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.