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