18th September to 8th October
The sail over to Tonga from Suwarrow (Cook Islands) was a mixed bag: – two days sailing in South Pacific Convergence Zone (yes, it’s a bit of a mouthful) which means seriously gusty windy, squalls, rough confused seas, torrential rain and all round horrid stuff; then, several days of sailing perfection which means fast reaching with full sail, not rough, sunshine and oceanic beauty (a surprisingly rare state of affairs even in the South Pacific). Then, after a night dithering outside the Vava’u group of Tonga awaiting daylight, I was there.
I thought Tonga was a Pacific island with lots of budding professional rugby players ruled by the world’s fattest king. As often happens, I was wrong on all counts.
Tonga is not an island. It’s a big group of them, stretching more than 300 miles from north to south and including somewhere over 170 islands altogether. Population about 120,000 people – most of whom seem big, gentle and smiling but not looking like rugby types at all. The fat king, Tupou IV, died ages ago; the current king, King Tupou VI appears solid but humble and grounded.
Captain Cook called them the ‘Friendly Islands’, which still seems ok as folk are generally quite reserved but warm and welcoming. Even more than other Polynesians they are usually quite slender, beautiful and fine looking when young but then seem to blossom into big people – still charming and friendly but a different shape. Apparently Tonga vies with Samoa in having the world’s most obese population.
I’ve spent two weeks here already, perfectly content anchoring here and there off little islands, swimming and snorkelling and doing chores and meeting people. It’s been very sociable with dozens of boats stacked up awaiting suitable weather for the final leg to New Zealand (about 1,200 miles). At this stage of crossing the Pacific many of us know one another quite well, and have met perhaps half the boats and crews that are sharing similar journeys.
So far, I’ve just stayed in the Vava’u Group of islands. The annual Blue Water Festival has just ended: a week of eating/meeting/chatting, plus talks from assorted New Zealand sailing reps; and a wonderful sailing race, visit to small school plus miscellaneous local culture. This overdose of ‘partying’ has been an intoxicating and wonderful (yet somehow draining) experience for somewhat shy and introverted old blokes.
Racing crew on “Bright Moments”– not first, not last! (Jim and Linda out of sight and in charge).
Henrietta, with broken spinnaker track, did not race but I crewed with friendly Canadians, Jim and Linda, and colourful Dutch and Australian sailors (plus youngest race crew member, 2 yr old Kian). Too much chat and eating to win, we spent a happy few hours sailing well in the sort of conditions rare when sailing in Britain – hot sun in milky blue near cloudless sky, calm clear glistening azure sea, lush green islets and headlands….we all felt lucky to be there. And the prizes – something for everyone- were generous, with all manner of free facilities awaiting boats going to New Zealand.
A visit to ‘Ene’io Botanic Gardens
I guess there are well over 50 boats here now in Vava’u scattered between the local capital and nearby island anchorages, and I’m sure there are at least as many ‘in front’ further south in Tonga. Some go to Australia and NZ via Fiji, a few stay here through cyclone season; but Henrietta, along with many others, will linger in Tonga a week or two or three or more, until weather and my inclination are ok to head on south to New Zealand.