A Bumpy Ride

The weather forecast wasn’t ideal. We were to be starting out our passage to Tonga with five to ten knot South Easterlies, not exactly ideal on a course of SSW, but gentle enough to give us a head start with comfortable first day. Then the winds were forecast to back to ten to twenty knot Easterlies for our second day out, which would accelerate our pace a bit and having the wind aft of the beam make the going more comfortable. Jimmy Cornell’s World Cruising Routes of Bible-like status amongst sailors of the world predicts a little grimmer picture: “The weather on this route (from Samoa to Tonga) can be very variable and even at the height of the SE trade wind season one can never be sure what conditions to expect. Violent squalls are sometimes experienced in this area and also electric storms with tremendous sheets of lightning and thunder. These conditions can occur throughout the year. Passages during the cyclone season should be avoided.”  Not exactly medicine to calm the ever nagging worries of the weary!

Our access to precise weather forecasts is minimal here aboard Aluna, limited to internet access and shore based radio before heading out. I might not be the most agile and knowledgeable interpreter of the various sometimes quite hieroglyphic messages and charts, but my experience is that they are quite akin to religious doctrines. The real conditions in the field, if there is such a thing out at sea, seem to hardly ever obey the intrinsically intellectual modeling of the chaotic workings of our complicated atmosphere. In spite of that quite obvious discrepancy sailors all over the world listen to and study this pseudoscience like a good Quaker drinks the golden syrup of the gospel. GRIB files are downloaded from web servers and digitally overlaid onto charts with plotted routes. Quite notable amounts of money are happily paid to self-declared weather gurus sitting in lofty offices somewhere on terra firma and catering personal email weather routing to the yachting community. Chatter about the pro’s and con’s of the upcoming behavior of fronts and systems, lows and highs, troughs, ridges and convergence zones matches the stubborn passion with which Swiss middle class office workers can talk about the weather of the temperate zone in the heart of Europe for hours on end. The simple fact is that when you’re heading out there you’re facing the uncertainty of a very complicated organism, moody, mysterious, treacherous, full of subtle surprises and fiercely unpredictable.

The morning of Saturday August 6 awoke with a spectacular sunrise, but quickly the sky put on a solid overcast reflecting its lead grey shine on the glassy surface of the Pago Pago Bay. Only every now and then an almost imperceptible puff of wind from an ever-changing direction stirred the usually pretty agitated waters. After breakfast the light winds had steadied a bit to the East, drowning any hope of being able to cast off our lines without having to start burning sinful gas in our newly installed factory fresh 6hp Tohatsu outboard motor. Three longliner fishing boats stood ready to thrash Aluna’s fragile hull sides with their menacing steel bows sporting Asian sounding names, should she not be able to fetch enough impulse from the fickle wind to move forward. So pull the starter cord it was and the hauntingly easy and spiritually empty comfort of modern technology moved us away from the concrete dock where we had spent the last month listening to noisy diesel generator noise and staring into glary halogen floodlights.

Once we got a view through the harbor mouth out to the open sea we realized that the monotony of the grey cloud cover we had seen overhead was a bit deceiving. The reality out there was a little more menacing. Big bundles of darker grey bore rainsqualls with thick sheets of precipitation hanging on their underbellies. Once you’re under way on a sailboat you don’t just turn around and head back unless there’s something really serious going on. So we headed out and were soon riding the swells. The wind was South Easterly as predicted, but a bit fresher than the benign five to ten knots promised. It was slightly on the nose and the seas confused. A sizable squall was now approaching and we hadn’t cleared the land of Tutuila Island when white horses began galloping happily over a black sea and the gusts got stronger. Just before the rain hit my threshold for what Aluna’s big main sail can take was breached. Under drenching rain we dowsed the sail, bundled it up and raised the number two main, our workhorse with which we usually end up sailing, even if just for the peace of mind. The big sail is obviously more powerful, but you’re always nervous because you know that any strong gust can shred it. Now Aluna was set for the voyage, but believe me, of that peace of mind there was not much within reach. Having the wind forward of the beam means you’re getting big knocks from oncoming wave trains, making the whole boat shudder whenever they hit. From what I could tell there were at least five different swells coming at us from all directions, resulting in a most jerky motion. I’m fortunate enough to not usually get seasick, but by late afternoon I’ve had it. The half digested breakfast oatmeal came flying backwards and just barely was I able to open the center deck hatch so it could complete it’s trajectory in the churning seas instead of sticking to any of the useful fixtures of Aluna’s topsides. Beatriz was not much better off, but that’s no news. As awful as it is to look at her in that miserable state, now I knew how it feels from the inside. There was neither lunch nor diner that day, nor breakfast the following one. None of us had the courage to go down below and stare at pans sliding back and forth on our new stove. All we could do was nibble on a carrot or a cracker that was left lying around in the deck pod.

Progress was reasonably good, but the miso soup that was meant to be the second day’s diner also decided to shift into reverse as soon as it had descended our by now burning throats. Only on the morning of the third day did things ease up. The wind had finally backed enough to whistle at us from aft of the beam, making the motion of our boat immediately more consistent. As soon as the mind can somehow anticipate the movements of the vessel it’s dancing upon, it all becomes bearable. The sky had opened up, blue is way more pretty to look at than grey! Landfall in Tonga was predicted to happen on the fourth day and I was up from my watch bunk before dawn. Slowly the star strung heavens started to turn silver in the East and the little specks of light begun to fade away one after  the other. The bleak silver then got a hue of yellow and soon a more powerful one of pink and orange, the cloud tops gradually emerged from a dark blue and burned with amber before transmutating into the most gleaming white. By now a strip of land had appeared out of the darkness to the South West. Once again the GPS had proven to be of undisputable accuracy, allowing us to know at any time our very exact position.

The strip of green increased in size, but the winds were losing spiff and soon Aluna was barely ghosting along. Of course that did not matter much as the Tongan landmass revealed itself as one of singular beauty. Eroded shapes and sculpted figures emerged from high cliffs on the Northern shore, along which we had to sail to make way to entrance of the labyrinthine interior waterways of Vava’u. Slower and slower our pace became and by nightfall we had barely reached the entrance of the long fjord like channel that leads up to the harbor of Neiafu, our destination for this trip. The scene was of an eerie beauty and the sunset promised to be spectacular. We were in no hurry, so decided to spend the night in the glassy waters, pointing our bows into the feeble winds on a tack away from the island until two o’clock in the morning while getting a little sleep. Whales were around us all night, their jets of exhaled air sounding spooky under the moonlight. Then we turned around and by dusk we were once again at the entrance of what turned out to be a sailor’s dreamscape. We spent a good portion of that day again sailing very slowly through a myriad of small and big islands with ochre, porous cliffs where wooded bundles of vegetation stuck out from dark caves while at its feet the ocean had eaten away the rock so that most of the islets had some resemblance to mushrooms floating on an azure sea, broken all of a sudden by a breaching humpback whale, landing with a powerful thump on its side, white, gushing foam of churned up seawater engulfing this playful giant the moment it returned to its element after a brief excursion into the weightless freeing flight through thin air. A groan of oversized pleasure resounded from the cliffs while the black and white Dalmatian-like patterned flipper tapped many times the soft surface of the sea.

The more we penetrated the fjord, the more civilized our environment became and by two in the afternoon we had reached the narrow entrance to the Neiafu harbor basin, through which the wind was softly blowing at us. So it was time to yet again bring to live what Beatriz by now affectionately calls “El Negrito”. As you can see we’re still incredibly thrilled to have a functioning motor, but we did promise our purist sailor friends that we will use it sparingly and wisely! It is still under break in procedure, so only half the throttle range is used. It puttered along just fine to bring us alongside the rough custom wharf, where the check in procedures to bring us into the realm of the mighty Kingdom were soon under way.

Neiafu turned out to be a nasty little township. If stinky Pago Pago’s nick name as the armpit of the South Pacific is more than well deserved, them this dusty stretch of overdeveloped waterfront should go down in history as its whorehouse, hooker’s den, red luminescent brothel, bordello putesco or whatever other poetic term we created linguistically to denominate places where pleasure and fun is promoted for economic gain. Just as what’s all so lamely called the worlds oldest profession creates places where the steamy self-esteem suffers the breakdown of moral restraint so that its now unshackled lust can execute the most effective economic stimulus plan, here a veritable horde of pink sweating cruising folks and post hippie backpacking globetrotters have created an enclave of fun seeking geeks, whitewashing anything remotely resembling Polynesian, eclipsing every hint of the previously apparently so very Friendly Islands. Blaring music screeches out of giant black speakers oppressing the quintessence of any tropical night, sport fishers land a catch of fake ecological passion from under a sheen of spilled outboard motor oil, diving with tanks of compressed awareness into the abyss of man’s poisonous exploitation of natural beauty. We’re desperately looking for some slumbering sledgehammer in our bilges to swing at this mirage of wayward Western consumption, to shatter it into a million and one pieces and find something authentic behind this mess of madness.

With respect to the Friendly Islands, the story goes that this might have been a misconception since its inception. Apparently good ol’ James Cook, who is credited with having coined this distinction of the Tongan Archipelago, was in a hurry to leave the friendly folks, which he managed to do on a Wednesday, while the feisty Tongans were still fiercely debating what would be the best day of the week to cook Mr. Cook, if it should be done on a Thursday or on a Friday!

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