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.

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