October 12, 2011

Tonga, Vava'u Group

Clearing into Tonga was another new adventure that started with tying up to the concrete sea wall in the main port of Neiafu. Next we followed the other cruisers clearing in to the customs and port captains office which was located in a big shed with a few old desks near the front doorway and in the back of the shed was pallets of imported goods waiting to be delivered. I filled out a few forms at each desk and then it was off to town to see immigration just a short walk up the hill to get the second stamp in my new pass port. The agent told me Daria would need a visa and it would cost 69 local dollars which he collected and threw in a briefcase. No paperwork was ever completed for this visa and she received the same stamp as I did and it left me wondering if we really did need a visa? Oh Well…
There were so many boats anchored here that we had met along our way and almost 100 other boats anchored in the bay south of town. After clearing in we left the wharf and dropped our hook next to Bob on Brave Heart who we had last seen in Western Samoa some 6 weeks earlier and did some catching up. In all there were 6 boats here that we had met in Suwarrow Atoll and it was fun to catch up with all of them.
Neiafu is the largest city in the Vava'u Group and has 19 restaurants and several grocery stores. At the main dock there is a open air market that sells local craft works along with fresh produce. The watermelons were a big seller and it was interesting how many people we saw carrying a big ol watermelon under their arm on their way home. It was strange that none of the local businesses were owned by Tongans? In most of the islands we been to, the Asians and Chinese run the grocery stores and the other businesses are owned by people that came here for a vacation and fell in love with the place and wound up staying in paradise. The food at most restaurants was pretty good considering what they had to work with from the markets and prices were reasonable.
The main attraction in Tonga this time of year are the Humpback Whales who come all the way up here from Antarctica to have their calves and to mate. Hmmm? humping humpbacks! We saw a few whales on our way into the bay off in the distance blowing a clouds of mist into the air as they surfaced. The Moorings and Sunsail have bases here to charted boats and looked to be doing a fair amount of business renting boats to Ausies and New Zealanders.
The first few nights we spent going out with our friends and then we loaded up on fresh veggies at the out door market and set off to explore the other islands. Vavau has over 100 islands and the Moorings came up with a great idea for their charter customers and gave the main anchorages numbers to replace the hard to pronounce names. It was fun to hear people say we are heading to 16 after we spend some time at 5 on our way to 30 which actually does make sense to me….
We spent our 2nd night at anchorage 6 with a few other boats That afternoon we took SD for another adventure over to anchorage 11 and met Oceans Dream a boat we first met in the Marquesas with Adrian and Jaki aboard from the UK. This turned into a afternoon of catching up and story telling about where we both had been in the last 1500 miles. Lots of fun! Just before dark we headed back home and had a nice dinner aboard Downtime.
Our third night we stopped at anchorage 15 which was close to one of the best snorkel sights in Vavau, The Coral Gardens. We anchored next to Neal, Ruthie and Corry on Rutea which is one of the boats we keep seeing this season. In the morning we drove SD over to the reef for a snorkel at the Gardens. All I can say is WOW!! what a variety of coral. There were countless different colors and varieties growing here and we spent over an hour in the clear 75 degree water enjoying the beauty of it all.
Next we took SD around the island to go looking for whales in the pass between the islands. On our way out I was thinking…were going out to look for 45 foot whales in a 15 foot boat? Is this a good idea? We were not so lucky this day and could not find any whales so we headed back to Downtime for some lunch. On our way back I noticed lots of what looked like birds flying around the point of the island so I turned that way to go see. As we got closer and could see better I realized they were not bird at all but giant flying foxes!! We had never seen so many bats, giant bats with a 3 foot wingspan!! I got flashbacks from the horror movies where they swooped down and bit your neck but nothing like that happened. These are fruit eating bats and this must be where they roost during the day. We stopped under one of the trees right where they roosted and it was fun to watch them land. They would fly strait for a branch and grab it with their feet and fall strait forward and hang upside down like all bats do. There had to be hundreds of them hanging in the trees with their wings wrapped around themselves napping.
When we arrived back at the anchorage there was another boat, Merkava that we also first met in the Tuamutos with Mark and Uka aboard from Canada and Japan. Mark is a retired stuntman and he and his wife had just been dive certified and have made over 30 dives in Vavau! They invited Rutea us over for sushi that night and the next few days we all dove together. It was all SD could do to haul five sets of dive gear and our first dive was a cave dive on another island. Mariners cave is a 50 foot deep dive in which you swim into the side of the mountain and into the cave. After this cave we swam a 100 feet or so to another cave which was just a little smaller. The first cave was just so so but the second had a ball of 6 inch silver bait fish that had to number in the thousands! I had seen this on TV but never this many fish in one place in my life! I swam right into the middle of them and was suddenly surrounded by shimmering silver fish so thick I could not see out. A totally amazing experience. The next morning we went to a coral mound in the pass between the islands for another dive. Again we saw lots of interesting corals but the highlight was a 8 foot Leopard Shark that I spotted just lying in the sand. This was the first Leopard shark we had ever seen and he just laid there letting us watch him rest. Theses sharks are half tail and are not dangerous bottom feeders unless provoked. They are tan and brown with spots patterned like a leopard. Finally he had enough and swam slowly away leaving us all amazed.
The next day we drove SD out to The Blue Lagoon which really was very blue indeed! As Daria would say. The water inside the lagoon is very shallow with white sand on the bottom, the sand gives the water a turquoise color that turns to royal blue as it gets deeper. We did a photo shoot on one of the islands and then went out looking for whales. The whales tend to be in 1 to 2 hundred feet of water during the day and come in closer at night. We were two miles out on a perfect day and within an hour had spotted our first whales. You first hear them come up for air when they blow a big breath out spewing water into the air. Then you watch what direction they are going and try to get in front of them guessing where they will come up for air next. They usually take two breaths and then go down for another 6 to 7 minutes before resurfacing. It took us a while to get the hang of it but finally two of them came up just 100 feet away, a big mother and her calf. We shut of the motor on SD and just waited and within a few minutes the calf curiously came over to us just for a minute and then swam back to his mother. Even the calf was much bigger than SD and we felt lucky to have been so close to this magnificent creature. Another great adventure in SD!!! I wish after this whole trip is over I could get SD's viewpoint of this all…..It would be a heck of a story!
Later that afternoon Daria, Mark and I took SD to town to watch a movie one of the cruisers had made for the BBC. We took our portable GPS to get us home in the dark and made the 7 mile trip back from town in total darkness with just a small sliver of the moon in the sky. Very cool!
The movie turned out to be 20 years old and the sound went out during the last 5 minutes of it so I have no idea what it was even about? It was a social event though and at least 60 cruisers showed up and we all had a nice dinner afterwards at the Balcony Restaurant.
On Saturday we drove Downtime back to Neiafu to clear out and to top off the veggie refrigerator. We anchored at anchorage 6 again on out way south next to Larry and Kim on Magenta. That night we All hopped in SD and had dinner at the Spanish restaurant at anchorage 11. This little place put on quite a show. First you are met by the local talent, a Billy Goat who wonders around the place the whole time you are eating along with two year old puppies that were very playful. After dinner the curtain draws and the owners breaks out the guitars, drums and maraca's and sings a few songs. The meal was tapas (several appetizers), gazpacho, and paellia for $50 local, not bad.
The next day we headed farther down south and took one last adventure with SD to see the islands we missed. Driving around this paradise it is not had to understand how people can fall in love with this place, it is simply beautiful! We stopped and snorkeled at a few reefs and after one of these Daria asked if she could drive. We switched places and within 5 minutes of her behind the wheel I felt a big SLAP On my chest! What the heck was that!! It really stung! I looked around and saw a 8 inch squid laying in the back of SD squirting ink all over the place! If Daria had been sitting there it would have hit her right in the face!! Lucky for her she was driving! We invited the squid over for a calamari lunch, mmmm!
Our next adventure will take us to the Ha'apai Group
Until then Live your dreams!
Peace! Capt. Pedro and Daria
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October 3, 2011

Savusavu and our passage from Fiji to Tonga

The waters surrounding Fiji have many scattered dangers and if you are not careful you will find yourself on one of the many reefs that surround the some 300 islands here. During our short three week stay in Fiji we heard of 5 boats that had gone aground in the last few months alone. One was a 38 foot catamaran that had lost all her gps navigation systems and had attempted making the Suva pass at night with only paper charts and a compass to navigate by. Well you heard the phrase, “I missed it by that much”? well this guy thought he was still 15 miles out and had time for a quick nap, his alarm clock was the reef pounding on the bottom of his boat!! He woke up with his boat firmly on the reef with both her rudders bent sideways and had torn out both the drive shafts! Water was pouring into the boat and he was sinking fast with no way to save her. By morning there was more damage to the boat as it pounded into the reef half full of water. He radioed for help but had to wait three days before a tug was available to assist him off the reef and tow him to the marina. During this time on the reef he stayed with the soggy boat to prevent looting of his equipment and other gear. To top it all off this was a year he thought he really did not need to buy insurance!! Talk about a bad day!

We spent three days in Savusavu and on the first day met Sam who was looking for work polishing boats. Well, Sam met the right guy and soon he was aboard Downtime making her shine!! Sam is a really nice guy and he like many others here was having a hard time finding work. He did a great job polishing Downtime and we enjoyed getting to know him while he spent two days aboard working. He finished up polishing and we gave him a set of snorkel gear, rain jacket, toys for his kids, hats, tee shirts, and sack full of food along with a fare wage just $8 per hr. (local money) for his time. Thanks for doing a great job Sam!!

While Sam was waxing the boat I was doing a few repairs, one was to fix the wind meter on top of the mast that came loose after 12000 miles. To do this I first put on a harness and clip onto one of the halyards and then Daria uses one of the electric wenches to lift me to the top some 85 feet in the air. No mater how hard I try to prepare I can never seem to have the right tool on the first try and usually make at least two trips to get any job done up there. The first few times up that high were really scary but now it is not so bad but looking down still freaks me out a little. It is amazing how small things look on deck from that height and how quickly you get tired after you use all your adrenaline holding on.

Our main goal here in northern Fiji was to go see the Lau Group only 90 miles to the NW. These islands are said to have some of the most beautiful anchorages in the south pacific and have just been opened to cruisers . But sadly we found out that if we wanted to see the islands we would have to sail all the way back to Suvasuva to clear out for Tonga making the trip almost 300 miles, 200 of which would be into the wind. We thought we might just stop in anyways after clearing out but then heard stories of stiff fines if you were caught so that idea was out.
We left Fiji with a bunch of extra Kava that we thought we would be giving away so if anyone wants a Kava party let us know!
Our weather window for this trip had to be timed just right to be able to make Tonga without motoring the whole way. The trade winds in this area are predominately SE and where do you think Tonga is from Fiji? Ya you guessed it 400 miles to the SE!! On our third day we received a hopeful weather forecast so we cleared out and made our way east. Being a little early we experiences the end of the 25 knot SE winds and big seas as we beat our way up the pass. The first 50 miles were brutal and Downtime was taking a beating and getting drenched in saltwater with every wave she crashed through but they water did bead up nicely after a wax job thanks to Sam. One hatch over the galley was open a crack and saltwater sprayed all over the kitchen, but nothing else went wrong on the trip. We made it to Viani Pass just as the sun went down as the seas calmed as we approached the island and found a place to anchor next to the little town of Somosomo on the island of Taveuni for the night.
We were up with the sun and under way by 6:00 am motor sailing our way NW to the Tasman Strait but we still had SE winds blowing 25 knots for some reason? The best course we could make was 60’ E NE while doing 7 knots. Tonga lay 110’ E SE and it looked like it was going to be a long trip so I decided to throw a few lines out. I rigged a purple cedar plug on one pole and a new bait that I just put together on the other with a 9 inch pink/purple and blue squid skirt with a 4 oz. sinker a #10 double hook and stainless steel leader on thinking I might catch a big Wahoo since a similar one I gave to Don on Katipo a few weeks earlier caught him a 70 pounds!!

We had just finished lunch and were talking about what the weather was “not” doing for us when the pole with the new bait came alive screaming as line tore off the reel!! The fish was huge and we saw him leaping out of the water and tearing across behind the boat at a alarming speed while fighting the line!! We had to slow the boat down fast or we would run out of line!! I had the fishing pole in one hand and the jib furler button pressed down with the other while Daria eased the jib sheet. Next she turned the boat upwind and started the engines but the fish was still taking line so I started putting the hurt on him by tightening the drag on my Shimano TLD 50 reel with 3000 feet of 100# spider wire on it. I knew everything would have to go just right if we were to land a fish this big with this line this light. The pole bent in half as the drag increased and the fish finally slowed down and started taking less and less line. I would slowly make some progress reeling in a few yards and then he would come back fighting and take out another 50 yards in return. I knew this game all to well from the last few big fish we caught and knew it would be at least an hour before a fish this size would tire enough to let me get him to the boat so we just played tug of war for the next hour never really making any progress getting him any closer to the boat. Daria’s job driving was to keep the boat in front of the fish and line from going under the boat while I worked him in slowly. We were making steady progress but a few times the fish would take back all my hard work and I found myself starting all over as the line peeled back off the reel. While fighting him I did not want to set the drag to tight in fear that if he jerked really hard he would snap the line. When you are fishing with spider wire it is a good idea to use a “shock Leader” which stretches 30% to absorb these jerks in the line since spider wire has zero stretch so I use 50 feet of 200 Lb. leader that works great for this problem and we seem to land more fish.

On sports fishing boats you can back down and chase these monsters but on Downtime we can only back down a few knots and have far less maneuverability so it usually it takes much longer to land a big fish. While reeling him in I was wondering what we were gong to do with all that meat if we had to kill him? I also wondered if I could get the hook out how that was all going to happen? These fish are dangerous, powerful and quite angry by the time you get them to the boat so I was just a little worried how to deal with him when he finally did get close. 

After over an hour he finally tired but the fish felt like a 100 pound sack of cement on the end of the pole as I finally got him next to the boat with aching arms and back. I sadly saw that he had swallowed the hook and did to much damage to himself to be release with any chance of surviving. I managed to get a gaff into him which did not make him any happier and tied it to the boat. Then we were able to get a line around his tail and lifted him out of the water with the winch we use to launch SD.
 He looked much bigger out of the water and measured over 8 feet and I would guess he weighed over 250 lbs! To bad we had to put him down but the up side is that we would have lots of fresh fish to give away in Tonga! So it was out with the knives and all the work of packaging him into the freezer… will he even fit in there?

We turned the boat around just as the winds shifted 40 degrees and the best course we could make was right to where we started from earlier that morning. I guess “It Is What It Is” again….So we set our course for Lauthala Island to find a place to anchor for the night. On the way in the work began processing the fish which took some time, I guess my grandfather being a fisherman and a butcher is in my blood and I had the fish cut up nicely in a little over an hour. Daria put it on ice and vacuum sealed over 20 bags full and after a few hours of hard work had it all cooling in the freezer.. We found our icemaker turns into a flash freezer when we have to cool this much fish on board and is a good place to store it until we get to shore and can give it away.
We made it through the reef jus before dark and headed to the closest beach in front of a resort, but were met by security and told Laucala was a private island and then they offered to show us to an anchorage close by and for this we gave them a pack of fish and a few cold beers for their help. We dropped the hook in 80 feet of water and were able to get some much needed rest for the night. By the way if I went back to Fiji without a boat this island is where I would want to stay, what a beautiful island and resort!
We set off early again the next morning to try making it to Tonga, thankfully this time we were having much better luck with the wind and were able to make 90’ course which was much better than the 60’ day before. If we made progress like the previous day it would take us weeks to do the 300 miles at just 12 miles per day and who knows what would we do with all that fish?

We cleared the Tasman Strait with “Explores Island” the island we wanted to visit teasing us just 30 miles upwind to our starboard. But if we stopped there we would loose two days and possibly our weather window and might be stuck in Fiji until the next weather system passed by, so reluctantly we sailed passed with hopes we could return next season. We were slowly making progress but the crazy winds were always changing direction and the sails were raised and stowed several times and the motor on and off for most the day just to maintain 5 knots. This was going to be one long trip…to top it all off the fishing conditions were perfect with the birds working all around us feasting on the baitfish the schools of tuna below were driving to the surface. We “REALLY” did not need any more fish aboard Downtime and I held out for about three hours before I had enough of these tuna teasing me! They seemed to be just in front of the boat under the flock of birds all afternoon, the longest I ever have seen a school working bait and finally I could not stand it any longer and rigged two poles with cedar plugs. Cedar plugs are 6 inch long wood cylinders with a lead head on them that tuna find simply irresistible. The baits swim with a erratic motion and the tuna just can not swim past one without taking a bite and all colors seem to work but white with a red head or a plain wood colored one seem to be tuna favorites. The poles were out less than an hour and “BANG” they both got hit at the same time just off of Jeffery’s bank! I was able to land one nice 50lb yellow fin and thankfully the other one shook loose and I only had to clean one fish. OK now I am DONE fishing for a while I promise!
The winds continued to be just out of reach of sailing our course for most of the trip. Our bearing to Tonga was 110’ but the best we could sail was 80’ but 30’ off course, a course that would take us back to Western Samoa not Tonga if we sailed it. If we did not have engines running and were real sailors we would have to tack back and forth and make a 600 mile trip out of a 300 mile one but hey this is Downtime so time to burn some diesel. The motors were on for most of the 3 day passage and thankfully we only had one night of rainy weather and winds less than 15 knots and calm seas the whole way. The last 40 miles like the first 40 miles were the worst with winds on the nose and choppy seas.
We stowed the sails and motored our way into Tonga and tied up to the clearing dock by noon, glad to be back in calm waters. Vavau is the northern most group and a Mecca for cruisers we found lots of boats we had met on our journey anchored here.
In our next adventure we will be exploring Tonga!
Until then live your dreams!!
Peace!! Capt. Pedro and Daria