Friday, November 28, 2014

Spring Clean

We were both having bad hair days when we took our Tongan flag picture so I thought it would be more interesting to include this grave decoration instead.  The Polynesian graves are often very bright and colourful with murals of the deceased.  This family must have been patriotic.

The Kingdom of Tonga has four distinct island groups running North to South over around 500 miles. It's population of around 112,000 live largely on the coralline island of Tongatapu to the South with it's administrative capital Nuku'alofa, along with its king. Vava'u to the North has the town of Neiafu, between these two is the geologically varied Ha'apai group . Further north are the Niuatoputapu group which we didn't visit as the anchorages looked tricky and it was out of our way.  

The islands are formed along the Tongan plate and Tongan trench boundary so there is a lot of volcanic activity in the area.  The western islands are volcanoes created by the Pacific plate subducting under the Australia-India plate at the Tonga trench. The eastern islands are on the Tongan ridge and are largely either low coral limestone islands or sandy cays with a lot of coral reef growing around and between them.  We stayed well clear of areas of recent volcanic activity. There are two islands which periodically appear and then are eroded back away by the sea and there are tales of how when a big bubble of gas erupts from the sea bed your boat could fall into the huge hole in the sea it would create!

When we left the Vava'u group we hadn't checked the weather forecast for a while so were surprised to be struggling to find safe anchorages sheltered from the strong Northerly then Westerly winds as a deep low pressure system passed over. Once this had cleared up we were able to check in and move on along this island chain.

On the island of Haafeva where the trees were dripping with mangos, we were set wondering what the pigs might taste like. We couldn't find anyone selling the meat or doing much else. It felt a bit like New Orleans post Mardi Gras; people were wandering around looking a little vacant with bloodshot eyes presumably from too much Kava. The supply boat had recently unloaded and there had been a wedding and birthday parties. Kava is a root vegetable that is cooked up into a drink and taken as a mild narcotic in several Pacific islands. The only trade we could see going on was a fuel hut with a young guy hand pumping from barrels which had been so recently delivered with a queue of skiffs up the beach.

We were sad to miss visiting Tofua; off which the bounty mutiny occurred; where there is an active volcano. I'd been looking forward to the possibility of hacking our way up to the bubbling lava and steaming lake on this unpopulated island. However, our chart showed the island as only a featureless blob and the wind was still blowing out of the West meaning we would have had a hard slog to windward with uncertain chances of protection. The reefs of these islands can be quite sporadic and unpredictable. Our charts turned out to be largely accurate but certainly could not be relied upon so sailing at night was very much out of the question. We'd several times be looking out for a patch of reef to one side or another only to find ourselves suddenly sailing over it; hard to know which way to go at that point as you can't be sure how high it will have grown up.

As we have been hopping between the islands we have used this opportunity to give the whole boat a big clean. When we launched Impetuous last year, we simply loaded up with all our work in progress and took the lot to Clear Lake. When it was time to go, we just piled everything into the boat without too much thought or organisation. We've since been through our cupboards a few times but with the impending inspection by the New Zealand authorities we thought it high time to have a spring clean. The whole process has been quite cathartic; we've thrown out all remaining cardboard together with quite a few cockroaches, treated everywhere to stop them coming back, set aside beans and popcorn to be given away to our Tongan neighbours as they are not allowed in New Zealand; all in all we've gained three empty cupboards! We have used up the last of our varnish giving the mast a couple more coats and started sewing up a new flag.

We'll leave for New Zealand in the next couple of days on our last big passage of the year.  Here's a few more photos of Tonga.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Mariners' Cave

We are currently in Tonga, soaking up the last of the tropical season before we head south to New Zealand; out of the tropics, out of the coming cyclone season, and into the fast approaching summer of the southern hemisphere. All the same, after almost a year in the tropics we're expecting a big temperature drop; so much so that our down duvet was retrieved recently, during a head-sail sail change, from where it lives when not in use. We're both trying to remember where we have stashed our warm clothes; gloves, hats, scant provisioned waterproofs and the thermals I bought ten years ago in New Zealand: The last time I visited during summer. Ready for our trip south.

We still do have a little time to explore this wonderful Kingdom; not often one gets the chance to say that. Only the other day; when clearing in to the Ha'apai group, we sat on regally decorated chairs.

Also enjoying themselves here; whilst thinking of the final step south; seem to be most of the stragglers of the Pacific season. Like us, comparatively young and care free (and un-insured!). Some of the boats we had seen during our time in Polynesia, but never got the chance to say hello to, are here. Others we've met too; new and old friends alike. Couple this with our arrival coinciding with a big fancy dressed Halloween party; perhaps you can imagine how we spent our first few days in these islands.

There was one adventure that the Vava'u group of these islands had to offer, that Ruth was insistent that we should not pass up; Mariners Cave. A cave that can only be accessed by diving under the water through its entrance then bobbing up into a limestone auditorium; illuminated by the rays of the sun reflecting from the sea bed beneath. We found it hard to find as our outdated guide had no waypoints, only a rough description, and our electronic charts of the Vava'u group are quite out. 

Ruth thought we were in the right ball park and leapt over the side; with her mask, snorkel and fins. There is no buoy or possible anchorage, so my job was to hover on Impetuous, keeping an eye out upon the swimmer, and collect, when she reappeared. Ruth spent a few moments swimming around the area, locating the underwater hole in the rocks. By the time she had, my stomach had gotten the better of me and I had descended into our own cave upon Impetuous to find something to eat; only for a moment I hasten to add. When I peered out she had gone....

Not surprisingly I was on deck; a little more attentive, when she reappeared. I collected her from the water and innocently asked just where it was she had disappeared to as she had been gone at least 10 minutes. 'The streaks on the rocks, see, just there. Slightly to the left is a huge cave entrance, you can't miss it, its just a short dive under, into the dark!'

I popped up into the auditorium, stalactites hung from the roof of the lime stone cave. But there was not the haunting stillness one can sometimes feel when in such a cave. It was filled with the familiarity of the ocean. The slight swell breaking on the far wall of the cave as one floated around in the warm waters, seemed to prevent me from drifting off in the dark corners of the cave and my mind, where one would expect those vampires to be languishing. 

The sunlight shone from below causing the small wavelets to glow with indigo blue hues at times. When a bigger swell from outside entered the cave one's ears would start to pop as the pressure rose; also causing, we think, a moment of fog on top of the waters' surface as the water vapour in the air started to change state as it was compressed. Then the swell would flow back out, and all would revert to normal. Once again one would be mesmerised; staring at the hues of the water and the geology of the caves, as the sun's strength changed outside.

Should you be visiting these islands, don’t miss the chance to go to mariners cave; especially if, unlike us, you have an underwater camera. 

Aim for a way-point of 18 41.42 S, 174 04.50 W and look for orange and white streaks on the limestone.

Luckily our friends Tim and Gayathra visited the same cave at a different time and have let us use their photo of Gaya swimming in, to give you an idea of the underwater entrance.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

In Sympathy with Bligh...

We'd clung to our anchor listening to the wind howl for a week in Bora Bora before we left. Then 24 hours out our breeze petered out to the occasional puff. Somehow in these conditions Impetuous manages to carry on in the right direction, but when we got down to one knot, we knew we were doing more harm to the sails than we were making headway. We cast a look around on the chart and spied Maupihaa (also known as Mopelia). We snuck into this atoll through the skinniest pass yet; it was only 18m across! 24 hours later the wind had returned so after a walk ashore we returned to sea.

The next morning Ruth's fever started. To this day we're not sure what it was, but she spent the next four days in bed shivering. Prior to leaving Bora Bora, we'd spoken to an English couple who had raved about the beauty of Aitutaki. 'How much do you draw?' they asked, '5ft7ish', 'oh you're lucky, you can get in'. It's funny how we, as sailors are happy to shoehorn our precious homes into a space that we just don't fit. If you were reversing into a parking space that was 10cm smaller than your car, your onlookers would never say, 'ah, a little scrape, you'll get in, you might have to climb out the boot!'. Duncan swam out the kedge anchor 4 times to drag us in through that pass and over the sandbar. Ruth struggled to steer and winch but once we were in, she was back to bed and feeling awful.

Lieutenant William Bligh left Portsmouth in December 1787 bound for Tahiti. After 30days battling mountainous seas and headwinds off Cape Horn they were forced to abandon this route and sail the other way around the world to get to their destination. They stopped at the Cape of Good Hope, Van Diemen's land (Tasmania) then stayed low below New Zealand to use favourable winds before looping round to Tahiti. His wooden sailing ship 'the Bounty' was small for the time; 85ft long 220 tons rated as a Cutter (though it had three masts) and she carried a crew of 46. Their voyage's purpose was to collect hundreds of breadfruit plants in order to transplant these to the Caribbean as an efficient food for slaves there.

Bligh steered his men through this very trying voyage with little apparent difficulty until he encountered a storm off Aitutaki. In sympathy with Bligh, as we dragged ourselves over that sand and coral our engine gave the most horrific knock. It made all manner of odd noises, ran away with itself and then died. Our concerns were heightened by the fact that we were being blown onto shallower water but luckily we were still stuck fast. After our fourth kedge we finally felt the boat even out as she found a little water under her keel. We tentatively started the engine and it gently muttered us into a spot where we could drop our anchor.

As far as we can tell, the problems that led to the mutiny of Bligh's crew lay in the fact that the men had a very good time on Tahiti. When they left, they were now facing another arduous slog of a journey in order to return to England where life was far from easy. Many of them had found lovers and made good friends in the garden of paradise that was Tahiti, and it was more than a wrench to give this life up.

We spent the next day troubleshooting the engine; Ruth from the bed with manual in hand, Duncan at the spanners end. In the background we were forever bumping the bottom, re-anchoring as the tide changed and the wind shifted and howled all the way round the compass. Still unsure what was wrong with Pip we were then Blighted once again when Duncan started to shake and sweat. We'd been there almost a week before we felt we could step ashore.

Aitutaki is indeed a beautiful island. It's hard to describe why, when it clearly lacks the iconic grandeur of Bora Bora, but the lagoon is shallow and brightly coloured whereas the island is verdant, luxurious and is populated by Maori descended Polynesian people who are endearing and delightful.

This photo was taken from climbing up the water tanks up top of the island.  That's why you see corrugated steel. This is just another beautiful tree full of the ear held flowers...

We'd struggled in the society islands to find much in the way of fruit and vegetables. This seemed in disparity to the lushness that was in evidence wherever you looked. Aitutaki was therefore a new kind of playground. When we walked away from the town we found trees rich with breadfruit, grapefruit, limes and chillis. In the petrol store they sold tomatoes cheaply, which were the most sumptuous we've tasted.

Bligh's crew mutineered off Tofua in the kingdom of Tonga, but the rumblings of discontent began off Aitutaki. Pip hasn't murmured any discontent since we left, and we're both now back to full health. Our sail to Tonga was beautifully peaceful and breezy. We'd been spectacularly unsuccessful with fishing ever since the Tuamotus so when we caught two good sized MahiMahi the day before we arrived we were delighted.