Having a whale of a time – Tahiti to Tonga
This leg has been an epic adventure. We even had some time to take a dog-leg north, kinda in the wrong direction, to visit the remote atoll of Suwarrow on our sail to Tonga. From way over here, I can almost hear that nagging question on your mind; “where the hell is Suwarrow”? I’ll explain, briefly. Suwarrow is pretty much in the middle of nowhere. If you want to find this place on a map, look 800 miles northwest of Tahiti and 500 miles east of Samoa, and 500 miles north of the main Cook Island, Rarotonga. Or you could just Google Map it, that works too…
But we’ll get to that shortly, and in more detail. First up, the drawn out departure from Tahiti. French Polynesia seemed to keep a hold on us like a vortex sucking us into an empty hole in space. We just couldn’t get out! Trying to get the mid-crossing list of jobs completed on Coco while we were in Papetee was enough to make me drink French wine. You know, the usual suspects to get sorted; some general maintenance (she’s a girl after all – and a demanding one at that), a few bits and pieces that needed fixing, but the big one was the gooseneck on our lovely carbon fibre mast. I won’t bore you with the detail, but it had a bit of a meltdown on the sail from the Galapagos to the Marquesas. Bless Selden, they sent a wee man out from the UK to sort it out in Tahiti. Good on them I say.
And of course, whenever you stop for too long in some random port, when you fire up all the systems that are complex enough to fly a space station, invariably, something doesn’t work (Coco can be a little cantankerous sometimes). I think that’s lesson teaching from our yacht. Don’t leave me in port for that long. This time the VHF (our radio) decided to have a paddy that would make a two year old proud. Our option was to wait another 10 days for a new part, so we decided to bail out. No VHF until Tonga. The team at Nautor (Coco’s builder in Finland) have been awesome when it comes to sorting out problems in weird locations. Thank you Nautor for sending a new one.
Finally, once the vortex had chilled out and released its grip on us and we had loaded up with the usual excess of tropical yumminess (and of course some great French wine), having then discovered the problem with the VHF the day we were leaving, then of course the fuel dock ran out of diesel, then the weather forecast had a bunch of shitty squalls in it so we couldn’t leave anyway because we were late and missed our weather window; we were a week overdue in departing. It wasn’t all bad. Once we finally managed to get out of Papetee we spent a couple of nights as illegal aliens hanging out on our favorite island near Tahiti, Moorea, waiting for the weather to come right. Because of course, we had already cleared out of French Polynesia with customs and immigration, not anticipating the final few delays. Being an eternal optimist, I’ve come to the conclusion that the French, and French Polynesia, just simply didn’t want us to leave.
Ocean encounters – sailing to Suwarrow
That aside, let’s get back to sailing. Our first stop out of Tahiti – Suwarrow; a remote atoll about 12 miles long by 5 miles wide with a handful of little islets, is part of the northern Cook Islands group. Nobody lives there, it’s a protected area and a couple of rangers hang out there for a few months a year. It’s famous in the New Zealand sailing community because a Kiwi guy called Tom Neale lived as a hermit on the atoll from 1962 and wrote the book “An Island to Oneself” describing his adventures there. It’s a good read.
We left Moorea early in the morning, the weather had come right; it was a beautiful day. However, no wind! (this was just the start of our varied weather for the trip). So we motored up the coast of Moorea to the western tip before heading off into the open ocean. Humpback whales. And a lot of them. The females come to Tahiti at this time of the year to hang out with their calves. It’s an awesome site. A few miles off the coast of Moorea we spotted a mother and her wee one out alone without the usual plethora of whale watching boats annoying the hell out of them, so we stopped and watched (like an annoying whale watching boat). She was a magnificent creature, hanging out with junior (to put this in perspective, junior was the size of an SUV) and not in the slightest bit worried about a 25 tonne Swan 54 bobbing around in close proximity. It had to be done. Mask and fins on, grabbed the camera and I jumped off the back off Coco into the 2.5km deep big blue to go and say gidday. As I got within 10 metres of her and her calf, my heart pounding in my chest, she just looked at me. I stopped, she stopped, and once she’d established I wasn’t part of the Japanese whaling research team that’s when I almost died.
She slowly started nudging her SUV sized calf towards me until the two of them were 3 metres from me. It had to be one of the most awesome moments of my life – don’t get me wrong, as scary as hell, but I’ll never forget it. After a few minutes of me wondering whether or not I was going to become breakfast krill, she and her calf slowly swam off leaving me dazed. Jacqui was holding the yacht a short way off wondering if that was going to be it for me! They are truly magnificent creatures. We’ve nearly hunted them to extinction, we don’t have a huge amount of respect for their environment, yet they are willing to trust us enough to share their children with us. Humbling.
From a weather perspective, the crossing from Tahiti to Suwarrow has to be one of the most challenging we’ve had yet. It’s a bit over 800 nautical miles so that’s about 5 days on the ocean. Once the wind did come up on the afternoon of our departure, it didn’t stop blowing for 4 days. The typical range was 25 – 35 knots and with that, a 3 to 4 metre swell. Not just a nice big lazy ocean swell, a messed up wind blown bastard of a swell. I remember being in a plane flying somewhere while we were planning this adventure and looking down on the open ocean from 30,000 feet at the wind blown stormy mess of an ocean below me, thinking to myself how I hoped I would never end up in something like that. Well, bugger me, here I was! Then on top of that we got the squalls. Every day. We’d get a line-up of them charging towards us lighting the radar up like a Christmas tree. Then they would hit; the wind would change direction and force instantly; the rain falls out of the sky like you’ve just set your house on fire and a high pressure hose has hit you in the face. Then waddayaknow, 50 miles from Suwarrow the wind drops completely but the squalls keep coming, just a massive dump of rain, no wind. Seriously, take me back to the Caribbean!
I hit a bit of a milestone on the crossing. Me & Coco have done 15,000 nautical miles together since leaving Jakobstad in Finland on September 21 last year. 15,000 miles is about 27,000 kilometers. That’s quite a long way to sail! And the only thing I’ve really learnt about sailing in all those miles is that I still have so much to learn. Better keep going I guess.
Slipping into Suwarrow
Seeing Suwarrow Atoll in the early morning sunlight after being rolled around in the South Pacific for 5 days was a welcome site. The entry into the atoll was pretty straight forward, wide enough and was less current than the ones we’d experienced in the Tuamotu’s. We snuck around the leeward side of Anchorage Island and dropped the pick in amongst the field of coral bommies we could see 20 metres down in the crystal clear water. Can’t wait to try and get that unhooked when we leave!
Suwarrow is stunning. There are only ever a handful of other yachts here because it’s a bit out of the way. Although Suwarrow was inhabited by Polynesians hundreds of years ago, it was uninhabited when discovered by the Russian-American Company ship Suvorov, which reportedly followed clouds of birds to the atoll on September 17, 1814. (The ship was named after Russian general Alexander Suvorov), It has been only intermittently inhabited since. The atoll’s name has also been spelled variously as Souvorow, Souwaroff, and Souworoff after the ship that discovered the atoll (well, white man discovery). “Suwarrow” is now the official spelling.
As I mentioned earlier, Suwarrow has a bit of a cult following in the sailing circles because of the book Tom Neale years ago about his adventures of surviving on this deserted atoll in the South Pacific. He had himself plonked here alone and lived in an old army hut (during WWII a couple of coast watchers hung out here), caught fish, grew a garden, ate a shitload of coconuts and generally made himself busy just surviving. It’s a good yarn. There is also a history of treasure being found buried here. Who knows about that!
Now days it’s a protected park primarily because of the incredible birdlife on some of the islands in the atoll. This place is a breeding ground for many types of seabirds in this untouched wonderland.
Its colorful history aside, Suwarrow is an important sea-bird breeding site not only for the Cook Islands but for the region and the world. Eleven species of seabirds breed on the island. It supports regionally significant colonies of Lesser Frigatebirds (9% of world population), Red-tailed tropic birds (3% of world population) and the Cook Islands only large colony of Sooty Terns. Although these birds are widespread, what is astonishing is that Suwarrow has the largest congregation of Lesser Frigatebirds in the South Pacific.
The atoll also supports locally significant colonies of Red-footed Boobies, Great Frigate birds, Masked boobies and Brown Boobies. In addition it is an important wintering site for Alaskan migrant the Vulnerable Bristle-thigh Curlew. There, a lesson in bird-watching for you. Train-spotting in the next blog.
There are a couple of rangers who live here for seven months of the year during the cruising season to make sure the yachties who lay over here for a few days on their journeys from French Polynesia to Samoa or Tonga don’t make omelets from the nesting bird’s eggs. Quite frankly given that they have no re-supply for those seven months I’d be tempted! There’s only so many cans of corned beef any sane person can eat…
Even on a strict diet of salty beef, the Suwarrow Rangers, Harry and John, are awesome. They check you in to the Cook Islands (Harry hates the paperwork) without a blink even though most of us have clearance for another country, then shower you with their warm and incredibly welcoming hospitality. They encourage the yachties to join them onshore for pot-luck dinners and with the barby glowing hot and the rum flowing, the guitars come out for a round of foot tapping old favorites as the sun is setting across the lagoon accompanied by that familiar aroma of Deet to dissuade the hungry mosquitoes who have come to join the party.
John will give you a lesson on the guitar if you ask and teach you how to gather and eat all the various parts of the coconut. Harry will show you the massive coconut crabs, and teach you how to pick them up if you’re stupid enough. Or take you fishing outside the reef for the potluck dinner. They made the place really special and I sincerely hope that the tradition they have built continues for years to come.
The waterworld of Suwarrow is as equally special and we certainly spent some time exploring it. The lagoon is about 5 miles across so an easy ride in the RIB to go exploring the depths. The coral is in really good shape and the multiple bommies and reefs inside the lagoon provided us with ample underwater eye-candy. No one else around, plenty to see, the water as clear as one of those flash David Attenborough underwater doco’s. Oh, and the water temp is 32 degrees. Epic.
However – the lagoon’s robust shark population don’t get to see a lot of two legged carnivores (competition for lunch I guess). Usually fine; I don’t mind inquisitive, but these guys were as hostile as an angry mother in law on a bad day. We got chased out of the water twice. I got to the point where I was diving with the boathook to fend them off. They were actually going us – aggressively. On our last mission to Perfect Reef in the south of the lagoon (which is spectacular), Bonnie and Clyde with fins chased us all the way into the shallows at the top of the reef. Hungry bastards.
As luck would have it, some 500 metres from where we were anchored was a manta cleaning station – no that’s not a Sunday morning submarine carwash; the manta’s go there to let the wee fish nibble freeloaders off them while they fly around in the day spa of kings. It’s an awesome sight. The Suwarrow lagoon is also home to a small population of completely black mantas. Quite rare apparently – move aside Batman.
Anyway, it’s now with mixed feelings we depart Suwarrow. We were only planning to stay a few days; we stayed a week. We will miss the rangers, the custodians of this little piece of paradise, we will remember the other sailing ocean wandering nomads we met, I won’t miss the pesky sharks, I love the manta rays. It’s a special place. But leaving here and heading for Tonga some 700 miles away, is our last crossing before the final push home to New Zealand. I’m not sure how I feel about that.
Thank you Suwarrow for an amazing stop, in the middle of nowhere – this is why we are sailing. Kia ora John and Harry for sharing your special corner of the world. Your warm South Pacific welcome made our stay.
Mālō e lelei Tonga
Our expectations were, well nothing. We’ve never been to Tonga, we’d done very little research, we just arrived. The crossing from Suwarrow was okay for the most part of the four and a half days. Except for the last day. It was shit. We got slammed with 25 – 30 knots on the nose, 3 – 4 meter waves hammering over the boat like we were in an Volvo Ocean Race. Man we were pretty please to see Vava’u appearing out of the gloom. We had two reef’s in the main, half the genoa wound away, and we were still doing 10 knots into the weather. Coco was legend.
Tonga is known as the friendly islands, and for good reason. Tonga’s people are beautiful, welcoming, generous and as friendly as hell.
Tonga, officially named the Kingdom of Tonga, is an archipelago comprising 169 islands, of which 36 are inhabited, scattered over 270,000 square miles of the southern Pacific Ocean. The state has a population of 100,651 people of whom 70% reside on the main island of Tongatapu.
Tonga stretches across approximately 800 kilometres (500 mi) in a north-south line. It is surrounded by Fiji and Wallis and Futuna to the northwest, Samoa to the northeast, Niue to the east, Kermadec to the southwest, and New Caledonia and Vanuatu to the farther west. It is about 1,100 miles from New Zealand.
Vavaʻu is the northern most island group with one large island (ʻUtu Vavaʻu) and 40 smaller ones. According to tradition the Maui god fished up both Tongatapu and Vavaʻu but put a little more effort into the former. Vavaʻu rises 204 metres above sea level at Mount Talau. The capital is Neiafu, which is the fifth largest city in Tonga, situated at the Port of Refuge, or Neiafu Harbour.
Vava’u is beautiful. It’s like a combination of the Marquesas and the Tuamoto’s, except without the French! The islands are volcanic, so they stick up a bit with beautiful jungle adorning the hillsides. The outer islands are palm fringed with beautiful white beaches and water so clear you can see to the bottom of the earth.
We spent a couple of weeks exploring the main island of Vava’u with good sleep on a mooring in the habour, exploring the markets and villages by running shoe avoiding pigs and village dogs nipping at our heels.
We met Nikita one early morning at the market while we were haggling over the local sweet potatoes, plantain and taro; she was selling fresh coconuts and seaweed, after a brief chat we were invited to her family’s Sunday Umu (that’s food cooked in an earth oven with hot rocks for the South Pacific uninitiated) in their village on the west side of the island.
We are talking some seriously good local food here. It’s a Tongan tradition that is truly awesome. First thing in the morning the bloke of the house is out making fresh coconut milk for the lamb and onion wrapped in manioke leaves (tapioca plant) to be baked in the Umu in banana leaves, the sweet potatoes, cassava and manioke roots are baked whole, the bananas and coconut milk with lime, the whole baked paw-paw with coconut. Its epic. The delicious tropical feast is laid down in the Umu and covered in leaves to cook slowly while everyone heads off to church where they sing like angels for an hour before coming home where the family gathers to share the meal with respect and love.
There is something special about sharing food on a Sunday after church with a family in Tonga. It was a particularly poignant day for Nikita and her family – it was somewhat of a celebration; one year since their farther had passed away. There were memories, some sadness, and a moment of family for us, including our recent acquaintances from the yacht Taranui III, Martin and Captain Cook.
After a few days in Neiafu habour exploring the main island of Vava’u we headed out to spend some time around the 40 odd islands that litter the sea close by – wee jewels that adorn a beautiful blue ocean. It’s here we celebrated Coco’s first birthday. 12 months since we departed Jakobstad in Finland to start this epic voyage.
As strange as it may seem, not that far from Neiafu habour on Tapana island there is a Spanish tapa’s and paella restaurant in a wee hut with a grass roof called Maria’s. I’m not entirely sure it’s the food you come here for but let me say the experience is unique to say the least… Maria’s husband Eduardo is a bit of a dab hand on the guitar so after the main course has been served the tunes come thick and fast. And of course after a few wines, we felt like he needed a trio of percussion maestro’s to assist in the creation of epic island sounds.
We spent a couple of weeks in the Vava’u area and loved it. The people were so welcoming, and we loved meeting both them, and the great bunch of yachties in the area. So for now, Toki sio Vava’u, we’ve only got a bit more time left with you before we sail south to the Haʻapai group of islands then we are off to New Zealand – one last ocean crossing to do. Bugger.