Cruising the Vava’u Group in a Roberts 43


Well, if you have all kept the previous letter which finished with us stepping ashore at Neiafu, Vava’u, then this one just follows on. I know the last letter finished on a note of everything’s OK, but, well, that was not really exactly true. The next morning after taking off the water trap and taking it to the only repair place on the island, Don Coleman’s yard, , a search of the premises revealed not one scrape of stainless plate, nor even a scrape of mild steel plate. We only needed a piece about the size of a saucer! But once again the sometimes seemingly bottomless bilge of F.T. came to the rescue when we came up with a piece of stainless that I’d had stowed away ‘just in case it came in handy.’ That problem solved and leaving Don with all the parts to repair the Ronstan block that had blown apart while tacking up the channel we retired and took the rest off the day off, as, besides the breaking of the block as we tacked up the channel, Liz had dropped a winch handle on her foot which had, possibly due to the walking around town, swollen to twice its normal size. We spent the day quietly hoping that Don could in fact do the repairs as the welding that needed to be done involved 1.6 mm stainless pipe which is pretty fine work for a stick welder working off an indifferent power supply.

That evening we went into happy hour at Ana’s Cafe. Ana’s Cafe was set up last year by the couple who run the Moorings Charter base in the Vava’u Group. We had heard from many cruisers about Bill & Lisa, everyone who had come into contact with them only had the best things to say about them, and they all turned out to be very true. After cruising for many years in the Pacific and returning time after time to Vava’u they took over the management of the moorings fleet of what appeared to be around twenty or so 35 to 52 ft yachts. As if that wasn’t enough they then set about making life more pleasant for the cruisers that visit these islands every year. Ana’s Cafe and the best dinghy dock we’ve come across in the Pacific are just two of the things they’ve done. They also set up the Port of Refuge Yacht Club of which Liz & I both became lifelong members. They had also built showers for the cruisers and are always ready to answer queries and give advice.  Happy Hour they had set up so all the cruisers could get together over a drink between 5 & 6 every weekday evenings for a chat and natter. Because it is the cyclone season there are only about 8 cruising liveaboard yachts here even though this definitely seems to be the best time to cruise these islands owing to the generally lighter winds (not experienced during our stay) and the complete lack of crowds.

The next day was also a lazy day although that evening we went ashore to the Sunset Restaurant whose dinghy dock was directly across from where we were moored. This is a fine Italian restaurant overlooking the anchorage with glorious Italian food served by a absolutely delightful young Italian couple. It was also quite inexpensive as my very filling plate of pasta with anchovies cost $6 with Liz’s plate of pasta with mussels $7. We met there an American dentist who had set up clinic on his yacht and travelled the islands taking care of the local’s teeth, largely on a voluntary basis. Using an adapted vacuum cleaner as a suction unit and dive bottles as a drier he was performing a really worthwhile service. All the resident yachties swore by him even though, unlike the natives, they were charged. Altogether a very pleasant evening.

The next day was Sunday where, Tonga, being a very religious country, shuts down. The Tongans are not even allowed to go swimming let alone do any work. The radio still broadcasts but there is no talking, just pre-taped classical music. An inter-island container vessel came in one Sunday while we were there and were told to just anchor in the middle of the harbour until 2400 hours when they could then come alongside and tie up, The Lords day of rest is taken very seriously here indeed.

The next morning, Monday, I went to see Don to see how the water trap repair was progressing. Nothing had happened but Don assured me that it would be ready by the following day. While I was checking with Don Liz had gone to have a chat with Lisa who invited us to a traditional Tongan feast which the Moorings puts on for its charter guests. They, of course, could anchor off the village, but we could still attend by a car they would organise as the island where the feast was to be held was connected to the main island by a causeway. It was to be the last one for sometime, as although the Moorings charter boats for all 12 months of the year, February, March & April are very quiet months. Liz, as always, was hot to trot and told Lisa to count us in. The $20 per head feast also included native singing and dancing and there would be all manner of arts and crafts for sale which, we were assured by everyone, would be cheaper than the ones on display in town. That evening a car picked us up and took us across the island and along a long single lane dirt track that finally finished at an attractive cove where tapa cloth, shells, carvings, necklaces, bangles and baskets of all shapes and sizes were laid out. The chief greeted us after which Liz immediately set off to examine the crafts before the charterers on the anchored boats came ashore. Luckily we live on a boat and therefore space is a consideration so her natural buying impulses were restricted to some fruit baskets and some other small woven articles. The baskets are woven using a very strong reed and, with there strong designs, are by far the best baskets in the Pacific. Liz particularly liked a large clothes hamper with lid but sense prevailed, it was far too large for the boat and she left it. Luckily the young couple from the first charter boat that came ashore bought it as I had a feeling that somehow we would have been tripping over it on the boat by evenings end if they hadn’t removed the temptation. As the food was cooking we were treated to singing by the elders and dancing by the small girls of the village. The girls were between the ages of 4 and 10 and were, by far, more cute than skilful. By the time they had exhausted themselves the feast was carried in. No wonder the Tongan’s are such a solid people. There must have been enough for a whole armada. It was carried in on woven together banana leaves about 3ft wide by about 20ft long by a dozen or so Tongans. Most of it had been cooked in leaves in the ground similar to a hungi and consisted of native salads, fish, pork, vegies, Papaya baked in coconut milk, taro, breadfruit and the list goes on and on. The band played as we ate and a good time was had by all although I do think we all ate more than we really had intended to.

On checking the next day at Dons, the water trap repairs, as promised, had been completed. It didn’t look to bad a job and as the only way to test it was to reinstall it we took it back out to the boat. Installed and with the engine running two small pinhole leaks showed up, one on the water in, one on the exhaust out, both on the edge of the fresh welds. Rather than take it out and go through the whole procedure again, with the likelihood of a similar result, we stopped the leak on the water in with rubberweld tape and deemed the exhaust hole small and strong enough to hold up until proper repairs could be done. At least we now had an operational engine that meant that we could have a look around the islands. Having a run around the islands would also give the engine exhaust system a good test before we got too far away. My leg would also get a good try out even though we’ve nearly resigned ourselves to the fact that a trip around the Horn and into the Atlantic this year is as good as over. It is now the end of January and to leave now would mean we couldn’t expect to arrive in Chile until mid March thereby leaving us no time to absorb any Chilean culture or explore the Patagonian Channels before the full force of the Southern Hemisphere winter was upon us. We decided that we’d have to make up our mind on this trip to the outer Vava'u Islands.

The next morning we walked to the local markets and stocked up with some fresh fruit and vegetables. It was a real treat to have a good range at fair prices after being so long in Pago Pago where most ‘fresh’ produce is shipped from the states and leaves a lot to be desired. We also purchased the Moorings cruising guide book to help us get around, as the problem in these islands is not so much hidden reefs, as finding places shallow enough to anchor in. The whole group of islands are quite compact being only about 25nm N to S and 15nm E to W. They are protected from the S/E tradewinds by a barrier reef that stretches along the entire Eastern side cutting out all swell, just leaving the wind. In other words, a sailors dream. And so it proved to be. Deserted anchorage’s, crystal clear water and such easy sailing that for the entire time we didn’t even take our mainsail cover off, although we often found F.T. scooting along on a level keel at 7 knots. With only a small tidal range there were no currents of any strength to contend with and every anchorage was safe and calm and insect free. There was a cruisers net on the VHF radio every morning which we would tune into to get the latest weather and any upcoming events. They also had a buy, sell or swap section, a contact section, and an arrivals and departures section all of which we found quite interesting. After 4 days we circled back to town, coming in at another cove on the opposite side from the main harbour and filling up with fresh produce and ice before slipping once more back out to the islands. Nearly all the anchorage’s were within 1 hours sail of each other, mostly reaches, and the few times we had to head directly into the wind it was only for a mile or so and we would motor. Not quite purists fair I know but we made up for it at other times where we would sail up to anchor or sail off from the anchor in the always perfect conditions. While most of the islands and coves we anchored in were completely uninhabited we stopped one night in a bay on an island where there was a small Eco resort. The snorkelling was good, the beach white and the fauna dark and green. No one was staying at the resort that consisted of a few native thatched buri’s and a small community building with eating facilities so we decided to stay an extra night and explore the interior of the island the next morning. My leg had been feeling good and I was keen to give it a little more of a workout to see how it would go. The next morning all went well as we played Stanley and Livingstone until I stepped slap-bang right in the middle of a hornet’s nest. With a yell to Liz to stay put (she told me later that she had absolutely no intention of moving) I took off down the hill. After 50m or so I’d left them behind and stopped to pull the sting barbs out of my ankle. Luckily they weren’t a vicious variety, as I would have had to run a fair way to reach the water, if they had been. As it was, my ankle was swelling up which was pretty unusual for me as bites seldom affect me in any way. We thought that it may have something to do with the tablets I’d just recently stopped taking for my other leg. It was pretty painful to put weight on so we rested up the rest of the day and spent one more night it that most beautiful of anchorage’s. The next morning as I got up I felt something strange at my elbow. Twisting it to get a good look at it there was a great lump the size of a golf ball sticking out of the joint. Good grief, what now. We decided to head back to town before I ran completely out of limbs and see if we could get any advice on what was happening.

Medical advice for something like this was non-existent. Although the towns doctor stated that it was a Bursa he didn’t have any idea what could have caused it, whether the treatment for the leg was a contributing factor, or the hornet sting, or how to treat it. We finally made the decision to give up the Horn for this year and go back to Australia to get some expert medical opinion. I have had no problems with my body for all the years that We'd been cruising and to have three thing in as many months had us wondering if something we didn't know about was causing all this. As the Port of Refuge Yacht Club was holding a Friday the 13th yacht race we decided to wait until then to see how my arm would be after a few days inactivity. If my arm got no worse in the next few day then on the weekend we could take off for Fiji which had now become our next port of call.

The days sped by. Cyclone Ron, that had missed Pago Pago while we had been there, had hit the Tongan Islands just north of here and although the full force had missed here three boats had broken free and had been damaged. One was still on the shore, a sad sight, half filling with water at every high tide and another one had been patched and was floating at a mooring. The third was a Moorings yacht that had suffered superficial scrapping all down one side and needed filling and painting. Bill from the Moorings is also a boatbuilder and could do all the preparation work, but for the final paint job the Moorings flew in an expert from N Z. We met Brian, the painter, at happy hour at Ana’s one evening and then went on to have a beautiful meal at Bill & Lisa’s home where Brian was staying. Brian and his wife are the couple responsible for that truly picture postcard boatshed that’s nestled in jungle across from the Opua wharf in the Bay of Islands. He and his wife are in the final stages of finishing a 49ft steel cutter that they plan to launch this year and hopefully cross the Pacific to Chile and beyond in a few years time. A very nice guy and someone who I feel we’ll cross tracks with again someday. Friday came and with my elbow no better, but also no worse, we cleared customs and immigration for an early Saturday morning departure. Between now and then of course was the Friday the 13th race and so, after roping in the Fransesco, the male half of the couple who made dining at the Sunset Restaurant so enjoyable as crew,   we were in.

Nine yachts fronted up at the start line of the course that went from the start upwind to one end of the harbour, around a sunken freighter, then downwind to the other end of the harbour, then back to the start. With the wind a steady 20 kts it was expected to be all over in an hour which would give everyone time to get back to Ana’s in time for happy hour. Not having a watch we figured that we’d go when we heard the gun. Unfortunately we missed it but upon seeing Bill & Lisa, with Brian as crew, hare off up the course we set off in pursuit, being 5th over the line behind Bill & Lisa, a Beneteau 46, a Valiant 42, another Beneteau and then us, in that order. Halfway down the first leg and looking as if it would be possible to make the first mark on the one tack, we managed to work our way upwind of the first Beneteau. Putting him out of our thoughts we had just watched Bill change over onto starboard tack when out of the corner of my eye I could see the Beneteau coming straight for us. They had accidentally tacked over and were less than a boatlenght away heading straight for a collision amidships. Fortunately their jib sheet had got caught and as a result slowed them down enough for us to scoot in front, with them crossing a few yards behind our stern. With Bill & Lisa now heading off at right angles to us, and our hearts still palpitating, we figured that we’d just keep on the Beneteau 46’s track. We felt if he could make the mark, so could we. They rounded the mark about 5 boatlenghts ahead of us with Rhodora, the Valiant 42, some 2 to 3 boatlenghts behind us. The next mark was only about 100meters ahead being the far marking buoy for the sunken freighter of which the buoy we had just rounded marked the other end. Just as we were about to round this buoy the Beneteau, after having rounded the buoy and starting to settle down to the next leg, suddenly did a 180 degree turn and started to head back to the mark. At first we thought that they had missed the mark but a figure frantically swimming towards them soon told the story. They’d lost a man overboard as they had rounded the mark. We easily avoided them and the swimmer and looked ahead to see no boats. No boats at all. We were in the lead with Rhodora now 6 to 8 boatlenghts behind as she struggled to round the hapless swimmer and the Beneteau, which had overshot the fellow and was again tacking around to try and get to him. By now he looked more interested in avoiding the onrush of the rest of the fleet than being picked up. Off we went on the downwind ride expecting any moment for the lighter boats to come charging past us. It was not to be though. By the time we were halfway down the harbour we not only were holding our own but also putting more meters between them and us all the time. Liz, who up to now had been calling the shots, could just stare out over the stern, mouth agape, saying over and over in an incredulous voice, "I don’t believe it. I don’t believe it." We rounded the bottom mark and in three tacks, with Francesco winching like a man possessed, crossed the line a easy winner. Later that night we accepted our first prize of a 6-pack of Tongan beer and thanked everyone for making our stay so pleasant, Especially Bill & Lisa, who besides organising the race, had made us feel so welcome.


Cheers till next time, Phil & Liz.      Feburary 1998