La Pura Vida

Vava’u is a group of islands surrounded by warm, tropical water and a steady easterly breeze. What makes the Tongan Islands so unique is the close proximity of pristine and unspoiled islets and isolated anchorages – a cruiser’s paradise.

The lack of western development brings the feel of authenticity, and the genuine hospitality of the locals makes a traveler feel a sense of welcome and safety both ashore and afloat.  Clear azure waters with shades of aquamarine fringe each lush tropical island. The archipelago covers 20 miles and includes dozens of safe, sandy anchorages.

In May the anchorages hold few other boats, the majority being charter yachts enjoying a few weeks of isolation from the rest of the world.  There is little sight or sound of habitation from our aquatic perch, so it is easy to feel away from the typical hustle and bustle that so many holiday destinations attract. Rather than the whistle of hawkers, life cries out through distinguishable calls from the forest: large bats that stalk prey hours before sunset until the sun is high, the mixed melody of the variety of birds that fringe the surrounding bays, the grunt of pig and the crow of cock, monkeys chattering from their perch, the splash of the fish as they fly to outrun predator… I’ve never seen so many fish dancing on the water’s surface, of a variety of size, shape, colour.

There are few villages in the area, the largest of which is Neiafu Town. This provides the only base in which to stock up on fresh veg and other supplies, with a smattering of shops that run down the central main street. It also provides a number of simple restaurants with one common theme: Excellent seafood. Each morning you can listen to the cruisers information net on the radio and get an update of your daily specials, in addition to the local chat within the community. If wanting a walk about town for a bit of sight seeing, don’t worry about changing out of your jandals…. you’ve covered the town end-to-end in ten minutes. And don’t pass the church without stopping by for a visit – if you get there during a service you should pop in to listen to the beautiful singing that rings out over the harbour.

Now that we can truly claim holiday on this excursion, our days are dominated by rest and relaxation. We fill our days with simple routine: morning swims off the boat and paddle boarding around the bay, snorkeling in the surrounding caves and around coral heads, a quick haul of anchor and an afternoon jaunt to a new idyllic spot.  We celebrated my birthday with a no-egg cake (you wouldn’t believe how difficult it is to get your hands on a dozen eggs – best be at the market by 7AM or you will be leaving empty handed) and a treasure hunt that led to a beautiful diamond ring. We saw off our passage crew and welcomed new arrivals.

We connected with a good friend Stephen, recently arrived on his new boat from Tahiti. We went over to meet him on his boat for morning coffee, and were still there at 6:00PM. Such is the flexibility of this life!! One of our evenings together we enjoyed a Tongan feast in a local seaside village. We were treated to local dancing by a teenage contingent followed by local food served local style, topped off with a session of music and kava (local grog). Despite being put on for a collection of yachties, the fact that this feast was prepared and presented by local villagers has made it the most authentic experience by far. The food was superb, a large spread of traditionally cooked dishes individually wrapped in banana leaves and steamed in coconut milk, served in stems of bamboo and fruit skins to be eaten by hand.

We’ve explored many different anchorages and have enjoyed the leisure that defines island cruising. And we pinch ourselves. Not half a year ago this wasn’t even a consideration, and here we sit in our island paradise watching the sleepy days tick by, loving every minute of our new reality.

This is La Pura Vida!!!!

All for a $5 Washer

Apologies for the delay, as this is old news to us at present. But to fill you in on detail from our expedition out to Tonga, a proper conclusion to our “mis-adventures” will update interested parties on the reason for our system failures on the trip out.

It is well known that after an ocean passage, set in your new tropical oasis, the leisure you seek is still far from sight. After entering port at Neiafu, we spent the following days on task trying to sort out heads, engine and batteries issues.

Fortunately, John has a number of contacts in Tonga as he has worked for the Moorings in past and is familiar with a number of individuals about town. We started to ask around for some assistance as we had hit wits end with finding a solution to our engine woes. With a sample of diesel in hand, John was introduced to an engineer who – after taking a good swallow of our brine – informed us that it was more a cache of seawater than any form of fuel. The one test that has escaped us provided our reprieve.

With a diagnosis in hand, the solution was clear. After sourcing jerry cans, we pumped out 300 liters of contaminated fuel, flushed the filters and got our engine revving again. The engine, being the heart of the boat and the power behind all our systems, once working brought life back to all our other luxuries. We once again had our fridge, freezer, lights, heads, water maker and water pressure up and running. All could have been averted for a $5 washer.

The crux of the issue was the lack of one coin-sized rubber washer over the fuel filler pipe – purchasable at any local hardware store for a $5 note.  Because this was not present, when the boat heeled over it allowed salt water to seep into the tank, slowly converting our diesel into a saltwater cocktail.

Once the engine and batteries were sorted, we (a.k.a John) had the non-performing head to contend with. The last on our list of critical items, we turned to sorting a solution before our holiday could begin.

The heads, comic in that we purchased the boat from a gentleman who owned a plumbing business, had very poor pipe work and an incorrectly fitted pump (and appropriate, for who ever services at home what they do as a profession?!). Leaving John to enjoy the glory of an afternoon in ankle-deep s*@%, he tapped and tinkered and ….. well, to be fair, I asked him to skip the details…. but the end result is a fully functioning head, and the pleasure of my first piss in privacy in over two weeks.

Finally, four days after our arrival in Tonga, we were “adventure free” and finally able to start enjoying our holiday in the islands.

Come Hell and High Water

When John and I made public our plans for taking our yacht up to the islands this season, we didn’t tell people we were going on a holiday. We called it an adventure, and that is exactly what we got.

Adventure, by its very definition, stipulates that the expected shall not happen and the unexpected will be wrought with challenges to overcome. Without these, you’ve taken a holiday – a respite from routine for another routine, the latter filled with lazy days, piña coladas, books and bronzed skin.  This is not what we asked for, and so, this is far from what we got.

We have just come in from a 1400-mile passage from Auckland, New Zealand to Neiafu, Vava’u. The work we did prior to departure was intensive, given we only gave ourselves three months from idea to execution. As a result, we purchased a yacht not tested on the open ocean, and did all we could do to prepare her for the demands that full time cruising would place on her. To compound our situation, John and I found out that we were pregnant around the same time that we placed our purchase offer, and so we required more of our yacht than we ever had before.  As a result, systems were put in that we would not have allowed the luxury of before – freezer to allow a balanced diet of protein during our months away, watermaker to keep a fresh supply of purified water, etc. The workload was intense before departure, but with a date set for completion and the skills of an amazing project manager heading up the work, we accomplished what we needed to by our departure date.

We set sail at 16:00 on 4th May from the custom’s dock in Auckland. We left the day after a tornado hit the North Island, thinking we would head out following a high pressure zone and get good wind to carry us north. We got what we planned for, with rough seas for the first several days of the journey. What we also expected was that some of the crew would experience seasickness, which is exactly what we got. Myself exempt, all members of our party suffered seasickness and some were laid down for the count. So amidst a maze of sprawled bodies and personal heaving buckets spread throughout the ship, we continued our trip north in rough seas and strong winds.

In those first days we were joined by the brilliance of a night sky without the haze of pollution or the repression of city lights, dolphin in our wake and pools of phosphorescence around our boat.  The shift from land to sea was uncomfortable, it was more a matter of keeping the crew intact than the boat intact – Ātea was performing beautifully.  Our boat was competent and sailing strongly.

I was not to be spared from the trials of ocean travel. Seeing that the sea could not undermine me by the slow twisting of gut, she decided to try a less tactful approach. With vengeance, she picked me up by foot on an unexpected swell and upended me, tossing me from galley to chart table and landing my face square against two large metal battery switches. The result of this incidence left me with what was either bone bruising and swelling to the outer bone of the eye socket or a hairline fracture. Either way, I was left with a chronic headache for most of the remainder of trip, swelling of eye and skin and bruising enough to show me as survivor of some heinous crime; alas, we had all been undone by the Pacific and were put in our rightful place.

One-by-one the crew slowly recovered – bodies slowly starting to creep out of hiding places, cries to the spirits of mercy ebbed, the watch schedule slowly resumed. By day four all members of the crew seemed fully restored, the weather had settled into 10-15 knots of breeze during the day, dead calm at night resulting in relying on the motor to move us forward along our track.

These days of relative calm were filled with ocean swims in beautiful refreshing temperatures, lazing about in the sunshine reading books, social banter, settling into a relaxing routine. We had gone through steep swells and strong wind, perfect for the sound sailing vessel that Ātea was proving to be, not so ideal for a crew adjusting to the constant shift of surface underfoot; the following few days mother nature graced us with the tranquility that she is less renown for in tales of voyages on the high seas. She rocked us slowly forward to our destination, gracing us with blue skies and star-filled nights, giving the crew a chance to appreciate the other side of what an ocean passage can offer. Greg termed these our “Ground Hog” days and all experienced how peaceful the ocean can be with a lazy rolling swell and gentle flowing breeze.

Our period of peace was soon replaced by a secret pledge of mutiny by our internal systems, which set upon themselves a schedule of mechanical failure for the reminder of our trip.

First to be noticed was the gradual taste of salt in our water tanks – ocean water what had seeped through the air vent on deck. We started rationing our water from a separate jug kept for such emergency, slowly draining our infected water tanks so that we could replace it with one of our luxury purchases – now a key player to one of our essential needs – the water maker.  Professionally installed, we soon picked up the scent of burning rubber and inspection revealed that the pulley for the drive belt had slipped and ruined the belt tensioner in the process.  The water maker was taken off-line, and the rationing resumed while the captain set upon his first major project in the trip – reengineering the components for a stand-in solution so that we weren’t stuck in a barren desert in the middle of the ocean.

Day eight the weather had filled in and established itself; occasional squalls rolled through and a 3-meter swell had set in and rocked the boat as she picked her way up and over endless mountains of water, slowly making her way nor’-nor’east. Fortunately, we had passed through our period of becalmed evenings by then, a slight concession for our next system failure.  On 11th May, our beloved and thus far reliable diesel engine decided to take its last breath, and has been silent since. Through all practical solutions have been made, we have been unable to get our trusted steed back on the scene. To date this remains the case.

The following day the batteries decided that the boycott of working conditions was a worthy gripe and decided to join allegiance. Again, with a lot of pluck and pulling, theorizing and head scratching, we have been unable to come to any resolution. With the departure of our house batteries, we bid a bitter farewell to many of the comforts to which we had become accustomed. We turned off the refrigerator, shut down the autopilot, electric heads and navigation lights and resorted to the days of old… sailing the old fashioned way.

During this time, all the minor incidences of wear and tear were starting to show up. We did not have use of our electric windlass and the hand-crank had seized. Our head, rendered useless earlier in the passage as the automatic flush refilled the bowl and as a result, filled the heads and left a slosh of sewage on the floor. A bucket it t’was, and there is no more poignant moment of intimacy on a boat than having to share what I called, “the public toilet,” (or bucket) on the aft deck.

There is an upside to every down. The result of the battery situation forced us to hand-steer for the remainder of our time at sea. While a reliance on an autopilot allows for a much more relaxed ride, it also diminishes the time spent at the wheel. Because we did not have this option, we were forced on shift to stand watch and helm the boat. While the thought of three- and four-hour watches standing behind the wheel with no break was daunting, it proved what an excellent sailing vessel we had at hand and gave everyone a true appreciation for the joy of sailing. Actually sailing in the true sense of the word.

And so, at long last, the crew was fully and ceremoniously entrenched in their Sailing Adventure. During the last days as salty stewards of the sea, we ran the range of conditions that the elements provide – we had becalmed days, knock down squalls, big seas through to light air and inconsistent wind direction.

We managed a few moments of excitement during this period. We ran a “search and recovery” mission when a hatch cover came off its hinge and flew off into the ocean. While this may seem like a rather minor mishap given the trials we had been through, John was damned if he was going to let it slip away. All hands were called on deck and we rallied to rescue this prized two-foot board. The dramatic finale was when the captain strapped himself by line to his safety harness and dove overboard. Mission Accompli!

Another memorable event moment was when our fishing guru Greg caught a Marlin on 25-kilo wire… we were all amazed that Greg managed to keep the scaled-beast hooked, though it finally outsmarted us 20 minutes later when it dove under the boat and twisted the wire around shaft, forcing us to cut the line.

On 13th of May we finally reached the conclusion of this “Adventure Extraordinaire” – Land Ho!! At 03:00 we were at the entrance to the Vava’u chain of islands, and our destination. We hove-to to wait for sunrise so that we could prepare the tender, as we would be relying on her and her 15-horse outboard to bring us in the final leg. Day was just breaking as we sailed through the archipelago, and it was truly a beautiful sight as we pecked our way through the rock-cliffed islets covered in palm trees listening to the sound of birds chattering at daybreak and the gentle lap of water on shore.  We inched our way through her entrance and just as the soft breeze dies, we tied the tender alongside and revved up the engine, giving Ātea steerage through the channel. However, just one final punch to the gut – the dingy motor has seized through two weeks of sitting on the rail with saltwater in her system – the motor wasn’t running water through the engine and thus, unable to keep her cool. This problem was temporary, much to our fortune and relief, and we were soon under way again.

We dropped anchor in Neiafu and by 11:00 John was in custom’s clearing us through while we all sat back to enjoy the feeling of accomplishment. It wasn’t a problem free trip, but it gave us all the full range of the cruising experience –seasickness and personal injury and the self-reliance needed to endure; ever-constant mechanical failures and self-reliance required to resolve issues; the teamship required to get each member through; the constant demands of a ship in ever-shifting weather conditions as it continues forward toward the endless blue horizon.

I think we all sit back with an incredible feeling of accomplishment. Our next few days will be focused on repair work and getting Ātea put together again. And then – we cruise.

The Sanctity (or is it Sanity) of Friendship

While it has been a lot of focused dedication over the past two months to get turn dream into reality, the contributions of friends helped us to keep our sanity. Thank you so much for contributing; for sharing time, enthusiasm, and the occasional task allocation, and the occasional excuse for a break from the daunting list of line items required to get Atea ready for voyage. A few reminders are included of moments along the way…..

Sailing Adventures of Two Traveling Nomads (and a Stowaway)

As we begin the next chapter in our lives, it is probably best to start this new journey with a preface of how it all came to be – where and when the idea for a return to the cruising lifestyle began, what prompted such a rash – yet in our minds totally rational – decision. It began with a picture of a lovely yacht in California, which sparked a dream and after mulling through, realization that it could become reality. And so, in February, we began our quest of finding a yacht of our own.

We spent several weeks on a global campaign for a yacht that would suit. No sooner than we had marked our sights on a sailboat in Virginia, east coast of the USA, that we had another unlikely surprise, which turned us on our heals and we promptly put an offer in on another boat, closer to home.

The note home sums up the second discovery:

“Dear Family,

John and I have some exciting news we want to share. As of this morning, 10AM, we got confirmation on our offer of a 50-foot Ganley – photos attached. We are both incredibly excited as we are planning to head north into the South Pacific this May for the Tongan and Fijian islands. Pictures attached for sight and feel of our new precious baby.

Two hours later, at 12AM, we got confirmation of a second, much smaller, addition to our adventure. Again, pictures attached for sight and feel.”

And so, with news of a third coming our way and the decision to proceed with our dream of anchor hopping the Pacific isles intact – albeit with modifications to suit the demands of cruising with a baby on the way – we quickly geared up to turn dream into reality.

On 4th March 2011 we became the proud new owners of our new yacht, Atea, a centre-cockpit steel-hulled cutter-rigged sloop. Aiming to depart this 2011 season, we had much to do to prepare this coastal cruiser to qualify as a fully equipped offshore ship. Amidst full time jobs, preparing the house for rent and household items for storage, the flurry of visits to doctors and midwives, we kicked into an ambitious schedule of boat preparation. Thanks to John’s skill as project manager, and the wonderful support of friends who have offered their hand in helping us see this project through (Simon Kendall – you are indeed a God-send!) we are now a few days off departure and ready to turn to the first page of our new chapter in life: Sailing Adventures of Two Traveling Nomads (And a Stowaway).