Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Tonga, Part 1

When I was back in Seattle thinking about cruising through the South Pacific, I wasn't sure what to expect.  There have been a lot of surprises along the way and I've visited many astoundingly beautiful places.  From my experience so far, the Vava'u group in Tonga is a tropical paradise.  You are probably familiar with the classic image of a South Pacific island - a small island with palm trees swaying back and forth surrounded by many hues of beautiful blue water and with a white sand beach down by the shoreline.  I keep running into this image in this group and am not getting tired of it at all.  There are quite a few cruising boats around but there are enough anchorages to spread the fleet out and I have spent nights at anchor with lots of neighbors as well as been by myself for days at a time.

I've been in Tonga now for a little over six weeks.  Of that time, I've spent 16 days moored in Neiafu and 30 days out at anchor.  I've only visited 8 anchorages, all of them beautiful.  Only one of the anchorages has had a challenging bottom, with a mixture of sand and coral.  In all of the other anchorages, I've been anchoring in 12 to 25 feet of water onto an all sand bottom.  The water colors have been beautiful and the water is warm enough to swim in without a wetsuit.  When snorkeling in this area, I've mainly seen fairly drab coral with a lot of it dead or otherwise boring.  One theory I've heard about the dead coral is that the last cyclone to come through, which was around 9 years ago, stirred up a lot of sand and sediment.  The sediment was deposited on the coral and a lot of it died at that time.  Its coming back slowly, but at the moment there are pockets of excellent coral and fish life, but you have to search for it.

I've visited 8 different anchorage and gone back and forth to the main town twice and have only traveled 36 miles.  36 miles!  If I backup 8 anchorages from arriving in Tonga, I would be in Fakarava in the Tuamotus which is 1600 miles backwards along my path.  I'm enjoying the short distances and beautiful surroundings in this country.

Tonga has also a social place, I've been meeting many of the boats I met earlier this season again, as well as meeting people who came the same way that I did but have not met until now, as well as boats from New Zealand who I am coming across for the first time.  Most of the boats traveling through the South Pacific in any season arrive in the Marquesas, travel to the Tuamotus and then the Society Islands.  From there the fleet splits up, with cruisers choosing which of the Cook Islands they will visit, if any, and if they will take the north or south route west of the Cooks.  Most of the fleet seems to come together again in Tonga, where they again get to choose if they travel further west to Fiji or hang around here until the cyclone season approaches and they need to get out of its way.  Many of the people I have met are traveling to New Zealand, some to Australia and a few haven't decided yet.

Tonga is easy cruising.  There is pretty decent provisioning in Neiafu, with lots of vegetables, dried goods, frozen meats and treats.  I found bacon on my first few trips into town, but not since then.  Provisioning is a little hit and miss, but there is no problem in obtaining enough food to eat if you don't mind changing your ideas slightly on what you'll take away.  Diesel is easily available, there are several working ATMs, extending your visa beyond the initial 30 day period is easy, there is (slow) free internet available on shore from several establishments, there is a good variety of cruiser food - pizza, hamburgers, fries, nachos, along with a wider variety of good food.  The beer is decent and fairly priced.  All in all, this is turning out to be a very pleasant, easy and social visit.

I'm not sure if I will hang around this group of islands for the time I have remaining to me before I head off to New Zealand.  There are two more island groups to my south, one of which sounds very appealing.  I'll either take the easy route and stay here, or explore further and head south.  Exploring the local beautiful anchorages or go exploring the more remote southern anchorage - these are the types of hard problems I'm working on at the moment.  One issue with heading south is that I'm not sure if I'll have easy access to shore water - since I no longer have a working water maker, I'm not sure if my arriving at a small island and asking for water from the locals would be so cool...  There is a drought starting in the area now and Neiafu appears to have a good water supply - the smaller islands may end up a little starved for water if the problem continues.

I will be heading to New Zealand by sometime in late October or early November.  Until then, I'm in a tropical paradise and am in no hurry to leave.

Here are a few photos...  As with all the photos in this blog, click on any image to see a larger version.

Neiafu on a calm morning.                  Photos credit to Carol on s/v Estrellita.
A typical anchorage in the Vava'u group, Tonga.
One happy sailor!

On a reef at low tide, looking between Kenutu and Lopo

Luckness and The Southern Cross, at anchor, Kenutu
Catherine, Peter and I exploring a cave
Looking out of the cave!

The Octopus

I was snorkeling with Peter and Catherine from The Southern Cross when Peter noticed an octopus below us.  The octopus had moved and Peter noticed the movement, otherwise we would have passed by without seeing it at all.  Its in all three of the images above if you look closely.  Try clicking on the images to see the larger versions.  In the image its head is white, brown with black spots.  There are also large spikes in its flesh.  The spikes and colors are part of its camouflage - its picking up cues from its environment and making itself blend in by adopting the same colors and textures.  How cool is that!?  Octopuses are incredible.  A few months ago I was walking along a beach when I looked into the water and saw an Octopus swimming along - as it moved it was changing color according to the bottom it was traveling across.  They are masters of disguise.

We humans think we are so clever with our opposable thumbs, which presumably let us rule the world.  Well, how hard is it for us to even move our eye brows in opposite directions, one up, one down.  If we can pat our heads while rubbing our tummies we congratulate ourselves.  Octopus would likely be laughing their heads off, if their personalities lean toward that type of thing.  I challenge anybody to imagine spikes appearing all over their bodies and then to have them appear.  Wouldn't that be fun!  Instead of our limited non-verbal ways of communicating, winking at someone across a room for example, imagine the possibilities if we could change color and textures - going suddenly to a spiky head says much more than a wink, imagine the possibilities.  Octopuses rock.

All is well onboard, I hope the same is true with all of you!

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Niue post

It seems that I've mentioned Niue twice now, but haven't really blogged about my stay there.  This is that post.

However, before getting to Niue: I'm currently moored in Neiafu, which is in the Vava'u group of islands in Tonga.  I'm planning on leaving Neiafu to go exploring some of the 40 or 50 local anchorages for a week or two, soon.   Its beautiful here, as well as easy, social, sheltered and many other good things. More on all of that in some future post.

Ok.  Back to Niue.

Niue is a small coral island, a raised coral atoll, and is one of the world's smallest independent countries and one of the largest coral islands.  Niue is in 'free association' with New Zealand, and all of the Niue citizens are also citizens of New Zealand, which seems like a pretty good deal if you're a Niue'ian.  While walking around the island, the New Zealand connection is pretty apparent and seems like a good thing.

There is only one harbor in Niue and the surrounding coastline is too deep and the seabed too rugged to allow anchoring.  Its not that the seabed would be poor holding, rather, it would likely be really excellent holding.  However, the holding is so good you may never retrieve your anchor as there are many limestone chasms where your anchor could slip in and have a very hard time slipping out.  There is a Niue Yacht club on shore which maintains around 20 moorings, and that's what you use when you're here.  The moorings are inspected regularly and are very sturdy.

When the winds are from the predominant direction, between east and southeast, the anchorage is very comfortable.  When there is any west in the swell, then the anchorage becomes very rolly as its completely exposed to anything with any west in it.  These were the conditions for the first four or five days while I was there and the boat was rolling from rub-strake to rub-strake, side to side.  For those who don't know what a rub-strake is, or where it is on a PSC37, that's a pretty deep roll.  Rolling far enough that cups left on counter tops launch themselves across the cabin.  However the swell backed around to the south and continued further to the south east and the area became more and more comfortable.

Going from your boat to shore involves coming to the wharf and then raising your dinghy onto the wharf using the crane supplied.  I had read about this before coming and was nervous about how it would work for a singlehander, but it turns out to be pretty easy and I ended up going back and forth to shore without any problems.

There are great opportunities to stretch your legs here.  You can easily rent bicycles, motorcycles or cars - I opted for a bicycle.  The local roads are in good shape and they are often shaded by trees as you pass through forested areas.  As you ride along the coastal roads there are many signs pointing from the road down to the sea identifying a sea track.

All of the sea tracks I saw were in very good shape and were well built, leading to a view, a cave, the shore line, a swimming area or some other attraction.  Often you would get all of those in one track.  Most of the sea tracks that ended at or close to the sea also had a fresh water shower toward the top of the track, so you could swim in the ocean and then rinse off with fresh water before continuing along the road to the next track.  There appears to be lots of water on the island, all of it drinkable.

The island is mostly composed of limestone and the shoreline is very rugged - there isn't a lot of beach here, although there is a little.  Its, mainly, not a shoreline you would want to walk along in bare feet.

While the shoreline is rugged and not barefoot friendly, it is absolutely beautiful.  The water clarity at Niue is well over 100 feet.  My boat was moored in 90 feet of water and I could see the bottom clearly.  From what I have read, Niue seems to be a diving destination.

The sea tracks often lead down a steep trail to shore, going through caves and ending up in more caves.

s/v Estrellita pulled into Niue a few days after I did and we got to hang out for a while.  Estrellita is not a large boat, perhaps around the same volume as Luckness, but they have really packed a large number of cruising-toys into their boat.  They have dive gear, and while were were there I accompanied them on a dive - me in mask and fins, them with all their dive stuff.

As you can tell, its Livia on the left, Carol on the right

Another amazing feature of the waters around Niue is that humpback whales frequent the area.  They were here while we were, and it was amazing.  (There I go again, over using the phrase 'it was amazing' or 'it is amazing'.  Oh well.)  Most nights you can hear the whales breathing as they dive through the mooring field and during the day they were frequently around, diving, broaching, hanging around.  We tried a couple of times to swim in the same water the whales were in, and on one occasion got pretty close.  Or anyway, Carol and Livia got close.  I ended up on the wrong side of those two and the whales...I could see the whales better than you would imagine from the photo.

Look close, and you can see that there are whales in the background.  Carol and Livia in the foreground.  Those two have pictures of the same encounter and Livia's pictures are National Geographic quality, really outstanding.  So when you look at the photo above...just try to imagine the whales being very large, close, interesting and amazing, that's how I remember it.

A hurricane hit Niue in January 2004 and did quite a lot of damage.  From what I understand, the population of Niue before the hurricane was something like 20,000 people. Currently its around 1,600.  A lot of people left after the hurricane for New Zealand - around 90 to 95% of the Niue population is currently living in New Zealand.  This has left many properties unoccupied and abandoned, which is a little sad to see.  Each property does however have a caretaker, and you can see that the lawns are all kept in check, which is no small thing in this area.

As I was going through the photos I had taken while I was in Niue, here in Tonga, I realized that I have been a bad photo journalist.  I have no pictures of Alofi, the capital city of Niue, where I spent most of my time.  Its a nice little town, mostly a single main road with a variety of restarants, stores, a bakery, a hardware store, gas station, etc.

Niue is a fantastic little island.  They are currently promoting themselves to New Zealanders as a tourist destination - so if you want, visit now, before its 'discovered' by the masses!

So, that's Niue.  While I'm posting to my blog, I can't help but to add some boat project related stuff.  When I first got to Niue my dinghy hadn't been used for over 20 days, as I hadn't used it while I was at Beveridge reef.  When I got to Niue, I put the dinghy in the water, mounted the engine and went to start the motor.  It wouldn't start, or would start, run poorly and then sputter and die.  This engine had been causing me problems for quite some time and it was back causing problems again.  Getting from Luckness to shore would be a little challenging by rowing my dinghy as the wind was initially fairly strong and blowing through the mooring field - but I could have moved to a closer mooring and this might have worked.  However, I decided to finally try to fix the damn thing, or destroy it in the process and deal with that.  So I remounted the engine onboard, reviewed the information I had about rebuilding the carb and started taking it apart.  I managed to get the carb off the engine without losing anything - while I was doing this there was a pretty good swell coming into the anchorage, rolling Luckness deeply, side to side.  I took the carb down below and took it apart further.  I found a bunch of gunk inside, sprayed it liberally with carb cleaner, squirted compressed air through the little passage ways I could find, sprayed more carb cleaner, more air, etc until it seems to be about as clean as I could make it.  I didn't break the carb down to its smallest bits, just opened it up and cleaned what I saw.  Anyway, I reassembled, remounted and it started on the second pull and has been running like a champ ever since.  I should have done this months ago - it wasn't that hard.  I did lose a gasket when I remounted the carb - the boat lurched and the gasket got least I didn't lose anything really important as it seems to run fine without the gasket...

On the topic of losing important engine parts, I almost lost the entire engine.  Remember that I was moored in 90 feet of water.  Half way through the carb cleaning I was hearing my dinghy engine lift contraption banging against the hull, as I had forgotten to secure it.  So I went out and brought the block aboard.  I grabbed the end of the hook-thing and dragged it aboard, and as I was doing this it just came apart in my hand.  It seems that the pin that held the shackle together had been slowly untwisting and it must have been just barely being held by the last thread.  It finally came apart at the best possible time - I managed to lose the pin overboard but saved the hook and the body of the shackle.  A few hours earlier I had attached the engine to this shackle/hook as I lowered and then raised it from and to the boat - in 90 feet of water.  If the shackle pin had come lose either of those times, and it easily could have, I would have lost the engine to the deep until I arranged for a diver to retrieve it, and then would have had to deal with a salt water logged engine.  That was a close call!  The hook is now attached with a little piece of dyneema, which is plenty strong enough for this application.

So, anyway, I'm in Tonga.  I've been here for a little over a week now.  Its nice here and as I mentioned earlier, I'll talk about Tonga in a future post.  I'll only show one teaser photo from where I am.  There is a good, daily market here full of local produce.  Lots of tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, onions, and so on - all organic and super fresh.  They had carrots on display at one of the vendors, so I bought one.  It should last me for a few meals.


Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Tonga Bound!

Date: August 7th, 2014
18° 45' S 172° 26' W
Water Temp: 77.0
Distance to go: 140

I left Niue yesterday morning, bound for Neiafu, Vava'u Group, Tonga. Niue was a wonderful stop, and I stayed there just over two weeks. Niue is beautiful, the people are all very friendly, there is lots of good hiking, renting bicycles is easy, the food is good, people speak English - it was an easy play to hang out and I loved being there. I also had a chance to hang out with Carol and Livia of Estrellita, a boat I have been following for quite some time. They are also from the Pacific Northwest. We've crossed paths briefly several times and circumstances seemed always to get in the way, but not this time. They're awesome.

After two weeks I felt that I had seen enough of Niue to carry on, I'm really curious about my next destination, Tonga. I'm hoping I can find a decent internet connection in Tonga so that I can upload some pictures from Niue to the blog, the internet on Niue was super slow - but inexpensive!

All is well here. I'll drop another note a day or two after my arrival in Tonga.

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Sunday, July 27, 2014

Beveridge Reef Photos

I was at Beveridge Reef for 10 days, initially by choice and later waiting for a good weather window to make my way to Niue.  While I was there only one other boat came into the reef, they stayed one night and left the next morning, a day before I left.  Beveridge Reef is something like 130nm SE of Niue.  Its truly out in the middle of nowhere.  I can't imagine a more remote anchorage.

From what I understand, Beveridge reef is an atoll in the early stages of formation.  At this point, it has a reef, however the reef is submerged by several feed at high tide and just barely out of the water at low tide.  This means that at high tide there is no land visible 'as far as the eye can see.'  Its a study in blue with a little white and grey from the clouds thrown in.  Look out in any direction and you see beautiful blue water.  Look up and there was, on most days, a beautiful blue sky.  Blue blue blue.  The phrase 'bright blue' is completely appropriate there.  The bright sunshine enters the water and then reflects off the white sand beneath and comes back up.  Any surface which was facing down toward the water was colored by the waters reflection with a blue tint.  I would look up at my mast and spreaders to see them colored blue.  Bright blue water indeed.  It really is the most amazing place.

The reef has an inner sand shelf, which where I was, was 0.5 mile wide.  The area I explored seemed to be a pretty constant depth, 13.5 feet deep at  high tide and 9.5 feet at low tide.  Its pure sand, no coral at all, sand everywhere.  The shelf ends pretty abruptly, the shelf goes from 13.5 feet to 25 within 10 or 15 feet, and then that depth goes down to around 35 to 40 across the middle of the reef.  In the deeper section there is coral and some fish life, I didn't see very many fish around the shelf at all.  I did see a few sharks - and to my surprise, I got a little freaked out by them again.  I thought that after being surrounded by sharks in Moorea that I would have gotten over the whole 'scared of sharks' thing, but clearly that isn't true.  Being able to see a shark 100' away in the water is pretty astounding, but seeing it look over at you and then come over to explore registers on my 'a little bit freaky' meter.  I'm sure its fine, I just need some more quality time with them I guess.

Oh, and the water visibility here is astounding.  As the water is completely exchanged twice a day with fresh ocean water, I don't know how it could be any clearer.  I didn't see any organic life in the water at all.  In the Tuamotus I found that the water clarity was the best where there was a tidal inflow of water from across the reef into the atoll.  Well at Beveridge, you have the tidal inflow across the entire reef and at high tide there is a steady inflowing current.  In fact, swimming at high tide can be a little challenging - to swim upstream to my anchor at high tide I needed my flippers.  The point of the current being that the water is entirely fresh from the ocean and visibility is way over 100 feet.  Maybe 200?

I also saw a few Sting Ray's, and still think they're the cutest things ever, aside from dolphins of course.  Although these ones seem to hold their stinger in the Ready position, perhaps a little more wild than those in Moorea.

With the surroundings being so uniform - blue sky, multiple hues of blue in the water, white sand - my eye was drawn to anything that looked like it didn't belong, some contrast.  In this case, the only real contrast are the few critters, Luckness and the chain and anchor.  I was diving the anchor daily, partly as something to do, partly as its a good practice to check your anchor out.

Deeply buried anchor and chain

My Rocna was deeply buried here, which is very good to see.

The day here is broken pretty cleanly into thirds: something like 1/3 of the time the wave actions is so chaotic that it becomes an endurance contest to last through it, with the boat moving semi-randomly and suddenly in all different directions, pitching and rolling like crazy; then 1/3 not quite that extreme, but where you still need to be careful moving around; and 1/3, if the wind is semi-calm, of being anchored in a pond.  I loved this last 1/3 greatly, the first two, not so much. The tides control the waves.  At high tide the swell from outside the reef doesn't come in, but it breaks on the submerged reef and you end up with smaller waves coming at you from every direction.  Rather than a regular wave pattern approaching you, you get very chaotic waves which seem to spring up out of nowhere and then subside again.  Its a little wild.

It rained one day, which was good as I was getting due to start replenishing my water tank.  My rear tank was still full at this point, my forward tank had a little more than a 1/2 tank left.  The rain was forecast and came on schedule.

Sometimes when it rains it passes quickly.  When the rain started Luckness was covered in salt, as the previous rain I had was in Moorea, before Bora Bora and before all that sailing - lots of salt buildup everywhere.  So I went around with a rag trying to wash the salt off Luckness as quickly as possible so that I could gather clean rainwater for the tanks.  But then the rain started coming heavier, and heavier - I stopped trying to clean the boat myself and let the rain take over that task.  It became torrential, I haven't been in such heavy rain, either for a long time, but perhaps ever.  It was pretty amazing.  I plugged the scuppers on both sides - I plugged the port side, then walked over to starboard and plugged that side, and by the time I walked back to the port side the side deck was almost full of water.  I tasted the water and it was a bit brackish, so I drained the side deck, and replugged.  I then repeated that on the other side, and by the time I came back to the port side it was full of water again.  I repeated this a few times, then the water was clean and I started gathering.  If both of my tanks had been empty I could have filled them both.  As it was, I put 18 gallons in my forward tank, filled the 5 gallon jug up and that was all I needed.  The rain didn't slow down for a while.

After the rain arrived, on schedule, I was ready to head off to Niue, but by then the weather started to become uncooperative.  It was forecast to be from the west by the time I got to Niue, which would be uncomfortable as that mooring field is fully open to the west.  So I waited at Beveridge for a few days.

Eventually the wind backed around, N, NW, W, SW, S.  By the time it started getting some east in the direction I took off for Niue.

I really liked my stay at Beveridge.  However, I would suggest to any others that come this way - bring a hobby that you enjoy with you!  Some swimming every day is essential, and fun, but after a little while you've done that.  You can look at the scenery for a while, but it doesn't change all that much.  Its astounding scenery, and I can stare at it for quite some time, but not all day.  You could read for a while, but not all day, or at least, I can't.  There are boat chores you can work on, but 2/3's of the day the boat is moving so much that working on her you could put yourself at risk.

I spent much of my time here working on a little software project I had put off for a while.  It was really satisfying to get back into it.  Between the sun and wind, I had more power here than I needed, so leaving my computer on for long periods wasn't an issue.  So my advice to all of you - become competent software developers!  You'll always have something engaging you can work on.

If any other cruisers want to visit the reef, note that my CMAP e-charts were over three miles off in this area.  I used the cruising guide written by Mr. John called The Dangerous Middle.  It has a hand drawn chart of the reef which appears to be accurate.  The pass is where it shows on the chart, and I anchored in the SE corner, which is accurate from the chart.  Anchoring here isn't a problem, the sand shelf is enormous and provides good holding.

I'm currently on a mooring at Niue.  Niue is awesome!  Among  many other good things, which I'll talk about later, they speak english here, which is a much greater relief to me than I should admit.  What type of world traveler am I if I can't get along easily in a non-english speaking area of the world?  I have no answer for that…but its so nice to be able to talk about things with the locals again, beyond 'good place!', 'nice day!', and other such banalities that I relied on in French Polynesia.

All is well here!