Slowly sailing south

Slowly heading south through the Ha’apai Islands, Tonga
Wednesday evening, 31 October 2007

We are still anchored on the west side of Uoleva Island in the Eastern Ha’apai group. The weather has been abysmal. We arrived in light rain and strong winds, and the rain became torrential and the winds got even stronger. Yesterday it blew 30 knots even in the anchorage protected by the island and 90 foot coconut palms. Luckily the bottom of the anchorage is flat and all sand, and the anchor and 200 feet of chain (the chain alone weighs 300 pounds) was enough to keep the boat from dragging. You could feel Sabbatical III pulling hard and dancing around as gusts blew it from side to side.

We spent half the day yesterday on Yara along with Risho Maru. It was so cold to all of us that we consumed winter foods — hot lentil soup, coffee and cake, cups of tea with honey and rum, plus Laura’s meatballs. While the wind howled we played rummy.

The rain continued this morning but at 10 am it stopped so we joined Gesche, Herbert, and 4 year old Yannic from Yara for a walk on the island. There are only two permanent residents –Sonny and his wife Maria. They have a couple of thatched roof fales that are called the Captain Cook Resort. No electricity, phones, or running water. It is a backpackers resort with two guests. Apparently, Captain Cook anchored about where we are now during one of this expeditions of discovery. Sonny told us how to walk across the island to get to the windward side where we wanted to see if the 22 foot waves that were predicted were really there. Unfortunately, while we were blundering through the brush, Gesche had a run-in with some bees and we quickly retreated back to the beach. We returned to our boats as the rain returned and it is still raining lightly now, although the wind has diminished considerably. This afternoon, Laura and Alexandra performed an impromptu concert on Sabbatical III. Alexandra beautifully sang Steven Sondheim’s ‘No One is Alone’ from Babes in the Woods and ‘Mein Herr’ from Caberet to Laura’s accompaniment on her keyboard. Laura also performed the third movement of Bach’s Italian Concerto. We ended with three episodes of Seinfeld with Risho Maru, one of our favorite bad weather pastimes with them. Even 8 year old Finn has become a dedicated Seinfeld fan.

We hope to leave for Ha’afeva Island tomorrow. The idea is to day sail south from island to island for the next few days until we reach the big island of Tongatapu where the capitol city of Nuku’alofa is located. Tongatapu is the jumping off point for our passage to New Zealand. Risho Maru will join us while Yara stays another day in Uoleva.

Night sails are not safe in these waters. There are reefs and rocks everywhere but the charts are off and most navigational aids are broken or missing. The best charts are the British Admiralty Charts and they are marked ‘From a Survey of 1891.’ Even the fonts on the charts look like they date to Captain Cook. More importantly, the latitudes and longitudes are all off. When we anchored in Neiafu, my GPS position put me on the hill overlooking the harbor when plotted on the chart. An experienced Kiwi sailor we met in Samoa gave me lat and long offsets to add to the GPS coordinates in Vava’u and when I added them in, the chart took us off the hill and into the water. I thought that might be the fix, but in other islands it put our supposed location up on reefs and rocks. So this is purely eyeball navigation.

The plan was to put Laura up in our perch on the main mast spotting reefs and coral heads when we came into Uoleva last Monday. But with the strong winds and rough seas that was not prudent. We had to make due with approximating our position relative to waves breaking on reefs and the tip of the island all oriented to the 100 year old chart. There is supposed to be a flashing navigation light on the end of the big reef protecting the anchorage, but the light went out some years ago and was never replaced (according to Sonny). In other places we have been in Tonga, we have looked in vain for buoys that are marked in the charts but are no longer there. The buoy that marks the entrance to busy Nuku’alofa harbor went adrift in 1992 and has never been replaced.

It has been an unusually wet and windy spring in the waters between New Zealand and Tonga/Fiji. Sailors all talk about only one thing – the weather. Everyone is looking for a weather window to go to New Zealand. It is amazing to me how paranoid and over-anxious my fellow cruisers have become over this passage. It is the tropical cyclone season now and people are worried about one forming and hitting Tonga, even though tropical storms are quite rare this early in the season, but those that have departed for NZ in the past two weeks have had uncomfortable weather on the way. Many of them left all at once when one NZ meteorologist who sends out a free email weather blurb said ‘For those of you in TONGA, now’s the time to up anchor and head south.’ Then the weather guru on the German net seconded this view. The rush was on and many of our friends, such as Vera, Quest, and Nautilus, left. Two days later the weather gurus said the window was closed and everyone was advised to stay put. It is an eight day sail to New Zealand and there is no turning back.

Laura and I are trying not to get the herd mentality and will wait for a weather window large enough to get us all the way to NZ safely. To make sure we have the best information, I have engaged a very respected weather router in the US and another one in NZ to suggest when to go and what course to sail to avoid trouble. There seems to be a sequence of low pressure systems marching up from the Tasman Sea, and as long as that continues we will stay put and brush up on our rummy and concertos.