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
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