Terrific Tonga, Part II

Tonga: The Vava'u Group    July 2005

We arrived in the Vava'u group on a Sunday so there was no point in rushing in to see the customs officer who wouldn't be there. We anchored around noon near a village, as evidenced by the boys who came paddling out in their canoes to ask if we had paper, pens or candy. They were all very polite. I noticed that some of the kids were pretty young (maybe 5) but we didn't see any adults supervising. There didn't seem to be any problem, but I was struck again by the difference in supervisory levels between the islands and home. Bjarne pointed out that at least they wouldn't get hypothermia. We pulled out some cookies and gave them all some blank paper and pencils. Communicating wasn't all that easy but we did our best, and asked them questions about school and their siblings. The younger ones understood less, and just answered yes to pretty much all of the questions. We learned that the older ones take a ferry to school in Neiafu, where they stay for the week. In Tonga, parents must pay around two hundred pa'anga per term for a child to go to high school. For many, this is too much money.

A few days after the children's visit we noticed, graffitied in small letters on Freya's stern, the name Peli. Good thing we didn't hand out any Magic-MarkersTM!

June 23rd marked the date, one year ago, when we cast off the docklines and sailed into the sunset (actually it was 8 in the morning...call it poetic license). I suppose we should have some profound comments here about that... hmmm.... Right then, as is usual, we celebrated with food. We had been saving a pre-mix package of Nanaimo bars (thanks Britta!) for a just such a special occasion. We ate our sugar bombs while watching the cruiser cult-classic, Captain Ron. There are all kinds of ridiculous things in this movie, but the one that bugs me is just how fast they get a very neglected boat fixed up – I'd say it stretches my incredulity too much, but the truth is I'm probably envious.

The islands in the Vava'u group have quite a lot more elevation and are closer together than their cousins to the south, the Ha'apais. The volcanic origins of the Vava'us mean that they seem to thrust up out of the water, such that the depth could be well over a hundred feet almost right up to the edge of the island. In the Ha'apais the islands are fairly flat and often have an expanse of reef around them. Reefs are beautiful to look at, as the water has those lovely tropical turquoise and aquamarine colours when it is that shallow, but they do make the navigating more challenging. The charts of Tonga are not accurate in their latitude and longitude so one can't rely on the GPS. The charts seem to show the islands with respect to each other well, so one can get around OK by using coastal navigation skills, and keeping a good lookout. Still, it is easier to navigate in the Vava'u group because there are fewer reefs to contend with. We've found the anchorages in the Vava'us tend to be more comfortable: that is, we aren't being rolled around at night and needing to brace our feet against the hull to stay put.

Neiafu, the capital of Vava'u has its own flavour: tourism. All visiting yachts are required to check in here, there are some hotels and resorts, and there is a charter-boat company (Moorings). Thus, there are many palangi (foreigners) wandering around and many businesses catering to us. When one walks out of the downtown, there are houses with tidy yards and some pigs, just like in many of the other places we've seen, however, at the waterfront and not too far from it, there are bars and restaurants, gift shops, Internet access, laundry facilities, dive shops, whale-watching tours, some limited boat repair facilities, and a tourist information centre. There are also the businesses which cater to both tourists and locals, such as the market, grocery stores, a bakery, a butcher (Pete the Meat), hardware stores and a bank. This is all to say that it is a fairly easy place to be at, with respect to getting supplies, although anything imported costs more than one is used to paying. Boat parts usually have to be ordered from out of country but there doesn't seem to be too much problem with getting them shipped here. There is an information net every morning on VHF radio, which has weather, messages, local events, and commercials (e.g. there's a BBQ at the Dancing Rooster; Barnacle Beach is having a Tongan feast; you can get your boat name on a t-shirt at Tropical Tease; etc.). In other words, there's lots of tourism infrastructure, which is convenient, but which also makes spending money very easy. You can get away from the hustle quite simply by going to other anchorages.

The Mermaid bar and restaurant is cruiser central, and dubs itself home of the Vava'u Yacht Club. They manage to bring in many cruisers with the offer of a free beer when you first arrive in Neiafu, and have quite a few activities happening throughout the week. Their big night is Friday, when they have the yacht races. The commentator and race official makes arbitrary decisions and freely insults people as the whim takes him. He told some of the slower boats they could turn their engines on for three minutes, said he'd give bonus time to any boat that had a crew member throw up, gave points for any vessel that flew a kite within the next 5 minutes, and concluded the whole affair by disqualifying everyone because he didn't want to calculate everything. If you take your racing seriously, this is not the place to compete. We just listen on the radio, as that's at least half of the entertainment. The racers gather at the bar afterwards, perhaps to compare techniques, but mostly to drink beer. We joined Manu Kai one evening at The Mermaid and took advantage of the free welcome beer and the chance to have ice cream based desserts.

On July 4th, the King of Tonga's birthday, The Mermaid, along with other local businesses, organized a fund raiser; the proceeds went toward a family health clinic (separate from the hospital and more private) and to provide some scholarships for kids wanting to go to high school. Oddly enough, there were no events in town that we could find to celebrate the King's birthday, despite the fact that it was a national holiday. The day's events began with the yachty children embarking on a treasure hunt, with one of the coveted prizes being a jar full of candy. We participated in the dinghy race. The boats were handicapped according to the size of engine; being only 2 hp, we were permitted to go lightly with just one person, but we both went so there would be someone to run interference. It started with one person from each team quaffing back a beverage before running down the dock and hopping into the dinghy. We gave Bjarne that job, which he did admirably. [Thanks! The rum-n-coke was yummy. ed.] His task was then to splash people with an oar while I drove along the cloverleaf shaped course, dodging oncoming boats at the many intersections, and keeping our flag pole propped up. We didn't arrive anywhere near first place but received some kudos for style and even won a prize (we aren't sure what for but we accepted it anyway). We also got a second one (one free load of laundry) when another boat failed to claim their prize; the MC said, “going once...”, so I jumped up and said, sure I'm from that boat. He got suspicious when I couldn't spell the name but said it was close enough :-) The tin of maple syrup we donated to the charity auction went for 25 pa'anga (about $18 Canadian). The live band was pretty good; interesting to hear songs you know (like Hotel California) sung with a Tongan accent. There was karaoke and dancing, but especially enjoyable was meeting a bunch of Canadians (see below) and catching up with cruisers we had met in New Zealand.

On Canada Day, we hadn't been able to show off our patriotism in full style because we were in a quiet anchorage with hardly anyone around. We dressed Freya up with all her flags, listened to Canadian music and had a red and white dessert of canned strawberries with yoghurt, but we still felt like something more was needed; thus, on the 4th I decided to wear my Canadian flag shirt to the big fund raising event. It was amazing how many Canadians this brought out of the woodwork. There was a fellow from Calgary, two Victorians (former Calgarians), a woman from Toronto (born in the same town as I was), and two archaeologists from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. I should wear that shirt more often.

Snorkeling and Diving

We have been spending a lot of time in the water, giving our masks and flippers a workout. Each spot is different. Some places have amazing pillars of coral, rising up 10 or 15 feet and widening out at the top, creating deep valleys between the coral where all kinds of sea life dwells; in other places the coral may be fairly uniform in shape and colour, or be flatter but with a large variety of types. Every time we look around, even if the sites aren't the most beautiful ones, we are able to see something interesting. Of course it is always exciting to see the bigger or more spectacular things, like octopus, turtles, stingrays, lobsters, eels and lionfish, but the more time we spend looking at the smaller, less flash (as they say in NZ) things, the more neat details we notice. It is truly amazing how much diversity of life there can be in such a small area. We are becoming more familiar with patterns of behaviour as well, and have become quite fond of the very brave little clown fish, the most famous of whom is Nemo. When we approach the homes of Nemo and his cousins, they swim toward us and glare at us until we leave. Clearly, they want to protect their anemone from an enemy.

Particularly wonderful are the multitudes of colours; some of the fish look like neon they are so bright, and the patterns can be any combination of stripes, spots, solids, dots, blotches, and swirls. The more oddly shaped fish are also fun; we love the boxy looking black saddle-back toby with its yellow and black stripes, and polka dots on its belly, and the long slow moving trumpet fish, which, whenever we see it we signal to the other by making the sound of a trumpet playing the fanfare of a grand opening (you'd be surprised at what one can communicate through a snorkel). Sometimes we can find what we've seen in our reference books, but other times we just make up names: the Laurier fish has the school colours of Laurier University, the Pride fish has a rainbow of colours, and the the Volvo fish is kind of plain and boxy looking (from a line in a movie that Volvo's are boxy but good).

There are large numbers and types of sea cucumbers or sea slugs here. As the name suggests, they don't move quickly but you can often see their trail of sea slug poop behind them. There are also tons of sea stars (or starfish), again, all different types, and colours. Some of them look like stuffed toys, and others like cushions with 1970's patterns on them. The crown of thorns starfish is much less friendly looking and has prickly looking things sticking up all over it. It very clearly says, don't touch me. Starfish eat shell fish, especially clams; after they wrap themselves around the clam, they put their stomach out through their mouth into the clam shell and partially digest the unfortunate bivalve right there in its own home.

The usually colourful and photogenic tridacna clams tend to have more muted colours here, the brown and beiges making them less noticeable – clamouflaged, if you will. In contrast to the pretty tridacna clams, there are the fierce-looking cockscomb oysters, often a foot or more across with a large jagged, zigzag mouth.

The “Coral Gardens” are apparently quite nice, but caused a bit of grief for me. To get to the good section, one had to go to the seaward side of a reef. On the day we tried, however, some rather large waves were breaking over the reef. I've mentioned before that large waves make me nervous; they don't usually get that big on the Great Lakes. Bjarne, on the other hand, thinks they are fun. He just plowed through and swam to the other side. I screwed up my courage and swam as hard as I could. I was suddenly caught by a huge wave and went tumbling backwards through the shallow water, and landed with my hip against a chunk of coral. Before I could get my balance, another wave sent me flying back further. The wet suit protected me and I just had a bruise. Unfortunately, I have a good imagination and could envision my head rather than my butt being the contact point. Disappointed, and mad at the waves, I abandoned the effort and swam back to the beach to wait for Bjarne.


We went to a cavern in the cliff side of Kapa Island twice, once by dinghy with Bee's Knees (ship's complement: two humans and one dog), and a couple of weeks later with Betelgeuse II (ship's roster: two grown-ups and two cute kids). Swallows cave is plenty large enough for a dinghy (several, in fact), but not for a yacht; Betelgeuse II circled around while we swam in to the cave. The water is over 200 feet deep pretty much right up to the cliff so anchoring is not an option. Even when it was windy outside and the water was choppy, as soon as we entered the cave all was calm and the noise of the outside world was hushed. Enough light came through the large opening so we could see the high ceiling (30 feet), the large stalactites, and the graffiti on the walls; supposedly there are names of whalers from the turn of the last century but I couldn't really tell. When we looked into the clear water it appeared pretty deep, but the bottom seemed a bit odd. We soon realized we were looking at thousands of fish all swimming together inside the cave, and the bottom was another 40 feet below that. The light coming in from the opening put these fish in silhouette and created a fascinating display that words don't do justice to. At the back of the cave, one could climb over some rocks and reach another large cave, this one with a floor above water level. In the high ceiling there was a skylight, maybe 10 feet across. Along with light, this opening let in dirt, coconuts and other plant debris. I thought it seemed like a great place to have secret meetings, and in fact, at the beginning of the 1900's VIPs were entertained here, and feasts were lowered down through the hole in the ceiling.

Next door to Swallows cave was a smaller cavern that one could swim into, and off to the side of that was an even smaller cave, which one had to dive under a short ledge to get to. Sunlight shone through the holes along the wall so we could look around this little hidey-hole. I would only go in after Bjarne came out and described it. Why he would ever just swim into a hole under water without knowing where it goes is beyond me. [...because it was there. I also had enough air to come back out if the hole ended. ed.] It was good practice, however, for the longer swim to get into Mariner's cave.

Mariner's cave is a little harder to get into. Again, anchoring is impossible here, and you can't tell where the cave is because the entrance is underwater. A large red cloth on the cliff face above the opening had marked the spot but now there is only a little faded scrap left; fortunately, Betelgeuse II knew the way. Actually, a dive boat was there when we arrived, and a whale-watcher boat soon followed so the spot was well marked by them. I wasn't sure if I would go in; the idea of swimming through an underwater tunnel to get into a cave was disconcerting, to say the least. Bjarne, who isn't bothered by such trivial concerns, ducked under and quickly swam through to the other side. He then came out and gave me a very detailed description of how to get in. The opening was actually quite large (maybe 15 feet across) and it really didn't look like the narrow tunnel we had envisioned. You couldn't possibly get stuck in it; the issue was could you hold your breath long enough to swim through and not pop up too soon and bonk your head? I managed to convince myself, since the distance to swim was not the problem, but rather the thought of swimming where I couldn't surface if I wanted to. I took some breaths, dove down deeply and swam as fast as I could, trying not to look up too often at the ceiling. I ended up going further than necessary because I was afraid of that head bonking thing, and emerged with a relieved exhalation of used up air. Light came in from the opening that we had swum through, and another one well below it, creating a beautiful patch of glowing blue. The air repeatedly filled with mist which rapidly cleared; the sudden sharpness of an enshrouded image was startling and almost magical. For those for whom magic is an inadequate explanation, the air pressure in the cave changed as the ocean swell moved in and out; in addition to creating the on-again off-again fog, it was quite annoying on the ears.

The Islands and Anchorages

We have moved around to different islands and anchorages and each one has something to offer. Some have none or very few people on them, while others have villages or resorts. If there is a village nearby, sometimes a vendor will venture out by boat, with wood-carvings, fruit and woven items such as baskets and placemats. If we are close enough, we sometimes hear the villagers singing, and on Sundays the church bells ring out. We've tended to steer for the uninhabited islands but that doesn't mean we don't see anyone; at times there are as many as 15 or 20 boats in an anchorage. There's enough space in these obvious favourites and it can be fun to hook up with others. We've joined in on a couple of beach parties, enjoyed evenings of cards and socializing, and taken the opportunity to meet some very interesting people. At other times, however, we enjoy the solitude and peace of having a spot all to ourselves.

The islands give us a chance to make sure our legs remember how to walk; we enjoy exploring ashore almost as much looking at pretty fish. Many of the islands have lovely beaches of crushed coral, although some of these disappear at high tide, and all have a thick growth of vegetation. We scrounged a few very tart, end-of-season oranges (maybe small mandarins) off the trees in the forest at Hunga, and found some tiny hot peppers growing on this same island and Kutu Island. Coconut palms grow on every island, but banana trees do not seem to grow wild here; if we see them they are in someone's yard or an area that has obviously been cultivated. We've come across patches of planted taro as well. Kenutu Island has many ironwood trees (which look like floppy-needled pine trees) and pandanus (the latter is used to weave baskets, etc., and is rather scratchy to walk through), along with a whole diversity of underbrush, which we ended up bush-whacking through. The cliffs overlooking blue crashing waves and blow holes on the east side of Kenutu were in striking contrast to the calm lagoon and pretty beach on the west side. Of course, there are all kinds of plants that we have no idea what to call; at Maninita Island (one of the more out of the way spots) there was a huge number of large, multi-trunked trees with a smooth bark, that we didn't recall seeing elsewhere. There were a lot of birds here as well, including small herons, and white tropic birds which seemed to be nesting. This island was surrounded by beach and beyond that, it was surrounded by reef. There is a narrow but clear path through the coral that leads to a one-boat sized spot surrounded by amazingly clear gem-like water. We enjoyed walking around the island, eating coconut, watching crabs scuttle away, looking at the birds, and sifting through the coarse sand looking for pretty shells.

The resorts here are quite attractive. There are no tall chain hotel buildings creating a blot on the landscape. It seems that there is a high turnover of ownership. I think there are many challenges to running a business in Tonga; certainly North American norms do not apply. We were quite surprised to overhear on the radio one of the resorts turn down a request for lunch because the proprietor had planned to go into town; a few days later, when a night's accommodation was sought, their response was, “Oh lady, you don't know what you're asking.” They went on to explain that it was too much work to set a room up for just one night. Seemed weird to us to turn down business, but what do we know. One evening, as we were just settling ourselves after supper, a call came on the radio offering two-for-one drinks at a nearby resort. What the heck, we needed a change of scenery and so hopped in the dinghy. We sat on a sandy deck sipping our rum concoctions while we looked over the small beach; it was the perfect tropical night with a nearly-full moon shining through the coconut palms, and a comfortable breeze rustling leaves and keeping us cool. The new owner was a chatty fellow who was one of the creators of Morpheus, a file sharing program that you would know if you like to download music or movies off the Internet.

Searching for Whales

We were, as previously mentioned, very excited to be accompanied by whales on our overnight passage to Vava'u. However, we're greedy and we wanted to see more, preferably during the day, and maybe even see a whale calf since the humpbacks are here to have their babies: funny to think of something that weighs 1,500 pounds as a baby. Thus, the great whale hunt began. We chose some of our anchorages because whales were known to frequent them. We sailed slowly and took the long way to various islands in hopes of seeing a spout. Once when snorkeling, Bjarne noticed that if we dove down 6 or more feet (to get below the surfaced noise), we could hear them singing. One morning we were feeling pleased with ourselves for getting underway early; we thought there might be some interesting events in town for the King's birthday. Nothing was happening in town but later that morning the whales came into the anchorage we had so recently left. So much for being keen. Another day we saw some boats gathered about 5 miles away. We correctly concluded that they were watching our large friends; up went the spinnaker and we raced toward them. We arrived about an hour later. By that time the party had mostly broken up but we sailed around the area (the winds were quite nice anyway), ever hopeful. Do you recall the game of Monkey in the Middle? We'd see a spout, maybe 300 m away and head that way. As we approached the area, we'd see nothing but water, but behind us there would be another spout, maybe 500 m away. Quick, gybe the boat! Go back the way we came. Oh, wait! There's a splash of a tail off to starboard – head that way! Us monkeys never did catch up with the whales, but we figure we gave them a good laugh.

It was a bit early in the whale season, which made our quest harder. We finally decided to fork over some cash for a whale watching trip. We a had a perfect sunny day, with a bit of breeze to keep things cool. Our local skipper had the most amazing ability to spot whales from a long distance; she would yell out that there was a whale and we would all watch for quite a few minutes before seeing anything. Our guide thought that of the two whales we came across, one was a pregnant female and the other her escort. The juvenile males protect the pregnant females, rather than the father. It was quite awe-inspiring when these immense creatures arose from the water. We had seen orcas in Victoria but these humpbacks are so much bigger. They didn't put their full heads up, but they sat on the surface allowing us to see their backs and sides, and even swam upside down under the boat. They stayed under for 5 or 20 minutes when they did a deep dive, but just before going under they would let us get a good look at their tails, which they stuck straight up out of the water. We were thrilled to see these leviathans, but also disappointed that we weren't able to hop in the water to get an even better look. Only a few people at a time are permitted to do this to minimize the impact, and by the time our turn came the whales had left. If I was to do this in the future I would find out ahead of time how many people would be on the boat.

Odds and Sods

It would seem that Freya is fairly attractive to boobies. Not the kind that Bjarne likes, however. A great many of these sea birds circled us, and were especially interested in our mast. It was fun to watch them soaring by, but Bjarne kept calling up to them, “Stay away from my antenna!” Later, one even landed on the pulpit (the rail around the bow). It seemed unfazed by Bjarne who was standing just 3 feet away. Most of its concentration was taken up trying to wrap webbed feet around a round railing.

Bjarne has recently had the worst snorkel luck. After exploring the Coral Gardens we stopped to visit Sorcery, and think the snorkel fell overboard when we passed the dinghy line up. Our friend Harley from Manu Kai happened to be back in the States at that time so we arranged for him to bring one back. On his return, his wife Jen wanted the new snazzy snorkel so Bjarne happily accepted Jen's used one for a reduced price – a perfect deal. A week later, while exploring Swallows Cave, Bjarne once again became snorkel-less. He had been meaning to figure out a better way to secure it to the mask, but hadn't gotten around to it.

Manu Kai provided us with more than a snorkel. Bjarne was quite happy to accept some canned wieners that Jen and Harley thought were disgusting, and before they left for Fiji we were also gifted with some coconuts they had harvested. The extra present, which we assume they didn't know about, was the cricket that had been living on their boat. We've named our new pet, who chirps away quite cheerily in the early evening, Bimini (rhymes with Jimminy and is a sun awning on a boat) Cricket.

We had some really enjoyable days of sailing while in Vava'u. One may assume that's nothing unusual, but in fact, doing a passage on the open ocean feels very different than a 3 hour sail in protected waters. The lack of swell makes a huge difference; even sailing upwind is fun when you don't have waves bashing into you. You can also tell you are getting somewhere with beautiful islands around to mark your progress.

One day, just before sunset, we got an emergency call over the radio: there was “an angry mom and a sad little boy” wondering if we could go look for the snorkel and fins left on the beach at the other end of the island we were anchored near. We hopped into ONS and raced with the setting sun around the point to the beach, calling out to our 2 hp engine, “Go Evinrude!” (remember The Rescuers?). We had just had a nice freshwater shower so were trying really hard to avoid being splashed by the waves. We found the gear with the help of flashlights and returned to Freya in the darkness, glad that we had an anchor light on. The whole trip took about 50 minutes. We called Betelgeuse II to inform them that the great snorkel rescue mission was a success. The next day we did a mid-ocean transfer, and received a nice thank you card from Nicholas and two cold pops – perfect for the hot day!


We've made a bit more effort at fishing lately. So far the fish are winning. Using one of the special “BJ's I'm Feeling Hungry South Pacific Fishing Lures”, kindly provided by pals Robin and Cheryl, we towed the line behind us as we raced toward whales with our spinnaker up. We had just arranged to rendezvous on the water with Betelgeuse II to return their snorkel and fins, when the rapid whirr of the fishing reel was heard. How exciting! At this point the friction clutch on the reel gave out so Bjarne had to pull the line in by hand, a task made more difficult by the 5 knots of speed. I ran forward to douse the spinnaker (usually a two person job), called Betelgeuse on the radio to tell them to wait a bit, took a quick photo, and grabbed the fishing net. I hesitated when the fish started fighting as the net approached, but should have just scooped it up. The not-strong-enough line snapped and the 3 foot tuna took off like a flash, along with our lure! All we had to show for it was a spinnaker all over the deck and fishing line all over the cockpit. A few days later we were sailing with a stronger line out and had another tug on our hook. This time the fastening on the lure seemed to have given way. A few days later we were given some filleted tuna, caught by Nicholas on Betelgeuse II. Ah well, we were outdone by a six year old, but the fresh fish for lunch was good anyway.


Getting ready to go is always a bit of a scramble. We delayed our departure because we were enjoying ourselves, and then we had to finish up some procrastinated chores, such as remounting the newly rebuilt masthead light, and cleaning and remounting the recently seized windlass (helps with hauling the anchor up). Time is also spent saying goodbye to people you may or may not meet farther along the way. On our last day, we had to see 3 different officials, buy diesel and gas, and spend whatever Tongan pa'anga we had left. We had heard there was a departure fee but were pleasantly surprised when we didn't have to pay it. Ice cream, a case of pop, and a few extra provisions took care our surplus cash. We headed out of Neiafu Harbour about 1530h on July 21, saying farewell to a fabulous cruising area.

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