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Bora Bora to the Vava'u Islands

Hugh & Heather Bacon

Argonauta I
Beneteau 440
April 30th, 2018

In the last article from Memories of a Circumnavigation Hugh and Heather arrived in the Marquesas islands and gave us a taste of French Polynesia.  Lets continue to follow the adventures of Argonauta I, from when they began their journey in 1997 in the Caribbean, until the completion of the circumnavigation in 2006, when they crossed their  1997 outbound Caribbean track.


March 12, 2000, we returned to Raiatea where we had left Argonauta I for cyclone season. There had been no seriously bad weather, so we found all well. We were laden with boat parts and had even more arriving by sea freight. We spent the following 17 days at the nearby Sunset Motel. Staff there used a front end loader to move our bags to our cottage! Yacht modifications included a new gooseneck and a rod boom vang, which eliminated the need for a topping lift. We replaced the topping lift with one of main halyard diameter and bingo, we had a second halyard aft of the mast. We also completed most of the pre-splash maintenance. Weather though was still unsettled as cyclone season lasts until the end of April. So instead of splashing the boat, we put this off until later and departed by air for a one week trip to Easter Island, but that is another story.

We splashed the boat on April 19. The launch went well and happily we had no leaks. May 4, we refueled and May 7 we departed Raiatea for Bora Bora, where we moored off Bloody Mary’s dock. It was an excellent trip in 10 to 14 knot winds, sailing at 7knots plus, on a beam reach.

Raietea before splash with Bora Bora in the distance

We had become part of a flotilla of boats awaiting a weather window to jump west. We hoped that a big conversion zone at 20 degrees South would clear out soon. So, there were a few parties both onboard and ashore. Eventually, two vessels left for Rarotonga, the Cook Islands, hoping the bad weather would clear out ahead of them. It didn’t, and they ended up in 35-40 knots of wind and 18 foot seas. One suffered a knock down, while the other had the boom broken in three places and much of the deck gear swept away. Perhaps many of the books on Pacific cruising had been written by people with short memories about the weather! Either that or things had changed, as we had not seen more than three or four days in a row of good weather and always with some problem looming. We hoped for more stable conditions in the weeks to come.

By this time we had refined our itinerary. The unsettled weather at our latitude of around 16.5 degrees south suggested that a more northerly route, at least initially, would keep us in better weather conditions. Thus, rather than making for Rarotonga in the Cooks at about 21 degrees south latitude, I decided to head for the more northerly Samoas, at about 14 degrees south.

My concept for the second part of our Pacific Ocean crossing was to remain in the tropics as much as possible, diverting not too far north of Cancer and not too far south of Capricorn. Hence our ultimate destination for this season would be Australia. Having chosen the Samoas as our first major stop, from there we planned to head south west to the Vava’u Islands of Tonga, followed by Fiji, Vanuatu and on to Australia. The total distance from Raiatea to our first Australian port of Bundaberg, just south of the Great Barrier Reef on the Queensland Coast, was about 3200 NM. However, with so many places to visit in between, our route was much longer given the zig-zagging we did to reach our intermediate ports. In fact, from Raiatea we covered 4230 NM in reaching Bundaberg.

May 17, we finally departed. Winds were light so we motored until 1800h and used the opportunity to top off our water tanks with the water maker. By then we had winds of 8‑10k (Knots) giving us a nice 4k speed, a pleasant re-introduction to offshore sailing. Winds slowly picked up to 18/20k making for average speeds of about 5.6k. We left with an almost full moon, which lighted our way at night. Sky cover was limited to scattered, fluffy cumulus. Our weather window seemed to be holding, with nothing significant showing on weather faxes. Our sail configuration was reef #1 in the main, genoa poled out with a 20% reef and stay sail. Wind vane steering was engaged. We were running almost directly downwind on a magnetic track of 250 degrees. Within 160 NM of Palmerston Atoll, the central Cook Islands, we decided to make an en route stop the following afternoon. Our destination of US Samoa would be another 480 NM. The atoll is only approachable in ideal conditions of easterly winds. There is no pass into the lagoon but it is possible to anchor just off the reef in the lee of the atoll.

Palmerston Island map (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

Palmerston was settled in 1862 by one William Marsters from Lancashire, England and his three Polynesian wives from a more northerly atoll, Penrhyn. He left 26 children, whose present day descendants are the residents. Many have moved away, but the current population of some 56 souls welcomed visitors arriving by yacht. We made VHF hailing distance by late afternoon on May 22, about 660 NM from Bora Bora. Response was immediate. A skiff headed out to guide us to the anchorage. We rounded the southern extremity of the barrier reef , making our way to the easterly and lee side, following the small boat and dropping the hook where indicated. Depth was about 30 feet and the bottom hard, uneven coral. Our 45 lb CQR anchor found a crevice, lodged firmly and Simon, the first of many Marsters, introduced himself. He announced that he and his family would host us throughout our stay. By then it was last light. We assessed our location, which seemed safe enough in the easterly wind. We were outside the barrier reef, west of the lagoon, but we could see that in the unlikely event the wind shifted to the west, the anchorage would become untenable.

Marsters gravesite

The village turned out to be a gem of a place, nestled beyond a fringe of palms and barely visible from the sea. Ashore, it is pristine with rows of neat dwellings laid out in a series of manicured sandy lanes. We were told that the wreck of a timber-carrying vessel, Thistle, at the turn of the century provided the Island with much of its building material.

Our hosts knew from our check-in that May 25 was Heather’s birthday. We were treated to a special dinner, with a cake and handmade gifts. Our own farewell was fraught with “Sturm und Drang”. We had feared a wind change and sure enough, overnight it shifted to the west and the reef loomed as a threat. Heather tried to bring up the anchor. Despite precautions, the now three foot swell drew up the bow exerting force on the winch. This is when I paid the price for another mistake: I had never tested the clutch and as we quickly learned, it was way too tight. With the anchor still wedged in coral, the winch pulled from its mount, toppled forward and 200 feet of chain crashed to the bottom. Fortunately the bitter end remained attached to the anchor locker cleat and the winch remained on deck held by its electric cable! I had to maneuver to keep us off the reef only 50 feet behind. We called our Guardian Angel, Simon, who came out with two strong men. Two boats followed and those dear people pulled up our chain by hand. Simon’s last words were “God bless you” as I thrust a bottle of Scotch into his hand!

Our hosts

We arrived in Pago Pago, US Samoa, at 0830 local time Tuesday May 30. We covered the 480 NM in 96 hours. Pago Pago harbour is a deeply indented fjord with a 90 degree bend at the entrance, so it is well protected. Once checked in we anchored at the head of the fjord in 25 feet, using our alternate anchor, a 33 pound Bruce. The port is seedy, but with plenty of amenities and the people charming and friendly. Lunch at famous Sadie’s restaurant was excellent! Weather was a downside. Somerset Maugham’s “Rain” says it all!  Our repairs involved straightening our 45 lb CQR shank (bent about 10 degrees) and rebuilding the anchor winch mount. Thankfully, the Lofrens winch was fine.

The most beautiful beach bar in the world

Several transient yachts in the harbour had anchored off Kanton for cyclone season, a sparsely populated island, just 2.5 degrees south of the equator in the Phoenix Islands, the Republic of Kiribati. We enjoyed meeting the people and hearing about another option for a Pacific cruise. Despite the harbour and the frequent rain, many yachties seem to get stuck in Pago Pago, some for years. We wanted to avoid this, so we checked out in the middle of our last week to overcome inertia, fostered by an incipient umbilicus syndrome. That way we felt committed to leave and did so on Sunday, June 18.

It is about 85 NM to Western Samoa, Upolu Island. Apia is the Port of Entry. We left Pago Pago at about 1500 hours and arrived at 1030 next morning. Upon departure, we motored until clear of the west end of Tutuila, and then sailed on jib only in very roly conditions and a light south easterly wind. Heather was overcome by the corkscrewing motion despite Gravol and even the Scopolamine patch, so after a four-hour watch, she retired below out for the count! Wind piped up in the early hours, but with dawn we were well-positioned off Upolu. After some difficulty identifying landmarks, we finally gained the approach track through the reef to Apia just as a major squall caught us. It produced torrential rain and winds up to 40 knots. By then we had locked up the track on GPS so we just motored in.

Heather’s Observations on Culture

Some say “Pago is Dark; Apia Light”. Certainly all our experiences were positive. The contrast between American Samoa and Western, Independent or simply “Samoa” as locals call it, is evident. I am generally positive toward each place we visit. I tried to give American Samoa the benefit of the doubt, but being anchored in Pago Pago for almost three weeks was enough to provide revelation about the phenomenon known as MUSU, where a Samoan goes into a black funk and cannot be disturbed. Tuna cannery smell was another. A third was the filthy harbour, where hundreds of plastic bags seemed to float down from the hills. So many cruisers head for PP to provision and many expect to find West Marine, state‑of‑the‑art services and instant communication. I called it “Samoa with cornflakes”. Yes, we could buy case lots of canned goods. Hypnotized by the opportunity, I loaded up on items we have never before eaten. One cruiser calls it “Last Supermarket in the World Syndrome”. Hugh wondered why I loaded a case of canned apricots! (No tuna however!) Must admit I got pretty excited about unlimited machines in the laundromat. Everything is relative: compared to the village stream or $75 per load in Papeete, Pago Pago was Nirvana. Outside of Pago Pago, the scenery is truly spectacular and I am glad we got a glimpse of the other side of the Island on a local bus: fare 25 cents each!

Apia harbour

The first glimpse of Apia made me want to stay forever. Evening in town, watching a world class show at the renowned “Aggie Grey’s” followed by one of the best buffet dinners we’ve had (all for about $15 per person) confirmed my instincts. Along with fine salads and meats, we ate limu, tiny bunches of seaweed, which explode in your mouth and palusami, a Samoan specialty. It is a taro leaf and coconut milk concoction. The next night I went out with “the Girls” (another high point: finding friends!) It is common in Polynesian society for some boys to take on a feminine role. They dress as women, have slightly effeminate mannerisms and play a woman’s role in society. Fa’afafine are accepted without stigma. Cindy, a talented and entrepreneurial fa’afafine, had a weekly nightclub act in a Beer Garden near the dock. It was a polished, entertaining and a delightful production: on a par with shows I’ve seen in Paris or Sydney. Fun to go out with other women too: we even danced!

We departed Apia 0930 hours June 29, with winds forecast by all sources to be north easterly or easterly at 10 to 15 knots. Thus we motored along Upolu’s north coast into a light easterly wind to gain the eastern end of the Island, before setting course for Tonga. Once we rounded the east end of the Island, winds dropped so we motored until midnight. At that point, winds switched to the south west at about 5 to 7 knots, so we cut the engine and sailed although we could only lay a course of 175 degrees Magnetic. Rhumb line to Tonga is 198 degrees. By morning, the wind was straight down the rhumb line from the south at 7 to 8 knots. With 255 NM to go, we tried tacking west, but by noon we had gained only 2 NM. By then we had lost all wind and the ocean was like a mill pond. Heather saw this as an opportunity to swim, tethered of course, but in some 12,000 feet of water! Russell Radio, NZ, and Honolulu Weather Fax forecast light winds for another 48 hours, so it was either wallow or motor. We motored until 1730h, when we passed through the leading edge of a small low shown on the Weather Fax. This provided wind from the WSW at 6-10K. We crossed the dateline, so June 30 disappeared and became July 1. Happy Canada Day!

We carry only 50 gallons diesel internally, so with a slight sea we took the opportunity to “hot refuel” before our main tank got too low. Beneteau has seen fit to put the refueling point on the transom. We set RPM just enough to avoid “transom slap” by following waves. So with harness on, I dumped three jerry jugs (18 gallons) of diesel through our Baja filter into the main tank. Heather supervised! This almost filled the tank so we were good for another 300 odd NM.

We were about 100 NM from Tonga’s Vava’u Islands. It was evident from the forecast that we would motor most of the way with a July 4 arrival. We had lunch, took some video footage, and peered at the cobalt blue depths. It was a great time! By early afternoon, simple arithmetic suggested we needed to move, so we cranked up the diesel. At sunset there was still no wind, but what a sunset! It was complete with green flash and then afterwards, incredible colours and a sliver of moon above the horizon. It was the first of the new or perhaps the last of the old earth day: had we really crossed the dateline? We had hoisted the Tongan flag and yellow quarantine flag for our arrival. To honour our American friends, we had also hoisted the US flag for July 4. We motored throughout the night and arrived in Tonga late morning.

Cover image: Pago-Pago Harbour, Public Domain

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  1. Stan Homer says:

    Congratulations from Homers’ Odyssey II
    Currently near Port McNeill heading north.