Monday, 26 October 2015

Lay days in Minerva

Alisa wrote to us the other day from the Beagle channel: "It can be a long ride from Tonga to NZ - did North Minerva Reef tempt you?"

Our email correspondence may never again be so exotic.

Well, yes Alisa, we're here, inside that lonely, lovely lagoon, but the incentive to divert was framed more as an imperative than a temptation by weatherman Bob McDavitt. We asked him for a weather update as we approached N. Minerva on Friday evening, having departed Vava'u on Wednesday morning. "YES, pop into Minerva," came the quick reply. The front originally mentioned had developed into a low, he wrote, with SW gales and big SW seas on its western side. Oh.

We weren't thrilled. We were in the groove, our passage-making mindset locked in place, our watch and sleep patterns established. The sailing thus far had been pretty good. But we were paying MetBob to tell us things we couldn't learn from the grib files, and we didn't argue.

We entered the pass on Saturday morning, in brilliant sunshine. You've maybe read about this place. A ring of coral about one-third of the way from Tonga to NZ, with a clear cut giving access to largely obstacle-free waters inside. You drop your hook in reasonable depths on white sand, and there you are, securely fixed to the seabed in the middle of the ocean, with Pacific rollers breaking onto the reef in a full circle around you. Surreal. Minerva is considered an all-weather anchorage yet there's not a skerrick of protective vegetation on the reef. At low tide, the coral is exposed, and at high tide it is covered by water. You have to trust the ancient volcanic rim standing between you and the pounding ocean will keep you safe.

There was one yacht anchored in the south-east "corner". We remembered Alisa and Mike's disbelief when a big fishing boat snuggled up to them when they were enjoying the solitude of Minerva - but hey, it couldn't hurt to say hi before we parked, could it? No-one was on board the Australian-registered State of Mind. We saw two figures walking on the reef, and a dinghy anchored off. We swung around, dropped our hook in 14 m of azure water onto the white sand and felt the boat pull up straight away. Our nervousness evaporated. Suddenly it seemed like a very good idea to divert to Minerva.

We've been here for four glorious days, mooching among the pools and channels on the reef at low tide, soaking up the colours, watching the big-screen cloud action - and getting to know the neighbours. Brenda and Rod on State of Mind have been cruising in these parts for 25 years, flipping between NZ, the Pacific islands and Australia. Good people to run into. They've been into Minerva several times - there was a tiger shark in the lagoon in June, they told Red, a web-footed hitchhiker aboard Penn Station, which sailed in through the pass a few hours after us. Red, rarely seen without a spear gun in his hand, has solved our small fishing problem. We now have fresh fish in the fridge AND the freezer. Thanks Red (aka Bear Grills).

It seems likely that we'll leave tomorrow. The weather on the passage route is far from settled, but we have reason to hope we can get into NZ before the next big front crosses Northland on November 4 (?). We won't be alone out there, which is always a good thing. Team Penn Station is rearing to go. Wiki and Nikki (let's just say they both look under 30) met in Seattle, racing against each other in their own boats. Rod and Alex have been there, done that, and line honours are beside the point, so they say. But where there are two boats....

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Sunday, 18 October 2015

The long drop

First came Silver Fern. Then Macushla. Then Kazaio. Then Saraoni.....a progression of boats making a turn around Enki II to say goodbye. Neiafu harbour is emptying out. Our  tribe is moving on. The sun is shining and the roaring winds  of 02F, the tropical depression which almost became a cyclone, have shifted west. It's time to make tracks while we can.

Gonzalo and Tristan from Kazaio say goodbye

Know this girl? Karina, from Kazaio, aka mother of the cruising kids.

Catamarans are perfect for families

Saraoni sounds the conch as she make her farewell rounds

We're sitting in Tropicana cafe, waiting for immigration and customs to re-open after lunch. It'll be our turn to leave soon. Tomorrow, we're saying. One last good sleep before we set off. 

Alison (Saraoni) turned 61 during that wet week in Neiafu

An American techie cruiser called CB gives a clear message on his teeshirt

On Gulf Harbour radio this morning, Patricia mentioned that it was 13 degrees C, and that she and David had been sitting beside a fire over the weekend. Why the hurry to leave the tropics, you might well ask. She does, often. Bring your woollies for the New Zealand summer, she tells her listeners. 

Pigs foraging at low tide near the old harbour

But we're all keyed up. We've been waiting about for this weather window, and now we feel obliged to jump through it.  Cruising is like that. You get the odd outlier, but there is a powerful urge to follow the crowd.  Rallies are the most obvious manifestation of that, but even those who don't join rallies tend to move in a loose formation.  Part of it is for the company, part of it is because there's safety in numbers, and part of it is the obvious imperative of the cruising seasons. The Pacific season is closing. You can't argue with that.  

A last visit to the market (and below)

Tongan kids swim in their clothes in Neiafu harbour

The majority of boats are heading via the Haapai group to Tonga's southernmost island, Tongatapu, and they'll leave for New Zealand from there. Bryce on Silver Fern wants to be in Nuku'alofa by Saturday. He's got a rugby match to watch (several, in fact). A rugby-driven itinerary makes a refreshing change. 

France vs NZ (that game) at the Bounty Bar - breakfast served too

John Lee and Tui  (born in the Caribbean) from Rhombus

We're going directly from Vava'u to New Zealand, perhaps via Minerva reef,  depending on what we find along the way.  There are fronts marching across New Zealand at intervals of four days. You don't want to arrive at the same time as a front. 

This last batch of Alex's photos comes from the Sunday morning service at the Catholic church on top of the hill behind Neiafu.  Alex and I went to church with Martha to listen to the Tongans sing. The young Belgian musicians from the yacht Music Fund which we'd last seen at Shelter Bay marina, on the Caribbean side of the Panama Canal, were there too with a digital recorder. One of the joys of cruising is meeting up again with people you last saw in another hemisphere. 

Music Fund, Silver Fern and Enki II - that's how we know each other

It's been one long warm ride since we arrived in the Caribbean in January. I have the feather doonas airing in the saloon today, in anticipation of needing their coverage when we drop below 30 degrees south. 

Martha and Diana scurry to church 

The priest and his congregation (below)

Monday, 12 October 2015

Looking south

For the immediate future, it’s all about the weather.

Some guys go bare-chested rain or shine

Each morning, like many other boats poised to jump down to the relative safety of the temperate zone before the cyclone season begins, we flutter around Gulf Harbour Radio’s signal (on 8752 MHz at 1915 utc). We’re like birds at a feeder. Ex-cruiser and meteorologist David and his chirpy wife Patricia throw out handfuls of seed and we try to make something digestible of it. Tough at the moment. There’s a nasty tropical low north of Fiji, intentions unknown, there are troughs and squash zones galore.  No time to be leaving port.

A gaff-rigged schooner sailing into Tapana

David’s not the only one trying to settle the squeals of the boaties eager to leave the tropics (don’t even try to understand, those of you who long for a steady 25 degrees day and night). The other feeding station is MetBob’s free weekly weathergram scattered far and wide on a Monday morning. MetBob (aka veteran NZ weatherman Bob McDavitt) more or less runs traffic in this part of the cruising world, and this week he’s giving no-one the green light.

This guy told us he really needed rain for his gardens...his wish was granted several days later

 In the past 10 days we’ve missed jumping through a couple of “weather windows” for one reason of another. We’ll leave Tonga for NZ when the next window opens, all things being equal.  We’re ready now. There’s not much time between systems at this time of year.

All these boats are now in Neifu harbour, waiting out the trough

No regrets about dallying though.  Alex’s back has had time to settle down, and the collateral wear and tear on our respective tempers as a result of that difficult period has healed too. We’re in a much better head space than we were 10 days ago, and that’s as important as anything when you are getting ready for an ocean passage. 

Tombs in the coral on the windward side of Tapana anchorage

Anchored in Port Maurelle, an uninhabited bay on the island of Kapa

Swallow's Cave, on the tip of Kapa (and below)

Much of the graffiti in the cave is old - whalers from Norway etc

I knew on Sunday when Alex drove Martha and me over to A’a island to drift across that fantastically clear blue water on its north ledge that this was my Last Snorkel. The weather was closing in, and we’d be back in Neiafu the following day. Did that make the pleasure of that swim more intense?  Not really.  Any swim where there’s live coral, pretty fish and good visibility thrills me, though seeing a big shark way down on the sea floor, at the foot of the deep cliff we were snorkelling along, was a good finish, I have to say.  I didn’t even flinch when Martha pointed him out to me – so different from my first shark sighting in the Tuamotus. 

It's snorkelling time...

Rinsing off. Time's up. 

The best way I can describe the pleasure of snorkelling is compare it to eating exquisite food – it’s all in the moment, and overwhelmingly sensual. I don’t over-think when I’m in the water. But nor can I carry the pleasure of the experience with me. I just have to wait until the next time. Whenever that is.

It's the colour of bliss

Enki is back on a mooring in Neiafu harbour, opposite a phone tower, which doesn't guarantee connectivity but we'll use what we can when we we can get it, and put that in the mix with MetBob's advice and GH Radio's daily feed to determine the best time to set off.  Hanging out in Neiafu isn't a hardship, but one day soon we'll slip that mooring and head south to NZ. We've run out of time to go to the Haapai group, and though you should never say never, this may be our last ocean passage on our beautiful boat. 

Hanging out in Neiafu....(and below)

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Tonga Times

Just like the brochure - Tapana island (right) 
Cruising chart of Vava'u in the cockpit

Looking towards the eastern anchorages 

What if….you didn’t go back?

Boat and kayak - what more do you need? 

We’ve never asked ourselves that question.  It doesn’t apply. But some people don't go back. They put off making the next ocean passage, they settle into (insert name of tropical paradise) and the years slip by, in multiples of 10.

Seems like a long way from Neiafu, but town is only a short taxi ride away

Some dreamer wants to put a golf course up here

Maria and Eduardo sailed into Tonga 22 years ago.  These two have swallowed the hook, as the saying goes. They moor a small yacht off the white sand beach on the island of Tapana, below their restaurant La Paella, but it’s a day sailer.  It won’t take them out to sea again. 

Boy on a hobby horse in Neiafu

 The other night Maria cooked us the best food we’ve eaten in a year (since we left Spain, actually). It was a surreal experience. There we were, sitting in a rickety, palm-fringed opened-sided building high above the anchorage, on cushions made from finely-woven matting, while Maria brought to the table dish after dish (eight different tapas that we can remember), each absolutely able to hold its own with the best we tasted anywhere in Spain.

A heavyweight black and white goat called Chiquita with elegant curved horns and a mean butting action roamed the restaurant until Eduardo put a bench across the strip of red carpet at the front “door”. In the fullness of time, a rotund orange moon rose over the eastern islands of the Vava’u archipelago. (This is one of the nights we forgot to take the unfortunate).

Maria is from Valencia, and Eduardo is from the Basque country – “the two best regions in Spain for food”, our new friends Gonzalo and Karina from the Spanish-flagged catamaran Kazaio said.  They shared our table along with Martha and Bryce (Silver Fern).  Maria cooked her paella over an open fire. Her cheese was home-made, as was her chorizo.  In the islands, where you are only one feast away from boiled or baked fatty meat, starchy root vegetables, and variations on the familiar (though delicious) themes of bananas, papaya, fish and coconut milk ,the breadth and subtlety of Maria’s cooking was a miracle.

Island food (and below)

 Eduardo played blues on his guitar that night with a friend from Madrid on harmonica – the best harmonica player I’ve ever heard. Maria joined them for a bit on percussion, and then Martha got involved. She can sing, that woman.  Maria backed off into her kitchen, where she got Gonzalo and Karina’s three children (aged 18 months to 6) into aprons and into the sink. The kids were in seventh heaven that night.

Dropping by -- Kazaio and Silver Fern tenders tied up alongside Enki

Cruising kids - Kenza and Rocio (above) and Tristan (below)

Getting Tristan sorted....stirring old memories (and below)

Just across the bay from Tapana are another couple of old runaways.  Sheri and her husband Larry live on a  houseboat known as the Ark at the southeastern tip of Pangaimotu island.  They sailed to Tonga from the US but that boat’s long gone. They built the Ark 15 years ago, and iftfunctions as home and office. Sheri sells her prints and souvenirs at the “entrance” to the Ark and they live out the back in a room with a view which revolves as the wind and tide turns the Ark on its mooring in this very sheltered anchorage.

The Ark, at anchorage #11

They have rent out government-registered, hurricane moorings – we’re on one now. Most moorings seem to be occupied by boats whose owners have gone elsewhere for a while, leaving Sheri and Larry to boat-sit. Presumably that pays a bit too. 

Larry's boat project, and bonfire site

Last night we sat around a fire on the small stretch of sand they call their beach, squeezed between the high tide and Larry’s boat project. The sunset was so lurid you will assume the colours are photoshopped, but they’re not.

 Larry smoked a pipe, and Sheri talked non-stop.  They make a bonfire every Saturday night, and invite whoever’s around, she’d told me. If no-one’s around, they still make a fire.  But I got the impression that aside from ourselves and Silver Fern everyone else there – a bunch of eccentric male single-handers,  all of a certain age –came ashore to that fire most Saturday nights.

View over the Ark's anchorage - and out to the east

And the locals, you might be wondering, what of them?

They’re around too, moving in the same physical space but in a separate world.  Alex’s pictures show slices of Tongan life  - the villages, the market, the churches, the kids - but most of it is invisible to us.

A barrowload of plantains, papaya, breadfruit and bananas for  the yachties

Tongan-style Mary

The kids go to Sunday school

Neiafu market

While we were gazing into the fire, a couple of men appeared out of the dark with high-powered torches, and spear guns. It was low tide. They were crossing over to the reef on the windward side.  

 “They’ll stay out fishing until about 2 or 3 am,” Sheri explained. Four of five hours in the water, in other words. “They’re tough”.  Most likely they’d swim around the island, in through the pass, through the anchorage (we might see their flashlights under the water), and then back along the shore to the Ano beach where they’d maybe left a car.

I bought one of Sheri’s prints. I don’t love it the way I love the length of tapa cloth I bought in Neiafu – the colours she uses are about as subtle as the sunset that night. But I do wonder if there’s an adjustment which I haven’t yet made to what’s in front of my eyes.  Dazzling or garish – whoever asks that question of a parrot fish or a hibiscus flower?  Sheri is no Gaugin, but I’ll try to see in her print what the king of Tonga sees (apparently he owns the original).

How Tongans decorate a grave mound 

PS The El Nino effect continues to trouble the weather in the islands. This weekend, the first boat left Neiafu bound for New Zealand, but most cruisers are holding off for more settled weather. The photos below were taken by Alex at the market in Neiafu before the bad weather broke and we moved out to the anchorages. They show how dreary the place can seem when the South Pacific Convergence Zone drops down over Tonga. 

And when the rain stops and the cloud lifts, it's as if someone has turned on the lights again.   

The same anchorage, under different lighting