Tonga to New Zealand

Posted by John

There were several times during this 1,100 mile crossing that I considered calling this post “The Worst Crossing Ever.” However, just before we left Tonga, when I accidentally topped off the engine oil with several ounces of oily water, was not one of those times; but that mistake set the tone for the crossing. It might have been soon after we cleared the south end of Tongatapu and were hit with the full force of the unrestricted fetch of wind and confused seas (note: take sea sickness medication before you need it). It could’ve been the next day when we took the first of several waves into the cockpit, flooding it to more than ankle depth and soaking everything; or when water leaking through our often submerged cap rail found its way into a fluorescent light fixture over the galley counter, causing it to come on in sort of an eerie, half-glow. It was like that for a while, perhaps everyone thinking that someone else had turned it on. Or, maybe when the same leakage got into a connector intended for the non-existent #2 propane sensor, causing the propane gas detector alarm to go off and lock us out from turning on the gas to the stove. We only have one sensor, which was working okay, but even a false alarm prevents the propane from being turned on.

Or maybe I thought about calling it the worst crossing the night I lost my grip when a big wave hit and I fell backwards down the companionway steps and landed on the cabin floor flat on my back. It wasn’t landing on the floor that hurt, it was all the things I hit on the way down that caused the bruises and stiffness in the following days.

We were continually adjusting our self-steering system, which requires scary treks to the stern across the top of the aft cabin with the boat rising and falling over breaking seas of sometimes impressive height and steepness and being tossed back and forth to angles of 40 degrees or more. Sometimes it is impossible to sleep when, even strapped in, we still get tossed around. Some things you just can’t sleep through. And many nights we were forced to hand steer, trading off every hour and “sleeping” in one hour increments. Wrestling with the steering for more than an hour at a time was too much.

Then, on the night of Day 7, the wind died and the seas flattened out. On Day 8, the ocean was calm and nearly flat, with not a cloud in the sky. That couldn’t be good. As the high and low pressure systems pass by, the wind changes direction. We expected the wind to shift around and be against us at some point soon. All along we had been able to get weather reports and GRIB files by SSB radio, although sometimes connections were of low quality and very slow. On Day 9, Monday, November 6th, we realized we had to make a run for it. The Cape Brett weather reports were showing one system clearing out on Wednesday and a new, stronger one, coming in on Friday. We had one day, Thursday, where we could get into the Marina at Opua in relatively calm weather. We started the engine and motored through the calm and into Tuesday. In order to make it by Thursday we had to maintain a minimum speed close to our maximum. Then the engine quit for the first of three times.

The first time the engine quit was because the water separator was full of water. After draining it and bleeding the fuel lines, the engine restarted. We also switched the fuel supply to the starboard tank. The second time the engine quit was because the unused fuel from the engine was still being returned to the center tank rather than the starboard tank, so the starboard tank ran dry long before we expected it to. On Day 11 the engine quit a third time. I have no idea why. Maybe it was the water separator, which I drained again. Maybe it was a clogged fuel filter, which I was able to change because the wind had briefly died and the seas were flat and I could change the filter without spilling fuel all over everything.

Back in Tonga we had filled our jerry-cans three times. The first time we did it ourselves at the gas station. The second and third time we had Big Mama’s employees fill them for us. They told us that the gas station we had gone to was known for having water in their diesel. We didn’t think a whole lot of it at the time, but thinking about it now, we realized that those first two cans had gone into the center tank. We decided not to use the center tank anymore and, since the starboard was empty anyway, switched to the port tank. The port tank fuel gauge is in a very difficult place to read. We hadn’t used that tank in such a long time that I couldn’t remember if it had fuel in it or not. Julie stuck her phone in the hole and snapped a picture of the gauge. Ahh, technology has its uses. The picture of the gauge showed it was full. But now the engine wouldn’t turn over. The starter would not work. Totally dead.

The wind came up and we started sailing again, as it was from a useful direction. About now, I would’ve called this the worst crossing ever, but I had other things I was thinking about, like the predicted high winds and “very rough seas” coming to Cape Brett on Friday. Finally, after letting the starter cool off for a while, it started working again, and so did the engine.

We thought we were in the clear by now, but the wind had shifted and was coming directly from the direction we needed to go. We were taking more waves over the side and into the cockpit. Water was even coming through a dorade vent into the cabin. By the time daylight came on Thursday, we were unusually cold and miserable. The constant 85 degree temperature and 85 percent humidity was a thing of the past. We were hand steering the boat in wild waves with a 30 knot headwind, and not going very fast. We had to power up and over every wave. Looking out at the horizon, it was still as flat as ever. Then finally, there appeared to be a pale, gray mass on the horizon that was always there whenever I looked. It was not phantom land, it was real, and gradually becoming bigger as time went on.

We radioed the customs service to update them on our arrival time. The sun came out, and the hills in the distance were green. This was not such a bad crossing after all, and certainly not worth being called the worst ever.

We tied up to the Opua Customs dock. The dock is not connected to land. In a short time an official came by in a small boat and said it was too late in the day to process us, and did we mind spending the night right there (no charge), and they’d be back in the morning. We could not have heard better words, and promptly fell asleep.

Approximately 8,000 miles and 15 months to get to this point, an isolated quarantine dock at Opua, Bay of Islands, New Zealand

Nuku’Alofa – Last Stop in Tonga

Posted by John

We’ve done this before. We get complacent about the next crossing because it’s such a short distance compared to others we’ve done that we think it’s going to be a piece of cake. We liked Neiafu. We were comfortable there and stayed longer than we had planned. There was always one more thing; one more nice breakfast, or pizza, or laundry load, or store trip. Just one more day. After all, we could get to our last stop at Tongatapu in just a couple of days. We had plenty of time still.

We wanted to go to the south end of the country, to the island of Tongatapu and the community of Nuku’alofa. There is a place there, on the tiny island of Pangaimotu called Big Mama’s. Many boats on their way to New Zealand go there to do final preparations and hang out while waiting for a weather window.

We only get thirty days in Tonga. Having checked in at Neiafu, we planned to check out at Nuku’alofa. This is a common practice. We plotted a course on the chart. It measured out to something like 176 miles. No big deal. We can do that in a couple of days. I even briefly wondered if we could tow the dinghy rather than put it up on deck. That way, if we passed an anchorage that we just couldn’t resist stopping at, we’d be ready to go land on the beach. It felt like we were just going to travel through the islands of Tonga, and not really go out into any big ocean. We were wrong, of course.

Cruising through the islands of the Vava’u group

The day we left Neiafu a 2,000 passenger cruise ship arrived. They warned everyone on the morning radio net that it had arrived and that there would be a lot more people on the streets and in the shops. That was the confirmation we needed that we had picked the right day to finally leave.

A cruise ship arrived the day we left Neiafu and began shuttling passengers to shore

Cruising through Vava’u Group was nice, but it only lasted a few hours before the islands ended and the open ocean, along with the wind and waves that go with it, began. We quickly abandoned any thought of motoring along a direct line to Tongatapu and put up first one sail, then another. The sails helped to dampen the rolling. The wind was almost right on the nose, which meant we had to either sail off at an angle away from where we wanted to go, or continue motoring into it, which was very uncomfortable. We were plowing into every wave. Even under power, the headwind and waves slowed us to about two knots, and sometimes less.

We shut off the engine and sailed. Our newly barnacle-free hull allowed for normal sailing speed. In fact, it was very pleasant sailing (for the most part). The only problem was we were sailing southwest toward southern Fiji, not south toward southern Tonga. This would’ve been great if we were already on our way to New Zealand. I kind of wished we were. It’s amazing how fast an asset (Tongatapu) can turn into a liability, but we had to stick with our original plan in order to check out of Tonga and get clearance for New Zealand.

When we turned and tacked back, about the best we could do was sail east, sometimes even a little northeast. At least it got us away from an area of the chart marked with notices of “Volcanic Activity Reported” as recently as 2017 (Yikes!) (and, Wow, we have a current chart!). By continuing this process for four days, we made slow but steady progress. I don’t know how far we actually sailed, but it was hundreds of miles farther than the 176 we had marked on the chart. We had to sail past islands in the dark that we couldn’t see. One night, a block that guides the jib sheet into the winch exploded with a bang. At first we thought we hit something because the whole boat shook, but then we found shrapnel (pieces of the block). We replaced it with a spare. Finally, we started up the engine again, took down the sails, and powered our way through the final night and half of the fifth day, directly into Nuku’alofa and the “Big Mama Yacht Club.”

It turned out that Big Mama’s is the kind of place that is exactly what I imagine whenever I think of the tropics. It’s the kind of place that appears as if it could’ve been built out of driftwood by survivors of the shipwreck just off the beach in front. It’s the kind of place that compels people to write their names on the wall just to say they were there.

Ferry to the Nuku’alofa wharf

There is a daily ferry to the other side of the harbor, which we took to go to the bank, the bakery, the customs office, the grocery, to fill our diesel jugs, and to buy more minutes for our Digicel phone. And of course, to eat lunch and ice cream cones.

Nuku’alofa wharf

I don’t know if it was just our lack of expectation, or kind of the way we planned it, but we definitely seem to have saved the best for last. It’s almost as if Tonga was telling us, “Wait, don’t go, there’s more.” But if everything goes as planned, we’ll leave Tonga (because we have to) before the last day of October and head off to Opua, New Zealand. It won’t be tropical, but it will be summer there. We’re looking forward to spending some time traveling around on land, and we have several projects planned to get the boat in shape for the return trip home next year.

One thing for certain, we aren’t taking the next crossing lightly.

Scraping Barnacles

Posted by John

Normally, cleaning the hull would be just a regular maintenance item, but when you decide to do it yourself using scuba gear, and you haven’t dived in over twenty years, it might be worth a blog post of its own.

On our passage to Tonga we suspected that the hull needed cleaning. We had cleaned the waterline more than once in French Polynesia, and it already needed it again. But we hadn’t had the entire bottom cleaned since the two times we had it done in Mexico.

Most of the waterline cleanings have been done by Julie. Her technique involves straddling a pool noodle in the water, hanging onto a suction cup hull gripper, and working her way around the boat with a plastic scraper, scrubby pad and boot brush. My technique involves lying in the dinghy alongside the boat and reaching over the side to scrub the waterline. After a few feet of waterline scrubbing I tend to get lazy and may even doze off. My technique doesn’t work as well as Julie’s, but being in the water on the surface with my feet dangling down gives me the willies for some reason. Twenty-five years ago I was an avid scuba diver diving with sharks, barracuda and all manner of sea creatures big and small. Even though I never had fish nibbling my toes (I was “mouthed” by both a stingray and a cabezon) I still seem to have developed a fear of it, so I prefer my technique of waterline scrubbing, or at least making an attempt at it. It was while lying in the dinghy next to the boat that I reached under as far as I could and felt a solid surface of tiny barnacles on the bottom of our hull.

With visions of needing a hammer and chisel to chip thousands of barnacles off the hull keeping me awake at night, we started asking around. In the Mexican marinas, divers with hookah systems powered by electric air compressors from Home Depot came around looking for jobs all the time. Not so in Tonga. The recommended procedure here is to go around the corner to the boatyard in the next bay for a haul out and pressure wash. This required an appointment a week out and costs more than we wanted to spend, not to mention the hassle of the haul out itself and the toll that the pressure washing would take on what’s left of our bottom paint. We’re going to repaint in New Zealand so we don’t want to haul out before then if we don’t have to. We decided to scrape the barnacles ourselves.

We brought one complete set of scuba gear with us. All of it was sitting around in our garage at home and had not been used on a dive since 1996. We brought it along for that dire emergency when it would be necessary to untangle the prop or clear the engine water intake.

We found a dive operator in Neiafu willing to rent us two tanks, a buoyancy compensator vest, a regulator and gauges, and a weight belt for 50 pa’anga (about $25). We took our dinghy over to his shop along the waterfront and loaded it up before he went out for the day. He wanted it all back between 4:00 and 4:30 the same day. We had our own masks, fins and dive skins. Due to the damage barnacles can do to skin, I wanted to wear the 3mm wetsuit that I had also brought along. Of course, the last time I had worn it was when Julie and I went diving in Hawaii in 1996. With the rented gear we were all set, two of us could dive at the same time. Since Robyn had a painful thing going on in her ear canal and wasn’t going into the water, it would be Julie and me. What could possibly go wrong?

My wetsuit is a one-piece with a zipper up the back. I struggled to get my legs into it, finally succeeded, and then realized that my legs were in where the arms are supposed to go. Regardless, the suit was backwards anyway. Getting my legs out again was even harder than getting them in. By the time I got the suit on properly I was already exhausted. Getting old sucks.

The thought of diving from our own boat was kind of exciting, but I’ve never dived off a sailboat before, and our boat is certainly not the best design for getting into dive gear and then getting into the water. We decided we’d have to get geared up in the dinghy and get into the water from there. The dinghy is small. Dive gear is heavy and awkward. Just putting everything together was an exercise in thinking way back to a couple of decades ago. “Hey Robyn, do the hoses come out the top or the bottom?”

We finally got everything set up and ready. All we had to do was help each other get the tanks and weights on. I needed the weight belt to counteract the buoyancy of the wetsuit, and Julie put the few weights we brought from home into her BC pockets (her BC was designed for that). The problem was, since we had put our fins on already our feet were too big to move around in the dinghy. We were standing on each other, unable to move. I took my fins off again. Julie helped me get my tank and the weight belt on. She then hung her legs over the side of the dinghy and I helped her get her tank on. Then I sat on the edge and put my fins back on. Her feet were dangling outside, and my feet rested firmly inside on the dinghy floor. Then, with mask in place and breathing through the regulator, I gathered up all the hoses and gauges and held them against the weight belt buckle to keep it from popping open, put my other hand on my mask and regulator mouthpiece, and did a backwards roll into the water for the first time in more than twenty years. Just like riding a bike. It all came back instantly. Except that it wasn’t my gear and it didn’t fit properly, it was uncomfortable, and I was breathing way too fast.

We went up to the bow and I pulled myself down the anchor chain to the bottom. Hello fish, I’ve missed you. But I didn’t have enough weight. If I let go of the chain I floated right back up. Julie couldn’t stay down either. It’s really hard to accomplish anything underwater when you are too buoyant and it takes all your energy just fighting to stay down.

Rather than both of us working together at the same time, we decided to take Julie’s weights out of her pockets and put them on my belt. We could then trade off with the belt and take turns scraping. Of course, we took the extra weights and strung them onto the belt while we were in the water. My BC was a front-inflate, designed to roll you over face up, while Julie’s BC is a rear-inflate with weight pouches in the front. With neither of us having any weight at all except for the weight belt we were both struggling with and trying not to drop, we bobbed and floated all over the place. If we had dropped any weights, especially the entire weight belt, we’d have a rough time of getting down to the bottom to retrieve it.

Once we got the weights worked out, we scraped for what seemed like most of the day. Going over the entire underside of a 42-foot, full keel hull with a 5-inch scraper takes a long time. Some of the barnacles were holding on too tightly to just scrape off. They will have to wait for the haul out. The water clouded up with everything we were getting loose, including tiny crabs and krill. The bottom of our boat had become a little ecosystem. When working overhead, everything floated down into our faces. I kept bumping my head on all the barnacles that weren’t scraped yet (they hurt). Those guys in Mexico really earned the few pesos they were asking for.

When we were done, we inflated our BC’s and took them off so the tanks would float on the surface. I managed to get my fins off and into the dinghy without dropping them, then while Julie kept the tanks from floating away, I went up the boarding ladder and stepped into the dinghy. From there I could drag the tanks out of the water. We left everything in the dinghy and went up onto the boat to drink beer. When I took off the wetsuit it was a surprise to see how many little wiggling creatures had gotten inside of it. In a very short time it was 4 PM and we remembered we had to run everything back to the dive operator.

Completely exhausted, we slept well that night. And it felt good to have “gotten back into diving,” such as it was. Maybe now that we’ve broken the ice, and Robyn is recently certified, we can do some actual diving for fun before we get back home.

Those black branch-like things are barnacles trying to grab passing nutrients
I’m getting pretty tired at this point; the weight belt has slipped down and is not at all comfortable, and the bulge on my right ankle is because 26-year old Velcro isn’t holding anymore.
The heavy growth area at the bottom is the top of the rudder; the whole rudder looked like that when we started, and the little fish were hanging out in it

Anchored out in Neiafu Harbor

Posted by John

We come to these places expecting not to stay very long, but then we do. We find what we need on shore, learn our way around, develop a routine and get comfortable. You can’t be on constant vacation, it takes too much work. You have to just live normal sometimes, too. The problem is there’s a lot in Tonga we’d like to see and do as a vacationing tourist on our way south through the country, but we have to leave for New Zealand by October 28th, the day our Tonga visas expire. And, we just discovered that the boat bottom is covered with little barnacles (probably getting bigger every day) that likely caused our slow speed from Pago Pago. Not only do New Zealand’s strict bio-security requirements call for a clean hull, but we need all the speed we can get in order to dodge the weather fronts that pass at regular intervals between Minerva Reef and New Zealand. Scraping barnacles: one more thing on the to-do list. I miss all those helpers in Mexico who came around looking for work.

In many ways Tonga is my favorite so far. That was unexpected. Maybe that’s why it’s left such a good impression. It certainly is different from American Samoa. Rather than high, steep-sided volcanic ridges affording a narrow view of the sky from inside the harbors, these islands look more like those we have at home; long, low, tree covered hills that offer some breathing room.

The bay at Neiafu is so well protected that at times it can be flat calm with a view of the bottom. During one dinghy ride back out to the boat after sunset, the calm water, still air, purple and orange sky, and the summer-like scent of the water took me back to those perfect summer evenings of childhood. There are giant clams here, and coral. Reserves have been established to protect both. In contrast to industrialized Pago Pago, this place is dead quiet at night, and by law, Sunday is a day of rest and quiet. Who can argue with the law? One morning I heard distant, barely audible choir singing at 5 AM. And it’s always nice to wake up to the bird sounds.

Like all of the other islands we’ve been to, chickens and stray dogs free range everywhere, although there seem to be far fewer feral dogs here than, well, anywhere else since leaving the U.S. Since the first morning when we saw a herd of cows on the beach, we’ve also seen roaming pigs along the road and on a beach.

It is almost like we crossed a line somewhere between American Samoa and Tonga. Maybe we’ve finally gone over the edge of the earth and now we’re down under. The Kiwis and Aussies are here and they’ve opened a whole array of restaurants, cafes and bars offering what they know cruisers are looking for, including assistance and advice. No need for a McDonald’s to substitute as a cruiser lounge, Neiafu has Tropicana, Bellavista, Mango and Aquarium, to name a few. Just like cruiser hangouts in Mexico, there is also a morning VHF radio net where you can ask just about any question and be directed to whoever likely has the answer. Getting to shore couldn’t be much easier. There are dinghy docks at nearly all of the shoreside businesses.

However, down here some things are different. If you want coffee with breakfast it will likely be a shot of espresso unless you order a long black. I’m not sure what a flat white is, but I think it might be a long black with cream. There are sports on TV, but they’re not likely to be the NFL. The first time I saw a poster stating “We (heart) All Blacks” I thought it was a little strange, until I learned that All Blacks is the name of the New Zealand national rugby team.

Our dinghy at the Mango Cafe dinghy dock
Julie (in dinghy) talking with My Dream’s New Zealand crew member (head in water)
Aquarium Cafe’s dinghy dock
Robyn
Mango Cafe
Don’t judge a business from the outside, Bounty Bar has an evening dress code. The boy on the post was climbing up and jumping off into the water.
While the boys were swimming at the concrete steps, the girls were swimming at the plastic dock. It’s probably not a good idea to leave the dinghy at either dock when kids are out of school.
Mysticeti, Neiafu harbor

Neiafu, Tonga – Checking in to Vava’u

Posted by John

Same time, different day. The dateline has been drawn in such a way that Tonga, although still east of 180 degrees longitude, is on the west side of the dateline. The official time in American Samoa is GMT -11 hours, while the official time in Tonga is GMT +13 hours. So if it’s noon in Greenwich, England, it’s 1 AM in American Samoa, and also 1 AM in Tonga, but a day later. No need to reset the clock, just the calendar.

We had planned for a three-day crossing from Pago Pago to Neiafu in the Vava’u island group, but it took us four days because we just couldn’t get up to our target speed of six knots. Seeing everything that took up residence on our anchor chain after five weeks in Pago Pago harbor, there’s no telling what kinds of marine organisms attached themselves to our hull that could be causing added drag.

Once we got to Neiafu we lost yet another day getting through customs. We arrived in the harbor late in the day and just wanted to get secured, either on a mooring or anchored, before it got dark. On the way in we cruised past the wharf where we were supposed to go for checking in. It was after hours, but we got a good look at it. It wasn’t pretty.

The water in the bay was so flat and calm and eerily quiet that I got the best night’s sleep in a long time. I had to think hard in the morning to remember where we were. With the sound of cows “mooing,” I looked out and saw a herd on the beach. That was a new one.

As we were getting ready to start the engine and raise the anchor to go across the bay to tie up at the wharf, we watched a string of five boats, all flying yellow “Q” flags (indicating that, like us, they were not yet checked in), take all available spots along the wharf. They stayed for hours as we waited and watched from the other side of the bay with binoculars. By 2 PM we just said “screw it” for the day, drank some beer, and decided to get up early and be the first ones there in the morning. The five boats eventually all left, but by then it was too late in the day.

While we enjoyed the evening, we watched both a high speed passenger ferry and a car ferry/cargo ship come in and take up all of the dock space. The freighter wharf was still open, but from what we had seen from cruising by the day before, we really didn’t want to go in there if we could help it.

The next morning we stuck to our plan and headed over to the wharf as soon as we had enough light to see where we were going. Both ships were still there. We could see a crowd on shore and lots of activity. The passenger ferry appeared to be loading. The car ferry also appeared to be loading, with forklifts moving large crates up the loading ramp and a long line of cars waiting. We took another close look at the freighter wharf but it looked dangerous and too high to be useful. We didn’t want to risk trying it. It seemed that with our luck, if we did manage to successfully tie to it, a freighter would probably come in and we’d just have to leave anyway. Unlike Pago Pago, there was no one to communicate with to give us direction.

We hung out just offshore of the passenger ferry until it departed, then moved into its space along the wharf and positioned ourselves up against a large tire hanging along the wall. The people on shore were still waving to their departing friends on the ferry when we moved into the space right in front of them. Once tied, the wind was holding us off the concrete, which was a good thing.

I took our bag of documents and went off into the crowd of activity to look for the customs office and announce our arrival. After a cursory look at our passports, I was handed a stack of forms to fill out and told to go back and wait on our boat.

Over the next couple of hours we were visited, separately, by three officials from Quarantine, Health and Customs. The quarantine guy, once convinced we had no pets, meat or rotting fruit on board, took all of our on-board garbage for special disposal. The health guy drove up in a car and was dressed in business clothes, including leather shoes with socks. It was a very odd sight seeing him climbing down onto our boat. It made me feel a little sad to think about probably having to put on real shoes when we get to New Zealand. None of us have worn shoes since last December in La Paz.

The customs guy (who was barefoot) told us that some rules were changing, but since the King of Tonga had abolished the Parliament until new elections were to be held, the changes weren’t being enforced yet. He said it was confusing to everyone, and he felt sorry for the “yachties.” I said it was confusing at home in the U.S. right now, too. All he had to say about that was, “Trump.”

So, on our third night in Tonga we finally anchored as legal visitors. But it wasn’t as quiet as the first night, and by morning we had some unexpected excitement. A severe squall system with lightning, thunder, prolonged torrential rain and multi-directional winds of nearly 40 knots came through the Neiafu anchorages like a wrecking ball. The VHF radio net came alive with concerned chatter. Many shore-side businesses participate in the net, including one with good access to local weather data. He came on with satellite pictures a few minutes old, and assured everyone it should not last much longer.

Our plans for an already delayed cafe breakfast on shore were put off for yet another day.

Waiting for the passenger ferry (white boat on left) to leave
As soon as the ferry moves out, we’re docking in its place
Everyone’s morning plans were ruined with the crazy squall system
The main street in Neiafu, Tonga; a left-side drive country
These islands look very much like a tropical San Juans, or Canadian Gulf Islands
Hard to believe this is the same day as the morning storm
Nice to finally find a place that knows there’s more to beer than just lager

Departing Pago Pago

Posted by John at sea using SailMail
September 23

We finally got away from American Samoa after five weeks. It wasn’t easy. There was always one more project to do, one more rain storm or wind blow to wait out, and one more trek to the post office to look for our renewed vessel documentation from the Coast Guard.

It turned out that it had been returned to sender weeks earlier due to an insufficient address.

Even after we checked out at the port building and paid our fees, got our clearance for Tonga and climbed the outside steps up to the warehouse roof where the Harbor Master’s office overlooks the bay, we still could not get away, literally. Our anchor was stuck under an old chain. It was hooked good.

We could raise the anchor just high enough to see the chain wrapped around it, but couldn’t get it all the way to the surface. Once again, Robyn came to the rescue by getting into the water and getting lines around the old chain and around the anchor itself. We pulled ad twisted and turned and powered until, finally, Robyn worked the old chain off with her feet.

We’re on our way to Vava’u, Kingdom of Tonga.

American Samoa

Posted by John

American Samoa is a territory of the United States. With that comes certain familiar things, such as the US dollar. The main benefit of this is you don’t have to dig out reading glasses and study each coin to figure out its value when trying to hand over the correct change. You can also get NOAA Weather Radio broadcasts any time you want just by pressing a button on the radio, but you’ll probably have to wait through the Samoan language version. And there is none of that special feeling you get when all of the traffic screeches to a halt just for you when you walk up to a crosswalk, like in Papeete, on Tahiti. Here, the traffic is more likely to pretend they didn’t see you standing half-way out in the street. Beyond that, the lifestyle here appears more in line with other Pacific islands rather than the United States in general, or Hawaii. The family homes with the elaborate burial plots in the front yards are still a bit startling, even though commonplace. It’s nice for us to have this mid-trip re-connection with the USA, no matter how slight, after having been away for so long. But it can be confusing.

For example, I was walking around trying to find the rumored laundromat in the area. The street was narrow and uneven and the small buildings seemed randomly placed. Chickens and skinny dogs wandered across the street. Someone in a group of people sitting on the side of the road asked if I was looking for something. I kind of fumbled over the word “laundry.” I had just spent ten months in Spanish and French speaking places and wasn’t sure what one was called here. A woman in the group looked at me weird, then asked in perfect English, “You mean, like, a laundromat?”

Laundromat. Yeah, that’s it. She then directed me to its location about a block away.

I’ve never been a huge fan of McDonald’s, but I do like their breakfasts. The Pago Pago Harbor dinghy dock is, basically, the McDonald’s dock (since it’s right there), and the large, air-conditioned seating area with Wi-Fi and television is the de facto Cruiser’s Lounge. We spent several mornings in there doing email, catching up on news, talking with other cruisers and making plans. More than once breakfast carried over into lunch, sometimes even with a snack in between. McDonald’s does make it easy.

American TV is broadcast here. We were able to watch a nationally televised preseason Seahawks game being played in Seattle which, if nothing else, made me think about how much ocean is between us and getting back home again next year. With our two-year trip half over, I’m allowing myself the occasional thought about the day we sail back into the Straits of Juan de Fuca. I don’t know what that day will be like except that it will be a noteworthy day.

American Samoa is kind of an odd place. There are no real services for visiting yachts; no recreational boating industry that we’ve seen. Need a replacement navigation light? Try Amazon. And judging from the number of Amazon packages that get picked up at the Post Office, they do a good business here.

The harbor is dominated by a huge Starkist tuna operation on one side, and a container ship dock on the other. The electrical power plant for the entire island is also on shore, running day and night with never-ending, industrial-quality noise. What few cruising boats are here are relegated to a designated anchorage area.

There is not much tourism here, no resorts or big hotels. All through French Polynesia locals, usually men, would come out in the early mornings and evenings to paddle around in their canoes, and you’d see families in boats all the time. Not here. Perhaps one reason there isn’t much recreational boating is because there is nowhere to go. Leave the bay and you’re in the big seas. This is, after all, just a big rock in the middle of the ocean. The weather has even hindered our ability to get to shore. It kept us on the boat for a week straight. Twenty-five knots sustained, gusts to well over thirty, and whitecaps in the bay are a bit much for our little dinghy and 2hp outboard motor. We wouldn’t get much wetter if we swam to shore.

It was during thirty-knot gusts and heavy rain that cruisers in the bay came together on very short notice to save us and rescue another boat in the process (or maybe the other way around), when a sailboat that had anchored just upwind of us dragged anchor over the top of our anchor and came perilously close to our bowsprit. If we had hit, both boats would certainly have been damaged. Andiamo was unoccupied at the time and had a reportedly crappy anchor. We could not raise ours and move out of the way without hitting him since he was on top of our anchor. Just in time, dinghies from Slow Flight, Me Too, Terrapin and the British boat, Pickles converged and tied onto both sides of Andiamo. With people climbing on board to steer and handle the anchor, they used their outboards to move Andiamo away from us while we brought up our anchor so we could move and re-anchor ourselves. The subsequent attempts to re-anchor Andiamo were unsuccessful, and the boat was moved to the end of the bay and tied to an unused mooring.

When Andiamo’s owner eventually returned, he was mystified (let’s say concerned) as to how and why his boat had been moved, and by whom. When told what had happened, he was most appreciative for the team effort to save his boat. We are too.

Our three biggest reasons for coming to American Samoa were the United States Post Office, Priority Mail and “If it fits it ships” boxes. We had not had mail forwarded to us since Mexico, and that was a hassle coming by DHL through Mexico City. So we had mail, including credit cards, bank and insurance documents, parts that we hoped would fix the autopilot, canvas fasteners, renewed boat documentation and other things all being sent or forwarded to us at General Delivery, Pago Pago, American Samoa 96799. Most of the packages were being tracked, arriving on a flight from Honolulu. They should have all come together, about the same time we arrived, but [as of this writing] it has taken five trips [and still counting] to the post office to retrieve [most of] them, [more than] three weeks later than we expected. One post office employee told me “Do not use priority mail, use EXPRESS priority mail. (Unfortunately, the parts did not fix the autopilot.)

Many things here have been disappointing. We tried to get a phone SIM card, but the system here is not compatible with our phone. We bought Wi-Fi access from Bluezone. We can barely get a signal out on the boat from the nearest Bluezone hot spot, but at least it’s something. McDonald’s Wi-Fi is pretty good when we’re there, but neither Bluezone nor McDonald’s is fast enough or stable enough to load photographs to the web site without it timing out. Robyn went to the public library and said that for $5 they have really fast internet. If this post includes pictures below, it means that the library internet came through for us. The weather has also gotten to us a bit. It’s hot, even when it rains all the time. And the wind gets pretty crazy out in the bay. That keeps us on an uncomfortable boat, not doing much except checking our anchor and watching the boats upwind from us.

We took a bus ride to the Cost U Less for provisioning for the next two months. The buses here are made from pickup trucks of various sizes. The passenger area is made of wood, with plywood floor and seats. They all seem to have very loud music systems. The buses are all privately owned and painted as such, sometimes elaborately, but they follow established routes on no set schedule. The Cost U Less itself resembles Costco. It even has several Kirkland brand products. There was no way to get everything we bought back on a bus, so we took a taxi back to the dinghy dock. On an English-speaking island, we apparently got the only non-English speaking driver. He made more than one stop for reasons we never understood. At one point he handed his phone to Julie so she could explain to his dispatcher where we wanted to go. And on one of his stops he bought us some coconuts, maybe to make up for all the confusion? One thing though, the road between Pago Pago Harbor and the Cost U Less is very scenic where it runs along the shore.

Although even some of the locals we’ve talked to say that the other Samoa is nicer, we’ll probably skip it if we get a good weather window and go straight to Tonga. Somewhere in southern Tonga will be our last stop before crossing to New Zealand in November. We plan to spend the South Pacific cyclone season doing boat work and exploring New Zealand before turning around and heading for home in 2018.

Pago Pago Harbor with All Day at anchor and Starkist plant in background
Spontaneous team effort to re-secure Andiamo in the wind and rain after it almost dragged into us
Farmer’s market in Pago Pago
Buses built from pickup trucks, one we rode even had a flat screen for passengers
Some buses are big
Some buses are small
This canoe is huge
Best dinghy dock we’ve seen since Mexico

Bora Bora to Pago Pago

Posted by John

With each ocean passage we make, I feel less and less of a fraud and more and more of an actual offshore sailor. Before leaving home last year, we were in Fisheries Supply in Seattle. As we walked by a counter in the sailing department, I overheard the clerk say to a customer, “We sell a lot of these for open ocean boats” (or words to that effect). I don’t know what he was referring to, but I remember thinking that Mysticeti is an open ocean boat. However, it didn’t seem right to think of myself as an open ocean sailor then. I don’t necessarily feel that way anymore, especially after arriving safely in Pago Pago.

A document posted on the blog of s/v Soggy Paws, written by British Captain John M. Wolstenholme, of the yacht Mr. John VI, calls this area of the Pacific between French Polynesia and the Samoa/Tonga area the “Dangerous Middle.” It is the South Pacific Convergence Zone; the place where the equatorial winds and the southern trades meet. It is not to be taken lightly.

Except for the fact that our West Marine “Raiatea” model binoculars, which we had bought at a boat show maybe fifteen years ago, had just spontaneously broken in two, ironically on Bora Bora and not on Raiatea where we had been a couple of weeks earlier, the passage started out great. We passed Maupiti in late afternoon as the sun was setting. We were sailing comfortably at six knots with about a fifteen knot wind. We even seemed to have Isaac, our Saye’s Rig self-steering system, dialed-in to perfection. It seemed like we were just along for a nice ride.

Sometime during the long night it got weird. The northeast wind died suddenly, and after a few minutes of zero wind, it roared back from the southeast at twenty knots or more. Isaac was confused, and suddenly we were going almost 180 degrees from what we wanted. We got back on course and reset Isaac, which requires leaving the safety of the cockpit and scrambling across the top of the aft cabin to do so, but the ride was no longer so nice. The seas rose, and during the night something came loose, slid across the galley counter, and bumped the water faucet on. The replacement water pressure pump that we had wandered the back streets of Papeete trying to find did a great job of efficiently emptying our full 100-gallon center water tank down the drain before we realized that the pump was running.

To make it worse, one of our two side tanks was last filled with dock water in La Cruz, Mexico. All through French Polynesia we were drawing water only from the center tank, topping it off with the water maker whenever we were in a clean enough and calm enough anchorage, or from the dock in Papeete. Of all the marinas we stopped at in Mexico, we always verified that the water on the dock was potable. There was one marina where we didn’t ask. That marina was La Cruz. When we tried to use the water in that side tank, it had a yellow tint, seemed to foam up, and had black grit floating in it. We switched to the other side tank. We don’t remember where the second side tank was last filled, but we drank from it for the rest of the crossing, and are still drinking from it today. The water has a slight metallic taste. It could be that it has been sitting in that tank for a long time.

The next thing that went wrong was when we started the engine to flush the water maker. Every five days the water maker membranes need to be flushed with fresh (or maybe less-than-fresh) water. But when we started the engine to supply the power to run the pumps, we apparently again sucked up whatever had clogged the fuel line before, when we were on our way to Banderas Bay. Once again the engine quit. We switched tanks, did a fuel filter change (because it was really gunked up), and bled the fuel lines mid-ocean in rough conditions.

We originally thought about stopping at Suwarrow atoll, especially when we learned that we needed to refill the water tank. We can’t really run the water maker while underway in rough seas because the pressure fluctuations in the incoming seawater are difficult to handle. We were less than a day out from Suwarrow when we decided that the sea conditions made Suwarrow’s entrance channel a possibly risky proposition. We changed course for Pago Pago.

As we approached American Samoa, we started to look at our arrival time. If we got there too early, it would be the middle of the night. If we got there too late, it would be the weekend and we’d be hit with overtime charges for customs inspection, which you are directed to immediately after being granted permission by Port Control to enter the harbor. The wind was no longer steady, and had actually become quite light. We didn’t want to, because our autopilot is broken and Isaac will not work when we’re under power, but we decided to run the engine and proceed under power for twelve hours, arriving outside the harbor at first light. It would mean hand steering all night, taking turns every hour, bleary-eyed, trying to keep to a compass heading.

Sometime during the night our “steaming” light, which indicates our status as a power-driven vessel, burned out. Not that it mattered much since for the entire trip we had seen only two ships. But it was one more thing that would need fixing, and it’s seventeen feet up the mast.

The entry into the country was the first we’ve done without the help of an agent. We were directed to tie alongside a motor vessel which we couldn’t find at first because another ship was already there. This was pointed out to us by a fellow cruiser already anchored in the bay. On clarification with Port Control, we were directed to tie to that second ship. Fortunately there were crew on board to take our lines. After waiting for a long time, we were finally boarded by what seemed like an excessive number of officials, including police, health department and customs. We had just sailed over a thousand miles in less-than-smooth seas. The cabin was a mess. They seemed most concerned about any contagious diseases we might have, and where our guns and prescription medications were kept. We had none of either on board. One inspector even opened and sniffed a jar of parsley. I don’t know how many times I was asked where we kept the guns, and if any of us were sick. Not being able to find anything, they finally hit us up for a $100 certificate proving we had no rats or mice on board. One of the inspectors was apparently qualified to make that determination. Either that, or we’d have to be fumigated, which would likely cost more. When told to go ahead and take down our “Q” flag, we untied from the ship and motored over to the anchorage and dropped anchor amongst Puddle Jump boats we knew: Slow Flight, Me Too, Terrapin and All Day.

During this crossing through the “Dangerous Middle,” we have seen what are likely the biggest waves we’ve sailed in so far, some of the highest sustained winds (in gale-force range), heaviest rains, and been rolled over the farthest yet. We also saw our highest surfing speeds (more than 12 knots) and took the most water on deck, at one time flooding the starboard deck between the cabin and the bulwark with six-inch deep water that seemed to take forever to drain off through the scupper. And during all that, we dealt with the above problems, even gluing and duct taping the right-side objective lens assembly of our binoculars back together with the rest of it. It actually works all right.

All things considered, this was actually a fairly fun crossing. We had several days and nights of good, low-maintenance sailing with the boat steering itself, the sun crossing the sky by day, and the stars and waning moon crossing by night. It’s a little strange seeing the familiar constellation Orion appear upside-down at this latitude, but his belt still points to Sirius.

So go ahead and call us offshore sailors if you want. I’m okay with it.

Note: Apparently someone has tripped over the cord that connects the American Samoa internet to the rest of the world. I guess there will be no pictures until they find it and plug it back in.

Bora Bora

Posted by John

I don’t know when I first heard of Bora Bora, but I do remember seeing someone with a Bora Bora T-shirt at Greenlake Park in Seattle during the summer of 1983. I wanted a Bora Bora T-shirt too. I don’t think I knew exactly where Bora Bora was then, except that it was an exotic place far away in the Pacific. And okay, I know for sure that it was summer, but I admit it could’ve been ’82 or ’84. Memory is a funny thing.

Now, all these years later, my thoughts were not so much about Bora Bora’s exotic nature as that it was generally the end of the line for French Polynesian cruising. All of the Puddle Jump and Oyster Yacht World Rally boats would be stacking up there like floats at the end of a parade. Oyster Yachts are a high-end sailing yacht. I can’t imagine many of them cost less than a million dollars each. Since they all arrived in French Polynesia at about the same time as all of the Puddle Jump boats, we’d all be faced with the same 90-day visa limit.

Although not far from each other, we wondered if Bora Bora could be as nice as Tahaa. I keep remembering the smile on that woman’s face in Papeete as she coached us on the proper way to say Ta’ha’a. It was like she was laughing and saying “ha-ha.” She had fun with it. We’re glad we spent time there. But we also needed Bora Bora for diesel fuel and groceries (“provisions” in yacht-speak) for the long road ahead. We also wanted good Wi-Fi (one could only hope), and to re-supply our beer cooler. And we wanted to find a cheeseburger and/or pizza. These were all things we’d been lacking lately. And of course, we needed to fill out forms and check out before our expiration date. As they say, “Thank you for coming, and thank you for leaving.”

Although I imagine relatively few have heard of Tahaa, Bora Bora is a tourist destination with hotels and restaurants and fleets of Sunsail, Moorings and Dream Yacht Charters that people fly in from all over to rent for a week or so. The two main anchorages in town are too deep for us but have a few fixed mooring buoys. When we arrived we found what we had been afraid of: all of the mooring buoys were occupied, and our anchor chain was too short for anchoring in the 100-foot depths. We cruised slowly and hopefully through the mooring fields at both the Bora Bora Yacht Club and the Mai Kai Marina, passing Puddle Jump boats we knew: Fandango, My Dream and Sweetpea; and Oyster Yachts we had been crossing paths with since Nuku Hiva: Calliope, Dalliance and Miss Tiggy. Many of the Oysters speak with British accents, and it seems that their boat names are intended to be spoken with such as well. They sound so sophisticated that way, like an expensive yacht should. We ended up anchoring in about thirty feet in a quiet bay on the far side of one of the small islands inside the lagoon; too far away, and too much intervening bigger boat traffic (choppy water), for us to make a dinghy trip to town.

The next day we were just sitting there, when we heard an outboard approaching. It was Dan from My Dream. He and a friend were out looking for the manta rays that hang out nearby. He also said that he was leaving at first light in the morning, on his way to Palmerston in the Cook Islands. We told him we wanted his mooring, and we’d be over there very early in the morning, circling like a vulture until he let it go. We were. He did, eventually. And we swooped in and snagged it.

A little while later the guys from Sweetpea dinghied over and talked for a while. They had been there for several days already and filled us in on what they knew. We could pay for the mooring at the bar in the restaurant that was right over on shore. There was a dinghy dock, but its connection with shore was “sketchy” and not recommended if you stayed too late in the bar.

So with that, we launched our dinghy, took our remaining French Polynesian cash, and went in search of answers to our questions. The dinghy dock, one of the few floating docks we’d seen in French Polynesia, was indeed a little rough. For one thing, it floated like a bobbing cork in the wind and waves, making it difficult even to just stand up on. It was held in place by a large rope tied to something on shore and a few more anchoring it to the bottom. It made no physical connection to the wooden deck in front of the restaurant and there was a gap of three to four feet. Not only were the steps up to the restaurant’s deck on the far side of this gap, but the first step was up higher and at a right angle to the dock. There were no railings of any kind; nothing to grab or lunge for. After trying to stand and stare at the problem for a while, we were finally spurred on by the two large boats tied to one side of the dinghy dock. Every time the gusting wind bashed one of them into it, the dock gave an extra lurch. We couldn’t keep standing there all day.

Interesting digression: there are only a few inches of “sun tide” in the Society Islands, with high tide at noon everyday. Due to a fluke of geography, there is virtually no “moon tide.” Docks don’t need to float up and down with the tide because there really isn’t any.

We rented the mooring for a week, and it came with use of the pool and vouchers for two free drinks. There was a laundry down the street somewhere, if we could find it. The best part about our first Bora Bora shore trip, however, was the couple of hours we spent having a cheeseburger lunch while sitting at a table just inside the open wall of the restaurant, above the wooden deck, with a sweeping view of the boats in the bay. There was a gentle cooling breeze making its way inside, but it was blowing twenty knots outside. It would’ve been rough trying to anchor that deep in that wind. Thanks Dan.

Within a day or two the Oyster yachts began departing. This opened up several moorings, but instead of quieting down the bay, the extra space seemed to give the local boats more room to drive faster and put up bigger wakes. In addition to that, we have been plagued by what I call “Air Balls.” These are sudden blasts of air, coming from seemingly random directions right out of a gentle breeze, and with a ferocious, even frightening intensity lasting mere seconds before a return to the previous conditions. They come without warning, and go just as quickly. They spin and toss the boat and tear at things aboard trying to suck them away, even the dinghy with outboard attached.

So while we had idyllic days on Tahaa, things were more boisterous on Bora Bora, especially with it being the last week of the month-long Polynesian Heiva festival. But although not so idyllic, we found everything we needed to prepare for the next leg of the trip.

With the departure of Fandango, My Dream and even Sweetpea, which was a surprise when they came to say goodbye, we are the last (as far as we know) of the Puddle Jump boats that departed from Mexico and California all at about the same time. From here our plan is to head to American Samoa, with a possible rest stop at Suwarrow. In American Samoa the rumor is we can get mail and packages sent from home as if it was just another destination within the U.S. Then, depending on how bad the Pago Pago harbor is, we may hop across the dateline to regular Samoa (formerly called Western Samoa?). We’ve heard it’s really nice there.

So, next up, I guess it will be Bora Bora to Pago Pago. Total distance to Pago Pago by way of Suwarrow: 1,140 nautical miles.

The island of Bora Bora as seen from inside the lagoon of Tahaa
Coming into the lagoon of Bora Bora
Only time will tell if we run across any of the boats from the Oyster Yacht World Rally again
Mai Kai Marina restaurant on Bora Bora
Surf breaking on the fringing barrier reef of Huahine
We woke to a muddy bay on Tahaa after heavy rain overnight
Black pearl farm on Tahaa
Polynesian houseboat above the reef on Huahine
Supermarket in Fare on Huahine
Churches like this one on Tahaa are all over French Polynesia
French Polynesia still has lots of phone booths, some of which are oddly placed
Julie snorkeling on Huahine
Fish and coral on Tahaa
Bora Bora, after the sunset

Raiatea and Tahaa

Posted by John

It seems like a long time since our last post from Huahine. Maybe that’s just because it feels like we’ve done a lot since then. And maybe it feels like we’ve done a lot because we’ve actually done so little. And maybe we’ve done so little because these last few islands, protected by their fringing reefs, are such a perfect place to do nothing.

The weather varies from hot and humid with no wind (swim to keep cool), to hot and humid with light wind (perfect), to hot and humid with a twenty knot wind (stay out of the wind until too hot, then stand in the wind until cool). Both our cabin humidity and temperature gauges read a constant 85. Maybe they’re both stuck.

The sky is never completely clear of clouds. Most of the time it is probably more than half covered with fluffy cotton balls, and at some point during nearly every day or night there will be at least a few minutes of torrential rain.

So with the days passing easily, we jumped off the boat into crystal clear water to swim and snorkel, we read books, we gazed at the stars and, when absolutely necessary, we ventured to shore to stock up on baguettes and cheese.