Thursday, August 4, 2016

Suwarrow: A Pit Stop on the Way to Tonga

Our days in French Polynesia were numbered.  Literally.  The government here gave us (and all non EU member passport holders) just 90 days to see their five archipelagos and countless islands. So we had to go on July 17, exactly 90 days after checking in at Hiva Oa.  

Our friends Mark and Dee aboard Speakeasy were in the same boat, so we celebrated our cruising exploits in French Polynesia with a dinner at the authentic Polynesian restaurant known as Bloody Marys.  OK, it's a tourist spot, but we didn't have to cook and we had fun with good friends.

Speakeasy left a day before we did so for our very last night we tried another restaurant on the shore just off Moonshadow's stern in Bora Bora called St. James and were blown away by the exquisite preparation, presentation, flavor, and service.  Quite memorable, and just the thing before days at sea. 

Then it was time to drop our mooring and put Bora Bora behind us...

... and add these flags to our growing bag of courtesy flags from places we've visited.

The Cook Islands comprise 15 islands spread all over the vast Pacific between French Polynesia and Tonga.  One of the northernmost islands is lonely Suwarrow, an atoll with a collection of small motus.  Suwarrow has never really been populated except for some Coast Watchers stationed here during World War II to report on enemy sightings.  Then in 1952, an Englishman named Tom Neale decided to move here to see if he could make it alone.  He ended up staying here for years and wrote a book about it called An Island to Oneself.  More recently, the Cook Islands designated the Suwarrow Atoll a National Park and station one or two Park Rangers here for six months each year.

Now days, Suwarrow gets visits from about 80 yachts per year.  Moonshadow and our friends aboard Wave Dancer were the 16th and 17th boats to stop here this year.

Remnants from the pier that Tom Neale rebuilt single handed during his time here still exist for cruisers to tie their dinghies.

When the Park Rangers arrive at the end of each cyclone season, they have a mammoth job to clean up after the ravages of the storms.  This year, the Rangers told us all the coconuts were stripped from the trees by high winds. Ashore, the fruits of their labor was much appreciated.

Suwarrow is a long way from anywhere!

This year, the Suwarrow's Park Rangers are a father/son team, Harry and Pae.  Here, Speakeasy's Mark is explaining new fashion trends to Pae, who'd never seen anyone attempt plaid on plaid.

When Tom Neale arrived here in 1952, this shack, built for the WWII Coast Watchers became his home. 

One of the first things Tom found left behind was a very eclectic collection of books.  Today the same bookcase holds the Cruisers' Book Exchange.  It didn't take long for Deb to discover this little gem:

The December 2014 issue of Latitude 38!

With friends Mark and Deanna, a short hike to the other side of the island took us past Tom's garden and through some thick island foliage where the scenes were beautiful.

Along the way, we could see the Rangers' collection of fishing gear that had drifted onto the windward shore.

But that wasn't all that made it to these shores.  We thought it a shame to come this far and see plastic littering the shore, so the girls suggested we invite the other yachts anchored in the lagoon to join us for a litter pickup party.

Vladimir and Galina of the ketch Wave Dancer
It didn't take us long for the crews of Moonshadow, Speakeasy, Wave Dancer, and Silver Linx to produce eight trash bags of stuff from the beach.  We found all sorts of interesting things, but by far the most common were empty plastic bottles, bottle caps, cigarette lighters, and flip-flops.  

The most unusual thing in our collection was this electric walking dinosaur.

Yep.  We know how to beautify a place alright!

Our new friends the Park Rangers, were grateful for the cleanup effort.
Deb and Dee were grateful for any chance to pose with Pae. 

Pae, who grew up on another very remote Cook Island about 200 miles NorthEast of Suwarrow called Manihiki, explained that when they reached the age of 8, all the male children were taken to an uninhabited motu with an elder where they learned to live off the land for a month.  These skills are now quite valuable to Harry and Pae in their current role as Suwarrow Park Rangers as they receive no support or supplies during the six months they are stationed here and they must live off the fish they catch, and the plants that grow naturally on the small island.  Pae told us these coconut crabs are edible and taste sweet like coconut.  We also learned that sometimes these crabs, equipped with pinchers that can crush a coconut, appear in bed at night.

Yeah.  No thanks!

Back aboard Moonshadow, despite the appeal of warm water so clear you could see the bottom 60 feet below, we never quite felt like taking a dip.  

Though we've swum with these Black Tip Reef Sharks before, the fact that there was always a squad of 3 or 4 circling the area just off our stern seemed a bit intimidating here.  That, and the words Pae had said kept ringing in our ears.  Pae had told us that nobody has been bit in the lagoon, then added that Black Tip Sharks are, after all, uh, sharks.  

Yeah.  No thanks!

We much preferred being ashore on Suwarrow where we could get protection from the infernal wind that was blowing 20+ day and night.  There were lots of squalls around threatening to drench us, but most of them missed a direct hit. Then there was this visit from an alien spacecraft.

So we figured it would be a good time to press on for Nuie.  
Or Niuatopotapu.  
Or Vava'u.

Actually, we cleared out of Suwarrow, with a stated destination of Nuie, a single island nation where there is no harbor or safe anchorage.  Instead, Nuie has about 20 mooring buoys for cruisers along it's western shore.  If the wind switches to the west, you must leave immediately for there is no protection from the wind or sea.  So when, on the morning of our departure, the weather forecast suddenly showed westerlies a few days hence, we diverted to Niuatopotapu, the northern-most island group in Tonga.

Niuatopotapu is so hard to pronounce that cruisers took to calling it "New Potatoes".  But we read that the islanders don't appreciate that term, so we started practicing.  It isn't that hard, you just have to pronounce every letter.  It is a mouthful though.  

On the second morning at sea, we decided to divert to Vava'u island group in Tonga, about 160 miles south of Nuiatopotapu, because the wind had veered south, began blowing hard, like 28 knots, and big seas were building.  Although we were enjoying a fine sail on a broad reach and just flying, we didn't want to set ourselves up for sailing in those conditions from Nuiatopotapu to Vava'u (that leg bears almost due south).  

Silly us.  The wind returned to the east, settled down to 12-15 knots, the big seas disappeared, and the forecast westerlies in Nuie never materialized.  By now, there was nothing to do but enjoy the sunset and an absolutely delightful sail on to Vava'u where we would see lots of friends.

Our passage took just under four days, covering 745 miles during which the first two days we sailed 418 miles in 48 hours.  We were fast enough that we had to heave to (basically stop while at sea) in the lee of Vava'u's main island, Matu'anua, to wait for the sun to rise.  When it did, it looked for a moment like we were at good ole Point Loma which guards the entrance to San Diego Bay.  

Since we will be in Tonga for the next two months before sailing beyond to New Zealand, we will have much to see, learn and write about in our next blog.  Till then, here's what we know:  Neiafu, the main town in the Vava'u group has a very well protected harbor with dozens of mooring buoys... 

...there are scores of anchorages to visit...

...and we are still a long way from anywhere!

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

South Seas Shuffle in the Societies

The Society Islands, one of five island groups that make up French Polynesia, run roughly 200 miles from the south end of Tahiti northwest to Bora Bora.  Huahini, Raiatea, Tahaa, and Bora Bora are loosely referred to as the Leeward Islands because the prevailing south-east winds put them directly downwind of Tahiti and Moorea.  So we planned both sets of visits by the kids to start in Papeete, Tahiti, and end in Bora Bora, making all the sailing easy downwind legs.

We didn't want to subject our visitors to the 160 mile bash upwind back to Tahiti, so while Scott and Deanna flew home from Bora Bora, we figured on motoring back to Papeete aboard Moonshadow. Upwind, yes, but we're tough, salty old sailors.  We can take it!  

But we got lucky.  There just happened to be a window of 15-18 hours of North wind shortly after Scott and Deanna departed, so we dashed back to Tahaa, caught some sleep and proceeded through the lagoon to Raiatea, then on to Papeete, sailing on a port tack reach the whole way.  

This gave us a chance to witness the awesome power of the southerly swell crashing onto the reef on either side of Moonshadow as we entered the pass to the lagoon around Tahaa.  

These waves served a sober reminder why we never attempt such things in the dark.

Back in Papeete, we tied up to the new modern docks, located along the old quay where, until recently, yachts tied up "Tahiti Style" - stern to the quay, anchored from the bow.  John took the picture below in 1971 from atop the barkentine Stella Maris's fore-royal yard arm.  The two white hulled, clipper bowed yachts in the picture are a Herreshoff ketch and the gaff-schooner Fairweather, which John lived and crewed aboard at the time.

You cannot find that building in the photo's background today; nor any of the other buildings that lined the Boulevard de la Reine Pomare IV all those years ago; nor the millions of Vespa scooters that whizzed by the yachts on the quay, driven by beautiful Tahitian women wearing pareos and flowers; nor the flatbed trucks converted to busses with palm roofs and steps up the back.  No, Papeete is nothing like the romantic image that was seared into John's memory at the age of 19 forty-five years ago.

So we were anxious and happy to depart Papeete for Moorea where a record 70 other yachts participating in the 2016 Pacific Puddle Jump Rendezvous dropped anchor in beautiful Cook's Bay.

Cook's Bay, Moorea.  Capt. Cook never anchored here, choosing neighboring Opanohu Bay to the west.
Organizers somehow managed to take over the Bali Hai Hotel on Cook's Bay for the three day event attended by about 200 cruisers from all over the world.   All of us converged here after sailing over 2800 miles from ports all up and down North and Central America.  

Dancers from the Marquesas and Tahiti performed authentic dances from the times long before Cook sailed these waters.  

The performers were eager to portray Polynesian life and traditions unique to their heritage.

And it's really, really entertaining...

... but not nearly so entertaining as watching your cruiser friends trying to dance like  Tahitians...

Moonshadow friends Mark (Speakeasy) and Allen (Nauti-Nauti)
...some did better than others.

Moonshadow friend Gina (Carthago)
The Rendezvous was a bit like a high school reunion where you run into friends you haven't seen for some time.  We all share a common strain of our DNA that makes us alike.  We all like to talk at length about fixing water pumps.  We have all crossed that ocean.  

Then the games began.  Evidently a big sport in old Polynesia was to see how many cruisers you could send to the hospital with muscle and joint injuries!

But seriously, where else can you get a chance to jump into an out-rigger canoe?  And what are the odds that a bunch of laid back cruisers are going to be so damn good at it?

And what are the odds that this scrawny crew would make the finals?

Besides the crew from Moonshadow and Speakeasy, boat #3 had Prince William in the bow.  How could we lose?
So here is this year's mob of cruisers all doing pretty much what we do aboard Moonshadow.  Having the time of our lives.  Some we'll see down the track, some will be friends for life.  Some we'll never see again.  

Photo: Latitude 38

From the Moorea Rendezvous, we returned to Papeete and prepared Moonshadow for our next set of visitors, our son Ryan, wife Shelly and their kids, Brandon and Natalie.

Their 5:00 AM arrival allowed us to sail across the 12 mile channel to Moorea that same day.

So after umpteen hours of travel, we put the kids to work sailing Moonshadow.

Soon enough, we were enjoying watching the grandkids rediscover the joys of boats...

...turquoise water...

... paddle boards...

... and new friends...

They remembered that these paddle boards go way faster towed behind a dinghy.

Just like riding a bike!

Although maybe a little faster this time around.

There was no shortage of things to do.

Like selfies, in and out of the water.

We found there was a dolphin discovery program at a nearby hotel.

With Natalie a life long dolphin lover, this was a no brainer.

Or maybe it's a girl thing!

Looks like they all had fun.

But then, anything you do with grandkids is fun!

Before long we were enjoying the sunset from our anchored spot between the island and the reef.

The sail to Raiatea would take almost 13 hours, so we let everybody sleep while we woke at 0200 to get underway.

It was a full day, but we arrived at the pass on the reef at Raiatea by early afternoon with plenty of light to navigate safely.

And before long, we were all back in the water.

This was the 4th of July so we quickly dressed ship.

Happy Birthday USA.

Time for a diving contest!!

Ryan showed us how.

Keep your feet together?  Now you tell me!

What's the 4th of July without watermelon?

We were anchored in a deep bay called Faaroa.  At the end of the bay, there are two rivers.  The one on the left is navigable by small dinghies for nearly a mile up stream.

So off we went.  And the river didn't disappoint.

So much of the south seas island look like they are tended by professional gardeners.

And the colors are so vivid.

We quickly found flowers to adorn these three beauties.

We met James, who offers a botanical tour of his land and plantations, explaining the plants and their medicinal and or nutritional benefits in his homegrown version of English.

Behind this crew is a vanilla plantation. Vanilla is a big crop in the Leeward Islands.

James opened a coconut to pass around for a taste of coconut water.

Ryan's reaction was priceless.

On the move again.  This time we're off to Tahaa.

Tahaa shares a common reef with Raiatea which surrounds the two islands and provides a navigable  lagoon inside the protection of the reef.  So this resulted in almost 20 miles of smooth flat water to our next anchorage.

Vacation-like behavior!

Evidently it is possible to dive with mask and snorkel.

Every day ends with a pre-sunset swim...

... which is always followed by a beautiful sunset.

The multi-player-paddle-board-balancing contest was a riot.

They make it look easy?

Piece of cake!

You just have to be willing to look silly.

Meant to do that.

 Natalie obviously hates the water.  

And she is so camera shy.


We got this.

Time to show off.


Just chillin'.



This anchorage in Tahaa was the same spot we visited with Scott and Deanna, where we snorkeled in the "Coral Garden".  

Just like last time, the fish were so tame. They practically climb inside your face mask!

Next we sailed on to Bora Bora where we had dinner at the famous restaurant Bloody Mary's.   The floor is white sand and the food is outstanding.

With the kids scheduled for a late flight from Bora Bora, there was time on the last day 
for one last dive.  

With sting rays.  These guys look pretty menacing as they prowl around then swim straight at you.

But they're pretty harmless.  More like puppy dogs.

And Natalie, who is part fish, had no fear.

She got more ray-petting done than all the rest of us combined.

s'all good!

Back aboard Moonshadow we had just enough time for one last dive competition.

This time:  the HUG DIVE.

 Getting ready to go.

It all went by so fast...

...before we knew it, there they were with their luggage waiting for a ferry across the lagoon 
to the airport.

With months before we see family again it wasn't easy to say goodbye.

So our job is to fill those months with lots more fun!