Thursday 12 July 2018

Tongatapu to Ha'apai - Big Mamas, Market reunion, the hunt for a Machine Shop, and escape to the Ha'apai


After a few days in Tongatapu, we 'escaped the gravitational pull of the big city' and made it 60 nm north to the Ha'apai group. We felt pretty happy as we weighed anchor at 0330 last Thursday morning to head for Nomuka Iki, especially since our outboard engine tried to stall us in the city on Tuesday.

We cleared into Tonga first thing on Monday. We were spared a return to the concrete dock in the inner harbour where we had cleared previously (not only is the dock made of rough and unforgiving-to-fibreglass concrete, but the obstacles nearby leave little room to maneuver) because the customs officials were clearing a cargo ship; we were relieved when we called Nuku'alofa Port Authority and were directed to the container ship pier on the outer wall. It was an easier approach, but we still needed to keep our wits about us to keep from rubbing against the concrete face, or puncturing our fenders on the metal fasteners that protruded a good 2" from it. It wasn't too hard to leap to the top of the wall as we approached, but by the time the officials arrived, the tide had fallen to the point that they were happy to clear us without actually coming aboard. I was able to keep all my remaining fresh provisions from NZ :)

With time on his hands while we waited to clear, Johnathan assigned himself the task of rigging a parent recovery/delivery system: he eased the boom out so it was just over the wharf, then he controlled its position with a line to a big bollard on shore. Once we were finished our clearances, Victoria and I rode the boom ashore and Max stepped aboard Fluenta without anyone having to make the big leap.

Victoria and I spent the afternoon at the Market while the boys anchored back over at 'Big Mama's' off Pangaimotu. We had been anticipating a return to this market for a couple of seasons, as it was the last time Victoria and I had seen black pearls in any quantity as we travelled west across the Pacific. My understanding is that they farm them here in Tonga in fresh water, in both white and dark grey, and there is quite a nice variety of jewelry available that the ladies in the handicraft stalls have made. Most of the vendors were preparing their goods to move to the wharf on Friday morning in advance of the cruise ship that would be visiting, so we didn't feel too much pressure from them. It was hard to choose, but I eventually selected an intricate bracelet of alternating white and dark pearls tied together in an delicate knot pattern. Towards the end of the afternoon, I stopped to thank a lady who had helped us earlier in the day, and her friend beside her exclaimed, "You were here before!" She recognized Victoria and described my baby and carrier (Benjamin was almost one when we passed through the last time) as well as the bracelets that she had sold us. I agreed that I had most certainly been there before. It was quite fun to realize that she recognized us after 3 1/2 years! Needless to say, we bought something from her table as well :)

Our other task for Monday afternoon was to track down a SIM card for our phone. There are two competing suppliers: Digicel and TCC, and both offices were within walking distance of the market, so it was easy to compare plans. As I was trying to get my head around very different pricing models, Max got an email from a tourist operator in Vava'u with whom he had been corresponding about various logistics matters, recommending Digicel, so that made the decision-making easier and we headed straight to Digicel (fast forward to the next morning when we were chatting with a couple recently arrived from the Ha'apai Group who had found that their Digicel chip generally didn't work, but they had TCC coverage, and I ended up going back to town to outfit us with one of each!) It turned out that making sure that my SIM was activated did not actually mean that my phone was configured properly as well, so when we got home and tried to use our "$2 for 2h" plan (a surprisingly civilized way to activate the internet - it is either 'on' and we have unlimited access, or it is 'off' and we are paying attention to each other!) it wouldn't connect at all. Since Johnathan had an interview with his new teacher late on Tuesday morning, this became a bit of a priority, but I wasn't too worried, as I would have plenty of time to go to Digicel and back to Fluenta before the appointed hour...

The heavens opened while Victoria and I were at the market, so we took a taxi back to the dock, stopping along the way to pick up some watermelons for sale on tables on the side of the road. Our driver, Thomas, recommended a spot across from the ferry dock, and gave us his number in case we wanted to do any tours of the island. We were let off at the ferry waiting area, where we were mostly able to stay dry, but a few minutes later we were invited aboard a passenger boat that was tied up to the dock. We never know where we will find ourselves sitting out a downpour, and in this case it was in much more comfortable surroundings than being on wooden benches under a leaky roof. The young man who invited us aboard was the son-in-law of the owner, recently returned from the US to assist with the family business, and we had comfortable armchairs to sit on and rugs under our feet. He seemed as interested in our travels as we were in his family, so it was an enjoyable conversation. With the King's birthday coming up the following week, he was getting ready to take the King's staff on an outing.

Three years ago, at the end of our initial Pacific crossing, Big Mama's at Pangaimotu was the gathering point for dozens of cruisers waiting for a weather window to head south to NZ, so we were excited to return. Monday evening saw us at Big Mama's sharing stories and a meal with other cruisers who had also just arrived from NZ (one of whom had a 7 year old boy, so the kids were happy). Cyclone Gita caused a good bit of damage back in February of this year, so we were pleased to hear that they were back in business within a few weeks. The outside deck is gone and the dock is washed away, but we were greeted with the good food and friendly atmosphere that we remembered.

Bright and early Tuesday morning, Max and I hopped into the dingy and started the engine. All was well until Max put it into gear, and nothing happened! All of a sudden my quick trip across the harbour to town was not looking so quick and easy. With gratitude that our instinct had been to book a late-morning (1130) rather than early morning (0830) video call with Johnathan's teacher, we considered our options: we could mount the little 2-hp engine on the dinghy to go to Big Mama's, and then either Johnathan and I could take the ferry to town and go to Digicel (somewhat pricey, unknown return time and unknown location for his interview) while Max did troubleshooting on the engine, or Johnathan and I could just stay at Big Mama's and use her wifi (no expense for the ferry, and minimal expense for the wifi). Plan B seemed like a good idea until we got ashore and found out that Big Mama's wifi was not working! After almost an hour watching the ladies (including Big Mama herself) on the phone with their tech support trying to get us connected, and with the minutes counting down to 1130, one of the other ex-pat ladies (who seemed to be part of the daily life of Big Mama's, but I never found out exactly her relationship) heard me say that all I needed was someone who could set me up with a hotspot, and she offered to take my $2 and let me use her phone. At 1129 we were connected! On top of this perfect internet timing, the cruisers who had spent the morning drilling and hammering to secure Big Mama's roof panels to the trusses (making a great din of construction noise throughout the bar area) wrapped up at just that same time :) Johnathan and I set ourselves up at a shady picnic table, and made the call (to confirm our relationship with his new teacher for September) in tranquil peace and quiet.

We finished the interview in time to find out that Max had figured out the problem with the engine: the internal threads of a connecting nut between two control rods had corroded away leaving the upper rod disconnected from the lower rod. The reason that our engine hadn't gone into gear was that there was no physical connection between the transmission and the propeller. All we needed was a machinist to make us a new nut, and since we were in an industrial port with lots of fishing and commercial boats, that seemed to be an easy fix. With some advice from Big Mama's as to a likely shop, we headed across the bay to anchor outside the inner harbour, where we could reach the dock with only our little 2hp engine on the dinghy. Max and I headed to town together, he on his way to find a machine shop, and I on the hunt for a properly configured mobile phone.

My search went a little more efficiently than his: within less than one minute of handing my phone to the agent at Digicel, I was connected to the internet! Why they hadn't been able to tell me how to set it up on one of my three calls to their customer service line, I wasn't sure, but I was just glad to find out that the issue hadn't been with my handset, which I had only just unlocked from Vodafone NZ. Off I went to TCC, where, "once burned twice shy" I actually paid $2 for 100MB just to see that my phone would connect and that I could switch between my SIM cards and still have service... the ladies were very patient as they helped me with my request because, of course, I could. I put $33 credit on the phone to use later (for 4GB), and headed to the market where I made arrangements to return first thing in the morning to buy large quantities of NZ carrots and apples (there isn't a lot of fresh fruit here other than watermelons, which don't seem to be at the market, but are found instead at the roadside stalls).

With nothing very heavy to carry, and a hope of walking by a bakery, I set of on foot towards the dinghy dock. Just as I was giving up on seeing it from the main road, I caught a faint, but unmistakable, whiff of freshly baked bread, and asked two young men sitting by a pick-up truck full of dalo (starchy root veg that I don't tend to cook) if I was close. They smiled and indicated that I should turn right at the next corner, and sure enough, after a couple of blocks, I came not just to a little bread shop, but to an entire bread factory with the slogan "Bread for the Kingdom" written on the side of the building! I had come to the right place. They were out of Rye bread, so I chose a selection of white loaves and buns, with a 'donut for Mom' since I had skipped lunch :)

Max's afternoon was not quite as productive, but was rather the beginning of the hunt for a machine shop. With so many large boats operating out of, and transitting through, Tongatapu, we believed that there *had* to be a machine shop somewhere, but no one seemed to know where it was. The place that had been recommended was actually an air conditioning shop, so it was a dead end, but some people working on a boat on the hard stand gave him a name to call in the morning. On Wednesday morning, his contact was too busy to take our call, so Max went to town to see where else he could track down a shop. Eventually, after numerous stops all over town, his taxi driver drove him to one of the biggest machine shops that Max had seen. With the help of his driver as translator, and a carefully labeled drawing, he left the part and hoped for the best when he returned in the afternoon.

Meanwhile, Benjamin was my marketing assistant on Wednesday morning, so we took a taxi to save his legs (or, more likely, my back) the long walk. I thought our driver, and his van, were a little familiar, but it was only when he introduced himself and offered to wait at the market that I realized it actually was Thomas from Monday afternoon! Since I wasn't sure how long we would be, I told him not to wait, but that I would look for him when it was time to go back. Benjamin and I walked to the banking machine (I decided to trust the ANZ at the post office ... we tend to avoid little stand-alone ATMs) and then through the market to the donut stall (we had strict instructions from the others to come back with lots of home made donuts). The first time we went by, they were going to be ready in '20 minutes' so we went to get our fruit & veg from the vendors I had picked (I find when I go back to the same people each time, they are more likely to throw extra produce into my bag, which is always appreciated). The fruit seller (Tony) divides his time between Tonga and NZ, and his little mandarin oranges were from Kerikeri, which was just up the road from where we had been in Opua. It felt like a small world (and ironic to come to Tonga to buy NZ fruit, but at least I had something to take to the Ha'apai group with me). I wanted half a big bag of carrots, and was relieved that I didn't have to negotiate a fair price: my taxi driver had asked someone the price of a bag for me, and was told $60, so since Tony wanted $30 for half, this seemed fair :) He simply gave me his big bag and told me to put half of the carrots into my shopping bag - when they seemed about equal, we were both happy. All his produce was straight from his big fridge at his house, so it was nice to buy it in the cool of the day. I chose apples, mandarins, carrots, bananas (not local), and some rather old-looking potatoes, and headed back to the donut counter.

This time, the donuts were '3-5 minutes' away, so Benjamin and I decided to wait. This turned out to be a delightful choice, as the shop owners had a two year old son, and we were soon chatting away and taking pictures the boys sitting side-by-side. She and her husband had waited eight years for their one son, which I suspect was an especially long wait in such a large-family, child-centric society (most people I have met have 5-12 children), where I would imagine that there would be some stigma attached to being childless for so long. In addition to donuts and sandwiches, my new friend turned out to to be a prize-winning handicrafter. She gave us a little bag that she had woven, and showed me a purse that had placed 2nd in a national competition (she would have received 1st, but she had used a tiny bit of cotton thread to secure some of the loose ends, and she should have used all traditional materials). Even in the city, one of my favourite parts of travelling is making these personal connections. If ever we stop in Tongatapu again, we have the phone number of our new friends and instructions to call them :)

I had checked the prices of watermelons as I walked home from the Market on Tuesday, so I knew that I wanted to go back to the table beside the ferry dock for my weeks-at-anchor stash, so Benjamin and I walked the length of the taxi stand to see if Thomas was still there. He was no where to be seen, but when I got back to the top of the line, a driver called Sam told me that Thomas had told him to watch out for us :) Sam patiently loaded our produce, waited while I remembered the last-minute flat of eggs, tracked me down some twine to tie the flats shut, helped me load 11 watermelons (10 + 1 free) into the taxi, and passed everything down to Max at the dinghy dock. I happily gave him extra on the fare ! It turned out that there was a reason the best price on watermelons was across from the ferry dock: Susie the proprietress actually raises all the watermelons sold on the road at her plantation, so we were getting them directly from the source when we bought them from her. On her advice, I chose all medium-sized melons (ie not the largest nor the smallest) as she said that these were the best tasting. Johnathan (especially) and Benjamin and Victoria can demolish a watermelon in one sitting, and generally eat one every two days, so I was glad to be able to stock up. (In case you are wondering what we did with 11 watermelons in an already laden boat, we nestled them in amongst all the bags of gear in the V-Berth, as if we were setting up for some kind of oversized Easter egg hunt, and then we left a check-box list stuck to the wall so we could account for them as they are eaten to avoid having any nasty surprises down the road!)

Max's taxi driver was very keen to pick up the part for us, and let Max pay him at the dock, since "he was already over on that side of town". His insistence that it was too much trouble for Max to go to the machine shop made Max a little wary, so Max was equally firm that he wanted to go there in case he needed to talk to the technician. Despite the worries about finding a machine shop and translating his requirement into Tongan through a non-technical intermediary, the part was beautiful when Max received it: after his wild goose chase all over Tongatapu, it turned out that Max had eventually been taken to the government machine shop. The reason the taxi driver was so keen for Max to pay him for the part was that the shop didn't charge us for it at all! It was a good reminder that although most people we meet are very helpful and are looking out for our best interests (like my driver who carried and loaded all our groceries) we still need to keep our wits about us.

With all the errands taken care of (clearing in, clearing out, gas (petrol) jerry cans filled, provisions not only purchased, but stowed, meals and snacks cooked, little component for the outboard machined), we were able to set out at 0330 Thursday morning for the Ha'apai group.

Both of us got up to leave the anchorage, but with no wind and a wide shipping channel, we went 'into watches' almost immediately (which is to say that I went back to sleep and Max stayed on watch). When I awoke in the daylight, I found myself wishing that I had taken the time to set up a lee cloth before sleeping on the saloon bench: we were rocking and rolling as we rocketed along on a broad reach in short, steep seas, and I was bracing against the mattress in my sleep to keep from rolling onto the floor!

I thought Max would want to go off watch right away, but he got his second wind when we caught a fish (a massive walu that ended up feeding us lunch and dinner every day for a week), but by 1030, Victoria and I were on watch while Max got some rest. Victoria had seen one group of whales at a distance on our trip from NZ to Tonga, but they were all around us on our day-trip to the Ha'apai. At one point, I gasped for Victoria to grab the camera as a whale had surfaced hardly a boat length off our port side: I looked down rather than out to see it from my seat in the cockpit! Going in the opposite direction from our course, it clearly knew where we were, as it gracefully undulated at the surface like a huge sea serpent, and then then lifted its tail and dove as it got past us. We probably don't want any closer encounters than that while we are underway!

Our first stop was Namoku Iki (Little Namoku), home of Don McIntyre's adventure company and the Royal Namoku Yacht Club. Since Don was in the midst of kicking off his new retro around the world race in France (The Golden Globe), he wasn't there (we heard that he would be back 'next year'), but we got a warm welcome from the caretaker (James) and his little dog (Iki) who spent some time chasing and playing with dog-lover Johnathan on the beach. For me, the main significance of Namoku Iki was as the location at which I returned to my yoga mat for the first time since Easter. Even a short practice felt good :)

Our anchorage at Namoku Iki was solid, but not especially sheltered from the wind or swell, and with 30+ kts in the forecast, we set off after a couple of days for Ha'afeva, about 20 nm away. We don't expect another overnight passage until we head to the next island group, so again, we had a fast down-wind passage and arrived to anchor near our new friends with their seven-year-old by mid-afternoon. We stayed a couple of nights there, but the real goal was to wait for the winds to subside a bit and make our way to Uoleva, where we were hoping to enjoy a sheltered, sandy bay for a few days, and maybe even get out kiting.

Days at anchor offered a good chance to get into our new routine for the season, with a greater emphasis on spending some time each morning on some of the school materials that we have collected along the way, paddleboarding (Max), yoga (me), playing on the beach, and climbing trees for coconuts.

We celebrated Canada Day in Ha'afeva with brunch (including maple syrup that my dad brought us in April) and Canada Day cake with the other two boats in the anchorage. It was too windy to fly our big flag, but when the wind comes down, we will take our annual photo flying our 10-foot Canada Flag.

We had read about a wreck being on a reef worth snorkelling about 1/2 nm downwind from us, but we were reluctant to go too far from the boat when it was really windy (it would have been a challenge to row back if we had an issue with the outboard...) but when the winds let up a bit, Victoria, Max and I took the opportunity to check it out. I really enjoyed the variety of coral that had grown on and around the wreck. I have no idea how long it has been there, but it seemed much more overgrown than the WWII wrecks we saw in the Marshall Islands. I don't know if this is an earlier wreck, or if the coral grows faster here. We saw a spotted moray eel guarding his turf within the ship, as well as a Napoleon Wrasse nearby. As usual, photos to follow ...

Eventually, the headwinds lightened to the point that we felt like moving on to our next anchorage, at Uoleva Island. Ironically, we had not set out our staysail for the previous passage, and wished we had it, so with winds forecast for 15+ kts, we rigged it for this trip, only to find that we were undercanvassed while close hauled in only 8-10 kts, so we actually sailed with both headsails flying, and made good speed (in fact, it was a beautiful, sunny day on pretty flat water). We didn't see any whales, but we kept a constant watch. It is still early in the season, but we are certainly looking forward to seeing them again.

Much love to everyone,

At 2018-07-09 9:55 AM (utc) SV Fluenta's position was 19°57.96'S 174°29.61'W
At 2018-07-09 7:54 PM (utc) SV Fluenta's position was 19°57.95'S 174°29.61'W

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