Our Current Position

Thursday, 23 August 2018

Final Week and return to NZ

Our final week in Tonga was a very chilled out one. After our Tongan feast at the Sandy Beach resort, we spent the next five days anchored off the resort, attempting to shelter from the westerly winds. It wasn’t the most ideal anchorage for this wind direction as the waves break across the reef making things quite rolly and the sea very choppy. This made any dinghy trip a bit of a wet affair which was a bit frustrating as we would have liked to have taken a bit more advantage of the resort, but didn’t want to turn up looking like drowned rats!

We did manage to get ashore on Sunday (5th) and have a nice 8km walk which was a shock to the legs. We went snorkelling off the north end of the island where we had been previously with our friends Jo and Rob. The first attempt was a bit wild as we got the tides wrong and there was a strong current. The snorkel ended up being more like a drift dive. Fortunately, Pat was towing the dinghy with him as we would never have made it back otherwise. The second time we went, on Wednesday (8th) we managed to get the tides right. What a difference! It was an absolutely beautiful snorkel and we even managed to spot one of the resident Leopard sharks.

Foa Island

North end of Foa, the habitat for Leopard Shark. Debi is on the beach!

Thursday (9th) was a busy day. The wind had dropped a bit and so we went ashore onto Nukunamo Island for a walk on the beach and a bit of a drone flying session. When we got back to X-Pat we found a message from our meteorologist, Roger, to say that he thought we could leave the next day! We had thought we would have at least one more day to prepare ourselves and the boat.

The reefs around Foa
So we hauled anchor early afternoon and made the short trip south to Pangai. Once safely anchored, it was off to the customs office to get ourselves cleared out of Tonga. This turned into a bit of a drawn out affair as they couldn’t find the correct forms, but we got there eventually. Whilst ashore, we also picked up an extra 40 litres of diesel and a few last minute provisions.

Back on X-Pat we had a busy end to the afternoon, getting the dinghy out of the water, deflated and stowed and preparing the boat to leave. It’s a strange feeling after six weeks of chilling out in tropical island anchorages to suddenly be getting the boat ready to set off on an ocean passage. Pat secured the additional fuel on deck whilst Debi was busy in the galley preparing a few meals in advance for the journey.

We departed Pangai at 0800 on 10th August having spent 7 weeks cruising the beautiful islands. Whilst still in amongst the Ha’apai island group, Pat let the fishing line out of the back and it wasn’t long before the scream of the reel indicated a fish. We quickly stopped the boat and with Debi controlling the helm, Pat landed a lovely 3kg mackerel tuna. There we were, expecting a vegetarian diet for the next 10 days, but in the end the fish provided us with a total of four dinners and two lunches!

A relaxed departure from Tonga

The south east trade winds were blowing as we left the shelter of the islands and we were soon reefing sails and picking up speed. The first few days were fairly straightforward sailing in good winds as we headed WSW at a good speed. Then the fun began!

We had been sailing mostly west with not too much south as there was a nasty low pressure system to the south which we were trying to avoid. Unfortunately, it had other ideas and tracked much further north than any of the forecasts predicted. The associated winds forced us to keep turning north, precisely where we didn’t want to go! We ended up spending a depressing 24 hours heading in what felt like completely the wrong direction. At one point we were within 120 nm of the southern Fijian islands. It was very tempting to divert!

We eventually managed to tack back onto a more less due south trajectory and spent the next four days against moderate SW winds with the nights getting gradually cooler. It was a bit depressing as layer after layer of clothing was added.  The wind then died completely as a high pressure system approached us from the west.  We took the opportunity to put the motor on and head west in the light winds.  This would set us up with a better angle for sailing when the winds filled back in.

After a day of motoring, the winds finally shifted to a NW direction, which meant that we could finally start sailing directly towards Opua. After a week at sea and having seen very little shipping we were surprised to hear the VHF radio suddenly come alive at this point. It was the NZ Air Force plane, Orion, which we think is a search and rescue plane conducting exercises in the area. It was comforting to know they were around.

Our next encounter with shipping was about a day later when, suddenly, three boats appeared on our AIS screen. It turned out that these were a fleet of Chinese fishing vessels. It’s amazing what you come across in the southern Pacific.

We were now on a good course for Opua with the wind either on our beam or behind the beam so it was quite pleasant sailing. However, we were also on course to intercept a nasty low pressure system, which was crossing New Zealand. With nowhere else to go we just had to prepare ourselves for a bumpy ride.

With two reefs already in the main we gradually furled in the headsail to reduce our sail area. Despite our caution, we were hit by a sudden rainstorm with gusts up to 35 knots, causing us to dramatically round up into the wind. With a bit of teamwork and a lot of luck, we managed to furl the headsail completely and decided to proceed with just the double reefed main even when the wind settled back down a bit. This was when we were still over 200 nm from Opua and the wind and waves just kept building.  This proved to be a good tactic as we were repeatedly hit by the squalls which seemed to come out of nowhere, and can be quite frightening, especially in the dark.

The wind kept building and for the next two days we sailed in winds of 30-35 knots, with occasional gusts over 40 knots in the rainstorms. The seas gradually increased to 3-4m and in the gusts we were still overpowered, but unable to reduce sail area anymore, we just had to live with it.  Our policy at this point was to stay down below and let Bob (our autohelm) handle the situation. We were very thankful that he stuck with the task and didn’t fail us even during the worst of the storms.

As daylight dawned on our last day at sea there was a brief lull down to Force 5 and so Pat went briefly on deck to check for any damage. Our bimini was slightly damaged but nothing serious and some of our sail numbers, on the main sail, had been stripped off by the force of the wind. Otherwise, amazingly enough, things looked ok.

A steady 30 knots of wind as we approach NZ

We thought that we might have a slightly easier time for our last 12 hours but it wasn’t to be. By midday we were back up to Force 7, gusting Force 8. The sound of the wind and vibration of the boat were absolutely terrifying during the gusts, the boat would shudder and shake as Bob struggled to keep us on course and we had waves breaking right over the top of us. Of course, the boat was at a 45 degree angle during all of this, making moving around and even going to the toilet a work of supreme effort.  At one point our saloon seat started to become detached from the floor and we had to tie it to the table leg to make sure it didn’t move. As this is the only comfortable seat on the boat when on a starboard tack, Debi resorted to sitting on the floor while Pat sat at the chart table with his leg jammed against the stairs to stop him sliding off his seat and there we remained for the duration. 

Bob (autopilot) in control in Force 7

Then the wind changed direction to WSW, blowing us south-east, and we began to think that we wouldn’t be able to get into Opua and might even miss New Zealand completely.  In the end, we got brave and pointed the boat higher into the wind and managed to make it into the Bay of Islands.

We did wonder at one point about the wisdom of coming into the bay at night in a gale with the boat only just under control. However, we felt that we knew the bay well enough and that once in the bay things should calm down. Thankfully this proved to be correct and the winds dropped to under 20 knots and the sea state improved dramatically. We were very thankful to get the main sail down and the engine on and then motor the last 10 miles into the marina.

We tied up at the quarantine dock at 0100 on the 22nd August. We had covered a total of 1550 nm in 11 days 17 hours at an average speed of 5.5 kts. We motored for about 3.7 days. Looking back at our track it looks like we took the scenic route, but as Pat’s brother Pete pointed out, we actually traced the shape of NZ in the South Pacific.

Our South Pacific Track

So that’s our sailing adventures over for a while. We are off to do some land based activities now and will return to X-Pat in January. Thanks for following us!

Saturday, 4 August 2018

A Whale of a Time

Unbelievably another week has disappeared but it has been a week of excitement.

Mother with her one week old baby
Last Sunday we departed Uoleva Island where we had been for a few days and sailed south to the unpronounceable Uonukuhahaki Island. It apparently means East Lobster Island and yes there is a West Lobster Island, which is Uonukuhihifo. The two islands are joined by a sandbar. We spent a few days here flying the drone off the beach and managed to avoid the trees. We also snorkeled off the beach where there was some nice coral and lots of fish.

Uonukuhihifo Island and sand bar

We were the only boat anchored here, though we could see a catamaran anchored about a mile away next to Tofanga Island. At about 9pm on Monday evening we were engrossed watching “Game of Thrones” (our new addiction) on the laptop when we heard a boat named Kalea calling us on the VHF radio.  This was the catamaran we could see in the distance. They had been ashore for the evening on Tofanga island and whilst they were busy exploring, the tide had come in and their dinghy had floated off. Anyone who has spent anytime cruising would know that this is ones worst nightmare, particularly in a remote location like this. Your dinghy is your lifeline to the shore.

It was, thankfully, a fairly calm evening and one of them had swum back to Kalea and fetched a kayak and SUP, to get everyone off the beach and safely back on board. They then called us, as they thought the dinghy could be drifting towards us. We duly headed out with our searchlight torch to look for their dinghy. It was a full moon and a beautiful night and we puttered along in our little dinghy all the way up to their location but, unfortunately, found nothing. We suspect the dinghy had passed us sometime before they called. They were very grateful for our efforts and we heard them on the radio for a few days afterwards trying to see if anyone had found their dinghy, but it didn’t sound like it.

On Tuesday we headed back north again, sailing along at almost 7 knots for part of the way with just the headsail up, and anchored back near Ha’apai Beach Resort. We saw quite a few whales in the distance on the way back north, with one of them doing endless tail slapping. We also had a brief glimpse of a couple of spinner dolphins though they didn’t hang around. In the afternoon we went ashore to the resort to drop off our laundry and finalise arrangements for our swim with the whales the next day.

At anchor behind the reef, Ha'apai Beach Resort

Wednesday (1st August) was the highlight of our trip. Rich (Skipper) and Jess (Whale swim guide) picked us up from X-Pat at 0830 and we headed out on a beautifully calm and still day. We picked a fantastic day for it, further enhanced by the fact that we were the only guests on the trip and so had our own private tour, amazingly lucky judging by the usually full boats we have seen going about!

We had probably been out for about an hour when we spotted a blow in the distance and headed over to find a mother and baby humpback whale just chilling out on the surface. Whilst the adults can hold their breaths for up to forty minutes, the young ones can only manage four minutes and so need to stay near the surface. With our snorkels, mask and fins on, we positioned ourselves on the edge of the boat ready to slip into the water on instruction from Rich. Then suddenly there we were in the water, face to face with a female humpback whale and her baby, only 10m away. The baby was quite pale in colouring and Jess said this was indicative that it was probably less than a week old. After a minute or so, they gracefully swam away from us and we returned to the boat. Rich then slowly followed the whales at a distance watching the mother’s behaviour and when he was happy that she didn’t feel threatened by our presence we slipped into the water again. In total we had four swims with the mother and baby and each time they seemed to get more comfortable with our presence. It is difficult to put into words how wonderful it feels to be in the water with such a large marine creature and yet feel totally safe, unthreatened and peaceful. Just stunning.

After just over an hour we left the mother and baby in peace and headed off to see what else we could find. It really is a bit of a lottery trying to spot the whales. Sometimes they can be a few miles away and by the time you get there they seem to have dived and disappeared. This sort of happened with the next sighting. Jess spotted the blow and we headed off, but when we arrived we could see nothing. We just sat with the engine on tick over scanning the horizon to see what else we could spot when suddenly a very inquisitive female humpback surfaced within a metre of the back of the boat. Rich who was sitting at the back almost needed a new pair of shorts!

Close encounter

Inquisitive female

Rich encouraged us to get all our gear on quickly and get ready to go. We were pretty sure that when he said go the whale was directly underneath us. When we jumped in, sure enough there she was just gliding past underneath us. We thought she may just dive straight away but instead she turned and came right back up to the surface, watching us as she did so and then slowly swam away. The water is so clear here that the views are just phenomenal.

With two fantastic encounters already under our belts we headed for a nearby reef where we anchored for lunch and had a quick snorkel around the reef. Then it was off again to see if we could find one more whale before returning to shore. This seemed to take ages and we were beginning to make noises about having been really lucky already, when Rich spotted a blow way off in the distance.

To begin with we thought that another boat was heading towards the same spot but that turned out not to be the case. As we got closer it became clear that this was more than one whale. In fact there seemed to be a lot of activity with whales chasing each other, blowing lots of bubbles and the occasional half broach.  They were traveling at a reasonable pace and so we followed along at a safe distance.

What we were witnessing was what is known as a “heat run”. A female had at some point before we arrived on the scene, indicated that she was ready to mate by slapping her pectoral fin on the water.  As the males approach she swims off and the males, in our case, four of them, follow in pursuit. As they follow they compete with each other trying to knock the others out of the way or blow bubbles underwater to try to confuse and disorientate the competition. We followed them for about twenty minutes and the turmoil in the water was just phenomenal, with splashing and bubbles and the occasional roar from one of the males.

Heat run chaos

After about twenty minutes Jess suggested we should try to get in the water with them! This didn’t seem like the brightest idea to us novices but is apparently completely safe. Rich positioned the boat and we jumped in beside them. It was a brief encounter but we did witness one of the males blowing bubbles as he swam under us.

Jostling for position during the heat run

It is apparently very unusual to witness a heat run and we felt truly privileged to have such fantastic encounters with these wonderful creatures. We returned to X-Pat for an afternoon of reviewing photos and video of our encounters. They don’t really do the experience justice, but are great memory joggers for us. In the evening we headed into the resort to swap whale tales and photos and feast on pizza and plantain chips again. A good day!

In contrast to our day with the whales, Thursday was not very nice, with the wind turning west and the sea getting quite choppy. We decided to have a day at anchor and Pat did some maintenance to the teak decks, which was long overdue.

Things calmed down on Friday and we headed into Pangai in the dinghy to get some provisions. This was reasonably successful and Debi managed to get most of what she had on her list. Provisioning here in Ha’apai is not as straightforward as in Vava’u and the choice is often limited. We had intended to have brunch in the Mariner’s CafĂ© but it was closed and so we returned to X-Pat for banana pancakes and coffee.

With all the provisions stowed and the crew full of pancakes we headed north again back to Foa and the Sandy Beach resort. We anchored in nice still waters and Pat decided to go over the side with his new DivePro dive system and clean the bottom of X-Pat. The antifouling, which was done in May, seems to be working well and it was easy to just wipe the small amount of slime off with a sponge.

We had been at anchor for a few hours when we got a call from Rich the resort manager, reminding us that they had a Tongan feast and cultural show on in the evening. That all seemed like a good idea and so we duly booked a spot and headed in.

We arrived to find that the resort seemed to be full with a group of ocean swimmers from Cronulla, just south of Sydney, having just arrived! They were very friendly as were the couple from Texas and the couple from Milan who shared our table.  We had a lovely evening with great food and a very good cultural show put on by youngsters from the local school.

Today the wind has gone west again and it is horribly bouncy in the anchorage.  Debi has been contemplating taking seasickness tablets it is so bad.  Unfortunately there are very few anchorages in Ha’apai, which provide shelter from the west so we are just going to sit it out for now.

With our whale watching complete, thoughts are beginning to turn to leaving Tonga and heading back to New Zealand. Pat has started the passage plan and the paperwork for re-entering New Zealand and we have been back in touch with Roger Badham, our meteorologist to help us identify a weather window. At present it looks like it may be in about a week, but as we have seen before that could change!

Friendly Fiji

After a burst of activity early on, it has been a pretty chilled out week. We left Buca Bay on Sunday, motoring out through the reef into...