Archive for October, 2009

Escaping Neiafu

Neiafu harbor is one of the congregating places for cruising boats in the South Pacific (Marina Taina in Tahiti and Bora Bora are the other two we’ve seen). With all the boats moored and anchored in the harbor as well as the nearby anchorages, channel 16 is constantly crackling with boats hailing each other. All of the waterfront businesses standby on 16 as well. Old friends meet up again and new friends are made. You can map out the social networks just by listening to channel 16 — “Paje, Paje, this is Beduina”; Matajusi, Matajusi, Paje”; “Avel Mad, Avel Mad, Migration”; “Anima, Anima, Pura Vida”; and so on from the early morning until late at night. Good friends, good restaurants, friendly locals, free internet, good weather, safe and comfortable moorings, and reasonable prices, combine to make the days disappear.

Tonga itself is an interesting country. It’s a monarchy, and the king is no figurehead. Even though there is a prime minister, cabinet, and elected legislature, he has absolute power. Tongans are proud of being the only country in the Pacific that was never colonized and essentially remained independent from the time of the first European explorers to the present. After several ill-fated attempts, missionaries finally met with success in Tonga and converted the royal family. Tonga was just starting to establish is western-style government at the time, and things change slowly here, so the influence of the 19th century missionaries is still pretty apparent in this traditional, hierarchical society. On Sundays, radio stations may only play religious music, fishing and swimming are banned, and most businesses are closed. On any day of the week, there is a fine if men appear in public without a shirt, and nearly all Tongans swim fully clothed (shorts and shirt). It’s a bit unusual for Westerners, and especially cruisers. With nice weather most of the time and no one around for miles the two main reasons for wearing clothes are gone. Add to that doing laundry by hand, and many cruisers we’ve met return from passages or isolated anchorages with very little dirty laundry.

Sunday afternoon, we joined a group of about 11 cruisers aboard Anima III to visit Mariner’s Cave. The cave is on the steep north shore of Nuapapu and is entered from the sea by free diving down to about 8 feet then swimming 15 feet or so into the cave, where you can surface. We all went together for fun, and because the water is too deep to anchor, so someone has to stay aboard a drifting boat while others go into the cave. There’s a 3-page story in the cruising guide by a woman who lived in Vava’u 26 years before getting up the courage to go in, complete with the story of a copra ship officer who was killed when he surfaced too early and opened up his head on the rocks, but I think it’s just there to give you a bigger sense of accomplishment once you’ve done it. As they say, if you can dive a couple of yards away from the side of a sailboat, swim under the keel, and surface a couple of yards away on the other side, you’ll have no problem entering the cave. The difference is that you know how wide the boat is and that there’s open water on the other side. Your air seems to go pretty quickly when you’re swimming in as fast as you can and constantly searching for the point where the surface is no longer rock, but everybody made it with no problems. It was an overcast day, and after Bubble Cave in Niue, the interior didn’t seem incredibly impressive, but it was a nice cavern with a large entrance. After we had been in for a little bit, something really cool happened. As we were treading water, a swell came in, raising the water level in the cave. Because the cracks to the outside air above are relatively limited, the air pressure increased as the wave entered. As we cleared our ears to adjust, we were enveloped by a fog. With the air in the cave being saturated with water vapor, the small increase in pressure with an entering wave is enough to cause the vapor to condense and form fog. As the wave ran out and the water level fell, the fog dissipated. This happened several times before we finally dove out of the cave and returned to Anima for the short sail back into Neiafu harbor.  Thanks to one of our fellow cruisers for the two pics below.

P1040038View from inside the cave looking out through the underwater entrance

P1040048  Swimming out of the cave

Tiffany’s birthday party on Sunday night was a big hit, as Tiff and everyone else seemed to have great time. We ended up with 26 people, and between the large cockpit and adjoining salon, there was enough space for most people to sit and graze on the nice spread of food. After we consumed a little “liquid courage”, it was time to sing. That afternoon we had joined up with Martin and Hans to rewrite the pop song “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” to fit with the theme of “Birthday for Tiffany”, and Lauren recruited a couple of other cruisers at the party to join her in singing the song to Tiff while Martin and Hans accompanied on their guitars. After that, members of the larger group took turns singing the traditional “Happy Birthday” songs in their respective languages (French, German, Swedish, French Canadian, and a Russian dialect). Incidentally, the French and Germans use the same tune that we do, while the others have totally unique songs. We sang a few Beatles songs after that, and 13-year-old Lisa from S/V Anyway impressed us all with her repertoire. She knew all the words, and her father explained that it was important to him to expose her to the classics. Once the crowd thinned out, it was time to dance. We had had a great time putting together a playlist of dance music earlier that morning, and several of the guests our age were familiar with the songs. They must have been enjoying themselves, as several of them stayed until 5 a.m.! We were surprised that all of the food managed to be eaten but then realized that it was a 10 hour party!

DSC_0948 The birthday girl and Martin with his garlic bread

DSC_0955 A full cockpit

DSC_0977 Dancing into the morning…

As you can imagine, Monday was a slow day, although we did manage to wake up at 8:30, when our overnight guests roused themselves to make the dinghy ride back to their boat. Not too long afterward, a local man rowing a small boat approached our stern and prepared to board. I said hello, then Tiffany went over to talk to him and help him tie up. I assumed they’d met ashore, but they hadn’t. He was looking for a cup of coffee, and we had some almost ready, so he soon had a cup. I asked what we could do for him, and is halting English he responded, “Mickey, I come from Pangiamotu,” and pointed to the large island at the south end of the harbor. OK, that didn’t help much, but he was friendly. It turns out he was selling handicrafts his wife had made. We were out of Tongan money, but he accepted New Zealand and US dollars, so we ended up with a bracelet and a Tongan courtesy flag.

DSC_0033 Mickey & Tiff

After lunch with Martin at the Yacht Club (my first real omelet since Key West), some errands and a short nap, we managed to make it over to Disa for a going-away dinner for Anders, who’s returning to Sweden today. Anders had spent a year in Spain and treated us to a boat-style tapas dinner. Nick, a young single-hander (, joined us and somehow we kept our eyes open swapping stories and laughing until 2am. Nick is one of several people we’ve met here who experienced the tsunami while in Samoa or Tonga, and their stories are really amazing.

After five days, we finally motored out of Neiafu toward anchorage #16 in the bight of Nuapapu. Not only did we want to explore the islands and reefs of Vava’u, we really needed some sleep. The Moorings (sailboat charter company) cruising guide for Vava’u is used by pretty much everybody, and it numbers all of the anchorages for convenience, which makes for odd conversations with everyone talking about going to 11 or 16 or having a nice time at 7, etc. For the record, #16 is very pretty with an incredible reef a short dingy ride away.

Where Time Stands Still

Vava’u, Tonga has been awesome so far, and we’ve only scratched the surface. We arrived on Thursday just before sunset and picked up a mooring in a field full of boats that included our friends on S/V Disa and S/V Anima. After getting situated, we caught up with the Disa crew and learned that we endured 50 knots of wind on the passage! Ever since our anemometer broke during our rough passage around the western cape of Cuba, we have just been estimating wind speed, and in some cases, it seems that we underestimate quite a bit. In fact, since our cat doesn’t heel at a ~60 degree angle in such winds (like Disa did), we were pretty comfortable down below. Unfortunately, Disa had their genoa sail tear into two pieces during the heavy winds, and we later discovered that our friends on S/V Avel Mad blew out their mainsail on the same passage. I’m glad we we were sailing with only half of the jib. It looks like the conservative approach paid off.

Still ship-shape after the passage to Tonga

Still ship-shape after the passage to Tonga

Friday we tied up to the dock to clear in with customs and immigration. It was a relatively easy process except that the health officer did not show, but we were cleared to go ashore anyway, just in time for lunch. Dallas and I first walked around talking to locals about the possibility of getting a propeller for our dinghy (no luck yet). In doing so, we found the Tongans to be extremely laid back and accommodating. Over our delicious and reasonably priced lunch of pizza and local beer, I read that Tonga is considered to be not only the land “where time begins” (as a result of its proximity to the international date line) but also “where time stands still.” While this may sound like the usual tourist spiel, it really fits with our experience of the local people, who do not seem at all hassled by tourists’ questions or anything else for that matter.

We continued walking and ran into the Disa crew at the market. Dallas went with Paul and Leo to the local hospital to track down the health officer and be done with the process of checking in. (Leo also went to have his ears checked out after free-diving too deep and having a problem similar to but worse than Dallas’.) Dallas reported that the hospital was very third world, with bathrooms smelling of urine. Immediately upon entering, the surgery room was visible, and at the time that they were there a woman was preparing to have a C-section. The lone doctor made an appearance 15 minutes later and checked out Leo’s ears before returning to the pregnant patient. Despite the conditions, Leo thought the health care was adequate and very cheap.

While they were at the hospital, I shopped for produce and handicrafts at the local market. There was a nice selection of fruits and vegetables, jewelry made of carved whale and ox bone, wooden carvings, woven baskets, and tapa. The vendors of the handicrafts were a bit competitive with one another and played the negotiation game (“I’ll give it to you for a special price…”.) Some people enjoy this, but I actually prefer to have an established price and take it or leave it.

Getting tomatoes for homemade salsa

Getting tomatoes for homemade salsa

I had a chance to observe the Tongan young people while waiting for the guys to return from the hospital. Being Friday afternoon, they still had on their school uniforms. Believe it or not, both the girls and boys wear skirts (tupenus). In addition, the girls all wear matching ribbons (particular colors seem to denote grade level), while the the boys wear woven mats around their waist, giving all of them a formal look. Unlike the U.S., it seemed that virtually all of youth were hanging out in small groups outdoors rather than chatting online or playing videogames at home.

Looking tough in their tupenus

Looking tough in their tupenus

Friday evening found us at the Mermaid Bar on the waterfront where we had a nice view of the weekly regatta. We enjoyed rooting on S/V Anima and chatting with other cruisers. A sizeable group of us walked over to Tonga Bar where we met and danced with locals to the mostly 80’s pop tunes. We didn’t want the fun to end, and almost the entire group of young cruisers participated in the 2 a.m. processional to the after-party that was held in a large building at the base of a hill a few blocks from the village center. We carried on dancing for another hour or so before piling in Martin’s dinghy to head back to our respective boats. Good times!

There are a few young people within the cruising community

A few of the younger members of the cruising community

Tomorrow should be even better. Dallas and I are heading to nearby Mariner’s Cave for some snorkeling with Martin and friends in the afternoon, and tomorrow evening we will host the biggest party that we’ve had so far on Pura Vida to celebrate Tiff’s birthday! Vava’u seems to be the perfect place for the party, as many of the friends that we have met along the way are here.

25% and a Lost Day

Lat: 18 36.131′ S
Lon: 173 30.974′ W

We’re nearing Tonga on a sunny day. This morning we could hear the local cruiser’s net on VHF channel 26. It sounds like there’s quite a community in Vava’u. We’re not going to make it in early enough to clear customs, so we’ll anchor out somewhere or pick up a mooring and clear in first thing in the morning.

The passage has been a relatively quick one. We left knowing that we would pass through a disturbance on the way, but otherwise have good winds. The poor weather lasted a little longer than we’d thought, with some pretty strong winds. We were sailing at well over 6 knots with just half of the jib out. Fortuntately, just as the seas were getting about as large as we’ve seen them, things started to die down a bit. Today is sunny, and although the seas aren’t small, they aren’t nearly as menacing as yesterday.

After leaving Niue, we passed longitude 170 degrees West. Since we started in the vicinity of 80 degrees West, that means we’ve now covered more than 90 degrees of longitude, or more than 25% of the circumference of the earth as measured by longitude since leaving Amelia Island. Along the way, we’ve also managed to cover 50 degrees of latitude. Last night we sailed across the international date line as well. It’s moved east in this area to include all of Tonga, so we lost a calendar day on the passage. We’ve also sailed over areas that are more than 5 miles deep on this passage, which I think is the deepest water we’ve been in so far.

Aside from moving our watches a day ahead and taking one especially large wave beam-on during the rough weather it’s been a pretty uneventful passage. Like us, most cruisers seem to have their minds on New Zealand. We’re reading about it and planning our passage, boats we’ve met are making final decisions on where to go and talking over passage plans, and today on the Vava’u net a Kiwi boat from Nelson announced that Nelson was the best place in NZ to spend the season and if anyone would like additional info to please contact him.

Luckily, we get to stop in Vava’u first. We do have some high expectations. We met two people in Panama who had each spent several years and sailed almost everywhere in the South Pacific. They both identified Vava’u as one of the most idyllic areas, so we’re expecting to enjoy our stay.


Niue has been a very memorable stop. Friday’s scuba dives into the caves were incredible. Dallas, Leo, and I were picked up by the local dive guide, Ian, around 8 a.m. and taken on a 20 minute dinghy ride to the site of our first dive at Limu Twin Caves. This involved a 90′ descent into a large cavern followed by a couple of narrow swim-throughs that first ascended out from the cavern and then descended into deep chasms within the colorful limestone. Along the way, we saw lion fish with porcupine-type spines, two really big banded shrimp, large blue puffer fish, two varieties of black and white striped sea snakes, and unusual spotted fish and sea cucumbers that we’d never seen before. We then spent about an hour chatting and motoring to the site of the second dive, a shallow plunge into Bubble Cave. This one was in fact a cave, as there was no ambient light, so we used flashlights to look around. Once inside, it was possible to ascend to the surface of the water, but since the cave is enclosed, the air inside was musty, misty, and pressurized, so it was necessary to equalize (i.e., hold your nose and blow out your ears) while on the surface. The cave itself was incredible with its stalactites/stalagmites (not sure which is which) and mixture of pastel colors. Water has eroded the jagged edges of the rock into smooth, curved surfaces, so smooth that it appeared as though the many of the rocks had been iced like a birthday cake. 

Ian informed us that this is where the amphibious sea cretes (the small variety of snake) go to lay their eggs, and during hatching season (which unfortunately had passed), the baby snakes fall off of the rock ledges above and onto the divers’ heads! As he said, "Real Indiana Jones sort of stuff." In fact, we saw several of the snakes lying on the rocks inside the cave, but alas, none fell on our heads! In case you are wondering, Ian also informed us that although the larger variety of snake is venomous (not the one found in the caves), they are not at all aggressive, and it would be necessary to hold open their mouths, stick your hand in, and clamp down on their jaw to get bit. So that was comforting.

Also reassuring was watching a 3-4′ white-tipped shark rise from its resting place on the bottom and quickly swim away at the sight of our dive guide. Ian wasn’t a very menacing looking character, so I think it’s true that the white-tipped sharks are more afraid of us than we are of them.  

When we returned to the boat, we thought we’d take advantage of already being suited up and finish cleaning the bottom of the boat. It wasn’t nearly as challenging as it had been in the Tuamotus (i.e., green shag carpet had not yet formed), but we were still surprised at the amount of growth, especially since our friend Paul on S/V Disa hasn’t cleaned his bottom since it was first painted back when ours was, and he has no growth at all. More evidence that you get what you pay for in terms of bottom paint. While cleaning, Dallas and I have had a chance to watch out for interesting marine life. Our best sighting was a spotted eagle ray, which apparently are rare. Instead of having eyes in the back of its head like the other rays we have seen, this one had a head that protruded from its diamond-shaped body. Dallas also saw a large squid.

Dallas and I took it easy on the boat on Saturday, while Wes and Tiff spent a second day checking out the caves and the island via motorcycle. They took several great photos along the way; here are just a few.

DSC_0019 Tiffany (and her machete) put Niue on notice that Texas is in town!

DSC_0034A gorgeous day in Niue

DSC_0306Getting cooled off at Anapala CaveDSC_0345Fresh and saltwater combine at Matapa Chasm 

That night we met up with our friends from S/V Disa as well as the crew of S/V Marionette (we met in Panama), who was believed to be missing for over a week. As they do not have a sat phone or other means of communication at sea, they did not contact anyone after the tsunami. Their parents’ phone calls to the foreign ministry department of Sweden simply to inquire about the potential effects of the tsumani where their boat was supposed to be somehow led to a huge story in the Swedish media, who went so far as to say that they had been caught in the tsunami (despite that they were no where near it)! Needless to say, the crew was very surprised to find out that they were being actively sought out by police in various countries throughout the South Pacific and are national celebrities back home!

After we all got caught up, we ventured out to the local rugby club where they have a disco on Saturday nights. There were about 40 young locals there, and many of them danced to the exclusively Polynesian dance music (no American top 40 for a change!). We had a really good time, although some of the single guys in our group were disappointed to find that the male to female ratio in Niue was not in their favor. There were only two girls on the dance floor (besides me) surrounded by a room full of guys.

Yesterday Dallas and I used our own scuba equipment to join up with three other cruisers for another cave dive. The outboard motor of our dinghy still needs to be repaired, but fortunately theirs were powerful enough to get the 5 of us plus our gear out to the mooring buoys of the dive company (which, like most businesses on the island, does not operate on Sundays). It turned out that the regulator we loaned out was leaking, so Dallas volunteered to use it and only dive the first site, the Chimney. It was essentially a descent into a small cave inhabited by several large painted lobsters followed by a swim down to about 90′ where there is an eroded truck that apparently got swept off the island during the cyclone that struck in January of 2004. The dive itself was a good one, but our enjoyment of it was affected by the fact that one of the cruisers did not have enough weight in his BCD and had to be held down in order to keep him from rising to the surface. In between dives, Dallas passed him more weight, and the problem was resolved. I went with the others to check out Bubble Cave again while Dallas practiced his free-diving sans scuba gear. The cave was spectacular once again, and this time we turned off our flashlights and could see just a bit of blue ambient light shining through from above.

Today we have the usual tasks to complete (clear out with customs, fill water, provision) in preparation for the two-day passage to Tonga. It looks like the wind may be variable tonight but should ease into 10-20 knots from the southeast by tomorrow, so we should make reasonable time.

Catching up and adding on

We continue with our trend of liking each place just a little more than the last. Niue is awesome thanks to the people (both locals and cruisers) and the unique natural habitat. The limestone and coral that comprise the island produce very little “run-off”; evidently this is why the water is so amazingly clear. Dallas and I have found reasons to jump in every day since we’ve been here..

Paul from S/V Disa and his two new crew members arrived here on Monday night, and it has been great to catch up with him. We heard him hailing Niue Radio on VHF 16 as he approached (as all boats are required to do here for some reason) and were quite excited to hear his voice. That night his brother whipped up a fantastic dinner aboard their boat, and we heard all about their adventures including their trip to Palmerston. Apparently they had the misfortune of being “adopted” by the mayor of Palmerston who displayed poor table manners and encouraged them to share their liquor with him and him alone. If nothing else, visiting Palmerston seems to guarantee a good story or two.


Disa picking up the mooring next to us

 We spent much of Tuesday on the internet, in large part trying to learn more about New Zealand marinas and make a decision about where to spend the cyclone season. Several marinas no longer have catamaran berths available, but of those that do, we selected Tauranga Bay Marina due to its proximity to various places of interest such as Auckland, Bay of Plenty and its nice beaches, several restaurants/bars, marine services, etc. Plus it’s a little easier to get the boat out to nice cruising grounds than it would be in Whangarei where most cruisers go.

Tuesday night we attended a potluck BBQ at the Yacht Club. It was interesting to see the selection of foods, a few of which revealed the limitations of cruisers’ supplies (e.g., salads and casseroles made from canned veggies, lentils, and ramen noodles). After dinner, Bruce from S/V Migration showed Casablanca, a classic. Dallas and I had both seen it before but found it interesting to watch with a group that included both French and Germans.

Wednesday was a full day. We joined up with S/V Disa to rent a car and explore the caves along the northern coast of the island. Dallas was the designated driver and had to get a Niue driver’s license for $8. He thought it funny that the policeman didn’t know how to work the license-making machine, so he gave him a receipt in order to demonstrate his driving credentials. He did well with driving on the left side of the road, although he frequently turned on the windshield wipers instead of the turn signal (which was on the right), and made one wrong turn into the right lane, just in front of the police station. Just in case he wasn’t challenged enough by the experience of driving on the other side, he had to contend with chickens crossing the road (to get to the other side) as well as a seemingly random quarry placed in the middle of the main road. At least there wasn’t much traffic!

The caves were pretty spectacular. Each one consisted of beige and red-orange limestone that has been eroded by water over the years into intricate formations and stalactites/stalagmites. Some required only a bit of climbing down a trail to the opening of the large cavern, while others required longer hikes or offered fresh- or salt-water pools in which to snorkel. For example, Matapa Chasm was a freshwater pool located in between two very steep limestone cliffs. According to legend, it is where the kings used to bathe. Since we had the rental car until noon today, we decided to get up early this morning to check out one last cave on the other side of the island. We selected Vaikona after hearing other cruisers talk about it. By the time we finally found it, time was limited, and somehow I got talked into jogging down the rocky trail to the cave. Fortunately there were no injuries minus a few minor bumps and scrapes, and we managed to get to the cave, climb down into its mouth and traverse the rocks to the pool, have a short dip in the cool water, and get back to the car in an hour and a half. Exhausting, but well worth the effort.


Exploring Palaha Cave


Quite a view from Talava Arches



Taking a break, island-style


The water was refreshing at Limu

 After all of that, the guys from S/V Disa were still up for scuba diving this afternoon (as were we, of course). All three were inexperienced divers to various degrees, but each was able to have an enjoyable dive of the reef below the boat at their own speed. It was fun to see their pleased expressions when they were done. Tomorrow we will go with the local dive pros on a cave dive!  


Paul enjoyed his second-ever scuba dive