August 31, 2010
August 30, 2010
August 29, 2010
August 27, 2010
August 26, 2010
August 24, 2010
August 20, 2010
The first sign was the morning VHF net. We haven't experienced one since Mexico: it's a morning radio session where people announce who is coming or going, share local weather information, and help solve questions (such as where to get a propane bottle filled). In Vava'u, about half of the net is taken up with advertisements from resident expats for their restaurants or business services on shore. Commercial use of the frequency wouldn't be allowed in other places we've been, but in many ways Tonga is a throwback to the wild wild west: the usual rules don't seem to apply here. It's stunning to me that this net takes place during business hours on a channel that uses the only repeater to allow signals across the island group- the same frequency used by the port authority. It's embarrassing to listen to boats arriving from passages to the islands, calling for a check-in with the port authority, only to be told they just have to wait a few more minutes for the commercials on the Net to finish before they can talk to customs. Who is in charge here?
Walking around town, almost every shop we entered was owned by an expat. Many have been here for years, looking for a way to make their own home in this slice of paradise. It started to feel strange when after a day of popping in and out of most storefronts on the waterfront, we realized the only Tongan shopkeepers we had encountered were in the grocery stores.
Things started to sour when we were introduced (via the VH radio, again) to the ongoing dispute between visiting cruisers and the whale watching operations based here. Tonga is a migration destination for humpback whales, and we've seen them routinely in the islands. At issue are the regulations for being in proximity to the whales. The (expat run, again) tour operators for whale-watching have taken the international standard used by fisheries in the US and Canada, and adapted it to give significantly preferential access to members of the operator's association. If this were based on a genuine desire to keep the whales safe, we'd be sympathetic. Unfortunately, it seems to have more to do with protecting business and making a buck. Our friends have paid the fees for a tour, and experienced first hand how the operations truly function. Gunning their boats straight at the humpbacks, they are more interested in giving tourists their dollar value- not sensitivity to the whales. "Jump in, and swim toward them as fast as you can!"
We've seen similar cavalier behavior by the operators. In our own observation, the operators were not even complying with their own rules on the water: too many divers in the water (oh yeah- you can swim with them), no flag displayed, too many boats in a circumference of the whale's position. There have been shouting matches on the water between cruisers and commercial boats. Out marveling at the leviathans one afternoon, we were harassed by an operator, who circled, tailed us, and cut us off- all while we complied not only with international standards but the more rigid local interpretation. It was rude, reckless, and entirely unnecessary.
This was all capped off recently when we were treated to four letter words being slung about the VHF one day, as salvagers competed for the overturned wreck of a catamaran on the beach. It's safe to say we've had enough of the wild west for a while. We're looking toward our next destination, and plan to depart for Fiji this coming week.
Posted via radio: we have no internet access
August 17, 2010
When we came around the top of Vava'u, the chief island in this group, we felt like we were coming home. With only a small mental leap to assist, the view looked just like coming through the San Juan islands in the familiar waters of Puget Sound. We meandered past heavily wooded islands, carved from limestone by eons of waterflow. If you fuzz out your eyes so the palm trees look like conifers, there's nothing to say you aren't passing Sucia or Matia on your way over to Orcas.
Even once we completed our check in, there was something about the sleepy town that continued to remind us of the Northwest. Neiafu's dozen or so blocks line up at the waterfront with shops and restaurants, and meander inland over gentle hillocks. Shiplap homes stand cheek by jowl with low key storefronts. With a little more imagination, we were in Friday Harbor on an offseason weekday.
I'm pretty sure, though, that back at home the dress code is a little different. Although the nights are blissfully cooler- how much easier to sleep when it's 70 instead of 85!- there's no fleece. Locals wear wraparound sarongs- called tupenu for men, vala for women- with a mat on top, the ta'ovala, woven from leaves of the pandanus tree. The mat is a sign of respect for the king: relics of a time gone by, when sailors arriving from afar would wrap their woven sails to cover their nakedness before meeting royalty. Although there are a few pairs of jeans on the younger set, continues to be worn by most people.
Tonga was given the namesake of "the friendly islands" by Captain Cook, after the welcome feast in honor of his crews during a stopover on his third voyage. He misunderstood the friendliness- the celebration was actually the setup for a massacre and looting, which did not occur only because of squabbling by the Tongans. But the moniker stuck, and it feels entirely appropriate today. We have had more casual conversations with Tongans in the first few days in Vava'u than we had in a month of French Polynesia. I sought out a woman in the market, Tema, who was recommended by our fellow Kitsap cruisers on the s/v Carina. Upon introducing myself, I barely got past the referral "...from Philip and Leslie..." when she threw her arms around me with delight. Pure, unfiltered joy shared with a stranger is a wonderful gift! Philip and Leslie had given her seeds from Seeds of Change; she proceeded to fill our grocery bags with the bounty- eggplant, basil, tomatoes, radishes and more.
We're sure that our time here will fly quickly. Every time we look at our itinerary, we seem to chop off destinations. Fewer locations to visit means more time in the places that remain, and feels more in sync with our modus operandi.
Posted via radio: we have no internet access
August 13, 2010
August 9, 2010
August 6, 2010
French Polynesia was stunning, to be sure, but this was untouched in a way none of the islands we visited there were. The checking in process was a perfect counterpoint to the triplicate forms, mailers, and stiff gendarmes of French Polynesia. Instead, a big Maori/Cook Islander- James- comes alongside with a warm "G'day!" and we complete the basic formalities in our cockpit with popcorn and juice. It takes all of about five minutes to finish the official stuff, but he's happy to hang out and let us pepper him with questions. As we soak up the knowledge he has to share about the island, his fellow ranger Apii comes by to see if Niall wants to go fishing with him- he's off to catch dinner for that night's potluck. We felt instantly welcomed.
Last year, our friends on s/v Whisper tried to articulate the experience that is life at Suwarrow. I like Mary's take: she called it "Boy Scouts for grownups." It's true: no badges are awarded, but our time is divided between collaborative, merit worthy efforts to provide sustenance, shelter, and entertainment. Cruisers tend to form ad-hoc communities easily, but something about the remoteness of this place- the real need for reliance on each other- seemed to prompt us all to engage that more quickly and deeply. There were a couple of other US flagged boats; the anchorage was a collection of Dutch, French, German, Russian, Swiss, Canadian and Australian vessels.
Several boats have more than the usual set of routine maintenance chores on board to make their floating homes ready for the next passage, and those who have parts of skills to offer lighten the load. Everyone pitches in to offer support for the living environment of the rangers, too- they need our donations of gas and propane to keep their small boat running, and spartan accommodations lit. For sustenance, one of the rangers takes people out almost daily to forage. Most of the time, this involves a bunch of testosterone pumped guys with spearguns bombing out to different points in the atoll to catch fish (trolling as they go), but coconut crab and lobster were targets on other days. And entertainment? The gorgeous clear water offers endless snorkeling... the evening potlucks on the main motu at the "yacht club" great socializing... and we even- oh, do I want to admit this?- we *even* sang Kum-bah-yah one night. Oh yes, we did.
Posted via radio: we have no internet access at sea
August 1, 2010
I had thought we lost our passage-making mojo, and it was a little depressing. My weariness must have showed on my face when we joined other cruisers on shore for a potluck the evening after our arrival. With some relief, we heard similar stories of discomfort and realized we weren't alone. My first conversation was with cruisers from two different boats, each nearing the end of 8+ year circumnavigations, who said it was the among the worst passage they had undertaken in all that time! But bad passages are a little like childbirth: the hard parts can be easy to forget once they're over. Still, their perspective was comforting.
Even if it hadn't been for empathetic cruisers, we would have shrugged off the passage within a day- there were no breakdowns needing repair, just a little sleep to catch up on. Not every boat has been so fortunate. Jamie has been helping El Regalo, who sheared their stem chainplate. There's a temporary fix in place, but they clearly need to re-rig. Two other boats have damaged mainsails that will need to be babied along to the next port.
The environment around us here is simply too stunning to resist, but more on that and the incredible caretakers next time... just to say it vastly exceeds our expectations!