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.