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March ’09 – Nuiatoputapu, Tonga

Posted by on May 21, 2009

Dear Friends:

Can you go home again? As we put provisions on board at Apia we weren’t too sure. Our memories of Tonga, from our visit almost 23 years ago, were wonderful. We’d been “adopted” by a local family, sharing their lives, their celebrations for almost three months. When we left for New Zealand to escape from the cyclone season, we’d sailed with a boat full of handmade gifts and wondrous memories and left behind every thing we could possibly spare as gifts for our Tongan family. We kept in touch for several years, but as often happens, life got in the way. Gradually the letters faded. Now we were concerned that the memories had too, or that we had been forgotten in a welter of later visits by other voyagers, especially as cruising traffic through the Pacific has increased three fold since our time there. So we were tempted to sail right past and instead cruise through the Fijian islands, an area we had missed during that previous voyage because we dallied so long in Tonga.

Though it looks as if there is nothing to protect Taleisin, the wide reef of Nuiatoputapu, which is exposed, even at high tide, lies only a few hundred yards to windward.

But curiosity finally got the better of us. “If we are going to look up our Tongan family, we’d better give them some warning,” Larry suggested. So we wrote out a post card to the last known address of the Hausia family. I also decided to take a risk and buy a beautiful bright red sun dress I saw in a shop window. The family had, almost 18 years before, sent us a picture of a beautiful baby girl they claimed had been conceived after a party on our boat and named Lini in honor of our visit. I guessed at the size, but as the dress was made of a stretchy material I hoped it would fit. We already carried a large supply of potential gifts and soon would see if we’d guessed correctly.

Molokeine, she was my constant guide and companion when she was 17 years old. It is wonderful to renew the friendship again.

Looking back at our voyage from the USA all the way to our home base in New Zealand, I can now say the hardest part of all was the six hours it took for us to work through the four mile wide channel separating Upolu and Savaii the two mountainous main islands of Samoa. We reached the pass in mid-afternoon when the heat of the land seemed to suck all the wind away leaving us at the mercy of tide rips and tradewind driven six foot cross seas coming in from both the south and north as they wrapped around the island. Six hours of working to catch every small puff of wind, plus a bit of help from the south going current finally got us free and headed southward. The worst concern was the crashing roar, the high flung spray of the rugged coral reefs of Savaii less than a mile to leeward of us. Even though we had checked the charts and knew we could anchor offshore of the reefs, it sure didn’t look like a very good option. When we looked at our log from 23 years previously we realized we’d had a great sail through here, after dark when the land had cooled off. We later met several sailors who, even though aided by powerful engines, complained of the washing machine like, almost wind-less pass – if they came through during daylight.

Our Nuiatoputapu family, including Keine’s sisters, nieces, nephews and two sons. Fred and Daniel, her sons, are wearing their “go to church” Tongan clothes. (Larry too is dressed for church – the singing was worth dressing for, the reception by the local people when they saw us dressed and ready to join them, made it even better.)

Nuiatoputapu, Tonga’s northern most outpost, what a wonderful treat. We had been the second or third yacht to visit this tiny island in 1985. The Australian Navy had given the islanders a gift, blasting a pass through the surrounding coral reefs so their supply ship could come right in to the lagoon. There had been only one leading mark back then, we’d hove to and Larry dove overboard and swam through the pass to check it out before we sailed in with Taleisin. Our reception back then had been truly amazing. Now, as we ran through the very well marked pass into one of the best anchorages in the Pacific, we were amazed to find absolutely no other yacht in sight. A few hours after we anchored, we noticed some changes on shore, some concrete block houses, a few cars. But the biggest one was a van, which had arrived at the concrete wharf and disgorged a bevy of official looking women. Larry rowed in and soon brought back three generous sized Tongan ladies, all giggling madly as they very gracefully alighted from our relatively tiny dinghy (all eight feet of it). Head of Customs, Head of Immigration, Health Official, each tried to be serious but friendly as they helped us fill out about a dozen pieces of paper, refusing anything but some fresh lemonade. But when I got out my guest log and opened it to pages signed by the folks who had befriended us years before, all decorum went out the window – “Eyeeee” shrieked one of them. That is my cousin. She just came home two weeks ago. She will be so excited…” By the time Larry rowed them ashore we felt like we’d never left this place Captain Cook had called, The Friendly Isles.

Here pigs are part of every day life. Found lazing under trees along the roadside, foraging for shellfish on the tidal flats and gracing special feasts.

Only an hour later, we rowed ashore, water jugs in hand to be greated by a bevy of laughing wet youngsters who climbed out of the water to help us bring our dinghy so carefully along the rocky edges of the wharf that we knew they’d done this many times before. “Keine will be here soon,” they all told us. And before we had the dinghy secured one of the most elegant women I have seen in a long time came strolling down the wharf, a smile from ear to ear. Both of us had a hard time reconciling this elegance with the 17 year old sprite who had won our hearts all those years ago. “Guess what Lini,” Molokeine Lolohea (Keine – pronounced Kay-nee) said as she gave both of us a hug. “After I met you, I married a New Zealand sailor. I live there now and just came back two weeks ago to bring my sons here to spend six months with their Tongan family.”
“We have a New Zealand home too,” Larry answered, “we’re sailing there now.”
“That’s good. Now you can be close family instead of distant family. Our house has six bedrooms and one will be for you.”

We prefer a hard tender for a lot of reasons, one of the most important being for landing at places like this where rough coral could easily puncture an inflatable.

From that moment on, each of our days at this most traditional of Tongan islands was full of adventures and feasts and picnics orchestrated by Keine and her two sons Fred and Daniel. Soon we, like them began worrying about their father, now on his way from New Zealand on board the 26-foot sloop he had restored. He had left 3 weeks previously but weather reports had been terrible. Each morning we listened to the latest reports and went ashore to reassure the family. Meanwhile Keine helped us gift the 2000 ballpoint pens and 30 pounds of colored construction paper we’d brought for the local schools. The pens had been salvaged from a Book Fair in Los Angeles where they were being discarded after the show. With a population of 1200 people, no regular air service and only once every two-month cargo ship visits, we knew the schools could use extra. Keine, having a bit more worldly view than some, suggested that instead of giving the pens to the head of the schools, we hand them out to each student in the upper classes. “they have to buy all their own school supplies and pens cost 2 panga each (a dollar US). Many of their families only earn a few dollars a day. This will mean a lot.”

One visitor to this website asked for more pictures of Taleisin. Here is one taken by Gene Busch when we were sailing near Neiafu.

During the two weeks we lay at anchor here, only two other cruising boats came in to anchor. They too were given a warm welcome and included in the simple pleasures offered on an island that is like a time warp, with its lack of electricity, simple lifestyle where people have plenty of time for visitors and no commercial interests other than a few simple shops for locals. We were told there had been up to 10 boats in the anchorage at a time during July, but now, in late August, the flow had dried up. Everyone seemed to be rushing onward past this most wonderful spot – good for us, but sad for those who would never feel the hospitality offered by going slightly off the beaten track or slightly out of season.

More on Tonga next time.

Fair Winds,

Lin and Larry

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