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June ’09 – From Vav’au

Posted by on June 26, 2009

Dear Friends:

We found it difficult to ration our time in Vav’au, a place often called, “the Ultimate Cruisers Playground.” We sailed into Neiafu in mid-September which is considered relatively late in the season. Yet only about five of the 75 visitors moorings were vacant and 20 boats filled the anchorage on the far side of the bay. Within a week of our arrival the fleet had dwindled to half this number. The cafés ashore were still well patronized and I wonder what it would have been like in July and August.  And what a bustling life it was compared to our visit here many years ago.

The proprietors have created a fun Friday night race series.  Up to a dozen visiting yachts get involved for a twice around the bay sail. Nice prizes for the top finishers and last to finish too.

 

There are now about a dozen café’s to choose from, plus several real restaurants compared to a total selection of four during our previous Pacific crossing. Each one of these café’s has its own specialties, from freshly made pasta to Thai food (Gene, you and the crew at Coconet laundry/café have convinced us Thai food can be spectacular) plus an excellent pastry bakery/café/lending library. Between times spent with our Tongan family, we often joined sailors we had met on the West Coast of the US, in Samoa and other wide flung places for visits on board. Taleisin’s cockpit was the center for the fix-it crowd. My New Zealand charts were often out while we showed southbound sailors interesting spots to visit. These cockpit chats usually lead to an invite to head ashore for drinks or dinner. We invited my Goddaughter Lini to join us for some of the musical evenings in the local bars. These turned into jam sessions when sailors brought their harmonicas, guitars and in one case a fine sounding saxophone. Fortunately for us, we had spent a lot of the previous four months either at sea or in places like Kiritimati or Nuiatoputapu where there was almost nothing to spend money on, so we were feeling flush enough to relax and enjoy our outings.

Ashore, traditional Tonga co-exists gracefully just a few hundred feet away from the café’s frequented by visiting sailors.

Local business people, a surprising number sailors who came here as cruisers and stayed on and on and on, have created services to satisfy visitors. Not only could you get internet access in the café’s on shore, wi-fi was beamed out to the anchorage, laundry service was available on shore or delivered directly to your boat as were provisions. A morning VHF net shared messages among sailors plus advertisements and offers from shoreside businesses plus a good swap session which often found local folks buying what sailors wanted to dispose of. When the presidential debates were announced, the Mango café invited sailors ashore to watch on large screen TV.  We particularly enjoyed these afternoons as 25 or 30 voyagers sat discussing the debates after the programs.

The presidential debate televised at the Mango Café, we enjoyed this connection with the bigger, wider world.

We tried to find time for our Tongan family, new Tongan friends, cruising folks and the opportunities offered by the lovely islands around us. The sailing among the dozens of islands in this part of Tonga couldn’t be more inviting. We knew because we’d spent three months exploring under sail when we visited years before. Lots of sandy anchorages, some alongside deserted islands, others right next to wonderful skin diving spots or welcoming villages, plus a scattering of low key resorts with hosts who welcomed visiting yachtsmen with barbeque nights, musical evenings and games nights. Finally we decided we had to sacrifice the gunk holing and enjoy socializing in all its various forms, including joining a couple of other cruisers on an excursion dive boat to swim with a mother hump back whale and her 4 month old calf.

We’re not usually ones for “Tourist trips,” but both Larry and I got pretty jazzed when we joined up with Craig and Kay Compton to swim with some whales. I guess you could call this photo – Boys will be Boys.

I am not a confident swimmer so I didn’t join Larry, Craig and Kay in the water, even after watching their Tongan guide carefully make sure they stayed clear of the giant mammal’s tail and never got between calf and mom. Even staying in the boat was fine as I really enjoyed the chance to once again be close alongside such awe inspiring mammals. The last time we’d been up close and personal with large whales for more than a few minutes at a time was in Scammons Lagoon, Baja California.  I was also impressed with the respect the local crews showed, making sure they didn’t pressure the whales, moving away once we had enjoyed our share of close encounters (almost two hours worth) so another whale watching boat and its guests could be there on its own.

That’s Craig, with Larry just outside the frame of the photo and yes the whale is only about 30 feet away from them.

 

The weeks rushed past, and the southern cyclone season drew nearer and the cruisers around us began talking about heading south either toward New Zealand or Australia. Each and every first-time-across-the-Pacific voyager was worried about this passage. I saw them spending hours each day searching the web for weather information, talking with everyone they could about when to leave, what route to take. I think many ended up with weather information overload and actually scared themselves and accidentally pushed their wives into choosing to fly southward instead of participating in what can be a relatively good voyage. We shared our knowledge of the weather patterns in this part of the Pacific and tried to assure those who asked that we had found wonderful sailing on our previous voyage direct from Tonga to New Zealand, and never once during six crossings of the Tasman Sea had we encountered extreme storms where heaving to for a day or two wasn’t enough to let the frontal systems pass by.

And this is why the Tongan crew made sure Larry, Craig and Kay stayed in the right places.

 

We found the best information for choosing a departure date came from Bob McDavitt who has been a professional forecaster for the New Zealand Met office for 30 years and an advisor to shipping and yacht race organizers for most of that time. We compared his suggestions for sailing destinations through the South Pacific which are posted on line once a week, with projections for sailing weather on www.weatheronline.co.uk and also the maps provided daily by the Fijian met office. During the last week of October, we saw a picture we liked. I was eager to be south as we had told friends to join us for Thanksgiving. We topped up our provisions, dug out our cold weather clothes and put them in easy reach, shook out our sleeping bags to make sure they were fresh smelling, checked over our foul weather gear, took a few preventative stitches in our storm trysail and stored away a significant supply of Tongan baskets and carvings.

Saying farewell is never easy, but we keep in touch with our Tongan family. That’s Lini talking to Neto on horseback plus a local friend. Neto has returned home after a successful 40 year career as a Tennis pro (He was seeded in the top 200 for a long time in his career) to take over the family plantation. The horses are the first two of the string he hopes to train to take visitors touring the more remote areas of the island.

 

As we said farewell to everyone over the weekend, I noticed about seven other couples preparing to set sail too. When they asked what we thought of the weather, we gave them Bob’s report.  Interestingly some of them decided to wait for a better looking forecast, concerned at his forecast of 25 knot westerly winds in the approaches to New Zealand’s North Cape.

Our Tongan family came to see us off, carrying two large and handsome tapa cloths (by large I mean 7 feet by 12 feet.) “My mother wanted you to have these because she hasn’t finished the big basket she was making for your home. She cut these off the walls of her bedroom for you.” Lini told me. Lini had made a beautiful woven serving tray for me, the first time in eight or nine years she had done any weaving. “My mom watched me every minute but I proved I hadn’t forgotten what she taught me.” We all had teary eyes as Larry and I rowed out to Taleisin and began lifting Cheeky on board, so we’d be ready to head out early the next morning.

We’ll tell you how the weather planning worked next newsletter.

Fair Winds,

Lin and Larry

Gene Busch runs the Coconet Café. He is one of the best Thai cooks we have ever met. Gene helped us and almost every other cruiser he could. In the dinghy with us are Kay and Craig, who sailed south a week after we did.

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