Monthly Archives: August 2012

First Impressions

Wow. All I can say is that our first 48 hours in Tonga was an over-the-top whirlwind, and if my words can’t convey that, I hope the photos and video can. We’ve met kind people, seen beautiful islands and swum in crystal clear blue water with humpback whales. Wow.

We arrived in the Kingdom of Tonga on Monday, just before sunset, after our 1320nm passage from French Polynesia. We’ve now sailed 5125nm since departing Puerto Vallarta in March. Our passage took 11 days 10 hours, at an average speed of 4.8 knots. Considering that we added nearly 70nm to the passage to avoid crummy weather, and completely lost our wind at the end, motoring for the last 20 hours, we’re very content with those stats. We arrived after business hours, so anchored off and got a good night’s sleep, waiting to take care of our official clearance the following morning. Early Tuesday morning, we moved over to the Customs dock, raised our “Q” flag and waited for the officials to pay us a visit. Shortly after 9 a.m., the Quarantine and Customs officers arrived, clearing us into the country in a very relaxed and friendly manner. We moved off the dock, over to a mooring, prepped the dinghy and went ashore to complete our clearance with a visit to the Immigration Office. Fees paid, passports stamped and our quarantine certificate filed away, we set out to explore town.

Neiafu is the main town of the Vava’u region of Tonga, and the second largest city in the country. However, it’s really quite small and very manageable on foot. We found the open-air market, which is always one of my favorites, and bought some much appreciated fresh produce. Then we followed our noses to a local café, where we bought fresh whole-grain bread! Although the baguettes of French Polynesia were delicious, I was definitely ready for some bread with a little more substance.

Like all Polynesians, Tongans appear to be generally shy with foreigners, but most were quick to return our greetings when we passed on the street. We stopped to have lunch at a local restaurant, in full view of the groups of uniformed school kids headed home for lunch. I caught the eye of one of the older girls, and her entire face broke into the most beautiful grin. Local women walked in twos and threes, wearing woven pandanus skirts and carrying umbrellas as sun protection. Men and boys of all ages strode by, wearing the traditional wraps that substitute for pants with either button-down or polo shirts. Hopefully I’ll have some photos to post at some point.

The next morning, I woke before sunrise, very excited about the day to come and with my body obviously still ready for my night watch. A slim crescent of moon had just risen and the town was completely quiet, except for the roosters… Coffee in hand, Mark and I sat out in the cockpit listening to the phenomenal singing coming from the Catholic church on the hill. I’ve read that Tongans are renowned for their a cappella singing, and that attending a church service is a must while we’re here. In any case, it was a beautiful start to an amazing day. Our friends Fred and Cinda, of S/V Songline, were in town and had made arrangements for all of us to go out on a whale-watching excursion for the day. We picked them up at 8:15, and by 8:45 were headed out into the islands with owner Alistair and guide Lo, of Dolphin Pacific Diving. The day was sunny and warm with just a light breeze blowing, we stopped to pick up an Australian family of three, and then were off. From a distance, Vava’u is reminiscent of the San Juan or Gulf Islands of the Pacific Northwest, with many islands offering protected anchorages, all within a day sail of each other. I haven’t researched their geologic history yet, but they appear to be limestone, with dramatic cliffs and caves topped by lush tropical vegetation and surrounded by that amazing blue water. It’s really beautiful, and completely different from any of the island groups in French Polynesia.

So, back to the whale watching… As I mentioned in an earlier post, humpback whales from the Southern Ocean come to these warm waters in July, to give birth to their calves and to mate. They stay until October, then make the long swim southward again, to their feeding grounds in colder, more productive waters. Tonga is one of the few places in the world, where you can actually swim with these humpbacks, and that was our hope for the day. There are strict guidelines for approaching the animals by boat, and only 4 people plus a guide can be in the water at a time. Dolphin Pacific ran a very sensitive and informative trip, and we HIT THE JACKPOT!!!

The first whales we sighted were a competitive group of 2-3 males vying for the attention of a single female with her year-old calf. There was a lot of action at the surface, with lunging, fast swimming and some good loud trumpeting by the males. Eventually, this group dispersed, with two of the males staying in our vicinity and the cow / calf pair swimming away to the north. Once these males seemed to settle into a regular swimming pattern, our guides told us to “get ready”. Four of us donned masks, fins and snorkels and slipped off the back of the boat behind our guide. Since Alistair kept the boat a good distance away from the whales, we swam about 100 meters out into the deep blue, scanning underwater in all directions. We first sighted a spinner dolphin gliding slowly towards the surface, about 50 feet below us, and then… my heart stopped. Two humpbacks were swimming lazily toward us, side-by-side, just 100 feet away. I’m sure this will sound cliché, but, suddenly, the world disappeared, and my entire being was aware only of the rays of sunlight piercing the blue that surrounded me, and those two whales swimming towards me. There’s one of my photos that, I think, captures this image. With the merest flick of their tail flukes they propelled themselves in a graceful circle around me, just 20 feet below the surface, never breathing once. Just writing this, I can feel my heart pounding again, and I’m pretty sure I’ve stopped breathing myself.

After all of us had a turn in the water, we headed toward a nearby island, for a short lunch break. Soon we were underway again, this time in search of a cow / calf pair that another guide had located. We spotted their blows mingled with the spray from the waves breaking on the nearby reef, and slowed to a crawl. Over the course of the next hour, we watched this mom with her month-old calf and an “escort” adult that only surfaced on occasion. Once we felt that the mom was comfortable with our presence, maintaining the same behavior she’d displayed when we arrived, we took turns in the water with her. Mark and I were in opposite groups, so our camera got double duty, but we didn’t get any photos of each other with the whales. His group went in first, and they were all smiles as they returned to the boat. Then it was my turn again. It was an incredible experience, as you’ll see from the photos and short video. Then the whales seemed to change behavior a little bit, but still remained in the area and circled back toward us. Our guides decided that we’d try one more swim, and I opted to go camera-free for this last time. Friends, I’m really sorry, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to find adequate words to convey the experience. Swimming right behind the guide, on my side as he showed me to keep our fins underwater and minimize the splashing noise, I caught sight of the escort whale, hovering about 100 feet below us. It was ethereal, and, again, my focus on the moment was complete. Then I looked up, and our guide Lo said, “Look, right in front of me”. As he swam to the right, the cow and her calf came into view, swimming right towards me. Slowly, they came abreast of me, not 20 feet away. I could see every tubercle on their rostrums and pectoral fins, throat pleats, the folds and wrinkles in the young calf’s skin, and their eyes… As this mother and her baby passed right in front of me, I looked them right in the eyes. I will never forget that moment, ever.

And then they were gone. The escort emerged from the depths, and they surfaced for a breath and slowly swam away. When I got back to the boat, my smile was so big I thought my face would split open, and I’m pretty sure I carried that perma-grin all the way home. As we were nearing Neiafu again, we saw a flying fox overhead, which was just icing on the cake for me. As Alistair and Lo got word that I was excited to see the flying fox (a fruit bat about as big as a medium-sized hawk), they hatched a plan to show me more. We passed between two small, rocky islets and they pointed out dozens of them hanging from the tree branches, and then eventually about 50 of them in the air above us! It was such a great end to a truly amazing day.

So, that’s all for now. I hope you enjoy the photos. I’ve made a short video, but haven’t been able to upload it yet. If I can ever get fast enough internet, I’ll post it as well. We’re planning to stay in town until Tuesday morning, taking care of our usual chores, and then head out to the anchorages for a few weeks. Internet is very limited here, so there may not be many photos, but I’ll do my best.

Until next time, we’re hoping that all is great with you! ~ Michelle

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One More Thing…

Somehow it didn’t seem right to have the last blog post of this passage be about the crummier aspects of our sailing, so I thought I’d write once more before we arrive in Tonga. Mostly because tonight’s watch has been one of the perfect night watches that I love, so I thought I’d share.

The breeze picked up yesterday morning, so we’ve been sailing again for nearly 24 hours after just 6 hours of motoring. However, it’s now blowing a comfortable 10 – 15 knots, and the seas have mellowed considerably. During the day, we had mostly clear skies, with a few big cumulus clouds dropping scattered showers. One of those showers produced the most interesting rainbow I’ve ever seen. At first, it was just a low arc, maybe 10 or 15 degrees above the horizon, but it was really bright and I could see both ends clearly. As the shower moved to the west, the arc of the rainbow rose to maybe a third of the circumference of a circle, and then the left half disappeared. Finally, with the shower continuing to move westward, the left end of the rainbow reappeared, the middle disappeared and the right end stayed visible, making for a bright “broken” arc. Another great moment yesterday was when a red-tailed tropicbird circled very low over us, apparently looking for a place to land.
We could see all its markings, and bright red tail streamer, very clearly as it flew around us for about 10 minutes before deciding that we didn’t present a good resting place after all.

When I came on watch at 1:15 this morning, I stepped into the cockpit under a dark sky full of stars. It’s either been cloudy, or we’ve had bright moonlight for most of this passage, so this was a huge treat. Winds are still light, and we’re sailing downwind on a smooth rolling sea. The entire Milky Way is brightly visible, and the sense of space, as I sit up on the edge of the cockpit for a better view, is both intoxicating and humbling. I watched the crescent moon rise through the few clouds on the eastern horizon, before they cleared and revealed a yellow-orange slice of moon with Jupiter just beneath it. Aldebaran, the bright star that is the eye of Taurus, is just to the right of the moon. Seas are calm enough that I was even able to focus my binoculars on Jupiter just long enough to pick out the brightest of its four visible moons. Just as Orion was entering the eastern night sky, feet first with the bright star Rigel, Scorpius was diving head first into the ocean to th e west. What a beautiful night.

With the lighter winds, and a dead downwind course, we’re not going nearly as fast as we were, but we’re still hoping to make landfall sometime tomorrow. We’re approaching the Tonga Trench, one of the many deep water basins of the Pacific that lies just to the east of the chain of islands that comprise the Kingdom of Tonga. According to the chart, the deepest part of the trench is 10,587 meters, or 34,672 feet. There’s also the Capricorn Seamount nearby, rising to just 227 meters below the sea surface. This kind of vertical relief can often mean really productive waters, so, although we’ll be approaching just to the north of the trench, we’re hoping we might see some wildlife today and tomorrow.

More once we’ve arrived, Michelle

Almost There

We’re entering the 10th day of this passage, and are just under 250nm out from Neiafu, hoping to arrive sometime on our Sunday, which will be Monday in Tonga. Although it’s located between 174 and 176 degrees West longitude, thus not officially across the International Date Line, Tonga has chosen the time zone more closely aligned with its neighbors to the west, making it GMT + 13.

The past few days have been a little challenging, reminding us of many lessons learned previously, and teaching us a few new ones. Foremost on that list of lessons is that all the weather files we download are only forecasts, and it’s nearly impossible to finesse our route based on the information they give us. During this past 5 months we’ve often talked about the huge amount of weather information that we’re able to access, and how it’s both a blessing and a curse. Our friend Gart sailed to the South Pacific some 20-odd years ago (I think), and told us the story of how he and his crew would listen to high seas voice forecasts on the high frequency radio, plotting the positions of fronts, troughs, convergence zones, highs and lows on graph paper, for a visual of the major weather features that might affect them. We download “grib” files that are generated by computer models, which show wind strengths and directions as little colored flags. The problem is, the graphic shows us averages, based on how fine a grid we’re able to request. Usually, we’re limited by the file size we can download over our SSB radio to a grid of 2 degrees latitude by 2 degrees of longitude. Near the equator, that’s about 120nm by 120nm, or 1440 square nautical miles represented by a single wind flag What many sailors don’t realize is that we, in our little boat moving 5 knots, might have wind of 25 knots, while our friends 100nm to the south of us might only have 5, where the wind flag showed 15 for that entire patch of ocean.

Yep, that’s more or less what we were faced with from late Tuesday afternoon, until about midnight last night. We’d opted to steer a bit north of the rhumb line from Maupiti to Neiafu, to try and avoid a large convergence zone that was supposed to dissipate over Tonga yesterday, thinking that we’d miss the worst of it. And we did. However, we wound up finding stronger than expected easterlies associated with a low pressure trough over Samoa instead. So, the good news is, we’ve logged our fastest days ever, sailing nearly 140nm for two days in a row. We were flying along at nearly 6 knots, and happy to cover so much ground. The less good news is, sustained 25 kt., and higher, winds kicked up some sloppy seas, averaging 2.5 meters, with an occasional 4 meter set (generated by stronger winds to the east of us) thrown in. Of course, since they were wind waves, they were short period (about 7 seconds), and fairly steep, making for some good surfing. Although Mo, our trusty windvane steering gear, did us proud, when the big sets came through, things got a little sloppy. Since we were sailing a broad reach, with the seas on the port quarter, we had many waves smack the hull, sounding like we’d hit something, but causing no harm. A few of those waves splashed high over the dodger and into the cockpit, drenching the cushions, and occasionally the top of our bimini and sun shade, dripping sea water into the leeward side of the boat. Twice, Mark got soaked, when a wave landed squarely down his back while he was sitting on the windward side of the cockpit. The second of those waves caught my PFD, which I’d just hung under the dodger so I could go below for a nap, and set off the auto-inflate CO2 cartridge. Bummer. Unfortunately, since those cartridges are considered hazardous cargo, we weren’t able to get any spares while we were in Mexico. No worries though, we still have our old life jackets, so we just pulled out one of those to use until we can replace that cartridge.

Our winds died at midnight, so we’re now motoring on a rolling sea, and hoping that some breeze will return with sunrise. I have to admit, while I love many aspects of our passage making, the intense rolling motion we experience in a seaway is not one of them. Yesterday, Mark was joking with me that people actually pay good money for that sensation, on amusement park rides. He admitted, however, that the rides only last a couple of minutes, and we rode it for 60 hours Our friends Terry & Heidi, of S/V Cetus, when we were back in La Paz quizzing them about this voyage, told us that there would be times when we wanted to shout “Get me off this @#$%^& boat!”. We thought maybe, “Beam me up, Scotty” might work even better.

From our “sailing holiday in a tropical paradise”, we hope all is well in your world. More soon, Michelle

Passage Notes

We’re into our fifth day of this passage to Tonga, and are flying! We made 500nm in our first four days, which is fast for us. The winds have been 20-25 knots from the east for three days, piling up some lumpy seas, but we’ve been running under jib alone and riding well. A little rolly, but we’re going fast enough to surf the biggest waves, which helps a lot. Around noon today, the winds dropped to 12-15 knots, so we hoisted the mainsail and are now sailing a really comfortable broad reach. Looking at the weather forecast, it seems that there’s a low-pressure trough developing to the southwest of us. Although it’s predicted to dissipate over southern Tonga on Thursday, we’ve opted to steer a little north of our track for a few days, while we watch its progress. Once we have a better idea of where it’s going and when, we’ll gybe back to the southwest and head for Neiafu. This will add a little time and distance to our passage, but that’s much better than dealing with squally w eather if we can avoid it.

Since leaving Maupiti, we’ve seen virtually no traffic. Although we spent our first 3½ days within 12 nm of our friends on S/V Wondertime, we’ve only seen them once since leaving Maupiti’s pass together. We’ve both been checking in to the Pacific Seafarer’s Net, and talking on the VHF, so we knew we were close, but were only able to actually see them late yesterday afternoon when we were just two miles apart, and then only when both boats were at the top of a wave at the same time! The enormity of this ocean continues to amaze me, as I look out over miles of water the color of flawless sapphires. Not that I’ve seen so many flawless sapphires, mind you, but it’s the color and clarity that I imagine them to be.

A few years ago, our friend Kim Heacox told me about a project he was considering undertaking. If I remember correctly, Kim and his wife Melanie were considering spending a winter in the remote reaches of Denali National Park, with the intent of measuring noise pollution. Kim said he wasn’t sure there was any place a person could go anymore, and be free of the noises of the modern human world, noises like airplanes and such. I’ve wanted him to know that the open Pacific is such a place. We’ve been able to spend days at a time hearing no sounds other than the wind and waves (and the sounds we make, of course), and seeing no signs of humans. No airplanes, no boats, not really any satellites even, just us. Of course, as I pointed out before, we can’t see much more than a few miles around us, so there could be a naval armada over the horizon, but the idealist in me prefers to imagine not.

Both yesterday and the day before, we witnessed a fascinating weather phenomenon that I’d read about. Truthfully, I think I find it fascinating mostly because of the terminology… it’s called Speed Convergence. Apparently, when strong winds flowing north off the east side of a high pressure system in the Southern Ocean (remember… this is the Southern Hemisphere…) reach the tropics, the wind slows and moisture precipitates out quickly, forming a large cloud mass and rain. The thing that’s so interesting is that it happens really fast, so we actually watched these huge clouds form before our eyes. The book in which I read about this phenomenon uses the analogy of cars piling up at a tollbooth, which was a perfect visual for me! We joked about the clouds stalling out above us, until they started spitting rain, that is. This afternoon, though, we’ve got clear blue skies, and the solar panels are cranking out the amps!

We’re posting our position daily, and will write again upon arrival in Tonga. Until then, keep wishing us fair winds and following seas! 🙂 Michelle


/pilájik/ adj. of or performed on the open sea

We’re at sea again. Not on a short hop between islands, as we’ve done for the past few months, but really at sea. On Wednesday morning, we motored out of Maupiti’s Passe Onoiau into the deep blue of the open Pacific, headed west. It’s a very different feeling, to be on a long passage again, and we’re, once again, settling in to the rhythm of night watches and constant motion. The obsessive watching for our “weather window” is behind us, as is the nervousness about navigating out of Maupiti’s nail-biting pass. We should cover about 1250nm in the next 10-14 days, making this the second longest passage either of us has ever made (after our Pacific crossing). Last night, around 11 p.m., we logged our 4,000th mile at sea, since leaving Banderas Bay, Mexico, which means we’ve now covered nearly 2/3 of the distance between Mexico and New Zealand.

The difference between the theoretical and the real is so pronounced out here. We’ve looked at pilot charts showing wind roses denoting percentage of time the wind blows from each quadrant, and at what strength, for each month of the year. Of course, we’ve also seen those lovely maps on which the “global winds” are drawn so neatly, finding ourselves in the region of “southeast trade winds”. From where I sit now, in Cheers’ cockpit, with my head about five feet above sea level, I can really feel the fabric of the ocean. Not the tidy, theoretical sea, but the messy realness of it. The wind is blowing 20 knots, out of the east-southeast, but it was blowing out of the west and southwest for the past few days. It’s blowing much harder well to the south of us, and all of this wind drags the sea surface into waves of varying heights and lengths (periods), coming from different directions. In this part of the Pacific, we have no land between us and the Southern Ocean to dampen, or deflect, the giant waves generated by fierce winter storms. Although we feel none of the wind, a long-period two to four meter southwesterly swell rises periodically beneath the one to two meter wind waves created by the brisk trade winds in which we’re sailing. All of these waves are moving faster than we are, and I like to imagine them racing each other towards some distant shore.

Meanwhile, here on our little boat, I watch the largest waves approaching, thinking that this one will surely crash over the stern, but it doesn’t. The wave lifts Cheers’ port quarter, and we slide sideways down the face, before the headsail and our trusty Monitor turn us back downwind. I’m just enjoying ride, still in disbelief that water can be so blue. To say it’s a dynamic environment is a bit of an understatement…

We’ve just logged two of our fastest days sailing, and have about 975nm to go. It looks like we should have good sailing wind at least through tomorrow (and hopefully beyond), and we’ll keep posting whenever we can.

Hope all is well in your world, Michelle