Journal 31; Tonga to New Zealand
October 2 - 28, 2010
The Vava’U group of Tonga was a great experience but it was time to make the move south to New Zealand. We left the northern Tongan islands of Vava’U for the middle section of Tonga, the islands of Ha’Api. During the sail JoDon mentioned many times, “I hope we can find a local fisherman to trade lobsters with us.”
We did an overnight sail to Ha’Afeva Island and were enjoying relaxing and reading books when two young local fishermen came by El Regalo to chat. The two were brothers, Auka and Peter. They are Mormons and they have a brother that is a yardman in Salt Lake City. Small world!
Auka and Peter were very friendly and they asked us to join them on a night snorkeling trip to hunt for lobsters. At dusk they came by in their panga (small fishing boat) and we went into the night to the outer reef. JoDon and I both had our shorty wetsuits on because the water here in Tonga is cold. We felt guilty when Auka and Peter started pulling on layers of long sleeved t-shirts and socks for their only cold protection. We used underwater flashlights to find the catch. Auka and his brother were machines spotting lobster and fish hiding amongst the reef crevices and then shooting them with small sling spears. Fortunately no sharks appeared to steal the catch so it was a great adventure. After two hours of swimming & hunting we were getting cold and worried if we would find our tiny boat in the dark, moonless evening. Local knowledge came into play and we actually found the panga! We were so happy to climb in and get out of the cold water with a long string of fish and lobsters.
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Auka and Peter were very generous by insisting we take two of the best fish catch, Hogfish, and a lobster. They also invited us to their house the following day for a Tongan feast. We went to their modest house (3 family members and their families live there) and they fed us lobster, fish, boiled taro root and canned corned beef cooked in taro leaves with coconut juices (very tasty!). They were extremely nice but they followed
Tongan protocol by having their guests eat first. This meant that while JoDon and I ate, the families sat around the table and stared at us. We thought this might happen so we were prepared, but it is a local custom that we do not favor. After lunch they suggested that we take a walk through the village, their polite way of asking us to leave so they could eat.
In exchange for their warm hospitality, we gave Auka’s family a large bin of surplus food, clothing and ‘stuff’ we no longer needed. When we left the families they were very happy with our gifts and we were also very pleased with the opportunity to get to know a local family and share some experiences.
From Ha’Afeva we made a short sail to Nomuka Island for some snorkeling and exploring. The next day a strong cold front (we still have a hard time conceptualizing cold fronts coming from the south vs. North American cold fronts coming from the north) and for the next week were stuck inside the boat, at anchor, with 25-35 kt. winds and heavy rains. We read many books, filled our tanks with rainwater and waited for a weather window for New Zealand.
The journey to New Zealand is often difficult with very strong cold fronts coming off of Australia and slamming boats as they approach New Zealand. For this reason we hired a professional weather forecaster and router to assist us to avoid big storms. When the front passed we got a green light from our forecaster to take off. As we left the Ha’Api group we had north winds and a perfect spinnaker sail when suddenly two whales breached directly behind El Regalo. The unexpected noise of whales blowing their air scared the hell out us but it was such a special moment to see them so close. The two whales trailed El Regalo for a few miles before they meandered off. JoDon and I looked at each other and thought “what a perfect send-off and what a perfect way to start a trip.” I then told JoDon, “Unfortunately, this trip can only go downhill, it’s starting so perfect.” And it did.
In the early evening our winds died and we started motoring. By day three our paid forecaster predictions had been 100% incorrect. We had traveled 1/3 of the distance to NZ and we had already burned ½ of our fuel. Do the math…. so we dropped our sails, turned off the motor and drifted while waiting for winds. When drifting a pair of Mahi fish spent the afternoon circling El Regalo. Their colors were absolutely spectacular in the clear waters. In the darkness of early morning I could still see the two Mahi below us. As the winds picked up we set our sails. We started sailing again, although
with light winds it was very slow. It was so slow that at one point we sailed all night only to reach the same position that we had passed previously at 1 am. The current was so powerful that although we were sailing forward, the current pulled us backwards. We finally realized our predicament and motored out of that hell hole. When we thought that this trip would never end we received a weather bulletin that a major unexpected winter storm was blowing toward us from the southwest, the exact direction we needed to travel to New Zealand.
We tidied the boat and tried to prepare for the storm’s onslaught as best we could while cursing our weather forecaster. We hired him to keep us out of exactly what we were now sailing into and we were both pissed-off, to say it mildly. The storm hit at night (why do bad things usually happen at night?) and all hell broke loose with 25-30 kt winds, gusting at times to 40 kts and squalls. The seas suddenly got very angry and along with the rain we were facing 20’ waves, right on our nose. We stuck it out without sleep for two nights trying to keep things from breaking and getting out of control. The credit goes to El Regalo who showed her stuff in the heavy weather. Even though we were putting her into the worst possible conditions for the weakened forestay, she held strong for 48 hours of abuse. The catamarans close by (about 200 miles) had to take storm tactics for fear of flipping over but we kept sailing. In light airs a heavy boat is a disadvantage but our 50,000 lbs was now an advantage in the big seas. In addition to our problems, it was cold. The inside cabin temperature dropped to 60ºF. Despite great foul weather gear, neither of us could stay warm. We were so exhausted from sleep deprivation and stress that we put El Regalo into a ‘heave-to’ position. This slowed and steadied the boat and it did not require us to be topside. We took hot showers (1st in 4 days & so great to be warm!), had a nice lunch and a series of naps while waiting for the remnants of the storm to pass. By late afternoon we were rested and ready to attack the seas. The storm winds lessened and slowly shifted direction to the south. We had a beautiful full moon lit evening making a direct course to New Zealand. The next morning we caught a tuna and from this from this point on, the trip improved, we motored and sailed with the spinnaker directly to Whangarie (FON-gah-ray), New Zealand.
Looking back on this trip from hell, our most miserable trip to date, we spent several days adrift with no wind, days with too much wind (30-40 kts), total boredom, some real scary stuff, depression with each new weather forecast and the exhilaration of survivors. It took us 14 days of motoring and sailing the 1,200 miles from Tonga to New Zealand. In comparison, we sailed 3,200 miles, Galapagos to Marquesas Islands, in 17 days. On that same trip we refueled in Tahiti after 4,500 miles (180 gallons of diesel). After two weeks of worrying about having enough fuel, we arrived to New Zealand with only a few gallons left in our fuel tanks.
As one of our good friends often says, “God’s greatest gift to mankind is our ability to forget pain.” So now we say, “Our trip to New Zealand wasn’t that bad!” HA!
-Now off to the States for the holidays!
All the best to everyone and happy holidays!
Brian & JoDon