Saturday, 28 July 2012

Cave diving, tight lagoon entrance, rough night and more racing

Another week has passed in paradise and we’re still loving it (why wouldn’t you…). This last week has been spent being social (Port Maurelle, a lovely anchorage, only downside is it’s usually pretty crowded, with the upside it being easy to socialise with friends), exploring Mariner’s Cave and checking out the lagoon by Hunga.

Mariner’s Cave is similar to Swallows Cave, though the cool bit is that the only entrance is under water through a big hole which lets in enough light to lit up the cave. It’s also not as big as Swallows, but still pretty decent! To get in you have to snorkel through the hole which is about 1-2 meter deep (depending on tide) and maybe 3 meters long, so not hard, but very exciting. The pressure of the waves/swell makes the cave fog up and clear, then fog up again, pretty cool. Visibility was great, but unlike Swallows Cave, there were no big schools of fish, just a few odd ones. We have really been looking forward to going there, but as you can’t anchor outside, we needed to go with another boat, so we could take turns motoring around outside in the boat, while others go in and then swap. Sala (the little fast 29 footer) and us we lucky to go with a 50 footer Carillon (google them to find the website, sorry, forgot their boat card on Sophia, they have cruised many years in Asia and have written all about it on their website, and they gave us some good advice).  I have uploaded a few more photos to facebook, so check out Mariner's cave there.
Hunga lagoon is a big lagoon almost fully enclosed, with three entrances, only one big enough to sail through and that gap is only 35 meters wide. Phil’s parents were here many years ago and they sailed though and showed us a video of them doing it, so it was pretty cool that we have now done it too (and also got it on video, but that and many other videos have to wait till better internet). Inside the lagoon it was obviously very sheltered, but the anchorages a bit deep, so not our favourite place. The snorkelling outside the entrance was really good though, super clear water, cool rock and coral formations and a black tipped reef shark that kept us company.

One night we woke up being rained on (through the open hatch), so we scrambled out to hook up the hoses to the rain catcher on the bimini. A few minutes later the wind kicked up out of nowhere. We had anchored at 15 meters, but the direction changed and we were now pointing right into the beach (10-15 meters away!) and had only 3-4 meters under us and the wind gusting up to 27 knots, a bit scary. We took in a bit of chain to sit slightly deeper and ran the engine for three hours while keeping a close eye on our position, being ready to motor out of trouble. It had caught everyone unaware and hadn’t been forecasted anywhere (it was a through that was supposed to have gone much further south), but it only lasted 4-5 hours then it eased off a bit. Nights like that is when it’s not all fun and tropical and I was actually even envious of people living peacefully in houses on land that doesn’t move. My envy only lasted those few hours though… I’m also sure it won’t be our last time the weather plays tricks on us and gives us surprises and uncomfort, but it’s all part of the cruising life.

We haven’t had any luck catching fish yet, but we have been given some tuna and marlin (a 150 kg monster that was caught by a fishing charter from a resort in Hunga) and they kindly gave us a a wee chunk of it, which was massive, so we were able to give Sala some too.  We’ll keep trying dragging our lures, and hopefully some day we’ll get lucky.

We raced again last night and came second behind Tuxedo Junction, a Wright 11 from NZ. They raced first time last week and had a bad start but came really close to us, so we were expecting tight racing this time and got it.

We’re going to head down to Hapa’ai next week, and maybe leave to Vanuatu from there, if we can check out (some people haven’t been able to get hold of/find the official(s?) down there. The second hand water maker we got not long before leaving is making us good water, but the ppm (I think) readings are a bit on the high side and can take up to an hour before it’s even OK, so we have ordered a new membrane from West Marine (US, much cheaper than from NZ) and will either wait for it here, or come back and get it. We tried to order it last week, but internet was playing up and we actually didn’t think our order had gone through, but it had, we just found out. 

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Snorkeling, coconuts and Sophia racing

The title of this post pretty much sums up our lives at the moment. We are loving and enjoying the cruising life and we already feel we have adjusted well into it. We have slowed down a little bit and are now ‘only’ changing anchorage every 2-3 days with a few day anchorages mixed in as well. We’re still super keen on snorkelling and are in the water every single day, except in Neiafu where the water isn’t as inviting, although not bad at all.

We try only going into Neiafu once a week for groceries, internet etc and try and time it with the Friday afternoon yacht race. It’s very easy to spend money while in town, even if you’re cheapies like Phil and I. Back to the yacht race. Last Friday was our first and it was a great day for it, sunny and a 15-20 knots breeze. I think it was my first race in only shorts and t-shirts ever! Arrochar, another Lyttelton boat had arrived in Vava’u the same week and we cajoled them to join us as crew. Phil was happy he got to use his no 1 head sail (some semi-fancy race sail). Spinnakers etc weren’t  allowed and there’s no handicap, first across the line wins. There were about 10 yachst in the race, most much bigger than Sophia, except Sala, a 29 feet half tonner, owned by a young NZ couple. Because Sala was below 30 feet she was allowed a leg less than the rest. Thanks to Phil (but of course) we got a great start and were first to the top mark, quite surprised ourselves. We kept our lead and were only beaten by Sala because they had to do a shorter course, but they also did really well. It was pretty funny beating all these big 40-50 foot fancy yachts.

We have just done another race yesterday and despite much less wind (10 knots), amazingly we were again the fastest boat. All credit goes to Phil though, he always puts us right on the start line right on time and is coaxing the maximum speed out of Sophia the whole way along, continously trimming sails (which of course are in excellent shape and almost new). It's also a great way to meet new people afterwards and have some fun.

Snorkeling just gets better and better as we have moved to different anchorages where snorkelling is supposedly good. We look forward to going down to Hapa’ai and checking out the snorkelling there as it’s apparently even better. We have now seen a moray eel and a shark (Phil’s first, it was funny, he moved behind me and grabbed my arm, whereas I tried to swim closer to get a better photo, without success though. It was just a small white tipped reef shark, maybe only ½ meter big). Also lots of clown fish and their anemones, my favourites.

One of our highlights so far has been Swallows Cave. We joined forces with another NZ boat (Wind Song, a couple from Wanaka) and did the long dinghy trip together. We had sailed past it a few times as it’s on the way into Neiafu harbour and were really looking forward to going. It’s a massive cave with an entrance as wide as maybe two dinghies, letting in a good amount of light. Unfortunately there’s a lot of graffiti in there, but it’s still a cool cave. The coolest part was under-water though! Huge huge schools of fish!
Last subject for now is coconuts. Yummy. I love the coconut water, Phil is still getting used to it, but at least he has learned how to get into them (Arrochar showed us, they had been taught by locals). The white flesh is also really tasty and I’m now contemplating how to use it in a cake ideally also with chocolate. If anyone has a recipe, please do let me know. Again, check out the Vava'u album on facebook for pictures to match our adventures. Here are some pretty tropical flowers.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

First week in Vava'u

We have now spent over a week in Vava’u and we’re still having a great time. Tonga is made up of 171 islands and four different groups. In the south is Tongatapu (with the capital Nukualofa), then Ha’apai, then Vava’u and in the very north the Niuas.  Most people are quite surprised to hear we came directly from Gisborne to Neiafu (Vava’u), as most leave from Opua and go to Nukualofa, which is the shortest distance, but our route made most sense to our situation.

The first three nights we spent in Neiafu as we had to get more fruit and veggies, do laundry, fix the leaking toilet pump and pick up our west marine (US) package with our BBQ mounts. A public holiday extended our stay with another day as everything was closed. Getting our parcel was very easy, except for the fact that I (Astrid) got chatting with a local girl while waiting in the office and one thing led to another and they thought I was with her and the peace corps or something, so 2 hours later I ended up paying duty on three drums with food and gods know what else before they realised all I was after was a small package to a yacht in transit! They all thought it was hilarious and were of course sorry about the mistake and gave me back my money. I had fun too and made a good friend whom we plan to visit in her village.
While in Neiafu we went to a local bar where the lady boys (can’t remember their proper name, but boys raised as girls if the first 4 kids are boys or something like that) do a weekly show. It was attended by both cruisers and locals and was good fun. The ‘girls’ would do individual routines and come flirt with the men in the audience and receive bills stuck under their dress straps. Steve from Rapsody (Lyttelton boat) took us and had been before, so he and Phil were hiding behind a table in the very back, haha.

When all our errands were done we couldn’t wait to get out of town to really get into the cruising life and snorkelling. We have been changing anchorage almost daily and we snorkel every single day.  There are tons of good anchorages and they are maximum half an hour apart of so, so cruising is very easy. It makes sense that it’s a sailing mecca and a popular charter destination.  However, it’s not crowded, usually there are only a few boats in each anchorage and it’s not hard to find one to yourself. The other cruisers are mostly Kiwis, Americans, British and French.

The weather had been nice and settled since we got here. It’s pleasantly warm, but not too warm and sometimes even cold enough for long sleeve and pants. The water is about 23-24 degrees, so a wet suit is required for snorkelling.  The water is beautiful and clear, we can usually see our anchor at 10 meters depth. There are some coral, but compared to the Red Sea and other places, it’s not that spectacular. Where there’s coral, there are lots of small tropical fish, but nothing big. I was lucky enough to see a big turtle plotting along the bottom when checking our anchor, but Phil missed it. It almost makes up for me missing the orca on our passage, but not quite!

We won’t blog as often now, because we don’t need to download the weather every few days as we just get the weather forecast over the vhf, so it’s only when we’re in town we have internet. I have uploaded more photos to facebook, so check it out if you'd like to see images to our stories.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

NZ to Tonga passage, day 10 and 11 (arrival)

We’re in Tonga!!! Yipee, it’s fantastic, beautiful, warm, tropical, exotic and amazing. OK, the last two words are only Astrid's, Phil doesn't agree with me on those. As a Dane, a pacific island is just about one the most exotic things I can think of.

We arrived Tuesday 2nd July about 1.30pm, so the passage took us just under  11 days. On our 9th night out, we could see the mountainous island Eua just south-east of Tongatapu (where Nukualoafa, the capital is).  We then sailed up alongside the whole of Tonga on the eastern side and north of Ha’apai group we turned west and then we sailed north directly into the Vava’u group.  We had anticipated we would have to find a quiet anchor that night, but thanks to the lovely 10-15 knots trade wind, it turned out we could make it to Neiafu (the ‘capital’ of Vava’u, where you have to clear customs) early afternoon.

Overall we're very happy with the passage and especially the weather. Sure, it was a bit bummer waiting three weeks in Gisborne, but it meant that we had good weather on passage. Minus the first few days it was a bit on the light side, but rather that than 45 knots on the nose. We had no major breakages, just a few issues. Our oldest spare auto pilot ram finally had it, the whisker pole used as a bow spit for the code zero needs strengthening and our toilet pump is leaking, annoying, but not crucial.

Clearing in was easy, even with four different people having to ‘clear’ us: customs, quarantine, immigration and port control. The only hick up was that we couldn’t find our clearance paper from Gisborne. This would have incurred a big fine, so we got quite nervous while looking everywhere and the Tongans sitting drinking tea in the cockpit. Finally Phil found it behind the drawers where it had fallen down and was hidden! Good lesson to keep good track of your clearance papers!

Neiafu is the Tonga’s sailing mecca, it’s here most cruisers go, plus there’s lots of charter boats. Still, it only takes 10 minutes to walk through the main street in town  and you have seen it all. It’s an extremely sheltered harbour, but quite deep (+25 meters), so like everyone else we have opted to pick up a mooring. Right away we spotted another Christchurch boat, Rapsody with Stephen on board, pretty funny. They helped us drink our celebratory bottle of bubbles.  However, the best thing was the extremely quiet boat at night time and a FULL uninterrupted night’s sleep :-)

For photos of the trip (mostly sun sets and rises!) see our facebook page: NZ to Tonga passage