We're back in the land of bananas! After being chased by a squall on our way over from Nuku'alofa, we're finally anchored once again at Atata Island. It's hard to believe we were here a year ago. Yup, we made the passage from New Zealand back to Tonga, again. Let's see...where did it all begin.
After spending three months working on the boat, we cast off the dock lines from Gulf Harbour Marina and headed north on April 13th. Our destination was Kawau Island where we planned to spend Easter weekend with our Kiwi friends Brian and Sue Hufton. We had a pleasant 20 mile sail north and got to check out the new full battens in the mainsail. We anchored in North Cove and spent the weekend fishing, hiking and socializing with Brian and Sue. On a previous visit we made friends with a couple of ex-cruising Kiwis, Nevil and Robin and an American ex-cruising couple Chris and Dick who live at North Cove. So the social calendar was packed. Our weekend stay ended up lasting two weeks due to a series of delays caused by too many parties, too much time in the hot tub, too much time spent watching the Americas Cup challenger trials and oh yeah, consistent winds from the north which was where we wanted to go. We finally got a break in the weather and said our last round of good-byes and headed north for Opua, in the Bay of Islands where we planned on checking out of the country. After an overnight stop in Tutukaka, we arrived in Opua just in time to meet up with a friend from the states. Madeline was in Australia on business and managed to make it to Opua in time to spend a short two days with us. Only Madeline could make that happen! We had a great time.
Now it was time to get busy with all of the last minute details before the passage; doing the laundry, obtaining duty-free items, last minute provisioning, topping off the diesel, a last minute check of all of the boat's systems, hanking on the trysail and clearing out with customs. All of this took about a week and we were ready to go. We just had to wait for a good weather window. Did I mention the socializing? Opua is the northern most check out point in New Zealand so there were about 40 other foreign yachts there. It was good to catch up with friends we hadn't seen for five or six months. While we were in the area we looked up an American couple we met during Christmas at North Cove. Steve and Kelley ( from Austin! ) had been in New Zealand for about four months traveling and working on a film. Steve is a film maker and was currently involved in creating a documentary about a Herreshoff designed, Kiwi built boat named Tern. The builder, Wayne Roberts lives in the Bay of Islands. Using some fairly cryptic directions from Steve we finally found them in beautiful Parekura Bay. It's really hard to describe the raw beauty of this part of New Zealand. We anchored off of Wayne's beach in a sheltered, calm bay surrounded by rugged tree covered hills. In the mornings, the hills would be covered with mist, fish would be feeding near shore and there would be a quiet like no other I've known. We spent three days there. I could write a complete article on just that visit. It was a very special place and time and making of new friends. But didn't I start out writing about our passage?
OK. So the weather was just right. We had a fairly strong high pressure system building from the west. Our thinking was this would provide southerly winds for quite a few days as we made tracks north from New Zealand where we would then catch the southeast trades for the ride to North Minerva Reef. At this point we didn't know if we would go to Tonga or on to Fiji from Minerva. Our first two days were pretty mellow. We had southerly winds of about 15 knots which was just right to ease into the passage making routine. It was great, just rocking along at about 7 knots with the genoa poled out. We made 280 miles the first two days. We experienced a couple of weak frontal passages, but nothing major. After the second frontal system passed however, the fun began. There's really only two words to describe what happened; "isobaric compression". Most board sailors pray for this. In a nutshell, the high pressure system building from the south became "squashed" behind a slow moving low pressure system to the east of us. The differing pressure gradients became compacted which resulted in high winds in our area of the ocean. Right after the second front passed we sailed into 30-35 knots of wind. I kept saying, " there's no reason for this much wind!" It was like someone turned on a switch. The next days weather fax revealed the reason for the increase in winds. The only way out was to keep sailing north, which is what we did. For four days we had winds which steadily increased from 30-35 to 35-45 with gusts to 50. And I won't forget to mention the nightly visits from the squallmeister who liked those 50 knot gusts. The wind was on the beam so it was a wild, fast reach for us, in the right direction. The boat was very easily driven on this point of sail. So much so that we ended up sailing with just a double reefed main as we discovered our storm jib was too big in the conditions and point of sail. The downside of all of the wind was that as time passed, the seas began to build. Day four of the big wind and day six of the passage, brought 3 meter seas on top of a 5 meter swell. By then we were used to the wind and the boat was doing great. But the seas were beginning to become a worry especially if the squallmeister paid us another nightly visit. Every once in a while a sea would crest directly on top of the swell. The experience of sitting in the cockpit watching the seas roll by, hanging on while the yacht was either knocked sideways or flew off of a really big one was awesome and one I won't easily forget. For three days, a lot of the ocean passed over the boat as well as under. But we got lucky that night and sailed out of the compressed zone into milder conditions. The next day we arrived at North Minerva Reef where we joined about 10 other yachts in the relatively tranquil lagoon. There was a reason for stopping at Minerva, Micheal had a date with a very large lobster.
We spent four relaxing days at Minerva, reef walking, snorkeling, socializing but not eating any lobster. No joy again. Maybe next time. We departed North Minerva with favorable southeasterly winds bound for Tonga. Once again , we had plenty of wind. The stretch of water from Minerva to Tonga is dotted with sea mounts and submerged reefs which confuse the seas and currents. We had a pretty bumpy ride but with a consolation. About 20 miles west of Perlorus reef we hooked up and landed a nice size Barracuda. Barracuda caught in these latitudes are especially good eating with no worry of ciguatera. We quickly dispatched the fish and tucked him in the freezer for later. But you should have seen the teeth this guy had!
We sighted the island of Tongatapu late in the afternoon of the third day out of Minerva. Bummer. We would have to spend another night at sea, hove to on the leeward side of the island awaiting daylight so we could make our way through the barrier reef. What a miserable night, 30 -40 knots in the squalls that just kept a'coming. Midmorning the next day found us making our way through the reef to the Egeria Channel only to be hit by another squall. We did 360's until the squall passed and steamed on into Nuku'alofa.
Ahh, how nice to be back in Tonga. As we approached town you could smell the coconut husk fires burning and hear the roosters crowing. Customs clearance went smoothly and quickly. That evening found us safely anchored off of Pangaimotu. We both slept the sleep of the dead.
In retrospect the passage was a good one. We had no major breakages or problems. Let's see, what did go wrong. We took a lot of water over the boat and into the cockpit and discovered hatch leaks in the galley and berth. Sea water got into the engine room through an outside vent. We stuffed towels in the hatches and tied them on the outside to stop those leaks. And a T-shirt plug stopped water from getting into the engine room. The water maker belt broke, not really a problem. While in New Zealand, Micheal rigged new reefing lines and rigged them a new way. At Minerva he discovered they were badly chafed. He drilled out two pop rivets in the boom and fixed the problem. Oh, and the rear berth leak appeared, again. We thought we had that one fixed but it remains a mystery. So, not too bad. Especially when you hear of yachts motoring most of the way, of torn sails, of auto pilots failing or instruments failing. Vela Dare sailed like a champ and took quite a beating. Once again, the Valiant 40 proves it's value as an ocean voyager. The other star of the show was the Monitor wind vane who steered the whole way without a peep.
We've met two other Valiants recently; Mike on Stormy Weather who is single-handing his boat back to the states by way of Tahiti and Hawaii and Larry and Karen on Mischief who are here in Nuku'alofa. That brings the total number of Valiants we've met to 7! And we've only been to Tonga and New Zealand.
We're on our way back to Vava'u with a stop at the Ha'apai along the way. We made some friends in Vava'u last year and we thought we'd drop by for a short visit before sailing over to Fiji. In the meantime we're catching up with friends here at Atata, and making some new ones.
The big event here on Atata Island has been the assembly and launching of the only Hobie that we know of in the Kingdom of Tonga. When the owner of the resort here found out that we were Hobie enthusiast, he showed us an old 16 that had been nestled up amongst some palm trees for years. We spent a whole day scrounging parts and jury rigging what we couldn't find. Micheal spent a few hours giving people rides in the lagoon before darkness set in. It was our first Hobie ride in almost two years and it felt beyond great.
That's all the news from the Southern Hemisphere. Hope Mid-Americas was a success and that everyone had a good time. We think about you often and miss sharing the fun times together.
Micheal and Trude
S/V " Vela Dare