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Apsara's Log: Tonga!

We have been utterly but happily distracted and have failed to maintain our regular log. So in an effort to bring you current over the next days we'll send a few reports that summarize our five weeks in Tonga.

As always, thanks for your replies - we love the messages. And we look forward to seeing many of you soon, in San Francisco.

The faithful crew of Apsara

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Tonga!

Lat: 18 53 South
Lon: 177 35 West
0400 Sunday
Mon, 25 Oct 2004

We are bound for Fiji after a more than a month in Tonga. It is a black, starless, moonless night; the bow is not visible, and the sea is oily-calm with traces of phosphoresce radiating away in our wake as we motor along at 8 knots.   Twenty-five hours ago we weighed anchor at 0300 for this 405 mile passage, which we hope to complete in a little more than 50 hours. We are in historic waters. Just a few miles north is Toafu Island where, in April of 1789, Fletcher Christian and fellow HMS Bounty mutineers forced Captain Bligh and 18 faithful crew into an open pulling boat with only scant provisions, a sextant, a compass, a log, and Bligh's memory of what charts then existed. Incredibly, in 42 days Bligh managed to lead his crew across 3,500 miles of uncharted and reef strewn water to safe lands in Indonesia.. A feat of seamanship that is arguably only exceeded by Ernest Shackleton's 800 mile voyage in an open boat through the freezing southern ocean from Elephant Island to South Georgia, one hundred twenty-five years later.

On our non-historic, but hopefully still seamanlike, passage we will be passing through the remote Lau Island Group of Fiji which runs north-south for 200 miles along the far eastern edge of Fiji and is about half way between Tonga and our destination port. Until recently these waters were still poorly charted. In fact recently there was a list circulating among cruisers of the fifty major Fijian reefs not marked on paper or electronic charts ˆ great, what about the Œminor' reefs?! Our paper chart indicates that the primary survey was completed by the British in 1878, not especially reassuring, but better than Bligh had. We will make our crossing through three-mile wide Oneata Passage, which is just north of another pass called "The Bounty Boat Passage", where presumably Bligh crossed. We have timed our trip so that we will have good light for the narrow passage and then one more night and another 200 miles to reach our destination, SavuSavu in northwestern Fiji.

Tonga was amazing and surpassed our expectations. The islands run north south over 300 miles and are broken into four major groups of which we visited the northern three: Niuatoputapu (say that three times fast), the Vava'u group, & the Ha'apai. The first and last make our top six list for the trip, so far, (in chronological order):

  • Sweden's High Coast
  • The San Blas Islands, north/east coast Panama
  • The Galapagos Islands
  • The Tuamotus, French Polynesia
  • Suvarov/Suwarrow Atoll, northern Cooks
  • Niuatoputapu & The Ha'apai Group, Tonga
We had a fast, but rough sail from Western Samoa to Niuatoputapu: beating into 20 knots of wind with moderate seas for 22 hours. Niuatoputapu is a small three-village island just now being touched by outsiders ˆ mostly cruising yachts and Peace Corps volunteers. Up until 1999 the primary means of communication with the rest of Tonga was Morse code (really!). These days there is a satellite phone connection, but the supply ship still comes only four times per year and the plane doesn't come at all.  There is scant electricity, news comes via FM radio, meals are prepared over open flames and families' pigs range free. Typical food is taro-leaves cooked in coconut milk and wrapped around a mixture soft mixture of taro and coconut cream ˆ and, when available, a dollop of canned corned beef is added to the center. Roast pig is also a local favorite. This is eaten while standing knee-deep in the ocean, dipping the meat into the salt water to season. Several under-nourished dogs roam the island, and these are included in the local diet as well.

The anchorage is stunning, almost completely surrounded by a fringing reef and white sand beaches. Three miles north, across the open sea, is the 1800 foot perfect volcanic-cone island of Tafahi which is ringed with tropical vegetation and topped with clouds.

Call us Ishmael
While the people here are wonderfully open, friendly and unbelievably generous, it is the whales that we'll vividly remember. Humpback whales spend much of September to November in the northern Tongan Islands to mate, birth and nurse their young, and the shallowish 100 foot waters between Niuatoputapu and the volcano, Tafahi, were favored by the whales during out visit. Daily, from our boat, we would see the whales breaching, blowing, „spy hopping‰ and „lob tailing‰ in the distance.

We spent whole afternoons on no-adult-supervision whale watching expeditions via our tiny dinghies. Two or three dinghies, with VHF radios and snorkeling gear would fly out of the anchorage at full-tilt in the direction of the nearest blow, bouncing across the open-ocean waves, nearly capsizing in our enthusiasm. We quickly learn that this wall of sound invariably moves the whales further away. Finally, we developed a technique of slowly approaching to within 200 yards of the 60 foot leviathans (gotta use the cliché once) and then rowing closer. Once there, we'd don snorkel gear, flop in the water and swim the final 50 feet. We had multiple close encounters. Several times we were within twenty feet of the creatures, watching a mother swim with a calf near the surface, a small pod of two medium sized (35 foot) juveniles with mother and calf and slowly pass below us, and a couple engaged in foreplay (yes, Randy, I'll tell you the details later). We were Cousteau! The most beautiful and wonderful thing we have seen underwater on the trip.

There are many stories of sailboats colliding with whales and sinking (The Bailey family set a record spending something like 136 days in a life raft after their boat was rammed by a whale in the south pacific in the 1960's). And, in fact our friends' boat, „Billabong‰, hit a whale at night on their sail south to Vava'u. In the wee hours of the morning, Billabong suddenly went from 7 knots to nearly stopped, their bow thrust sideways into the wind. After a panicky check below the floorboards for leaks it appeared that the boat was still keeping the water out and they continued without damage. It was a glancing blow and hopefully the, presumably sleeping, whale was also unhurt.

Apsara had a great fast sail covering the 175 miles south to the Vava'u Group in less than 20 hours without mishap.

~~~/)~~~/)~~/)~~~~~
s/v Apsara
www.svapsara.com

View next report from this location:Tonga! pt 2.

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