Tonga to Minerva to New Zealand, dunh dunh DUNH!

It’s just over a thousand miles from Tongatapu at the southern end of Tonga and the northern port of Opua in New Zealand. What makes this passage different from pretty much all the sailing we’ve done so far is the transition from tropical weather (low pressure systems and troughs) to the temperate cycle of fronts dividing high pressure and low pressure which march eastward across the Tasman sea and wash over New Zealand in waves. The ideal passage strategy is pretty well known, but perfect cooperation from the weather is probably pretty rare.

We used a weather prediction software called Predict Wind which allows us to download four different models of wind files (called gribs), GPS (the US model), ECMWF (the European model) and two variations on these models produced by Predict wind PWG and PWE. 

Generally, they are in pretty good agreement for one to three days out and then they tend to disagree on what’s going to happen, sometimes quite radically. The value of comparing different predictions is that it gives you a heads up for ‘what-if’ scenarios. 

The most common strategy for this passage is make a long westward loop, with a stop at the Minerva reefs which provide a good anchorage and a chance to get the latest predictions for the final push.

*See our post from Minerva: minerva-north-haven-in-the-pacific

What everyone looks for are decent (enough) conditions to make that arc as you leave Minerva (not bashing directly into southern head winds) and timing which assures you won’t encounter a nasty cold front north of 30° South latitude.

The ideal is to arrive on the tail of a high just ahead of the front with nice north or even northwest tail winds … but that timing can be risky. 

As we arrived this year in Minerva we’d been looking at the models that suggested ten to fourteen days out that there might be a weather window around November 6th (which is the date we arbitrarily listed with NZ immigration as our arrival date). The European model, however warned of some very high winds from due south or even south west that would make going straight from Minerva tough. Still, the other models weren’t showing conditions quite as strong. They predicted that the high pressure creating this squash zone wouldn’t stall as long as the ECMWF predicted. We got to Minerva very early and waited for daylight to go in (in fact, we now know you can go in and even anchor in the dark, the Navionics charts are accurate and there are no big hazards). We could see boats arriving behind us and some came in after us, but several made the decision to keep going. One Kiwi boat we know left the morning we arrived, also hoping to make a possible earlier arrival in NZ.

 As it turned out the European model called this one, and the boats that continued on had a pretty tough time. One trimaran we know reported 7 meter seas and 50 knot gusts, the captain described it as an ‘exhilarating, wet sail,’  but it didn’t sound very comfortable. I’m not totally sure his crew was in complete agreement.  The experienced Kiwi boat called it “gale conditions.” One boat turned back for Minerva after two days. The bottom line is that no one who continued on was making very much southing, despite getting beaten up. 

We spent three nights in Minerva watching the weather and enjoying that magical spot. The winds blew in the twenties but it’s a very solid anchorage and was perfectly comfortable even when it got a little bumpy at high tide. 

By the time we were ready to leave for the 800 mile leg to New Zealand on November 1, there were 30 boats anchored in Minerva (it could fit a hundred easily). Twenty-three left at the same morning, and we joined them, leaving toward the end of the pack. 

What we were seeing in the gribs that made us go were predictions that the wind should start to swing east as the high finally moved off and that the next front ‘shouldn’t’ hit New Zealand  until the 7th (a weak front) and maybe not even until the 9th or 10th (more of a real front). Based on watching the weather this year, I’d say that made for an unusually generous weather window. 

The two obstacles we needed to plan for were wind and seas that were still more southerly than optimal and what looked to be a big chunk of calm airs for the last two days. For this passage I think most would accept some windless motoring rather than encounter the 6 meter seas and gales conditions off the coast of New Zealand that sunk a boat this year 22 miles from her destination. 

This is the passage that Allora was made for. She sails to windward like a champ so that we were able to comfortably point higher, meaning head south a little sooner, than much of the fleet. She’s also fast with wind ahead of the beam, mainly I think because she handles the seas so well. We started passing boats the first night, most during Wyatt’s midnight watch. Diana had volunteered to help run an SSB radio net (the “Tonga to NZ” net), so we were apprised of most of the boats positions that way. By the end of third day of windward sailing (45-60 degrees apparent) we had passed everyone except a Dutch trimaran. Then the wind began to die, and this is where Allora’s advantages as an offshore passagemaker also shine. We carry 190 gallons of diesel so we had no reason to save fuel and wait to start motor sailing to keep up our speed. Our experienced Kiwi friend, Tony, who’s done this passage many times had counseled us not to let our boat speed drop below five knots, and since we had the fuel we turned directly on the rhumb line and kept her moving. With an 80 horse Yanmar, Allora also motors comfortably at 7.5 to 8 knots (uses more fuel, but we had it, and it is better for the diesel to run hotter). In the end, we used our engine for two days, which is the longest we ever have. But boats that waited to turn their engines on arrived a day later than us, so they ended up motoring pretty much just as long. Boats without the fuel range came in two days after us when the wind began to pick up again. We arrived at 1:00PM on the 6th of November.

Okay, so now please forgive me for a little boasting. A lot went into planning this infamous passage and we’ve been thinking about how it would go for a very long time. We were the first of the “Minerva Yacht Club” boats to arrive in Opua, ahead of the trimaran because they did not have the motoring capacity we do, and ahead of a 52 foot catamaran because that boat could not sail as fast with the wind ahead of the beam.

Part of what made this a great passage was our strategy. Initially, we heeded the common wisdom of heading for “John’s Corner” at 30S 173E. The idea of this approach is that it gets you closer, but you’re still in a position to slow down if a front comes in sooner than predicted so that you confront it above 30 degree where it is less dangerous. Then, as the wind swung more east we headed up, but not right away on the rhumb line, but cutting the corner. We were faster at 50 degrees apparent and getting a better distance made good (DMG) to New Zealand. Boats that headed for the rhumb line too soon fell behind us because the seas were rougher to the east. Boats that waited even longer to head up added a lot more miles to their passage. Using the engine to motorsail when our speed dropped below 5 knots, allowed us to turn on the rhumb line once it was clear that the coast was clear for a Nov 6 arrival, and assured that we could spend one less night at sea. 

Though we love to sail and hate to motor, the conditions were eventually so beautiful and glassy calm it was a different kind of pleasure. With the sails down it was also easier to detour when we spotted a pod of pilot whales and to pause for Wyatt to get some beautiful shots of the first Alabatross we’ve seen. It also gave Diana, Wyatt and I a chance to get the boat ready for inspection by Customs. 

Wyatt’s shots of the Grey Headed Albatross.
©WLS

In the end, we couldn’t have wished for a better passage and we couldn’t be happier with Allora. What a boat!

~MS

Diana disclaimer: All these shots are taken during the placid last two days of our passage. Before that, the camera wasn’t coming out too much!!

 

The Kingdom of Tonga

Abstract taken at the wreck in Fonoifua.
The Te’ovala is worn by women and men and always by anyone who works a government job. This is the Customs and Immigration gal.

Woven belted mats, ta’ovala
worn over black missionary garb
maze of lifted islands pushed up by the Tongan trench
friendly islands, plotting Cook’s demise
faint volcano in the distance, a perfect cone
further south, the world’s newest island
space alien squid hovering by the swim step

The Bigfin Reef Squid are a short-lived species, with a maximum recorded lifespan of 315 days.

weekly troughs of rain and wind and gray
hard scrabble bottoms for the anchor
numbers for the anchorages keep sailors from learning the hard to pronounce names
everything at the Neiafu market is four dollars

In the Neiafu market/Vava’u. She dropped her corn cobb repeatedly and just kept munching on it – no issues about too little dirt in her diet.

fish and chips on a floating barge
God is Alive bar, blasting music across the still water
Ag festival for the King

©HRS
Ag festival finery

dead zebra sharks on display,
a temporary binge in the off limits fishing zones
people go crazy to show what they have

Mushroom Leather Coral.

soft coral, rocks and canyons, nudibranchs and filefish

Haley and Liam caught in a romantic snorkeling moment.

lobster, lobster, grab one if you dare

Longnose Filefish can alter their color and pattern to match their surroundings and deter predators.

outer islands, Ha’apai, people live simple lives

Fine mats are the most treasured possessions in Tongan households.

weaving, fishing, making babies

it’s a long boat ride to the nearest grocery store
power from a solar project paid for by Japan
kids play on the beach

This was fun till the tide came up to their faces!

leap from the trees into the sand
make toys of VHS tapes, decorating wood fences with shiny ribbon

sailing the flat water behind the lagoon
hove-to for humpbacks
whales sing as we dive

There goes Wyatt’s air!

high pitched songs, deep rumble in your chest
rolly anchorages, whale nursery anchorages, long beach anchorages

©WLS
Kelefesia as seen from Wyatt’s drone view = as sublime from the air as it was to be there!

coconut heart pancakes!

©MPS
Older, sprouting coconuts produce this rich flavored ‘heart.’ Not easy to extricate, but we make the most yummy pancakes using them!

Sleeping mom’s providing whale-sized nourishment using her Antarctic reserves
tail slapping to keep junior in line
rambunctious males, out for a good time
call mmmhhh mmwwwhmmm  whummmmmmh

©MPS

Cetacean society,
any whale who’s any whale is here

©MPS

Tonga’s the place to be, leviathan

©HRS
Well, Hello!

no predators, warm water, but no food either
what if humans vacationed the way humpbacks do

©HRS

on a diet
no Piña coladas, might just put cruise ships out of business
think of the savings in fuel!
~MS

©HRS
Nature’s bit of lovely!
Tidal flat art.
These beetles were around the size of a thumbnail and STUNNING!!!
The Hosea Primary School put on a cultural show as a fundraiser in conjunction with the Blue Water Festival in Vava’u.
©HRS
Astrophotography with an anchored (moving) Allora is a wee bit tricky – nice work, Haley!

We had all 3 kids (and Liam, too) visit over the course of our 3 months cruising around Tonga, so you’ll see some family faces among the locals:

Ghost Crabs are a hoot!

 

Suwarrow, A Nature Reserve

Mahi Mahi detail. Caught this Mahi-Mahi enroute from Suwarrow to Tonga.
LARGE coconut crabs are abundant in Suwarrow.

Our stop in Suwarrow was comprised mostly of hiding from 30 knots winds created by a squash zone from a gigantic 1044 high in the south with effects that had people digging in from the Gambier to Tonga. So we don’t have much to offer about what you might do there to enjoy yourself. What we found out was more what you can’t do, and after French Polynesia and the Tuamotos the list felt onerous. Here’s what the ranger who was running things in the winter of 2019 said:

No anchoring except at anchorage island by the ranger station. Period. 

No diving. Period. (Why?)

No fishing inside the lagoon. 

No going ashore on ANY motu in the park anywhere except the ranger island (supposedly because of their rat eradication program)

Technically the rules even dictate when you can leave through the pass (not before noon) though I have no idea how they think they would enforce that. 

There are more no no’s, mainly things you’d expect to be prohibited. At the bottom of the list, there’s a caveat that says the ranger can add anything he wants to the list, and the current Ranger took that to heart. 

That leaves snorkeling, pretty much, and nothing else.

Unfortunately, though this obviously feels excessive and extreme, the behavior of some yacht visitors has served to make the ranger feel more adamant about enforcing and expanding his rules. It doesn’t help that some people feel they have a right to harvest coconut crabs and even lament not having taken more when they found out they could sell them for big money in Niue. Or that some members of the ARC (Atlantic Rally for Cruisers) showed up before the legal opening, trashed the place (according to the ranger) and left their flag planted on the beach. Suwarrow is a designated sanctuary and should be treated with the same respect as a national park anywhere. 

Because the forecast called for the possibility of SE winds over 50 knots we asked for permission to anchor in the better protected SE corner and were denied. Unwilling to test the ranger’s theory that the allowed anchorage would be safe (there is at least one yacht sunk on the NW corner of that tight anchorage with south exposure), we moved, despite his objections to the south east corner, invoking our right under international law to ‘safe haven.’ Our biggest concern was the 3 mile fetch that the allowed anchorage would be exposed to. The anchoring was very poor in the SE, with coral and bommies everywhere, but it was definitely a safer spot. If we did drag we had miles to react rather than the tight lee shore of the approved anchorage. This decision did not make us popular with the head ranger, but we felt we had no choice for the safety of our boats. In the end I don’t think we saw over 35 knots, but I personally would make the same decision again. 

We left as soon as it was over.
~MS

Underway.

Maupiti, a gem in the Society Islands

For sailors, these outlying islands are tempting and we’ve had Maupiti in our minds since reading an article about it in a sailing magazine while still in Bozeman. It did not disappoint and it was fun to have some days to explore the little, sleepy island some call Bora Bora’s rival. Maupiti was our last stop before saying ‘au revoir’ to French Polynesia. We would have liked to be able to make it to its’ neighbor Maupiha’a (Mopelia), some 130nm  away, but we felt the tug to gain momentum westward …

Sweet Tuamotus, Last round through …

 

The majestic Humphead/Napolean Wrasse. This guy is 3.5 feet!

I’m going to ask Marcus to wax poetic about our final weeks in the Tuamotus. Suffice it to say that this region of French Polynesia is most definitely a favorite of ours and I even heard Marcus say he could live there. If fresh produce was available, I might be on board! For the time being, these pics can be a placeholder. These are shots from Tahanea, Fakarava and Rangiroa.

I shot a gazillion shots to finally snag this one! Thanks, Katie, for holding such enthusiasm!