L O G B O O K - by John Philp


MON 7th AUG - Vava’u, Tonga. Neiafu is an interesting tourist town with a decided bent towards yachties. The town is elevated above the bay on limestone bluffs so that the hotels, restaurants and bars have superb views of the anchorage. Dive operators (migratory Humpback whales are the big thing here) and yacht charter companies make up the rest of the tourist cadre.

The visitor will notice that the Tongan on the street is mellow, respectful, and traditional in dress - the ubiquitous ta’ovala (sulu ni vakaloloku) is worn by most office workers; though the thriving yachtie bars seem to be neutral ground where Polynesians and palagis mix in a rousing social brew.

TUE 8th - This morning I’m flying to Nuku’alofa for a short visit while the rest of the gang hang out in Neiafu. The flight over is magic. From this height the scores of beautiful uninhabited islands in the Hapa’i group look like tiny jewels, encased within cresting white reef lines.

Sleepy Nuku’alofa hasn’t changed much - it’s still a flat ambiguous town, with crushed coral back-streets, pigs (and kids) running in wild abandonment, and uhum.... well fed citizens. As in Vava’u they are respectful and generous souls, their insouciance enhanced with a playful sense of humour.

FRI 11th - We depart Neiafu early, heading out for a little tour of the Vava’u archipelago. First stop is Mala Island where a small up-market resort is nearing completion. The owner’s are distant relatives, the connection being through a pair of brothers four generations prior, one of whom became a missionary in the Lau Group, Fiji and never came back. Tau (my cousin) thinks it’s a grand joke that our yacht is called Tau, telling everyone we named the boat after him! Tongan style, a welcome feast is planned, but as the resort is still in a state of disarray, and we have to get moving we explain that perhaps it’s better they save their energies for the resort, and that we’ve eaten two lovos (i.e. two pigs) over the last two evenings, this would make three in a row - thanks anyway, maybe next time? His wife Heilala seems disappointed - “Ooh___ you not staying four (for) tinna (dinner)?”

It was difficult getting to sleep this night, was it the coffee or the excitement of our impending arrival in Fiji?

SAT 12th - Heading outside the outer reef of the Vava’u Group we pass a small team of pilot whales spouting into the air. A short way north around the outside of the island and we are very carefully threading through the incredibly narrow (150’ wide) rock wall lined entrance into the Hunga Island lagoon leaving 12” to spare under the keel. Tony decides to leave the lagoon quickly in case the tide drops any further stranding us until next tide change. From here we sail around the magnificent limestone cliffs towards Vava’u Island. Here the limestone islands take on weird and wonderful geometric shapes, lush green jewels sewn onto a fabric of cloudless blue sky and tranquil waterways.

Now we point our bows towards home, the irony of sailing over 26,000 miles and finding the nicest group of islands and people in our backyard not wasted on us.

Needing more fish to replenish dwindling stocks we set the line and within a couple of hours Tony is fighting to reel in a magnificent Mahi Mahi, with a quivering bright yellow body and a brilliant extended sail of Lapis Lazuli. Safely gaffed and on-deck it is the biggest Mahi Mahi I ever remember seeing.

To crown a wonderful day, the sunset is extraordinary, the clouds rolled back to the horizon like a giant carpet, exposing a boundless sky, the light suffused in such a way as to make the world seem larger, the horizon more protracted - like watching a TV show suddenly become a movie on an IMAX screen.

Just then a green flash on the mainsail above, ‘What the___?’. Monifa and I look around in astonishment to see the tail of a fiery meteor blazing across the dark sky. Someone tells me later that an asteroid belt visits the earth at this same time each year spinning off an average of seventy meteors each hour.

SUN 13th - Motoring since last night when the wind left us, we’re heading towards Niua Fo’ou (Tin Can Island), halfway between Fiji and Tonga. We sight her at midday and resume under sail when the wind freshens.

As we approach the island a baby humpback whale pops up beside us and swims along for a while, until she hears a high pitched whistle from a larger whale further back in our wake, most likely a call to return to Mom, because she disappears immediately, returning obediently to the fold. Lydia, below decks in her cabin, heard the whistle clearly through the hull.

When we near Niua Fo’ou we discover an island of black volcanic rock, gentle green hills sloping down to rocky bluffs plunging directly into deep azure ocean. Coconut and Nokonoko trees crowd over themselves to reach the ocean except in a few places where the rock is grey and lifeless, the lava flow from the 1946 eruption which destroyed all the houses on the island obliging the King to relocate it’s residents to another island. Many have since returned and in fact the King was just here for a visit, only departing yesterday. Approaching from the SE we sail around to the western end where there is understood to be an anchorage in the right conditions. Niua Fo’ou has no barrier reef and the island drops away immediately into the oceans depths you see. This is how she got the name Tin Can island, as ships, lacking an anchorage would toss the islands mail overboard in tin cans and the locals could swim out and retrieve it. Like the old mail ships we’re not able to find even a hint of a roadstead, and Tony makes way for Savusavu instead. Onwards to Fiji!

The island disappears quickly in our wake as we sail off on a square reach at ten knots, the boat heeled over and driving fast. It is an unrivaled pleasure helming in this breeze.

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