Monthly Archives: October 2012


About two months ago, two beautiful vakas, traditionally designed double-hulled Pacific voyaging catamarans, sailed into Neiafu harbor. They tacked up and down the bay, looking very impressive under two mainsails and a headsail. This afternoon, we saw one of these boats, the Hine Moana, under sail southbound through Tonga’s Ha’apai Group. These boats are part of the Pacific Voyagers program, and I’ve been following their progress since they left San Diego late last year. It’s a fascinating and inspiring program that’s melded modern materials and communication methods with the ancient skills and vessels of Pacific voyaging. The crews are from various Pacific nations, including Cook Islands, Tonga, New Zealand, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Fiji and French Polynesia. There are seven such vakas, apparently all funded by a single benefactor, carrying a message of cultural renewal and ocean conservation. These vakas departed their home countries in 2010, voyaging north and east to San
Francisco Bay. There, they all sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge in an inspiring display, and were met by a large gathering of Pacific Islanders on shore. The group is making a documentary film titled Our Blue Canoe, to be released sometime in 2013. I saw some of the highlights and the trailer, and it promises to be a pretty cool flick. If you’re interested in learning more, check them out at

During this Pacific voyage of ours, I’ve been reading a book entitled We, The Navigators: The Ancient Art of Landfinding in the Pacific. The author, David Lewis, sailed his own boat into the tropical Pacific islands of Micronesia and Polynesia in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and sought out surviving “navigators” in order to learn and record skills that were on the brink of being lost forever. What he discovered were men who still recalled the words of traditional chants that had been passed down orally through the centuries; chants that are unchanged, because it was sacrilege to alter even a single word; chants that represent a body of sea lore that could only have been obtained by a people living in such close contact with the ocean. He sailed with men who sat still aboard their vessels, striving to feel the sea beneath them. Ignoring the noisy wind waves, which often come from several directions and cause the immediate, attention-grabbing motion of a small boat, these na
vigators tuned their bodies to sense the deep, long-distance traveling ocean swell. The direction of this swell could tell them where they were relative to their destination. He sailed with men who knew the sky intimately, and held their course by the positions of stars and the sun as they rose and set. A voyage to a particular island was sailed along its kaveinga, or star path. That is, the succession of rising or setting guiding stars along which the navigator steered. Along with the swell direction and “star paths”, Pacific navigators also paid attention to waves refracted off of land, presence of seabirds and their direction of flight, bioluminescence in the water and clouds on the horizon to pinpoint their landfall. Although it may seem easy in this modern age of GPS, detailed charts and diesel engines, these navigators were capable of finding tiny islands in the midst of millions of square miles of ocean using only wind and stars, and their deep knowledge of the sea.

In this book, the author contends that long ocean voyages didn’t necessarily require more navigational skill than shorter, inter-island trips, they simply required more endurance from their crew. Withstanding the rigors of voyaging for weeks on end requires a different skill set than finding a tiny dot of land in the midst of a vast ocean. While the navigator always relies on subtlety, finesse and keen powers of observation to make landfall, on along-distance voyagehe must also be able to deal with extended periods of sleep deprivation and a greater chance of punishing exposure to the elements.

At the risk of getting overly philosophical, I suggest that long-distance cruising requires a measure of endurance as well. Acclimating to the constant uncertainty of voyaging in new regions demands a level of mental and emotional endurance that many people will never know. By being willing to take some risks, this long-distance voyaging has presented us with many new challenges, all of which have enabled us to develop mental strength and emotional resilience. Now, I’m certainly not claiming that cruising a sailboat in the tropics is hard-core adventure, only that the challenges are more and different than most folks imagine.Facing my fears and meeting those challenges head on has changed me. This full-time cruising is certainly a dream in many ways, and it’s been so much more challenging, on so many more levels, than I could ever have imagined. I’ve faced down my fears repeatedly, and expect to keep doing it. Not only my fears of big seas, ugly squalls, scary reef passes, an
d snorkeling and diving in shark-y waters, but also of never being 100% certain that our “home” is in a safe spot each night. By meeting each of these fears, I’ve proved myself… to myself, and it’s been a richly rewarding process.

I write this as we are starting to think in earnest about the most daunting passage of our journey thus far, the leg from Tonga to New Zealand. We’ll leave the tropics and head into the temperate latitudes of the Southern Hemisphere, during the Austral Spring. On this passage, we’re prepared to get pasted by one frontal passage, and hope not to encounter a second. Some folks tell us their passage to New Zealand was the best weather they had in their entire South Pacific season, while others had “less than perfect” conditions… And the greatest thing is, we’re reasonably ready for it. We’re so excited to explore New Zealand, and so ready to get a little work done on Cheers, that we’re approaching this passage with more excitement, and a little less trepidation than we’ve had prior to the other long ones. That said, we are working hard to “create our own luck”, by watching the weather closely, and checking all of our gear and systems thoroughly. Oh, and paying for the services
of a weather forecaster from New Zealand, to help us hedge our bets on this passage. We also bought a couple of extra diesel jerry cans from another cruiser to increase our fuel capacity. These will come in handy if we have light winds and want to motor-sail to keep up our speed.The total passage should be 1000-1250 nm, from one of the islands here in the Ha’apai Group to Opua, in New Zealand’s Bay of Islands.

Right now, we’re still enjoying the tropics, taking time out of our passage preparation to beachcomb, snorkel and explore a few more islands. Life is good, and we’ll keep you posted as we firm up our plans for departure.


Close Encounters of the Baleen Kind

Sorry to make you wait for this, but it was such an unbelievable experience that I just couldn’t lump it into another travelogue… Let me just start by saying that Mark and I have both been privileged to have seen hundreds of humpback whales during our work with Lindblad, in Southeast Alaska, Baja California and even in Costa Rica. In all that time, through all those experiences, I can honestly say that neither of us has EVER felt the mixture of exhilaration and terror that we felt yesterday. For old-time Lindblad folks, perhaps you’ll remember the humpback that played with a Zodiac in Antarctica many years ago? Well, it was sort of like that…

We’d departed Pangai village mid-morning, and were enjoying another lovely sail to the southwest, planning to investigate a couple of islands that looked inviting. As we rounded the western end of the reef that extends nearly 5nm from the southern end of Uoleva Island, we spotted a humpback cow and calf off in the distance. It was great to see the little guy, and their baby blows always make me smile. It seemed like they were traveling to the north of us, so we watched for a few minutes and then turned our attention back to sailing.

And it was a damn good thing we did! Motorsailing at 5 knots, with our supposedly accurate New Zealand charts of the region up and running on the laptop, I looked off the port side and saw a keel-buster of a coral head, just 100 meters away. Whoa Nelly! We clutched out, decided to furl the jib and then slowly motored back over to mark the position of this big nasty. Fortunately, we had high sun and great visibility, so it was easy to find it again and mark it on the GPS and chart. Then, with our adrenaline already pumping, we noticed that the humpback cow and calf were still out there, and that they had a second adult (escort) with them.

That’s when things got interesting… the calf seemed to sense our presence, and made a sharp, 90 degree turn to head directly toward us. The adults followed. Somehow, I managed to run below and grab my camera, actually check the settings to be sure they’d work for the conditions, and start shooting. Over the next 10-15 minutes (that seemed like an eternity!), these three whales were all over us. They came right at us, to within 6 feet of the hull, and then dove directly beneath us. They swam alongside us about 12-15 feet away, and then turned on a dime right off the bow, to come down the other side and pirouette around our stern! I’m fairly certain on the distance, because the tip of the mother’s pectoral fin was just inches away from our hull. After so many years of talking about whales on the ship, I know that a humpback’s pec fin is one-third their body length and generally 12-15 feet on an adult! On a couple of occasions, while standing on the coach roof, I could see the
mother’s tail fluke off the starboard side while her rostrum was visible underwater to port. At one point, the mother and calf glided along our port side underwater, looking up at me, while their escort was just visible about 30 feet below. The adults were both longer than Cheers, and the calf was nearly half our length. We’re 38 feet. As Mark said to me later, it was incredible that they never once touched our hull, but came within a foot of us repeatedly. Talk about body awareness. In that short time span, I shot 160 photos, and some of them came out darn fine! I’m really sorry that I’ll have to wait to share them for a while, because these remote little islands really do NOT have much internet.

And then it was over. The whales swam off ahead of us, and continued about their day. We watched them roll over each other, make several fluke-up dives, wave their long pectoral fins in the air and then swim off to the south. The calf was certainly this year’s, which means that trio will soon be starting their long swim back to the rich feeding grounds of the Southern Ocean. I can’t even begin to describe how fortunate we felt to have captured their attention for those few magical minutes, and it was all because we spotted an uncharted rock!

As if the day could actually get any better, we continued towards Tatafa Island, and found a gorgeous sandy anchorage, all to ourselves! I stayed up on the bow for the remainder of the passage, and spotted several more “spoilers” that we made sure to chart. Although it’s been pretty breezy since we got here, the holding is fabulous and we’re protected from most of the swell by both the island and the barrier reef beyond. At sunset last night, we even spotted a small pod of spinner dolphins out in the distance. Today, we woke to another blue-sky day, so hopped in the dinghy and went ashore for a look around. The island appears to be uninhabited, and is rimmed by a lovely sandy beach. We walked the entire perimeter, taking photos of the gorgeous water and the many beautiful shells littering the high tide line. It’s been a wonderful couple of days, and I’m really happy to share them with you here.

Take care, Michelle

Birthday Bliss and Final Farewell

I’ll be honest here, we’ve been in Tonga for quite a while now, and were beginning to feel like we were done with our time here. The last few days, however, have shown us that Tonga is most definitely not done with us yet!

We’d nearly decided to remain in the Vava’u Group until it was time for our passage to New Zealand, when our friends Mark and Anne, of S/V Blue Rodeo gave us a good kick in the pants. They’d just returned from their month-long stay in the Ha’apai Group, and told us that we really shouldn’t miss it. I’ll confess here that we’d wanted to explore the Ha’apai all along, but somehow Mark’s unplanned trip back to the States sort of broke our “exploring” momentum. We knew Vava’u, and got comfortable there, and are really looking forward to being in New Zealand. Anne’s admonition, though, was just what we needed to get moving again. And we are SO glad we did!

After a couple of nights in the beautiful, protected enclosure of Hunga Bay, we set off at first light on October 15th – Mark’s 49th birthday. Although the day dawned cloudy, we had near perfect sailing conditions from the get go. Once clear of Hunga’s narrow pass, we raised the mainsail to the second reef, unfurled the jib and turned off the engine. Within a few minutes, we were making 6-7 knots on a beam reach! Conditions just kept improving through the day, with the swell decreasing and the wind dropping enough to shake out the entire mainsail. The sun came out, and it turned into the best day of sailing we’ve had since our magical passage from the Marquesas to the Tuamotus, way back in May. Mark decided it was the perfect birthday present, especially since I’d baked a huge batch of Apricot-Craisin Oatmeal cookies for him the day before!

Mid-afternoon, we decided that this was the perfect day and the perfect place to say our final farewell to Mark’s dad. We brought out the small, ceramic seashell containing some of Tom’s ashes, and took it up on deck. Under sunny tropical skies, 15 knots of breeze and sailing over sapphire blue water, Mark said his farewell and we scattered the ashes off the leeward rail. It really couldn’t have been more perfect, and we’re both certain that Tom would have loved that day’s sail. A little before sunset, we nosed in to our chosen anchorage at Ofolanga Island. Although conditions were a little sloppier than we would have liked, the holding was great and it was good enough for a night’s sleep. Dwayne wrote to tell us that he’d looked the island up on Google Earth, and wondered where in the heck we were going to anchor?!

We opted to get underway early the next morning, and had another wonderful sail down to the group’s principal town of Pangai, on Lifuka Island. We anchored there in the late morning, had some brunch, and then prepped the dinghy to go ashore. Official “check in” procedures were very relaxed in this tiny town, so we took a short walk around, met a few other sailors who’d also just arrived and went for a late lunch at the local watering hole. Since I’d stocked us up in Neiafu, we didn’t really need anything, and decided to get out of town the next morning. Which brings us to yesterday…

Stay tuned for another update tomorrow, about our incredible sail south from Pangai, and our super close encounter with three humpback whales!

Beginning our Southward Migration

Well, after nearly 9 weeks here in Tonga’s Vava’u Group, we’re ready to head south. The weather has been gorgeous for the past few days, and forecast to stay that way for a few more. We spent the end of last week doing our final town chores and are now at anchor prepping for the short passage down to the Ha’apai Group, the next set of islands to the south, and still in Tonga. We’ve read that these islands are a bit more remote and less visited than where we’ve been, so we’re not expecting any amenities and are hoping for a few anchorages all to ourselves. Although, we hear other boats on the VHF daily talking about heading the same direction so we’ll see how “quiet” it really is.

In truth, we’re beginning our preparations for heading south to New Zealand. Despite the fact that it’s just early spring there, we’re excited about what the next 8 months hold for us and are itching to go. However, prudence dictates that we wait a few more weeks until the winter storms in the Tasman Sea settle down. So, we’ve filled up with diesel and our last fresh foods for a while, made our official “checkout” from Vava’u and are just finishing up the last items on our pre-passage checklist (yes, we have a checklist… ;)). We decided to come into the completely enclosed lagoon at Hunga Island, and have had it virtually to ourselves for 3 nights. The stars have been incredible out here, and there’s a colony of flying foxes roosting close enough that we practically hear their every chirp.

Tomorrow morning we’ll rise at 0430 to be ready to heave anchor at first light and begin the 63nm sail south to Ofolanga Island. If the forecast is correct, we should have good sailing wind and manageable seas for the day, and are hoping to arrive at our anchorage before dark. Then we’ll make our way to the village of Pangai, “check in” to that island group and spend our last few weeks in the tropics exploring some new islands.

Stay tuned, and we’ll let you know what we find…
– Michelle

Final Batch of Photos from Tonga

Well friends, this is the last batch of photos that I’ll post from Tonga. You can read my earlier post, “News From Tonga”, for the stories of all that you’re seeing. I apologize for not meshing the stories and photos better, but that’s just the way it’s worked out. Hopefully you won’t mind backtracking to the written post, because there were some good tales associated with these photos.

We’ll keep you updated, but it’s looking like we’ll start heading south in the next few weeks. We’re really getting excited about our arrival in New Zealand, but need to wait for weather…

Hope all is well with you, Michelle

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Second Round of Photos from Tonga

Alright. I know I should probably spread these out a bit more, but the internet is good, so I’m posting a second batch of photos here. These are from our time out in the eastern anchorage of Kenutu Island.

I still have one more set of photos, but I’ll wait for another day. It’s time to get to the market, or no fresh eggs for tomorrow’s breakfast!

Hope you’re all well, wherever you may be in the world.

– Michelle

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Tonga Pics, Round One

Wow, wow, wow!! I finally got internet fast enough to upload my first batch of photos. I think… I tried to post this once, and it seems to have failed. Please forgive me if you receive two emails with this post.

Here are the first photos from Tonga, beginning with our landfall way back in August, and ending with our trip out to the islands prior to Mark’s return to Texas.

If I can manage it, there will be another batch soon… Michelle

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Contemplating Collisions

I started this post several weeks ago, but am just now finishing it up for posting…

I’ve been thinking a lot about collisions lately. Not the automobile pile-up on Interstate 5 kind of collisions, but rather a series of forceful encounters, both natural and human. Let me explain…

First, the Kingdom of Tonga is located right on the Tonga-Kermadec Trench, one of the great subduction zones of the Pacific. Here, two of the planet’s great crustal plates collide, with the giant Pacific Plate being slowly subducted, or sucked under, the India-Australia Plate to the west. It is a region of deep seismic and volcanic activity, part of the Pacific “Ring of Fire”. Back in 2009, a large earthquake on this trench generated a tsunami that caused serious damage in Samoa and the Tongan island of Niuatoputapu. Just this July, the Havre Seamount, situated approximately 700nm to the south-southwest of us, and also located on this trench, erupted a tightly packed “raft” of pumice that covered an area of sea approximately the size of the state of Israel. Sailors are still fretting over the position of this “hazard”, since it could lie on the rhumb line course between Tonga and northern New Zealand, and would cause engine trouble for boats motoring through it. Even closer still are Home Reef and Metis Shoal, an area of submarine volcanism that mariners are advised to avoid. While walking the beach a few weeks ago, I scooped up handfuls of super-light pumice pebbles, all of which floated beautifully when I tossed them in the water.

The second “collision” that drew my attention once again involved the weather. I’d been watching the development of a “convergence zone” for several days, which was forecast to form a low-pressure trough to the south and west of us before developing into a full-fledged Low that, in the words of Kiwi weather guru Bob McDavitt, should move off to the southeast and create chaos in the Southern Ocean. The worst of the weather passed to the south of us, with at least one boat reporting 40 knots of wind and heavy rain. However, that Thursday night was forecast to be wet and windy, so I battened down the hatches and pulled the drain plug when I hauled up the dinghy for the night. I set up for rain catchment, and managed to collect nearly 10 gallons between my deck fill and my buckets in the cockpit! Just before dawn, the barometer was down to 1006mb (one of the lowest readings we’ve seen this season), and the wind slowly backed from north, to west, to south. Within an hour of that wind shift, the barometer was up 2mb and the clouds were beginning to clear. The wind shifted back to the southeast trades, the frontal passage was complete, and I took a photo of our GPS track while on the mooring through it, because it was a perfect circle! It was an impressive “collision” of air masses that brought some much-needed rain to the islands, and a good “hands-on” lesson in meteorology to me.

Lastly, I’ve been contemplating the collision of cultures that I’ve observed here in Neiafu, Tonga. Archaeologists estimate that the first humans arrived in this area in about 3000 B.C., although radiocarbon dating confirms human habitation only as early as 1100 B.C. As fierce Polynesian warriors, equipped with large war canoes, the royal Tu’i Tonga’s empire once included Tonga, Fiji, the Samoas, Niue and Tokelau. Although Tonga signed a Treaty of Friendship with Britain in 1900, this Kingdom is the only South Pacific nation never to have been colonized by a foreign power. That said, this once powerful Polynesian kingdom, is, in the modern world, a small, economically challenged country. Christian missionaries arrived in the early 19th century and were very successful in their mission. Tonga is now a strongly Christian country.

My reading and personal observation indicated a culture that still respects and practices many traditions, including adopting a fairly conservative dress code. Nearly all of my guidebooks have advised swimming in loose clothing, rather than bikinis, at public beaches or around smaller Tongan villages. Everything I’d read prior to arrival prepared me for the Tongan observation of Sunday as a day on which all shops are closed and work is essentially forbidden. All of these traditions are associated with the Christian influence of the past two centuries. These aspects of culture are part of what I love about traveling, and I think it’s important to be respectful of local customs, even if they are not my own. To even a casual observer, it’s apparent that the region’s burgeoning tourist industry has led to a “collision” of traditional Tongan customs and the more “modern” behaviors of visiting Europeans, North Americans, Australians and New Zealanders, with general modesty and patience being the first things that come to my mind. While a full-naked shower on the back deck of your boat might be just fine in a secluded anchorage, I’m pretty sure locals are offended by the sight when you’re anchored just 100 meters off of town. Resort-going vacationers grumbling loudly about there being “nothing to do” on a Sunday strikes me as a serious case of bad manners. While I understand that such local customs may seem antiquated and irrelevant to us modern foreigners, it seems to me that we are guests here, and that it wouldn’t kill any of us to just be mindful of local customs. But that’s just me.

News From Tonga

Alright, time to play catch up. We’ve been in Tonga nearly 7 weeks now, and haven’t written much about the place, the people or our experiences here. I have loads of photos to share, but have had a terrible time trying to upload them to the blog. I’ll keep trying, and promise to get them posted when we get to New Zealand, at the latest. Our friends who travel abroad, or who work on ships, know this well, but friends and family that stay closer to home may not realize that high speed internet can be hard to come by. That’s definitely the case here in the islands of Vava’u Tonga. So, I’ll do my best to paint a verbal picture until I can share the photographs.

After Mark returned from Texas, we spent a few more days on our mooring in town; then, provisioned and itching to take advantage of some great weather, we set out for the remote eastern anchorages of the group. Our first destination was Kenutu, a rugged limestone island reached by navigating a narrow pass in the reef through shoal and coral strewn waters. We had perfect conditions for the passage, with bright sun, light wind and a conveniently timed low tide, making it easy to identify and avoid the hazards. We arrived in the early afternoon, to find just one other boat in the anchorage – perfect! We sat on deck until well after sunset, listening to surf trumpeting through a blowhole on the other side of the island while sitting on glassy calm water in the anchorage. Clear skies meant we had some fantastic stargazing, with the crescent moon appearing a mere 1.3 degrees away from a sparkling Spica.

Over the next few days we snorkeled near the inner edge of the reefs at high tide, then walked the outer edges at low tide. On these excursions we picked up live tiger cowries and felt their slippery tickle on our palms as they tried to glide back in to the water. Wading through ankle deep water, we startled both a young snowflake moray and a banded sea snake, and counted hundreds of brittle stars and dozens of blue sea stars. I picked up a large spider conch shell, and found it occupied by the craziest looking hermit crab I’ve ever seen. Back aboard, I looked it up in one of my field guides and learned that it’s called the Blue Knee Hermit Crab. A perfectly descriptive name, as it looked like it was wearing turquoise blue kneepads on its reddish brown legs! Finally, we dinghied over to a sand cay with low surf lapping 360 degrees around it at low tide. Snorkeling the cay’s perimeter, we found loads of sand dollars and beautiful cerith shells partially buried in the fine white sand.

One morning at sunrise, we went ashore and walked the short distance across the limestone spine of the island to watch the surf in the morning light. This really may have been one of the most beautiful anchorages we have ever found. Anywhere. In the world. Of course we had perfect weather while we were there, which often makes all the difference in a cruiser’s experience of an anchorage. Imagine, a lagoon-like setting on one side of the island, with water of every shade of turquoise and blue imaginable. Landing on a small sandy beach, we walked a quarter mile on a tropical forest trail, and emerged on a cliff top that evoked the dramatic coast of Big Sur, albeit on a smaller, more tropical, scale. Waves rolled in to the rocky coves beneath us, and splashed 50 to 100 feet in the air as they hit the cliffs, filling the air with a fine sea mist backlit by the rising sun. Sitting quietly, we listened to the sound of surf echoing through fissures in the limestone, sounding, for all the world, like enormous whale blows. It was really a magical morning, and it was only the call of coffee and breakfast that drew us back to Cheers.

After four nights in that beautiful anchorage, we decided to move on. We found a nice spot near Mafana Island, and anchored in 15-20 feet with sandy bottom all around. I really can’t even express how much I love being anchored over sand… Good holding, no rocks or coral heads for the chain to wrap around, and no major hazards to worry about should the wind shift to an unfavorable direction in the night. We spent a couple of days here, investigating the neighborhood by dinghy, and photographing a large group of roosting fruit bats (flying foxes). Following an urge to go into town for a day, we motored the short distance to the Old Harbor, an anchorage to the east of Neiafu, in hopes of spending a night there. No luck though, as the anchor refused to set in the hardscrabble bottom, and the chain wrapped itself briefly around something that felt like coral. While working the windlass to heave the anchor, I held my breath until I was sure we were free of the bottom. Then we move d back to our nice sandy spot for one more night!

The next morning, we got underway, and navigated back out the narrow Fanau Tapu Pass, where I was surprised by a group of five giant manta rays masquerading as an unexpected coral head. From my lookout on the bow, I kept asking Mark if we were on course, and finally shouted that we needed to veer right. It wasn’t until the mantas were right off the port bow, and one of them rolled over to expose its white underside, that I realized what I was seeing! They were taking advantage of the current in that narrow pass to filter feed on the incoming tide. Continuing on around the south end of Tapana Island, we decided to turn north and check out the anchorage off the island’s north side.

What a perfect stroke of serendipity! We found the tiny floating Ark Gallery, and met the couple that live and work there. They maintain some super moorings, so we took one and decided to stay for a bit. That night we went ashore for one of the most eclectic dining experiences either of us has ever had, at a tiny cliffside restaurant called La Paella. Landing the dinghy ashore at dusk, we hiked up a path lined with flower beds ringed with inverted wine bottles. We were met at the door by Maria, a woman from Valencia, Spain, who sailed into Tonga with her husband 22 years ago. Greeting us at our table was Maria’s fat black goat. The place was an unusual mix of found objects, with tables and chairs crafted from drift and rough wood, a menu stand made from a woody vine and posters advertising bullfights covering much of the wall space. In one corner, a small stage was hidden from view by curtains made from old sails painted with fantastic colorful scenes. A young Tongan couple had arrived with us, and offered their woven handicrafts for sale. Of course, I had to buy a few baskets from them… The food was delicious, with a selection of tapas arriving one after another, followed by a main course of seafood paella. It was fun to converse in Spanish again, and I was able to learn a little about our chef / hostess. After dinner, those colorful curtains opened to reveal a musician’s set, and Maria’s husband started playing some incredible guitar. He alternated between salsa, blues and Brazilian samba, while Maria and her sous chef kept rhythm with bells and maracas. Mark joked that the ad for the sous chef position would have to read, “can prep, cook and keep a beat”. It was one of those genuinely authentic experiences that I really cherish about traveling to out of the way places. As we got back down to the beach, the young Tongan couple, Nati and Funaki, asked if we could tow them back across the bay. Funaki’s hand was injured, and it was a long row on a breezy night. We were happy to oblige, and made a great connection in the process. The next evening, as promised, they returned to Cheers with a giant bucket full of produce from their garden plot. In addition to papayas, bananas, coconuts, tomatoes and green peppers, they brought their toddler son Ofa with them. They came aboard for some iced tea and invited us to join them for a traditional Tongan Sunday – church followed by a family meal. This turned out to be another authentic, and humbling, experience, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

This bay seems to be the neighborhood of the biggest sea turtle either of us has ever seen, and we see it regularly. In fact, Mark found it grazing on sea grass near the chain on our mooring during an afternoon swim! A group of about two dozen longfin spadefish has been hanging out under our hull, congregating at the surface every time we hop in the dinghy. We watched them devour a banana peel the other day, and Mark had a train of nearly 10 of them following single file behind him while swimming near the boat! A couple of crocodile needlefish and two Oriental bonito came hunting under our hull two days ago, darting back and forth through the large school of bait fish hiding in our shadow. Delicate brown noddies kept trying to land on our bow pulpit, but we didn’t want their poop on deck, so we shooed them off.

Our second night at Tapana turned out to be very exciting, with an early wake-up call as the entire sky lit up at about 3:00 o’clock in the morning. Jumping out of bed, we stepped into the cockpit to see giant thunderclouds filling the sky to the south of us, lit up by a bright, nearly full moon. The next couple of hours were like a laser light show, fireworks display and battle scene from an action movie all rolled into one. Mark and I have both seen a lot of lightning displays, having grown up in Texas and Arizona, but this was incredible. After unplugging all of our electronics and stowing laptops and the portable GPS in the oven, we sat out in the cockpit watching a dramatic lightning storm, and hoping that it wasn’t moving our way. I’ve been reading a book by Bill Bryson, entitled “A Short History of Nearly Everything”. It’s a fascinating look at the history of our planet, and the scientists who have uncovered many of its mysteries. In this book, Bryson states that a single thunderstorm “can contain an amount of energy equivalent to four days’ use of electricity for the whole United States”. I had no trouble believing that statistic watching this storm. For nearly an hour, there was so much electrical activity inside these giant clouds it looked to me like dozens of bombs exploding one right after another. Every few minutes a bolt would escape, arcing seaward to the south. When we were finally convinced that the entire mass was moving off to the southeast, we went back to bed for a few more hours sleep.

On Friday, our quiet bay got VERY busy, as the boats competing in the final race of the Regatta Vava’u crossed the finish line just a half mile behind us, then motored in and anchored. That night was a big local celebration, the Regatta’s Full Moon Party. Since we’d been out of town, and out of the action for the entire week, we decided we had to join the fun, and dinghied ashore at sunset. Watching the twilight fade as everyone arrived on the beach, we were able to catch up with many of the other boats that we haven’t seen since the Marquesas, the Society Islands and even since La Paz, Mexico! After a brief, but soaking shower, the clouds seemed to move off and the DJ got the crowd dancing. It’s been several years since Mark and I have had so much fun dancing, but we definitely felt our age the next morning… At 11 p.m., they performed an amazing fire dance, and set a giant “straw” man ablaze about 100 feet off shore. Although we were already back aboard Cheers by then, it was still an impressive sight. The music continued until nearly dawn, and the anchorage was mighty quiet until noon.

Which brings us to today… Sunday, the 30th and final day of September. We were awakened by a sudden wind shift at 0320 this morning that quickly increased to 25-30 knots out of the southwest and brought some good, hard rain with it. Although we’d expected the frontal passage, we still had to scramble a bit to get our rain catchment set up. Mark went out on deck to check the mooring and dinghy, while I grabbed our buckets and put them in place. We opened the water fill on deck, set up our vinyl dam, and were ready to go. By 0500, we’d filled the tank and every container available, and had each had a good soaking “shower” while taking care of things out on deck. It’s such a gift to have that “free” water! Looking around the anchorage, we could see that nearly every boat had someone up with a flashlight, checking their gear on deck as well as their position with the new wind angle. Several boats moved to the other side of the bay, and a few departed early this morning, but we rode well and chose to stay put. By 9 a.m. I was baking a cake to take with us for our “Tongan Sunday” adventure.

The wind had settled down enough that we felt okay leaving Cheers on the mooring for a few hours, so we dressed for church and hopped in the dink. Fortunately, it was a downwind run to the beach, so we managed to stay relatively dry and presentable. Funaki picked us up at 10:45, and drove us back to his village of Pangaimotu. We really had no idea what to expect, and were delightfully surprised with the tiny church we attended. The place seated no more than 50, and there were only a dozen or so adults, and perhaps 20 kids in attendance. Although we couldn’t understand a word of the sermon or the hymns, it was a treat to watch the people (especially the kids!) and the singing was phenomenal. The pastor greeted us warmly, and everyone seemed to not only tolerate, but actually appreciate, the presence of two “palangai” (foreigners) in their midst. It was such a small, obviously poor church, in an inland village several miles outside of Neiafu, that I doubt they have many foreign
ers attending their services, and I’m certain that they appreciated our contribution to the offering basket. After the service, we returned to Nati and Funaki’s little house for Sunday dinner. We sat on the floor with their three kids (Lusiana, Osian and Ofa), while Nati brought foil wrapped packets of Tongan dishes to the table. There was fish cooked with coconut cream, a ceviche-like dish called ota ika, plenty of roasted breadfruit, beef cooked with tomatoes and beef cooked with coconut cream. All of these dishes were wrapped in taro leaves for cooking. Our dessert was a baked green papaya filled with fresh coconut cream – delicious. My ginger banana cake stayed in the kitchen, and Nati told me later that the kids dove into it that evening. With traditional Tongan hospitality, Nati tried to insist that we take the leftovers home with us, but I flat out refused. I may have broken some rule of etiquette, but she and her family are so poor, that there was no way I was taking their food home with us. Fortunately, she’s a practical mother, and understood my refusal. Mark kept the kids entertained with the camera, taking a number of “self-portraits” and then showing them the result on the LCD screen. When I can finally post photos, you’ll see what I mean.

We’re here in Tonga for another month, while we wait for the Austral winter to end before making the big passage to New Zealand. Take care, and stay tuned for more, Michelle