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From the Vava'u Islands of Tonga to Fiji

Hugh & Heather Bacon

Argonauta I
Beneteau 440
June 13th, 2018

In the last article from Memories of a Circumnavigation Hugh and Heather continued to explore French Polynesia and shared their memories about Palmerston Island. 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.


The Vava’u Group of Tongan Islands is a perfect cruising ground and ideal for sailboat chartering. Major companies like Moorings and Sunsail bring in many visitors who spend an idyllic week or two in what might be the perfect Pacific paradise.  The Vava’u group is not a large cruising area, but it has many different anchorages. Some are associated with rural Tongan villages filled with friendly, hospitable inhabitants. Others are isolated and offer a get-away for some quiet time.

We arrived off Vava’u Island at first light, July 4, 2000. We motored up the entrance channel and anchored off the town of Neiafu by mid-morning and dinghied ashore to complete customs and immigration formalities. We were soon greeted by the crews from many of the yachts we had met in Bora Bora. Most cruisers were spending extra time in Tonga, monitoring a recent political coup in Fiji while deciding where to go next. Some planned to bypass Fiji and sail directly to either Vanuatu or perhaps New Caledonia. Others decided to stay in Tonga for the season, before heading directly to New Zealand.  We were committed to sailing to Fiji as we had arranged to meet a couple we knew well who were vacationing in Western Fiji near Lautoka. Reassuringly, reports from yachts at Musket Cove in Fiji suggested there was a minimum of disruption in that area, but we decided to avoid the capital city of Suva.

We were soon immersed in the social life in Vava’u, which is always active among yachties. Dining ashore and aboard other yachts while doing our share of hosting kept us busy. We had planned to spend about two weeks in the Vava’u area, but a technical issue kept us there until August 10, over five weeks.

One becomes used to a certain background noise and when a new sound is heard, one immediately pricks up one’s ears and wonders what the new noise is about. Often this leads to a fault analysis to identify where the new noise originates and its cause. Often the biggest mistake is to suspect something complex or expensive, rather than looking for a simple cause. We had been hearing a slight grinding noise from our number one, 300 amp alternator for a week or so. Consultation with our fellow cruising wizards, several of whom had a lot of experience, determined the noise must be a bearing problem. That decision was wrong and it cost us over $2000 and the better part of three weeks in sourcing parts, damaging the alternator windings and of course, freight.

The Beast

Once we got the alternator reinstalled, the noise persisted. Finally, using WD40, I discovered a large fatigue crack in the alternator mount. The rough edges of the crack rubbing against each other were the cause of the noise. A trip to the local welding dock fixed the problem in half a day. With another learning experience behind us, we were able to head for Fiji, but not before a replacement rotor arrived.

While all this was happening, we still had one functional alternator, so we took advantage of our forced delay by cruising the complete island group, only returning to the main town when it seemed DHL was about to make a delivery. We rejoiced in being able to stay awhile to meet people and to begin feeling “at home”. In a town as tiny as Neiafu, on the island of Vava’u, one is quickly recognized by almost everyone. A stroll down the main street is an adventure. Pigs, huge or tiny, ramble everywhere.  Heather met a teacher and invited herself to school where she was asked to read to the students.  The school girls wear crisp white shirts and skirts and the boys and men here wear a tupenu which is a long wraparound skirt.

Tongan Classroom With Cruiser Friend

While the Vava’u islands are relatively well off, with many first world amenities, at times supplies do become scarce. Occasionally cruisers bring gifts to help fill the gaps that exist among many of the more remote Pacific islands. Some yachts arrive with much appreciated school supplies, eye glasses, fishing gear and first aid supplies.

Books continue to be a means of instant rapport. An amazing woman, Patricia Ledyard, came to Tonga to teach in 1949. She married a Scottish doctor and stayed on after his death. She kept her lively intellectual curiosity active through reading. Every wall in her rambling solid home was lined with books. We saw a complete collection of Shakespeare and Ruth Rendell! She had an extra building constructed to hold the overflow and her “Tongan collection” had almost every title to be found. Her own books are perceptive insights into Tongan society. We donated a Canadian book to her collection and spent a delightful afternoon with her which culminated in sun-downers. We heard a year later that sadly, Patricia had died.

Our extended cruise took us to most of the islands in the Vava’u group. Several of the smaller islands were uninhabited, while just a few families lived on others. Some of those families augmented income by offering visitors the opportunity to enjoy a Tongan Feast. The Kava ceremony, always enjoyed first, is where guests shared a welcome drink made from the pepper plant root. This was followed by wonderful food, music and dance by the village children. As one of our hosts said, in Tonga there is never a knife or fork, fingers only!

Hunga, the westernmost island of the group, is unique. The entrance to the lagoon is only 30 to 40 feet wide between cliffs and once inside, the open sea is entirely obscured by high ground. It was the height of the annual Humpback whale migration and whale watching was in full swing. We climbed to a vantage point and saw three humpback whales less than half a mile away. There was only one family living on Hunga Island and they ran a small guest house that was ideal for a remote experience. While we were there we shared the dining room with a couple of guests.

Soon we heard that DHL had finally delivered our new alternator rotor, so we headed back to Neiafu. This time the chief mechanic for the Moorings Charter company put the big 300 amp hour beast back together. Once reinstalled, we were back in business. We had stayed in Vava’u more than twice as long as we had intended and finally, on August 10th, we cleared out of Tonga making straight for Lautoka, a secondary Port of Entry in Western Fiji. We had arranged to pick up our guests on the outer island of Navini, Fiji on August 17.

Conditions on ocean passages can be unpredictable. However, encountering even a Force 9 gale is unlikely when making tropical offshore passages outside of hurricane, cyclone or typhoon seasons. One single handed cruising book stated that if those seasons are avoided, the cruiser is unlikely to encounter more than 50 knots of wind and if they do it will be only for a short duration. That proved to be our experience. With prudent passage planning, and careful choice of weather windows, we found manageable offshore weather to be the norm. Reliable weather forecasts include excellent weather fax data and, more importantly, SSB channels carrying scheduled weather analyses from a variety of sources. In the South Pacific, Russell Radio out of New Zealand was the go to station. This station provided regularly scheduled weather updates several times daily. Moreover, it was interactive so specific area detail was always available upon request.

Our August 10 departure followed a week of rain with indications that enroute weather should be good for five days or so. By midday August 12, we had covered 210 NM of the 530 NM passage to Lautoka, which is located just north of the main airport in Fiji, Nandi. Our passage was a mix of good and not so good weather. Initially we sailed a beam reach in southeasterly winds of 10-12 knots. Late in day two, winds became more easterly at 8-10 knots with gentle seas, so we poled out the genoa to starboard, put the mainsail out to port and sailed wing on wing, or by the lee, until an hour before first light. At this point, the boat came to an abrupt halt as winds suddenly switched 180 degrees to the west. Our big sails acted like barn doors! A line squall had appeared out of nowhere! We quickly furled the genoa and repositioned the main as winds and seas quickly built from the west. After the squall, the winds died and we motored until sunset when light winds enabled us to sail.

Next day, August 13, winds slowly built in strength until by nightfall they were 25 gusting to 30 knots from the south-southeast. We soon furled the genoa entirely and carried on under a single reefed main and staysail. Soon, winds increased to the point where we needed a second reef in the main. On our course, we could not get the mainsail lowered despite easing the main sheet to maximum. We fired up the motor and brought the boat head to wind. Not a bad idea in reasonable seas, but somewhat dicey in our conditions. We put in the second reef but the experience was, to say the least, hair raising. The yacht looked after herself and soon we were back on course.

After having just recovered from a costly technical error, I was now close to making a colossal navigational error. We began by following the route I had originally planned to Suva which went south of Fiji’s reef-ridden Lau Group of islands. From there I planned to turn directly for the main island of Viti Levu, bypass Suva and proceed up the west coast to Lautoka. It was not until we got west of the Lau Group that I realized my chosen route was the long way around and that it would be shorter to go south of Kadavu Island. A bonus would be to bypass the Astrolabe Reef lying north of Kadavu, one of the largest barrier reefs in the world.

The problem was that it was too late to alter course to sail south of Kadavu and, with the strong southeasterly wind, we were on a lee shore less than 20 nautical miles off of Kadavu Island. I could not allow the yacht to close on the shore. Our course was altered to 245 degrees magnetic and we sailed on a comfortable broad reach with the double reefed main and staysail at about 6.5 knots. Most of the day was spent putting distance between our sailboat and Kadavu Island until we cleared the island completely in late afternoon.

Fiji Arrival

Once past Kadavu Island, we had a straight shot to Navula Pass. We made contact with friends moored at the Musket Cove marina located in the outer lagoon of the Mamanuca Islands. I informed them that we would be reaching Navula Pass around midnight. We were advised not to enter at night, as the pass was poorly marked, so about 60 nautical miles before we reached it we hove-to in 30 knots of wind and 20 foot waves. The waves were not breaking and the period was very far apart so the ride was smooth. Heather went below to sleep while I warmed up a chicken pot pie and sat in the cockpit in the breeze. We remained hove-to for about five hours then resumed sailing to arrive at Navula Pass at first light. We entered Navula Pass at 0830 on August 15, 2000 and anchored in Momi Bay for breakfast and some sleep before motoring to Lautoka and exploring Western Fiji.

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