August 31, 2010

Hunga island, Tonga

Another beautiful memory of our time in Tonga. From the inner bay at Hunga island, crassly referred to as "Anchorage #13", we were visited once again by an outrigger to our anchorage spot. An invitation to come ashore, visit, trade for vegetables was too good to resist.

Our first stop upon reaching the village was to visit a community building. A dozen or more women were lined up weaving a large mat: twenty of these mats, each one 20' by 40', had been ordered by an American customer. It will keep them working for two full years to complete the order... I hope we can do something similar, someday.

Women weaving a mat

The mats, seen all over Tonga, are woven from the leaves of the Pandanus tree. Elsewhere in the village, bundles of leaves dried on lines and on the ground. Peek closely, there's a woman preparing dried leaves in the background.

Pandanus leaves for weaving

No visit is complete without visiting the school! To get on school grounds, we had to cross a fence. The village is full of these, to keep the pigs where they belong... most gates are simply lower pieces of corrugated metal, like this one.
Climbing the pig fence

I was fascinated by this big slit drum. It would be great to hear how it sounds...
large slit drum

These kids look shy, but were total hams. They loved seeing themselves in the playback on our digital camera.
Sweet kids on Hunga

August 30, 2010

Placid waters

Another snapshot of Tonga... we anchored for 3 days off the eastern island of Kenutu. Niall and Bear explored by kayak; we found brackish caves, the rugged seaward coast, and an army of cowries in the seagrass.

Boys playing at Kenutu island

August 29, 2010

beautiful people

Cruisers pass referrals around on the "coconut telegraph" about ports of call- helping those to come after us, returning the favor of benefiting from those who went ahead.

When we arrived in Tonga, I touched based with Philip & Leslie on s/v Carina; we have traded email with on and off (they're from the same home waters). What I didn't realize was that they'd spent the last hurrican season in Tonga- they forwarded to us a long email of favorite spots and recommendations.

This was by far my favorite referral in Tonga.
meeting Tema

Tema sells her produce in the market- some of which is grown from Seeds of Change seeds that Carina gave her. When I mentioned Philip and Leslie, she literally threw her arms around me and laughed. Who could resist? Even after I had paid for a bundle of veggies and said goodbye, she proceeded to stuff my bags with additional basil, bananas, whatever she thought I would want. I went to say goodbye yesterday, and give her photograph copies- her graciousness bowled me over.

I hope we find more Temas in our next ports, and I hope to pass the referral to this beautiful woman on to other cruisers!

August 27, 2010

Another Tonga vignette

Many Tongans continue to wear the ta'ovala, a mat overskirt. They are worn by men and women, children and adults. It's a standard part of many school uniforms. There's quite a bit of variation in texture and pattern, from simple pandanus to the finer hibiscus fibers. Some people substitute mats made from more modern, permanent fibers- but the pandanus tree leaves dominate.

This little boy models a standard issue ta'ovala on the way to church services on Lape island...

dressed for church

Tonga market's answer to plastic bags:

We don't need no stinkin' plastic bags... here's how my market purchases were bundled:

what plastic bag?

August 26, 2010

Lape island generosity

More beautiful people grace our time in Tonga. Anchored in the curve of Vataeiku island, once again a visitor came to invite boats to visit their community across the bay. The little island of Lape has five families, and invited us for church and lunch afterwards.

When we arrived the next day, they greeted us with flower garlands.
Niall receives a a lei

We were led down the path running through the village to the church.
Filing through the village

Adjacent to the church was the kava hut. Kava is a mildly narcotic beverage made from the root of a pepper plant and drunk socially across the Pacific. This kava huts was Lape's equivalent of The Man Room: women are excluded from kava circles. Several of the men from our group joined them for a few shells of kava before the service.
Kava before mass

Cruisers outnumbered local villagers about 3:1 during services at the small Methodist church. We didn't understand the sermon, but the singing- in lovely harmonies that defy description, but bring me nearly to tears- didn't need translation.

We found out afterwards that most of the island's women must have been cooking during the service, because a beautiful spread of food waited for us back down by the beach. We shared a delicious lunch with villagers on pandanus mats spread over the ground. They had spit roasted a young pig, made a marinated salad from raw sea snails, yams, taro-wrapped beef bundles, breadfruit, and more... all washed down with coconut water, from young coconuts opened on the spot.
hostess and guest

I think that the best of all, though, was the chance for us to meet and talk to these warm and wonderful people. There really is nothing that makes me happier than seeing our children made friends and play with local kids. Niall and Bear had a great time in this dugout outrigger with a few boys- sinking it, bailing it, and sinking it again and again.
Niall and Bear make friends

Our girls were taken under the wing of new friends as well.
making friends

** These photos are all from Annie on m/v Oso Blanco... I had brought my camera, but left the memory card back on the boat! oops... and, thanks Annie. Check out her blog! It's listed on our blogroll. **

August 24, 2010

the sweeter side of Tonga

We've had truly lovely experiences with the local people we've met here in Tonga. I don't want our last post to cast a pall, so I'm going to focus on the overwhelmingly positive interactions instead!

We pulled into an anchorage at Nuapapu island one evening, and were shortly greeted by a small boat. It was a schoolteacher from the village with several of her students.

Invitation delivery

Visiting each boat in turn- Totem, IO, Oso, and a Danish cruiser- they handed us an invitation.


Naturally, we accepted! The next morning, we motored over to the village's dock and made our way up the hill. No roads here- just a dirt footpath.

We were greeted by children running down the path toward us, to make sure we'd reach the two-room (K-6) schoolhouse. The ambassadors had a few prepared sentences to introduce themselves and welcome us, and with broad smiles, lead us to the school. The teachers made introductions, then invited the children to share some songs and dances with us.

Nuapapu school visit

We took turns doing introductions to help with English practicing, and then shared a few songs of our own! Afterwards, we took a school photo on the porch.

Nuapapu school visit

We brought them some early reader books to help with English introduction and practice. The morning was like a gift: the kindness and warmth from our hosts lingers long after!

Matamaka village- Nuapapu island
Returning home to our boats from the Nuapapu dock

August 20, 2010

Tropical glow tarnished

The Vava'u group in Tonga is lovely, but there's a strange vibe.

The first sign was the morning VHF net. We haven't experienced one since Mexico: it's a morning radio session where people announce who is coming or going, share local weather information, and help solve questions (such as where to get a propane bottle filled). In Vava'u, about half of the net is taken up with advertisements from resident expats for their restaurants or business services on shore. Commercial use of the frequency wouldn't be allowed in other places we've been, but in many ways Tonga is a throwback to the wild wild west: the usual rules don't seem to apply here. It's stunning to me that this net takes place during business hours on a channel that uses the only repeater to allow signals across the island group- the same frequency used by the port authority. It's embarrassing to listen to boats arriving from passages to the islands, calling for a check-in with the port authority, only to be told they just have to wait a few more minutes for the commercials on the Net to finish before they can talk to customs. Who is in charge here?

Walking around town, almost every shop we entered was owned by an expat. Many have been here for years, looking for a way to make their own home in this slice of paradise. It started to feel strange when after a day of popping in and out of most storefronts on the waterfront, we realized the only Tongan shopkeepers we had encountered were in the grocery stores.

Things started to sour when we were introduced (via the VH radio, again) to the ongoing dispute between visiting cruisers and the whale watching operations based here. Tonga is a migration destination for humpback whales, and we've seen them routinely in the islands. At issue are the regulations for being in proximity to the whales. The (expat run, again) tour operators for whale-watching have taken the international standard used by fisheries in the US and Canada, and adapted it to give significantly preferential access to members of the operator's association. If this were based on a genuine desire to keep the whales safe, we'd be sympathetic. Unfortunately, it seems to have more to do with protecting business and making a buck. Our friends have paid the fees for a tour, and experienced first hand how the operations truly function. Gunning their boats straight at the humpbacks, they are more interested in giving tourists their dollar value- not sensitivity to the whales. "Jump in, and swim toward them as fast as you can!"

We've seen similar cavalier behavior by the operators. In our own observation, the operators were not even complying with their own rules on the water: too many divers in the water (oh yeah- you can swim with them), no flag displayed, too many boats in a circumference of the whale's position. There have been shouting matches on the water between cruisers and commercial boats. Out marveling at the leviathans one afternoon, we were harassed by an operator, who circled, tailed us, and cut us off- all while we complied not only with international standards but the more rigid local interpretation. It was rude, reckless, and entirely unnecessary.

This was all capped off recently when we were treated to four letter words being slung about the VHF one day, as salvagers competed for the overturned wreck of a catamaran on the beach. It's safe to say we've had enough of the wild west for a while. We're looking toward our next destination, and plan to depart for Fiji this coming week.

Posted via radio: we have no internet access

August 17, 2010

Familiar landscapes in Tonga

With 20 to 2 knot winds on the beam, we finished the ~750 mile passage from Suwarrow to Tonga in four days. The middle days of the journey were too bouncy to fish, but what a relief to be in millpond waters of the protected inner bay at our landfall of Neiafu.

When we came around the top of Vava'u, the chief island in this group, we felt like we were coming home. With only a small mental leap to assist, the view looked just like coming through the San Juan islands in the familiar waters of Puget Sound. We meandered past heavily wooded islands, carved from limestone by eons of waterflow. If you fuzz out your eyes so the palm trees look like conifers, there's nothing to say you aren't passing Sucia or Matia on your way over to Orcas.

Even once we completed our check in, there was something about the sleepy town that continued to remind us of the Northwest. Neiafu's dozen or so blocks line up at the waterfront with shops and restaurants, and meander inland over gentle hillocks. Shiplap homes stand cheek by jowl with low key storefronts. With a little more imagination, we were in Friday Harbor on an offseason weekday.

I'm pretty sure, though, that back at home the dress code is a little different. Although the nights are blissfully cooler- how much easier to sleep when it's 70 instead of 85!- there's no fleece. Locals wear wraparound sarongs- called tupenu for men, vala for women- with a mat on top, the ta'ovala, woven from leaves of the pandanus tree. The mat is a sign of respect for the king: relics of a time gone by, when sailors arriving from afar would wrap their woven sails to cover their nakedness before meeting royalty. Although there are a few pairs of jeans on the younger set, continues to be worn by most people.

Tonga was given the namesake of "the friendly islands" by Captain Cook, after the welcome feast in honor of his crews during a stopover on his third voyage. He misunderstood the friendliness- the celebration was actually the setup for a massacre and looting, which did not occur only because of squabbling by the Tongans. But the moniker stuck, and it feels entirely appropriate today. We have had more casual conversations with Tongans in the first few days in Vava'u than we had in a month of French Polynesia. I sought out a woman in the market, Tema, who was recommended by our fellow Kitsap cruisers on the s/v Carina. Upon introducing myself, I barely got past the referral "...from Philip and Leslie..." when she threw her arms around me with delight. Pure, unfiltered joy shared with a stranger is a wonderful gift! Philip and Leslie had given her seeds from Seeds of Change; she proceeded to fill our grocery bags with the bounty- eggplant, basil, tomatoes, radishes and more.

We're sure that our time here will fly quickly. Every time we look at our itinerary, we seem to chop off destinations. Fewer locations to visit means more time in the places that remain, and feels more in sync with our modus operandi.

Posted via radio: we have no internet access

August 13, 2010

Suwarrow's wonders

Suwarrow's main islet

If it's natural beauty that made Suwarrow stunning to visit, it's the park rangers who made it unforgettable. Nowhere were the two more intertwined than on our daily jaunts to explore the atoll. For most of these, Apii was our guide. This Cook Islander was a master forager, teaching us how to catch coconut crabs one day (we were poor learners, but reaped from the bounty he collected), hunting at night for lobsters on the reef, and spearfishing at locations around the lagoon.

We were out discovering different parts of the atoll every day, snorkeling in the a pristine and spectacular underwater environment. Every place is has something that stands out, and in Suwarrow it's an incredible variety of hard corals. They were the most vibrant we've seen; only Fakrava comes close, but Suwarrow had an unprecedented diversity of forms and species. Within the atoll, each spot we visit is different: some are underwater versions of Bryce Canyon, with tall ridges of colorful coral and deep canyons carved between them; others are long sandy stretches dotted with pinnacles coral heads.
beautiful coral formations

You know that overwhelming feeling- of suddenly stepping into a spectacular landscape, and having it hit you with full force? The drama of looking over the edge of the Grand Canyon, or the roar of a crowd entering a large, packed stadium. Swimming in the atoll reefs can have the same impact. I came away feeling like it all just needed a swelling soundtrack to complete the effect. There were lots of fish- in addition to the spectrum of smaller technicolor reef fish, there were the BIG kids. You couldn't go out without seeing groups of large parrotfish, grandaddy groupers, the behemoth Napoleon wrasse - easily four feet, and heavier than any of the children! Our little underwater camera can't begin to do justice to the environment we inhabited underwater.

cue the Jaws theme

The one thing that was consistently present (and consistently uncomfortable) were the sharks. Jamie did a lot of spearfishing with one of the park rangers, and there was a strict buddy system: after one person spears a fish, the second person keeps the sharks away from the catch. As soon as the fish is above the water, the sharks back off. There is some kind of unspoken rule that speared fish underwater are the property of the sharks, but speared fish out of the water- even if they are bleeding down the hunter's arm- are the property of the hunter.
bringing back the bacon

In my case, I had a couple of uncomfortable encounters where sharks were more than passively curious. It is extremely disconcerting to see a gray shark moving towards you at speed, and with is distinctly different from the pattern of sharks we're accustomed to sharing the waters with now, who casually cruise by, occasionally doing a lap to check you out, but always moving on. I had that happen two days in a row, and decided the universe was telling me to take a day off from swimming! You couldn't so much as dip a bucket of water off the boat without attracting a couple of black tips.
my least favorite reef critter

Back on the primary motu, Anchorage Island, James gave a cooking class- teaching how to make the coconut pancakes we had a most evenings, and beignet-like puffs steeped in coconut cream. How else would we know how to pick the right coconut? It must be sprouting, you see, and the best will have 2-3 leaves in the emerging green stem. The fish were cleaned, and cast off parts saved for the children to throw to sharks on the outside of the atoll, an evening ritual feeding frenzy.
Apii feeding sharks

Apii showed us how to sample the grouper's liver (an, um, acquired taste) and live pearl oysters. While James cooked up the fish on the stove,cruisers gathered at the "yacht club" with dishes from the fresh vegetables acquired before leaving French Polynesia- a welcome addition to diversify the diet of the rangers.

Suwarrow "Yacht Club")

The interest James & Appi had in was in sharing their knowledge with visitors to the atoll, from foraging for meals to exploring the wonders underwater, have marked it forever as a magical stop on our Pacific travels.

August 9, 2010


We've just arrived in Tonga after a mostly nice 4-day passage... lots of pictures uploaded to our Flickr stream to give visuals to our Suwarrow experience. Check em out!

More later, once we get some sleep...

August 6, 2010

Suwarrow: paradise found

We're now en route to Tonga, and have time to reflect on the 10 days we spent at Suwarrow atoll. I have no doubt it's going to be one of the standout memories from our trek across the Pacific. Anchored in turquoise water, looking out at a palm-fringed islet, watching waves crash on the outer reef as we sit in the calm waters of the lagoon, and the clouds turn into the pink cotton candy fluff of sunset... it is picture perfect.

French Polynesia was stunning, to be sure, but this was untouched in a way none of the islands we visited there were. The checking in process was a perfect counterpoint to the triplicate forms, mailers, and stiff gendarmes of French Polynesia. Instead, a big Maori/Cook Islander- James- comes alongside with a warm "G'day!" and we complete the basic formalities in our cockpit with popcorn and juice. It takes all of about five minutes to finish the official stuff, but he's happy to hang out and let us pepper him with questions. As we soak up the knowledge he has to share about the island, his fellow ranger Apii comes by to see if Niall wants to go fishing with him- he's off to catch dinner for that night's potluck. We felt instantly welcomed.

Last year, our friends on s/v Whisper tried to articulate the experience that is life at Suwarrow. I like Mary's take: she called it "Boy Scouts for grownups." It's true: no badges are awarded, but our time is divided between collaborative, merit worthy efforts to provide sustenance, shelter, and entertainment. Cruisers tend to form ad-hoc communities easily, but something about the remoteness of this place- the real need for reliance on each other- seemed to prompt us all to engage that more quickly and deeply. There were a couple of other US flagged boats; the anchorage was a collection of Dutch, French, German, Russian, Swiss, Canadian and Australian vessels.

Several boats have more than the usual set of routine maintenance chores on board to make their floating homes ready for the next passage, and those who have parts of skills to offer lighten the load. Everyone pitches in to offer support for the living environment of the rangers, too- they need our donations of gas and propane to keep their small boat running, and spartan accommodations lit. For sustenance, one of the rangers takes people out almost daily to forage. Most of the time, this involves a bunch of testosterone pumped guys with spearguns bombing out to different points in the atoll to catch fish (trolling as they go), but coconut crab and lobster were targets on other days. And entertainment? The gorgeous clear water offers endless snorkeling... the evening potlucks on the main motu at the "yacht club" great socializing... and we even- oh, do I want to admit this?- we *even* sang Kum-bah-yah one night. Oh yes, we did.

Posted via radio: we have no internet access at sea

August 1, 2010

Blissfully still

It started off really nicely, but the passage to Suwarrow turned out to be as uncomfortable as any of our more difficult days on the voyage between Mexico and the Marquesas. Most of the time the wind was straight behind us. This sounds great, doesn't it? Should go along with the whole "fair winds and following seas" adage? Not when you have an uncomfortable side to side roll, and the occasional cross swell to throw you off again. It's fine for a while, but when you spend days in a row trying to live like this, it's more than a little wearing! Not having anything to drink with a meal, only after- because with only two hands, you can't hold your bowl, your glass, *and* eat. Not being able to put games or puzzles or much of anything on the table, because it will slide or get bounced right off. Struggling to cook meals that involve more than heating a can of something. It's only 25 knots most of the time- why is this so difficult?

I had thought we lost our passage-making mojo, and it was a little depressing. My weariness must have showed on my face when we joined other cruisers on shore for a potluck the evening after our arrival. With some relief, we heard similar stories of discomfort and realized we weren't alone. My first conversation was with cruisers from two different boats, each nearing the end of 8+ year circumnavigations, who said it was the among the worst passage they had undertaken in all that time! But bad passages are a little like childbirth: the hard parts can be easy to forget once they're over. Still, their perspective was comforting.

Even if it hadn't been for empathetic cruisers, we would have shrugged off the passage within a day- there were no breakdowns needing repair, just a little sleep to catch up on. Not every boat has been so fortunate. Jamie has been helping El Regalo, who sheared their stem chainplate. There's a temporary fix in place, but they clearly need to re-rig. Two other boats have damaged mainsails that will need to be babied along to the next port.

The environment around us here is simply too stunning to resist, but more on that and the incredible caretakers next time... just to say it vastly exceeds our expectations!