September 11 - December 10, 2008

HIGHLIGHTS

Life on a Very Remote Island

Learning to Protect Reefs

Watching the American Election from Abroad

A Rest Stop in Fabled Minerva Reef

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September 11 - 20, 2008

After a long stay in Pago Pago, we finally hauled up the hook and set off for Niuatoputapu island in the Kingdom of Tonga (known to the cruising community as "New Potatoes").

Niuatoputapu would be quite a change from American Samoa. Samoa has giant supermarkets, smelly tuna canneries, a bustling harbor, lots of SUV's and rapid mail service to the US.

Niuatoputapu has coconuts.

Beth preparing for trip to Iran Before we set off, Beth made some quick sail cover repairs. The high winds in the Pago Pago harbor had chewed up our sail cover -- the lazy jacks sawed dozens of holes in the canvas. Here Beth checks the sail cover for new holes.

September 21 - 24, 2008

Lots of cruisers complain about American Samoa, but we liked it. Yes, the harbor smells, and yes the anchoring is spooky, but the island is beautiful, the people are spectacularly friendly, AND then there's the shopping. Not to mention US postal rates for shipping to and from the US. And cheap wifi internet on our boat.

Officially we're out here to explore primitive places, but look where we spend our time!

On the other hand, it rains a lot in Pago.

Pago's private rain cloud

We took these two pictures just seconds apart, one looking ahead at a clear blue sky as we put to sea, and the other looking back at Pago.

Pago Pago's a rainy place.

Going where it don't rain so much

 

Not Again!

Our first gear failure happened right away -- a broken crush tube on our Monitor wind vane. We've had this problem before, so we carry lots of spares. (Six, to be precise.)

Ken had us back in operation pretty quickly.

Within minutes of repairing the Monitor, Ken hooked a nice big mahi mahi. Fresh sushi

Normally we can land a fish pretty easily -- but in this case, Ken's life jacket inflated unexpectedly, making cleaning the fish more exciting than normal.

Sunrise at sea

After a short passage with only a few minor squalls (left) we saw the dramatic beauty of Tafahi (right), a volcanic island near Niuatoputapu.

Cloud over Tafahi

The Treacherous Pass

Approaching the pass

We arrived at night in high winds and rough seas, so we hove to until morning. Niuatoputapu features a good anchorage, but a complicated, twisting, treacherous pass through the reef.

It was ok in daylight, though, even with the high wind.

 

After we came in, this boat ("Sundance") fouled its prop with the jib sheet outside the reef, simultaneously blowing out their jib and disabling their engine. We and another boat crew went out with our dinghies and towed them through the pass in big winds and seas.

Sundance, a bit battered

Then, a few days later, a different boat attempted the pass at night. On a pitch dark, moonless night. With the wind howling and the waves crashing.

They were counting on a computer GPS track to guide them through the pass.

Niko, a local fishermen, volunteered to pilot them in, if somebody could take him outside the reef to meet them. So we put on our wetsuits and launched our dinghy.

It was so dark and rough that we got lost trying to find the shore to pick Niko up. We finally got him after almost going aground.

The new boat's computer packed up just as they entered the pass. (Murphy's law at work!) They would never have made it without Niko.

Niuatoputapu already has at least one sailboat wreck outside the pass as a reminder not to come in at night and our new friends swore they would never try that again.

September 24 - October 4, 2008

 

Many friends whom we had met in Pago Pago also ended up in Niuatoputapu. We explored the island with Steve and Tracey from "Hannah". Beth, Steve and Tracey

After Pago Pago, Niuatoputapu seemed so tranquil and clean.

Niuatoputapu scene

Horses provide much of the island's transportation.

The poles soaking in the foreground at right will be unraveled to make "tapas" cloth, used for decorative painting and mats.

Mulberry trees drying for tapas

People on this island have almost no contact with the outside world. The intermittent airplane service ceased a few months ago. The supply ship comes -- maybe -- once every few months or so. Visitors must hop a ride on the supply ship. And since the supply ship visits lots of islands, the trip can take weeks.

And when the supply ship does come, nobody has money to buy much.

Needless to say the islanders love cruisers, since we provide a welcome diversion, not to mention a great source of trade goods.

"Where's my lolly?" As soon as we set foot on shore, the young children came running up, asking for their "lollies". We didn't encourage this bad habit, created by the generous impulses of other cruisers.

 

Inside an island "store"

No wonder the kids treated us like a candy store -- the island only has a few tiny, expensive, shops.

That's the supermarket, on the right.

Visiting the supermarket

 

Kung fu master We met all types of kids -- some playful and saucy. Tough guy in training

 

Tongan girl All of the kids we met were self-confident, engaging, and fearless. We saluted back -- what else could we do?

We visited one of the local schools and became instant celebrities. The kids never tired of posing for the camera.

Kids bursting out of class

Unruly group portrait

 

School kids More kids

 

Three girls plus peanut gallery We hope this means "good luck"

We made friends with some young teachers named Viena (below left), Manna (center) and Lossi (right).

Viena and Sione Manna Lossi and daughter

These young women seemed happy, but their lives sounded difficult. They work very long hours, just like teachers anywhere. But in addition, they have to grow their own food! (The government provides land.) Plus, Viena, as a young single woman, has naturally been given her sister's "spare" child to raise. That's how Tonga works.

All of the young women we met on the island mentioned that it's hard to find a marriage partner on Niuatoputapu. Seems that everyone is related to everyone else. Viena, in particular, was very interested in meeting single-handed sailors.

Beth decided she'd better keep a close eye on Ken.

Men mostly tend gardens or fish. Small fishing boats dot the shore.

Fishing skiffs

Old boat

 

Boat in harbor Blue boat

Men living on Tafahi, the volcanic island, make the rough trip across the channel to bring food and livestock to family members on the main island.

An unhappy camper

Islanders love pigs. (To eat, that is.)

The little fellow on the left isn't very happy. But he's probably less happy on the right.

The pig and banana delivery run

 

Veggies for the family Islanders from Tafahi delivering baskets of luscious fruits and vegetables from gardens on the volcano island to their families on the main island.

Chasing Money

People on Niuatoputapu don't even have a farmer's market -- they just grow their own food. But they still need money to buy clothes and "luxury" goods ( like canned corn beef). So the people work at preparing and weaving mats from pandanas -- the woody fiber of an island bush -- for trade with the larger islands.

Hard work in the hot sun

At low tide, women soak the pandanas fibers out on the reef to make them pliable for weaving.

Woman and companion

 

Moonscape on the reef Horses, men and even children transport the pandanas to and from shore. Children help too

 

This woman caught a small reef fish for her kids. After she cut the head off and gutted it, they sucked on it like a popsicle!

Probably healthier than "lollies," actually.

Yum -- a fishsicle

 

Woman at work Work on the reef makes for some lonely vistas. Carrying fibers on the reef

 

Making our way up the tiny channel

The reef completely blocks access to the main town. But a few years ago, a foreign aid project blasted a small channel through the reef so that the fishermen could get in and out.

Our dinghy just fit through the channel.

 

Horse and house Island houses mix traditional and "high tech" construction materials. Keeping the water out

 

An innovative use for old tranmissions -- jack stands. The islanders have some technology -- but keeping it running is tough. Free power

 

Festive, elaborate cemetery decoration. Grave site

 

Laura We also visited the Palm Tree Island Resort, the island's only accommodation or restaurant. The owner, Laura, is hoping that air service will resume so that her prospective customers can get to the island!

King Taufa'ahau Tupou V (in the pith helmet) flew up in his own plane as part of his July coronation ceremony and spent quite a bit of time at Laura's restaurant. (This is Laura's picture -- we didn't see the king ourselves.)

Island scuttlebutt says the king hired a PR advisor. Anyway, he seems to be doing a better job of relating to his subjects than what we reported last year.

The King and I

 

Ken strikes out

Ken tried to fix Laura's broken sound system.

Despite his best efforts, he couldn't repair the blown out speakers or the amplifier, which had been infiltrated by saltwater.

We fell in love with the people and spectacular views on Niuatoputapu. We snorkeled a few times and made two dives -- the first real test of our dive compressor (it worked great)! Unfortunately the windy weather stirred up the water, making it very murky -- not the best conditions for diving. That volcano again

Here are some other memorable scenes from our visit.

The windward beach on a calm day The crossing to Laura's hotel

 

Noni and ants Sharp tree Boat at low tide

 

In anticipation of our voyage south to Vava'u, Ken dove down to clean the hull. We were disappointed to see lots of barnacles growing on our brand spanking new bottom paint. Guess even fresh bottom paint is no match for the Pago Pago harbor.

The "weedbed" at the bottom right is our ground for the SSB. Amazingly, it works fine even with all this growth.

Seafood salad

October 5 - October 7, 2008

We could easily have spent much more time in Niuatoputapu, but we needed to get down to the Ha'apai group for a "Reef Check" class that would train us to protect coral reefs. We stopped briefly in Vava'u to restock our supplies and watch a few presidential debates.

Beth prepares to chow down

In Vava'u we also grabbed the chance to have somebody else cook!

Mala Island Resort, near one of the popular anchorages, boasts a lovely restaurant with scrumptious lobster dinners. Believe it or not, Beth ate the whole thing!

October 18-31, 2008

When the debates were over, we made an overnight run to the island of Foa, in the Ha'apai group to participate in the "Reef Check" training class.

The Ha'apai Group

The remote Ha'apai Group offers uncrowded anchorages and great snorkeling and diving. We anchored off the island of Foa.

Evening in the lagoon

The Ha'apai islands abound with highly poisonous sea snakes. These fellows can kill you with one bite, and there is no antidote for their venom. Fortunately they aren't aggressive, and their mouths are so small that they can only bite a human on the webbing between our fingers.

Standby to repel boarders!

We'd seen plenty of sea snakes before, but we'd never had one board our boat! This guy just wouldn't take "no" for an answer -- he kept coming back to hide among the fenders on our swim platform, even after we chased him off.

We finally gave up and let him stay. Amazing what you put up with in this lifestyle!

Big spiders, too!

But this fellow stayed on shore, where he belonged.

Spider
Sundown on the beach We enjoyed a hike along the long beach, taking in serene seascapes.
While some local boats have motors, many fishermen use simple dugouts. These fishermen set nets near the reefs. Cheap transport

The Ha'apai group depends on the same supply ship that travels to Niuatoputapu. Unfortunately one of the ship's engine's had failed, making it slow and unmaneuverable. Which caused it to run into a reef and put a big hole in the bow. Then the other engine broke down.

So, anyway, there weren't many supplies in the Ha'apai while we were there. The islands were almost out of diesel and petrol, and we expected them to "go dark" at any moment.

Protecting the Coral Reefs

After a few days of relaxed exploring, we got down to business with our "Reef Check" class.

"Reef Check" monitors the health of reefs and helps educate local communities to protect their own reefs. Probably a majority of the world's reefs suffer from human impact and damage, some from global warming, but much from local fishing and pollution.

Its been a while since we've gone to school. Fortunately our instructor, Glenn (at left) is very knowledgeable, competent, and enthusiastic.

Our friends Gail and Dave from "Fifth Season" (right, rear) also took the class, along with a young Kiwi dive instructor named Rachel (class and dive pictures from Rachel's camera).

The Reef Check class

Glenn told us that coral reefs are the oldest and largest living structures in the world. He also taught us how to identify different types of reef organisms and how to recognize different types of reef diseases and damage.

Soft and hard corals Soft and hard coral on the left, hard coral on the right. Staghorn coral

 

Taking notes underwater We learned how to conduct detailed, systematic underwater reef surveys.
After an exhausting day of diving, Dave and Gail hosted a party one night on their boat, with Gail providing superb entertainment. Gail doing what she loves
Beth with basic supplies Beth's joy was complete when Dave and Gail gave her two boxes of quadruple batches of scrumptious chocolate brownies.

We hope to put our skills to the test by joining a Reef Check survey team for a while next year. We get a lot of pleasure from exploring reefs, and it would be nice to give a little back.

November 1-12, 2008

We could have dallied at Foa for weeks, but we really wanted to see the U.S. election up close and personal (e.g., on TV!) so we headed back to Vava'u. Mango's restaurant has a big screen TV!

The Famous "Supply Ship"

As we approached Vava'u, we passed the island supply ship "Olovaha" going the other way.

A little while later we were startled to see "Olovaha" coming back towards us!

Wounded supply ship

Pretty soon our VHF radio came to life with a hail from "Olovaha" to the New Zealand warship "Resolution" (which happened to be in Vava'u for some survey work), asking for assistance with damage control. They said they were taking on water through a hole in one of their bows.

Seems they had put to sea from Vava'u with a gaping hole in the boat.

That would be the hole they got by crashing into a reef because one of their engines wasn't working.

Here comes the cavalry

Within 30 minutes, "Resolution" was on the scene. They sent a large team out to "Olovaha" for help with repairs.

The New Zealand crew showed impressive efficiency and professionalism. Definitely a good bunch of people to have on your side!

We heard that "Olovaha" was able to get underway again, thanks to assistance from the New Zealand navy. So maybe Niuatoputapu and the Ha'apai islands can start getting supplies again!

The American Election

Election Day was very festive at Mango's. Americans (including over a dozen Peace Corps volunteers) and visitors from around the world stuffed the restaurant. Many people from other countries told us that they were more interested in OUR election than their own.

One Tongan woman told us she wished she were an American so she could vote for Obama!

Election day crowd

That American flag is Eagle's Wings' ensign, contributed for the occasion

The crowd went wild when Obama was declared the winner. As people probably did all over the world.

We haven't met a single foreigner in any of our travels over the past four years who liked the Republicans. Canadians, Brits, Kiwis, Australians, French, Swedes, Germans, Dutch, Japanese, Polynesians, Panamanians -- it's an overwhelming consensus.

Speaking as former Republicans, it was pretty sobering.

We can't think of any single thing that could do more to improve our stature abroad than Obama's election.

And most non-Americans would admit that an ethnic minority couldn't have been elected in their own country. All of a sudden we're a good example again!

McCain At left, McCain giving his gracious concession speech. At right, Todd and Sarah Palin listen to the final result. The Palins

 

Obama gives his acceptance speech. The new prez
Dancing up a storm Pandemonium broke out after the election and two Italian-American children dragged Ken out onto the dance floor. All of the Peace Corps volunteers, along with a bunch of cruisers, jumped into the harbor in celebration.

With the election over, it was time to think about leaving for New Zealand.

November 13 - 29, 2008

We started our trip to New Zealand with gorgeous weather. Nice warm days and evenings. The water temperature was almost 83 degrees at the start but we knew we'd see cooler water as we traveled south. We put up our big reaching sail for light wind sailing, and made decent progress for a while.

The light from a full moon made the night glow. Full moon rising

 

Sunset over squalls And the sky exploded with spectacular sunsets. Sunset at sea

 

Glassy seas.  Beautiful, but slow But the wind (what little there was) finally abandoned us completely. We turned on the "iron genny." That's 1.3 knots of wind.  Yikes!

 

This should hold us for a while

We snagged a beautiful 50" mahi mahi -- our biggest yet -- while we motored along.

Ken is sporting his new fashion look -- one sleeve on, one sleeve torn off (clothes do NOT last out here!).

We diverted to North Minerva Reef to wait for better wind. We carry almost enough fuel to motor the entire way to New Zealand, but, with fuel prices at about $6/gallon, motoring would be almost as expensive as flying.

Minerva Reef

Chart of Minerva Reef (with our track in and out) Minerva Reef is an uninhabited coral atoll, without so much as a single palm tree.

 

However, unlike Beveridge Reef, Minerva Reef sits on a major cruising route (Tonga to New Zealand), and many boats stop each season. We shared Minerva with more than a dozen other boats!

 

Sailboats in Minerva
Surfbreak on Minerva Reef Minerva offers very good protection, as the reef uncovers completely in many places at low tide (unlike Beveridge).
Our friends Dave and Gail of "Fifth Season" joined us for a few days. Friends, but no wind

With the conditions so settled, we gorged on snorkeling and diving. We made good use of our dive compressor -- this was exactly the kind of remote place where the compressor comes into its own.

Ken with his "shark poker" outside the reef The calm winds allowed us to dive outside the reef. We even did a drift dive where we tied ourselves to our dinghy and let the current sweep us out through the pass on an outgoing tide. We sure hoped the engine worked to get us back!

We saw LOTS of fish -- huge schools of trevaly, a barracuda, a shark, huge grouper, huge angelfish, and tons of parrotfish.

Huge school of jacks School of trevaly (left) and bumphead parrotfish (right). Giant bumphead parrotfish

 

We even saw a nice looking lobster. We were tempted to take him for a tasty dinner, but we left him alone.

We don't like to take things from the reefs.

Lobster outside the reef

We've never seen water as clear as that at Minerva. We could even see all of our anchor chain and anchor (in 40' of water!). We had a great time looking at all of the beautiful coral:

 

Coral

Coral

 

Coral

Coral

 

Coral

Coral

 

Blowing 20 in Minerva After a few days, the wind picked up, making snorkel and diving difficult -- time to leave!

Back On The Road Again

We waited in Minerva for better wind. But we delayed a few extra days to time our arrival in New Zealand AFTER some predicted nasty weather further south. When we finally left Minerva, we had two days of great sailing and then the wind died -- and the rains came.

Ken reading in our nice snug pilothouse while the rain poured down. Ken reads while water pours out of the sail
Grey weather The big front we had waited to avoid clobbered New Zealand with gale and storm force winds. The front wasn't packing much of a punch by the time it got to us. We saw 30 knots at most during the trip -- the most benign of our five trips to/from New Zealand.
We passed through a series of fronts -- lots of rain but not much wind. The clouds looked dramatic in the afternoon sun. A front on the horizon

The voyage to New Zealand is one of the most feared by cruisers. As you cross from the tropics to the temperate region, the weather can throw up all sorts of challenges. By waiting a few extra days, we ended up avoiding a gale. However, we also ended up doing a lot more motoring than we've ever done on a long passage. Including the run from Tonga to Minerva, we motored more than 50% of the time on our trip to New Zealand. It was an expensive trip.

Another Monitor repair With the benign conditions, we had few gear failures. However, clamps holding our Monitor wind vane to the wheel failed for the second time this season. Ken was able to replace the clamps without stopping the boat! We think the clamps were too stiff and cracked at a hard spot on the mounting assembly.

Toward the end of the trip the alternator on our main engine stopped charging. We later discovered a chafed field current wire had created a short. But we counted ourselves very lucky. Other boats had more severe failures.

Loraine and Robbie, our friends on the 50-year old wooden Sea Witch boat "Southern Cross" ripped their mainsail, ran low on fuel, broke the gooseneck on their mizzen, and ended up taking 25 days to make the passage from Tonga to New Zealand!

Southern Cross safely in New Zealand "Southern Cross" (left) and Loraine and Robbie (right) after their safe arrival in Opua. Loraine and Robbie

 

Finally we spotted New Zealand, "Land of the Long White Cloud". We were glad to be back! Back to NZ!

November 29 - December 2, 2008

We stopped in Opua, probably the most popular New Zealand check-in stop for cruisers coming from the tropics. By the time we arrived, over 300 boats had already checked. We had a great time catching up with old friends and making new ones.

We were so happy to find Craig and Kay of "Little Wing" safely docked in Opua.

Everybody ends up in NZ!

Craig and Kay (left, with Beth) had broken their mast before reaching Pago Pago, but the repaired "franken-mast" (right) got them to New Zealand with no problem.

The spliced mast on "Little Wing"

Craig and Kay have a lot of affection for "Little Wing", but they are planning to get a bigger boat.

Morning in Opua And so, we are in New Zealand for the third time. We are still struck by New Zealand's stunning beauty and friendly people. Our favorite home away from home.