Our Diary Tonga

At last - one issue that Pacific cruisers finally agree on! This year has had c**p weather. We are currently sitting at anchor in a lovely bay off an island in Vava'u, Tonga. The weather forecast indicated that we would have 15-20 kts from the East. Well, an all-night anchor watch dispelled this when the wind speed topped 40kts. Thankfully the anchor held. Unfortunately many of our trips have suffered the same uncertainty… The sceptics about "Climate Change" should take heed.

We departed Raiatea after helping Brett on Interlude overhaul his gearbox and change the prop. The next island along is Bora Bora, just a short morning sail; the fishing was successful - we caught a small tuna. The weather was fine and sunny, with little wind so we motor sailed most of the way. Arriving in good light we anchored off a lovely reef for the afternoon where the snorkelling was good. This is a tourist spot so most of the fish were accustomed to being fed. I took some scraps of tuna with me and was immediately mobbed by reef fish; Angel Fish, Sergeant Majors and lots of others. They were unafraid and were taking scraps from my hand - a special experience.

Bora Bora is said to be one of the most beautiful islands in the world. It certainly is dramatic with its rising peaks, perfect beaches and water every shade of blue. We have been impressed by the investment in navigation marks throughout French Polynesia, and the position of these in Bora Bora made navigation easy through the multiplicity of reefs.

Suwarrow in the Northern Cook islands was our next land fall 700 miles away - an atoll in the middle of nowhere! Prior to departure, daily visits to the internet café for weather information was a must (we didn't want a repeat of our last trip), so we were extra careful, or so we thought. The weather pattern in this part of the

world is very complex, to the south it is dominated by high pressures forming off Australia, which are often disrupted by low pressures pushed up from New Zealand. To the north there is the Inter Tropical Convergence Zone (the doldrums) and where we are the atmosphere is squeezed by the two. This creates unpredictable strong winds and violent rain storms. So we were looking for a benign high pressure to form, which hopefully would give us a good trip.

On 15 August we decided to set sail, the log entry reading: "Decide to sail to Suvarov (Suwarrow). Hopefully weather OK. Forecast is for 18-20 knots for first day or two and then lighter, but swell developing from S after 5-6 days." We had two days of lovely down wind sailing and had a lovely surprise to hear Orinoco Flow on the SSB. It was great to make contact with Gemma and Rob again; they had spent a long time at Toau atoll in the Tuamotos and had been adopted by the families there, helping in the restaurant and Rob conducting minor surgery on some of the locals (Rob's a surgeon and Gemma is an ICU nurse).

We were expecting lighter winds so weren't surprised when we were sailing close hauled in 10kts. This lasted about 24hrs then the wind dropped to nothing but the rain started - not in buckets, but in bath loads - but still no wind. "What's happening here?" we wondered. Unsure of ourselves we dropped the sails and started the engine, just waiting… Boom! The wind hit as if someone had turned on a giant fan, it felt as if we were in the middle of a tornado, with no clear direction, all we could do was set the auto-pilot and motor, hoping Poco would sort herself out. This continued for a number of hours, well into the night. Wind speed was 40kts with higher gusts. Thankfully the sea was reasonably flat (I believe that the wind was so strong it was flattening the sea). Eventually the wind dropped to below 30kts and the direction became more consistent, so we set a handkerchief-sized jib and bowled along at 7kts. On the radio Net next morning we heard that three boats in Suwarrow had snapped their chains, with one ending up on the reef (thankfully he managed to get off). Other boats suffered minor damage.

These blustery conditions lasted another day and next morning we approached the unmarked channel into Suwarrow. Although our entry coincided with a bright patch of sky this quickly changed to a 30kt squall just as we entered the pass between the reefs. Thankfully Graham from Minaret was on hand and talked us through when the visibility deteriorated.

That afternoon the weather cleared and we ended up having a great 10 days in Suwarrow. This atoll is a magical place. Thousands of seabirds, turtles and coconut crabs nest on this island, made famous by the recluse Tom Neale who wrote a book called "An Island to Oneself". There is supposedly buried treasure here which has yet to be found.

The real treasure is the natural diversity. The atoll (part of the Cook Islands National Park) is looked after by one Cook Island family, John, Veronica and their four sons aged between 5 and 12. They are very welcoming and great company - always willing to take you out on their fishing and gathering trips. They spend 6 months a year here and get dropped off at the start of the season with their supplies and taken home to Raratonga at the end of six months. With four growing lads Veronica soon found out that her supplies were dropping fast and they are now reliant on cruisers to supply them with top-ups. Their pot luck barbeques, every two or three days, are magical.

The trips to the outer islands are worth every bit of the US$50 National Park entry fee. The visit usually includes a trip to the nesting sites and you can play "David Attenborough" wandering among the thousands of nesting birds, Frigates, Terns, Boobies and Tropic birds - all unafraid of humans. In the lagoon turtles abound and sharks are constant companions. The main diet on the island is fish and coconuts so fishing and coconut harvesting is a daily exercise. John was amazing climbing 100ft coconut palms to cut down the ripe coconuts, whilst Veronica wove a basket to carry them home. The coconut is an amazing food product and can be used in a variety of ways; green ones make a very refreshing drink, the grated flesh of brown ones is great for coating fish before cooking, and the spongy flesh from newly sprouting ones is great for making coconut pancakes - a Suwarrow speciality.

Suwarrow has no ciguatera (a neuro-toxin which builds up in the flesh of reef fish) so the fish is good to eat and plentiful. All you have to do is troll an attractive lure behind the dinghy and dinner is soon caught. However, it is difficult to control what you catch - one time I had a massive bite, dragging the dinghy towards the reef! I motored to deeper water and slowly brought in the line, only to find a very unhappy grey shark on the end. Since it was about half dinghy-length, this was an unwelcome guest - so I cut the line and waved it a relieved goodbye. The diving in the atoll is also excellent and we went on numerous dives with Orinoco Flow. The sharks were very curious but harmless and came quite close.

All good things must come to an end and the 700 mile trip to Tonga beckoned. Orinoco Flow left and, the weather looking settled, we left the next day. The plan was to rendezvous at Rose Atoll, a small deserted atoll 300 miles away. We had two days lovely sailing although, for the first time in 3 years, we came down with a gastric bug which wasn't much fun. The wind dropped on the third night and we motored to try and catch up in the light winds. However, as dawn broke, the winds picked up and found us running in 25-30kt winds with 3-4m seas. At 10 am we were about 30 miles away and had a radio call from Orinoco Flow relaying their harrowing experience trying to enter Rose Atoll. On arrival they could see the seas crashing on the reef and the calm water inside. They lined up the entrance to the pass and headed on in. Unfortunately, the outflow was so strong that their engine failed to stem the current and began overheating. They decided to get out but hit a coral head trying to turn around inside the pass. This was really frightening but they got off OK. With this news and the awful conditions, we decided to bypass Rose and head straight for Tonga. The remainder of the trip was a tough sail with lots of sail changing; we finally set our fluorescent orange storm trysail (a really small main sail) and just altered our foresails to the conditions. The most unlikely (and colourful) combination being the storm trysail with spinnaker - performing well!

Unfortunately our land fall in Vava'u, Tonga was going to be a night time event and at 3am we motored through the wide pass using radar (and moonlight) and dropped anchor behind Minaret. We had contacted Graham earlier by radio and he gave us a precise Lat and Long to an easy bay where they were anchored.

Vava'u in Tonga is a mini-archipelago with lots of limestone islands protected by a barrier reef. Hence there is wonderful sailing with many anchorages in flat water. The beaches are lovely and the snorkelling and diving excellent - with the added bonus that hundreds of Humpback whales come here to calve. We have had one amazing display so far with whales breaching and putting on a display only yards from our anchorage. Tonga is also a popular charter destination and there are lots of tourist-type facilities.

The Tongans are your typical friendly Polynesia (in fact Captain Cook nicknamed these group of islands The Friendly Isles). Tonga has a constitutional monarchy and the current succession goes back a 1000 years. Unfortunately, soon after we arrived, the King died and a month of official mourning was declared. Many of the Tongans are dressed in traditional black with woven-grass skirts on the outside (a sign of respect for the monarchy). All sports matches, parties and concerts were cancelled. Luckily, we managed to attend the Full Moon Party on a deserted island just before this came into force.

The Tongans are also very religious and have great singing voices and a visit to a church on Sunday is a most enjoyable experience with amazing harmonies coming from the congregation. Even though we couldn't understand a word the effect was uplifting.

The social scene continues with regular parties, barbeques and get-togethers and, compared to French Polynesia, eating out is affordable again.

Tonga is also a place where we leave many friends - those who have decided to go to Australia have a lot of miles to cover, whereas those who are heading down to New Zealand for the cyclone season can wait awhile. We are in the latter group and will take the short hop to Fiji in the next week or so and leave for NZ from there in a month or so.