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.
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.
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.