Ready… Set…. Sail!
On a Skype call from New Zealand to Canada I was asked the question, “When are you sailing again Grandma, and where are you heading?” “In about 10 days when we finish getting the boat ready Caleb,” I responded to my youngest grandson. “We’re heading to Minerva Reef and Tonga. Back into the South Pacific.”
If you have ever cruised in the Gulf Islands near Vancouver Island you will know that it takes some organized planning to prepare your boat for a weekend or summer holiday. In a relatively short time though you can be ready to jump onboard for a nice family boating vacation. First you stuff your boat with food for the barbecue, soda pop and beer, taco chips, and chocolate and biscuits and marshmallows for the s’mores. Then you load all the toys for the kids that will fit onboard: paddle boards, boogie boards, wake boards, and knee boards!
Not the case with offshore cruising! Weeks and months of repairs, upgrades, service, and maintenance to your vessel are required to get ready, to get set – before you sail. This cruising season 2015 Sea Whisper has had two new water tanks installed – and if you think that might be not too difficult a task, think again. Firstly, it took Lionel three days to disconnect and lift the engine out to gain access to the top of the keel water tanks and then a further seven days to cut the old aluminum tanks out of the keel. The next step was to clean and prep the cavity and measure the space for the two brand new plastic tanks. The installation for the new tanks began with foam packing to prevent movement. The biggest hiccup occurred when Lionel got trapped under a plywood lid which had been fabricated to cover the new tanks. Sheer strength and force and his smaller frame enabled him to worm his way out ever so slowly to safety. In addition, Sea Whisper is sporting a newly designed tail for the wind generator, new electrical and plumbing, sink drains, and assorted repairs and maintenance. My favourite galley addition is the new mesh fruit and vegetable hammock.
When I arrived in New Zealand at the boat at the end of April this year, Sea Whisper looked so welcoming – tidy, clean, ready to sail. I felt like I had come home. Captain Lionel had done a marvelous job completing a big list of mechanical, electrical, plumbing and miscellaneous repairs, plus the cooking, bottle-washing, and boat-keeping tasks. A big bouquet of fresh flowers graced the main cabin and greeted me as I stepped onboard. Sea Whisper looked beautiful and I was so happy to be reunited with the Captain and the ship. Kudos to the Captain! We shared the flowers.
Before Sea Whisper’s departure from New Zealand, there was just enough time for a quick car-camping trip to the very tip of the North Island to see Cape Reinga and the North Cape. The weather was bleak – cold and miserable and completely socked in. Such a disappointment but in the dim light we could make out sharp jagged peaks and the coastline and the lighthouse at the point. The isolated settlement was established in 1908 with three houses for the lighthouse keepers and their families. The pounding surf below at times sounded like cannons going off. In the unsettled weather we hiked some of the tracks and wilderness areas on the North Island. Our favourite was a long day hike on the Cape Brett track.
Pac’n’Save in the Town Basin
Back in the Whangarei town basin we enjoyed our last days in this charming town and went on a big shopping spree at Pac’n’Save to fill the lockers and stores aboard Sea Whisper. The list is getting smaller – but still on the checklist is a visit to the Red Cross and Habitat for Humanity to buy bags and bags of clothing to take to the people of the villages on the isolated islands of Tonga, Fiji, and Vanuatu. And then to the local shops to stock up on school supplies for the villages. Almost done, we collected our sails at the Doyle Sails loft. The weather window was looking good for our passage route. We must go. Whew – did we forget anything? Check, check, check! On May 14, 2015 after everything was stowed away we untied Sea Whisper’s dock lines and headed for Marston Cove where we awaited final weather and customs clearance, and had a very nice send-off party with other yachts heading out on passage routes to the islands.
Next Stop… Minerva Reef
Sea Whisper departed from Marston Cove, New Zealand on the passage route to Tonga. The passage took five days to Minerva Reef. Steady SE-SSE trade winds averaging 15 knots. You might like to check out the early history and shipwrecks on this amazing reef in the middle of the Pacific Ocean at the top of a mountain that is 50 feet under water. South and North Minerva reefs, over 250 miles from land, were named after the Australian whaling ship Minerva was shipwrecked on south Minerva in 1829. Alongside Minerva lies the Tonga Trench, a 2000 km long ocean valley that stretches from Tonga to New Zealand. The trench reaches the deepest ocean depths in the world. In 1962 a Tongan sailing vessel called Tuaikaepau, (meaning slow but sure) en route to New Zealand with 17 crew onboard, hit South Minerva. The crew took refuge inside the abandoned wreck of a Japanese freighter. After the crew had been marooned on Minerva for 95 days, Captain Tevita Fifita and his son built a raft with two rudimentary tools: a broken blade of a knife and a nail. They plied the wood from their ship to build this substitute for a boat. They sailed their raft named Malo e lelei (meaning Good Day) to Fiji in the SE trades to get help. By the end of this whole ordeal and extreme hardship, the remaining castaways were finally rescued. Five lives had been lost and many were sick and disabled.
The Kingdom of Tonga and the Ta’ovalas
After two days in spectacular North Minerva waiting for a northerly to pass through, we set the sails and headed for Tongatapu, the capital of Tonga. The passage took three days with favourable winds.
On On May 27, 2015 Sea Whisper sails into the harbour at the time of the “March for the King” – a celebration to mark the opening of Parliament. How delighted we are to see the Tongans again sporting their Ta’ovalas and Kiekies in the Tongan tradition dress. The Ta’ovalas are the prominent pandanus mats wrapped around the strong bodies of the Tongans – so distinct, unique, and flamboyant. The school students are dressed in their crisp white, blue, and maroon school uniforms. We are greeted with “Malo e lelei” as we wander the bustling street markets, the shops, the cafes, and local foodies. The next day the school students along with the King (King George Tapou V and the Queen), begin their inaugural parade bedecked in their school colours and banners. They step smartly on the pavement “Left, right, left, right” to the rhythm of their brass bands. The verve and pulse in the city bring about a festive celebratory mood. We join the throngs and celebrate with the Tongans.
What a Waloo!
Not long after our departure from Nuku’alofa, Lionel shouts from the aft deck, “fish on, fish on, and it’s a big one!” There’s something very exciting, scary and adrenalin-rushing when a big fish bites the lure on your hand line under full sail at seven knots. Lionel steps to the plate on the back deck. He takes the hand line and starts to pull it in hand over hand. “It’s a waloo and it’s huge,” he shouts! There’s no gaff or no net! Lionel tugs and heaves this whopper of a fish slowly to the boat. Barely maintaining his grip and foothold he yanks the four ft. waloo over the back rail and flops it down on the deck. Anxiously, with towel in hand, I grip the towel around its head to calm it down. Three hours later Mr. Waloo was cleaned, fileted and packed into Sea Whisper’s freezer. “Yippee, we have fish for our friends in the village of Nomuka!”
Happy in Ha’apai
Two years ago Sea Whisper landed on the island of Nomuka in the Ha’apai Island group in the Kingdom of Tonga. The bay on Nomuka has such historical significance. It is the location where the famous ship HMS Bounty took on water 250 years ago. We had some great adventures and met a lovely Tongan family – the Finau Family. In October 2013 after village tours, mat weaving, school visitations, church services and a big Tongan feast we said goodbye to our Tongan friends. “We hope you will come and see us next year,” Lavinia lamented as we bid our farewells. Well, we didn‘t make it back in 2014 but on June 2, 2015 Sea Whisper sailed into the bay on Monuka Island, Ha’apai, Tonga to re unite with the Finau family and the villagers.
Lavinia, the Lovely Tongan Mother and Other Tales
Lavinia was born on Nomuka Island. She and her husband Hamani have three children, Siva 14 years, William 12 years, and Kalifi 10 years. Hamani is a fisherman and tries to catch waloo to sell to the markets in Nuka’alofa and he also takes care of the family’s plantation. Since Lionel and I had just caught and landed the big waloo we were delighted to pass along fresh fish to the families in the Nomuka village as a welcoming gift from Sea Whisper.
Lavinia greeted us with a big warm ‘Bula’ at her gate and couldn’t wait for us to go to school and see Siva. “She’s in form four, she will be so excited to see you!” And indeed she was.
In Tongan schools, in Form four to Form six the students are ages 12 to 15. The teacher and principal invited us to come and talk to the students on Friday, the English speaking day each week at school. Lionel and I put our heads together and came up with an idea. “We’ll compare Tonga to Canada,” together we thought: geography, landscape, industry, customs, multi-cultural peoples, wildlife and natural resources. “We’ll run with it, and see how it goes.” So we and 35 students had fun discussing Canada and Tonga, followed by some singing and action songs and then a drawing project. And to finish we spoke about our adventures aboard Sea Whisper in the South Pacific and displayed artifacts which we had bought and had been given. And you might have guessed it, the students all received their very own ballpoint pen and drawing paper from Sea Whisper. All in all a fun Friday school afternoon in Tonga.
The day we arrived the village people were burying one of the elders at the graveyard. Women and men in Ta’ovala’s and Kiekie’s and some men in Tupenu’s scraped dirt over the grave with shovels and sticks. For one week the village mourns and many of the village activities cease – no fishing or weaving. People gather for prayers in the village houses and at the grave site to honour the elder Tongan.
We see pigs, chickens, and dogs everywhere. The men are returning from their plantations on foot, horseback or rickety old bicycles. The women in their dilapidated houses are cooking and grilling over open fires – the tapioca and casava and fish for their families. The children are running around the yards kicking a soccer ball. At the seashore, Saani, one of the village ladies is seen approaching the shore from far out on the reef with her bucket of octopus. She greets us and presents one of the slimy creatures to us as she proceeds to tell us to pound, pound, pound it and boil it. “We’ll give it a try Saani,” as we pack the gooey thing back to our boat.
At church on Sunday, everyone is dressed up in their best. It is the main event of the week. Little girls in their fancy dresses, sparkling shoes, and white bows tied in their hair. Delightful! The singing (no musical accompaniment), the Tongans, and their indomitable spirit move us during this blessed hour. We are immersed in the Tongan culture and we love every moment.
After the church service, lovely Lavinia has prepared an amazing picnic for us. Wow, especially for Sea Whisper and Scoot (our buddy boat). “I have cooked some Tongan food for you. Let’s have a picnic. We don’t have much to give but we give our hearts and our blessings to you,” Lavinia speaks so humbly. Since picnics are one of my very favourite things in the world, we heartily accept without hesitation. About 10 of us pile into a truck and we ride through plantations on a bumpy dirt road for a few miles to a beautiful remote beach. The grass mats are spread out on the sand. The picnic begins with a cup of Tongan coffee served in china cups and saucers. Unbelievable – here we are on a picture-postcard beach with the sun and sand on the remote island of Nomuka in the Ha’apai Island Group drinking delicious coffee from china cups! Beautiful scenery, sounds and fragrances surround us. My eyes begin to fill and I have to press the lids together. How lucky we are to experience something so exotic! As we sit on the grass mats below swaying palm trees with this lovely Tongan family, Lavinia presents the rest of the picnic on cotton tablecloths: teriyaki chicken grilled on an open fire, coconut chicken baked in the lovo oven, casava, plantain bananas, curried chicken wrapped in green leaves, tortillas, fish baked in banana leaves, grilled fish, deep-fried fish appetizers. Before our eyes the grand picnic unraveled – foil after foil, basket after basket. And dessert – a chocolate cake by Sea Whisper. What a Tongan feast – a royal feast! Lavinia deeply wanted us to experience the traditional Tongan food. And we did in spades! “Malo, Malo,” Lavinia!
After our grand picnic, we all had a walk on the beach and enjoyed the sublime nature. And then we piled into the truck and headed into the jungle to check out Hamani’s garden. Here we found orange trees, casava, tapioca, papaya and lime trees, a typical plantation in the villages and back lands of the Tongan islands.
Back at the village it was time to bid farewell to all the Finau family and some of the villagers. There were smiles and tears and endless waves as they faded out of sight on the beach of Nomuka Island. Another out of this world adventure in the Kingdom of Tonga.
1600 1933.1S 177 36.6W SOG 7.3 COG 271 W SE 30 gusting to 40. Bar 1014. Heavy rain squalls with 40 kt. SE trade winds. Took down main and mizzen. ½ jib furled.
After a tough ‘down and dirty’ three day passage from Tonga we arrived in the harbour of Suva, the capital of Fiji. For the last two days the SE trade winds had been blowing 35 and 40 knots, gusting to 45 knots. The seas became enormous – 4 and 5 metres with some greenies coming on deck. Needless to say Sea Whisper rolled and pitched. Added to this a bit of sea sickness, sleep deprivation and white-knuckle gripping due to the relentless rolling, this passage proved to be a pretty tough one. Tough for the crew – not for Sea Whisper!
Needless to say, the Suva city in Fiji welcomed us. We alerted the Port Authority of our arrival and soon the Department of Immigration, Customs, Health and Bio Security come to Sea Whisper to clear our vessel into the country of Fiji. We shared the harbour with freighters, yachts, cruise liners and fishing boats. On shore, the hustle and bustle of the friendly Fijians heading to the huge and vibrant municipal market, flooding to the city buses, shopping, eating roti’s, licking ice-cream and just lazing around calling out ‘Bula’, brings about an eclectic scene. We dive right in: riding the buses, eating the rotis, walking shoulder to shoulder with the crowds, shopping at the municipal market, visiting the kava and flower vendors whom we know, and simply inhaling this friendly culture and the Bula smiles that go such a long way. Another day we find the Grand Pacific Hotel along the shore – a stunning colonial style building just renovated and reopened after 100 years. We stop for a lovely breakfast on the patio.
Batai and His Roti Mother
Last year in Fulaga in the Southern Lau Islands we spent two weeks at the Manaka village where Batai Illaisa was the island nurse taking care of the three villages on the island. He now works as a nurse in Suva. Lo and behold we found this neat guy at his job at the Remand Centre of the Suva Prison. It was so great to see him! He and his mother paid a visit to Sea Whisper where we ate paella and chocolate cake together and shared many stories. Calera then invited us for rotis to the family home in the village of Nasouri. We jumped at the invitation to meet the rest of the family and we do like rotis. An hour’s bus journey and we arrived at the village and walked through plantations in the dark to reach the settlement where Batai’s mother rents an old plantation house. Calera and her daughters greeted us warmly – Liti who is a hairdresser, Nani, a nurse like her brother Batai, Kini who studies Human Resources, and there is another son, Mele who could not be there as he is at boarding school. The large straw mat spread on the floor as the gathering place and the dining table is a familiar sight to us. “Come in and sit down and be part of our family,” says Batai. We sit cross-legged on the mat, smile, and are surrounded by Fijian friendliness. We are part of the family. The pots of curries, vegetable salads, casava, salsa and the basket of hot rotis take centre stage in the centre of the mat. We present our chocolate banana cake and include it with the food offerings. After the blessing, we begin the feast. We eat well, roti after roti, telling stories and laughing. One of life’s greatest pleasures is sharing food together. Then Calera has something special to tell us. This Fijian single mother many years ago had to think of a creative way to pay for her children’s education – and here’s her amazing story.
Rotis for Learning
Can you imagine how many rotis one would have to make and sell to put four kids through school and college? “I turned them out by the dozens for my kids to sell on the streets of Nasouri,” announced Calera Ilaisa, the single mum. “I made the rotis all day and piled them neatly into buckets for Batai, Kini and Nani to stand and peddle the tasty morsels in the town. A good night for the three of them was a $60.00 take and three empty buckets. Each curry roti sold for $1.00.” Calera pivots on the straw mat and proudly smiles at each of her children.
Today while Batai and Lani are nursing and Kini is studying economics at college and brother Mele continues his college education, the family continues to rent a small bungalow for $250.00 Fijian ($150.00 Canadian) per month in the middle of casava and tapioca fields in Nasouri. It’s quite basic living accommodation. But it’s a great improvement to the one room they lived in when they shared a house with other families when the children were growing up. For now they live each day with smiles on their faces. One day soon they hope to build a house on their deeded land in Labasa, on the island of Vanua Levu.
How entranced we were with the Ilaisa family’s story! We thank them for a wonderful cultural evening and head out in the dark with Batai on the muddy dirt road passing by the crops of casava and tapioca. An hour’s bus ride and we are back to Sea Whisper at the harbour in front of the Royal Suva Yacht Club.
Beqa Island Beckons Sea Whisper
We are sailing to the rugged small 36 sq km island which boasts a 64 km long barrier reef. After a short 20 mile passage Sea Whisper enters Beqa Lagoon through the reef and anchors in front of the Ravi Ravi village and the Beqa Lagoon Resort.
A Dynamic Dive to Feed the Sharks!
After a visit to the secondary school to meet the Principal and Vice Principal Elana and Raijeli and to view the impressive hilltop land sight and the Beqa lagoon, it’s time to go diving. First, a good practice dive would be in order to check Sea Whisper’s anchor in 55 ft of water, and then a dive to a couple of bommies near the boat. All is well – gear, regulators, BC’s and dive tanks all feel good so we signed up for some open water diving with the Beqa Lagoon Island Resort. The first day was a two-tank dive on coral reefs with soft corals and teaming fish. The next day – a two-tank shark dive! We were ready! In our dive boat there were recreational divers from USA, Canada, Australia, and Japan. The Fijian Dive Masters have created a shark–feeding dive site where all the divers sit along a man-made wall to watch the Dive Masters feed the fishes and the sharks. A few nervous moments as we psyched ourselves up and jumped in and made our way against the current and the surge and the waves to the rope line that took us down to the steep gully where we descended to the bottom floor at 80 feet. The nerves evaporated quickly as literally schools of fish wrapped around us. And then the sharks! A bull shark, lemon shark and a nurse shark. Wow! One of the Dive Masters reached out for my hand and guided me into the centre ring of the action. Never will I forget that moment of all these fish, rare critters, and sharks swimming around us. It was an amazing rush. Lionel followed with the Go-pro to capture the action! Yes, Fiji’s reefs offer amazing diving experiences – 10/10 for this one!
The Rugby Matches
Fiji is fanatical about their rugby and we were delighted to learn that Ravi Ravi village was playing host to two matches on Saturday. Behind a choked verdant mountainside of dense forest and jungle, the playing field sporting goal posts of bamboo and short mowed grass was primed for the performance. On with the show. The visiting teams arrived and set up their practice routines. The tropical sun shone and the local village families and visiting fans perched themselves all around the periphery in front of their small modest houses surrounded by shrubs, flowers and a few shade trees. The setting was ideal. The game begins as the players join forces and dominate the field in their scarlet red jerseys and lime green jerseys. Instantly, the scrums and lineouts heat up the game and we are right in the action a few metres from the play. Lionel, a serious rugby player back in the days at Brentwood College, follows every move and enlightens the non-Fijian spectators about the play and its strategies. It was some spectacular rugby – another great Fijian experience.
Potluck and a Pot of Kava
We were invited to the secondary school teachers’ monthly Friday dinner and kava party, a great finale to the rugby matches. After the games, the women teachers were busy cooking curries, rice, grilled eggplant, seaweed, rotis, baked pumpkin, and fish in the lovo oven and their simple kitchens. The feast began with heaps of food presented on individual plates. As we gazed around the room, the setting seemed almost surreal – the serving table laden with heaps of Fijian foods, the woven grass floor mats, the friendly Fijians arriving in sulus and sarongs and the fragrant warm evening air wafting through the open windows of a very old heritage building. There was a blessing and Lionel and I thanked the Ravi Ravi village for their Beqa Island hospitality reaching out to us Canadians and providing such a memorable experience. The food was absolutely delicious. We even tried the shredded seaweed which was quite tasty. The evening was not complete without the kava (latin for intoxicating pepper) bowl and the kava ceremony. Suddenly, we had to brush up on the Sevusevu ceremony, the social gathering that truly captures the essence of the Fijian culture. When you receive the bilo (the cup) from the chief’s spokesman, you cobo once (cup your hands and clap loudly), and after receiving it and drinking it completely you cobo three times. And you guessed it, the ladies are served the cup last in this patriarchal society. Through the doorway arrived more Fijian men carrying guitars and ukuleles. Soon they began to sing upbeat, happy, and harmonic music. Bring it on! Boy oh boy, am I lovin’ this! Their enthusiastic Fijian voices are smooth as silk and clear as a bell! In a short while, to my astonishment, appears a very fine Fijian man, one of the village rugby players, who asks me to dance. Oh my, I get to sway and whirl to those guitars and ukuleles as the Fijians embrace freedom and joy with their beautiful music and song!! The Fijians are so lovely. They offer so much – their love, warmth, hospitality, their village, their culture. All we have to do is reach out and take it!
Dinghy, Dinghy, Where Are You?
In the pitch black night through a jungle path we made our way back to the dinghy. Oh, oh – the tide has risen a lot. Where was our dinghy? The flashlight flickered and there in the distance we made out the red canvas covering. We waded into the water shivering slightly knowing one of us would have to swim out, retrieve the anchor and swim it in. “Help you?” came a welcome voice from the dark shore. Two village men in wet suits were on their way to go night diving. They could see our predicament and one of them slithered into the sea and headed for the dinghy. Whew! In a flash he brought the dinghy and the anchor chain to shore for us. Helpful Fijians. “Vanaka vaka levu.” We started the motor and cut around the edge of the reef without poling or paddling and soon arrived safe and sound aboard Sea Whisper where she was anchored in 55 feet of water inside the Beqa lagoon.
Throughout our 2015 sailing adventures in the South Pacific Islands of Tonga and Fiji, we discover that Tongans and Fijians are proud of their culture and traditions remain strong on these outer islands.