with even more “local knowledge” to aid us in helping our friends make to most of their charter week.

Friends Mike and and Beverly, who we boated extensively with in British Columbia, and Dave and Mimi, all from McCall, Idaho arrived in Neiafu ahead of schedule catching us off guard at the Aquarium restaurant cruiser hang-out.  They were bubbling with excitement about arriving in the tropical surroundings and eagerly shared the news that they’d had the pleasure to fly the last leg of their trip from Nuku’alofa to Neiafu in a 40s vintage DC-3 still operated by the local airline.  Their trip was off to a good start. 

Over the next several hours the girls, guided by Anne, visited the town’s markets stocking up on provisions for the week and Mike and Dave attended a chart  briefing at The Mooring’s office and were given a thorough check-out on the 40’ Beneteau sloop that they’d be using for the week.  Soon it was time to head out and we untied our mooring line, raised our sails and proceeded slowly out of the harbor followed by our friends aboard their boat.

The next week was spent enjoying lots of laughter, good food and great friendships while sampling some of Vavau’s most scenic spots.  With chilly fall weather already enveloping the Idaho mountains, our friends were especially fortunate have nearly perfect, tropical weather for their Tongan vacation, free of the squalls and rain showers that we had been experiencing over recent weeks.  The seven days of snorkeling, beach exploring and pleasant sailing passed too quickly for our group and, before we knew it, it was time for Mike, Beverly, Dave and Mimi to bid us farewell and start the long, ordeal of airline travel back to the States.  Seeing them leave was made a bit easier by knowing that we’d be seeing them again in a few short months when, after sailing “Blue Rodeo” to New Zealand, we’d be returning home for a visit.  This wonderful cruising adventure that we’ve been experiencing is not without some sacrifices.  Traveling the world by sail boat provides countless opportunities to make new friendships but, sadly, often places us quite far away from our families and friends in the States.  We miss all of them greatly and look forward to seeing everyone when we can.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Ha'apai, Tonga

When one observes, first hand, Anne’s obsession with ocean fishing, it’s clear that she inherited the same recessive gene from her father that makes him so passionate about it.  Mark, on the other hand, does not have it and, with the exception of eating the fish, finds the whole process a great deal of hassle, especially on a boat under sail.  It’s a Murphy’s law that fish will only choose to bite when our boat is careening near the limits of control and the crew’s attention should be focused on sailing.  Too often, it is some marginally edible fish, like a Bonito, that seems to take the lure and create just as much trouble and drama as a good fish like a Tuna.  Even when a good fish is hooked, fighting it and bringing it aboard is just the beginning.  As the boat sails on auto pilot, rolling and crashing through the waves, the flopping fish must be subdued and filleted without personal injury or covering too much of “Blue Rodeo’s” stern with blood and guts.  From this description, Mark is sure that those reading this will agree with him that it’s just more trouble than it’s worth...except, of course, those that have that recessive fishing gene. 

All of the fishing hassles seemed forgotten though when, on our 10-hour sail south from Vava’u to Ha’apai, Anne hooked, fought, landed and filleted a beautiful 48” long Wahoo.  Later that night, with friends Bill and Kat from the yacht “Island Bound”, we would feast on the delicious fish while anchored off of Ha’apai’s main village on the island of Lifuka.  Maybe this fishing thing does have some merit?

The next day, after checking-in with the port’s customs and immigration office, we took a brief exploratory walkabout and visited the village’s only real restaurant for a snack and access to internet.  While there, we also followed-up on a recommendation to see the owner about whale watching tours that he provides.  Since most of Vava’u and Ha’apai, Tonga are winter caving and feeding grounds for migratory Humpback whales, we were anxious to have the opportunity to see and swim with them up close and personal, something that probably cannot be done anywhere else on the planet.  With questionable weather forecast for the next few days, nothing was scheduled and we returned to “Blue Rodeo” where we raised anchor and sailing a short 5 miles to the gorgeous, nearly uninhabited island of Uoleva.  While there, we had the good fortune to connect with another whale watch operation run by a young Australian couple who, with there two children, a dog and two pet chickens, live aboard a beautiful 55’ catamaran.  They offer tours aboard both a 21’, rigid-bottom inflatable boat and their catamaran.  Along with Bill and Kat, and hoping for improving weather, we booked a day-long excursion aboard the catamaran.

The day of our whale watch trip, sunny skies replaced the previous night’s wind and rain and we departed the anchorage aboard the catamaran named “Wildlife” at about 9:00am.  Before long, the crew spotted whales and gently maneuvered the boat to an area close enough for us to enter the water with masks, fins and snorkels and swim to them but far enough away so as not to be intrusive.  Once in the water, we swam a short distance, being very careful to move as quietly through the water as possible, and were soon greeted by a sight that took our breaths away.  There in front of us were two mothers and two calfs performing an underwater ballet that seemed choreographed just for us.  This sight was truly spellbinding.  The interaction lasted just a few minutes but left us fulfilled and humbled by the encounter.  After returning to the catamaran, we all talked giddily, sharing our excitement and feelings.  The moment had been magical and we agreed that, even if we did not see any other whales that day, that first encounter was completely satisfying.  Before long tough, we would come across another mother an calf lazily hovering in one area giving our group the opportunity to swim with and observe them for nearly an hour and a half.  During that time, while the calf frolicked near the surface, the mother would hold position below it and near the bottom as if resting and taking a break from the child-rearing chores.  Occasionally, she would rise to the surface, gently lifting the 15 foot-long caff with her nose and given it a chance to rest.  Tris, our guide, would later explain that the nuzzling was also a means of providing sensory contact using the highly receptive areas along the whales’ snouts.  The entire day’s experience proved to be one that we’ll treasure always and make us even more hopeful that humans will appreciate, understand and strive to protect these magnificent creatures.

Over the next 3 weeks we explored Ha’apai’s islands, frequently having small uninhabited islands all to ourselves.  Many of the islands were picture postcard perfect with white sand beaches circling palm-covered land rising just a few feet above sea level.  As we traveled from island to island we stood constant lookout for reefs and shoals often marked by breaking wind waves or patches of dark brown visible through the clear water.  Once anchored in a new location, we were quick to explore the waters with masks, fins and snorkels and go ashore in search of perfect specimens to add to Anne’s shell collections.  While Anne scoured the beach looking for shells, Mark would often walk the area along the brush above the high tide line sorting through an assortment of plastic debris driven ashore by the wind and waves.  Discarded plastic bottles were, unfortunately, all too common as were mismatched rubber sandals, fishing floats and bits of net.  Mark’s imagination would often leave him thinking what useful items could be scavenged if they were ship-wrecked on the island.  On the windward side of one island, he even found an electronic, current measuring device, that he later identified, that uplinks information to satellites.  Having no real use for it didn’t prevent him from lugging it back to “Blue Rodeo” where it remains to this day.  We can only imagine that scientists somewhere are wondering about the strange movements it now exhibits.

In the blink of an eye, the time we’d allotted for seeing Ha’apai had elapsed and we started back north to the Vava’u area to rendezvous with our friends from McCall, Idaho who were soon to arrive for their week-long charter.  As we slipped anchor at our last anchorage off the Island of Ha’ano, we vowed to return someday and see even more of the fabulous area.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Vava'u, Tonga Part 2

It seems that every waking moment during our last week in Vava’u was filled with activities.  Numerous trips into the small town of Neiafu were made to shop for provisions and use the painfully-slow, wifi internet connections at the Tropicana and Aquarium Cafes.  A small amount of diesel fuel for “Blue Rodeo” and gasoline for our dinghy motor and SCUBA compressor was purchased and transferred aboard in jerry cans.  Also, after months of very high humidity and periods of rainy weather, we began to notice a musty smell emanating from our stacks of folded clothing, towels and linens.  So, the decision was made to have everything washed and dried by a laundry service.  Three dinghy trips in and back from our mooring and about 2 days later, the mission was accomplished.  We lost track of how many kilos of our laundry was washed, dried and folded but remember paying almost $180 for the service…youch!!  Keeping it all in perspective though, our laundry costs for this entire cruising season have been reasonable, due mostly to Anne’s efforts to do it herself aboard the boat.  That process involves using a plunger-like device, a 5 gallon bucket, an old-fashioned clothes wringer and stringing a    clothes line around “Blue Rodeo’s” rigging.   The hard work is often done after determining that rain is unlikely and that the winds will stay below a level that would send the laundry on the lines flying out to sea.  

With a few of our new cruising friends heading on to Australia via Fiji, Vanuatu and New Caledonia, our last few days in Neiafu were also filled with heart-felt goodbyes.  I each case, saying au revoir was made a little easier by  the promise of reunions in other exotic cruising destinations.

Even though we had only begun to see the beautiful sights in the Vava’u area, we decided to head south to the Ha’apai Island group of Tonga for about a month knowing that we’d be returning in mid-October to rendezvous with good friends from our hometown who had arranged a sailboat charter for a week.  Sailing with them will give us the opportunity to revisit a few of our favorite places and explore new ones.






The Ha’apai Island group lies about 80 miles south of Vava’u so, with an early start, the trip can be made in a day with arrival timed to take advantage of the last of the late-afternoon light to see and avoid the numerous reefs around the islands.  Wanting to get a bit of a head start on the passage, we left Neiafu harbor in the early afternoon hoping to spend the night anchored off a small island near the southern end of the island group.  A pleasant sail took us to the tiny island of Maninita where we studied the turbulent water around the island’s surrounding reef.  Anchorage is possible inside the reef in one small area but it is used normally as a day anchorage due to minimal protection from the wind and seas and limited room for a boat to swing on anchor if the wind changes direction.  After assessing the rather intimidating reefs and marginal space, we sailed back north to another island offering a better anchorage and arrived just before sunset.    It had been another full day but, as we drifted-off to sleep, we looked forward to the next morning’s predawn wake-up and another day of sailing toward new horizons.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Vava'u, Tonga Part 1

During our overnight sail from Niuatoputapu to Neiafu in the Vava’u Island
group of Tonga, we were challenged by winds with a significant, southerly
component forcing us to point “Blue Rodeo” as close to the wind as
possible.  Throughout the first day, we did well and managed to gain a few
miles of progress east of our rhumb line in anticipation of an even more
southerly wind shift during the night.  Our strategy worked well until a
west-setting current conspired against us forcing us to either tack back
and forth or motor sail to make our desired landfall.  We opted for the
latter and used our trusty diesel engine for the last 2 ½ hours of the
passage.  After following our electronic chart guidance and range markers
ashore, we entered the protected harbor at Neiafu and tied to a mooring
ball near the Aquarium restaurant, a popular cruiser hang-out.

Once we were moored and our engine shut down, Anne noted a strong, acrid
smell coming from our engine room.  Mark’s initial inspection confirmed
the odor but revealed nothing amiss in terms of overheated equipment,
hoses or wiring.  Later that day however, after opening the sealed box
containing our two engine starting batteries, he was horrified to find
that the main engine battery was extremely hot and had boiled out most of
its acid electrolyte.  A long, messy cleanup ensued before the toxic
solution was thoroughly neutralized and the battery removed from the
system.  Clearly the battery had been subject to a sever overcharge so,
over the next few days, Mark would spend hours attempting to determine the
cause.  Fortunately, “Blue Rodeo’s” electrical system has adequate
redundancy so, despite ruining the main engine start battery, were could
interconnect portions of the system in order to be fully functional.
Needless to say, while we had several enjoyable days getting to known the
town of Neiafu, Mark’s brain would remain rather preoccupied with the
mental trouble-shooting and solution seeking for our problem.  Once again,
cruising has defined itself as doing boat repairs and maintenance in
exotic parts of the world.

Neiafu, Vava’u is a quaint little place with an eclectic assortment of
shops, markets and restaurants that cater to international tourists, many
of whom have come for the opportunity to watch and swim with the Humpback
whales that come here each year to give birth and nurture their young
before heading to the colder waters of the Southern Ocean.  We had, in
fact, already seen several whales frolicking in the waters around us.
While in Neiafu, we had a chance to do some re-provisioning and indulge
our cravings for cheeseburgers and fish ‘n chips.  One evening, we joined
a dozen of our cruising friends for dinner ashore and watched, on
satellite TV, a football (rugby) game between Australia and New Zealand.
Since our group was composed of a nearly-equal mix of “Aussies” and
“Kiwis”, the evening proved to be great fun as everyone teased each other
over their nationalistic rivalries.  For us, not knowing anything about
the sport of rugby, it was an education.  We have to admit though that we
still don’t understand much of the game.

It soon became clear that Neiafu is one of those places that cruisers
refer to as a “vortex” that can suck sailors in due to the lively social
scene and comfortable amenities.  Resisting the urge to hang out for a
longer period of time, we left the port in company with friends on the
yachts” Malarkey” and “Awaroa” and sailed to a beautiful bay called Port
Morelle where we would spend several days snorkeling , SCUBA diving and
exploring two sea caves that are a short distance away.  One, Mariner’s
Cave, requires swimming about 30 feet, 10 feet below the surface to gain
entrance.  Once inside the cave, visitors are treated to the amazing sight
of the water-sculpted cave walls and ceiling illuminated by light
reflected off the sea floor from the outside.  With passing swells, air in
the cave is compressed causing a pressure change that is felt in the ears.
 When the swells subside, the resultant pressure drop causes the cave’s
air, thick with moisture, to momentarily produce fog…quite an experience!
Another cave, about a mile away, can be entered by dinghy but features
even more dramatic lighting and is a hide-out for enormous schools of bait
fish that swirl and glide in iridescent clouds.  Swimming through the
schools would cause to fish to momentarily part company then rejoin the
mass once the human intruders swam away.  This was a sight that made us
wish we’d have invested in a good underwater video camera.  Words just
don’t seem adequate to express the splendid beauty of the sight.

From Port Morelle, we moved on to other islands in the group where we
found more breathtakingly beautiful scenery, both above and below the
surface of the water.  While anchored at the island of Vaka’eitu, we
snorkeled on magnificent coral reefs and did a night SCUBA dive with
friends Trevor and Johanne from the yacht “Malarkey”, on an area known as
the “Coral Gardens”.  Night dives are always a bit surreal with the limits
of visibility confined to our flashlight beams.  There is also the
tendency to get a bit “psyched-out” wondering what big creatures may be
lurking just beyond the limits of our lights.  The rewards though are
quite special and, in the case of this dive, we were treated to views of
incredibly colorful coral formations and fish of all shapes and sizes.
The high points were seeing several orange and black Fire fish, close
relatives of exotic Lion fish, and dozens of cute Clown fish (think Nemo)
hiding within the tentacles of huge sea anemones.

While at Vaka’eitu, we also went one evening to Lape Island and attended a
fund-raising feast put on by the island’s 39 residents.  Over the years,
they have used the feasts to raise money to build a small concrete wharf
and are now hoping to add a floating dock to it so as to make landing on
the island safer.  All 50 available spots at the feast were booked, mostly
by cruising sailors, and a delightful time was had by all.  We dined on
roast pig, complete with head and snout and other assorted Tonga
specialties.  The high point of the event was interacting with the
island’s friendly people, especially the children.  As we dined, the
children sang songs with such charm and sweetness that we couldn’t help
but be moved.  It is clear that the tradition of friendliness remains in
modern Tonga and we hope that those that follow our path in the future
will find that it has not changed for the worse.  While we travel across
the immense Pacific, we wonder how it must have been 30 or 40 years ago
when few cruisers made the crossing and the native people’s lives were
even less affected by the outside world.  Again, we feel so fortunate for





having this experience now because change, no doubt, is inevitable.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Niuatoputapu, Tonga

From The Samoan Island of Savai’i, we pointed “Blue Rodeo” south, for the first time in many months, and sailed to the tiny island of Niuatoputapu in the northern portion of the Kingdom of Tonga.  Our landfall, shortly after sunrise, treated us to an impressive view of a cone-shaped, volcanic island just northwest of Niuatoputapu itself.  It clearly served as a reminder of what geological processes created these tropical islands.  In fact, volcanic activity continues to this day and our charts indicate the presence of undersea mountains that rise from the depths to just hundreds of feet below the surface and occasionally spew steam, ash and even pumice into the atmosphere.  We imagined how frightening it might be to be sailing peacefully along and suddenly be at “ground zero’ during one of the eruptions.

Like many of the Pacific islands, Niuatoputapu (known by cruisers who have trouble with the pronunciation as “New Potatoes”) is surrounded by coral reefs and requires careful navigation to safely approach the harbor off the main village.  We found the entrance easy enough and were soon anchored off the village’s town wharf with our yellow “Q” (quarantine flag) hoisted to our mast’s starboard spreader.  While we waited for the arrival of the immigration, customs and health and agriculture officials we were joined in the anchorage by our friends on the yachts “Malarkey” and “Awaroa” who had also sailed from Samoa.  We also received a radio call from a friendly local woman named Sia who welcomed us to the island and offered to help with any services we might need and suggested that we join her and her family ashore the next evening for a pot luck dinner.

After a short while, three officials arrived at the wharf in a rather rusty and worn-looking pickup truck.  Mark ferried them to “Blue Rodeo” with our dinghy and we completed the clearing-in process.  Despite the condition of their vehicle, the officials were nicely dressed in traditional Tongan business attire with long skirts for the women and similar, ankle length skirts for the men.  Around their waists were woven wrappings made from strips of palm leaves.  Having completed the paperwork aboard our boats, we all went ashore with the officials where we were given a ride in the bed of their truck to their offices where we could change US dollars for their currency and pay our check-in fees.  The ride proved interesting as we were afforded the first opportunity to see how the island’s residents lived and what efforts were being made to rebuild the villages after a deadly tsunami destroyed most of the near-shore structures in 2009.

 During the next few days we would learn in detail how a nearby earthquake produced a 30’ high wall of water that swept ashore killing 9 people and creating widespread destruction.  Even though it had been several years since the tsunami, many were still living in shacks made from salvaged materials while, with the help of foreign aid, new villages were being built on higher ground.  Even though the modest new homes were being offered as free replacements to families that had lost everything, some were unwilling to leave their original land, choosing instead to live in whatever they could scrape together.

Our pot luck dinner, where we cruisers provided most of the food, with Sia, her husband Nico and their 4 children proved interesting as we learned more about the way they lived, the tsunami and the island culture.  It was made clear how needy many of the island’s 870 residents were and, before sailing on, we all brought ashore gifts of food items and anything else we could spare.

Our days on Niuatoputapu passed quickly and were filled with socializing, touring the island on rental bicycles guided by one of Sia’s sons, hiking to the top of the island’s central, jungle-covered mountain and snorkeling its surrounding reefs.  Sadly, the near-shore reefs were still showing the impact of the tsunami damage with most of the coral in rather bad shape.  We can only image that it will take many years for them to recover from the natural disaster.

Prior to leaving the island we joined most of its residents for their Sunday church service where we were truly impressed by the beautiful hymns sung by the choir in their native Tongan language.  Even though we could not understand the words in the songs or sermon, we couldn’t help but be moved by what we observed.  We were especially moved by the smiles, friendly faces and welcoming attitude by all of the people we encountered. 

Our visit to Niuatoputapu proved to be very interesting and another example of how people can live contently without things that we take for granted like electricity and well-stocked markets and how they can persevere even after and event as devastating as a tsunami.  As we continue our voyage, our hearts will continue to be warmed by our memories of the experience

















Friday, August 24, 2012

Samoa















500 miles west-northwest of Suwarrow Atoll lies Western Samoa (now simply
known as Samoa).  It is an independent nation, originally colonized by
Germany and later governed by New Zealand.  It consists of two islands,
Upolu and Savai’i and is neighbored to the east by American Samoa, a US
territory.  A number of cruising yachts visit the town of Pago Pago in
American Samoa each year in order to make repairs or have parts shipped
cheaply from the US.  In the past, its harbor had a poor reputation due to
its industrial nature and ever-present, foul odor from 4 tuna canneries.
Because of American Samoa’s reputation, we neglected to include a visit to
the islands of Samoa in this season’s original itinery.   Fortunately for
us, our plans changed due to feedback from other cruisers and we found
ourselves headed toward another tropical paradise that will remain one of
our favorite places.

After a 3 1/2 day, downwind sail where we experienced a broad range of
wind speeds, we arrived off Samoa’s main port and city of Apia.  After
being cleared-in by the port controller, we proceed to a relatively new,
American-style marina, complete with floating docks, fresh water and
electrical power hook-ups (220V 50HZ).  As we motored slowly to an empty
slip, we were greeted by cruising friends Trevor and Joanne from the
British yacht “Malarkey” and John and Helen from the New Zealand yacht
“Awaroa”.  We had gotten to know them while in Bora Bora and Suwarrow and
we were anxious to share more adventures with them.  Since they had
arrived a few days earlier, they already knew their way around and had
arranged for a rental van that we’d all share for 2 days of island site-
seeing.

The next few days were a whirlwind of activity with visits to the island’s
many scenic locations and points of interest.  A first stop was at the
former home of author Robert Louis Stevenson who lived in a beautiful
mansion called Villa Vailima on the island for 4 years before his death.
A tour of the mansion proved fascinating as it gave a good look at both
the author’s life and that of colonial Samoa.

During our 2 days driving around the island, we marveled at the incredible
beauty and the simplicity in which most people lived.  Due to the pleasant
year-round climate, many homes consist of just wood or concrete floors
with roofs supported by poles.  In place of walls are tarps or curtains
that are typically left rolled up allowing the cooling breezes to flow
through.  A unique feature on nearly all homes is the presence of above-
ground crypts, some simple, some ornate, in the front yards.  It seems
that property in Samoa is rarely sold and simply passed along to family
members from generation to generation.  It is considered appropriate that
the land also be a resting place for those departed.  Another impressive
aspect of the Samoan society was the presence of an amazing number of
churches of various faiths that ranged from modest to grand in scale.  It
was sure a testimony as to the significance religion plays in the people’s
lives.

Aside from the sight-seeing, our island driving tour included swims in a
beautiful grotto accessed by a 100 foot, nearly-vertical ladder and
sliding down slippery, moss-covered rocks in a cascade that dropped into
several rain forest pools.

Evenings in Apia were spent sampling a few of the local eateries, watching
traditional dance presentations and socializing with other cruisers.
Another high-point of the visit was watching the morning flag raising
ceremony that beings at the city’s police station.  Uniformed officers
wearing traditional, black “lava lava” skirts and sandals would parade to
the main government building accompanied by a German-style, oompah band.
After the flag raising, they would proceed back to their station, through
temporarily blocked streets, all marching with precision to the beat of
the music.

After just 5 days in Apia, we set sail in the company of “Malarkey” and
“Awaroa” to Samoa’s island of Savai’i, third largest in the Pacific.  Our
schedule allowed just 3 days there anchored in lovely Matautu Bay on the
island’s north shore but we could easily have spent weeks absorbing the
slow pace and simplicity of the island lifestyle.  Alas, with many more
miles to sail and places to visit this season, coupled with the need to
take advantage of a favorable weather window, we reluctantly raised our
anchors and moved on.

Part of the fun of the cruising life style is to change plans on a whim
and go where your spirit takes you.  We feel so fortunate for having had
the opportunity to visit Samoa, see its beauty and interact with its
incredibly friendly people.  As we sailed away and watched its islands
sink below the horizon, we couldn’t help but feel richer for the
experience.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Suwarrow Atoll














From Bora Bora, we headed Northwest on a 680 mile passage to the atoll of Suwarrow, a park in the Cook Islands. We were so excited to finally be sailing toward an island so special that one man, Tom Neale, lived there alone for nearly 16 years and later wrote a book titled “An Island to One’s Self.  3 days and 23 hours of downwind sailing, jibing several times across the rhumb line, positioned us off the reef pass leading into Suwarrow’s huge lagoon.  With the help of a few GPS waypoints, passed along by cruisers who had been there before, we safely entered the lagoon, steering clear of the shallow reefs between the entrance and the anchorage.  As we approached the anchorage, we spotted 2 boats that had preceded us from Bora Bora by a few hours and one that had been there for nearly a week.  We were immediately impressed by the incredible beauty of the area and the clearest water we’ve seen in the Pacific.  As we maneuvered “Blue Rodeo”, looking for a perfect spot to anchor, we could clearly see jagged coral formations scattered around the sandy bottom 60 feet below us.  Anchoring proved to be a bit of a challenge though due to the proximity of the other boats, depth of the water, numerous “bommies” (coral heads) and nearby, shallow reefs.  Eventually, we found a suitable spot and securely set “Blue Rodeo’s” anchor on a sandy bottom relatively free of coral.  When that was done, we tidied-up a bit and relaxed in our cockpit as the last of the afternoon light faded into a brilliant sunset.

The next morning, we were greeted by Harry and Anthony (“Ants”) who are rangers assigned this season to Suwarrow.  Even though Suwarrow is part of the Cook Islands, it is administered by New Zealand and rangers occupy a simple dwelling on the atoll’s Anchorage Island for six months each year.  They serve as both caretakers and officials proving customs and immigration services for visiting yachts.  Over the years, other resident rangers had earned a fine reputation for their hospitality and Harry and “Ants” were living-up to it in every way. They spent an enjoyable hour with us, in “Blue Rodeo’s” cockpit processing the official paperwork associated with clearing-in to a foreign country and chatting about the atoll and what it’s like to live in such a place for so many months, relatively isolated fro the outside world.  While the job of ranger in such an isolated place might be considered a punishment by some, they considered it a privilege.

Over the next few days, we would spend wonderful times with new and familiar cruising friends SCUBA diving, snorkeling, exploring, beach combing and sharing pot luck dinners ashore with the rangers. The scenery around us was a daily feast for our eyes and the pristine surroundings were just what we’d dreamed of when we fantasized about the South Pacific.  Paradise had been found!

While our vision of paradise included gentle, warm breezes and sunny skies, the reality is that the weather in this part of the Pacific can often be less than perfect.  While at Suwarrow, we experienced several days of high winds, and heavy rain.  The rain sometimes fell with such intensity that our dinghy would fill with 6 inches of water in less than an hour.  The island’s anchorage provides good protection from ocean swells but is open to significant fetch from the south through northwest.  During the squalls, when we experienced southerly winds, the surface of the lagoon’s water became as rough as we often see on the open ocean,  Despite the rough conditions, we continued to snorkel daily and take trips ashore where we visited with our friends in the protection of the dense palm forest and a cruiser’s shelter.  A daily highlight was the feeding of sharks on the east side of the small island.  We would follow the rangers to a beach there where they, for our entertainment, would dispose of food scraps by throwing them to sharks that swam by.  Within minutes, the water would be boiling with, Black Tip, White Tip and Grey sharks competing for the offerings.  While aboard our boats at anchor, we would also often be circled by numerous sharks seeking any tidbits that we might throw overboard or flush from our sink drains.  Though menacing in appearance, the sharks showed little interest in us and caused us little concern on our daily snorkeling excursions.

While snorkeling and SCUBA diving at the atoll’s numerous reefs, we were especially impressed by the otherworldly coral formations.  In some areas, jagged coral pinnacles rose from the depths nearly to the surface looking like stalagmites in a cave.  Due to the water clarity with visibility of 150 feet or more, it was possible to take-in an amazing panorama.  At times, while many feet below the surface, we felt like we were flying through air amidst a landscape resembling Utah’s Monument Valley.  While the coral formations never failed to amaze us, we were often surprised by the lack of large fish in the lagoon.  This led us, and our fellow divers, to speculate as to the reason.  Was it due to overfishing in the years before the atoll became a park?  Was it due to the large number of sharks?  Or, perhaps was is it related more to natural phenomena, like the full moon period we were in, that the big fish were there and chose to not be seen.  As we continued to dive daily, we were happy to see more and more fish in various places and began to feel that this special, undersea environment was fairly healthy and, that with continued protection, will remain one of the most pristine places on our planet.

Before we knew it, we had been at Suwarrow for 11 days and, even though we were enjoying it so much, we felt the irresistible pull of the exotic locations up ahead.  So, after bidding a warm farewell to the rangers and cruising friends who would stay a bit longer, we raised “Blue Rodeo’s” anchor an set sail for another island.  Though sorry to leave, we tingled with excitement knowing that new discoveries were ahead and that more adventures awaited us.