Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Vava'u. Tonga Update

Tonga Update
June-July 2012

A little more background on exactly where I am. Or rather, where Tonga is.

This is the Big Picture. I've labeled Samoa, Tonga, and Fiji. You can see where they are relative to Australia way over on the left.

A Google Earth image of the area around Tonga

Also, here is a link to download a Google Earth track of Galena's course from Key West, Florida to Fiji. It runs from December 2010 through August 2012.

Click here to download Galena's Track Key West to Fiji

Tonga is really three main groups of islands spread out over 170 miles and running north-south. I was at Vava'u, the northern-most island group.

The main harbor of Vava'u is well protected.

Here you see the anchorage at Neiafu, the main city on Vava'u, Tonga

I've been on Vava'u, the Kingdom of Tonga, for two months. And I have had a wonderful time here. Tonga is so different from American Samoa. I think I've mentioned somewhere that Pago Pago, American Samoa, is a working town. The Starkist Tuna factory employs about half of the working population with the local government employing most of the rest. That just leaves the shop keepers and restaurateurs who support those workers.

Compare that with Vava'u: Nothing here but tourists, sport fishermen, and those that cater to them. The tourists come to watch the humpback whales and the sport fishermen come for the fantastic deep sea fishing available just outside the harbor. Most of the visitors are from New Zealand and Australia.

Essentially this is a playground. The expats here are also mostly from Australia and New Zealand with a few Brits and Yanks thrown in for a good measure of diversity. They mostly run the shops, bars and other services.

For the yachtie community there is the main town and the "Out Islands." The main town, Neiafu has all the amenities one needs. Notice I didn't say "wants." Moorings out front are available for US$10 per day but there are a few spots shallow enough to anchor for free. There are ten or twelve restaurants serving a wide variety of foods from Tongan to Italian to Asian. And there are just as many bars to crawl among.

Then there's Out Islands.Just south of the main island are forty or fifty small islands. Each is worthy of visiting to enjoy the beaches, the snorkeling, or just the solitude.

My modus was to stay in town for a week or two, then head out to the islands for a week. Then back to town to see if it survived without me. It usually did

It wasn't long before all the bartenders and waitresses knew my name and I could walk into just about any place and get a warm "Hi, Bill" and be handed a cold Maka beer.

For example Doug who runs the Sunset Grill. He always played the best music and served the coldest beer. He also had really good food. I found myself heading there almost every day just to hang out with my friends.

Doug of the Sunset Grill with his friend, Ana

Sandy, who runs Vava'u Kart Safari's, at the Sunset Grill saying something like, "You're not going to publish that picture anywhere, are you?" Of course not.

And Amecia, who owns South Seas Treasures, telling us how it really is.

Damian worked with the Vava'u EPA and was always ready to party. Here he is at, where else, the Sunset Grill with Amecia. In the background is Vaha, my favorite waitress.

Another place with character is Tonga Bob's. They had the drag queen show each Wednesday, the trivial quiz on Thursdays, and... I don't remember the others. But something was happening there almost every night.

The bartenders at Tonga Bob's

Me getting a bit wasted with friends at Tonga Bob's

Looking through to the back deck at the Cafe Tropicana. Best coffee on the island.

Some of my many friends relaxing at the Aquarium.

And the view from the Aquarium. That's me rowing in from Galena, sitting on a mooring.

While out island I spent quite a bit of time swimming and snorkeling around the beautiful coral and caves.

Me in a cave

The Wreck of s/v Nevillus
June 15

Last night at about 1130 an EPIRB went off 40nm WSW of here. A Bavaria 50 hit Late Island. A short distress call was made by one of the two-man crew to his wife. He said that the boat was breaking up. Nothing else was heard.

At dawn a P-3 Orion from NZ was on station reporting a 5 mile long debris field near the island. Two sport fishing boats took off from here and were on station 2 hrs later. They searched the debris field but found no one. Two men were on board. They are presumed lost.

It's a reminder to everyone to be careful out there.

My friend, Rob, on Changing Spots is a retired doctor. He went out with the rescue boats. This is Rob's take on the rescue mission:

It has been a very traumatic, busy time over the last few days. A sailing vessel ran into an island at 11:30PM last Thurs, in a very dark night, with strong winds. It ran into the middle of the rock face of an island, and was battered to small pieces. The remains of the hull then sank in 30 ft of water, 20 feet from the rock wall.

The floating pieces, all small, were in a narrow band to the southeast over 8 miles 12 hours later. A great deal of safety gear, unused, was also found and collected.

Documenting some of the debris

un deployed life raft was found floating in the debris field

We left the harbor just after sunrise, and arrived at the debris site less than 3 hours later. Another boat arrived two hours later.
Seeing the battered condition of the wreckage and the site of the crash, it is difficult to imagine anybody surviving - but the search goes on. We went out the first three days, but the third day, Sunday, we were forced to return. Perhaps more on that later?

Some of the larger pieces that were found

It has been a great team of people to work with. We have learned a lot, and it has certainly been an adventure.

The rescue team searched the shoreline. Part of the boat's bow was found in the rocks. The keel and rudder were found in 30-ft of water just off the rocks. There was no apparent way anyone could have climbed up those rocks in the extraordinarily rough conditions on the night of the incident.

On July 26, as I sailed toward Fiji, I took a picture of Late Island.

Late Island, looking South, from about 17 miles away.

It's a big island. Hard to understand how anyone could just sail into the north face. I guess we'll never know what happened to cause the accident. There's a lot of speculation. The weather was bad that night.

I did notice one thing.
Jimmy Cornell's book, World Cruising Routes, has a 'preferred route' from Vava'u, Tonga, to Suva, Fiji. The route takes you just north of Late island before turning you south. If you remove that waypoint from the route, the route goes dangerously close to Late Island.

Published preferred route (green) Tonga to Fiji, and the route without the Late Island waypoint (red).

The Parting of a Mooring Line
June 25

There I was. This is no shit. Thought I was gonna die...

I spent the last few days visiting the little islands south of Neiafu (the main village on Vava'u, Tonga).
As I came into one anchorage I see a couple of mooring balls. Some of the villages put out moorings so the cruisers don't drop anchors all over the coral. And to make a little money.

A few hours after I picked up the mooring, sure enough the village elder comes out and collects the fee. I planned on staying two days and paid him the whole $12 US.

After a very quiet night the wind came up with the sun. Soon it was blowing 20 kts and the anchorage was pretty bouncy. I considered moving but decided against it. All day and all the next night the wind blew between 10 and 20 knots.

The second morning I was again considering moving. I was on deck drinking coffee when I suddenly realized Galena was adrift. I looked down and the mooring ball and chain were coming with me. The mooring chain had let go or broken. With the wind still blowing 20-kts and the rocky shore just a few hundred feet away I fired up the engine and, taking care to keep the trailing mooring lines, ball, and chain clear of the propeller, maneuvered for sea room. Once I had some distance from shore I ran forward and cut the mooring loose.

When I got back to the cock pit and had Galena heading out of the anchorage I suddenly realized how close a call that was.

If that mooring chain had parted just a couple of hours earlier I would not have been in the cockpit drinking coffee. I would have been below and asleep. Galena would have hit the rocks before I had any idea there was a problem. It was just plain luck that saved me and my boat.

From now on I anchor when I'm out there.

I told this story on the local morning net. Immediately three other islands/organizations came on saying that their moorings were safe. Yeah, well, that's what the guy who took my money said, too.

Then on July 12, on the morning cruiser's net there was an announcement that caught my ear.

One of these "professionally installed, government sponsored" moorings let go. Again, and fortunately, the crew of the boat was able to get control of the situation and anchor before any damage was done to their boat. The island/village has asked yachties to stay off the remaining moorings until "a full investigation is completed and an understanding of the failure is determined." At least they are taking a responsible position. Kudos to them for that.

The anchorage involved is at: S18 43.356 W174 06.028

Ben and Lisa own an island.
It's a small, two acre island named Fetoko.

Fetoko. Ben and Lisa's private island

For some time they have been designing and building a small restaurant and resort. They recently complete a major portion of the roof of the main building. An event worthy of a party. All the permanent palangies were invited along with a handful of cruisers. My friend, Sandy, invited me along. Since it's a few miles from town we sailed Galena over.

Galena's track from Neiafu to Fetoko, in the Vava'u Group of the Kingdom of Tonga

Their first structure was a metal home to shelter them from the frequent rain.

The large tent they lived in is now left for the almost constant visitors. They've named it the CondoMinimum.

They have also built a nice generator shed of concrete block. It blends well with the island's landscape.

The new roof on the main structure is concrete. I'm not sure how it's actually constructed but it looks great. Of course it's also the main rain water catchment system.

The party started somewhat relaxed. Here Sandy, Lisa, Billy, and Bubu relax before the main party.

As soon as I arrived, Billy "Snips" gave me a hair cut. Billy is one of the interesting ex-pats on the island. From England, he's about to open a theater and start with one-man performances. He's also a professional hair stylist. After cutting my hair he had others lined up for his services.

Billy "Snips" cutting hair on the beach

Of course, they have a very nice beach on which to play, or just lie about.

The anchorage West of the island is perfect in that the water gently shoals to about 20-ft making dropping the hook easy.

Galena and Changing Spots anchored off Ben and Lisa's island

Vava'u Harbor Racing

Each Friday Martin, manager of the Moorings fleet here on Vava'u, organizes a race for the cruisers in the harbor.

Martin, race organizer

Usually about eight boats participate. I thought it might be fun. It was.

For this demanding 3.2-mile race I took on crew: friends Carol and Sandy agreed to join me. Sandy had sailed with me once before when we went down to Ben and Lisa's island party. But Carol didn't know much about boats and even less about sailing. We were starting with the 'how do I operate a winch' level of instruction.

That meant that I had to do most of the actual sailing. But it was fun having a couple of lovely ladies on board. And I figured if anything went wrong, I could blame them.

Me hauling up the staysail at the start of the race

To cut to the end we came in last. But had a blast. And Galena looked good out there in the harbor.

After the race my crew and I relaxed with a beer or two.

Me and Sandy having a beer after excitement of the race

Unfortunately Carol was taking all the pictures as well as handling the starboard jib sheet so I didn't get any pictures of her on board.

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