And so this is what the true downwind sailing we’ve heard all about feels like! After enjoying the calm protected waters of Tonga, I have to say it was with a touch of dread that we headed back into the ocean swells to make our way west onto Fiji. We also had a deadline to meet (friends Brook and Nina to pick up in Suva), which as every sailor knows doesn’t usually lend itself well to coordinating with the elements. But thankfully the stars aligned and with gentle swells and a full moon to light our way, we managed to sneak in between two weather systems and finally find ourselves our most pleasant passage yet. And wow it felt good. A beautiful gliding magic carpet ride sort of feeling rather than the bucking and rolling we had started to think must be standard sailing.
On a broad reach initially, the jib worked absolute wonders. So much so that once we hit Fijian waters and the wind shifted right behind us, we let our other jib in on the fun. With the double headsails balancing themselves beautifully (still too nervous to try the spinnaker… but we’re making progress!) and Te Mana glided along with ease through the outer Lau group of islands.
But when the wind finally died out and our speed dwindled meaning we wouldn’t make Suva by daylight, we thought that rather than spend another night at sea we’d try our magic carpet luck and enter the harbour at night. As Suva is lit up like a Christmas tree (no idyllic palm lined beaches here), we thought we should be ok. And, despite the numerous wrecks of other less fortunate ships/boats in the harbour and outer reef, we were able to navigate just fine.
Although not our usual tranquil surrounds (it took a little getting used to being surrounded by big tankers and dilapidated Asian fishing boats) Suva and its grittiness was actually quite refreshing for a change of scenery after so many months of paradise (yes life has been tough). A busy bustling fresh produce market with Indian spice hall, big supermarkets, and a yacht club with great food (there’s a theme here…) and all so cheap! What’s not to like? Aside perhaps from the amount of rubbish floating in the harbour…
So with Nina and Brook now in tow, a boatload of new foods to try, and plenty of kava root to offer the village chiefs, we ventured south to explore the slower pace of life on the islands of Beqa and Yanuca. Although the sun was a little shy, the islands were beautiful and green, the fish were plentiful (Brook quickly overfilled the fridge), and the islanders were authentically oh so friendly (we were a hit at the local primary school). We all managed to clap at the right time and drink our bowls of kava during our first Sevu Sevu ceremony, and the boys looked only slightly uncomfortable wearing sarongs. The only things that didn’t go our way was the wind and swell – surfing Frigates sadly wasn’t an option.
Fiji is large. And as a result moving around from place to place requires quite a bit of sailing time. This mostly has to be done during the day so as to navigate the (often poorly or uncharted) reefs, and so a full days sailing was required to move onto Fiji’s western side. But strong winds helped us out (we reached our max speed thus far of 9 knots with only our twice reefed genoa flying) and we made it to Momi Bay in no time.
Being in a sort of rain shadow, it doesn’t seem to rain much on Fiji’s western side. And so although the sun had found us again, the main island is not tropically lush, the water not clear, and the scenery seems strangely similar to what you’d see driving down the Hume highway in summer. But once we ventured to the outer reef where the water was turquoise water once more it was smiles all round. The fact that we were anchored just off Fiji’s famous wave Cloudbreak also helped. And although the swell might have been small to start with, it served as a good intro for what was to come.
After waving goodbye to Brook and Nina at Musket Cove, we realized we’d yet again found ourselves in the midst of a sailing rally. So to escape the crowds we retreated back to anchoring between the playgrounds of Cloudbreak and Namotu and happily spent the next few days getting our surfing fix and totally exhausting ourselves. So much so however that Nick’s immune system crashed and produced the biggest pair of tonsils I’ve ever seen.
We retreated back to the more protected Musket Cove and with one man down Te Mana wasn’t moving anywhere. Although Nick’s feverishly delirious mumblings were initially very entertaining, it soon became apparent he was quite ill. But with a dose of antibiotics, lots of soup, and nearly a week of total rest, the offending tonsils retreated and we were ready to move once more.
With a new swell arriving we didn’t need to move far to enjoy more time surfing our favorite newfound waves. But compared to the empty or small friendly local lineups we’d become accustomed to in French Polynesia, Fiji was full of wave hungry Australian/Kiwi/American tourists focused on punching out their quotas during their 10 day surfing trips (we only met 4 local Fijian surfing their world class waves). We both knew where we’d rather be.
As the swell died we ventured north up through the Mamanuca and Yasawa Island groups in search of quiet secluded beaches and beautiful snorkeling and free diving. You’d think this would be easy to find, but tourism is well and truly established in Fiji and nearly every island has at least one resort, usually more. The villages also seemed far more expectant of tourism leaving the kava exchange an emptier experience than we’d had in Yanaka.
We did however love our time (although brief thanks to the oh so rolly anchorage) SUPing, snorkeling and scrambling our way around the uninhabited islands of Navadra and Vanua Levu. Fijian Survivor was filmed here apparently, and with its supply of goats, fish and coconuts, I’m sure these days we could both give the contestants a run for their money on island life skills. The 20kg Spanish Mackeral (our biggest fish so far) we caught on the way in kept the handful of boats in the anchorage fed for nearly a week. Without a freezer onboard we just can’t consume that much fish on our own!
Further north we swam with the Manta Rays. Apparently they hadn’t been seen for the past few days (we soon understood why). But we managed to time it right and glide around with the amazing creature for all of a few moments, before the experience was lost as the poor creature was totally mobbed by boatloads of tourists (seriously around 50 people jumped in all at once) and fled to deeper water.
So with another swell coming we’ve decided to cut our island exploring short and head back south for a few more days of salty exercise before checking out and getting ready to head west once more…
Next stop New Caledonia. Which we’re quite excited about. The pull of French cheese is strong!
So it turns out that just shy of a week on land is enough to dissolve your hard earned sea legs. Or maybe it was the fact that in our minds we had it pegged that the short two night passage to Tonga would be nothing compared to the nine days we’d just endured en route to Niue. The uncomfortably rolly short swell period created by the strong winds of the few days prior couldn’t have helped matters either. But whatever the reason, neither Nick or I found the short passage to Tonga to be overly comfortable, or fun. And of course by the time our sea legs were starting to rematerialize, we had already arrived.
But what an arrival to the beautiful Vavau Group. Whales, whales, and more whales. And the calmest water we’d been in for the three weeks since we’d left Tahiti. After clearing in and grabbing a mooring in Neiafu’s incredibly protected little harbor, we both just sat in the cockpit looking at each other, grinning as we enjoyed being still. Totally still. Such a good feeling.
Despite finding ourselves once more smack bang in the midst of the Oyster Rally, we were happy to see a few familiar more modest boats also in the overcrowded harbor. We grabbed a mooring right next to our friend Josh, who we’d met back in Tahiti, and his small but trusty 27ft boat that he’d been single handling from Canada. Being around the same age it was great to catch up, and somewhat a relief to hang out with possibly the only other sailor in the Pacific who drinks as much as we do – basically nothing.
But for what we lacked in booze we made up for in baking. Always more fun cooking for a crowd (not that I need any encouragement as some of you may know), Josh’s company and some cooler wet weather kick started what basically became a Tongan bake off. From chocolate self saucing puddings and lemon delicious, to our new favorite traditional Polynesian dish - thin layers of papaya and taro baked in coconut cream, the consumption of comfort food was high.
Once the weather cleared, the next three weeks were spent venturing around some of the calmest cruising grounds we’d encountered, and sharing it all with our favorite old and new sailing friends. So many secluded white sandy beaches to choose from, and all in such easy cruising distance from each other. We can see why the Kingdom of Tonga is known as the Friendly Islands.
But as we’ve already learnt (many times over now), things don’t stay easy and friendly forever in sailing land. And why does bad luck always have to come in three?…
Our first downturn in luck started simply with Nick loosing his sunglasses overboard. Annoying – yes, but nothing major (except for the irony perhaps of returning sunglasses made from reclaimed ocean plastics back into the sea. Sorry Norton Point!).
The second occurred later that night when we realized Nick’s SUP had set itself free from the back of the boat. Much more annoying (no one to blame but our own poor knot tying selves), and somewhat major (to us at least) as SUPing helps to keep us fit and sane when there’s no surf around. It was a calm night however, and only an hour or two had passed since we’d last seen the SUP attached. Surely it couldn’t have gone that far? So out we went spotlighting in the dingy. But an hour or so of scanning back and forth over the area we thought the current must have taken the large seemingly easy to spot red and white SUP proved fruitless. As did a second, much larger dingy search at daybreak. And as did the third yet again wider (but oh so doomed) search later that day, this time in Te Mana.
The third and final kink in the bad luck chain happened as we were motoring around the outer southern islands. A slight whirring noise that sounded like a fan belt issue from the engine signaled that something was wrong. I disengaged the motor, and Nick took a quick look down below at the engine but everything looked fine. An unusual shudder under my feet on re-engaging the engine however gave us both a sinking feeling. A quick dive off the back confirmed our fears that our prop had somehow managed to foul itself in some discarded fishing line. Worse still, in the process the cutlass bearing (a rubber sheath around the propeller shaft) had been damaged and was hanging out in a way it shouldn’t. Annoying - doesn’t even come close, and major - very much so (we knew we were probably looking at the cost and inconvenience of having to haul out to replace it).
After cutting the line free and limping back to the anchorage where our bad luck had started, all that was left to do was go to bed and hope for a better start to tomorrow.
And what a difference a day can make. We were woken at daybreak by the enthusiastic shouting of our new friend Guillaume flying across the anchorage with Nick’s SUP laid limply across his dingy. He’d spotted it beached on the shore around 100m from where it had first set itself free from the back of our boat. Who knows what kind of adventures it had experienced in its 24hr jaunt! Although missing its fin and a little beaten up from some close encounters with reef and rocky coral, a quick patch job to the two minor punctures sustained and it was usable once more. A replacement fin was quickly sourced through the ever helpful Sarah from RED Paddle Co, and things were looking up.
The next sign that things were going our way came from the fact we’d found a spare cutlass bearing on board, and that Josh and Clemence (the Captain of Infinity – check out the cool and crazy projects they get up to here and here) were convinced we could replace it underwater. No haul out required. All we needed were a few extra sets of hands (thanks Josh and Alex!), some additional tools (begged and borrowed from assorted boats in the anchorage), a healthy set of lungs and breath holding capacity (aided by Alex and his scuba tank), and a good fitting bung to plug the hole we would create when we pulled the propeller shaft out. It turned out that I was a good fit for that job.
What could go wrong?! Although I had visions of torrents of water flooding in once the shaft was removed, it all went surprisingly smoothly. All that was required was a bit of careful underwater jiggling to get the shaft out past the rudder by the boys, good hand placement by myself acting as the human bung, a few (quite a few) more breath holds to replace the tight fitting rubber bearing, and then more jiggling to put it all back together. A few cups of tea and chocolate cake (bake fest continues) to warm up, and easy… all done at anchor over 12m of water with a bucket hanging underneath to catch dropped tools (we only lost one screw driver). We were still floating and as good as new. Just minus a pair of sunglasses, which didn’t seem like such much of a big deal in light of the recent events.
So being back on the move and seemingly worry free once more, the rest of our time in Tonga flew by in a relaxed blur of cave diving, Tongan feasts, remote island church ceremonies (followed by more feasts), and searching for the perfect uninhabited island with its own private beach to anchor up next to and call home for a day. After finally finding the very island we were hunting for, we were initially dismayed to see another boat coming in hot behind Josh to anchor… until we realized it was our friends Quentin and Macy on their 30ft boat Moondog, who we hadn’t seen since Tahiti. With our boat gang of favorites complete, we had a great few final days enjoying freshly speared fish over beach bonfires, stocking up on paw paws and coconuts, and even managed to find a sloppy high tide wave (of sorts) breaking over a section of lagoon enclosed reef perfect for inflatable SUP surf fun.
But with Josh heading on to NZ, Moondog braving the headwinds back to French Polynesia (why is it that those with the smallest boats seem to do the craziest things), and us having friends and a deadline to meet in Fiji, it was inevitable our boat gang days would come to an end. And when the perfect weather window finally presented itself, we were the first to set sail on our separate way in search of our next adventure.
There’s no more comforting a thought than arriving at a sheltered anchorage after 9 days at sea. So you can imagine our dismay as we tiredly approached Niue’s picturesque Alofi Harbour… the sun setting and the wind easing behind the protection of the island’s cliffs… only to realise through the binoculars that the moored boats in the distance were rocking crazily from side to side like poorly timed pendulums. With Niue’s lack of barrier reef leaving the ocean swells free to wrap around the island, it looked like we were set to remain uncomfortably at sea even though we would be safely moored. This could explain why Niue has its own Yacht Club (to accommodate passing cruisers), but with no local members or yachts.
So with our dreams of enjoying a glass of wine that stays put on the table and a still night’s sleep in bed dashed, it soon became apparent that if we wanted a break from the continual rocking and rolling of Te Mana we were going to be spending a lot of time exploring on land.
But thankfully as it turns out, Niue is a great place to have to do just that..
The tone was set by the local customs officer who after checking us and a few other boats in (kindly on a Sunday afternoon), then drove us all in the back of his van to the local burger and beer shack by the beach. With Niue having a significant helping hand from NZ, all of a sudden we were speaking Kiwi rather than French and being asked if we’d like ‘chups bru’?
Over the next few days after bidding farewell to Gui and enjoying the comforts of firm ground and coffee shops, the anchorage became overfull with very fancy large yachts (we’d somehow found ourselves amongst the Oyster World Rally – think BMW’s of the sea) as well as the supply ship. Te Mana was definitely looking quaint and undersized. But there is a great smugness that comes with seeing expensive yachts rock just as uncomfortably as your more modest own
The whales didn’t seem fussed by the swell however, and frequently cruised around between the boats. Having your breakfast interrupted by a humpback whale exhaling through its blowhole right behind you in the cockpit is quite something!
With the climate also feeling more Kiwiesque than the lovely warmth we’d become accustomed to in French Polynesia (for the first time onboard we started reaching for long sleeves and a blanket at night – and yes I can hear the sarcastic sympathy coming from those of you currently in Aus/NZ winter), the water activities we usually can’t get enough of suddenly didn’t quite seem so enticing.
But after digging out the wetsuits I’m glad to say we did brave the ‘cold’, as the diving in Niue was amazing. With no sandy lagoon or sediment from run off (Niue really is just a big flat cake of a coral atoll that sits out of the Pacific) the visibility in the water is just stunning. And with coral shelves, rock pools, drop offs, and caves aplenty, there was no shortage of underwater worlds to explore. The absence of inquisitive sharks also seemed to make the freediving a little more relaxing than in the Tuamotus, until we realized we were swimming amongst sea snakes aplenty. Its an odd feeling seeing their strangely beautiful yet creepy black and white stripes wiggle through the water out of the corner of your eye.
We also managed to explore most of the major sites and some of the more remote walks around the (surprisingly large) island with the help of a hire car and some bikes (which made us realize just how deconditioned our legs have become). All the while feeling slightly royal with the return of friendly waving to nearly every local we passed.
Nick’s inner rock climber was also re-awoken by the number of bouldering and deep water solo options available either inside sheltered cathedral-like limestone caves or on the island’s less protected outer coral/rock faces, and he monkeyed his way around happily at any chance he got.
Somehow nearly a week on Niue flew by, and it was time to think about heading further west. So with the forecast looking good we lowered the dingy off the dock with the industrial hoist for the last time (we’ve not come across a dingy dock quite like Niue’s before) and set sail for the Kingdom of Tonga.
Just the two of us onboard again… and hopefully our newly found sea legs too.