Hauling Out in New Zealand

Posted by John

Several days ago Edd from the boat Windrose said, “Interesting concept of summer here.” Edd is from California. But even by Seattle standards, the last three weeks have been frustratingly wet and stormy. In one storm we had steady winds of over 40 knots, with higher gusts. That’s a major winter storm in Seattle, bringing down trees and power lines. It was scary just to walk down the dock. The gusts were almost strong enough to knock me off into the water. Unlike at home, where storms tend to last several hours, here they seem to last for days. The first storm ended and the sun came out and it was hot for a few days, but then another storm came. The second storm had slightly less wind (30 knots), but much higher quantities of rain. I’m absolutely sure that we got more rain in three days here than Seattle gets in a whole summer. It was the second storm that was the most worrisome for us. We had a scheduled haulout, and the predictions, even five days in advance, were for the wind and rain to continue until the exact hour of our haulout.

New Zealand has apparently privatized its weather service. I don’t know how the business model works, but MetService.com forecasts are free for non-commercial use. They also seem to be accurate. They have enough weather radars to cover the entire country, satellite images, and wind and rain forecasts going out five days. We couldn’t find anything like that in French Polynesia, which probably was the place with the least available weather forecasts, although they did broadcast periodic weather reports in French.

We could probably deal with the rain, but a 30 knot gusting wind, coming from the north, would make it difficult to get out of the slip, turned in the right direction, and then get backed into the travel lift. A little too much close-quarter maneuvering. The tidal current already surprised us the day we went into the slip, so that would be an added factor. Although, as luck would have it, when we checked the tide predictions it turned out that we just happened to have been scheduled for slack tide.

Just the haulout itself, even under perfect conditions, would have its concerns. They gave us little “S” stickers to put on the hull to show the lift operator where to put the straps. In past haulouts (we’ve done all previous haulouts with this boat in Port Townsend) the boatyard has determined where to place the straps prior to actually picking it up. I wasn’t real comfortable with them placing the responsibility onto us. I mean, what do we know about operating a travel lift? But if something went wrong they could say they were just following our instructions.

The boat Sky Blue Eyes was hauled several days before us. I asked them what they thought about the stickers, and they said that their boat, a Hunter, came from the factory with strap placement arrows already painted on the hull. Okay then. We brought along a photo showing Mysticeti in the lift at Port Townsend. The problem is, the lift there had three straps, all tied together with a horizontal strap low down on each side. They also hauled us once with just two straps, but our picture of that was not from a good angle to show strap placement. Also, at that time we had no masts, rigging or bowsprit, and we were turned around in the opposite direction in the lift. Not really a good comparison.

The forward strap has to go where the hull slopes upward to the bow, and that is the problem. The strap can slip up that slope, letting the boat drop down. The lift here only has two straps. More weight would be on that angled strap. It was suggested by the yard manager that we put the forward strap back far enough that it would still be on the flat part at the bottom of the keel. But that would put both straps in the rear half of the boat. We thought the forward strap would have to be on the slope, and tied strongly to the other strap.

The day of the haulout was still gusting with heavy rain. It looked like the wind direction had changed slightly to the worst possible angle to make it as difficult as possible to get the bow to swing around, against the wind, in order to go forward out of the marina. As a worst case backup plan, the marina has a large inflatable that can be used as a tugboat to help nudge the bow in the right direction. But the woman who operates it would have to come out from the marina office into the rain and wind. We didn’t really want to ask her to do that.

An hour before our scheduled time, the rain had stopped. The wind died down to fifteen knots. It was slack tide. After all that worry and stress, we backed out of the slip and turned the bow to point in the right direction without a hint of difficulty. We went out and looped about a bit, killing time. We moved fenders and dock lines to the other side of the boat in anticipation of tying to a waiting pier near the haulout slip, but then didn’t need to do that anyway.

As we arrived at the haulout, the lift operators were ready and were lowering the straps into the water. I could see there was no horizontal strap. We swung the boat around and managed to get the stern just inside the pilings, which are completely protected by tall, floating tubular roller fenders that provide pivot points to rub against. Now we wanted the wind to catch the bow and bring it around a little, but, just as predicted by MetService, the wind completely died at that moment. But it didn’t matter, we were in far enough that the lift guys could grab the boat with their boat hooks and pull us into place.

We told the lift operator that the straps needed to be tied together. “No worries, Mate.” Except that we had to tie them ourselves, using our own dock lines, much higher up than we wanted which gave the forward strap a lot more freedom to slip. Not exactly like they do things in Port Townsend, but in the end it all worked out okay. They pressure washed the hull and blocked up the boat while we went for lunch—with beer.

Now if the rain, which has started up again, would just quit so we could paint, we could get this whole thing over with and take off in the car to see New Zealand.

Coming out of the water. Rather than strapping the front and back straps together with another strap down low at the bottom of the keel, we got to put a rope around the front strap and run it back through the hole, just visible above the right rear tire of the lift, and wrap it around the jib winch.
This picture shows the problem. The front strap is on the up-slope of the keel (behind the tire). The rope is too high up to be doing much.
8,000 sailing miles from home, and the boat next to us is from Tacoma.
Just like any other boatyard, with our car parked under the stern.

Christmas?

Posted by John

I learned a long time ago that if the years seem to be passing too quickly, it’s time to try something different. A year ago we spent Christmas in La Paz, Mexico after sailing down the entire coast of the continental United States and Baja California. That was different enough from a normal Christmas then, but now even that seems so long ago and far away.

With Julie’s brother and nephew being joined here by his wife and other son, we ended up with a completely different experience than even what we were already having. The extra help, knowledge and moral support, meant we could tackle a few things I might’ve been reluctant to try myself. As a result, our non-functioning oven is now functioning again. The starter motor, which has been acting up at times, including on the crossing from Tonga, was removed, disassembled, inspected, contacts cleaned and, hopefully, will be more reliable now. We have a new alternator, and will carry the old one as a spare. We have new binoculars to replace the ones that fell apart in Bora Bora, a new goose neck pin for the main boom, and a lot of input and feedback on several other projects. Combined with a new tablet computer to fill in for the laptop that failed in the Marquesas, and our own car, it was almost like Christmas. I say “almost like” because we find it hard to feel like Christmas when it’s summer and the sun is still up well into the evening. Holiday decorations just don’t look right in the sunshine. Maybe that’s why we seem to have seen so few.

This is prime vacation time for New Zealanders. Everything is crowded, including the marina and the marina parking lot. Normally we wouldn’t care about a parking lot except that now we find ourselves worrying about finding a place to park our car. We lost a hubcap already, and likely need a brake job. Gas is terribly expensive, and our credit cards don’t work at unattended gas stations. Mobility is nice, but owning a car can be a hassle.

Having family here meant we actually went out and acted like tourists. We explored the far north end of New Zealand, took a miles-long bus ride on a beach, saw huge sand dunes, took a ferry ride to the historic town of Russell, visited a limestone cave with a ceiling covered by bio-luminescent glow-worms, and even went to the top of the Sky Tower in Auckland.

We stopped at this scenic inlet off Rangaunu Bay near Pukenui
Another view of the same inlet near Pukenui. Little dark dots in the grass on the other side are a herd of cows. There are millions of cows and sheep in New Zealand.
Far north end of New Zealand
Cape Reinga Lighthouse
Special tour bus drives right down Kauaeparaoa Stream between huge sand dunes
It wouldn’t be New Zealand if you couldn’t stop for a quick slide down the dune
Ninety-Mile Beach on the Tasman Sea side of the North Island
Tour bus can adjust the air pressure in the tires for driving on sand. It wasn’t ninety miles, but it was a long trip along the beach.
Along the waterfront in Russell on the day before Christmas
Landscape at the limestone “Glow-Worm” cave
Auckland waterfront from Sky Tower

Mobility

Posted by John

As nice as the Opua marina is, we do need to get around. A van offers trips a few days a week to Paihia for grocery runs at the supermarket, and cars can be rented easily with a phone call. We took advantage of both the van and the rental cars more than once. We drove to Whangarei to check out a boatyard and see if there was a better place to keep the boat near there. On another trip we drove all the way to Auckland to pick up Julie’s brother and nephew at the airport. On both trips we spent the night at backpacker hostels. On the return trip from Auckland we stopped at Avis to pick up a rental car for Julie’s brother, and the battery in our rent-a-dent died. Fortunately, Avis had a jump starter.

For real mobility, and to save us from going broke on rental car charges, we decided we needed our own car. So we bought one.

Our little Holden Barina

Shopping for and buying a car in a foreign country—with left-side driving, no less—was never on my bucket list (or any to-do list), but it became something of a priority once we got here, considering our ambitious plans for the next few months. Of course, once it rose to the top priority, used cars for sale seemed to mysteriously become scarce. We searched internet postings, used car lots, message boards and car auction sites all the way to Auckland. The cars we were willing to gamble on always seemed to get sold just before we could get to them. Finally, we just happened to see an ad for this car posted on the laundry room board. We jumped on it.

After we called the seller, he offered to drive it over to the marina so we could have a look. As soon as we met him, people seemed to come out of nowhere to ask if the car was for sale. They opened doors, walked around looking at the tires, asking questions. Only after we said (loudly) that we’d take it and started filling out a transfer of ownership form, did they concede and go back to whatever they had been doing before.

The next morning we went to two ATMs in Paihia with three different bankcards in order to withdraw enough cash, then we met the seller again and completed the deal. The post office handled the registration transfer. For licensing and insurance purposes, the marina address is now our “permament residence” in New Zealand. The woman at the post office knew exactly what address we wanted to use, as she had done “a few” before.

It ended up being an easy process. Next up is a trip to town to see Star Wars.

A pleasant landscape on the way to Auckland
It’s been a while since we’ve had to navigate around a big city

Getting Established in New Zealand

Posted by John

We plan to stay in New Zealand for the cyclone season, which is five or six months. Whether or not we keep the boat in Opua the whole time we don’t know yet. We planned for at least a month in the marina and a month in the boatyard for rudder repair and bottom paint, but we don’t know which boatyard yet, or exactly when. We may move the boat south to Whangerei where there are more boatyards to choose from, but that requires sailing back out in the ocean. Not high on our list right now, especially with the currently wet and stormy weather. They say the nice weather starts in January so we shouldn’t expect to get anything done between Christmas and February when businesses close for vacation.

When given a choice I tend to prefer shiny new things and the Bay of Islands Marina is as new as things come. The section we are in, H dock, just opened this year. They’re still putting in the lawns. Just about every boat service you’d want is located right here, including: sail maker; mechanic; canvas shop; ship chandleries; stainless fabrication; fiberglass repair; electrical workshop; cafes; general store; laundry; even an insurance agent where you can buy the $5 million NZ personal liability policy that the marina requires. And for those who are looking to unload their boat and fly back home, there’s a boat broker.

The cruiser’s lounge is second to none with Wi-Fi, television, cushy chairs, sofas and bean bag chairs (bean bag chairs, like from the 70’s!), a large conference room table convenient for spreading out, and even a separate “quiet” computer room.

During our customs check-in the biosecurity inspector confiscated our popcorn and a few other things, but otherwise went pretty easy on us. We were worried about the boat bottom and any invasive species we might’ve picked up since scraping the barnacles off in Tonga. We’d heard they sometimes stick a camera under the boat to see what’s there, but the officer just looked at the waterline and what he could see of the rudder and thought it looked good.

The only hiccup we had was getting from the customs dock to our slip. The wind and an unexpectedly strong tidal current made it difficult to bring the bow around and into the slip. Sometimes we really do envy the boats with bow thrusters. But soon a small crowd had gathered on the pier to shout encouragement and take our lines, as well as welcome us to New Zealand.

We’ve had little down time so far. The Bay of Islands Cruising Association and Opua Cruising Club have been putting on a two-week welcome which started with a New Zealand orientation and continues with seminars on various topics, barbecues, pizzas and van trips to town. We’re tired just from that. We’ve also managed to start cleaning out the boat, figure out who sells which bakery goodies, and have removed the sails and given them to the sail maker for repair. We’ve also been discussing where we want to visit and what we want to do while here. The time is going to pass quickly.

Marina building with upstairs visitors lounge
Opua General Store
It may still be the South Pacific, but it is certainly not the tropics
Opua wharf with abandoned rails

Our new gated community

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.