Thursday, August 24, 2017

2016 Fiji Photos


Malabar Grouper

Cyclone devastation on Namena Island, Fiji

Blue Ribbon Eel

Fijian fishing boat near Savu Savu


Soft coral on Taveuni Island mooring line

Supermoon on the rise over Namena Island

Upside Down Jellyfish (real name) in Viani Bay

Another nudibranch in Viani Bay

Fijian women fishing for dinner

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

2016 Sailing Season

I’m not sure if there is a statute of limitations for the posting of blog entries but, since we are now on passage starting our 2017 tropical island sailing season, I thought I’d better recap the highlights of 2016 while they are still fresh in my mind. Note: I wrote this back in May and had the very best of intentions to post it as soon as we got internet access...needless to say, that didn’t happen as planned. Oh well, here goes our 2016 season recap. 

An island to ourselves

Deserted Ha'apai island

Tongan fishermen

Three Sixty Blue at anchor

Three Sixty Blue at Wickham Reef

Sunset behind volcano

Cyclone debris

View from galley window

Large Triton snail

Worrisome mammatus clouds

Anne swims through massive ball of bait fish

With visiting friends Lori and Paul

Sea snake
Friends Rankin and Sandy at La Paella restaurant

Lion fish

Sorting through spare electrical parts

Just back from the produce market

Gypsea Heart and Three Sixty Blue
Happy girl after whale swim

Up close and personal with Humpback whale

Eye to eye contact

Mark with Humpback - Sandy Hollis photo

Tris Sheen our whale swimming guide

Drone shot of our boats by David Sheen

Whale wants a hug - Sandy Hollis photo

The focus of our 2016 season was to re-visit our favorite places in Tonga, explore new ones and slow our pace a bit giving ourselves permission to just “chill-out” in places for longer periods of time while not feeling the pressure to always see what is lying beyond the horizon. I’m happy to say that we accomplished that and more.
We cleared-in to Tonga in the capital of Nuku’alofa and quickly leap-frogged north to Neiafu and the popular Vava’u group of islands. We were ahead of the seasonal gaggle of cruising boats and found the place to be rather quiet, especially since the whale watching swimming season had yet to begin bringing in tourists from all points on the globe. Within days of our arrival, Three Sixty Blue was moored safely in the anchorage near Tapana Island where she would remain while we took a six week trip home to the States. Fortunately, the mooring operation there is run by a lovely couple, former professional sailors who also operate a floating art gallery and live there on their own moored catamaran. Having them on hand to watch over our boat in our absence made the situation workable and minimized our worries about being away for so long.`
Upon our return from the US, we wasted no time in getting back into the cruising swing of things reconnecting with friends who, like us, had made the trip up from New Zealand and others that had spent the cyclone season up north closer to the equator. Soon we were sharing stories and nibbles over beach bon fires and moving from island to island in search of perfect beaches and interesting dive and snorkeling spots. Several friends who are avid kite boarders had been encouraging us to take up the sport so we took the opportunity to anchor for a few days near the Mounu Island Resort where we could take lessons from a visiting Kiwi instructor. Wow...was that ever fun! The learning curve was pretty steep tough and, with winds consistently in the 22-25 knot range, we had more than our share of kite crashes and loss of control. Having done lots of wind surfing and having seen kite boarders being lifted dozens of feet into the air, we had no doubt about the power of strong winds but learning in those conditions tested our reflexes, and our willingness to have copious amounts of water rammed up our noses during the inevitable beginner mishaps.
As the season began we extended the invitation to good friends Paul and Lori from our hometown in Idaho to come join us for a sailing vacation. We were so pleased that they accepted and were able to fly to Neiafu where they came aboard and signed-on as crew.
Vava’u is the perfect venue for sharing this experience with friends due to it’s plentiful assortment of lovely islands, beautiful beaches, opportunities for dining ashore and countless spots for enjoying the clear warm water. During their two week visit, we sampled a number of anchorages, did lots of beach walking, shell collecting, and snorkeling in caves and on the many colorful reefs. They even managed to get in a refresher scuba dive with Mark followed by a couple of dives with a commercial operator and a day of swimming with the humpback whales, something that is a “must-do” when in Vava’u. As usual, sharing their company and friendship made every activity that much more fun and before long it was time for them to say goodbye. Our final night together was celebrated over a delicious dinner at Bella Vista, our favorite
restaurant in Neiafu, overlooking the harbor with the night scene illuminated by twinkling stars and the lights on the many yachts moored in the bay below.
Following Paul and Lori’s visit, we sailed south to the Ha’apai group of islands in the company of friends Sandy and Rankin from the catamaran Gypsea Heart. We’d been sharing grand adventures and good times with them for several seasons both in the tropical islands and in New Zealand during the cyclone season. Our prime objective for revisiting the Ha’apai was to check out more venues for scuba diving, deserted island exploring and swimming with whales. As expected, our experiences of the next few weeks will forever be remembered.
While cruising in Tonga during our first visit in 2012, we had the wonderful opportunity to meet Aussies David, Tris, son Kai and daughter Dior who owned Whale Discoveries, a low-keyed whale swimming/watching operation on the island of Uoleva. Since then, the’ve moved the operation south to the island of Nomuka where they have done an amazing job creating a beach-side eco lodge offering all sorts of fun ocean-related activities. Their focus is still on taking guests swimming with whales during the calving and mating season when hundreds of Antarctic Humpback whales journey north to Tonga. Our up close and personal experience with the whales in 2012 left us craving for more and our time spent with Whale Discoveries last season was among our best experiences ever!
We, and the Gypsea Heart crew, made two visits to Nomuka a few weeks apart anchoring our catamarans off nearby Nomuka iki Island where we were picked up each morning by Dave and Tris in their 26’ rigid bottom inflatable boat named Tropic Bird. The twin outboard powered craft would then whisk us off in search of playful whales. During the day, punctuated with a return to the “beach barn” base for a delicious lunch, plenty of opportunities to enter the water with whales treated us to incredible encounters that left us in absolute awe of the gentle and intelligent creatures. Dave and Tris were the perfect guides and hosts knowing extremely well the habits and natural history of the whales and how to respectfully allow us humans to interact with them. Our time in their company will forever be treasured and our photos and video taken will provide a lifetime of joy as we mentally re-live the experience.
As the season began, our plan had been to spend the entire cruising season in Tonga and sail directly from there back to New Zealand as the tropical cyclone season began in early November. In order to do so, extending our boat’s temporary, duty-free import permit beyond the initially-granted 4 months would be necessary. Since Tonga’s Ministry of Revenue and Customs commonly would do so for up to 8 additional months once a simple written request was submitted, we felt that our plan was workable. To our surprise though, when we submitted our request for the extension, we were denied. It seems that a new CEO of the Ministry has a less than friendly attitude toward visiting yachts claiming that many do not contribute significantly to the tourist economy and that some participate in illegal commercial activities like charters and whale swimming. We were flabbergasted by the denial of the extension as were many of the business owners in Vava’u that we had patronized. Another letter to the Ministry listing all that we had personally spent in the benefit of the Tongan economy produced little satisfaction other than one additional month’s stay being granted. Since this would mean having to leave Tonga and sail south to New Zealand about 6 weeks before the normal period of favorable weather begins, we made the decision to sail west to Fiji and run out the season’s clock there before heading south.
The 3 day passage to Savu Savu, Fiji was easy enough and, almost before we knew it, we were back in familiar territory securely tied to a mooring off the quaint Waitui Marina. The next month would be spent focusing on scuba diving near Namena Island, Taveuni and in the Somo Somo Strait. With the exception of Taveuni, we had visited these venues before in 2013 and the familiarity made the experience easier this time around although somewhat less adventurous. What was interesting though was revisiting these areas after last year’s devastating Cyclone Winston that made a direct hit to area. Infrastructure around the town of Savu Savu appeared to have faired rather well but a resort on Namena island was obliterated. Even when viewed from our anchorage, the scattered remains of the resort and denuded vegetation were sobering examples of the immense power of these storms. Looking in amazement at the damage made our hearts ache for the local people that were in harm’s way and had to struggle for weeks after the storm’s passing to find shelter, restore their water supplies, source food and begin to replant what they needed for long-term sustenance.
Our enjoyable month in Fiji passed quickly and before long it was time to, once again, intently study the weather forecasts in hopes of finding a good window for the 1200 mile passage back to New Zealand. Our hope was to make the trip once again with a stop for more diving at Minerva Reef, 400 miles to the south east. When the weather for that looked feasible, we set sail hard into the prevailing wind and facing into oncoming swells for several days before abandoning the plan and bearing-off to the south west straight to New Zealand. Making the run from the tropical islands back to New Zealand is always challenging requiring a minimum of about 7 days. With storms originating in the Tasman Sea about every 4-5 days and sweeping across the route, a passage is almost guaranteed to have at least some foul weather. Ours was no exception with a day and a half transiting a low pressure system with an embedded depression serving up big, confused seas and winds gusting to 40 knots. It was another one of those days where we would have been happier doing almost anything else such as traveling on land by motor home. Fortunately, the nasty stuff passed quickly and, by the time we reached New Zealand, memories of the worst part were already fading and being replaced by those of another amazing season amidst the islands of the tropical Pacific. Life is good! 

Note for our readers:  Clicking on any photo will enlarge it for better viewing.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Tongatapu to Neiafu, Vav'au Tonga

Mark on deck at Felefesia Island

Coral head closer than it looks

Anne relaxing on cabin top

Scenery at Kelefesia anchorage
The days following our check-in to Tonga’s capital city of Nuku’alofa were a whirlwind of activity for us as we scurried about re-provisioning, getting a local sim card for our cell phone and getting reacquainted the whole island scene.  One enjoyable day was spent in the company of Peter, from the Aussie catamaran “Havachat”, and his crew touring the island by taxi van.  Highlights include a cave exploration and swim in a water-filled portion of the cavern and a stop at a rugged section of coastline where ocean swells collided with rocky cliffs producing blow holes that shot spray 20 feet into the air at regular intervals.  The turquoise water, gnarled volcanic rock and sunlit geysers of spray contributed to the dramatic and beautiful scenery.  Rather than a lunch stop at a more touristy cafe, our driver suggested a roadside, open air, “local” joint where food orders are placed with a young woman behind a counter and she turns back to repeat the order through a two foot square opening in a wall to someone working in who knows what kind of kitchen.  Without the driver’s encouragement, we probably wouldn’t have been brave enough to try the place but he assured us it was good and the steady stream of locals arriving to pick up their take-out meals seemed to confirm it.  Our group sampled a variety of menu items including fish, chicken curry, fried chicken and various greens.  Honestly, it wasn’t the best meal we have ever had but it was filling and gave us another close look into the daily life of Tonga’s residents.  A look that was perhaps a little too close came when, after lunch, Anne and Peter asked to use a bathroom and were directed to the restaurant owner’s house next door where they reported conditions that left us all wondering if the next 24 hours would bring on some serious lower GI troubles for us. Thankfully, we all came through unscathed.

Prior to beginning this sailing season, we hatched a plan to leave “Three Sixty Blue” on a mooring in Vava’u, Tonga for about six weeks in order to fly to the States for a family memorial service following the passing away of Mark’s mother.  Our time there would also be spent helping his sisters prepare her house for sale and give us a few weeks to enjoy some Northern Hemisphere summer time at our home in the Idaho mountains.  The plan necessitated hustling north through Tonga’s island groups in order to get the boat moored and prepped for our absence.  Fortunately, we had made arrangements with an American ex-pat couple who are former delivery skippers and have, for years, operated a floating art gallery in a protected bay with moorings.  They would baby-sit “Three Sixty Blue” in our absence.

We broke up the trip north to Vava’u with overnights at lovely Malinoa Island where we enjoyed the island all to ourselves and did a swimming circumnavigation of it sampling the surrounding coral reefs.  Another splendid day sail took us to Kelefesia Island, regarded by many as one of the most beautiful islands in the world.  That point would be hard to argue considering the spectacular, palm-covered topography, white sand beaches and crystal clear water.  In fact, the water was so clear that, even though anchored with sufficient depth above the coral “bommies”, we could look down on them from deck level and they appeared close enough to reach out and touch.  It was a tad bit unnerving to say the least.  A day was spent there snorkeling and reveling in the beauty as changing sun angles added even more character to amazing scenery.

With our departure date rapidly approaching we decided to leave the following day and do an overnight sail for the remaining 130 miles to Neaifu, Vava’u.  Following seas and winds aft of our beam insured a pleasant passage and by first light the next morning, we were threading our way through Vava’u's passes on our final approach to town.  Once in the harbor, we secured “Three Sixty Blue” to a mooring and headed ashore to check in and see what had changed since we were there in 2012.

Neiafu, Vava’u Tonga is a very busy place crowded with tourists once the migrating whales start arriving in July but by this time in early June it is still pretty sleepy.  On quick examination, we noted that a few of our old haunts had either changed hands, gone out of business or had yet to open for the season.  The usual Chinese stores were still the primary source of staples but the open air produce and craft market seemed to have a better selection. 

While in town and able to connect with internet, we retrieved an email from Fiji Airways informing us that their twice weekly flight from Neiafu to Nadi, Fiji connecting to the daily flight to Los Angeles had been cancelled on our departure date and that we were re-booked 4 days later.  That sent us into quite a tizzy since it would mean making our family memorial service nearly impossible.  This set in motion 24 hours of fairly frantic visits to a local ticket agent and numerous Skype calls and emails to the airline itself in order to move our departure flight ahead rather than back.  Our efforts were finally rewarded and our final 24 hours in Tonga were spent moving to our longer-term mooring in the Tapana anchorage, prepping for departure, packing and briefing the folks that would be taking care of our boat while we were away.  Whew…what a hectic couple of days!

Leaving “Three Sixty Blue” on a mooring in a foreign country rather than in a marina berth was a little surreal but we felt confident in the mooring tackle and, once we dinghied ashore to catch a taxi to the airport, we had to accept that we had done all we could to insure her safety and security.  As we boarded our taxi, we took a final look back at our boat sitting peacefully in the beautiful bay feeling as confident as we could that all would be well upon our return in 6 weeks.