December 17, 2011

Tonga to NZ

Tonga to New Zealand
We set sail with much anticipation on the 25th of October 2011 for our 1050 mile passage to New Zealand with Tim Spencer from Indiana, Chris Lambertsen from North Carolina and myself aboard Downtime. We had a weather window that looked promising for the 6 days we were to be at sea. This passage is feared by many sailors due to the frequency of low pressure systems that move through this part of the world. We had heard many stories and talked with a few boats that had been damaged by big waves and storm force winds while making this crossing. Daria was the smart one she jumped on a plane and flew back to Russia to spend a month with family and friends while my friends and I sailed Downtime to New Zealand.
We spent the morning clearing out and provisioning and by early afternoon we cleared the pass and had a single reefed mainsail and a full jib pulling us south at over 9 knots on a beam reach which is the fastest point of sail on Downtime. The waters to the lee of the island were nice and smooth as we sailed just beyond the reef on our way south to New Zealand. We had the lines out trolling and it did not take long to catch the attention of a nice Mahi Mahi. Chris gave it his best shot but towards the end of the fight the Mahi shook the bait and we lost the fish. As soon as we cleared the island the conditions changed quickly with the winds increasing along with the size of the waves. We had experienced 3 days of southerly winds and this was the first day of NE winds so the seas were still coming out of the south and made the ride bouncy to say the least. The winds were over 25 knots and we put in another reef and put up the poles since we were going way too fast to fish with the boat routinely going over 10 knotts!
We settled in to the routine of the watch schedule each taking a 3 hour watch at night and 2 hour during the day. I usually like the 3 to 6 am watch since this is the best time to download weather and send e-mail over the SSB radio.
Downtime was in her element gobbling up 200 miles the first day and close to that the next 5 days and only on the last day did we have to start the motors when the winds died down. The weather forecasts were spot on and we had perfect winds the entire passage.
We contacted New Zealand radio when we were 25 miles out and gained clearance to enter their waters along with the 48 hour notice that we had emailed them two days prior. We motor sailed up the Bay of Islands and tied to the quarantine dock in Opua and were met by customs and immigration and were cleared by the most efficient team of officers I had met to date. I can not say enough about the professionalism and efficiency of these officers. Thanks for doing a great job!!
Opua is where most cruisers clear into and they were expecting some 600 boats this season alone! If this was Ecuador there would be 50 boats tied to the quarantine dock waiting days for clearance. The little town is a boaters paradise with several chandleries and boat repair facilities right on the waterfront. It was the beginning of the season here and I had a few things to fix on Downtime and I was able to get transmission work done with just one days notice and repair the cockpit enclosure that was blown out on our way to Fiji.
With the boat all fixed up we found a place to anchor and went to talk to Phil at Car For Cruisers. I wound up buying a 92 Toyota mini van to drive while we spent the summer in NZ. Phil at CFC has a plan where he sells you a car and 6 months later buys it back for a reasonable fee. It is a simple process buying a car here sign one paper and then go to you local post office and pay $135 NZ for 6 month license fee. No long lines at the DMV or registration hassles just give them your license tag number and pay . We should look at this in the states…it might save the postal system?  As for the DMV well know body would miss that much at least we would get our mail….
Chris hopped off the boat in Opua to go meet his wife in Auckland and tour the south island for a month. This is the second voyage Chris has made on Downtime along with the maiden voyage 3 years ago from Panama City FL. to Ft Lauderdale. It is always nice to have someone aboard with years of sailing experience behind them and it always a pleasure sailing with Chris. Thanks for all the help Chris!
The Bay of Islands is just like it sounds a huge bay full of islands. The scenery here is almost breathtaking with green rolling hills and beautiful shorelines. It is no wonder so many people fall in love with this country. You can buy a house with an ocean view for about 1/3 of what it would cost in California and the people here are so nice. Everyone I ran into had great attitudes and were most helpful when we asked for anything a refreshing change from the islanders up north.
Tim and I spent a few days in Opua and then sailed south along the coast exploring other anchorages. We had a dock reserved for the first of December in Gulf Harbor Marina and we had a few weeks to make our way down to Auckland.
We anchored where ever we could pick up a internet signal and could get in touch with friends and family back home. One day we took SD up the harbor to Whangarei to find some gasoline. We could not get gas on the water but the nice guys at the yacht repair place gave us a 5 gallon can and directions to the nearest gas station. The gas station was right next to a fish and chips shack and a fishing supply store, like the two most favorite place in the world for me!! We headed back to Downtime with full bellies a tank of gas and some new fishing goodies. Our next stop we anchored next to our friends on Cosulo that we first met up in Tonga for the night.
The next day we headed east out to the Barrier Islands 35 miles offshore. We tried fishing but the water is still too cold this time of the year for tuna and we had no luck. The Barrier Islands are what NZ must have looked like 200 years ago, undeveloped and with very few people living on them. The hills are covered in trees and the views are breathtaking. This is such a nice change from the pacific islands, they all started to look the same to us…We just spent a day out there looking around and then headed back to the mainland with stormy weather on its way.
I wanted to take a look at the marina we were gong to stay at and we sailed to Gulf Harbor the next day with hopes of finding a anchorage close by. Well, no luck on an protected anchorage there. .we spent the night rolling in choppy seas and set off to find a calmer place the next day. We went back north to Hawai Bay and spent a few days there. One day we took SD 8 miles up the bay to Warkworth a cool little town along the river and bought some fresh provisions.
While anchored one morning I was waken by the sound of birds dive bombing bait fish! I got up and saw schools of Kawai (sea trout) chasing bait along with the birds. I rigged a few top water baits and within an hour we landed 5 nice size trout. We followed the school up the bay but they soon the vanished as unexpected as the had appeared.
Next stop was Kawau Island 8 miles to the north where we anchored in Bon Accord Harbor. This is a summer get away island and most the homes along the shore looked empty. That afternoon took SD to the only restaurant on the island and ate some fish and chips and hung out with the locals. There were 20 guys on a weekend fishing tournament and it looked like a rugby reunion from the size of these Kiwi's. I got the scoop on how to catch Red Snapper and we wished them luck in the tournament.
The last island we visited was Waiheke Island which is 14 miles east of Auckland. Waiheke has some 24 vineyards and is another vacation destination.
By now I had a good sense of which islands were accessible around the marina and was ready to put the boat on the dock for a while. Daria was flying in on the 24th and Tim had a flight out on the 22nd so we headed to the marina and secured Downtime to a dock for only the second time in a over year.
What a year it has been, looking back at all the places we had been. It felt strange to tie up to a dock and know that this is where we would be for the next few months. Some how the thought of seeing New Zealand from a mini van just seems less exciting than discovering new islands by sea…

In our next adventure we will be discovering New Zealand

Until then, Live your dreams!!  Pete and Daria
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November 21, 2011

Tongatapu Island, Tonga.

Kingdom of Tonga has been an amazing mix of danger and beauty for Daria and I during the last month but our adventure through these beautiful islands was sadly drawing to an end. Out last stop in the island chain was the capital city of Nukalofa on Tongatapu Island.. We had just spent two of the most relaxing weeks we have had in a while enjoying quiet deserted anchorages all to ourselves in this island paradise.

We had weather building out of the south so we set sail on the 18th with the wind still blowing out of the NE pushing us nicely 45 miles south to our destination. As always we were trolling lines and this trip we caught a nice Wahoo that Daria reeled in. We anchored away from the pack the first night for our last night to ourselves aboard Downtime for the next few months. We would be picking up Tim and Chris on the 20th and Daria would fly back home on the 23rd, well to Russia anyways since she now feels Downtime is her REAL home, she would be in Russia for the next month to visit family and friends and to renew her passport which was quickly running out of unstamped pages.

The next morning we jumped in SD and explored some of the outer uninhabited islands. There was one 7 miles to the north that had some of the softest white sand beaches I had seen since Barbuda. We put two sets of footprints for a mile around the island and had a relaxing morning. Later we moved Downtime to the anchorage with the other cruisers and gave away some Wahoo and went to find Tim and Chris, friends of mine that would help sail Downtime to NZ.

Nukalofa is the biggest city in Tonga and Tongatapu has about 1/3 of the total land mass of the Kingdom. There are roughly 200,000 Tongans and 2/3 live here on the main island. Tonga is the most densely populated islands in the south pacific with 150 people per Sq/kilometer three times that of Fiji and twice that of the Cook Islands. Traditional law was that each male was given the right to rent 8.25 acres of farm land and also 1/3 acre in the village to build a house on for literally nothing. Their increased numbers are already to great to provide the constitutional land for each male adult and now there is a trend to emigrate to other countries. Around 3000 Tongans leave each year and most emigrate to New Zealand 60%, The States 25% and Australia 15%.

One day we hired a car to take us around the island. We started the morning by going to the Saturday market where at least a hundred vendors had their booths set up. This was like one huge garage sale and you could find just about anything. Food vendors were barbecuing chicken, lamb and goat, others were frying meat pies and other good tasting snacks. The fish vendors were selling all kinds of interesting seafood from sacks of clams to gallon size bags full of way too small fish! Others sold just about anything you would see on the reef from moray eel to sea urchins. We bought some chicken and apples for the road and were soon on our way.

 It was interesting to see the narrow 8.25 acres strips of land being cultivated. Most the work is still done by hand but there are community tractors that pull small two gang discs to break out new ground. Most the tractors I saw were small 50 to 60 hp Massy Ferguson's. We arrived during watermelon season and there were thousands to choose from for $3 to $8, a great value at those prices!

Other roadside stands sold taro root in all sixes. Apparently there are three main varieties that are as small as a potato and others that are three feet long and 10 inches around!! Taro is a starch rood similar to potatos and has to be baked whole or ground to a flour and made into a cake like bread. It is the main staple here and goes good with just about anything.

Other fields were fenced and had grazing cattle munching grass under the coconut trees. We even saw one coconut tree with three tops on it!! Now that's one nutty tree!

Then there were always pigs running around.. Our driver was funny, when I asked does any body steal pigs? He said "yes and then they go to jail." I asked "for how long" and he said "depends on how big the pig is" small pig is a week and big pig is a month. So I guess "No squealing or you go to the poky Literally" The pigs are for parties and special occasions and everyone respects each others pigs and property here.

Continuing around the island we traveled to the south coast that had miles of rugged coastline with hundreds of blow-holes shooting water into the air. We were lucky to have timed this right being there at low tide and having big sea pushing waves into the jagged shore causing them to splash wildly into the air with a loud roar.

Continuing around the island we stopped at some caves and took the $10 tour that was worth the money. It was no Carlsbad Caverns but was interesting to see the island geology.

After that we stopped at a nice resort and had a beer looking out one the ocean with the place to ourselves. Tonga only has about 20,000 people visit each year and if you wanted to go somewhere off the beaten path this is definitely it. This is high season and there was just a few people checked into this resort. There are some really nice resorts here and I was amazed to find so few people enjoying them?

To sum it all up, I was impressed with the amount of farming here. There is a big export demand from countries like Japan to grow pumpkins and other root crops along with the big seafood demand. About 50% of the countries income is from farming exports and 25% from seafood, mostly tuna contracts and 25% tourism. The people are friendly and helpful. The country has a 99% literacy rate and most everyone speaks English which is nice for us travelers.

After a day of sightseeing we headed back to Downtime for a good nights rest. The next day looked promising for kite surfing and I was able to spend a few hours on the board. Then the wind slowed a bit and I gave Tim and Chris a lesson! Well Kite surfing looks easy to some anyways.. Chris did a great job flying the kite and done some body dragging and was soon worn out swallowing his fill of salt water. Tim on the other hand was not quite as good with the kite and did some wicked launches out of the water with a nice face plant finish swallowing gallons of ocean each time!! It did not take him long to put up the white flag!! Lessons over we headed to the boat. I had one more brief run that afternoon launching of the back of Downtime but soon ran out of wind.

We took SD for one more adventure the next day to Atata Island where there is a small resort and a village of 200 people just 7 miles to the west. We hoped to see a few whales on our way out bu just were not so lucky this day. The resort was currently being renovated and has some 40 bungalows available for rent. Again there were just a couple rented out and we had the place to ourselves.

Sunday was the big Rugby tournament but we could not find one place open to watch the game. Tonga and many of the other islands we have been to closes everything on Sunday. The Methodists did a pretty good job converting everyone here in the 1800 and now about 35% of the islanders attend church on Sunday. Tonga has the highest percentage of Mormons in the worlds up to 15% and the Mormon church owns the biggest building on the island. They send tons of money over here and provide more support to the people than the government does. We drove by the Mormon High School and the property was something to see! I understand if you are Mormon you get to go to school for free and also to college in Hawaii for little or no cost to the Tongans. Needless to say lot of families become Mormon when their kids get to high school age.

All in all we enjoyed Tonga, it is not to be missed if you are cruising though the pacific. Tonga like any country has its pluses and minuses but for the most part it is a great place to explore, just enough off the beaten path to still be an adventure!!

In our next adventure we will be sailing south to New Zealand!

Until then, Live Your Dream!

Peace!! Capt. Pedro and Daria

November 7, 2011

Photos from Ha'apai Group!

Ha'apai Group, Kingdom of Tonga  is one of my favorite place in all South Pacific, so if you have a chance, don't miss it!!! It's definitely worth to see! It looks like a mix of Bahamas and Tuamotu!!!
I wish we spent more time there!

Хаапаи - одна из трех групп островов, образующих дальнее королевство Тонга
и это одно из красивейших мест в Тихом океане,  смесь Туамотус и Багам.
Острова с белоснежными пляжами, прозрачной водой всех оттенков изумрудно-синего, пальмама, ракушками, рыбками, кораллами... и все эта красота, практически нетронута человеком! Я бы с удовольствием провела там еще 2-3 недели!


November 6, 2011

Ha'apai group

After 2 beautiful weeks in the Vava'u Group we made our way south to the Haapai Group.  The Kingdom of Tonga is a series of islands that lies north to south  over a distance of 350 miles with many different island groups with almost too many places to see. 

Our first stop on tour way south was Ofolanga, one of the small islands in the NW part of the Ha'apai Group.  We found ourselves motor sailing most of the way and of course I had to get the lines in the water since it had not fished in weeks.  Well you know that bait I caught the big marlin in Fiji had to be in the water along with my other favorites and for a while I thought I would actually get skunked.  We were 7 miles from our destination motoring at just 5 knots in bumpy seas with overcast weather, not the best fishing conditions to say the least.  And then, Bang the pole with the marlin bait came alive with what looked to be a monster fish!  Well 20 minutes later we had a 40 pound Sierra Mackerel  on the deck!!  This is only the second of these I have caught and this one was by far the biggest.  These fish look like a big fat Wahoo and seem to taste even better if that’s possible?  So much for getting skunked….

An hour later we rounded the island and anchored nest to Braveheart and another boat Dana with a couple from Austria aboard and one other catamaran.  We got on the radio and announced we had fish to give away and Dana replied so we invited them over for a drink and gave them a nice piece of Mackerel.   They told us their story over a beer and to sum it up, they left for a sail 9 years ago and are just fell in love with the pacific and have been all over from way down south to  Easter Island  and all the way up to Kodiak Island in Alaska!  Now that is doing some sailing!!

The next morning Daria, Bob, Veronica and I all went for a dive off the reef and after the dive we had a nice lunch which Bob from Braveheart fried up some fresh Mahi that he caught on his way down, what a meal!! 

 After lunch we pulled the hook and motored over to Luahoka which is a postcard perfect little island just 5 miles away and went for a walk around it and then went for a swim.  The coral around the island was spectacular with corral canyons and lots of fish swimming in the clear blue water.


Back aboard Downtime we were relaxing when we heard whales blowing just 200 yards in front of the boat.  We hopped in SD (Supper Dink for the new readers)  and went to see if we could get closer and swim with them.  Well, this was our lucky day!!  We followed a few whales and were lucky enough to stop where we though they would come up next and Daria slid into the water just as one whale swam by.  She was only 10 yards away from a 40 foot whale!! You should have heard the screams coming out of her snorkel!! Too Funny! 

Luahoko was no place to anchor overnight so we moved to Nukunamo Island  and anchored in baby blue water with the anchor stuck in white sand.  Later that evening we had Bob and Veronica over and played Monopoly Deal the short version of monopoly and enjoyed a nice fish dinner that Daria whipped up.  Wow what a busy day!  The anchorage was nice and calm and we tuned in early for some much needed rest.  About 4:30 the next morning I kept hearing  this strange squeaking sound?  I got up to see what was loose on deck and fond nothing out of order and went back to bed.  Then there it was again!  Then it dawned on me… it had to be whales singing!! The sounds gradually got louder and louder and soon seemed to be just outside the boat.  I went back topside and saw a mother and her calf just 50 feet from Downtime and they were singing away.  By now it was very loud in the boat and  the sounds were incredible to hear so close.  One sound was like a giant door hinge slowly creaking and the other sounded almost like a dog with a bone stuck in its throat and very raspy.  They say the volume can get up to 160 DB and travel for miles.  Our beds on Downtime are at water level and we heard them like we were in the water with them.  What a way to start the day!!  Later Daria and Veronica took the kayak to the beach and went searching for shells and returned with a bucket full of treasure.

The next stop was a few miles south at Ha Ano Isalnd and we went ashore to visit the small village there.  The locals had a nice attitude and invited us for a Kava welcoming party.  Well, having had the nasty tasting  kava before I was not to thrilled but we went anyways.  It was nice to be welcomed on the island and by its people.  The island itself appeared to be really poor.  The people seemed to have just given up and it showed. There really was not much else going on.  What they do have is electricity and a love for rugby!!  One house we walked by had 3 foot weeds growing around it with no doors or windows but amazingly had a 42 inch plasma hanging on the wall with the rugby tournament playing.  There were 6 or 7 guys gathered around a kava bowl watching the game but the other men on the island must have been out fishing.   There were not very many kids and we were told that when they get old enough are sent off to boarding school and only return on the holidays and school breaks.

Lifuka Island was our  next stop to clear in and as usual finding out where was half the battle.  We asked sever locals and each one gave us a look like we asked them the square root of 46 or something and had no freaking idea?  Heck the island is only 2 miles long and eventually we found the customs office right next to the post office!  Its funny how official an islander can get with a title of “customs officer” It is like giving the road worker a shovel to lean on!  Clearing in was easy just fill out  one page and a show of passports then we were cleared in and were out  in 20 minutes.  I Really see no point of clearing into a country again but it on the “your supposed to do it list” so we did.  The little town had at least 5 or 6 small shops run by the Chinese who practically or most times actually did live their little stores.  There are no prices marked and I think everyone gets charged differently,  for us the ones who looked like they had a few extra dollars we were charged $18  for a dozen eggs and a bag of onions.  Way too much but hey lets hope the next guy gets a break…. It was amazing how much trash was laying around this island.  Pigs ran wild rooting through the rubbish behind the stores and coke cans, chip bags and candy wrappers lined the streets. There was only one central place to put garbage and that was inside a big shed that was stacked to the ceiling with junk.  I guess they haul it when the building is full?  This is definitely a place less traveled and we only saw a few other tourists in town at the only internet café on the island.  Again this café was owned by a European and had a few locals working In the kitchen.  The food was good and internet was so. On the table next to us were some guys from South Africa and they has 20 packs of cigarettes on the table and looked to be recovering from the previous nights rugby game by drinking beer and chain smoking.  I really do not know why one would travel to such a remote place to vacation?

After clearing in we moved the boat to Uiha Island 8 miles down south.  Uiha had a small village that look similar to others we have seen so we just stayed on the boat.  It looks like the villages own a few boats and all the men go out fishing during the day. Just before dark several boats were coming back to the village and must have had 10 to 15 guys on a small 20 foot boat!   We anchored next to Braveheart again and that afternoon Daria and Veronica took the kayak and explored the area and that evening we had dinner together.  In the morning Braveheart was heading south chasing a Nov 1st arrival in NZ and we were heading to the Koto Group.

The Koto Group is 35 miles south and just a handful of yachts visit each year.  The islands have a bad reputation for having poor anchorages and bad charts.  We soon found out how bad the charts were and had to keep a sharp eye out for reefs that would pop up out of no where since they definitely were not plotted on the right place on the charts!  You hear stories of boats going aground and this is the type of place it usually happens, remote poorly charted islands.  Thankfully we had clear water and bright skies to be able to see the oncoming dangers. 
Ha Afeva was the first island we anchored at.  The pass through the reef was visible but did not line up with our charts on the boat?  We took it slow and safely made it through the reef and anchored on the south side of the island.  From our anchorage I could count 11 other islands and the next day we took SD for a trip to go see some of them.  A few had small villages and others were uninhabited. 
Driving around  I wondered what this place must have been like 100 years ago?  I had to be an even more amazing place back then…
The next stop was 10 miles away and we anchored in a little bay on “O” Va a beautiful little island just ½ mile across.  We took SD to the shore and spent a few hours walking around the island making the first footprints in the sand in who now’s how long?  All these little islands have beautiful beaches and on most you get the whole island to yourself. The islands are covered in dense vegetation and coconut palms so thick that it is impossible to walk through the heavy growth.  While walking around the islands I noticed that there seemed to be a lot of trees falling into the ocean where the shore is eroding on several of these islands.  The evidence that the oceans are rising is real here and you can see the affects in many of the places I have been.  They say the oceans have risen 10 inches in the last 40 years and will rise another 3 feet by the end of this century.  Three feet of water and most of these islands we have seen will disappear forever.

Next stop was the Nomuka Group and our first island was Iki and we tucked inside a mile long reef on the NE side and anchored in 15 feet of water.  The reef gave us good protection during low tide but when the tide was up we were rolling pretty good.  On the trip down we had lines trolling all day without a strike and just when we approached the island, BANG another Mahi hit just a mile from the island we were sailing to. Amazing!.  That afternoon the wind was blowing 15 to 20 so I got out a kite and wouldn’t you know it about the time I launched it dropped down to 12 and I did not have enough wind to pull me up.  It is so frustrating to go through all that work just to have the wind die …again…maybe next time.

After 2 days of stormy weather we set sail for the next island 30 miles south.  On our trip across we first caught a 3 foot white tip shark on a diving lour and just before we came to the island and were skirting a coral head we landed another Sierra Mackerel on the purple marlin bait. Kelefesia Island is surrounded with several other islands and many unmarked reefs.  The entrance to the anchorage has a 70 sailboat laying on the bottom to attest to the fact that this is a dangerous place.  Her mast is still laying on the beach picked clean of any thing of value, the rest of the boat just is laying on the bottom as a reminder to be extra careful in these islands.
We slowly motored over the sunken boat to get into the anchorage that was no more that a big open area surrounded by reef 100 yards from the island.  The island was amazing! There were sandstone cliffs that rose up from the beach that had 100’s of layers of different colored tan sand running in horizontal lines on cliffs that are over 100 feet tall.  What a contrast to the palm trees and jungle behind them and the turquoise blue water in front.
  We launched the kayak and paddled 2 miles around the island through the shallow lagoon and saw the whole island.  On the NW end we saw a make shift camp area but no one was around and on the far west side was a beautiful beach and a smaller pure sand island that would go under water at high tide.  

Later I was able to kite for a few hours,  luckily this time before the wind died down.  Afterward I left the kite ready on the beach for two days waiting for the wind to return but it never did?  This was the most spectacular island I have ever experiences. We had a calm anchorage, beach and island all to ourselves in clear blue water and perfect weather.

The next say we took SD for another adventure to Nuku Island just 3 miles away and found the reef to difficult to pass even in SD.  Next we drove out to Kefikana Rock which would be the smallest island we visited just 40 feet across and 13 feet high, we had time for a few pictures and then headed back to Downtime.  It is a strange feeling being 7 miles out to sea in a 15 foot dingy, I was thinking don’t fail me now SD!!  Well SD was true to form and the 60 Hp Yamaha never missed a beat and soon we were back safe in the anchorage next to Downtime. 

Later that afternoon our island paradise was interrupted by two boats full of fishermen from a nearby islands.  We went ashore to say hello and brought them hats and tee shirts to open up the trading floor. Also made few pictures from the top of the cliff.

Fishermen were preparing to spend a night there, so I asked if they were lobster fishermen and yes I was right.  I then asked what they would trade lobster for?  Naturally they replied “KAVA”  well, they were in luck and the next morning they traded 9 lobsters for 2 pounds (1 kg) of kava and everyone was happy.

We spent three days in this island paradise and then the weather forecast looked like the winds were about to change and we set sail for Nuku Alofa where we planned to pick up Tim and Chris on the 20th.  The 50 mile sail to Nukua Alofa was interrupted  by a monster Wahoo that Daria did a nice job reeling in all by herself, what a beautiful fish!!  When we arrived it was fresh fish for many of our cruising friends to enjoy…again!
Our next adventure will be discovering Nukualofa.

Until then live your dreams!!

Capt. Pete and Daria