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! 

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1 comment:

  1. See your beautiful boat is for sale. I may be interested in making an offer. Thanks!