Stories from The South Pacific: Time Out in Tonga
For many world travelers, the South Pacific is little more than a dream, a place where the tantalizing scenery seems slightly out of reach. But for sailors, thanks to the many charter bases scattered around the region, it’s ours to explore. The question is: Where will you sail first?
Here are a few of our favorite trips to help you get inspired.
Read on to take a Time Out in Tonga…
Eskimos, according to urban legend, have 32 words for snow. Or perhaps it’s nine, or 15. No matter. Tongans must have at least that many words for the color blue. After a week sailing in the Vava’u island group, I was up to at least a dozen myself. Cobalt, cerulean, cyan, aquamarine, teal—these shades barely scratch the surface of the complexities of blue that paint the waters of these South Pacific islands so vividly in my memory.
Vava’u takes some getting to. Fourteen hours from Los Angeles to Auckland, New Zealand, on a comfortable Air New Zealand widebody, three more hours from Auckland to Nuku’alofa, capital of the Tongan group, then an hour on a puddle jumper to Neiafu, where we landed in teeming rain that rendered the island vegetation a drab olive green and the sea a flat blue-grey. From the air I’d lost count of the number of islands, islets and atolls that dotted the water like paint droplets flicked from a brush, but it was obvious we wouldn’t have to look far for inviting anchorages and coral reefs.
As befits its remoteness, the Vava’u group remains largely unaffected by the less appetizing aspects of modern life. Local commerce revolves around agriculture and tourism, the former abundant, the latter thankfully less so. There is one resort in the group, and that has only a dozen or so rooms. At the end of our week we returned to find a massive cruise ship anchored in Neiafu’s beautifully protected harbor, packed with mostly European tourists who wandered the town’s few streets in bemused fashion, looking for nonexistent tourist attractions and dodging the pigs. Most households have one or two of these, and they roam freely until called home for dinner each evening—the locals appear to be accomplished hog callers.
The islanders tend to be deeply religious, shy but friendly, and keep themselves to themselves. Settlements dot the bigger islands and yet are so well concealed among the trees and palms that there are few signs of habitation; at night, we scarcely saw a light.
The islands are tied economically to New Zealand so most of the goods available in the few stores originate there. We spent a happy morning provisioning, though with just three of us—me, my friend Hector from New Zealand and fellow Marblehead, Massachusetts resident, Charlie—we shopped lightly, dividing our custom between all three grocery stores. Hector had brought plenty of fishing gear, and the plan was to live off the bounty of the sea.
Martin, the Moorings base manager, gave us a swift boat briefing and then went through the navigational challenges of sailing in the reef-riddled waters. Our 40-foot Beneteau’s plotter had its chart chip removed, he explained, so no one would be tempted to use it. Pilotage in these waters is by eyeball and common sense. Water depths are clearly indicated by changes in water color; the charts are accurate enough and the cruising guide is good, but as always in shallow waters, you need to keep your wits about you. Outside of the main channel into Neiafu, we saw only two navigation marks the entire week, marking a particularly dog-legged path through a reef where the thinnest of pale blue lines drawn through turquoise showed the way for our deep keel.
The cruising guide is packed with island lore and legend, and makes an entertaining read in itself. The hard info is all there too, and with its help we spent an unfussed week exploring these unspoiled islands. Vava’u is fortunate enough to have always been off the beaten track; when that supreme explorer Capt. James Cook passed through the Tongan islands (which he named the Friendly Islands), the chief of the Vava’u group persuaded him that they weren’t worth visiting, and the lack of minerals to exploit kept carpetbagging businessmen away. Now, the most consistent visitors are cruising sailors (see Kimball Livingston’s story on the Vava’u regatta, February 2012) who gather here during the Southern Hemisphere winter.
At the beginning of March, we found ourselves in shoulder season. The exodus of cruisers from New Zealand at the end of the cyclone season was yet to begin, and we had anchorage after anchorage either to ourselves or nearly so. The winds were light but consistent, and though we often enlisted the iron genoa when we needed to pick up the pace downwind, we had some great sailing. I’ll never forget fast-reaching in dead flat water while big combers broke on a hidden reef just a few boat lengths to leeward.
Every anchorage offered its unique character and experience. One evening we dropped the hook off a tiny island, all white sand and nodding palm trees, where a Kiwi couple operate a restaurant and bar. As towering banks of cumulus glowed red-gold in the rays of the setting sun, they told us tales of whales migrating past the island from July to September every year. What a sight that must be! Next afternoon we felt our way through barely submerged coral heads into a sheltered cove, and sipped our gin and tonics on the foredeck to the accompaniment of a raucous symphony of birdsong. As dusk fell, giant fruit bats flapped silently across the anchorage and the fringe of palms on the hillside was clearly outlined against the brightness of the Milky Way.
The waters too are full of life. Snorkeling, I saw more living coral, in full bloom, than anywhere in the Caribbean, along with reef fish the like of which I’d never seen. Schools of flying fish erupted from the sea as we approached, and shoals of baitfish made the surface boil as they tried to evade whatever large toothy thing was chasing them. On the second day, Hector caught a wahoo as long as his leg. We ate it for the next three days, first sashimi-style with whatever we could rustle up in the way of greens, then grilled. On the sixth day he bagged a yellowfin tuna that yielded so much meat we ended up trading it for burgers and fries at the restaurant next to the Moorings base. The two five-pound skipjack tuna he caught in between times scarcely rated a mention.
Vava’u is a charter destination with few equals. It’s as remote as you could want and as untainted by the less savory gifts of western civilization as you could expect. There are undoubtedly many other South Pacific gems, and yet if you went to your grave having only sailed here, you’d have no regrets. You’d know a hell of a lot of words for blue, too.
Photos by Peter Nielsen