Sunday, September 19, 2004

Passage to Vava'u

Trip to Vava’u

Tacking the last day
It started out to be one of the best trips we’ve had. There was good wind and we were making great progress down the rhumbline. We had had a great sail during the day when the wind began to drop and move behind us. In order to keep our course I put up the spinnaker and we were flying at about 6.5 to 7 knots. Usually we think about taking the spinnaker down at night but the breeze seemed to be dying so we left it up. After dark, at 7:50 to be exact, we heard a loud wave (like a low rumbling noise), kind of like the breaking waves that come out of the night, except there were no seas. All of the sudden we slammed into a whale. Water came over the rail and KT got rather wet. The boat slowed to about 1.5 knots as our spinnaker collapsed and the boat felt like it was going bow down. I immediately got on the radio and told Emerald that we had hit a whale and were checking for damage. We both ran around frantically, checking the steering, which didn’t feel right. I checked under the floorboards and had to raise the dinghy to check in the watertight compartment but there was no water. Finally we got enough boat speed and the steering felt fine, as we both breathed a huge sigh of relief. I was planning on checking under water in the morning but the weather had different plans.

After catching our breath and relaxing a little, we saw lightening on the horizon as the wind got lighter and shifted more to the northwest (usually a bad sign). Something triggered in my head ... “lightning.. spinnaker .. bad idea!!” About ten minutes after we took it down, the genoa back winded, and I swore at the autopilot thinking it had lost its course again. Well the wind kept rising, 15, 20, 25 knots right on the nose. It rained a little bit but we seemed to avoid direct lightening, even though the thunderhead cloud passed right over the boat.  The next 36 hours were spent battling against winds coming from the exact place we wanted to go. They say gentlemen don’t go to weather, so all you out there that actually had doubts can now be 100% sure.. I’m no gentleman!! The seas got rather big as we pounded into them. Green water was running down the windward side of the boat like we’ve never seen. There were waves constantly breaking over the bow. De La Mer had a couple of emergencies, one when his water generator line got wrapped around his rudder when he tacked. He actually had to get in the water in the rough seas and unwrap it!! We tacked behind then and stood off as he went over, I can’t imagine what a rescue must be like in a storm. The second was when he looked up on deck and realized that his anchor was not on deck; he was towing it and 45 feet of chain behind him under the boat. Later he joked that parachute anchors are overrated, just throw your anchor overboard. I kept giving him crap about trying to anchor in 1000 feet of water with only 40 feet of scope.

Night came and everyone else turned on their motors and motored straight into it at about 2 knots. I figured that even though we were tacking through about 135-140o (instead of the normal 110o) we were moving five plus knots so we were getting there almost as fast but we were more comfortable, and we were sailing. The only problem was there was a line of boats motoring straight and we were tacking across the same line.. ALL nightlong. I let KT sleep and kept in touch with the other 4 boats, sometimes needing to flash deck light etc to figure out who was who. They thought I was nuts.  KT woke up and heard me telling some of the other boats that we would be in around noon. KT came on deck with the saddest face I have ever seen, “I thought we’d be there already”. We sailed a little longer, now it was fantastic sailing because while we still had 20+ knots, we were in the lee of the island so the seas were relatively calm. I finally gave in and motored the last 5 miles into Vava’u. It was nice to see a town with electricity for the first time in five weeks, plus you get a free “refrigerated ice cold tap” beer at the local bar on you first day. More about that later!!

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Saturday, September 18, 2004

Niuatoputapu - Tonga

09/07/04 - 09/18/04

By Chris

The day after our arrival we got checked into Tonga; a white van shows up on the wharf, honks and you have to pick up the four officials and bring them to your boat. We coordinated the pickup with De La Mer, so we had the pleasure of Michael on board for our entire entrance inspection. He kept cracking jokes, like “Aren’t you going to show them the hidden compartment?  What do you mean you don’t have pets on board?” Luckily the officials had a good sense of humor and the Doctor actually started making jokes about Michael. We heard things go smoother if you give them food and drink so KT made muffins and cookies, which disappeared in five minutes. I guess while they were waiting for some other officials, KT was talking to one of the head guys who had grabbed our photo album. After we had told them that we didn’t have any children, and that we weren’t married, he asked if the picture of KT pregnant was really KT. As she hemmed and hawed, and tried to explain everything, we started talking about the whole surrogate thing. After reading about the Tongan culture which shuns a lot of things like holding hands in public (between opposite sexes) and requires clothing that covers knees and shoulders, we thought they must think we were completely crazy. Luckily the doctor was interested in talking about it and explained to the others who smiled. Phew!! The doctor also explained that they had a bad case of elephantitis a couple of years ago, but it “seemed” to be gone now. They had pills for cruisers but they were out of them, because they had so many visiting yachts. Well this really got us thinking because of an article my dad sent us during his “information gathering” sessions prior to our departure. It showed a picture of a person with huge deformed legs, Yikes!!

After check in we joined a group on their way into the village so we could pay our fees. As we passed  through the various villages we realized how “poor” the people were. They had no running water or electricity. Most of the houses consisted of one room with no furniture were they would eat and sleep on the floor (the only difference was which mat they put on the floor). There was a second house for cooking and finally an outhouse for the obvious. We separated into a couple of groups based on the ability to walk and talk at the same time. KT stopped along the way and met Anita and her twin sister, who was the local mat maker. They also stopped at the weaving center and got some more ideas of what kind of mats they could get. Corbie was having a set made for her entire floor of the boat, KT just planned to have one made. We got a good tour of the three villages, after following a long dry dirt road on the leeward side of the island. We saw the administration center which also held the treasury and the post office in a single room. They divided it up by counter space, the treasury looked like an old western bank counter (except it was only three feet wide) with an old safe in the back. The post office was on the other side, along with the administration “counter”. The same woman worked all three, but you had to go to the right place to get the service you wanted. The $$ smelled very mildewy and felt slightly wet to the touch. We continued the tour trying to find the local “store”. It was a small building with a desk at the entrance, where you placed your order. We asked if we could look around and see what was available; not much, provisioning would have to wait. We had to stop at the hospital to pay our health fees and were given a tour by the doctor. There was one “operating room” which we all walked through without sterile precautions. They have done one caesarian operation during a typhoon when they couldn’t get the woman off the island. The crown prince who owns his own airline bankrupted the Tongan airline, so the island is VERY cutoff without airline service. There are stories of people needing to leave the island on the supply ships months before they need to be somewhere just so they are sure they can get there. One of the visiting yachts took a boy with a broken leg to Neiafu to get good medical attention. The doctor also told us there is a 60% incidence of type II Diabetes, due to the change of diets thanks to “modernization”.

Meeting the Natives

During our stay, we really enjoyed getting to know the people and the kids of the island. On our first trip back to the village we ran into the children returning from school. We felt like we were being mobbed as kids came running up holding our hands (boys holding boys and girls holding girls), asking all sorts of questions like “What’s you name, how old are you, where’s your wife/husband, where’s my lollie?” One boy got in trouble for putting his hand on KT’s shoulder; we’re still trying to figure that one out. The kids loved the cameras and kept saying “Photo ME!!” They would all pose with these tough expressions on their faces, even though they were constantly smiling until they hammed it up for the camera. They all wanted to see the resulting picture (on the back of the digital), and thanked us like we had given them the biggest gift. They were all singing and the boys were showing off by climbing trees like monkeys to get coconuts. They’d ask if we wanted a coconut and before you knew it they were up the tree and back down before you could blink. I guess they get a lot of their drinking liquids from coconuts. It was such a great experience to see such happy kids enjoying themselves as a group. From that point on everywhere we went kids would come up and say “hi KT” “hi Christ”, I guess they have a problem with an s ending. We saw them at school and they ran to the windows to say hi. We did a hike with Vema (one of the teachers), Meli, and a bunch of kids. We had a lot of fun  laughing and joking with them. Rick (from Emerald) was a big hit because he had muscular arms with veins and they kept poking at them. We skidded down a steep hill on our butts/feet, as they laughed hysterically at the two palangi (white people). They all went flying down the hill through the trees and some hit them pretty hard but jumped right up again laughing. We also joined them at a local fresh water-swimming hole to cool down before we continued back to the boats. Along the way we found a fallen palm tree that the kids rode like a horse. I grabbed it and made it shake even more as the kids went flying off. I have never seen kids laugh so much.

Meli invited us to join her for church, where we enjoyed some of the most amazing loud singing we have ever heard. When we sat down there were seven adults sitting around, when they started singing both KT and I looked at each other wondering when the choir had shown up. We turned around and it was still just the seven adults belting it out at the top of their lungs. Meli lives in a house with 10 brothers and sisters and her parents. She has a sister and brother that are somewhere around five years old, both with blond hair and cute as can be. They both took a liking to us but didn’t say much and sat there a smiled in a shy kind of way. We went to Meli’s house for a feast that they had arranged for us. It turns out Gumbo Yaya was supposed to join us but they were double booked. The whole setup was rather confusing for us. It was uncomfortable for us at the beginning because they set out all this food, and appeared to be waiting for more people. Meli explained that her parents were upset that there weren’t more people there; they wanted to know where all the other cruisers were. They had cooked a huge feast with an entire small pig and all the trimmings, easily enough for ten people. I was the messenger who was sent to see if we should wait for Gumbo Yaya or just eat. KT and I both tried to get them to eat with us but the entire family sat there and watched us. They had no forks or spoons; you just ate with your fingers. If you have ever tried to eat warm papaya, corned beef with vegetables and other soft mushy foods with your hands you’ll realize quickly that it is not “first date” food. The father, who was also the minister that day, handed me a knife, said, “enjoy” and pointed at the pig. I looked down and thought that this was obviously a big deal for them and I didn’t want to screw up; it was the entire pig, skin, head and all. I asked him how and he explained that I should start with the legs. He kept telling me I should have more but we couldn’t eat anything else. So we sat there eating with the entire family staring at us and laughing at EVERYTHING we said. Finally Gumbo showed up but neither of them ate any pig so I think the parents were upset that they had killed one of their precious pigs but no one really enjoyed it. Oh Well. The two little kids walked us out to the dinghy and we headed back to the boats. We saw them a couple of days later and I kept chasing the little girl around. She kept saying “heah” and running. We did that for a while and then I stopped to talk to someone. Then all the other boys would try to catch her and present her to me ... I had to explain that it wasn’t ok to treat her roughly; I hope everything returned to normal after we left.

Later we gave them some things like plastic cups, some plates, fishing stuff and some paper, crayons and colored pencils. They invited us in to say goodbye and presented us with a HUGE tapa cloth. We thanked them for their food and hospitality and they said we were welcome anytime. The cute little kids followed us out. They helped us get the dinghy through the thick mud, as I was pulling I grunted. The little boy followed suit, grunting the entire time. As we exited the long pass, both of the little kids actually spoke to us. The boy said “bye KT” and the girl said “Bye Chris”. It took everything we had not to throw the kids in the dingy and take off with them.

Experiences with Whales

When you read our cruising book about Tonga the author talks about hitting a sleeping whale returning through the pass at night in his dinghy. After seeing the two whales during our entrance I knew this was bound to be a Whale of a good time (that joke is for my dad). The other cruisers started talking about their dinghy trips out to snorkel with them. I asked Scott from Apsara to explain what you had to do to see them. We were standing on the motu during the Tongan feast while he was explaining how much patience it took for a quick glance at a whale. He was pointing and showing me where to go when he re-explained the patience, just as a whale broached EXACTLY where he was pointing. I kept thinking, “This looks easy”.

Well I guess it was for us. We took off with Emerald and De La Mer into a VERY flat calm sea. I explained what Scott had told me, about how you should shut off your engine when 100 yards away from the whale and paddle to get closer, that’s a lot of paddling. We chased a bunch of them but never got close enough to get in the water with them to see that  much. We were way out when I saw what looked like whale blow right besides the island about 2 miles away. I peeled off towards them while KT thought I was seeing things (so did I for a second). Finally we saw them and headed west to cut them off. We stopped the dinghy, KT started filming (while trying to put on her gear at the same time, when I realized that the reef came out and got closer to us (25 feet) and that they were coming right at us (you could easily see the bottom in 25-35 feet of water). KT jumped in commented on a big fish and then immediately started laughing ... “get in, get in .. drop the camera and get in .. drop the &*^*ing camera and get in the water”. It was amazing, you could clearly see six Humpback whales swimming right for us. Three of them swam right under us, while three tried to squeeze between the reef and us. One of them had to turn around and I stared in awe as this majestic creature weighing 40 tons turned with such grace. I even dove down to try and touch one as he swam under me but in the haste I had forgotten my fins. I got within 10 feet of the tail flukes, so close I  could feel the power of the water it was moving. Behind that set were four more and immediately ten whales surrounded us. Then the lead ones turned around and came back under us again. I can’t even begin to describe the feeling; it was as if we were in our own private fish bowl with 10 whales. It wasn’t until later that we realized exactly how close we were to such HUGE and powerful creatures, I think we used a bunch of our black box in luck that day. We continued to follow them and called over Emerald and De La Mer, who both got to see some of the pod. Rick actually got some good video of the same pod in deeper water. We followed some more around and had some other close experiences. KT got most of the action, she would lie on top of the dinghy pontoon all geared up and sometimes wouldn’t even let the  dinghy stop before she was in the water. The closer she got, the better. I think I had more fun watching her than the whales (after the initial experience). At the end, all I wanted to do was share the experience with EVERYONE. Get you all on a plane to share this once in a lifetime treat. I didn’t really realize how lucky we were until we got a chance to share it with others that had been there for a while. Tiffany on Clare was so great, she over heard me explaining to Rod on the satellite phone that I was dieing to share my experience with other people. She came over and said, “I heard ... go on share it with me”. KT and I were walking on water the rest of the week. We also tried to get others out there including the free diving Swedes, I guess Axle got within 2 meters of the tail flukes and just followed the whale as it swam. It was not as good of a day but everyone got to be in the water and see at least a couple up close.

As we left Niuatoputapu we had De La Mer to our starboard while I was down below setting up our route on the computer. KT was on deck watching for Whales (to avoid) when De La Mer called and asked if we saw the whale between us. Before he finished the sentence I was up the companion way and shut off the autopilot. The whale surfaced about 40 feet way and was heading straight for us. I immediately turned the wheel away from him as he dove and went right under us. KT was looking further out and had actually been thinking about the strange color in the water, but thought it was a reef or something else. Billy from Clare also had a similar experience; he almost tried to anchor his dinghy on a whale, thinking it was a reef until it finally moved!

Our next experience was not so pleasant. We had had a great sail during the day when the wind began to drop and move behind us. In order to keep our course I put up the spinnaker and we were flying at about 6.5 to 7 knots. Usually we think about taking the spinnaker down at night but the breeze seemed to be dying so we left it up. After dark, at 7:50 to be exact, we heard a loud wave (like a low rumbling noise), kind of like the breaking waves that come out of the night, except there were no seas. All of the sudden we slammed into a whale. Water came over the rail and KT got rather wet. The boat slowed to about 1.5 knots as our spinnaker collapsed and the boat felt like it was going bow down. I immediately got on the radio and told Emerald that we had hit a whale and were checking for damage. We both ran around frantically, checking the steering, which didn’t feel right. I checked under the floorboards and had to raise the dinghy to check in the watertight compartment but there was no water. Finally we got enough boat speed and the steering felt fine, as we both breathed a huge sigh of relief. I was planning on checking under water in the morning but the weather had different plans.

Meeting New Cruisers

Even though we have traveled so far we are still meeting new boats, which have traveled the same routes but with slightly different timing. I was expecting to meet more Kiwis and Aussies here (who come up for to the western pacific for the season) but we’re still meeting people from the States and Europe. I had met Scott on Apsara briefly in Bora Bora as he came over to ask if we wanted any of the things (a cruising guide and some Tupperware) that he didn’t have room for on his brand new Swan 65. I laughed and said if you don’t have room how do you expect me to have room on my little boat (of course I took it). We spent a little while shooting the breeze about all sorts of things including his trip from the factory in Europe and the fact that he had a crew of eight (I think) to do the Atlantic crossing, including a French Chef to do the cooking. Yikes, please don’t let KT find out about that ... I guess there is another world out there. Well Scott was one of the people who helped us through the pass so we delivered cookies to them the next day and met his wife Nancy. I spent most of my time walking around town with them, and had a great time. Turns out he was a Venture Capitalist in the health care business, while Nancy was in a pruning position for a CEO. Hey, I’m interested in what people do (or did) now that I am looking for new career ideas. We shared a dinner on their boat with Clare (a boat from Chicago with Billy and Tiffany on board). Scott and Nancy gave us a tour of their AMAZING boat in which they played a large part of the design criteria. I love looking at great ideas on boats and this one had lots of them. We settled into the cockpit for drinks while we waited for Clare to arrive. We first met Billy and Tiffany in Suwarrow but didn’t really get to know them that well. Billy is a very bright X-options exchange trader with a very southern accent (from Florida I guess), which is rare in the cruising fleet. He always makes fun of himself, “you’all think I’m stupid”. They both have tons of energy and are really funny to hang out with. Well they both got on board and were rather quiet. Finally Billy asks “You’all talk about the whales yet?” Scott said no that they were waiting for them, as all four of them exploded in to high energy stories about their experiences that day. Tiffany was laughing because she said Billy spent an hour telling her about his 5 minutes with the whales and then asked her to tell him her version of the same story. They just couldn’t get enough. We still had some special California wine on board which everyone awed over and we all savored. Nancy made some great enchiladas that KT was drooling over ever since Dragonfly told us they went out for Mexican food when they got to American Samoa. We had a great night; I don’t think we stopped laughing the entire time. Another night Apsara had a cocktail party with almost everyone from the anchorage on board. The food was amazing, including smoked salmon with caviar on toast. Who said cruising is just like camping?

We met a family on a HUGE catamaran, Dulcinea. They are a family of five who has already sailed across the Atlantic and back through the canal to the South Pacific (someone actually wrote a kids school book about their trip across the Atlantic that I got for Kari). They were trying to find a spot and I yelled out to let them know that we were not sitting to our anchor (the wind had died so our anchor was in a different position then straight off the bow).  They thanked me and as Michael and I were coming back from a coconut hunt, she waved us over and invited us on board. This boat was HUGE; it was so big the salon looked like a great room in a normal house. They immediately offered us cold beers while a couple of the Swedes from Equity also arrived (no doubt to chase the two daughters). I had heard about the Swedes from Emerald who said we would get along great. We did. There are four brothers in their 20’s sailing from Sweden to New Zealand with their Dad. Mom stayed at home, but they call her on the Sat Phone almost everyday. These guys are crazy and a lot of fun … when entering a pass, I guess they figure that they only need one person to steer the boat and one to watch for coral so the other three typically get towed through the pass with their snorkeling gear on. Although, they did have to get out of the pass in Suwarrow because the sharks were so aggressive! They are amazing free divers, Corbie said she saw them at about 90 feet once (while she had on full dive gear). As we got to know them it was amazing to see how well they worked together. They actually redirected compliments to other brothers and each one took turns being Captain. They always had meetings to decide what they would do together. I talked to Peder, the father, one night about how great of an experience he must be having, how unique to share such an adventure with his sons at that age. After the feast we gave Ola (the oldest) a ride back to their boat, and he dropped his sunglasses in the water as he was leaning over to tie up the dinghy (just as the sun was setting). I saw them and dove in the water to get them. He was forever grateful and invited us onboard for a shower and drinks. Well that turned into an impromptu party that lasted until one AM. KT got up the courage to ask a couple of the brothers how they dealt with THINGS, ”you know, there’s four of you brothers all in your 20’s on a boat with your dad, what do you do if you meet a girl and want to bring her home..” It was funny to watch them duck the answer, and after what seemed like hours KT gave up.


The Anchorage Lagoon, and the Volcano

The islands provided an amazing landscape, a beautiful lagoon with lush trees and a small mountain ridge down the center of the island. We got a great panoramic view from the top, the three villages on the leeward side (with 1100 people and 12 churches), lush coconut trees on the windward side and the volcano to the north. The island name means “Very Sacred Coconut” and the island is covered with them. We also hiked down the other side where most of the families have a small piece of land, “the bush”, where they get their food from, and around the south west side to a motu with a “resort”.

The Outer Side of the Island

We hiked the volcano after an “interesting” boat ride across the channel; I don’t think we could count the number of Coast Guard regulations that were violated during our trip. The boat was small and the seas were big, and the boat smelled like fuel, which made for some sour stomachs.  Once you leave the beach you hike up what seems like 1000’s steps just to get to the village of Tafini, which has about 150 people. We were exhausted already but this was like base camp, we still had most of the 2000-foot peak to climb. The volcano was so high there were actually different weather systems at different altitudes. The locals grow their fruits lower, and then the Taro and Kava at higher elevations. Luckily it got cooler as we went up and one point we entered what seemed like a rain forest because it was mostly in the clouds. We were treated to some amazing views and incredible foliage changes along the way. We also saw 1000’s of fruit bats (which the locals eat), as we neared the top. It was very vampirish as he banged the tree and the huge bats flew around the volcano. The climb was very difficult, sometimes your arm could reach out straight and touch the hill in front of you, and we enjoyed our rest at the top VERY much.

Island Politics

One thing about traveling to remote islands is the cruisers can have a great impact on the locals. A lot has been written about the “Tongan Way”, which is to give freely and expect nothing in return. When some of the earlier cruisers were there, they were treated to HUGE Tongan feasts that were free. As time went on and the locals visited the boats and saw the differences between our lives and theirs, they started focusing more on the cruisers as a way to make $$. One of the cruisers suggested they have a local craft fair where they could change $$ for their crafts (which were incredibly cheap). Meli, the woman who arranged it, said that this was the only fair way to do it, and that all cruisers should go to her to ask for crafts instead of individual islanders.  The “theory” being that at the craft fair the money was somehow shared amongst all the woman (and their families), but if cruisers purchased crafts from individuals then only that person/family benefited. (KT bought crafts from both the fair and individuals, figuring she was covering all the basis).  Well, then one individual pulled KT away to receive a phone call (yeah VERY strange to hear a phone ring in a shack that looks like a kids roughly thrown together fort) from another woman who was at the fair who said HER village was having one, and she “forgot” to mention it in front of everyone else at the other one. Somehow they discovered fundraisers and next thing you know everyone was having them. First Seia had a Tongan feast to benefit the island, although it turns out it only seemed to benefit a few people and maybe just their vacation funds (it was $15 payanga each .. about $7.50). It seemed reasonable for a fundraiser but expensive if it wasn’t to benefit the whole island. Then they had dancing fundraisers, and then the Hospital had another Tongan feast to raise money for a new generator (the price was $20 because “the previous one was $15 and we’ll have more seafood and dancing”). Then that night there was ANOTHER fundraiser for the water district of the middle village (I’m not sure anyone even went). There also seemed to be some competition between Meli and Seia, Meli tried to cover the same Volcano hike as Seia’s husband but was ill prepared (no water or machete to cut coconuts) and the cruiser who went with her got VERY dehydrated and sick. Then she told us that we should tell the other cruisers that we should go with Her instead of Seia, which just didn’t seem right. The whole time this was happening De La Mer had befriended Latte, one of the main officials on the island, who really didn’t like what was happening, “It’s not the Tongan Way”.

The final straw was when one of the locals wanted a ride to Neiafu. Seia told Clare that the man’s son was in the hospital and that he really needed to get there to help him. Well it turns out his son used to be in the hospital, but was better and that the dad just missed his family and wanted to visit. Latte would not give Clare permission to take the man, and Seia came out to Apsara, crying and begging Clare to take him. It was crazy, if they had just been upfront and asked, I don’t think it would have been a problem. We also had a hard time with Meli, because one day she just showed up on the boat while we were working. We had talked to her the day before and said that we were busy but maybe we would see her in town and we might invite her back. Rick was in town and said that Meli told him she had plans on Billabong for the day so he gave her a ride out to the boat. She just sat there while we worked. Then we made a special trip back into town just to drop her off, but ended up giving her a ride back out to another boat… ugggh. It all felt very strange .. and sad.
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Monday, September 13, 2004

Humpback Whales of Tonga Video

One of our most favorite moments ... snorkeling with more than ten huge humpback whales in Tonga.

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Monday, September 06, 2004

Passage to Niuatoputapu Tonga

5 days - 700 Nautical Miles (with a gnarly pass entrance)

Route from Suwarrow to Niuatoputapu Tonga

The passage to Niuatoputapu was a rather uneventful wet and fast ride. We were concerned about a wind shift to the south, so we headed south of the rhumbline just in case. This caused the seas to slap the side of the hull and we occasionally took a couple of big splashes into the cockpit. It was a little too rough for fishing, ok maybe the fishing would have been fine but we were more concerned about the landing and cleaning of the fish. We traveled close to De la Mer and got some great shots of them under sail, the hull disappearing out of site while they were only a couple of waves away. We started to pull away and thought we had lost VHF contact when all of the sudden we got a call out of the blue. It was a New Zealand accent asking for the sailing vessel in our position to identify them selves. Both KT and I looked at each other, “where did this boat come from, how did we miss it?” I checked our position on the cockpit repeater and responded that we were indeed the vessel in question. He said that we were in restricted waters. I guess I sounded a little surprised (Michael said panicked) so he started laughing; it was him the whole time!! What we didn’t hear was that he was claiming to be from the NZ vessel Freedom. He was planning on telling us he was a submarine and that we must head five miles south (more into the wind and seas) before continuing our course to Niuatoputapu. He kept laughing for hours. Luckily he didn’t play the complete joke because we wouldn’t have made it before dark. We didn’t think we would make it (because we would have to average above 7 knots for 12 hours) so we tried to slow down. We saw land about 35 miles out, turns out it was the large volcano across the pass from our target. The wind kept building to 25+ so we put up more sail and flew. We were steadily above 7.5 knots, occasionally held it above 8 knots and peaked at 9.8 knots.

The pass entrance and Niuatoputapu anchorage

The pass entrance is rather small and pretty well marked, but the seas were breaking very close to both sides of the pass and the light was fading. We talked to Emerald who was inside and they organized a dinghy party to help us through. We dropped our sails, and started heading towards the entrance; we were beam to the 8 to 10 foot seas and rolling pretty good. The pass is narrow enough that you can’t really turn around once you start. We were lined up and going for it when two whales surfaced between the pass and us (little did we know that this would be the beginning of our adventures with whales). They got out of the way and thanks to the dinghies we made it in fine and got settled, only to have to help De La Mer who was an hour behind us, trying to enter in the dark.

We had six dinghies with lights trying to help but in the confusion, our VHF batteries went dead and there was really no one person in control.  We were supposed to be in the back of the range, so I had to guess what to do. Finally out of the dark Mary asked, “Are we going the right way?” I guess they didn’t have much confidence listening to everyone try to figure out what to do. Next time we’ll have one person in control and talking to the boat while the others coordinate on another channel.

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Thursday, September 02, 2004

Suwarrow - Northern Cooks

8/23/04 – 9/2/04

This week in Suwarrow has been a whirlwind of activities – easily one of the best times in my short cruising experience.  Just the idea of where we are makes me smile, as we our truly in the middle of absolutely nowhere!  This tiny atoll is hundreds of miles from any populated lands, and has a whopping part time population of three, sometimes four!  The caretakers, Papa Joanne (pronounced John) along with his cousin Baker and grandson Totoo (aka Peter) live here for six months out of the year (returning home to Raratonga for hurricane season).  Papa Joanne plays host and tour guide with an abundance of contagious energy and a sense of pride in his home and lifestyle that one can’t help but admire (especially since he is 72).

Before we even arrived in Suwarrow we had heard (via SSB Radio) about Papa Joanne and family, and their hospitality.  As tons of boats had visited Suwarrow ahead of us, I figured that by the time we arrived the appeal of visiting with yachters would have diminished and Papa Joanne would more or less ignore us.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  Papa Joanne, Baker, and Totoo have made Suwarrow an outstanding place for us.

We arrived on Monday, August 23rd, after a six-day passage from Bora Bora.  The pass was easily wide enough and deep enough, but with gusty 25+ knot winds on our nose and decent chop, keeping up our speed was a challenge.  As we were powering through, Papa Joanne & Totoo zoomed by us in their aluminum fishing boat, waving wildly and smiling from ear to ear.  As we drifted over to the anchorage we made contact with Emerald, Stardust, and Equanimity – it was great to hear everyone again.

Anchoring was a challenge.  The shallow waters (where we would prefer to anchor) were littered with coral bommies and a number of boats.  The deeper waters where free of obstacles, but a bit choppier and, ‘er … deep.  To top it off it was blowing about twenty knots which means boat control would be difficult.  We first attempted a narrow spot in the shallow waters.  The wind blew us all over the place making it difficult to get us centered between two boats … after three attempts at centering ourselves we still felt we were to close to the catamaran, Koncerto. We hung there for about twenty minutes debating what to do.  Dragonfly had anchored out a bit, on a sand shelf at about thirty feet.  Although we had attempted the shallow waters, we were still anchoring in 55 feet.  This is madness we thought, who cares about the chop … let’s go anchor out there.

Shortly after (finally) getting settled, a Potluck/BBQ (hosted by Papa Joanne) was announced.  We spent the remainder of the day resting up, and then headed ashore at 6pm.  The only real problem with anchoring farther out was that in the wind/chop it was a wet dinghy ride to shore.  Papa Joanne & Totoo had caught a huge Tuna and Barracuda earlier that morning.  They cooked the tuna in a cement fire oven and made Poisson Cru with the Barracuda.  They had also caught at least ten HUGE coconut crabs.  Baker had made fried coconut cream patties.  In addition, all of the cruisers brought in some type of dish or another.  It was an outstanding feast.  It was also a social night, with fifteen boats in attendance … we caught up with those we hadn’t seen in a while and made a number of new friends.   Papa Joanne & Baker also provided musical entertainment.  What a way to make landfall!


This morning Dragonfly invited Danseuse de La Mer and us over for crepes.  We talked the morning away; all of sudden realizing it was noon (isn’t cruising great).  We decided to motivate and do some exploring.  Chris & I ran over to Emerald to get the scoop on the area, and then met the gang in the shallows for some easy snorkeling.  The water was warm and clear.  We had heard these waters were very sharky, but we only saw one black tip.  Even though there didn’t seem to be a lot of live coral there were tons of fish, especially baby fish (must be that time of the year).  These tiny fish were a hoot … our favorite thing was to swim right at them and watch them instantly scatter and disappear into the coral.

We left the water to do a bit of beach exploring.  We found Papa Joanne in the “Yacht club” (you can join for $10 … the money goes to the upkeep & maintenance of the island as well as health care for Papa Joanne).  It was a blast talking with him.  We chatted for quite a bit, thoroughly enjoying his humor and smile.  Although Papa Joanne spoke English, it was difficult to understand him, which made for some interesting conversation.  There were many times when all of us smiled, laughed, and nodded, thinking surely someone else understood, only to learn later on that NONE of us really got what he was saying!  Papa Joanne told us that they would be going out to Bird Island (a small motu about three miles away) tomorrow for a BBQ/picnic, where the main entrée would be baby Frigate birds!  It’s not often that one gets to learn how to kill, skin, and cook baby birds, so even as awful as it sounded we all enthusiastically accepted the invitation.  As there was one vegetarian in the group and we were all a bit hesitant about eating these birds, we also made plans for Graeme (Dragonfly) and Michael (de La Mer) to go fishing beforehand with Papa Joanne.

We left Papa Joanne to do a bit of beach exploring.  We walked around half the island, picking up the odd shell here and there.  As we returned to our dinghies we realized that the day was almost over.  We quickly threw together a dinner-potluck aboard Billabong with de La Mer bringing spicy tuna rolls, Dragonfly bringing a fresh cabbage salad, and Billabong cooking up the fish we caught prior to our landfall … it’s no wonder we can’t loose weight!    Then we headed over to Stardust for girls versus boys Cranium match (where the girls kicked booty … although we did let the boys win a game, ending in a 1-1 tie).


We headed over to Birds Island around 11a.m.  We gave de La Mer & Stardust a ride on Billabong, Dragonfly hitched a ride with Claire, and Papa Joanne, Baker, and Totoo got a ride aboard a third sailboat who was joining us.  It was an easy motor over, with some interesting anchoring near coral in decent winds.  By the time we got ashore Papa Joanne and gang had already set up “camp” … and to our astonishment two baby Frigate birds were right in the center of it, but for whatever reason they wouldn’t run (even with all of us foreign folk telling them to run for their lives!).  By the time we caught up with Totoo (who was doing the bird hunting/killing) he had already killed about ten birds … I’m quite happy to have missed that part, seeing him with the poor dead guys was enough for me to loose my appetite.

We watched on as Totoo demonstrated how to skin the Frigates (apparently with this type of bird plucking is not required).  I think that Papa Joanne, Baker and Totoo bring along the cruisers because they enjoy taunting us and love to watch our shocked reactions as the birds are prepared.  Baker especially got into the spirit as he pretended to eat a raw (whole) bird!  Janna (Dragonfly) got right in and helped … I think she was desperate, while Graeme is a vegetarian, she isn’t, which means she doesn’t get a chance to eat a lot of meat, and man was she excited to be getting some!

Tiffany (Claire) and I were talking, sitting next to the two (still alive) baby Frigates, when Baker came up from behind and grabbed them both by their necks … BAAAAAWCKKK … we both jumped.  Baker laughed at us.  He was just getting ready to kill them (gulp) when Dick convinced him that we already had enough to eat and did we really need two more?  “Plus,” Dick said, “the girls had made friends with them!”  Hooray, somehow Baker was convinced and the birds were spared!

After the killing and skinning, the whole birds (w/out heads) were thrown into a huge pot over the fire.  Baker and Papa Joanne went to work grating coconuts … we offered to help a number of times, but were always refused.

Finally it was time to eat!  The birds and fish were both served with curry and coconut cream (made from the grated coconuts).  The cruisers had brought a few side dishes, so it was once again a huge feast.  I don’t think any of us were really impressed by the birds.  Even Totoo only eats the fish.  For all the work (and the sad deaths) we could only get a few good bites of meat.  The meat itself was a bit oily.  On the other hand Papa Joanne and Baker devoured the birds, practically sucking the bones dry!  Chris also noticed that both Papa Joanne & Baker mixed the coconut cream with crackers to make a gummy mush - this they ate instead of the other foods provided.  Our best guess is that the mush (or soggy bird) is all they can "chew" (given as they have little or no (in Baker's case) teeth).

The experience itself was worth the trip and the hot day sitting in the sun (there was hardly any shade) on the hard coral (there were no sandy beaches).  It’s definitely something that I would have never guessed I’d participate in.  However, when asked if it was “fun” … well I’m just not sure how to answer that … “fun” is not the first word that comes to mind!  Oh yeah, and those two spared Frigate birds, Baker took them home with him (Totoo swears they are “pets” now and that they aren’t going to eat them, but we aren’t buying it).

After returning to the anchorage, resting, and showering we joined de La Mer and Stardust aboard Dragonfly for some more food (it seems Suwarrow is all about eating) and card playing.

Another very full day!


Today took on a much slower pace then the previous three.  We slept in, lounged around reading, and then rode over to the South reef for a bit of snorkeling.  Afterwards it was back to Billabong for a night of relaxing.  We needed the night off … Chris commented that he couldn’t keep up with all the “young people”, but neither could I, and I’m almost one of the youngest!


Earlier in the week when some of us had asked how they catch lobsters and coconut crabs, Papa Joanne responded by inviting us on another expedition.  At 11am this morning we met up with Papa Joanne, Totoo, and a number of cruisers to head over the one of the motus for some hunting.  All of us had thought that the outing would take a few hours max … oh how naïve we were!

We were all under the impression that one lobster hunts at night, during low tide, using a flashlight to draw the lobsters out.  We quickly learned that with a mask and snorkel (and low tide) you can “easily” grab them during the day.  We followed Papa Joanne & Totoo for what felt like miles along the rocky exposed coral (as it was low tide).   It was great fun to watch Totoo run and jump along the coral with grace and speed … it was hard to keep up.  We decided that left to our own skills we would starve (we being the white folk); however Papa Joanne and Totoo easily speared at least ten fish, and caught over twelve lobsters.  I personally wasn’t even quick enough to ever see a fish or lobster, let alone spear/catch one!  Totoo also snagged shells for the girls.

Next we waded across to the motu where we gathered dried coconut shells, branches, and rocks to build up a fire.  The coral rocks are placed on the top of the fire, where they will eventually break apart, leaving perfectly hot coals to cook food.  While the rocks were heating, we followed Totoo inland to hunt for coconut crabs.

I guess you can smoke out the coconut crabs, but that was not the approach we used today.  Totoo showed us how to find their homes – holes dug under the trees and usually covered with branches and coconut husks.  You dig into the hole and then bring out the crab.  Sounds easy, right?  The problem is their two large front pinchers – strong enough to easily crunch threw bone, or cut off a finger.  The ‘concept’ is that you grab a side leg and start to pull; the crab will dig its pinchers into the sand trying to prevent you from pulling it out.  You pull hard, and out comes the crab – but be careful, once it realizes that it’s losing the battle the pinchers/claws will give up on the holding and attack!  Once the crab is out you drop it to the ground (on its back) and stab it (with your handy dandy machete) through the throat, where a bunch of gross liquid stuff drips out (apparently it is coconut milk).  You stab it again through the heart.  Totoo demonstrated their strength by holding a branch near one of their claws, the crab crabbed it with a pincher and snapped through it!

Some primitive gene clicked in Chris and he was off.  He was digging into hole after hole yelling out “Here’s one!” “Here’s another!” “I got it! I got it!”  Chris had no machete, so he would pull them out and then yell out for Totoo.  He was all man and insanely fueled by some untapped testosterone force within.  I, of course, did the typical woman thing, “Honey be careful!” “Ooh, watch out for the pincher!”  “Don’t hurt yourself!”  By the time we headed back to the fire with our catch (about eight extremely large crabs) Chris was covered head to toe with dirt … I love his spirit!

During the day we had somehow nicknamed Totoo “Hunter”, and Michael received a less manly nickname of “Fafafini” – I’m not too sure how Fafafini came about, but it gave us all a good laugh.  A Fafafini is a male son raised as a girl.  This isn’t as common today (although it still happens), but in the past if the family didn’t have any girl children they would raise their youngest son as a girl – it is our understanding that it is considered an honor by the culture to be a Fafafini.

Papa Joanne had caught a few of his own crabs while we were off with Totoo.  However he was catching them for the next evening’s BBQ, and therefore wasn’t killing them. (I guess if you kill them you have to eat them right away, they wouldn’t last the night).  Instead he keeps them alive by tying them from the branches of the trees, where they swung lightly in the breeze, like Japanese “crab lanterns”.  They didn’t seem too thrilled by this, and if you got to close they would spread their claws towards you just hoping you would get close enough to grab!

Papa Joanne threw the fish and crabs onto the hot coals of the fire.  While they cooked we gathered coconuts (for drinking).  Chris came upon a small black bird that was struggling as it had flown into some type of tar-like sticky bush.  He was unable to fly and could barely hop along.  Hunter-man turns protector – he brought the bird back to camp where he, Bob, and Mary went to work cleaning it.  He returned the frightened bird back to where he found him, and after checking up on him periodically reported that it looked like the bird would make it – My hero!!!

Papa Joanne went to work weaving “plates” out of palm branches.  Janna and I went to work learning, and after a few tries we were zooming right along with Papa Joanne.  Papa Joanne said to me, “Stay here a month – I show you how to live off the land!”

And so five hours into our “short” outing we feasted on fish, crab, and coconut juice.  It had a very “native” feeling – with no utensils, napkins, plates, etc, and eating off of woven palm plates.  All this food was prepared with one spear, one machete and a single match!

We made the long walk back to our dinghies, Chris bringing along a number of good sticks that he planned on turning into coconut “tools”.  The wind had picked up a bit, so it was a rough dinghy ride (up-wind) back … I ended up with a huge charlie-horse that turned into an ugly bruise about the size of my hand!

I don’t know how we motivated, but after a brief rest we (Stardust, Dragonfly, Billabong) met on de La Mer for ... if you can believe it … more eating!  Danseuse de La Mer BBQ’ed the lobster tails and we brought over Poisson Cru made with a Barracuda Chris had caught earlier that morning.  Conversation turned “heavy-duty” as we discussed the issues with the American education system, parenting, and traditional man-women roles – as if we could change the world!

This was an absolutely fantastic day!


Still exhausted from the day before, we spent most of the day aboard Billabong.  I worked on the computer (picture organization and journal writing) while Chris worked on his new “tools”.  I had no idea what he was up to, just noticed that he was doing quite a bit of running around.  I kept hearing various power tools going off, saw him sanding and sawing at wood, and he was sweating profusely, so I assumed he had some major boat project going.  Later in the afternoon he excitedly did show-and-tell.  He had made at least three coconut “spears” and two graters.  The spears are for peeling away the outer husks; you then use the grater to scrape away the inner meat.  He also made a perfect hand shaped scraping tool that allowed him to easily ‘spoon’ out the coconut meat.  He rushed ashore to gather some coconuts to test out his new tools!  Impressively, they all worked rather well.  I remember looking up through the companionway as Chris stood shirtless looking out into the distance, a coconut in one hand, his eating/scraping tool in the other, just scooping away, looking extremely satisfied!  White-man turned native!!!

As if we hadn’t been feasting enough, Papa Joanne threw another BBQ/Potluck ashore.  More fish, more crab, more coconut patties, more, more, more!!!  I’m not sure how we can stand up straight with these huge potbellies!


Chris went off fishing again this morning.  He caught another Barracuda.   He is now quite interested in the ironwood lures that Papa Joanne carves – coconut tools mastered, this will be his next project!

Mary and I went for another swim (we had being doing “swim team” occasionally, trying to work off all the food we’ve been consuming).  We spotted some weird mushroom things growing on the side of a coral wall, a beautiful turtle, and this large coral bommie that had so many blue florescent fish hovering around, that the coral itself looked blue!  During ‘swim team’ yesterday, Totoo swam out (on his surfboard) and tried to sneak up on us.  We think he was looking to play … I imagine he gets a bit bored sometimes, especially given that he has no one his age around to hang out with.

We joined de La Mer, Dragonfly, and Nahanni aboard Stardust for dinner and the tie-braking Cranium match.  After enjoying sesame seared tuna (Michael and Graeme’s catch of the previous morning) and curry rice-filled wraps, the competition began!  The games were close, but by the end of the night the girls were up one – hooray!


I joined the girls (Becky-Stardust, Janna-Dragonfly, Mary-de La Mer, Lisa-Nahanni), ashore for shell hunting (I don’t really collect shells, but was excited to get some all-girl time).  Chris and Mark (Nahanni) went ashore to see if they could fix Papa Joanne's generator.  The police boat had arrived yesterday bringing supplies to help Papa Joanne and family get through the next three months (after which they would return home to Raratonga).  They brought him a “new” generator, along with some gas, and canned food.  They brought minimal supplies (i.e. only three or four cans of veggies), expecting that Papa Joanne would make do (as he does so well) with what was available on land/sea.  Turns out that the “new” generator was in pieces, but between Mark and Chris and parts from a second, non-working generator they were able to get it running.  Chris was now nicknamed “Mechanic”, and in celebration of having a working generator Papa Joanne announced ANOTHER BBQ/potluck for tomorrow!

We spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing aboard Billabong.  There was absolutely no wind, turning the anchorage into a serene pond.  With not so much as a ripple across the water we could easily see to the bottom of the anchorage.  Billabong had swung so that her stern was aligned perfectly near a huge coral bommie.  Fish and sharks swarmed around, providing Chris and I with our own private aquarium.  We had some leftover pasta that we threw overboard to attract even more fish.  Chris had some fun by hooking pieces onto our lure and dipping it into the water – while the fish were attracted we never actually hooked anything.

Meanwhile, Michael (de La Mer) decided to do some adventurous spear fishing inside the anchorage.  We had spotted a large fish in “our aquarium” so we called him over.  Of course we also had five or six sharks (one white-tip, the others all black-tip) swimming around as well!  Graeme was in a dinghy near Michael ready to pull him in if he made a catch (hoping to get him in before the sharks came … nobody ever said cruisers were overly intelligent!).  Sure enough Michael speared the big guy, and quickly came up yelling, “Get me in, Get me in!!!”  All went well, the sharks didn’t attack and Michael donated the fish to Papa Joanne for tomorrow’s potluck.

Chris and I BBQ’ed our own fish (a Barracuda) and enjoyed a quiet evening watching DVDs.


After a week in Suwarrow we decided that it was time to start moving.  We spent the day doing our typical boat preparations for our next passage (to Tonga).

Although we were tired from a full days work, there was no way we would miss our last BBQ with Papa Joanne, Baker, and Totoo.  It was another outstanding feast.  Baker was even more enthusiastic then normal.  He had gotten out his boom box (hooray for the generator) and was happily dancing around.  The day before I had asked him if he and Papa Joanne were going to play and sing for us (they play the ukulele and drums), Baker responded, “If you bring the medicine!”  The “medicine”, if you haven’t guessed, is alcohol.  Apparently Baker got his medicine because he was lit!  Through the entire week we had never seen Baker with teeth … one of the things that we enjoyed so much was his toothless smile.  During the evening Mary came over saying, “Did you see Baker?” “Why?” I asked.  “Check out his teeth!”  And there he was with this straight-toothed white politician smile!  A few minutes later Chris and I happened to be watching as Baker removed his teeth to safely store in his front breast pocket!  I am unable to put into words the difference in his appearance.  As a matter-of-fact I am unable to accurately capture Bakers essence on paper.  I would love to repeat sentences and sayings to you, but as just words they wouldn’t seem special – I couldn’t capture the tone, the fluctuations, the smile behind the words, the accent, and more.  Chris and I will always remember Baker and smile at the thought of him yelling “BBQuuuuuuuue Tonight!!!” over the VHF radio, smiling ear-to-ear on Bird Island while wearing a yellow hard-hat (we still aren’t sure what the hat was for), gyrating his hips side-to-side as he got his groove on, and pounding proudly on his Tupperware drum while Papa Joanne played the ukulele.

It was sad to say goodbye to Papa Joanne … he had given us so much.  I doubt we will ever forget his generosity and energy.  We joked with him that perhaps someday we would return with our kids and we hoped that he would still be there for them to meet.  We gave him thank you gifts of canned-meat, took hundreds of pictures, and said our goodbyes.  It’s surprising that in one week a person can touch you so deeply.

Our final goodbye was to Totoo.  At fourteen he had so much to teach, and I hope we sucked it all in. A huge part of me wanted to kidnap Totoo and bring him along!


As typical, we are ready to go, but for one reason or another we are ‘stuck’.  This time it is due to weather.  The wind picked up, bringing along with it an uncomfortable and choppy anchorage.  We weren’t in the mood to battle through it in order to pick up our anchor or to battle through the seas that were surely building outside the atoll.  We also didn’t get much sleep last night because we were constantly up checking the anchor gear.

The wind stayed high and steady throughout the day, so we hung out on the boat.  Chris is still trying to perfect our chafe protection for the anchor gear, and so worked on that throughout the day.  I mostly read and napped.

Dragonfly decided to leave.  They are heading up to Samoa and then maybe to Tonga before they head off on their Northern track.  Having only met them in Raiatea a few weeks ago, our time with them has been short but tons of fun.  We wish they were headed on the same track, but by now are getting more used to the idea making friends only to possibly never see them again.

Luckily the wind calmed a bit by 11pm or so, allowing us to get some sleep.


The winds calmed down just enough that we decided to go for it.  We lifted anchor around 11:30am and headed out.  Apparently we weren’t the only boat with this idea, five of us left, leaving the anchorage empty (three boats headed towards Samoa while de La Mer and us headed to Tonga).  We were just exiting the pass, having said that it was too bad we couldn’t say one more goodbye to Papa Joanne andFamily, when Papa Joanne and Totoo came zooming by in their fishing boat.  They were waving wildly yelling out “Mechanic … Chris … Billabong”.  We smiled and laughed at the site of them and waved frantically back yelling, “Goodbye, we’ll miss you”.  It brought tears to my eyes as I watched Totoo getting smaller and smaller, yet still waving madly.

A few minutes later we heard Totoo on the VHF, “Fafafini Fafafini, this is Hunter”.  We listened as de La Mer said some more goodbyes to Totoo and then got on and said our own goodbyes.  Totoo’s uncle in Raratonga has email access, and so we are very hopefully that he will write to us.

With exception of leaving home (Ventura), this has been the hardest departure of our trip!

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