Archive for November 2009
Opua Marina, New Zealand
35 degrees 18.97 S
174 degrees 07.26 E
The promised “A few days” have turned into two weeks, and this blogger is only slightly repentant as it’s been such bliss finally being on land again – and this time for longer than a few weeks and with no more extended ocean passages to look forward to!
In fact, as far as passages go, the 1,250 nautical miles from Neiafu to Opua (as the crow flies – the real distance was greater) were relatively benign. We left Neiafu in the rain and for three days it was pretty cold and miserable sailing, though we moved along well enough. Then the sun came out again, and for a week we zipped along except for a few short periods of light wind, when we kept our speed up by motoring. We bypassed Minerva Reef, on the principle of getting as far as possible while the going was good. It was as well we did so, because during the last three days we had to beat into the wind under full throttle to get into Opua. That was a major bore and very, very tiring. We were in good company though, because everyone who entered during that period looked as dishevelled and tired as we did.
Yes, there were the usual hassles, but nothing like the dramas that unfolded around us and which we followed on the radio: one man was in a boat that had a cracked boom, another had hydraulics that had failed, and another was dealing with a toilet that spouted gouts of filth every time someone tried to flush it. Because there were so many boats making the passage at the same time, we kept a closer watch than usual and were able to see mast lights at night several times. Before, we’d always been completely alone on the high seas.
We only had minor problems. The small generator that charges the electrics and powers the water maker blew a hose two days into the trip, and since there was no way either of us would have been able to worm our way into the bowels of the stern to diagnose/repair the problem while the boat was heaving up and down, we made do with the water already in the tanks, which was a pain, but not a real hardship. The main sail gave us trouble – again – the first time we tried to reef it, and when we finally furled the damned thing on entering Opua harbour we both gave a heartfelt sigh of relief. The refrigerator finally gave up the ghost for good after returning from its moribund state more often that a diva in the last act of an opera. During one period when we heeled over so far that the gunwales were under water, the leaks in the deck became evident when sea water began sloshing around inside the aft head and under the chart table. And of course there was the obligatory change of all fuel filters mid-passage when the red dust began to choke the engine. I’ve learned, by now, to strip off to my knickers when helping change these. Skin is easier to clean, and with less water, than clothing!
We entered Opua harbour just as it was getting dark and by the time we had negotiated the channel lights night had fallen. Coming into a port after nightfall is no fun, especially when moored boats alongside the channel don’t bother turning on their ‘parking lights’. We were having some trouble finding the Quarantine dock, where we were supposed to tie up for the night, until friends from a boat that had arrived the day before, and who were taking an evening walk, recognised us and shouted directions.
The next morning Customs, Immigration and Bio-Security officials came on board and another official inspected the bottom of the hull for invertebrate hitch-hikers with an underwater camera. It was all very friendly, and when the Bio-Security woman told us that we would be permitted to sail anywhere in New Zealand if she were allowed to remove all our rubbish and confiscate our lentils, random seeds, honey and any elderly fresh fruit or vegetables we happened to have on board, I had to laugh.
As other cruisers from Tonga came in, we heard various stories about people we’ve met during the last months. The wild-bearded French Canadian with the leaky wooden boat I mentioned in a previous entry – we met him in Nuku Hiva – sank two days out of Rarotonga. He and his dog ended up spending two days in his almost equally leaky inflatable dinghy, and if he hadn’t had an EPIRB, and hadn’t been within New Zealand controlled waters, he would probably be dead. A cautionary tale…
Since arriving, both of us have been relaxing. A few long walks along the shoreline to the neighbouring town of Paihia have given atrophied leg muscles and eyes starved of greenery a workout. Even The Captain came along! The landscape is reminiscent of the U.S.; both the San Juan Islands and the Maine coast have this attractive mixture of protected bays and coves and small, rocky islands on which are nestled wooden houses, often clap-board, painted white or left a natural, weathered grey.
The vegetation is an interesting combination of the familiar: hedgerow and garden flowers and trees that one sees in England (broom, roses, calla lilies, oaks, yew, Queen Anne’s lace) plus those one sees in the south of France (mimosa, wild fennel, pines) and the exotic: giant tree ferns, grey mangrove swamps, clumps of orchids in the branches of vast Pohutukawa trees, and huge versions of familiar plants like sage and ‘Busy Lizzies’ 5 feet high.
The Pohutukawa trees, especially, are very beautiful. When mature, they are the size of very large oaks and right now they’re covered with velvety grey buds which are beginning to flower. Within a few weeks, they’ll be covered in blossoms like scarlet power powder puffs, and must be a sight to behold.
I’ve also slaked my craving for large hamburgers and am no longer moulting like an elderly parrot. Hair loss seems to be a relatively common stress-related problem for women who undertake long passages, and although I was assured it’s a temporary phenomenon, it was a relief when it stopped a week after we arrived. The Captain has been accepting bids to get the teak decking replaced and for having a new main sail made. The rest of the work – a long list, all making good things which should have been done properly in the U.S. – will be done in Whangarei, about 100 miles south of Opua.
We leave for there very early tomorrow morning, as it’s a 24 hour trip and we need to arrive by about noon so the rising tide will carry us up the river and into the harbour. Once there, we’ll find a motel, then rent a car, and then find an apartment to rent for a few months. Then we’ll clear out the boat completely so the workmen will have a clear field in which to do their jobs after it has been hauled out of the water.
And that’s it, really. This will be the last entry in this blog for now, as the minutia of day-to-day life, even in New Zealand, aren’t exciting enough to write about! Thank you all for your encouraging, funny, helpful and always welcome comments.
Love to all from us both,
We arrived in Opua, New Zealand last night (15th November) at 9pm. We left Neiafu early, on the 2nd November at 4pm, so the journey took almost exactly 13 days. The passage was…interesting, especially the last bit, during which we headed into the wind for 3 days. More in a day or two.
Love to all,
18 39.823′ S
173 58.903 W
It’s 5:30 am. Tonga’s ubiquitous roosters are announcing the dawn with enthusiasm (not that they ever shut up), the local canine chorus is in full cry, there’s a solitary cow mooing on shore close to us. The last big bat of the night flapped by a little while ago, lending an exotic note, and the church choir has just begun singing the morning service. Sky and smooth water are pale milky yellow and nacreous blue, and the dawn is staining the horizon pink.
We’re in Neiafu, getting ready to leave on Monday morning – assuming the wind report for the Tonga-New Zealand stretch is reasonably favourable. We’ve been in this harbour more than anticipated thanks to the weather, which hasn’t been especially cooperative. Stiff winds and cloudy weather aren’t ideal conditions for navigating through coral in areas where there can be strong currents and the difference between a clear passage through the reef and a nasty crunching sound under the keel can be a matter of a few yards. When the sun is high, it’s easy to see the varying depths of the water ahead if one’s wearing a good pair of polarised sunglasses. Deep water is dark blue; as it becomes shallower, the colour becomes a beautiful clear turquoise and over sand it becomes even paler. Coral shows up as brownish khaki patches. If you see white or brown in right in front of the keel, it’s already time to think about how you’re going to get yourself off the sand or reef, as the case may be.
If it’s too windy anchoring also becomes a problem. Because of the way fringing reefs and atolls grow, there is often little relatively shallow area in which to anchor before the bottom drops off to 100 feet or more. This means one is usually anchored quite close to the reef. The holding is often somewhat dubious – sand is good to anchor in, but coral bottom can be like a broken-up pavement and the anchor simply skitters off it without biting. If the anchor isn’t properly set it can come loose, especially if the wind shifts; if that happens at night, one can be on the reef within minutes. We can set an anchor watch on our GPS, so that if we move beyond a certain radius an alarm sounds, but in such a situation one somehow doesn’t sleep very well.
Then there are coral heads, which can be dense as concrete but are also ecologically rather fragile. If the wind shifts, which it frequently does here, the bow of the boat moves to face into it and can drag the anchor chain ’round and ’round these formations. When that happens someone has to dive down to see which way the chain is wrapped and then the skipper has to drive the boat ’round the other way to free the mess. Some people try to break the anchor out, but that destroys the coral formations and often their windlass as well.
But being in Neiafu has provided the opportunity to spend more time talking with the people – both palangi (foreigners) and Tongans – and it’s been interesting to hear their stories and opinions about life here.
Whites who have started businesses here have done so because they’re attracted to the Tongan culture and the relaxed ambiance and lifestyle. They also – seemingly without exception – are involved in putting something back into this society which they have adopted and in which they are running businesses. Restaurant owners shrug and smile when they admit to lending their employees money to pay the church tithes, though they are less amused when describing the local pastors’ luxurious homes. The hand of the church (many churches, rather) lies heavy on the Tongans, though perhaps the social foundation religion provides is what makes the Tongans accept their poverty with such smiling equanimity.
The most critical of their own culture are the Tongans who have come back after living and working overseas, usually in the U.S. or New Zealand. They also make the attempt to improve the lives of their relatives and neighbours, mostly by encouraging them to begin their own businesses or work a bit harder instead of relying on hand-outs from the EC or funds sent by relatives working overseas. But these returning Tongans are also rather more caustic than foreigners about their compatriots’ cheerfully larcenous nature and unwillingness to do much more than work the odd day or two to earn enough for the day or week ahead.
The more one learns, the more difficult it becomes to pass judgement in these matters. One can only hope the foreigners don’t run out of steam, and that the Tongans find a way to become better-off without losing the qualities that make them such an attractive and likeable people.
A snorkelling trip to a nearby island was a delight. I had got to know the owner of the ‘Coconet Cafe’ – an internet cafe/restaurant/laundry/dive-shop/boat cleaning service – while hanging about waiting for our laundry to dry one afternoon. After 10 minutes spent chatting with his manageress while watching his attempts to paint a new sign for the shop, I offered to do the job for him; I’d made a living for several years as a fabric and wallpaper designer and enjoyed painting, which he rather obviously didn’t. He almost jumped at the offer, plied me with beer, fed me fish and chips, and when the job was done was so pleased that when he heard The Captain and I hadn’t seen much of Tonga, that he insisted I visit their favourite island with them later that week.
They closed the acfe and picked me up from The Boat (the manageress’ Tongan boyfriend came along for the fishing) a few days later and we sped off in the high-powered open dinghy to a small, crescent-shaped beach about 20 minutes’ fast motoring away. The beach was covered with pure white lumps of coral of many varieties and shapes and the adjacent reef was completely undamaged. I even saw a few giant clams – small ones of the species, but even so they had the iridescent green lining with the rows of neon blue ‘eyes’ that are so astonishing. This reef was mostly hard corals, including spectacular, round, pale green coral heads more than 12 feet across and 9 feet high. The best part of the trip though, was on the way back when we stopped at another island where there is a formation called ‘Mariner’s Cave’.
The cave can’t be seen from the water, because to get to it one has to find a certain area in a cliff face, then look for a dark area under the face, and then dive down, then under the underwater lip of the cave, and then up into the semi-darkness. I’d never have done it alone, though it’s in the guidebooks as a ‘must do’, because even the thought of the access was rather nervous-making for someone who doesn’t really enjoy closed spaces.
But the side trip was so spontaneous and it all went so quickly, and the people I was with were so eager I see it, that there was no time to protest or be frightened. I was led through, so had flippers to follow, and I had the bright idea of turning belly-up so as to avoid cracking my skull on the rock. But I was at the limit of the time I can hold my breath when we broke through the surface on the other side. Inside the cave it was eerily beautiful. As the surge comes in it compresses the warm air in the space and one’s ears feel the change in pressure. The entire cave fills with a kind of blue haze which then clears with a pop – suddenly – as the surge sucks out again. We were there for about 5 minutes, and then dove out; that was easier, since I had a light blue patch of water to aim for.
The passage to New Zealand should take from 10 days to 2 weeks. We’ll probably encounter at least one low pressure system on the way, but they tend to pass rather quickly and our boat is so sturdy that even I’m not worried. We may stop at Minerva Reef on the way. This is a large atoll about 2 days sail south of Tonga, which is submerged during high tide but exposed during low tide. Pre-GPS sailors gave the place a wide berth, but now it’s a regular stop-off point en route to New Zealand, both because the central lagoon can offer a reasonably secure anchorage during high winds and because it’s a strange and unique place. There probably won’t be a chance to send any entries during the passage, but shall try!
Next stop, Opua!