Friday, September 30, 2011

Vava'u in a nutshell

We arrived in Vava'u, Tonga just in time to partake in some of the Vava'u Festival events this year. We also finally caught up with many old friends who we have not seen since Mexico. Unfortunately, we also had to say goodbye to many friends heading on to Fiji and beyond.

The festival started off with a parade and events down in the main town of Neiafu followed by an evening pub crawl with optional "fancy" dress which means costumes in British. I of course insisted that we dress up and we were happy to see most other people in costumes as well. We covered a lot of ground and visited nearly every bar in Neiafu. At the last bar we were treated to the weekly Faka lady show which is basically a drag show. Quite the cultural experience to say the least. Wish I had some pictures to share but my camera has stopped working properly in low light. Jared's camera is a little too nice to bring along on a pub crawl. I did borrow a couple of pictures from my friend Cory from Rutea so you can see our costumes at least. Speaking of Rutea, we were finally reunited after many months at sea! We had not seen them since we left La Cruz, Mexico back in March. We were also reunited with Mark and Yuka on Merkava. Yuka is the one dressed up like a gangster which was absolutely hilarious because she is pretty much the exact opposite in real life.

We skipped the next couple of days of events to go check out some of the many nice anchorages around Vava'u. We headed out to a place called Kenutu Island with our buds on Brittania because we heard that there might be surf there. The swell direction wasn't quite right and the reef was a bit too shallow for us, so we decided to go snorkeling instead. Now that we had come so far west on our journey across the Pacific, the species richness (diversity) of coral and fish was noticeably much greater than at any of the reefs back in French Polynesia. I saw species of fish and coral that I had never seen before and I even found a nudibranch to take a picture of. Unfortunately, there were not many sharks or very big fish as a result of years of unregulated fishing in the area. Shalimar, La Cueca, and Takalani all made it out the the anchorage the next day and Stoph from Takalani found a dead tree on the beach that he decided he needed to burn so we all got together for a beach bonfire. Much to Stoph's dismay, the tree did not want to burn because it had gotten too wet, but after an hour at it he did manage to get a small finicky fire going. We took turns fanning the fire to keep it going for as long as possible while the ants attacked La Cueca's pasta dinner. Luckily, Shalimar had some leftovers to feed the exhausted and slightly tipsy fire makers. All in all, it was a fun night on a beautiful deserted island surrounded by old and new friends. Can't ask for much more!

A front came through the next day and it brought lots of rain and wind from almost every direction. Our anchor decided to pick up a tiny piece of stray coral on the mostly sand bottom and we started dragging through the anchorage a pretty decent clip. We decided to leave instead of re-anchoring there only to be faced with an opposing current and 30 knots of wind on the nose. As soon as we rounded the southern tip of the island we were trying to get around, we headed downwind and had a much better time of it. Unfortunately, even though we found several well protected coves to anchor in, we could not find shallow water or good holding. As we were attempting to re-anchor for what felt like the 10th try in an hour, Ben and Lisa, the festival organizers, were passing by in their motor boat and they told us we could use their old mooring. They sailed to Tonga a few years ago and never really left and they had installed a mooring for their sailboat in the bay where we were trying to anchor. Since they weren't using it anymore because they had acquired an island to live on, they generously offered it to us. Boy were we relieved! The front brought a ton of rain with it and we filled up our water tanks and our laundry buckets within hours. This kind of became the trend in Tonga, with a weak or strong trough (valley of low pressure) and it's associated front moving through the area every other week or so. In between these periodic storms was nothing but sunshine!

The next big festival event we were signed up for was the full moon party. We made our way to the anchorage by the beach where the party was and I prepared my futuristic costume out of some metallic glittery wrapping paper I found, some tin foil, and some glow sticks. The costume themes were past or future, pretty vague. I ended up with a sort of futuristic queen costume so I went around telling people that I was their future queen. Jared threw on a garbage bad and a tin foil cap and was aiming for a sort of post-apocalyptic hobo type thing. His costume took 5 minutes to make and mine took about an hour. The rain finally let up for long enough to make it to shore where we were greeted by about 100 partygoers. I had a great time dancing all night long while Jared stood around with Ryan drinking rum and cokes and complaining about the noise. We skipped out on the rest of the festival events mostly because we don't care for racing and because Jared had reached his socializing limit for the week.

We spent another three weeks just cruising around Vava'u checking out the many beautiful anchorages and hanging out with friends. We rented some scuba tanks and did some diving with Ryan. We went to a traditional Tongan feast. I ran into a guy I used to work with on the dive boats in Santa Barbara which was such a trip! He was out visiting a friend of his who is currently cruising on his Westsail 32, Evangeline, with his wife. We had a great time catching up and also getting to know his friend Daniel. We said goodbye to Takalani, Libis, and La Cueca who went onto Fiji, then Vanuatu and Australia. Hope we keep in touch! We explored some of the tiny outer villages. We checked out some caves. We briefly met a couple of the crew from Aldebaran who first contacted us ages ago when they came across our blog while they were prepping for their trip. We've been pen-pals/radio buddies ever since and we've been dying to meet them for real. Unfortunately, our schedules were a bit out of sink so we will have to wait till New Zealand to really meet them I guess. Tuatara showed up one day and we got to catch up with them for first time since Tahiti. We stocked up on food and then we headed down to the Ha'apai group for our second month in Tonga.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Tonga is not the internet capital of the world

Hopefully this post will work. We've been trying to update the blog for a while but the Tongan internet doesn't want to cooperate. It looks like uploading photos is out of the question for now. We are going to head down to the Haapai island group soon (we've been in the Vava'u group since September 1st). From what we've heard, Haapai is even less developed and, therefore, less likely to have decent internet connectivity than where we are now. It's likely that we won't be able to post anything or even email until we get to Tongatapu sometime around the end of October. Once we get to Tongatapu, we'll just make final preparations for the trip to New Zealand, watch for a good weather window, and head to Opua in New Zealand. We'll make sure that we get at least some emails out before making the crossing to NZ and we'll be doing the Pacific Seafarer's net again at that point as well. Sorry to all of our family and friends that we can't get more communication going but that's just the way things work around here.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Niue aka "The Rock"

Much to our dismay, we decided to pass Beveridge Reef by due to the extremely windy and rolly conditions. Since it is a submerged coral atoll, it does not offer much protection in those kind of conditions and even though the holding inside the atoll would have been good, we probably wouldn't have felt comfortable leaving Architeuthis to go snorkeling or anything. Instead, we pushed on to Niue (new-ay) which was only a day away. As soon as we made the course change things were much more comfortable on Architeuthis since we were now sailing almost dead downwind and we felt better about our decision to push on.

Being that Niue is a raised coral atoll, the anchoring is quite deep and mostly coral. Luckily, the Niue Yacht Club has installed about 18 moorings for the yachties to use during their stay on the island and lucky for us there were still a couple available when we arrived. We had heard about the humpback whales that often hang out in the mooring field singing and spouting all around the boats and sure enough as we came around the corner a small group of whales was there to greet us. Niue is a breeding and calving ground for the humpbacks and it just so happens to be their mating season down here right now.

Niue is unlike any other island we've been to so far and it is literally just a big hunk of limestone rock that is made entirely of uplifted coral. A long long time ago it was a coral atoll and then due to some plate tectonics it was raised about 100 feet. There are few beaches and no rivers so the surrounding water is amazingly clear with up to 50 meters of visibility. There are also tons of caves, chasms, and ravines all around the island to explore. Niue is also proud to be the world's smallest independent nation with a population of around 2000 and only 259 square miles of land area. They are in free association with New Zealand and all Niueans have NZ citizenship as well. As a result, we met a lot of Kiwi ex-pats living there and we might be running into a lot of Niueans when we get to New Zealand.

Our friends on Libis, Takalani, La Cueca, Balquidder, and Shalimar were all in Niue at the same time as us so we had tons of fun exploring the rock and partying afterwards with all of them. We also made some new friends on Mare Liberum, Maggie, and Kuheli who came all the way from Norway and Sweden and took the less traveled southern route across the pacific stopping in Easter Island, Pitcarin, and the Gambiers. They sure had some stories to tell! We also became fast friends with the yacht club commodore, Keith, and the woman who runs the backpackers building where the yacht club headquarters was, Ira.

Libis, Shalimar, and Architeuthis all teamed up one day and rented a big van to take to go explore some caves and chasms. First we went to Togo Chasm which starts off with a short hike through a tropical forest with the occasional protruding limestone rock. As soon as the ocean comes into view, so does the dramatic coastline studded with dark colored jagged coral pinnacles. and a heavy surf throwing up tons of spray. A well maintained trail and ladder leads down through the treacherous looking rocks to a narrow slot canyon with a white sandy floor and palm trees. One little cave we checked out leads out to the open to the ocean and was full of foam like a foam party or something. Ryan and Alex lugged their climbing gear down with them so they tried to find a way up out of the chasm to set up a top rope on a wall they found to climb but had no luck. Jelle climbed up a coconut tree and knocked down some coconuts for us to snack on and then we headed back to the van to go to the next cave.

The trail to the Vaikona Chasm was considerably longer and more dramatic with the occasional red trail marker to let us know we were going the right way. The forest had really cool dead coral pinnacles that we had to walk around and through, and the way the light was being filtered through the canopy made it really feel like being underwater at times. Finding the opening to the chasm that leads to the cave was a little difficult and then scaling the wall down into it was even more difficult. Luckily there was a rope set up to hold on to. Once down into the fern covered and sunlit chasm we donned our snorkel gear and jumped into a long clear pool which we were told had a passage to swim under at the opposite end. Holger check it out first and came back shortly saying that it was a short easy dive to get under the passage and into the cave. Inside the cave it was almost completely dark and our flashlights illuminated a magnificent under water cathedral of stalactites in the crystal clear water. We went what we thought was the right way only to discover a dead end and turn around to find another short underwater passage-way to the next cave. At this point we could either go on and find our way out a different opening and hike all the way back around to get our stuff, or just turn around and go back the way we came. We were all getting a little cold due to the dark cave environment and the cold spring water so we chose to swim back the way we came. Swimming under the last passage and back into the sunlit chasm where we left our stuff was probably the coolest part because of the way the hole was glowing light blue as you swam from the darkness into the light. The hike back was much faster now that we knew the way and it was kind of funny to see a bunch of people with swim suits and snorkel gear hiking through a forest. We zipped around the rest of the island to check out a few more spots but we were too tired to really enjoy them so we decided to go back another day. We headed back to the yacht club to have a couple of beers and relax.

The rest of our time on Niue was spent snorkeling with whales and sea snakes, exploring caves and tide pools, bbqing at the yacht club, and hanging out with old and new friends. We also helped the commodore Keith out with some mooring surveys due to some untimely mooring failures he had been having. Brand new mooring lines were magically unsplicing themselves. After much deliberation, we decided that the reason was that they had been installed without being pre-loaded and since the end of the splice had not been seized and no boats had tied up to them for some time previous, the splices had worked themselves free. The line was a particularly slippery line when new as well, but it was the line that the professional New Zealander mooring makers claimed was the best and what they used. Jared and myself along with Cory, Gaz, and Sarah from La Cueca dove all the moorings just to make sure none of the ones still out had the same problem. None of them had that problem, but the one Kuheli was tied up to was about to chafe through for an entirely different reason. The sub-surface float had slipped up the line to the surface allowing the line to have slack on it when no boat was tied up to it. The drooping line rubbed on the coral and chafed pretty heavily before Kuheli tied up to it. A very good reason to always inspect your own mooring! Poor Keith tried very hard to keep all the moorings in perfect condition, but without his own boat and dive partner he has no way to inspect them himself. Instead, he hires the folks who run Niue dive to inspect the moorings. They usually do this in a timely fashion but due to a stint of bad weather they got very backed up with dive charters and could not get to the inspection. To help Keith sleep at night, we volunteered to check the moorings in the mean time. Keith and all the other people at the yacht club were most helpful to us and all the yachties and it was the least we could do in return. It wasn't a bad place to dive either! Almost every time you get in the water you can hear the whales singing and making all their other weird noises. We could even hear them through the hull of our boat at night when they were very close and shallow. Fleur even got sprayed by the spout of one whale while she was sleeping in her v-berth because the hatch above her was open and they were that close!

So, now we're in Tonga with more humpback whales, and the internet is very slow so we can't post any pictures yet. We will post them as soon as we can. Promise!