the journey

The Kingdom of Tonga

November 10, 2007

Current Location: Opua, New Zealand

November third after 17 days of waiting, the window has finally opened wide. The water off Pangai Motu pulses with the sound of 26 anchors cranking up from the sandy bottom. A slight breeze is coming out of the east and we move like a slow convoy as we all motor towards the west pass heading out of Tongatapu out into the ocean.

My stomach reflexively tightens as the swell lifts us again. Yet immediately, I feel free and find myself chatting ceaselessly with excitement like the passing terns. As we find our rhythm, the boats spread out and hold course on the rhumb line to Opua, Wangarei, or Minerva Reef. We have taken the route to Minerva with the hope we might stop en route to Opua.

Sailors of the Sea jellyfish are swirling like toy boats in our wake. The sea is glass calm and I can see the reflections of the clouds on the surface of the sea. The jellyfish sit, their sails fully erect waiting to be blown by the wind. I wonder where will they go and how many days will it take them to get there?

Night brings fresher winds of 12-16 knots and DreamKeeper is screaming along at 6 to 7 knots. Lightning flashes high in the sky and our excitement remains illuminated. Two days have passed and it is time to decide if we continue to Minerva. My stomach is in knots, as I know Gar wants to go yet something is tugging at me to continue. The winds are too good, the weather window is still open wide, and we don't want to gamble with Neptune. Also, we have both learned to trust our intuition. We change course, direct to Opua, promising ourselves to have no regrets.

Day three and sunset paints the sky red and orange. The clouds spread like fire and I am reminded of the old sailor's saying "red at night sailors delight...". For this I am grateful. There is strange undercurrent of stress that is carried along with us on this passage. Most of us expect to get hit at least once with nasty weather either gale force winds of 35-40+ knots and big seas or the same or worse but right on our nose. Sailing to New Zealand has become a race.

We still sail conservatively with a reef in the main or the genoa but we’re pushing the boat a bit more than we normally do and the engine is turned on if we drop below 5 knots. Tonight the clouds have lowered their ceiling and the horizon is indistinguishable tonight. It is a crazy feeling to be barreling into darkness at 6+ knots an hour bucking as we climb and slip down the ocean swell. I feel like a horse that can smell the barn even with 489 miles to go.

With the engine on, the sickeningly sweet suffocating smell of diesel swirls in the cockpit even though the wind is on our beam. We have been hoping the wind would switch easterly and it has for now. No longer fighting headwinds and steering 40 degrees west of course I am grateful and a bit giddy. There is no bad weather in our forecast and we are so close. With what looks like no more than 3 days left until landfall we run the engine endlessly, sure to have enough diesel to make it to Opua.

Day 6 and the morning sky is glowing in orange sherbet. The skies have been beautiful but the temperature is plunging. Good Bye tropics, I can see my breath and shudder as I wait for the sun to climb high into the sky. We are fighting a one-knot to one and a half knot current. And the weather files show we might have light winds on our nose. While thinking about this and feeling my heart sinking, I hear static over the radio.

"Sailing vessel DreamKeeper this is New Zealand Air force do you copy?" Jerked out of my poor me daydream, I see a stealth jet parallel to us and watch it ascend, rising form the ocean, gray smoke trailing behind. My legs are shaking and I am sweating even though it is cold. The New Zealand Air force is doing surveillance. "Following them to a working channel, "What is your ETA to Opua?" The man with the thick Kiwi accent asks. "Saturday if we're lucky, most likely Sunday if this southerly keeps up." I reply still shaking. "Have a nice sail," he says and they're off, invisible within seconds. How do they know our boat name and arrival port, I wonder? They cruised by at water height for the name and then they've got the prearrival paperwork we sent weeks ago. There is definitely no sneaking into New Zealand.

Day 7, 1500 hours, one hundred and fifty one miles to go. Gulls and terns hunt around us, gracefully flying off the crests of the waves. The air is different here, colder, drier. I have full foulies on, boots, thick fleece pants, and a hat. If we're lucky we will be in tomorrow, even with a knot and a half current against us.

Day 8, 0200 hours the current has ceased and we have 94 miles left to the entrance to the Bay of Islands and another 10 miles from there. Making 6 knots, we expect to get in by dark tonight unless the winds shift and current changes again. Sailing, I have learned to burry my hopes and schedules in the sea and take what comes. But I still have everything crossed.

By 0800 with 57 miles to go and light winds and plenty of fuel I am ready to admit we will make it into Opua by dark. Preparing for customs to take all of our fresh food, meat and eggs I bounce down the companionway elated, waking Gar for his watch and ready to cook. We finish the last of the pineapple and eat omelets, potatoes and bacon to celebrate.

We are welcomed to New Zealand with the kindness Kiwis are known for. Having called Opua customs, for hours with our flailing radio we heard no response until 5 miles from landfall when Des of Russle Radio gave us a shout. He communicated with customs for us and they were ready and waiting for us when we pulled into the customs dock at 17:42. Not only was Customs working after hours and checking in was painless but also they phoned the Marina for us and got us a slip. We were tied up beautifully by 1900 and heading to the hot showers elated, relieved, and grateful we made a safe landfall and had patiently waited for our weather window and that it stayed wide open for us.

Saturday October 27, 2007

Well it's 6 more days now, our 12th in Nuku'alofa. This last week has been a roller-coaster ride with the weather. We have had two false alarms at leaving now where everything on the boat is ready, all provisions stored, course plotted, seasickness meds consumed, and at the last minute we get a new "warning" forecast from the professional weather router we are using for this passage, Commander’s, advising us to sit still unless we want to get hammered by a nasty low or high that has changed its ways. This is our first attempt at paying for and using a professional weather routing service, and so far we're still listening to their forecasts. Talk about working on the art of patience.

Because we are flexible with our time to be in NZ and still have some weeks to spare before we need to be in Auckland, we have continued to stay and wait. Watching the weather files closely and being in an anchorage with 20-30 other boats all itching to leave and many of them nervous, isn't always so easy. There have been a few boats trickling out as we have been here and sometimes we hear them on one of the many SSB nets we tune into getting slammed with nasty winds and seas. So far we have always been glad we have waited, but so, so hard. Over another cup of coffee, another walk into town, another boat project, we look at each other and ask: are we just soft? Should we go tomorrow? What about riding out the gale in Minerva reef? Would it be better there? It’s always so easy to forget what it can be like in those intense uncomfortable seas and winds when you are sitting in a nice protected anchorage waiting…..down to the last can of coffee….

October 21 and 27, 2007

Current Location: Nuku'alofa, Tonga
Current Position: Approx. S21° 07', W175 ° 09'

Sunday, October 21

A cup of tasty organic Taylor Maid Red Rooster French Roast coffee, from Sebastabol, CA, sits in front of me as I sit down in our cozy cabin while the gray sky and cool wind blows outside. Yumm! I'm on my second to last can of coffee having saved the really good stuff brought from home a year ago that has been stashed in the bowels of our vessel.

Dreamkeeper and its loyal salty dawgs are currently at rest in the waters of Nuku'alofa, the capital of the Kingdom of Tonga. This is our sixth day here and we have been busy prepping for our passage south to New Zealand. All the usual jobs have been taking up our time and energy; fueling, provisioning, servicing the engine, laundry, cleaning the boat, and pre-cooking and baking meals for the long passage ahead. Everything takes a little more time when you live on a boat. After almost 5 weeks in Tonga, we are ready to leave.

Having just looked at our calendar, it amazes me once again how quickly the weeks go by. It's almost November and that for us means we have been gone from San Francisco almost a year ago. As we head from here south to New Zealand we will once again have to pull out our long underwear, fleece coats, heavy foul weather gear, gloves, hats, warm socks, and boots, just like when we left San Francisco. Bring back the hot tea, hot chocolate, and soup; it's early spring in New Zealand.

But before we go there, we are way overdue for an update on our latest adventures. Let’s reminisce a bit…

The Kingdom of Tonga. Yes, still a true kingdom with an actual king, Tonga is the last remaining Polynesian nation never brought under colonial rule. Without going into politics, this has good and bad realities to it, all depending on whom you talk with and what they want the country to look like.

Tonga is split up into 4 island groups: the far north isolated Niuas, the Va'vau group, the Ha’apai group of remote islands and atolls, and the large Tongatapu group in the south with the capital of Nuku'alofa. All of these islands take up over 700,000 square kilometers of ocean, but the total land area of the whole kingdom is only 691 square kilometers on 170 islands. Basically, it's a bunch of little islands spread out over a huge expanse of water, a great place to travel via boat.

We arrived in the Va'vau group of Tonga in a rare foggy day followed by rain and strong winds for days. The town of Neiafu is a cruiser hotspot and during busy season often has over 50 boats moored and anchored in the big bay. We had fun reconnecting with friends and boats we hadn’t seen for months and enjoyed the huge open-air fresh food market, internet access, and good cafes. Once the weather turned, we headed out to explore some of the close islands and anchorages. We had some good times hanging with some of our closest cruising friends and meeting some new folks as well. Snorkel adventures, hikes, sunset cocktails, and good conversations took up our time. Some of the highlights were standing on top of Lolo Island with the placid blue lagoon water on one side and the tumultuous raw Pacific waves hitting the sea cliffs with all their power; spending quality time with our good friends Jason and Emily of Serai and Jim and Ryan of Cardea; attempting to free dive and spear lobster with the boys; our four year anniversary at secluded Ovalau Island; snorkeling with the silly clown fish and colorful damselfish; and enjoying the warm sunshine again after being in the rain and clouds for so many weeks. Because anchorages were so close by and protected from the big ocean seas, sails were rarely raised and dinghies could be towed. Life was easy, almost too easy.

When the weather changed, we headed back in to Neiafu. Both of us itching to go south to the more remote Ha'apai where fewer boats visit and the underwater world rivals that of the Tuamotus of French Polynesia. After checking out we traveled back to Ovalau Island where we spent the night of our anniversary a week and a half prior, a good place to exit from to head south to the Ha'apai. The winds came back and so did the dark gray rainy skies. What we thought would be an evening stop-over, became a 4 night exercise in patience. Each time a new squall hammered us with fresh rain and the winds blew the water into a froth all around us, we were so thankful we had our cozy house to hide in. What a change from the years of outdoor education work we have done where we have only had a tent, tarp, or rock overhang to hide from the tenacious wet weather systems. During this "down" time I was also reading gripping stories of climbers and mountaineers getting hammered by huge storms in the big peaks of the Tierra del Fuego and the Himalaya. Having to dig your tent out of the snow every few hours so you don't get buried, waiting out storms in hanging porta-ledges thousands of feet up a vertical rock wall, and having to ration the little morsels of food left so one doesn't starve to death, put it all into perspective. What a luxury to wait out the weather in a cozy sailboat at anchor staying dry and warm, eating fresh baked bread, and having our pick at the hundreds of books we have on board.

Our patience paid off and we left one evening for the overnight southbound island of Ha'ano in the Ha'apai group. Threading the coral heads into the tight anchorage the next morning was a good feeling, having only seen up to 20 knots of wind with rain and lumpy seas on our port beam most of the night and early morning. It could have been much worse.

For the next 2 weeks we zigged and zagged around the coral reefs of the Ha'apai, finding idyllic little anchorages tucked into the lees of the small tufts of land. Unfortunately, we mostly lived with gray days with strong winds and rain showers, but still enjoyed some gorgeous sunny blue bird days sprinkled in between. So many sailors skip the Ha'apai because of the difficulty of navigating through the numerous uncharted coral heads and shoals and lack of protected anchorages. In our opinion, too bad for them, but better for us, as we saw so few boats and had some of these beautiful spots all to ourselves. Some of our highlights were scuba diving the reefs around Ha'ano anchorage with our friends Eric and Gisela of Far Niente and Ray and Peggy of Sol Searcher. We swam and blew bubbles with numerous lion fish, eagle rays, big tuna, snapper, clown fish, barracuda, and immense healthy coral heads. Another highlight south of Ha'ano was Limu Island where we had the anchorage to ourselves for a few days and enjoyed the solitude and big sandy beach with shells galore. Nic was in heaven. It culminated with the biggest lightning and rain storm we have seen since leaving Sausalito, flashing all around us all night long with enough rain dropped that our dinghy was filled to the top tubes in the morning.

Our last stop in the Ha’apai was one of the best. Kelefesia Island. A gorgeous little island surrounded by a huge coral reef, as close to idyllic as you can find in the South Pacific. No one lives there full time, but we met Billy, the island's owner who comes out with his family members on a weekly basis to catch fish to sell. He gave us the run of the island and we walked the sandy beaches and snorkeled the reefs for hours. I was in hunting mode and was out for over 3 hours straight one afternoon trying my luck at the "too smart" parrot fish and trevally. Realizing that if I am going to ever become a good spearfisherman I need to not only work at holding my breath for much longer and go much deeper, but I need to upgrade my speargun. Put it on the list for New Zealand, is what we keep saying. :)

September 11, 2007

Current Location: Neiafu, Vava'u Group, Tonga
Current Position: Approx. S18° 42', W174 ° 02'

It's so calm the stars are floating on the surface of the sea. Venus sits low in the sky, glowing brightly. Her light trails from sky to boat. Sunrise is the color of ripe mangoes, orange, painted with red highlights. Frigate birds fly out to sea, their bellies licked orange by the rising sun. Fog hangs over the island like a wet blanket while the limestone cliffs glow rust orange, a combination of sunshine and iron. Spotted dolphins surface, their breath like popping bubbles, we are welcomed to Tonga.

Gliding past floating tree studded islands, searching for whales, we maneuver to the customs dock. It is low tide and the black hard plastic fenders looming towards our lifelines are no comfort as they are mounted well above our rails. Thankfully it is calm in here and DreamKeeper sits patiently still, waiting like we are for customs to clear us in to the Kingdom of Tonga.

We are ready for them. Armed with smiles, warm oatmeal raisin cookies, hot coffee, and cold juice, we welcomed the officials on board one by one. Customs, Health, and Quarantine all climbed down to DreamKeeper. We filled out paperwork from each one and afterwards asked questions about the weather, farming and fishing while they slowly munched on cookies and savored their refreshments waiting for the next official to appear.

We learned that our mugs are way too big and a huge Tongan could share his cup with his wife and three kids, papayas grow like weeds, and it's good fishing right now, tuna, marlin, wahoo, and mahi mahi are in abundance. We might disagree.

We were lucky. Checking in went smoothly for us unlike friends' who had their freezers rifled through, cokes demanded, and lengthy searches of their boats. After an hour and a half, we were stamped and cleared into to Tonga.