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.