There is always a chance when you return to a favourite place again after several years it has changed and not quite as special as you remembered it before. I feared this may be the case returning to Vava’u after ten years and sadly I was right. On my last visit in 2007 I was living aboard a yacht off the town of Nieafu for nearly three months while the Owner flew home and I really became attached to the place. At that time there was an active cruising and charter boat community in the bay, focused around the Mermaid Yacht Club, a wooden bar and restaurant on the waters edge where you tied up your dinghy six feet from the bar. On the ceiling hung hundreds of t-shirts signed by visiting yachts from over the years. An informal yacht race for cruisers in the bay was run on Friday afternoons with a local rock and roll band providing the post race entertainment. In 2008 some local kids accidentally started a fire while trying to smoke out a bee hive. Within an hour many business and buildings, including the yacht club, were destroyed as the fire raged out of control. Nine years later, the burnt out remains of the yacht club and neighbouring buildings lie untouched. Nothing has been rebuilt in their place and the Friday yacht race is no longer run. Having said all this the town still has charm despite its slightly run down appearance and the Tongan people are extremely warm and friendly. I even recognised some faces from my last trip including Lana, a local girl who served me a beer in 2007 and again in 2017, at the same bar.
Swimming in Mariner’s Cave
There is plenty more to the island of group of Vava’u than Nieafu. A couple of gems are definitely Mariner’s Cave and Swallows Cave a few miles out of town. Mariner’s cave is completely enclosed with the entrance two metres below the surface. To enter you swim down into a hole in the cliff and then along for several more metres before rising up into the cave. The wave action affects the air pressure inside causing a light mist to form. It is a spectacular place. With Swallow’s Cave it is possible to take the dinghy in and almost feels like you have entered a natural limestone cathedral. Bats hang off the ceiling and different types of fish and eels swim in the clear water beneath your feet. It is a place Gollum from Lord of the Rings would be right at home.
The highlight of Tonga time was definitely swimming with humpback whales. Tonga is about the only place in the world it is possible to swim with whales legally as long as you are with a licensed operator. It is hard to describe the feeling of swimming a few feet away from these amazing creatures. Our group were lucky to find a young calf and it’s mother. The calf spent most the time splashing around and showing off as the mother floated motionless alongside. At one point the calf turned towards me and swam past no more than two feet away. I was frozen to the spot convinced it was about to smack into me but it never did. After ten minutes the mother had enough and dived down into the depths below the calf following right alongside. A few camera issues but managed to get a few photos and a short piece of video.
After a couple of weeks lazing about I decided it was time to give the hull a clean as some weed was growing back. Two hours later I had hardly made any progress and it was evident that the eroding antifoul applied back home in March 2016 had almost gone. A call made to the new boat yard nearby who said they could haul Fathom out in a couple of days time. A busy and extremely messy few days with Fathom on the hard. Thanks to Kat and Arne for dropping by and giving me a hand. It meant that the sanding, primer coat and two coats of antifoul could be applied at record speed and Fathom was back in the water three days later. Waterline raised 5 inches too. Seacocks and feathering propeller serviced and new anodes.
Neiafu from lookout
no more yacht club
Fathom from above
Danika at anchor
beach fire and jam
beach fire and jam
celebrating the end of getting messy
Fathom ready to be splashed
Fathom ready to be splashed
swimming with humpbacks
swimming with humpbacks
bye bye Tonga
There are over 30 anchorages in the island group of Vava’u all within about 10 to 15 miles of each other and together create a cruising paradise. I joined up with friends on Danika and Spill the Wine at several of these and at one spot we attended a Tongan feast. This included a roasted pig and various fruits and vegetables cooked in an underground ‘umu’ pit. We knew the meat was fresh as the pig could be heard squealing on the beach that morning. My favourite anchorages were the uninhabited islands of Kenutu on the eastern end of the group and Mannita island right at the southern end. The passage to Kenutu included an unmarked dogleg through coral reef and it was not easy navigating this alone with no lookout on the bow. At one point there was 20cm of water under the keel but Fathom never touched. The anchorage here was beautiful, just Fathom and Danika, a white sandy beach fringed with palm trees and calm lagoon water. One evening we had a fire on the beach and played music as the sun set. Doesn’t get much better than that.
During September and October the South Pacific cruising fleet begins to split into two groups, those heading on west to Australia via Fiji, Vanuatu and New Caledonia and those heading down to New Zealand. I was very tempted to stay longer in the beautiful Tongan anchorages and head to New Zealand directly at the end of October but finally decided to head to Fiji first and gain some westing. Many boats I knew would be there and it was also an opportunity to do some racing at the annual Musket Cove Regatta. Fathom checked out of Tonga on the 12th September and I pointed her bow at Viti Levu, the main island of Fiji, 500 miles to the west.
Fathom departed Palmerston on the 9th August with the intention to stop at the island of Niue, about three days sail away to the west. Conditions were lively as Palmerston disappeared over the horizon with the wind hovering around 20-25 knots and a confused sea making conditions quite uncomfortable onboard. Danika left an hour after me and were soon roaring up astern, a perfect opportunity to get some photos of each boat as they passed on their way to Beveridge reef. Thanks to Moh and Oceana for getting some great shots.
By 23.30 that evening I had gone to my bunk for some sleep but was woken by John from Danika calling me on the VHF. They were about 10 miles ahead of Fathom and had just been hit by a 35 knot squall and driving rain and he was giving me a heads up. I grabbed my harness and went on deck to reduce sail even further but thankfully that one missed my location. Sleep was hard to come by as the boat rolled horribly in the confused sea. I woke up tired the next morning so an extra cup of coffee was required. The latest weather forecast downloaded from the satellite phone was quite different to the previous days and wasn’t good news. It showed an active trough/front passing over the Tonga and Niue area in 5 days time. As it moved eastwards it would bring with it very strong winds, heavy rain and even bigger seas. Furthermore as it passed the wind would back from the east, to the north, west, south and back to the east over a 48 hour period. Not the time to be at sea trying to head west. This system was also mentioned in the weather forecast from the New Zealand weather service who stated in their forecast “better to wait for this trough to make its way south-southeast, and so delay that trip towards Tonga until early next week”. Palmerston and Niue are not safe places to be with wind from the west so I had no choice but to bash on and hope I arrived in Tonga before the worst hit. It would be touch and go. I baked some bread and the smell of fresh dough baking in the oven perked me up.
On the 3rd day at sea the wind completely died so the motor was required for about 12 hours off and on in order to maintain suitable progress west. The latest weather forecast showed the trough hitting Tonga several hours earlier than before so all the more reason to keep the speed up. By this time the swell had reduced to around 2m so conditions were much more comfortable on board. The following day the wind hovered around 10 knots, just enough to sail fast enough. I celebrated turning the engine off by baking a chocolate cake. The 14th of August was memorable because it passed rather quickly. I crossed the International Date line and skipped forward 24 hours. One moment i’m 11 hours behind UTC and its the 14th and then i’m 13 hours ahead of UTC and its the 15th!
I’ll admit to feeling more and more tense and apprehensive as I closed on Tonga and knew that it would have to be a night time arrival. I started checking the weather forecast twice a day and each time I did the wind and wave estimates were higher, now 40 knots and 5m at the peak. On the afternoon of the 15h the weather began to deteriorate. Rain showers and squall clouds became more regular and it was frustrating sailing as one minute the wind was 10 knots then suddenly boom 25 knots under a cloud then back to 10 knots 5 minutes later. As the light faded that evening I could just make out the main island of Vava’u on the horizon. Meanwhile, Danika who had visited Beveridge reef were now also racing to Tonga to beat the trough but about 50 miles behind me. We kept in regular contact through texts on the satellite based inreach device.
Fathom ahead of Danika
Danika at full throttle
After Fathom had rounded the northern tip of the main island around 22:30 temporary relief was found in the lee on the west side and the sea flattened out and there was some protection from the rising wind that was now blowing constantly 25 knots. Entry through the pass into the main channel is straightforward in day light but there are no navigation lights or markers so at night in driving rain and poor visibility it’s not easy. I didn’t trust my electronic charts so resorted to navigating into the channel using the radar. The rain was so hard and the night so dark that when I poked my head up past the sprayhood I was blinded and couldn’t see anything. It was the first time I had worn my sea boots and full foul weather gear since the passage to Cape Verde from the Canaries last year. The radar was working really well and it clearly showed the two small islands I had to pass between on the way in. The wind was bending round the main island so now on entry into the main channel 25- 30 knots of wind was blowing right on the nose and as the tide was coming in against the wind short steep waves were pitching the boat quite violently and almost reducing the boat speed to zero every time the bow slammed down into a trough. I crossed my fingers that the engine would keep going. Eventually Fathom made it inside into the protection of the inner channel and things calmed down and I could take a deep breath.
Friends already in Tonga had emailed earlier to say that there were no spare moorings in town due to the Oyster World Rally swallowing them up but the customs wharf was empty. I approached slowly and it was not easy trying to come alongside a high commercial wharf with strong wind trying to blow the boat off. I managed to jump up with the mooring lines and get the boat tied up without too much drama.15 minutes later, just before 01:00, Danika arrived and I waited on the dock to take their lines and help them moor up. Seemed the wrong way round that the solo sailor had to tie up his own boat and the fully crewed boat had someone waiting on the dock advising them where to moor and ready to take their lines! It was great to see the Danika gang again and I was invited onboard to celebrate our arrival with a late night rum punch. A surreal feeling to be back in Tonga again after ten years.