As with most things in life we have choices and, therefore, decisions to make. Prior to leaving Samoa, on 19th August 2016, we had to make a decision on our departure date, based on the weather forecasts we had been studying. Do we take advantage of the forecasted flatter seas, but lighter winds, which meant we would be motoring or, at best, motor-sailing, or do we wait for the stronger winds that would allow us to sail, albeit a beat, accompanied by higher seas?
Based on the sailing season we’d had up to this point, we opted for the former. With two engines, the prospect of motoring or motor-sailing just meant we would adopt our normal strategy; motor at a low RPM to conserve fuel, alternate between engines and add some time to the passage to account for the slower speed we would be doing. We were also looking forward to a relatively peaceful passage based on the forecast of light and variable winds in flat seas, given that we'd spent nearly a month in Samoa, enjoying a well deserved rest in glorious sunshine, in a protected anchorage and wanted a slow transition back into the sailing realm.
Well, it seems Murphy had other ideas! We had no sooner left the anchorage when the port engine started to run a little hotter than normal. Rather than risk anything, we swapped engines and let the port engine cool down before starting the troubleshooting process. First, replace the impeller. Unfortunately that didn't resolve the issue. Second, check if the intake was blocked. So, we switched off the starboard engine as well and drifted. After adorning snorkel gear, securing a safety line for the 1.5 Kt current, Roy took the plunge. Nope, nothing seemed blocked!
Once Roy was safely back on board, the next decision had to be made. Do we return to Apia or continue on? Knowing that Samoa has no yachting repair facilities or spares, but Tonga, in particular, our next destination, the Vava'u Group, on the other hand, has a Moorings and Sunsail base where we expected we’d be able to get assistance. Also, the fact that monohulls motor on one engine all the time, we took the decision to continue and were rewarded with a beautiful sunset that evening, saw an amazingly bright "green flash" and motor-sailed under a beautiful full moon.
The next day Roy decided to tackle the port engine issue again. Unfortunately after cleaning the heat exchanger, the exhaust elbow, the pipes of the water pump and the filter, it was still running hot. The only two remaining possibilities were a blockage higher up in the intake or a faulty water pump. Since the former was a far less expensive option, we hoped for that, but neither could be investigated or repaired until we were at anchor again.
Of course, Murphy had definitely decided to have a giggle at this point. Once again our South Pacific passage weather had no resemblance to what was forecasted. The flat seas we thought we were getting for the duration of the passage only lasted a day and, by this time, we were crawling our way through very lumpy and confused seas on one engine, with the swell anything from south-westerly to southerly, the current out of the east, winds out of the southeast and we still had approximately thirty hours remaining on our passage.
When we decided on this passage plan from Samoa to Tonga we took the decision to skip the northern Tongan island of Niuatoputapu and head straight for the Vava'u Group, in order to take advantage of the forecasted benign weather, as well as not wanting to risk another weather system coming through if we delayed our passage by stopping.
Well, by late afternoon, not only was Murphy having a giggle, he was hysterical with laughter. When the weather started to deteriorate even further, we were already past Niuatoputapu and could not make it in daylight, so, we decided to soldier on. By 0100, however, with 125NM to go, in lashing rain, 25 Kts of wind, 3M swells and a very strong current, all on the nose, and with the starboard engine at full taps and the port engine on as high as we dared, we were doing a pitiful 1.8 to 3 Kts; Basically going nowhere, so we turned around!
We spent the rest of the night in 20-25 Kts, with seas of 3-4M, which were now fortunately all behind us. By sunrise on 21st August 2016, after snaking our way through the reefs, we arrived in Niuatoputapu. Although frustrated that we had to make the diversion, we were delighted to be safe and sound, albeit that the temperatures had plummeted and it was absolutely freezing. Nothing like being bundled up under duvets in the tropics!
Niuatoputapu, however, turned out to be one of the best experiences we had during our South Pacific sailing adventure and we considered ourselves extremely fortunate to have landed here so unexpectedly.
We had barely settled in when we were hailed on the VHF radio by a lovely lady called Cea, who welcomed us to the island and explained that, since it was a Sunday, we would have to remain on board until we could clear in the following morning. She apologised profusely for the inconvenience and for the fact that she was, therefore, unable to invite us to church and to the Sunday feast in the village, but instead, invited us to a potluck dinner the following night at her home. While we had a change of plan and another first on Paw Paw, by not actually reaching our intended destination, one cannot question the twists and turns of life when we stumble upon such friendliness and kindness.
The following morning we woke to glorious sunshine and another yacht limping into the anchorage; Bay Dreamer (Anna and Daniel), whom we'd met briefly in Samoa with their crew of five and a four month old baby on board, had also decided to take advantage of the forecasted benign weather and set sail for Vava'u, but was forced to divert as well.
It was on our trip back from the dusty, dry and bustling town of Labasa on the northwest coast of Vanua Levu Island, Fiji that we contemplated the content for our next articles. As we bounced along on one of the local buses, enjoying the spectacular scenery, we decided that a comparison of customs and cultures would, not only take us on a trip down memory lane, but would provide our readers with an insight into these wonderful islands, many of which we feel in love with.
Having enjoyed our time and travels through the French Polynesian Islands with the World ARC “dropouts”, as we were nicknamed, we had already said our goodbyes to Do Over earlier in the month, but, as we set sail from Boro Boro on 6th July 2016, it was time to say our goodbyes to Nina and Kiwi Beanz as well, not knowing when our paths would cross again, given that we were heading on a northerly route to the Samoan Islands via Surwarrow, as they all headed on the southerly route via Palmerston and Nuie to Tonga.
Prior to our passage from Boro Boro, we had made the decision to stop in Surwarrow, a marine reserve of the Cook Islands, given the weather forecasts, but would continue on to American Samoa if conditions dictated. As luck would have it, the forecasted four-day break in the weather was holding, allowing us to make our scheduled stop and we were having one of our best sails since leaving Panama: Sunny blue skies dotted with fair weather cumulus, 5-7 Ft seas, 13-18 Kts of wind and a 0.5 Kt current with us. The wind did lighten though as forecasted, but we entered the lagoon of Surwarrow on 10th July 2016 in completely flat seas, under blue, sunny skies. Entering the pass was a little different though; a bit like swimming back up a flushing toilet. Being escorted by black-tipped sharks all the way to tiny anchorage area was also an odd sight.
Since we were the only yacht there, picking our spot to anchor was a fairly straightforward task and we were soon greeted by the Surwarrow rangers. After initial introductions, the formalities of clearing in were completed efficiently and professionally, following which we received a list of “don’ts” and advise on some of the possible “dos”. It was at this point that some disappointment set in.
We were not allowed to visit any of the other islands rimming the atoll, since the bird population had essentially been desecrated by an infestation of rats and the area was considered ecologically vulnerable, while the Cook Island conservation authorities worked to try and restore it. Also, lobster fishing was no longer possible as this had been over-fished and snorkelling or diving was considered risky, given the shark population that was now present in the lagoon. These were, in fact, all the primary reasons we had looked forward to visiting Surwarrow in the first place.
We did, however, have permission to visit Anchorage Island, where Tom Neale had lived and wrote the book, “An Island to Oneself” and was also the island believed to have inspired Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island”. Regardless of our disappointment, it was clear why. This little island, literally in the middle of nowhere, scattered with coconut palms swaying gently in the breeze, trimmed with the whitest sand we had ever seen and surrounded by the most magnificent shades of turquoise and blue waters, was indeed idyllic.
From Paw Paw we could see the entire circumference of the atoll with the small motos dotted along the reef. After five days at sea, although we were tempted to drop the dinghy and make our way to shore almost immediately, we decided to rather enjoy the scenery and explore the following day. So, instead, we floated just off Anchorage Island and watched the sea life, what was left of the birdlife and the most amazing colours of the water.
While the Society Islands have spectacular waters, the difference here was that the water changed to completely different colours as the day progressed. The sky was multiple shades of the clearest blues as well, making it difficult to distinguish the horizon. We had never seen anything like it. Then, add a turtle that just popped up to take a peek or all the fish that Roy found curiously examining our anchor when he snorkelled to check it and we knew we were in a very special place indeed! One could say we were enchanted by it. What made it extra special was the fact that we were two of only four people in the entire world who occupied it. It was a very strange feeling indeed to be totally alone!
Our first evening was one of the strangest as well. Being in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with basically no one else around, there were modern day occurrences that we didn’t need to concern ourselves with. For example, locking up for the night or worrying about a possible theft during the night or having another yacht anchor on top of us or having noisy neighbours or dealing with loud music from ashore that goes on until all hours of the night. There were also thoughts about what one would do in the event of a medical emergency, amplifying the feeling of total isolation, which, while over-powering, was also very liberating.
Our decision not to go ashore on the day we arrived, however, turned out to be a mistake. We realised something was amiss the following morning when we spotted the rangers removing their tender from the water and tying it up to one of the coconut palms on the beach. Further investigations via the VHF radio revealed that they were expecting a storm that would last for at least the next three days. However, after re-examining our weather information, there was absolutely no indication of any impending storm. Needless to say, we spent the next three days trapped in an unprotected anchorage with poor holding - fortunately Paw Paw wrapped herself around a huge rock which held us – bouncing around and wishing we had undertaken our explorations when we had the opportunity, knowing in our hearts, it would not be presented again.
On the final day of the storm, while making arrangements to clear out, we asked the rangers if there was anything they needed; perhaps some food items from our ship’s stores like, flour, sugar or rice. We had a good giggle at the response: “Do you perhaps have any beers?” So, after rummaging around the bilges and uncovering a dozen beers and a bottle of rum, as well as baking them two batches of Irish soda bread, we headed ashore, finally.
Before working our way through the trees to the "house" of the rangers; a very basic, albeit functional open-air building, we stopped to enjoy a walk around the beautiful little beach, which we had been looking at longingly for days, swing in the hammocks and watch the millions of hermit crabs, following which we were warmly welcomed and given a short tour of the premises. This revealed the original building which Tom Neale had built and lived in before his death in 1978 and had been re-purposed as a "book exchange" library. After the clearing out paperwork was completed, we enjoyed a wonderful chat with the rangers and learnt that they were father and son, who spend six months of the year in Surwarrow, primarily to oversee yachts visiting the atoll. Then we encountered the first highlight of our visit to Surwarrow - The rangers showed us an enormous coconut crab. The second highlight didn’t happen until we had made our way back to Paw Paw, where we were greeted by our security detail - our newly adopted black-tipped sharks that had circled the yacht since our arrival.