Welcome to Tonga

The second day of our passage from Niue to Tonga was definitely one of the best days of sailing we’ve had since we left Seattle three years ago. In the end, though, we never did catch up with Dreamtime. As it turns out, Neville is as competitive as we are and told us yesterday that he spent more time trimming his sails for the three hours after we goaded him on the radio than he had in the past 3 months sailing across the South Pacific. All in all it was a fabulous day of sailing and a nice passage overall. The wind died both nights and we had to motor, but that kept the swell down and the seas flat for nice sailing during the day.


We arrived in Neiafu yesterday morning and were instructed to tie up to the commercial dock to check in. Seven of us had left Niue at the same time, and others were sailing down from the northern Tonga island that had been wiped out by the tsunami, so the dock was busy. We side tied to Nine of Cups, which made the officials happy since they could knock off two boats at the same time. All the Tongan officials came aboard, filled out the required paperwork and asked us to come ashore later to pay our fees. We left the dock and found an empty buoy in the head of the bay.

We’re in the Vava’u group of Tonga, which at first look appears like it will live up to the reputation as one of the world’s spectacular cruising grounds. It’s a limestone cluster with high flat islands in the north and a group of tiny islands at the south end. There are numerous waterways within, all protected by outer reefs which keep the seas flat and calm. The island group is 25 kilometers north to south, and 21 kilometers wide east to west. There are about 100 boats here in the harbor of the main town, and probably as many more in the other anchorages. Yachties spend months here every season, moving back and forth between the remote anchorages and the harbor at Neiafu to reprovision.

Reprovisioning was our first order of business yesterday after we got the dink launched and headed into town. There are two big grocery stores here, and as we walked out of the second the only thought on my mind was that we were gonna lose a lot of weight in the next two months. The absurd prices and mystery French food in the Bora Bora stores had kept me from doing much shopping there before we left there, and the shelves in Niue were bare because the supply ship was 3 weeks late. When we arrived I was warned by our friends from the Swedish boat Hokus Pokus that the stores held little of interest. They were right. We found some great fresh veggies at the produce market, some beer at the “Chinese store”, and a can of mystery milk. With those supplies in our bags we headed back to a local yachtie hangout for some drinks and dinner.

After being told for the third time that what I wanted to order wasn’t available, the waitress finally admitted that they were waiting for a supply ship, which was scheduled to arrive last night. Thank goodness. Luckily the shopping here isn’t as grim as we first thought and today we’re headed in again for some supplies. First, though, I’m going to try and figure out what the can of milk is that I bought. I didn’t have my glasses on and only saw the Carnation logo – I expected it to be either evaporated or condensed milk. This morning I see the label says “Cap Bunga” and “Krimer Kental Manis”. I have no idea what language this is, so even the babelfish site is going to be of little use figuring this one out.

Today on Yohelah we’re happy to be in Tonga and looking forward to enjoying this cruising paradise for the next month….

Tonga is here

Tsunami Update

We have arrived in Tonga and have been re-acquainted with many friends of the past couple of years and even more tsunami stories. When I was a kid we used to call these tidal waves. Everyone is quick to point out they aren’t related to tides and should therefore be called ‘tsunami’. Since ‘Tsunami’ is Japanese for ‘Harbor Wave’ I don’t think it’s any better – a tsunami is a wave practically undetectable out in deep water and only becomes a wave as it approaches shore. Since it becomes apparent in a harbor or tidal zone it seems like either name should work, but we’ll stick with ‘tsunami’.

One of the most gripping accounts was one Teresa emailed to family earlier, that of SV Gallivanter which is here:

Also, a three part report from another boat at the same dock starts here:

Additionally, boats on anchor around where we are now had a few scary stories, mostly smaller surges that caused temporary groundings and heart stopping moments while trying to get things back under control.

We saw our friends Rob and Marjo of the Dutch sailboat ‘Taremaro’ along with Heinz and Silvia of the Austrian sailboat ‘Gallathe’ who were both in Niutoputapu, Tonga. Niutoputapu was the hardest hit area of Tonga with 90% of the town wiped out by a tsunami. Fortunately they were leaving early to head to Vava’u, ‘Taremaro’ was in the pass leaving the harbor when the earthquake struck, ‘Gallathe’ was raising their anchor. Both boats made it to deeper water. After ‘Gallathe’ went through the pass they looked back and watched the harbor drain of water to the point the pass they had just left through was high and dry! The inrush of water pushed both boats back toward shore but they were able to overcome the current and stay offshore. When the wave entered the harbor the sailboat ‘Happy Spirit’ hadn’t made it out the pass before it went dry. As a fifteen foot wave approached across the harbor they were heard on the VHF saying they were going to lose the boat. Fortunately, the wave didn’t break or drive them back toward the beach. They were able to ride over the wave, escape, and are now happily on a mooring here in Vava’u.

The saddest tsunami report for us personally is of Dan on Mainly, who was swept away trying to free his boat from the wharf in Pago Pago. Joan, his wife, was able to motor the boat to deeper water until it was safe to return to the wharf. Ironic that both Joan and the boat were unscathed. Sad that she discovered his body when they brought it to the morgue at the local hospital. Sad. And of course, we shouldn’t forget that over 130 other people who lost their lives, mostly due to the tsunami.

No matter how much time, energy, and money we spend preparing for our adventures, securing our homes, and protecting our loved ones, it is humbling to find it all overcome in a heart beat by a simple act of nature. The devastation and havoc from one earthquake is staggering, the human toll unfathomable.


Niue Piggery

Niue Piggery

We posted a photo of a billboard for a Piggery on Niue on the Baba Cam a few days ago. When we first saw it I was perplexed why a pig would be present for a haircut. Teresa cut my hair on the boat while we were there, no pig was necessary. I then realized all items were special occasions. On Niue an ear piercing is a ‘coming of age’ event for young girls. So all items listed are special events for which a pig is offered.

Since the first item is a pig for sale I wonder if the follow on items are something different? Pigs for entertainment? A dancing pig? A pig circus? Having never been to a hair cutting or ear piercing we really can’t be sure, but I suspect all listed events bode poorly for the pig involved.

Niue is here

Ready to Explore Vava’u

We’ve been here in Tonga for a week now and I keep hoping to leave the anchorage and do some exploring. Today, when I was positive we’d be able to drop the buoy, the refrigerator bit the dust. We don’t have a lot of food in the freezer, but what we have we just can not replace in Neiafu. We’ve proven this week that finding food here is quite the challenge. Turns out that the ferry that sunk here in Tonga last month was the regular supply ship for this island, so they’re now basically on rations that the other ship can bring. We spent two full days going to every single store on the island. At each one 99% of the things would be exactly the same as the last store, but then one special item would be on a shelf in a corner covered in dust, making it worthwhile to keep trudging along to the next store. I came home at the end of the day with two shopping bags full of stuff. Now Rob’s working on the fridge and hopefully he’ll get it working well enough to hold together until we can get whatever repair parts we need shipped in.

I did discover the other day, though, that I have been in Polynesia way too long. As we walked past some public restrooms I read the sign next to the door. In my head, I wondered if “mahlay” was boys or girls. When I looked at the other door at it said “faymahlay”, I realized that I needed to quit trying to make English words into Polynesian, and just go into the door that said female.

If we get out of here tomorrow we’re going to join friends at a traditional Tongan feast at an outer island. This is a very popular event here in Tonga and will include lots of yummy grub and Polynesian song and dancing. Here in Tonga they also perform a kava ceremony, which entails drinking ground up kava root and water. It’s reported to look and taste much like dishwater, and is described as an aphrodisiac. We’ll see how that goes.

This afternoon my wonderful sister was kind enough to sit on the phone with Alaska Airlines for an hour and book a flight home for me at Thanksgiving. My skype connection wasn’t up to the task, but she and I could IM while she talked to the agent. I’m now the proud holder of a round trip ticket from Majuro, Marshall Islands to Seattle that cost $65 and 60,000 Alaska Airlines miles. Rob got the last trip north so he’s going to stay with Maya while I get some family time at home. Why Majuro and not Auckland some might wonder? More on that later.

Today on Yohelah Rob’s becoming a refrigeration expert and I’m wasting time on the computer while I’ve got free wi-fi.

Yohelah is here at Neiafu, Tonga

A Real Tongan Feast

Notice the coral behind the boatWhen we left Neiafu Harbor last Saturday we planned to attend a Tongan Feast at Barnacle Beach.  There are two feasts for the tourists every Saturday night and we, along with our friends John & Nicole on Gannet chose to attend the less crowded one that reportedly had better food. The other one is in a very popular anchorage where the yachties hang out here in Vava’u. We arrived Saturday afternoon and could not raise the folks at Barnacle Bill’s on VHF, so John dinghied over to the beach, only to find out that they didn’t have a feast planned for that night. OK, well there’s always next week we all thought.

In the meantime, our friends Marcy & David on Nine of Cups had sailed to a nice remote anchorage on the island of Nuapapu and stopped in at the village of Matamaka. For the past week in Matamaka four young children from two other cruising boats had been attending school with the Tongans. Marcy was introduced to a local family and spent the day touring around the village, while David used his electrical engineering skills to repair a solar panel in the house of one of the schoolteachers who had been without power for a month. During their visit they learned that on Tuesday the sixth graders would begin a series of exams that would determine if they were allowed to continue with their publicly funded education into middle school. Six children in Matamaka were taking the exams this year, including Roxanne, the oldest daughter of Fa’aki, the woman Marcy had met. If she did not pass her exams the government funding was over, and Fa’aki could not possibly afford to send her to private school.

For the Tongan people, this is a very important event, worthy of a true Tongan Feast. Lucky for us, Fa’aki invited Marcy & David to return on Tuesday and join them, along with a few friends if they wish. One of the fundamental beliefs of the Tongan culture is the notion that you should share your blessings and wealth, and by inviting some of the visitors to their celebration they got to do just that. We were absolutely thrilled when Marcy called us on the VHF on Sunday and told us to extend the invitation to Gannet and join them at Matamaka on Tuesday morning.

A particularly nasty weather front arrived late Monday night, and we woke Tuesday to wind and rain. We initially considered skipping the feast, but the pouring rain subsided and we quickly up-anchored and headed the six miles over to Matamaka. Marcy had told us that we should bring some baked goods to contribute to the feast, as baked sweets are a rare treat for the Tongans in this small village. We each also found some small gifts aboard for Roxanne, including some jewelry and hair accessories. At 1:30 we headed ashore, where we were greeted by Fa’aki and several of her six children.

A real Tongan feastThe men were invited to participate in the Kava circle, and Rob will write about that. The women were busy preparing the food for the feast and setting up the eating area in the community center. Marcy, Nicole and I watched and played with the children and took lots of photos. When the six children were done with their exams we were invited to sit together at the table near the school principal/teacher, the government official who was there to proctor the exam, and one of the four pastors from Matamaka. The men came in from the porch and joined us and the six children at the feasting area. An extensive blessing was given by the preacher sitting near us and we began to open the bowls and containers of food and truly feasted.

Throughout the feast individuals stood and spoke, each presenting a passionate and emotional oration. Occasionally the speaker would conclude with a snippet in English for their guests to help us understand the gist of the tale. Fa’aki spoke at length about the need for the Tongan people to understand that their children were their future and they needed to ensure that they were as well educated as possible. The school teacher spoke of the Tongan culture and explained to us a bit about how respect is one of their primary beliefs. We just chowed, and chowed some more. There were heaps and heaps of food – some recognizable and some completely a guess. Rob & I tried to sample a little of everything, and found nothing that we wish we hadn’t tasted.

At the conclusion of the speeches and feasting, the men and students left the seating area and the seats were quickly taken by the mothers and children who had been standing by while we ate first. Trust me, there was plenty of food left over, including three entire small pigs that hadn’t been cut into at all. Absolutely no one left that room hungry, that’s for sure.

Today the guys went ashore early with tool bags in hand to help out with some more electrical and mechanical repairs. Between David’s electrical training, John’s mechanical experience after a career with Caterpillar and Rob’s electrical experience as a marine electrician, we can happily say they were 5 for 5 on repairs. Tomorrow they’ll return and finish up some projects and mount some solar panels and extend some wiring. The village has no electricity whatsoever, so they wire solar panels directly to batteries in the house for lights at night. Marcy, Nicole and I got out the photo printer and printed up many gorgeous pictures and took them ashore to share with Fa’aki and the villagers.

I think I’ve written before about how often the yachties seek out the “local experience”, and not getting very far off the well beaten path this year has made that challenging for us. When we first arrived at Neiafu we found the Tongans to be much more reserved than the other Polynesians and we did not expect such a warm welcome. We certainly never expected to be sitting around a real Tongan feast listening to the marvelous people of Tonga speak. What they said was in Tongan, but what we heard was a universal voice filled with hope for their children and pride for their people.

Yohelah is here at Matamaka

A Tongan Feast and Kava Ceremony

Typical home in MatamakaWe arrived shortly after noon for the Tongan feast. We wondered through the village with our hostess, Fa’aki, and several of her children. Ben, her husband, met us half way, apologizing for not greeting us. Ben and Fa’aki were the host family for today’s feast and were busily preparing and organizing food. We continued wandering through the village, a series of houses, public buildings, and churches. Nicer buildings were concrete, houses were a combination of brick walls, wood slats, and corrugated tin, sometimes all on the same house. Most houses were surrounded by extensive gardens, both food and flowers. No need for a landscaper here, the locals did a beautiful job. Dogs, pigs, and even horses run free. Most of the houses were fenced, with a section of low wall to allow people to cross into the yard. I initially thought it was to keep the dogs out, and was amused when they hopped over with ease. I don’t think I’d ever actually seen a pig stile before but I remember them from childhood stories. They work well keeping the pigs out of yards, and nobody ever has to yell at the kids to shut the gate.

The six of us from Nine-of-Cups, Gannet, and Yohelah were the only non-villagers there. We arrived at the community center, a large, empty shell of a house built from concrete with a few broken windows and flopping doors. The weather is mild enough here that few of the buildings have working windows and doors. Often fabric does the job well. You’d look at the community center and most of the houses and think, “hmm, could use a little paint…”, but while there isn’t always spare glass to fix broken panes or spare money to buy enough paint to do the whole village, everything is clean. As we walked in I noticed the woven mats on the floor and the beginnings of the food spread, placed down the middle of a forty foot run of mats laid end-for-end. David and John headed for the back porch, I followed.

There were a dozen men on the porch, sitting cross legged in a rough circle. They opened up the circle, allowing us to join them. At one end of the circle was a large wooden bowl with legs carved from the same piece of wood as the bowl. Two of the legs were broken and had been replaced with sections of PVC pipe. The liquid in the bowl looked like weak coffee with milk. There was a metal ladle clinging to the edge of the bowl. As I sat I noticed two things about the circle of men drinking kava. The first was that the three of us palangis were the only ones actually sitting on the ground, everyone else was sitting on one-piece plastic chairs with the metal legs removed. The other was the head of the circle wasn’t the kava bowl. While the bowl may have been the focal point, the head of the circle was at the other end, where the village chief sat.

Tongan men wear western style shirts and a ta’ovala, or plaited mat, around the waist, over a longer kilt called a vala or tupenu. The social standing of elders is shown by the style and richness of the ta’ovala. In our circle, all men were wearing collared shirts of brightly colored fabrics; most of the ta’ovalas were basic tan woven mats. The village chief was wearing a brighter ta’ovala of purple fabric over a tupenu of dark blue. His look was finished off by a pair of very dark sunglasses. He was bracketed by two of the five church ministers in the village, equally well dressed but with plainer ta’ovalas. You could have plopped the three of them down on a red carpet in LA, added a few gold accessories, and passed them off as a famous rapper and his retinue. I’m sure the thought would appall them all.

The Kava CircleOne last thing about the circle, the men were seated in order of social standing. The older men were around the chief, at the other end were the younger men. When we asked how the server was chosen, expecting some complicated selection process based on an ancient reward system, we were told it was whoever got there first and wanted to sit in front of the bowl. The cups were half-coconut shells. A round of drinking was started by the chief, who would throw his cup across the middle of the circle, sliding it up to the bowl. This would prompt everyone else to toss their cup into the circle and up to the bowl. Everyone knew which coconut half belonged to whom, with the cups filled and passed back in order. Kava is not sipped, but rather gulped, most cups emptied in one swift motion. Having heard so many stories about the awful taste of kava, I did take an experimental sip before I committed to upending my coconut shell. It wasn’t bad. It tasted a bit like a slightly bitter tea. After upending the cup it took a few short minutes for my mouth and throat to feel numb. Strange but I felt like I was ready for the dentist. Having never tried kava before, I have no idea how a day of drinking would feel; I managed three rounds and did not proceed past the numbing of mouth and throat. The locals seemed a little unsteady as they came and went, but none acted overtly intoxicated.

Communication was slow. The older gentleman to my right would only nod politely but not actually speak to me. Actually I didn’t hear him speak English to anyone, so perhaps my lack of Tongan was the problem. On my other side was one of the church ministers. He looked a bit like Eddie Murphy and our conversation was a series of brief mumbled comments spaced out over enough time I’d forget we were having a conversation. If I had to ask more than twice for him to repeat himself I’d resort to nodding politely and pretending I knew what he’d said. I did learn his church was very similar to our Methodists. He asked me if I was Christian, or… after a long pause, a heathen. His mischievous grin gave him away, but I was still happy to report I wasn’t heathen.

Most of our conversation and information came from Moses, a local school teacher who David had helped the day before with the solar panels on his house. Moses was young and outgoing with a giggling laugh. He was a lot of fun and very informative. He answered many questions about Tongan society and the people of his village. He also let us know the kava ‘ceremony’ had started at 9 that morning. We joined about half past one. I think that explained a few things, including the slow pace of conversation.

We sat on the porch for a couple of hours, watching platter after platter of food go by. Since our levels of narcotic-induced euphoria did not match that of our hosts, us three palangis had a lot of time between conversational lapses to watch the food deliveries and ponder solutions to the world’s woes. At one point the kava bowl arrived at an alarmingly low level, a situation rectified by a youngster showing up with a bucket of kava which was strained into our bowl. Whew! Disaster averted.

The dinner bell soon rang and everyone headed into the hall for the feast that had been meticulously laid out for us while we were lounging on the porch. Not a bad life, especially when you consider this was a weekday and no one seemed to have needed an excuse for the boss to get away from work.

Yohelah is here at Matamaka

The Three Fix-It Guys

Now the work begins for the menWhen Rob, David & John headed back in to Matamaka at 9:30 yesterday morning to complete the last of the repairs they were pretty confident that they would be finished up by 11:00. Marcy, Nicole and I planned to come ashore then and say our goodbyes to Fa’aki and Ben and thank them for sharing the wonderful feast. About 10:45 Rob called on the VHF to report that the three little jobs left behind the night before were nearly done, but many new items had been added to the list. Apparently when a village of not very mechanically or electrically skilled Tongans realizes they have three very talented palangis with tools in hand, they’re smart enough to get all they can from the opportunity.

Around 12:30 the guys came back out to Gannet for lunch and the six of us went back in, thinking they were near the bottom of the list. Earlier in the morning two televisions, an inverter (brought over from another village), a chainsaw, vhf player and two more generators were added to the repair list. Where the previous day’s success rate had been 5 for 5 on repairs, some of the new items added more complexity and challenged their skill sets. And there was definitely some excitement to be had when the case of the chainsaw was opened up and about 20 cockroaches came scurrying out.

John explains how to keep the generator runningThe preacher of Ben & Fa’aki’s church asked if they could make “one last stop” to repair the generator at the church. They had not been able to have any evening services for a long time, so off the team trudged back up the hill to the church. Once that generator was purring again we headed for the dinks at the beach. As we passed the tiny village store a Tongan man stepped into the path as asked the men to please look at his generator. The look on his face was one of pleading, and David replied “of course we can” with a big smile. When we saw him take a nearly brand new generator out of the store everyone was surprised. John examined it and quickly found it plugged in several places from dirty fuel.

About that time we joked amongst ourselves that maybe the only way free of the village was to split up and run serpentine back to the beach! The sun was starting to head for the horizon, and the guys were rightfully getting a little tired out. None of us had thought when we left our boats that we would need anchor lights on before we got back. In the end, the three fix-it guys have much to be proud of and show for their two days’ labor. Many houses and churches that had been dark were now lit, the store could cool foods in the freezer again, families could enjoy movies together, and solar panels were pumping amps into batteries all over the village.

All in all it was a very productive and interesting stop at Matamaka. We learned much about the Tongan culture from our hostess and made friends that we hope to come back and visit again. Gannet and Nine of Cups have returned to Neiafu, where Gannet is now waiting for a weather window for the passage to New Zealand, while Cups plans to leave for the Tongan island group of Ha’Apai further south on Sunday. We are just across the bay in a very well protected and secluded anchorage enjoying a quiet and restful afternoon.

Today on Yohelah we’re glad to have been able to contribute so much help to the marvelous people of the village of Matamaka….

The boat is here

Heading North

When we left Seattle three and a half years ago we knew that at the end of our second or third year we would need to make a work stop. Our plan has always been to stop in New Zealand, and when we were in Bora Bora I made a few inquiries with some tech recruiters about work in New Zealand. The response was positive with plenty of work available, and when I started researching pay scales the reason became obvious. As one recruiter told me, “you don’t come to New Zealand to make money – you come for a lifestyle”. Hmmmm. Even with a reduced cost of living, there would be little in the bank at the end of two years.

So we’ve decided to make our work stop back at home. It’s a long uphill schlepp back into Puget Sound, but worth the trip we think. We’ll get as far as the Marshall Islands now to get out of cyclone season here in the south pacific. Then in the spring after the winter storms in the north pacific settle down, we’ll head up towards the Pacific Northwest. A stop in Hawaii would have been nice, but the requirements for rabies prevention are different than in New Zealand, so we can’t keep Maya out of quarantine there. We know three boats wintering there this year and it would have been nice to join them, but no go.

Sunday we’ll drop our buoy and head north again. We’ve got 1,700 miles to travel to Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands. We have to pass through the South Pacific Convergence Zone, where the southeast trades bump into the equatorial easterlies, causing areas of significant convection (squalls with lightening and thunder). The passage consists of an area of about 1,000 miles with little to no wind, until we punch through into the northeast trades in the northern hemisphere. What we’re trying to do is get up there before the winter westerlies fill in, which would give us headwinds into Majuro.

That leaves us with lots and lots of good-byes to make before we leave here. Many of the friends we made in the last three years are either heading south to New Zealand or Australia, or hunkering down here in Tonga or Fiji for cyclone season. It’s hard to say goodbye to so many people and not get to sail to New Zealand like we had always planned. But a lot of things have changed in the last three years, and economically not for the better, so it’s really best we change plans and head home for a couple of years. But like Rob says, we’ll be the only cruising boat in Seattle that’s ready to go, and we can leave again whenever we want. Hopefully it’s not too long before we go again.

The boat is here