It is a fast and bumpy ride as Florence crashes her way through the waves on the way south from Seychelles. This ocean passage is notorious for its rough weather and potentially boat breaking conditions near to Madagascar. It is with no small amount of trepidation that we set out to sail this first leg of our 2000 mile offshore ocean passage to South Africa via the Mozambique channel.
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Nothing had startled us. No bobbing, no rolling, no slapping, no gurgling. It’s well over a year since we spent a night on solid ground and the lack of motion is startling.
Our floating home is still our home, yet she is no longer floating. The turquoise waters that usually surround us are now concrete. Dusty, grey concrete. Our toilet and fridge are rendered un-usable. The relentless trade winds blow a layer of dirt over the decks. Getting aboard means climbing a long rusty ladder. Life on the hard is..well…hard. Florence is literally out of her element and we are feeling well out of ours.
There aren’t many things that feel as unnatural to a sailor as having their boat on solid ground, propped up with metal supports. We are grateful that the time here is limited, that we will soon be returning to our more natural state.
Why are we even here? Despite this batch of antifoul faring much better than the last, we had promised ourselves we would never let the antifoul paint get so low again. Nearly a week spent removing barnacle bases in NZ caused some very solemn promises to be made. Florence’s hull has started to grow weed that needs regular removal with a swim and scrub; not so appealing in crocodile infested waters. A few more scrubs and there would be no paint left. Thoughts of this, teamed with the lack of haul out facilities in Indonesia are what brought us to be sat on the dusty hard instead of enjoying the beautiful tropical island neighbouring the boatyard.
With the koala covered Magnetic Island just a few miles away, motivation to get out of the yard was sky high, dramatically spurred on by the fact that each extra day spent on the hard would be another $70 AUD. We ran at the yard, armed with a plan and an hourly schedule of jobs; sanding the hull, applying 4 coats of antifoul, servicing the seacocks, polishing and greasing the prop, changing the anodes, sanding and painting the underside of the dinghy, a major provision for Indonesia, stocking up with food, fuel, cooking gas and water for the next 3 weeks plus applying for and posting the application for our Indonesian visas. With some sanding and painting by spotlight the aim was to be out in 3 days. For a life of wild abandon, we still seem to do an awful lot of work and forward planning.
Less than 72 hours after being plucked from our element, we were on target, Matt scrubbing the decks, Amy peddling as fast as her folding bike could carry her, arms full of provisions, eager to make the rapidly falling tide.
Our tight schedule did not take into account a possible delay in the travel lift getting to us and it was with heavy hearts that we watched the tide flow out and resigned ourselves to another night in the yard. The yard manager softened the blow by offering to operate the lift himself at dawn the next day, not charging us for the night and giving us use of a fridge for our rapidly wilting provisions.
Squeeky clean after one last unlimited hot shower, we hopped aboard and shot across to Magnetic Island. With new paint and a polished prop, Florence gained nearly 1 knot in speed.
Florence is now back at anchor, bobbing around in her element. We are home. A gust hits her side, momentarily heeling her over and spinning her sideways before she is sent back to a gentle roll, wavelets lapping at the hull. “Ahhh” we sigh before drifting into a deep and satisfying sleep.
Our time on Magnetic Island was short but sweet, not only due to the excellent ice-cream. Hiking from the anchorage to the popular Forts walk, we found so many wild koalas we actually lost count. Koala’s so close to the path we could see them breathing. Healthy looking males, females and babies. The poor nutritional content of their diet, means they sleep for over 18 hours per day. It’s estimated that there are around 800 koalas on Magnetic Island. One was so close that listening carefully, you could hear him snoring. Watching him, then finding a mother trying to snooze as her baby climbed all over her was one of those special moments that will stay with us forever. Australia’s wildlife has provided us with so many of those magical moments.
Following signs for Florence Bay; (how could we miss that?) we made our way round the eastern side of the island back to our anchorage in Horseshoe Bay.
Heading ashore the following day for a walk on the beach and to sample another flavour of the excellent icecream, we discussed whether we should carry the camera. “no let’s not bother” “okay but now something awesome will happen, like one of those parakeets landing on my head”. A few hours later…..
Thanks to the lovely Dutch couple watching who sent us the photos!
The general advice from both locals and fellow travelers regarding New Zealand was to get a vehicle to explore the country. As one kiwi put it “a camper van goes upwind much better than a boat”. It was with mixed feelings that we began our search for a vehicle, we flitted between excitement at the prospect of seeing more of this beautiful country and apprehension at complicating the simple life we have grown to know and love. Although we both agreed that a break from the boat would do us both good, we also knew we would miss Florence and life on board.
With the decision made, we set out in search of the kind of van we had always envisioned road tripping around New Zealand with; a simple, hippy looking, slightly battered but reliable old Toyota Hiace or similar.
It was therefore a bit of a shock to be driving down the highway, one week later, sat in the plush leather seats of a fancy pants people mover. The backpacker market had pushed up the price of vans and so we chose to remove the seats from a SUV of a similar price, place a bed in the back and then return the seats to sell it as a car a few months down the line. In return for slightly less space we got a much newer and hopefully more reliable vehicle.
With a week in hand before our friends Scott and Amy finished work for Christmas, we headed south to the Coromandel Peninsula; known as Auckland’s playground.
We love hiking, partly because its free but also because it gives us the opportunity to get some exercise whilst gaining a great view of the area. Our time in the Coromandel was a great opportunity to get some training in for our upcoming big hiking trips in South Island. Our first stop was a warm up walk around the Karangahake Gorge, an old gold mine with trails through the gorge and mine tunnels.
The next day we set off from the campsite in search of the highest peak, via a 6 hour hike.
A brief stop on the coast allowed us to stretch our legs along the coastal path to Orokawa beach.
Tauranga and Mount Maunganui
Ann and Ross, one of the first couples we had met back in Portugal are kiwis, based in NZ for half of the year. We took them up on their invitation to call in when we reached NZ. They opened up their beautiful home to us and we enjoyed a lovely couple of days in their company. We walked off some of their delicious cooking with hike up and around the base of nearby Mount Maunganui, a volcanic mount with views over the city.
The Pinnacles Track
The Pinnacles walking track on the Coromandel is voted as one of the must do things in the area so when we heard news that the track would be reopening following a 9 month closure due to storm damage, we headed to the Kauaeranga valley and the start of the hike.
There is a hut you can stay in close to the peak but you can also complete the hike back down in the same day (around 6 hours). We chose the day option and started our walk up the picturesque Kauaeranga valley as soon as the trail opened.
The trail crosses over the river in several places, often with the aid of a suspension bridge.
It was a steep climb on a hot day, but we were rewarded with incredible 360 views across the Coramandel from the Peak.
A swim in the river on the way back down was a great way to cool off.
In order to avoid the South Pacific cyclone season (and therefore hopefully avoid all cyclones) we will have a total of 6 months in New Zealand, the longest we have spent in any one country on the trip so far. Such a solid amount of time gives us an excellent opportunity to have a break from sailing and explore inland. It also provides us the opportunity to catch up with friends Amy and Scott who moved to New Zealand 3 years ago. After so long away from home, it is really refreshing to spend time with old friends. The kind of old friends who are so good that within minutes of seeing them, it feels you have never been apart.
Amy and Scott opened their NZ home to us; our first experience of staying in a solid, non-floating home in a year and a half. Being off of the boat really made us think about all those little luxuries we used to take for granted:
A non-moving square bed with no night watch to wake for, or need to check the anchor in the middle of the night.
A washing machine, plus the ability to hang out your washing without the risk of losing it forever into the deep blue.
Internet fast enough to Skype and actually open web pages.
Boiling water at the flick of a switch, more tea anyone?
A front opening fridge, no need to clear your work surface and empty the entire contents of your fridge just to access one item.
Walking further than 37ft on a whim, whenever we liked, often just to open the fridge door or flick the switch on the kettle.
Amy and Scott are keen surfers and mountain bikers and as we were staying with them over Christmas it was clear what we would be doing. A visit to Piha beach for a few days surfing followed by a trip to the world class mountain biking trails at Rotorua. We didn’t take many pictures as all our time and energy was taken up having fun. Scott and Amy showed us their silky surfing skills whilst we just managed not to drown in the 5-7ft waves. Although Amy had a close encounter with the life guards when a rip current swept her out to the rocks and Matt ended up with a bruise and sandpapered forehead when a wave pummeled him into the sandy bottom. We had a great time though and being in the water at 7am for a surf with friends was the best way to start our Christmas day.
After a BBQ Christmas dinner we headed town to Rotorua, the site of some of the best mountain bike trails in the world. We only planned to hire hard-tail mountain bikes (front suspension only) but due to a problem with the only budget bike available in Matt’s size, we ended up on a pair of VERY NICE full suspension bikes. After the first run down we were very glad of the full suspension (and the shuttle bus to take us back up again). Matt was determined to take it easy and avoid injury but whilst following Scott down the trails his competitive spirit prevailed and the red mist came down. Somehow we all avoided injury, probably because we arrived at the bottom of the hill on our last day, just too late to catch the bus up for that fateful ‘last run down’. (Note: last time Matt went for a ‘last run down’ at Nevis range in Scotland he ended up with cracked ribs!)
We rounded out our time in Rotorua with a few runs down the luge. This was a hilarious experience, Super Mario karting in real life. Amy was laughing so much at the super competitive Scott and Matt bashing each other into the corners that she forgot she was supposed to be overtaking them! This will be the first time in our lives we feel that we have come out of Christmas feeling fitter than we were before Christmas.
We will all be back on board Florence (having missed her very much) to welcome in the New Year, so we wish you all a very healthy, successful and happy 2018.
Blurry eyed from the kind of sleep only achieved from tying to a dock after 7 rough, sleep deprived days at sea, we momentarily forgot where we were. The chill in the air had us snuggled beneath a duvet for the first time in over a year, whilst the chatter of people floated down the dock, English speaking but with a funny accent. As we pulled on our thermals and socks (sub-tropical climate my backside), it dawned on us where we were and what it meant to us.
Our arrival into New Zealand brought out two distinct emotions, first was excitement that we had successfully sailed half way around the planet and arrived in a country that we had always wanted to visit. Second was relief that we had made it safely and were now back in a place where if we had any problems with the boat, there were a whole host of people and businesses who would be able to help us. Something we did not write about is the feeling that if we had a problem in the Pacific islands then we were essentially on our own to fix it.
A week in Opua marina, flew by with Amy giving Florence a deep clean from deck to bilges and Matt touring the local services. We needed to receive quotes and find supplies for the long list of jobs we have coming up including; fitting a new windlass, putting an inspection hatch in the fuel tank, fixing the alternator, replacing the lower shrouds and changing the bearings in the steering pedestal etc. At one point, being too lazy to fully empty the cockpit locker and needing to get at the steering gear, Matt crawled head first into the cockpit locker. As he inched further under the cockpit floor, the pile of ropes on which he was balanced shifted, leaving him stuck upside down with just his ankles protruding from the cockpit locker. Instead of running to his aid, Amy had to wait for her fits of giggles to die down before she was capable of extracting him from the locker!
Being attached to land brought novelties such as easy access to fresh water, laundry, showers and shops, as well as walking and cycle routes. On a bike ride over to Russel, we came across a kiwi in the woods. In our naivety we presumed that as they are the national bird, we would see them everywhere. It was only when we mentioned it in passing to someone we found out that sighting them in the wild, during the day, is very rare and many locals have never even seen one. It seems we should have got the camera out
The attachment to land was growing stronger as the week went on, so we cut the umbilical cord that was becoming more firmly routed to the dock and escaped into the Bay of Islands. We had heard great things about the beauty of the bay with its abundance of stunning sheltered anchorages and we were not disappointed. We happily set about exploring the islands and the walking trails on Roberton, Moturoa and Urpukapuka Islands. The scenery reminded us of a mixture of the Lake District and Cornwall but with less people. With pine trees and gorse the islands even smelt like home, giving us an odd feeling being back in the UK, despite being half a world away.
Our friends James and Tanya who’s day jobs are running a 72ft Oyster, came to slum it with us for a couple of days. There were a few thumps from the quarter berth as they adjusted to the reduced head room!
Seafood is plentiful in the bay and it seems everyone is a fisherman/woman here. We often lack the patience to sit and wait for a bite on the line and preferred to go and pick our seafood from the rocks in the form of green lipped mussels. This was the first time we had been able to gather mussels since we were in Spain.
Its amazing what you have to learn when cruising. When entering the bay at Roberton island we went to start the engine to find that it would not start. Matt immediately suspected the ignition (not an immediate fix), so we anchored under sail. On disassembling the ignition he found water had made it’s way inside and it was so corroded as to be un-usable. So we had to hot-wire the ignition to get started. We worked our way through this and got the engine going. Matt then made up a temporary harness of separate switches from our spares and we were back in action.
Before leaving the Bay of Islands we had been recommended to visit the W treaty grounds and learn about the history behind interactions between Maori and European settlers. We anchored Florence just below the Treaty House and spent the best part of a day in the grounds, it was well worth the visit.
We have made a rough plan for our exploration of New Zealand and the first thing we need to do is find ourselves a vehicle. So we will be heading down to visit our friends in Auckland and hunt for a second hand van which we can throw a mattress into to go touring in.
Wow, that is our blog fully up to date, its been a while since that was the case. Thanks for all the comments its always good to hear from you all.
As cyclone season officially starts in November in the South Pacific, we need to get to a safe area where cyclones do not strike. Our options are, north to the Marshall Islands or south to either Australia or New Zealand. Since we have always wanted to visit New Zealand and have friends there, this was an easy choice.
The passage from Tonga to New Zealand can be difficult as we will be sailing away from the steady trade winds and into a zone where the weather is determined by weather systems spinning up out of the southern ocean. This passage is notorious among cruisers for being a rough one, the general wisdom being that you have to deal with bad weather at some point on the route, you just get to choose where you get it (beginning, middle or end). So we need to find a weather window to leave before the onset of cyclone season (which officially starts in November) but not too soon so as to avoid late winter storms on our arrival to New Zealand (which often occur in October/November). We have been scrutinising the weather forecast for weeks and think we had found a good window.
12:00 – After reviewing the forecast again over coffee with our friends Jim and Linda we have sadly upped anchor from Uonukuhahaki, (no we can’t pronounce it either but it is Tongan for ‘Lobster Island’) and started the much anticipated journey south. Although we do not feel ready to leave our friends and the tropics we feel this is a weather opportunity we can not miss. Jim and Linda softened the blow by serenading us out of the anchorage and packing us off with some delicious fresh bread and home baked goodies. With a gentle breeze and the flat seas in the shelter of the outer islands, we are gliding along under spinnaker. Maybe this won’t be so bad after all.
17:00 – We are thankful of the good visibility as it just became apparent that not all the reefs we can see are on the chart. Whilst we were keeping a keen lookout we spotted several mother and calf humpback whales, swimming side by side and shooting water into the air from their blow holes. They were also in a rush to move south for the summer so unfortunately did not hang around long. Full of the excitement of the day and the prospect of arriving in New Zealand, we are feeling too high on life to settle properly into the routine of our night watches.
We are now outside the shelter of the islands and in the open ocean. The wind and waves have picked up and we are down to a double reefed mainsail and single reefed genoa. The excitement of yesterday is eroding with each wave that slams into the side of the hull. Despite the increasing discomfort and struggle to find our sea legs, we are making great progress.
The wind and waves increased in the night, with 30+ knots and waves regularly washing over the boat and through the cockpit. The night watches were a miserable affair, wrapped up in full foul weather gear and clipped on we took it in turns to cower on the cockpit floor under the small shelter of the spray hood, occasionally leaping up to help out the self steering as Florence surfed sideways down some of the bigger waves. They would knock us sideways with such force that the half the stanchions on the leeward side would be momentarily underwater. The violent rolling meant constantly wedging ourselves and bracing against the boat to avoid being thrown around too much. Although with all the hatches locked shut, life below was preferable to that on deck, it was far from comfortable. The pressure of the waves slamming into the deck were causing leaks around the the deck fittings, impossible to fix under way. We fought to ignore Chinese water torture, the boom of waves slamming into the hull and the bucking bronco style bed to get some sleep before the next watch. In the traditional British way, Amy suggested all that was needed to improve our mood was a good cup of tea. The enjoyment of the tea was unfortunately totally diminished by the 15 minute, braced against the stove to keep the kettle in place, extreme challenge of pouring the water into the cup, keeping the cup upright whilst it cooled and successfully getting the tea from the cup into our mouths. We resigned to spend the rest of the day discussing why we go sailing offshore and what on earth we do this to ourselves for.
More of the same, softened only by the fact there are no Halloween Trick or Treaters out here and we are doing 6-7 knots straight at the target. We had now taken the mainsail down and were sailing with just a triple reefed headsail, a bot slower but much better for us and Florence. This way the self steering copes better but we still have waves washing the cockpit occasionally. With only this small amount of sail up there is little need to go outside and standing watch is reduced to popping a head out of the hatch every 10 minutes between waves to check for ships and squalls, a much warmer way to keep watch.
We’ll skip Wednesday…
The day brought sunshine, less wind and smaller waves, which were now coming more from our stern. The leaks stopped as soon as the waves stopped breaking over the boat and life onboard dramatically improved.
The wind dropped further in the night and came even more from the stern, meaning we needed to hoist the spinnaker to keep up our speed. In the flatter water we are averaging 7 knots. We were enjoying pancakes for breakfast, along with a much awaited cup of tea when we heard the sound of an aircraft approaching. Matt popped up on deck to see the New Zealand air force Orion (a big 4 engined aircraft) banked over swooping around behind us at about mast height, a fantastic display. The crew on the Orion then contacted us on the radio to ask who was on board and where we were going, after which we had and chat. As the aircraft is high up and has has a powerful transmitter we could hear them calling other yachts later on in the day, that were somewhere behind us. We recognised some of the yacht names and imagined a long string of yachts between Tonga and New Zealand, its always nice to find someone to chat to out in the middle of no-where!
In the early hours of the morning we saw the lights of another yacht ahead, by dawn we had drawn along side of Usqubay of Fife, a Yorkshire man and and his Scottish wife on a 40ft boat who we had met in Vavau. With Florence sailing under spinnaker, after a chat on the radio we quickly left them behind, keen to get to New Zealand before the wind was forecast to die the next day
In the early hours of the morning a rain squall caused us to drop the spinnaker. The wind gradually died off after it passed to the point where we were making less than 2 knots. With mist and rain setting in, and the wind not forecast to fill back in for a few days, we motored the last 15 miles to the customs dock in Opua, tying up at 0930 to check in.
Sat in the comfort of the Marina, having enjoyed our first hot shower in 9 months we reflected upon our achievement of sailing half way around the world. We feel proud to have accomplished this, it has been both a real challenge and a wonderful experience. We have learnt so much about the world, other cultures, sailing, and each other over the last 15 months. We are now stronger as a couple than we have ever been and feel that together we can take on anything. Now we look forward to a rest and exploring New Zealand for 6 months before continuing our voyage north to Fiji next year, after cyclone season.
Tales of humpback whales breaching off of pristine desert islands had us ready to move on to Haapai, the next island group on our route south through Tonga. In order to make our early exit from the Vavau group as simple as possible, we moved to an anchorage free of reefs on the edge of the island group. As we approached, sailing in company with Bright Moments, we found friends on Osprey already waiting there with the same idea. It’s always reassuring when other boats reach the same decision on a weather window as us. At only 65miles, the sail to the Haapai group can be done in a day (or a long day on a little boat). To make sure we arrived into the next anchorage in good light we set off in the dark at 5am with Osprey for company. Bright Moments is 9ft longer than Florence and significantly faster so they enjoyed a small lie in, safe in the knowledge they would catch us up at some point in the day.
The sail was a little bumpy and a bit more on the nose than expected but we arrived near the anchorage at 4pm, theoretically in time to still have good overhead light to see through the water and drop our anchor between the coral heads. It was a good plan, ruined by the fact it was raining pretty hard! Osprey went in first, we followed as Bright Moments caught us up, one by one we eventually each found a spot we were happy to drop the hook.
Diving over the side to check on the anchor, we found a spotted eagle ray giving it a good look over for us. The reef just in front of the boat was incredible; not as many fish or sharks as we had seen in other places, but that was more than made up for by some of the best hard and soft coral we have ever seen, both in quality and quantity.
All of our time in the Haapai group was spent in company with our friends Jim and Linda on Bright Moments, cruising from anchorage to anchorage (us with full sail and them with just a Genoa to match our speed). Although we meet lots of new friends cruising, this was the first time we had sailed in company for an extended period of time. We shared snorkelling trips, unsuccessful lobster hunts, walks, bike rides, dinners and generally just enjoyed getting to know them beyond the standard “where have you sailed from? etc.”
One day we cycled from Foa island across the causeway to Lifuka island, the highlight of this trip was the welcome we received from the village children along the road. They would all wave enthusiastically and shout out ‘hello-goodbye’, and then run out to us holding their hands out for a high five as we cycled past, giggling with laughter when we obliged.
We were unfortunately too late in the season to see many whales as they had already started their migration south back to Antarctica for the winter. Maybe next year…
As seems to be the case with every island group we visit, our time in Haapai was cut short by the weather. We would have loved to have stayed longer but a very good weather window for the 1,100 mile sail to New Zealand was approaching and we feared if we didn’t take it we might not see another as good.
The overnight sail from Niuatoputapu to the Vavau Island group was a windy one. We set of in the company of friends Jenny and Sasha who had joined us in Niuatoputapu. As we crashed over the waves, we watched them appear and disappear in the big swell which dwarfed their 43 foot boat. By the time we were approaching Vava’u we were down to our storm jib and triple reefed mainsail (as small as our sails go without dropping them completely). Believe it or not this was the best weather window for a two weeks.
We arrived into the Vava’u island group just in time for the Blue Water Festival, a great week of socialising with old friends and new, enjoying local culture and gathering information on New Zealand. Florence didn’t get her much deserved break and was instead entered into the cruisers race where she did us proud against serveral larger and racier boats.
The race was 25 miles and we welcomed David on board as crew, with a le mans start for the skippers, running down the dock and swimming out to Florence we were able to be one of the first few boats on our way and we had the Spinnaker up straight away. This helped us against some of the boats that had interpreted the rules differently and motored for the first mile! We were sailing faster than we can motor anyway. With David’s steady hand on the helm we were able to run around and gybe the spinnaker through the narrow exit channel from Nieafu and move into the lead of the race. Sadly this did not last for long, once the bigger boats were clear of the narrows they set their spinnakers and started catching up. Florence held her own and as we approached the half way point (reaching at 8 knots with the spinnaker) we had only allowed two through and were 3rd on the water.
By now we had a large pack nipping at our heels as we turned for home, sailing up wind we had a fantastic race with them, nip and tuck all the way back through to the finish. To finsh we had to get one person ashore to the bar, so Matt dove overboard and swam in as Amy brought Florence close to the Pontoon. We finshed 4th overall on the water, not bad for a little boat…
The Vava’u island group is a paradise for sailors with over 40 beautiful anchorages to choose from, each an easy short sail away on flat water, protected by the outer islands and reefs. We could have easily spent a month cruising the group but were too late in the season to be hanging around. We settled on a handful of anchorages to explore that allowed access to caves, coral gardens, walks, blow holes and stunning beaches.
Here are a few of our favourate places in the Vava’u group:
Port Maurelle Anchorage and Swallows Cave
Port Maurelle is a lovely sheltered cove 1.5 miles from Swallows Cave, a cave large enough to fit a fishing boat inside. With a gentle breeze and flat water it was a perfect opportunity to put the rig in the dinghy and make an afternoon of sailing down to Swallows Cave and back.
The afternoon light lit the inside of the cave beautifully, a huge shoal of fish were hiding inside and a 3ft sea snake slithered down the rock wall into the water below. Although deadly the snakes mouths are too small to bite anywhere other than the skin between your thumb and forefinger.
Having heard about another cave that can only be accessed by swimming through an underwater tunnel we had to find it. The trouble is that you can only access the entrance to the cave by boat and there is nowhere to anchor/moor close enough to swim to it. Spurred on by the challenge, we piled several friends from the festival onto Florence and set off to find the particular palm tree and white mark on the rock which marked the ellusive underwater entrance to the cave.
Byron was not interested in the swim so kindly took the helm and kept Florence a safe distance from the rocks while the rest of us jumped over the side and swam in. It took a leap of faith to dive then swim underwater through a rock tunnel, into the darkness of the cave, under the promise that there would be air when you popped up within it. We all popped up with huge grins on our faces and the cave was large enough to hold much more than our group of 6.
Vaka’eitu Island and the Coral Gardens
The water in the Vava’u group, although a little chilly was made for awesome snorkeling. Even in area’s without much in the way of live coral we found an abundance of life on closer inpspection. Eels and octopus would creap out of holes when they thought we weren’t looking and tons of fish would peer out from the protection of their rock. The coral gardens near Vaka’eitu are reputed to have some of the best snorkelling in the group so we moved to the anchorage to check them out. Reaching the coral gardens involves swimming over the reef at high tide, and back before the tide drops too far, making it too shallow and dangerous to return. The waves breaking over the reef, make it a challenging swim out and a scetchy swim back but the coral is well worth the effort. The variety and color of the coral was stunning and up there with the best we have seen in the pacific so far.
A short walk through the woods from this anchorage took us to some beautiful deserted beaches.
The anchorage on the far eastern side of the group had been recommended by some friends so we zigzaged our way through the reefs to anchor behind the string of outer islands. Here we met Jim and Lynda on their beautiful boat ‘Bright Moments’ and spent several days with them enjoying spectacular sunsets, walks along the beaches, wooded islands and weather beaten coast often followed by copious amounts of tea and coffee and Lynda’s wonderful cooking. We had such a good time, we decided to cruise down to the Happii’s together, the next island group in Tonga.
We had been based in the Marina during our stay in Samoa, which had made socialising and getting ashore very easy. It was a novelty to just be able to step ashore. With a great ice cream parlour across the road and a few Samoan Tala left rattling in our pockets, our final meal was a Samoan sized portion of ice cream, washed down with plenty of local beer aboard a friendly fishing boat in the Marina. Not the best way to prepare yourselves for an early start and offshore passage, but it seems we are still young and stupid (okay… just stupid).
As we silenced the 5am alarm with blurry eyes, we were already beginning to harbour regrets. Luckily the wind shadow from the huge mountainous islands of Samoa meant we had a gentle start and even had to hoist the spinnaker for a few hours to make some progress. Neptune then decided he had been far too easy on us and as we came out of the shelter of the islands we found ourselves close reaching in 25 knots of wind and a horrible cross swell. Florence pitched violently and each wave pounded into the side of the boat, sending a constant flow of water over the decks, into the cockpit and sometimes down our necks. Although we have been in much rougher seas, the motion was the most vomit inducing we have experienced. The conditions were not dangerous, just plain miserable. Amy soon couldn’t even hold down water and Matt was ill for the first time on Florence. The only way to find even the slightest relief was to lay horizontal in the hot sea bunk below deck, or wedged in the cockpit, outside in the fresh air with waves over your head. Watch change overs were lighting quick as we raced to switch over, getting dressed/stripping off on deck in order to spend as little time as possible sat/stood up in the hot, airless cabin below. Simple tasks like going to the toilet involved the dilemma of choosing to hang over the side of the pitching boat or get thrown around in the stomach lurching head (toilet) below. On the positive side, only eating 3 dry crackers in the space of 33 hours, probably balanced out the beer and ice cream consumed before we left, plus the waves were warm and as it was only a 185 mile passage, the misery would end before long.
Tired, dehydrated, hungry, and dreaming of an easy 9-5 land life, we finally spotted the beautiful island of Niuatoputapu (aka New Potato Island by sailors unable to prononce it). A couple of rusty looking posts marked the extremely shallow looking, narrow entrance through the reef. On closer inspection, we realised that the water was much deeper than it looked, it was just so incredibly clear that we could see every rock/coral patch below us. Thoughts of returning home vanished the moment we entered the shelter of the lagoon, with turtles popping their heads up to greet us, palm covered beaches and views of an extinct volcano behind us. Suddenly sailing around the world returned to being the best idea we have ever had.
As always when entering a new country by boat, the first challenge was checking in. The trouble was we were not allowed to step foot on land until we had done so, and the customs/immigration office (hut) was in the next village. We waited aboard and hoped someone ashore would spot us and kindly inform them of our presence (there had been no response to our radio calls), after 5 months in the south pacific we have learnt to be patient when it comes to formalities. Around 11am the following day, we heard a tooting car horn and spotted 3 people waving at us from the village wharf. We quickly rowed to the dock with our documents. Looking doubtfully at our little dinghy, the officials politely informed us they actually needed to complete the paperwork aboard our boat. Ferrying two Tongan ladies and a very large Tongan gentleman was a challenge for our little dinghy, even with multiple trips. It was a comical sight watching Matt trying to scoop the trailing ends of the ladies grass skirt out of the water as they precariously made it towards Florence. Luckily their enthusiasm to get back onto dry land made the paperwork unusually prompt.
Our beautiful anchorage was shared with just one other yacht; another 37ft boat owned by a New Zealand couple the same age as us. They came aboard for a chat which turned into dinner and drinks, in return for which they introduced us to some of the locals they had met, who then shared some local fish, fruit and vegetables with us.
With only 800 people living on the island, Niuatoputapu was a great opportunity for us to experience Tongan village life. A complete circuit of the island could be completed in an afternoon, but in reality took much longer, as everyone stopped to greet us. The children were some of the friendliest we have met, although our lack of Tongan and their lack of English stopped the conversation at Hello and Goodbye. They do not see many pelagi (foreigners) so seemed content for us just to wave madly and repeat these words over and over.
The island suffered a huge Tsunami in 2009 which devastated the island, killed 9 people and caused the majority of the population to move to other islands. The community is still busy rebuilding it’s churches but new pre-fabricated houses, that resemble posh garden sheds, were erected a few years ago. Locals are no longer short of food as the foliage has recovered; trees are full of coconuts, papaya, banana. The lagoon is full of fish while pigs and chickens seem to outnumber people.
Each day (except Sunday) the men of the island could be found fishing, harvesting crops or rebuilding the church, the women cooking or weaving. We learnt how many weeks it takes to produce a traditional Tongan mat which is worn around the waist to church or formal gatherings as a sign of respect. The reeds are soaked in the sea, dried and split before being painstakingly transformed into intricate designs. Formal/church gatherings are a big deal in Tonga. Every morning at 5am the church bells would ring out across the bay and we would hear the singing from the boat. With at least 3 churches in every village and several services a day, it seemed there was a constant harmony drifting across the bay (not quite so harmonious at 5am). We were told that a group in the village had been practising their singing and dancing for months in order to celebrate a Bishop coming to reopen their tsunami devastated church. Leaving our flip-flops at the door, we were welcomed into their community hut during a practice, where we sat cross-legged on woven mats among the group. The drum beat teamed with graceful dancing and beautiful singing was even more mesmerising in such an intimate setting. Our presence provided plenty of entertainment for the local children, with those who were not brave enough to sit with the strange pelagi’s, peering in at us through the gaps in the reed hut.
Amongst the seemingly traditional way of life, we were surprised at how many families on the island owned a car or truck. To us it appeared totally unbalanced on an island you can easily walk/cycle around in half a day, especially when most families lived in a one room house without electricity. We were told that even more cars were arriving on the next ferry that visits the island once every three weeks.
As the sun was setting we would often see humpback whales breeching outside the lagoon. Too far away to catch on camera but incredibly exciting to watch. We also experienced our first whale song, diving down into the ocean when snorkelling outside the reef. Although they were probably over a mile away it was easy to think we might bump into one, they sounded so close. The whales come up to Tonga to breed and give birth before returning back to the Antarctic for ‘summer’. We are very excited to see more of these amazing creatures on our journey south through Tonga.
Having recovered from our sail here and had a taste of Tonga, we were keen to make the 170 mile passage to the Vava’u group, the next islands in Tonga. Luckily this time there were no ice-cream shops and we were running low on beer.
Sailing from a paradise island into a town is normally an anti-climax. As we approached Apia, the sound of palms swaying in the breeze were replaced by the deafening clanging of piles being driven down into the dock and the turquoise water we had become accustomed to, replaced by a muddy brown sludge. It was fair to say that on first impressions, Samoa did not blow us away. As there was a charge to anchor in the bay which was similar to the Marina cost, we chose to enter a Marina for the first time in the South Pacific. After a wad of paperwork involving four separate officials in four separate offices, over 24 hours later, we were checked into Samoa and free to explore.
We had managed to arrive part way through the annual Samoan Festival, a free celebration of traditional singing, dancing and fire dancing, interspersed with more modern local bands and comedians. Sat amongst over a thousand locals, we were feeling pretty lucky as we gaped in awe at the male Samoan slap-dancing and fire knife dancing. Towards the end of the evening, the presenter made a big show of thanking all the foreign visitors (we counted about 20 foreign visitors in the audience) and asked us to come towards the stage to collect a thank you gift from Samoa. Feeling very obviously foreign and not wanting to appear rude, we reluctantly sidled to the side of the stage, hoping to be able to say thanks for the T-Shirt and slope back to our seats. No such luck, to our horror we were the only visitors to appear and were dragged onto centre stage. About 5 others eventually joined us, where we were individually thrust the microphone to introduce ourselves and state our home country. Before we could all beat a hasty retreat, the presenter announced “Well guys, you have seen how we dance in Samoa….show us how you dance in your country”. Instantly the music started, the TV cameras pointed our way and over a thousand faces looked at us expectantly. A messy rendition of the few jive moves we know saved us from standing like rabbits in headlights. As we Brits are not known for our dancing style, we probably gave a fair representation! We have never worked so hard for a free t-shirt!
From our time at the festival and speaking with a few locals (English is the 2nd language in Samoa) it soon became clear that the traditional Samoan way is of huge importance across the country. Samoa was the first Polynesian country to gain independence and great pride is taken to maintain traditional social structures and traditions such as dancing, singing, weaving, wood carving, tattooing etc.
Beneath the outwardly friendly and light-hearted approach is a strict and complex etiquette that rules life across the country. Aiga or extended family groups are at the heart of the Samoan way. Everyone we were introduced to was introduced as an ‘uncle’, ‘aunt’, ‘cousin’ etc. Life is not about individual advancement but growth of the Agia or extended family. Although this was very heart warming and the love of their country was infectious, it did leave us wondering how long these traditions would continue as more young people left Samoa for a more Western lifestyle, caught between the desire for individual advancement and their family responsibilities. The approach has also stunted the country’s economy as individuals who work extra hard are not personally rewarded.
Whatever the future of Samoa, we felt privileged to visit a country where everyone works to help each other and holds the view that “it doesn’t cost anything to treat each other well”. Villages say crime rare and first managed by the village, before it escalates to the police, should it be unresolved. The Police have enough free time to march their band through the streets of Apia at a very leisurely pace every single morning, in order to raise the Samoan flag outside the government offices, so village crime control seems successful!
Tattoos are an important part of the culture in each of the Pacific Islands, but no more so than Samoa, in fact the word Tattoo originates here. Never before have we sat and personally witnessed grown men wince and squirm in agony as a team of men work to hammer ink into their sensitive inner thighs/buttocks, using traditional tools and no pain relief. The traditional full body tattoos take several sessions and are only undertaken when an individual reaches a stage where they are mature and strong enough not only to complete the tattoo, but take on the social responsibility that they reflect. Those inked with the traditional tattoo have committed to provide for and protect their family and wider community and have additional duties expected of them as a result. They are permanently marked to provide and protect for the rest of their lives.
We soon began to realise other reasons why the pace of live on Samoa is so slow and relaxed. Teamed with the baking heat, there was very little sleep to be had between late night festivals/socialising/been kept awake by Marina bars and the 5am daily church bells (yes, 5am, daily).
Travelling around the island of Upolu, it seems there are nearly as many churches as houses. We heard Samoa has more churches per capita than anywhere in the world. EVERYTHING stops on a Sunday as everyone heads to church in their Sunday best. Wanting to experience local life and the Samoan singing we had heard so much about, we donned our very creased, slightly musty best clothes and joined them (at the back, near the exit).
Friends, Paul and Anne, whom we had met in Bora Bora had arranged a tour of the island with a local taxi driver and kindly invited us along. Ousa, our driver, took us to many beautiful sites we would have struggled to find ourselves, whilst answering our barrage of questions about life on Samoa. We drove through villages, rainforests, plantations and stopped to cool off, sip coconuts and swim in blue holes and waterfalls.
The tour of the island wetted our appetite to see more, so when the captain of a traditional Polynesian sailing canoe mentioned that her ‘uncle’ lived in a village at the other side of the island, where you could stay in a traditional Samoan fale (house) and hike up the river, climbing and jumping off waterfalls we didn’t take much persuading. The cheapest way of getting there involved taking a bus from town; an aventure in itself as the Samoan buses have no set time table, a wooden coach, and pack people in so tightly you might get someone on your knee. The hour long journey took 3 hours as we waited for the bus to fill up before setting off and stopped for a snack stop on route. It felt strange to be leaving Florence behind in the Marina as we set out for our first night on land in 15 months.
Set right next to the river (which is also your washroom), the fales are oval wooden structures with wooden posts, thatch roofs and no walls, allowing natural airflow in the tropical heat. Woven coconut leaf blinds can be pulled down for some privacy/protection and a mosquito net over the bed prevents you supplying dinner to the hungry jungle. The fale we stayed in was run by a village chief, Olsen and his NZ wife Jane, who run a small eco resort and work to plant trees which protect the landscape around the river.
Although very basic by most people’s standards, we felt incredibly refreshed after a great nights sleep on a big, square bed that does not move and a feast of homegrown fruit and vegetables. Olsen and Jane’s ‘nephews’ Ando and Aliki arrived early to take us up the river with Emma, a French volunteer working on their eco projects. 10 mins into the walk, we had our packs on top of our heads and were wading through waist deep water up to the first large waterfall. Having grown up with the river and falls as their childhood playground Ando and Aliki were seemingly fearless but also took great care to make sure we were safe. They would lead us up a cliff, demonstrate where there was enough water for us to jump back down, before climbing even higher themselves for don’t try this at home, death defying stunts. There were 14 waterfalls in total with pools to swim in/jump into, the highest available jump being 17 meters (both Amy and Emma decided that one made a better spectator sport).
Samoa, exceeded all of our expectations and quickly became one of our favourite stops. The beautiful scenery was made even more special by the wonderful people we met, who took the time to show us their heritage and share their love for their country. It would have been easy to spend over a month in the country and still not feel we had seen everything we wanted to. Unfortunately as usual, the season was pressing on and we needed to be heading south towards Tonga and New Zealand. With the forecast later in the week turning to headwinds, we made the decision to sail the close reach to the Northern Islands of Tonga whilst we still could.