Destination Tonga

For a few years I have been refitting my 41-foot aluminum centerboard sloop Elan on the hardstands in Mooloolaba. Elan was not yet ready to voyage again when I got a generous offer for my son Ryan and I to join our old-time sailing friends Ken Larner and Ilene Byron for a trip aboard their 47-foot aluminum schooner Silver Ruffian. Ken and Ilene were in the Vava’u Island group, Kingdom of Tonga, where between 1996 and 2002 Elan had spent many a blissful interlude. Silver Ruffian is another old hand at Tonga, having sailed there most recently in May 2011 from New Zealand. Ken and Ilene were in the process of dedicating yet another winter season to this last remaining Pacific monarchy. Like us, they have successfully returned to Tonga repeatedly over the years, by basing their passagemaking on sound knowledge and analysis of prevailing oceanographic conditions.

Sitting in Silver Ruffian’s cockpit with Ilene, in placid Neiafu Harbor, my wife Robyn McIntyre and I couldn’t believe how familiar it all seemed despite the passage of time. She’d last visited aboard her own 45-foot ketch Alchemist in 1999. Ryan and I had last been there aboard Elan, accompanied by Silver Ruffian, in September 2002, not long after Ryan’s third birthday. The restaurant where we’d celebrated had since burned down, but we’d already been warmly greeted by a number of local friends since we arrived. Watching Ryan trolling for dinner with Ken in the inflatable, I couldn’t believe he was now a husky 12-year-old, especially when I looked at the size of the galley sink aboard Silver Ruffian where he took baths at age 10 months during his first voyage to Tonga.

The other sensations we all had were, for lack of better words, peace and relief. Everywhere we looked, it was verdant, lovely, and nearly silent…cliffs, ridges, and, at the mouth of the harbor, Mount Talau, all carpeted in dense green foliage, peppered with coconut palms; clear water, with a school of large remoras swimming lazily around and under the hull; billowing white cumulous clouds marching across an azure palette. I understood completely when Ryan approached me excitedly after catching yet another fish, “Dad, could we move here?”

Tonga today
The Kingdom of Tonga, located just west of the international date line, embodies essential attributes of what motivates many an ocean voyager: an idyllic, unspoiled central South Pacific location; a traditional Polynesian culture; no significant issues with piracy or personal security; diverse physical settings ranging from a well-protected labyrinth of fairly high islands (Vava’u group, 18° 40’ S), mixed volcanic peaks and low-lying atolls (Ha’apai group, 20° 45’ S), a larger capital island with an international airport (Tongatapu group, 21° 10’ S), and one of the most remote, isolated island groups in the South Pacific (Niuas, 15° 50’ S), in the far north of the country. Tonga is a natural magnet for ocean voyagers, not to be missed.

One thing that the Vava’u group is not good for is a hurricane or cyclone season refuge. Neiafu Harbor has tempted mariners over the years, but the moorings are light duty, the harbor is deep, and despite being almost completely enclosed, it gets nasty swells and wind gusts during tropical storms and hurricanes. We resisted temptation and chose a marginal option during the South Pacific summer of November 2001 to May 2002 by building a storm mooring in Pago Pago Harbor, American Samoa. We were fortunate to weather Cyclone Waka as only a tropical storm there. By the time it reached Vava’u, however, it was a full-blown hurricane. We sailed to Vava’u soon after with supplies to aid people we knew there, and we were appalled at the destruction wrought, and boats lost or damaged. Vava’u is right in the summer storm groove, it gets hit fairly regularly, and you do not want to be there that time of year.

Cyclone season strategy
Fortunately, Tonga’s position relative to oceanographic and meteorological features makes it entirely feasible to exit the danger zone, refit or enjoy another tropical interlude out of harm’s way, and sail back the next Southern Hemisphere fall or winter. We made a number of such passages between Tonga and other locations aboard Elan (New Zealand, four times; Marshall Islands, two times; Samoa, five times; French Polynesia, one time). Playing prevailing winds and currents, and using both seasonal and persistent conditions, allows voyagers to repeat seasons indefinitely in the heart of the South Pacific. Here are some options:

New Zealand: This is the traditional choice of South Pacific voyagers, well out of the tropics, cyclone-free and with every imaginable boat facility, service, and part. The most experienced at this transit are Kiwis who voyage back and forth annually, and experienced long-term sailors like Ken and Ilene on Silver Ruffian. These crews don’t wait around until November, and certainly not December, when late winter high pressure systems may strengthen over cool waters east of New Zealand, sucking the top off descending tropical lows, creating 70- to 90-knot conditions over vessels heading south from the islands too late in the year. This has killed a number of voyagers over the years and resulted in vessel losses.

Pick the biggest incoming high you can in October, leave Nuku’alofa on the leading edge east-southeasterlies, and put the pedal to the metal all the way to New Zealand. The return trip is the reverse. Choose the largest incoming high you can in late May or early June, and leave on the leading-edge southwesterlies. Another tip gleaned from commercial mariners with extensive collective knowledge of the area is to follow a rhumb line to the west of the volcanic trench running from New Zealand to Tonga, because: 1) Submerged seamounts, like the periodically emerging islands in Tonga, rise and fall — why traverse a path over the top of them in case of an untimely seamount rise, or, pass over an unexpectedly shallow peak in heavy seas, and get caught by an unpredicted breaker? 2) Several large commercial vessels have disappeared without a trace along this fault line. One theory is, did they actually fall into a giant bubble of volcanic gas rising from the plate boundary, hit the bottom of the bubble, and then have the sea close over them? We decided it might be wiser to plot a different course.

Funafuti, Tuvalu and Pago Pago, Tutuila, American Samoa: At around 10° S, such places are always tempting. They’re close enough to the equator so that they get more forming, weaker storms than full-blown storms. However, when they get one, it can be, and has been, really bad. Not recommended.

Canton Island (Phoenix Islands, Republic of Kiribati): At about 5° S, Canton is an atoll with a completely enclosed lagoon and navigable pass, is essentially cyclone-free, and has been used successfully by voyaging sailors over the years. There are no facilities to speak of, only a diminutive government outpost with a small local population. Be sure you are stocked up for six months of living in isolated conditions. Fishing and diving are first class.

Republic of Kiribati: This strongly traditional, independent Micronesian nation is comprised mostly of low-lying coral atolls. Indigenous populations tend to be friendly and welcoming, very poor, in areas have difficulty with sufficiently clean and abundant water supplies, and possessing very few resources to share with voyagers. The capital city of Tarawa has limited supplies, an overcrowding situation with attendant hygiene issues, although elsewhere around the atoll anchorages can be found and conditions are fairly pristine.

Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI): The next stop northwest of Kiribati, we spent an entire season between mooring in Majuro and sailing to a number of the out islands. The RMI is in free association with the U.S.A., uses the U.S. dollar, U.S. postal service, has daily international flights, a hospital and pharmacy, large U.S.-style grocery stores, and U.S. citizens can stay indefinitely, all attractive and convenient features for us. We made it one of our most memorable times by enjoying the outstanding diving, fishing, and sailing opportunities it afforded. Micronesian culture and history, quite distinct from Polynesian culture, intrigued us.  
Fiji: Like Vava’u, Fiji lies right in the main cyclone zone. However, on the western side of main island Viti Levu, Vuda Point Marina, and Denarau Marina are making a business out of storing voyaging sailboats in specially prepared pits over the cyclone season. Alternatively, nearby Musket Cove Resort, on Malolo Lailai Island, now has an enclosed basin in which they are renting Med-style “cyclone season slips.” Vessels have weathered significant cyclones successfully in the excavations at Vuda Point and Denarau, making this a tested, viable option. Silver Ruffian has used an excavation at Vuda Point.

The strategy for returning to Tonga from Fiji is fairly straightforward, because you know you have to go to windward, and you won’t be getting any help from prevailing currents. Recommission the boat early at Vuda Point, if it’s not looking too ominous, in order to jump-start the trip in the lighter, early-season winds of April and May, and either coastal-hop your way east along the northern coast of Viti Levu, tacking over to Vanua Levu and environs if necessary, dodge through the northern Lau Islands, then make your move into the open 200 nautical miles or so across to Tonga, as close to the wind as you can get. Alternatively, if the conditions permit, hang a left out of Vuda Point and skirt the southern coast of Viti Levu, then play your cards the same way. Motorsailing can keep you harder on the wind, and a lucky lull could deliver a straight shot to Tonga. Otherwise, if you are patient, flexible, determined, and adventurous, and willing to stop perhaps in the Niuas, or tack south towards the Minerva Reefs, or wherever else is comfortable to get the needed easting, it’s feasible.  

The voyage northwest to any of the Micronesian refuges is an easy one from Tonga. Departing in September or October allows a safe, direct, off-the-wind passage. Departing Tonga one year in November, we thought it prudent to sail past the Samoas to break out north of the South Pacific Convergence Zone and exit the cyclone belt as quickly as possible, only then did we bear off to port for an easy sail northwest to Majuro. Returning to Tonga from the Marshall Islands was more of a challenge. The key was to use the North Equatorial Countercurrent to get easting while keeping an eye on the varying intensity of the associated Intertropical Convergence Zone. We took plenty of diesel, did a lot of motorsailing at low rpm under shortened canvas (especially at night), rather than frustrating ourselves with frequent sail changes in variable conditions, crossed the brisk westerly flow of the Equatorial Current, got some more easting help from the South Equatorial Countercurrent, making it to Tokelau, then we had an easy sail south past the western end of Savai’i, Samoa, straight to Tonga. Because we went all the way to Nuku’alofa (rather than pulling in to Vava’u first), the trip took 22 days from Majuro. We enjoyed the time offshore and had great fishing, landing three blue marlin, one mako shark, a striped marlin, a shortbill spearfish, a sailfish, and wahoo, mahi-mahi, and yellowfin and skipjack tuna.

Rich rewards
During our most recent periods of South Pacific voyaging, we did what Ken and Ilene on Silver Ruffian are doing now. Generally speaking, it’s ideal to pop down to New Zealand if you need to refit. On the other hand, if the reason you’re in the South Pacific is because you love tropical paradise, and if you don’t need to refit, it’s ideal to spend cyclone season near or above the equator, exploring reefs in clear, warm water, strolling along white sand beaches and under swaying coconut palms, enjoying the rustic settings of far-flung exotic islands, and getting all the payback you can for the money and toil you sacrificed preparing. Then, at the end of the season, you go right back to the tropical paradise you left below the equator, to a place like Tonga, and spend that winter there. Last year, for example, Silver Ruffian voyaged from Fiji south to New Zealand and underwent a number of significant repairs. This year they’ve left the boat in Fiji.

In Vava’u this season, Robyn, Ryan, and I soaked up the time aboard Silver Ruffian, like thirsty desert nomads who’d stumbled upon a cool, clear spring. It had been a long time between drinks. We revisited old haunts, free-diving through the submarine tunnel into Mariner’s Cave, taking the dinghy inside Swallow’s Cave, and snorkeling some more there among a shimmering school of silversides in the reflected, blue-tinted light. Robyn and I took two spectacular scuba dives, floating weightless along steep coralline walls, swathed in clouds of brightly-colored fish. Our old friend Capt. Paul Mead took us fishing offshore on his famed charter boat Dora Malia, where we enjoyed close-hand views of humpback and pilot whales, Ryan hooked and fought his first blue marlin, and later caught beautiful mahi-mahi and wahoo for fresh fish dinners.     

We heard the beautiful, haunting songs of whales underwater, and one of the greatest highlights was when Robyn, Ryan, Ilene, and I had the opportunity to snorkel with an enormous mother humpback whale and her newborn calf. The calf cavorted over right next to us, peering curiously with a large black eye. Another day, a full-grown humpback leapt completely airborne, crashing back into the sea not far off Dora Malia’s bow. We got back to Australia with a spring in our step and a sense of purpose. Elan is back in the water and basically good to go. Would I play the currents and tradewinds and work all the way back east again to experience things like this? You bet, and I think many of you might consider repeating South Pacific seasons too.

Scott Bannerot has a doctorate in marine biology, 100-ton USCG master’s license and an Australian Master 5 license, has co-authored The Cruiser’s Handbook of Fishing (2000, 2003 International Marine/McGraw-Hill) and Wingnut’s Complete Surfing (2009, International Marine/McGraw-Hill), and is a longtime contributing editor for Ocean Navigator. He and his wife and son currently divide time between their 41-foot sloop Elan, Australia, and Florida.

Vava’u attractions
While all of Tonga’s island groups offer safe anchorages and worthy attractions, Vava’u has long captured by far the most attention from roaming sailors, and from land-based ex-patriots wanting a stake in paradise. The new annual Regatta Vava’u & Festival 2011 had concluded shortly before our arrival. Ken and Ilene described the surprising turnout, sailing races, and fun get-togethers and events. The presence of a strong Moorings fleet is always a sign of a pleasant, well-protected place to rest and relax between bluewater passages. It’s possible to haul out sizable vessels, to at least 20 gross tons, on Don Coleman’s engine-powered railway. Numerous local businesses rent moorings in Neiafu Harbor, and standard sailor services like laundry, Internet cafes, banks, small to medium-sized grocery stores, bakeries, liquor shops, waterfront bars, and restaurants are all anxious to accommodate. Chathams Pacific now handles all domestic airline duties and seems to do an excellent job, with frequent one-hour flights to and from the international airport in Nuku’alofa, making Vava’u a viable port for visitors or crew changes.

By Ocean Navigator