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Sailmithril - ocean cruising adventures

Tropical Tonga


Fiji and Tonga where we all wear skirts

tropical beach
fossilised coral

Now back in NZ after our foray to tropical climes which was a very pleasant way of spending most of the winter. Tonga is about 1,000 miles away and in 10 days you sail from winter to summer. Every winter dozens of boats do just that; on one day alone, towards the end of May, 27 boats left Opua for either Fiji or Tonga. We joined the throng. For many this is the first offshore trip and the first landfall on this first voyage is Minerva Reef which is about 500 miles away. The bizarreness of this choice becomes apparent only when you learn that the circular coral reef is just awash at high water. Pre-gps navigating in this area was a matter of white knuckles and red rimmed eyes as the sun has a habit of not shining - we had 5 days of 100% cloud. But now novices merrily pop in the co-ordinates and go for it. I once read a Desmond Bagley yarn about looking for the fabled Minerva Reef... We were a little apprehensive about arriving in Tonga as we haven't done any coral reef sailing  and the charts are quite intimidating with great swathes of shallow water drawn like a child's portrayal of puffy white clouds. There's things marked "blind rollers" and "discoloured water reported" which you'd need a dictionary to interpret. Also coral grows and some of these charts were last updated by Captain Bligh... However we arrived without mishap in Vavau; the northern group of the Tongan archipelago and encountered more yachts than since the Caribbean.
 As well as the sun seeking kiwis there are those crossing the Pacific and  Moorings and Sunsail charter boats. Because of these the islands are well mapped and we were able to explore bits of the outer reef and practise our coral skills. The heads are fairly easily seen as long as the light is good as they show up brown and the deeper water is blue. We navigated from on top of the wheelhouse roof communicating course changes by foot stamping - petulantly if the helmsman didn't answer quickly enough. Some boats have little seats built half way up the mast for a lookout and we met one guy who could operate the autopilot and even drop the anchor from aloft while his wife lounged below trying to look nonchalant but was, in truth, rather embarrassed by these o.t.t. antics. The anchorages came as a bit of a shock to us as they are deep and often the holding is poor but there is rarely much wind so we never came to any grief. We had very amusing times snorkelling, looking at how well other people dug their anchors in. We concluded that there can't ever be much wind in the Pacific as even boats which had come from Europe often had no idea how to properly set an anchor. There would be the anchor lying on the bottom and a neat pattern of zigzagged chain beside it in a heap where it had been dropped and not straightened by going astern. The British and German boats were usually the least affluent and oldest looking. We met some people we knew from the Caribbean in 1995 and spent happy hours catching up on yachty gossip.
 At other times we snorkelled on the reef enthralled by the different varieties of coral; like shrubs in a garden with fish as their bright blossoms. Many-coloured giant clams hid beneath them, their frilly curving mouths open to reveal a glowing, golden interior which snapped shut when you waved your hand above it. On empty beaches we gathered coconut windfalls, admired the many tropical flowers and dodged the semi-wild pigs that feed on the foreshore at low tide. They are small and skinny with smooth brown coats and long, long snouts. Hump back whales winter in Tonga and sometimes we saw them breach not far from our anchorage - the whole body rising straight up out of the ocean. One morning we took the dinghy to where we had seen 2 whales lolloping about for at least an hour before and were rewarded with them blowing only yards from us. They were about 30 feet long which is a bit scary next to a 10ft. dinghy! The outboard seemed to annoy them and if we drifted they came much closer to us. Usually they breathe 4 times then lift their backs further out of the water and show their tail before taking a longer, deeper dive. It's a tremendous sight to see the huge tail standing up like a solid beacon before sliding down into the depths. This experience alone was worth the trip up island.
Tonga is an independent kingdom where the monarch and nobility still have much of the ruling power denied their kind in the rest of the world. The people are almost all Polynesian where big fat women are considered most beautiful. They have a sleek, shiny look in their corpulence not the pasty unhealthy look of western fat ladies - but I suppose the strain on their hearts is the same. Christianity is a very powerful force with everything closed on Sunday and respectability of dress expected of everyone. This turns out to mean that everyone wears a skirt - women full, calf length ones and men a straight cut tight fitting wrap around item. It's remarkable how quickly you get used to seeing men in skirts. Most also wear a sort of plain square apron made of woven coconut fibre. This is a similar badge to a tie on a western business man. The older and more tatty the apron the more venerable a family heirloom it is and is only worn on special occasions. Some men wear other more elaborate tasselled aprons which appear to be crocheted - the equivalent of a psychedelic kipper tie perhaps. Tongans are well known for the quality of their craft work and in the busier anchorages a stately big woman will sit, surrounded by beautiful woven baskets and tapestries, in the bow of a rickety dinghy usually driven by a skinny, taciturn old man smoking a cigarette. She stops at all the boats and after a little polite conversation will show you her wares. The most sought after trade goods are, in order of preference, tinned corn beef, tinned tuna, milk powder, instant coffee and cigarettes - the last spoken with a nod to the driver. There's no pleading with you to buy; one no and off she goes to the next boat. After a month you must get your visa extended and this costs $25 each for another month. Rather than renew we decided to go on to Fiji as the distance back to NZ is similar and besides I wanted to make some chutney and there weren't any mangos in the Tongan market.
 Our passage to Fiji was a real eye opener about how other folks cruise. We had a slow but relaxing 5 day passage downwind averaging 90 miles a day - you could stand a lot of that, we thought, as we read, sunbathed and caught fish every day. The only thing we missed was the company of seabirds that you don't get in tropical waters. According to my bird book circumnavigating by the trade wind route you never get to see a wandering albatross. We arrived in Suva to find at least 3 other boats who had left Tonga after us already settled in. This was a bit embarrassing as they were all smaller than us and we thought they must have been tweaking sails day and night but it turned out that they motored most of the way. On investigation we found that most people motor rather than sit becalmed which we find surprising as we enjoy the calm bits - you need some time to have a shower or bake bread. 
 Suva was a whirl of activity after the rusticity of Tonga. A city of about 120,000 people it is a complex and intriguing mix of races and all the turmoil that brings with it. Fiji was British until 1970 and over the years they brought in Indians as indentured labour to work the sugar cane fields and now the Indians make up 44% of the population making their presence felt mostly in commerce as they are forbidden to own land. They tend to be the shopkeepers and civil servants. In the 1998 election they won enough support to form the first Indian government and this was followed last year with an attempted coup by indigenous Fijians. The coup failed but the balance of power seems to have shifted back to the Fijians and in the most recent election - still being counted - they won the majority of the vote. In the town you can see that the races don't get on and are bad mannered and surly to each other while everyone is friendly to foreigners as tourism is a major national income. The produce market is a microcosm of society with Chinese selling market garden produce, Indians selling okra and aubergines - exotic produce - and Fijians bananas and pineapples. The few Arabs sell imported apples and oranges. Like in Tonga many of the Polynesian men wore skirts and the police in particular have a most memorable uniform of dark blue shirt, red cummerbund and tight fitting white skirt which has a triangular cut hem like a picture book pixie. This comes to below the knee and he wears very elegant army boots below. I imagine he would have to hitch the skirt above his knees to chase a villain. You'll be relieved to know that the motor cycle cops wear trousers. We anchored off the Royal Suva yacht club which despite its impressive name is sandwiched between the malodorous, smouldering city rubbish dump and a prison. Each morning as we walked to town we passed uniformed prisoners being marched off to road working duties. Suva harbour is a vast bay protected by a coral reef but the fetch from south westerly winds is about 5 miles and the poor anchoring techniques were shown up when the wind blew from this direction at only about force 5 and boats started dragging all over the place. One guy lost his dinghy when it was jammed between him and another yacht that he dragged onto. Another was swept aground on a sand bank and there was general panic and confusion. We had earlier moved to a more sheltered anchorage about 3 miles from the town so escaped the drama. After a fortnight in Fiji we had painted the deck - our major winter task - and we headed off for New Zealand again. The most remarkable sight I've ever seen occurred on a night of a full moon when I saw a rainbow made by the moon rather than the sun. It was an astounding solid silvery arch highlighted against dark gray clouds and making 2 bright patches where it met the sea; d'ya think there'd be a crock of silver instead of gold there? Our now quite elderly and frail sails sustained some damage and we had to get the sewing machine out and make repairs to the leech of the genoa on a calm day after the wind. It's quite a struggle to get the headsail down in rolly calm seas but it is wonderful to be able to fix it properly immediately. To our amazement we arrived in Opua at the same time as a boat that left Suva the day before us. There is no need to dwell on the facts that it was a singlehander in a 34 foot sloop! 
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copyright Geraldine Foley.