Happenings in the Vava’u

'On the road again'. Crescent moon, first planet, blue dusk, rolly
boat. I suspect this will be the longest section we'll motor in this
entire Pacific journey. Potentially the full 120 miles but hopefully
not. Hopefully we'll find some wind. Ordinarily we would never leave in
such calm conditions, or if we did we would just enjoy going really
slowly and the extra two or three nights at sea that might involve.

But times are not ordinary. And that, I guess, is a fundamental essence
of life. Life's force. How quickly things can change. Spontaneity, an
ability to respond quickly and flexibly. Whether to something good or
bad, the engagement is something that makes me feel alive.

Not that I feel very alive and inspired right now. The nature of this
leg is hot, noisy, still, and dull. Weary-making, but happily
uneventful. The engine rumbles the boat loudly, everything vibrates. We
both have bright orange earplugs in so we can only mouth at each other,
and then only important things like – is the engine too hot?-
toast?-hello (that upon one waking). Every now and then I take out a
plug to let the thoughts tumble out and the air cleanse my brain. We
recently heard tell that you can avoid sea-sickness by blocking up one
ear- in my case the left ear as I'm right-handed. So I always unplug the
right just to see. Even if its a psychological ploy I don't really mind-
it amuses me for another few minutes and that's another few minutes less
to fill.

Sea-sickness is a funny thing. Somewhere between Chile and French
Polynesia I stopped feeling sea-sick . I attribute this to longer
passages and greater fear. These short hops are the worst. Even if we're
not physically ill (which I usually am if over-doing it by staring at an
electronic chart or GPS) then we're definitely both lethargic. A friend
here in Tonga described it well: "I don't chuck, I just lie inside
wanting to die for a couple of days." Thankfully we're ok at the moment,
just lethargic, and over half way to our destination (about 27 hours in

The Vava'u group of islands in the north of Tonga was gorgeous. I would
recommend it to anyone looking for a sailing holiday, especially people
interested in chartering a boat for a fortnight or so. Wide channels
winding around steep-sided wooded islets that hide caves and springs and
occasionally blow holes from the ocean. Whales. A steady breeze, not
too strong, plenty of places for shelter, minimal swell, and not too
many hazards. We have tacked more in the last week than the last eight
months, and finally I've started to appreciate the finer points of sailing.

Dropping the foresail gracefully, when to release the sheet on a tack,
knowing how close you can sail to the wind, and where to point when you
turn, reading ripples on the water for approaching gusts that can be
beneficial, played with even, rather than fear-inducing squalls. I've
even improved at anchoring, catching mooring balls, and working with the
genoa pole. None of these, even those that are an option, are things you
want to practice mid-ocean. Because practice implies sometimes getting
it wrong.

Watching ripples on the sea is the baby version of watching a squall
coming before being pummeled. Responding to changing breezes by the
minute and toying with the sails so they sit just right, that's so much
more helpful to intuitive learning than changing sails once a day, or
sometimes by the week. Steering too close to the wind, see what happens,
falling off too far, feel how the boat responds. Heading tighter and
tighter so that water washes along the decks but it's not scary, it's
fun. Just a tweak of the wheel or the ropes and we'll be horizontal again.

We've also rigged up our little sailing rowboat and I've taken it out on
my own returning (a first) with a smile on my face. Slowly, glacially
slowly, sailing concepts seem to be trickling in. It is agreed on board
that I'm not a natural, it's certainly not intuitive, but I'm trying
again at least. And it's so much more fun when you aren't scared for
your life, feeling sea-sick, or trying to cook.

Yes, the Vava'u Group was great, I'd go back in a flash. The town,
Neiafu, also ticked all my boxes. A big fresh fruit and veg market,
numerous western-style cafes with wifi and cheese sandwiches, delicious
fresh BROWN bread (unlike the French Polynesian baguettes with zero
nutritional value), a limited but fine range of tinned and dried
supplies (no supermarket), ample restaurants, great pizza, and the best
burgers in the south pacific.

It's true, I've barely mentioned Tonga, or Tongans. That would be the
down-side: it's a major cruising destination. Everything within our
immediate zone is catering to us, to the yachty community, to taking our
money and fuelling our fun. Admittedly, we saw a local Tongan dance
show, listened to Tongan music, watched an evening's entertainment by
the Fakaleitis…. but this is still all playing to the people. In
truth, when I saw the number of boats in the harbour I accepted what
this part of the journey would be about: sailing and other yachties, not
much interaction with locals, and a limited development of my
appreciation for Tonga as a nation and culture. That may yet change; we
are now headed to more remote and less visited islands in the middle of
the Kingdom.

The increase in boats in Neiafu also raised my awareness of how many
near- misses we all have. When alone on a boat in the ocean, life can be
sweet. The something changes in an instant and life is terrifying. Then
that situation passes and life becomes sweet again. Sometimes in the
middle life is just neutral. We should learn to appreciate those times
too. Whatever the current mode, n=1. There is just one vessel, we are
the centre of the universe, we have no sense of our own probability of
hitting sweet, neutral, or terrifying.

Gather together a multitude of boats with a wide range of starting
points, destinations, sails, motors, budgets, and intentions. Put them
all in one place. Observe. This is a much clearer representation of the
risk and variation we live within.

In just two weeks we know of one boat that arrived full of smoke, its
engine area having caught on fire about 60 miles off shore, one cruiser
who was hospitalised for three days after a finger infection turned
nasty, one small plywood boat that received a hole in its hull after
being hit by a local fisherman, one couple looking for medical
facilities after discovering she was pregnant, and several people
waiting for spare parts. We contributed to the list by discovering that
our four jerry cans of fuel on deck were in fact full of petrol
(gasoline) rather than diesel due to a mis-communication in French
Polynesia. (In French petrol/gasoline = gasoline, diesel= gas-oil. Don't

Andy filled our tank with the not quite right smelling fuel but
thankfully didn't start the engine- a suspicious nose and practical mind
I am continually thankful for (the mind, not the nose). The result was
an abandoned adventure, a calling together of six independent noses to
assess our fuel composition (tests included smell, viscosity, touch, and
combustibility), the loan of a spare diesel jug from a fellow boat
(thankyou Dignity), and return to Neiafu where the tank had to be
drained completely before cleaning and refilling.

I am very, very, glad to have discovered this at the only place we've
been to in two months that has facilities both to receive dodgy fuel,
and replace with good. And also that the fuel wasn't just poured into
the tank while the engine was running, as I've seen Andy do twice on
this trip already. BOOM.

The unplanned return to Neiafu wasn't all bad. In addition to diesel we
refilled with fresh food and water and met some old friends just
arrived. In fact, one couple loaned us a 12V oil pump for emptying the
tank (the same guardian angels from Restless who saved us when we
arrived in Suvarow with a broken windvane shaft) and another set of
newly arrived friends (Pursuit) gave us 150L of diesel ready to go. And
everyone had lots of beer and sympathy.

Greatly appreciative of the help we received from various friends and
new acquaintances, I thought of the other incidents and how quickly the
community would jump to action and offer help where they could. Indeed,
thanks to the whale-watching tours and other yachts, the boat with smoke
was towed to safety without New Zealand needing to send out air or sea
rescue services (they estimate a saving of NZ$100k).

Which is all to say, bad stuff does happen but good people make it less
bad. And, considering how many boats were in the Vava'u at the time,
surprisingly little bad stuff actually happened. (Again, empirical data
required. I estimate about 300 boats currently in Vava'u, Andy's
estimate is 50. Either way it feels like a lot but maybe we're at higher
risk than I am suggesting.)

We left earlier than expected, with less than a days notice. Some
friends of ours are in trouble, or rather, their boat is in trouble. Our
friends are safe, they have evacuated their boat (last seen anchored,
floating, but filling with water) and we are headed to its location to
assess the situation and help out. And keep scavengers away while our
friends have time to take a breath.

I wish I had enjoyed my complacency more during the last fortnight. That
time in neutral. It's not neutral, it's re-fueling, resting, having an
easy time of things. Because things will change, always, and sometimes
quickly. And its good to be ready, able to respond, and available. These
things make us feel alive.

Still, as we approach the island I am nervous about what we will find.

2 thoughts on “Happenings in the Vava’u

  1. Hello,
    We are friends of Nico and Marie-Laure (La Tortue).
    We know the situation but have no news since 2 days. Please keep us informed.
    sebf (sebastien.fouquet@yahoo.fr)

  2. same here rhiann … god bless — we just had dinner with them last week the night before their guests were to arrive … give them a hug from us …

    we are in fiji; we banged up against a reef and bent our rudder so we've got a bit of work to do before going on to oz … miss you guys.


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