The Pacific Diaries

The Kingdom of Tonga

01 September 2005

So here we are in Tonga, one of the world’s last proper Kingdoms, where the King still owns everything and everyone. Mind you, ‘Ownership’ appears to be a relative concept here. The folks here may be his Majesty’s personal property, but they still burnt his Palace down last week. It reminds me of Jambodog our black Labrador. He might have been my property, but he never did anything I told him in his whole disobedient life.

Our knowledge of Tonga before we arrived was not extensive. In fact it was pretty much limited to the old Flanders and Swan ditty:

“Oh it’s hard to say ‘holi ma kitti lucu chi chi chi’,
But in Tonga that means ‘No’,
If I ever have the money,
‘Tis to Tonga I shall go
For each lovely Tongan maiden there,
Will gladly make a date
And by the time that she’s said ‘holi ma kitti lucu chi chi chi’,
It is usually too late! “

Now that we’re here, I realise that Flanders had the wrong end of the stick completely. The thing that the girls in Tonga can’t say ‘No!’ to is their 4th portion of fried Spam & chips with double cream cake to follow. Women here realised that ‘Fat is a Feminist Issue’ about 600 years before all those birds in New York who have their hair cut with a Flymo. Unlike their American sisters, they have succeeded in carrying the culture along with them.

Extreme physical size is apparently the principal yardstick used here to judge beauty in either sex. Just as well really - this is the land of the 60″ waistline.

If Martha Stewart showed up here and told these girls that they couldn’t be too rich or too thin, they’d throw her into the harbour. As one wag here famously commented, ’the girls in Tonga are plain until their 15th birthday, after which their beauty increases at a prodigious rate!

Highs and Lows in Tonga

05 September 2005

What a dismal week. But at least Thomas is better - back to his usual naughty noisy self. He’s had a severe allergic reaction to the head lice shampoo we used on him. A local Italian “doctor” diagnosed him as having Scarlet Fever and then asked if we could give him the Morphine from the ship’s stores as well as paying him!!

Before long, other cruisers come to the rescue as usual. Ocean Breezes make a correct diagnosis and give us some stuff called PHENERGEN which quickly gets his skin rash under control.

Cruising in Tonga is generally a relaxed affair, with dozens of white sand anchorages all within a few miles of each other. Its main drawback is universally poor holding and changeable weather, so when you finally get the anchor set there is a reluctance to move. It often takes 10 or 15 attempts to set the anchor properly here!

The weeks fly by in a whirl of children’s parties on the beaches. There are resident Humpback whales in the sheltered water and we have a magical experience one evening drifting in our dinghy a few yards from a mother with her calf, which thought splashing us with its tail a huge joke.

Paul Blessington, a friend from school, flies out from Canberra with his son Richard, to cruise with us for a memorable week. The boys are just thrilled to have an older boy on board.

DHL is a Relative Concept

09 September 2005

The electronic speed control on our generator has failed. Until I can obtain some spare parts from the USA, we are camping on the boat without mod cons in just the sort of conditions that my mother thinks we’ve been living in for the last 2 years. The big issue is exactly where to ship the parts to.

I set off in search of the local DHL office which takes a bit of finding. Even local taxi drivers are stumped. It turns out that DHL is a sideline for them and their core business is renting gratuitously violent videos. Interesting really. The DVD age may not have arrived in Tonga yet, but the content on their shelves would do credit to the store at any good American trailer park!

As for the staff, they are just not of this planet. I make a mental note not to leave the parcel lying about there too long - they might rent it out to someone by mistake! The staff explain that I need to conjure up a mood of incurable optimism and tell my supplier to ship the parts to them. In theory, this will whisk our parcel as though by magic to this friendly local video store in a paltry 8 - 10 days from the USA.  I then trot round to collect it, stopping just long enough to pick up Van Damme’s best movie. ( I’m sure you remember it. It’s the one where he didn’t have to speak in the whole film ). Fortunately, we have left our video player at home, so it won’t be possible to watch it. If this sounds desperate, the alternatives look worse. Locals say that none of the other courier services work at all here.

So far, I’ve got no tangible evidence that DHL works either, and the fact that their worldwide tracking system has been down the Khazi for the last few days doesn’t inspire confidence. I put in my tracking number at the local cyber cafe and the system tells me that my parcel has been delivered in Ohio in May 2004. A sporty performance, considering it was only shipped 4 days ago.

I think that DHL must have put their Tonga Office in charge of Group IT.

A Terrifying Night

18 October 2005

As the Tongan idyll nears its end, we have our first serious fright since leaving England. We are anchored in a bay well protected from the moderate Northerly wind, with 5 other boats and a forecast of a settled night with thunderstorms no closer than 60 miles to the South of us.

We pass the early evening watching an awesome electrical storm over Hapai, 65 miles South, a mesmerizing experience beyond anything we have seen before. Huge bursts of sheet lightning bring daylight back to our surroundings, multiple lightning forks fill the sky with intricate patterns and like some ancient vision of Jupiter’s wrath, several huge fiery balls rocket across the sky before exploding in a flash of divine pyrotechnics.

We congratulate ourselves for being safely clear of this lot and take an early night. At about 11 pm Catherine wakes me feeling uneasy.

Within minutes we are on the ropes. A huge storm sweeps in and we find ourselves anchored on a lee shore in 55 knots of wind, four to five foot seas and torrential rain that reduces visibility to 20 feet. The proximity of other boats and the reef make it imperative to move and so we motor forward to lift and reset the anchor.

I find the boat impossible to control in the conditions, unable to bring the bow up even with full power. Catherine goes forward to investigate and finds that the winch has failed and we still have an anchor in the bottom and 60 metres of heavy chain out.

I do not feel that we are in danger personally as if the boat ends up on the reef, we can safely walk onto the beach, just a few yards behind it, but there is no doubt that losing La Novia is on the cards if we fail to move her away from the shore before the arrival of a large catamaran dragging towards us.

In desperation I drop back towards the shore and then run directly at the anchor at full power to try to pull it out. It breaks out with a bang and I motor out into the bay at speed to reduce the chance of it resetting in the wrong place.

We succeed in resetting the anchor about 200 metres from shore and maintain an anchor watch with the engine running for the rest of the storm which lasts another 2 hours. As it clears, we radio the other yachts in the bay and find a sense of mutual amazement that nobody has ended up on the reef. All of us had made preparations to abandon ship.

How strange that after so many thousands of miles of ocean passage, we should almost lose La Novia in a quiet Tongan anchorage.

The Big Adventure

23 October 2005

The big adventure is drawing closer for all of us in the cruising fleet. As the time draws nigh anxiety has started to spread through much of the fleet like a virus. The trip from Tonga to NZ has a nasty reputation and is a big change for all these tradewind-softened sailors. We have had our share of bad weather in the South Pacific Convergence Zone, but it has mostly been from behind, which doesn’t really count. We are not likely to be that lucky in the Southern latitudes as we approach NZ.

A couple of the wives remember that the aeroplane has been invented.

When someone actually buys a ticket to Auckland and presents her husband with a phone card and instructions to ring his chums and bring them over for the trip, there is a moment when a wholesale female desertion of the fleet looks on the cards. The crisis passes as the skippers, realising their peril, start projecting more confidence than they feel and talk lots of reassuring tosh about weather windows in front of their wives.

The NZ Met Service has a “Weather Ambassador” called Bob McDavitt, a highly skilled self publicist whose role seems to be to persuade the public that the Met Service is wonderful, that it shouldn’t be blamed for duff forecasts and that he personally is the brightest star in the organisation’s firmament, all which may even be true!

Bob sends out a weekly “Weathergram” by email, which, once you get past the lengthy disclaimers and explanations of why you cannot sue him if you get your boat sunk following his advice, tells you what Bob thinks the weather will do in the next week and why it’s not his fault that last week’s Weathergram was such complete cobblers.

In this climate of anxiety, the Weathergram assumes Biblical stature and a growing number of boats decide to pay Bob’s fee for a weather routing service. These services have become increasingly popular, less for their ability to keep you away from foul weather which is suspect, than for the fact that they provide someone else to blame if you get hammered, which helps the domestic situation enormously.

Throughout this great ebb and flow of group psychology, we are really outsiders. La Novia is a big blue water monohull that has not only been through a really serious, sustained storm south of Bermuda last year ( without Catherine and the boys ), but is also so much faster than most of the other boats that we have a realistic expectation of running through a window between the lows without getting caught. Catherine, of course, cannot resist pulling my leg about plane tickets, but I know that she’s joking as she lets slip that one of her girlfriends asked her if she could make the passage to NZ with us instead of on her own boat!