Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Vava'u, Tonga

Vava'u, Tonga
May-June 2012

My passage from Pago Pago to the Kingdom of Tonga
May 26
I arrived Vava'u, Tonga on the morning of May 26, 2012 after what was probably the most exhausting passage of my life. Galena took 5-days to go a scant 380-nm.

For those with the Google Earth application click here for Galena's track from Pago Pago, American Samoa to Vava'u, Tonga.

The weather forecast called for 15-20 on the beam with 6-8' seas. The reality was 25-30 knots almost on the nose and seas of 10-12 feet.

On arrival in Vava'u my good friend Rob (s/v Changing Spots) was on hand to help me pick up a mooring in quite adverse conditions, even in this protected harbor.

The rough passage was due to the fact that I was in way too much of a hurry to do a really proper weather assessment before I left. I took the time to visit the local grocery store and buy a few hundred dollars worth of food. Also I made a couple of runs to the gas station to load Galena with fuel (diesel fuel costs more than $8 a gallon on any island west of here).

But as for weather forecast I just gave it a cursory look; I didn't want to see a reason to delay.

What I saw in the forecast was one day of light winds followed by several days of rather strong winds. The winds were to be 15-20 kts just south of east. The seas were to be 6-8 ft and from the southeast. Since my course was to be southwest I looked forward to a fast comfortable run with winds on the beam. The seas on the beam might make for a rolly ride but it would be OK.

I didn't notice that the winds were forecast to swing to the south after a few days. It didn't occur to me that if I didn't make it to Tonga in 4 days, or if the weather pattern accelerated I would be facing stiff winds from the south or even southwest. I didn't see that because I didn't want to see it. I wanted to go and to go immediately.

As predicted Monday, 21 May 2012, was clear and calm. I completed my out-processing (customs, immigrations, port captain) by about 10 AM. I said my goodbyes to a few friends and motor sailed out of the harbor.

The sea was calm. I had the sails up just to mitigate the rolling caused by the 6-ft swell coming in from the southeast. I thought it was a nice start to what should be a fast, uneventful passage.

A couple of hours out of American Samoa I spotted s/v Pilgrim. She is a French boat that I had met in Pago Pago. She had left early on Monday morning en route to Fiji. She was adrift and rolling in the swells when I saw her. I changed course a little to intercept and called her on the radio. They said, no, they didn't need any help. Just that there was no wind and they didn't want to burn any fuel. So only a couple hours outside of the harbor they had decided to drop their sails and drift.

I wished them well and went on my way.

Shortly thereafter and while still motoring on calm seas I came upon a huge oil slick. Brown oil covered the water for about a mile in all directions.


Oil slick on a calm sea


By about midnight the wind started to fill in. I secured the engine and began sailing into a gentle breeze. I do mean into. The wind was coming from almost dead ahead.

While motoring I had kept my course a little to east of the course line. I figured I could easily make it up and having a bit of easting to play with might make final approach to Tonga a little easier. I was 5-nm east of course when I started sailing. Two days later I would be 45-nm west of course.

The wind gradually increased throughout that first night. By dawn I was pounding into winds of 25-30 kts from 165-degrees. With a course of 205 and waves and swell from the south the best I could track was 225-degrees with a velocity made good of only 3-kts.

For the next 3-days I sailed as high into the wind as a Westsail could (about 55-degrees off) and made speeds of only 3 or 4 kts while pounding into and through 12-ft seas with 5-ft wind waves on top. Water was leaking into the cabin from the usual (read: known) spots along the hull-deck joint. Everything was wet and a few of the lockers had come open spilling their contents onto the cabin sole.

I kept hoping that the wind would back around toward the east even though I knew the forecast call for it to veer more south. Then, late on day 3 with Galena tracking 45-nm west of course my track did, in fact, start to turn more to the south; toward the course-line.

Galena runs with an Aries wind vane steering system. Wind vanes steer a course relative to the wind. That is, you set it up to steer, say 110 degrees off the wind and that's what the boat will hold. As the wind direction changes so does the boat's course.

When I saw that Galena had turned a bit to the left and was only 39-nm off course, I decided to wait another day before starting the engine and pinching closer to the wind.

Late on the forth day I was directly north of the harbor entrance. So I fired up the engine and headed south. All evening I pounded south finally getting some relief by getting into the lee of the island. Relief from the seas if not from the wind waves and the wind itself.

I decided to heave-to to get some rest. I had slept only a couple hours when the AIS alarm sounded. A ship as heading toward me. Since I was in the channel on the lee side of the island meeting a ship should not have been a surprise to me.

I fired up the engine and began motor sailing due east to get away from the ship's course and closer to Tonga's Vava'u harbor entrance. By about 3 AM I was only 5-nm from the entrance to the harbor. I considered entering the harbor but decided against it when I found that my radar wasn't working. It had worked fine when I had arrived at Am Samoa some 6 months ago. I had taken the radar down while I rebuilt the boomkin and had not tested it after reinstalling it. I assumed it was a bad connection. But whatever the cause without radar to confirm the chartplotter information I would be foolish to enter in unknown harbor at night, with not even a sliver of moon to help me.

So I drifted again and slept for a couple of hours.

At 5AM, two hours before sunrise, I started Galena on her approach. I was now only 6-nm out of the harbor. But I had drifted west-southwest of the harbor. That put my course almost dead to windward. I struggled to keep Galena making way into the wind and waves as we entered the wide open entrance. Once inside I found that the wind was accelerated down the entrance channel by the islands on both sides. The wind was blowing again in the 25-kt range. With limited tacking room I was making at times only 1.5 kts over the ground with much less made good.

Finally around 10AM I rounded the final bend in the twisting entrance and called for the harbor master on VHF 26. Throughout the Vava'u group of islands in Tonga boats use channel 26 to communicate. There are repeaters set up to allow longer than usual range communications on this channel.

Who answered me was Rob on s/v Changing Spots. He said, "Bill, you won't get an answer since it's Saturday. You'll have to wait and check in on Monday."

I had crossed the geopolitical dateline. While I had though it moved me back a day actually I had shifted ahead a day. I had left on Monday. I had spent 5 days at sea. It was Saturday in Tonga (Tonga is GMT +13hrs and American Samoa is GMT-11).

So I motored in looking for a mooring. The harbor is very deep (almost everywhere it's over 120-ft) and anchoring is therefore at best problematic. There are many moorings available at about US$10 per day. Rob came out in his dingy and led me to one that he had been 'saving' for me. It was within 100-ft of the dinghy dock. Perfect for a cruiser who liked to row his dinghy ashore.


Galena on her front-row mooring can be seen in the center of the picture.


I picked up a mooring and then went over to talk with Rob and Pauline. To do that I had to launch my dinghy. This is something I've done many, many times. I carry my 9-ft aluminum dinghy upside-down on Galena's coach roof. To launch her I first lift her up. Then flip her over. Then I hoist her high enough to clear the lifelines and swing her over the side to be lowered into the water.

But due to the wind, and quite probably my exhausted state, I started to lower her (indeed I sort of dropped her) before she cleared the lifelines. She came down hard to the top of a stanchion.

After a bit of fortified coffee courtesy of Rob and Pauline I went back to Galena to get some rest and to start the cleaning up process. I had much to put away, wash down, repair. All that would wait until I had relaxed a bit. I found a bit of free Internet and posted a short "Made it to Tonga" note to just let people know I was safe.

So Saturday was spend in a bit of a fog. I did some chores on board (technically since I had not yet cleared customs I was under quarantine and was not allowed to set foot on shore). Sunday was likewise somewhat of a blur. But I did make progress with getting Galena back into at lease livable shape.

I was surprised at how much colder it was down here. While in American Samoa I was sleeping nude under a fan just trying to keep cool. Here I was sleeping under a blanket to stay warm. And the wind never let up.

Sunday I noticed a bit of water in the dinghy. I bailed it out. Monday there was more water in the dinghy. It hadn't rained and the water tasted salty. I think I punched a small hole in her when I dropped her on the stanchion. It's only enough leakage to require bailing every couple days. But I should haul it, find the problem, and either epoxy it or have it welded (I've already found a welder). Or, in my usual lazy way I may just say to hell with it and bail it out every other morning. We'll see.

Monday was just as windy and cool a day as it had been all weekend. I was required to motor over the customs wharf to check in. I waited until about 0900 after the local cruises' net was finished. By then three other boats had already made their way over to the dock. Again my good friends Rob and Pauline dinghied over to the wharf to catch my lines. I left my dinghy tied to the mooring so no one else would take it while I was checking in.

With the wind out of the east it was easy to put myself along side the wharf. I simply pulled to a stop about five feet off and let the wind blow me along side. But it was going to be impossible to get myself off. That's why Rob came over. He would be my tugboat and pull Galena's bow away when it was time to leave.

There are four people you have to see when you check in here. They all come to the boat when you tie up at the wharf. They all are very friendly and professional.

First I had the agriculture inspector. He wanted to know about foodstuffs and trash. Second came the health inspector. He wanted to make sure I was not sick. Then came immigrations. He wanted to stamp my passport. Finally came Customs. He wanted to do an 'inspection.' I've never had my boat inspected in any of the counties I've visited so far. In fact this was the first time any official has even boarded Galena. This customs inspector had me fill out some forms, asked a few questions, ate some cookies, drank some 7-Up, asked for (and received) the gift of a spare flashlight (torch) for his daughter and then left. No real inspection. Just the usual paperwork.

Total check-in fees were US$ 74 and it took about one hour for the process, not counting motoring over to the wharf. All of the officials accepted cans of warm soda and helped themselves to bunches of cookies (I had bought a tin of Royal Dansk cookies just for them).

Pauline helped me untie the dock lines while Rob pulled my bow away. I motored back to the mooring with Pauline aboard. Pauline picked up the mooring line from the dinghy and I was back to being securing moored.

Then it was time to explore the city and by that I mean the pubs.

Now that I've been here a week I can say without doubt that there exists a huge difference between Vava'u and Pago Pago. AmSam is a working town. People are either commercial fishermen or they work at the Starkist plant or they make a living supporting those in the fishing industry.

Vava'u is a tourist town with a big ex-patriot community. The population of Pago Pago is much greater than here. People here party. Having fun is the main pastime. People here live to enjoy the sun and sea and each other. This is very much a happier place than Pago Pago. On lady from London said it has a 'hippy sort of feel.' I think that's not a bad description.

I mentioned early that I had noticed seawater in my dinghy. After much examination without finding the hole I raised it up with the main halyard. As soon as the water inside sloshed to the stern it came pouring out; I'd found the hole. The hole was at the bottom of the transom just where it bends to join the hull/keel.


In the top picture you can see where the hole is. In the bottom picture you can see that it appears to be corroded through.

I mixed up some JB Weld and smeared in over the hole. Of course I cleaned the area with wire brushes and sandpaper first.
The JB Weld goo immediately started oozing out. I used some duct tape to dam up the goo and hold it in place till it hardened. We'll see how long it lasts.

I've begun to do a survey the town looking for a good bar. So far my favorite is The Balcony. It's owned by a lovely Australian lady named Trish.


The Balcony Restaurant

The Sunset Grill is right downtown. Doug has the best fishburgers on the rock, bar none.


The Sunset Grill

Of course there's The Cafe Tropicana owned by Greg and Lisa. They have the best Internet available and arguably the best coffee. Keep in mind that fast Internet is a relative term. Back in the States everyone is use to high speed Internet. Out here one gets use to the old dial-up speeds. And we're grateful to get that!


The Cafe Tropicana for good food and (relatively) fast Internet.

I was surprised to see another Westsail 32 arrive in the harbor. She's named Evangeline and she is the very first Westsail 32 built. Daniel and Michelle own her and hail from Maui, HI. I would have though her hull number would have been "1" but no. In the whimsy of the early seventies, she's number "32."


s/v Evangeline, the first Westsail 32

Last Thursday the World ARC boats began to arrive. These are boaters that have joined together to sail around the world in a group (rally) and intend to make it around in about 15-months. From what I gather they each pay something like $20,000 for the privilege. To be fair I think that covers most of the official fees they will encounter on the trip. Things like the cost of the Panama Canal and whatnot. Still a lot of money.

They will stay here for a few days before moving on to Fiji. I've talked to a few of the local ex-pats who say once the ARC leaves things will be quiet for a few weeks while they wait for the "class of 2012" to arrive. That's what they call the current season's crop of cruisers. The class of 2012 went though the Panama Canal in March and are currently working their way through French Polynesia. They will be here next month.

I plan on cruising around the many islands that make up the Vava'u group of Tonga. I'll be heading out to the small islands that make up this group and enjoying the solitude of the more remote anchorages and peacefulness of the small villages. And probably the bars of the resorts at some of the more popular spots. I'll come back to Neiafu on Vava'u to re provision and to avail myself of the cold beer and Internet. Eventually I'll clear out of here and move on; Fiji still awaits.

Till then I'm relaxing in paradise again.

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