Sailing to Vavau, Tonga

Vavaú, Tonga, is world-famous for its migrating humpback whales, taro root and plethora of churches on pretty much every street corner. Nestled in the embrace of tiny Port of Refuge, the village of Neiafu is obscured from sight and protected from the ocean by towering hills and sheltered coves. The Kingdom of Tonga, the only sovereign monarchy among the island nations of the Pacific Ocean, is made up of a whopping 171 islands, only 48 of which are inhabited. Vavaú and her many breathtaking, surrounding islands make up the northernmost group of these “Friendly Islands”, so named by Captain Cook for the welcoming reception he received during his first visit so many years ago. Indeed, our greeting was just as warm and welcoming — after we were finally allowed to disembark and step foot on the island that is.

Sailing to Vavau, Tonga, was anticlimactic, and we arrived mid-afternoon, drifting into the harbor on weary Pacific breezes. We were eagerly anticipating cold drinks (with ice!) and a good shower to cleanse our salty sea hair. Bucket showers just don´t do the trick, sometimes. Unfortunately, as luck would have it, we proudly announced our arrival into Port Refuge on ANZAC Day, a national holiday. April 25th marks the anniversary of the landing of New Zealand and Australian soldiers — the Anzacs — on the Gallipoli Peninsula in 1915. The acronym stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. The soldiers formed part of an expedition set out to capture the Peninsula, under a plan by Winston Churchill to open the way to the Black Sea for the Allied natives. Along with Australia and New Zealand, ANZAC day is also recognized in the Cook Islands, Niue, Samoa, and Tonga to honor their soldiers who participated in the campaign.

As far as national holidays go, this one wins the cake for mandatory observance. Everything was closed on this Friday afternoon and would remain closed throughout the weekend. That included the Port Authority and Tonga’s immigration office. In simple terms, this means we would have to stay on the boat until Monday — THREE days away. There were several other boats anchored in the bay, and we filled the next few hours with frenzied discussions back and forth as to the exact regulations and potential loopholes in the rulebook. We needed water. We needed supplies. More importantly, we wanted off the boat! The possibility of having to sit on deck for another 72 hours, only thirty feet from solid terra firma and cold beer was not an entertaining option. We could smell charcoal from a rowdy BBQ and hear the chatter and clink of glasses from a nearby cafe on land. We actually considered giving up and sailing on to Fiji as we sat on deck and flicked flies away under the hot afternoon sun.

Finally, with the help of many kind souls on land, we contacted a few off-duty immigration officials. They agreed to come by the following afternoon and clear us through customs and quarantine. The price was not pretty (they charged us quadruple the usual fees) but the rewarding taste of frothy beer and chocolate ice cream was oh so good.

Fitting in with the locals and yachtsmen

The Waterfront Cafe, a name tossed around the South Pacific among the Yachting crowd, served as our home away from home. Whether we were stretching out in the sun to read newly acquired novels(they had a book exchange!), hiding in cool shade to catch up on emails, or chatting with both locals and fellow boaters, we spent many an afternoon at the Waterfront. Here we met new friends and, over Ikale, “The Taste of Tonga” home-brewed beer, we traded stories of war, weather and water. Faces and accents from all over the world sat around the rickety wooden tables and spun stories into the late evening hours.

Boaters are a convivial bunch. Georgio is the newest addition to the Tongan expat crowd. He reigns from Germany and recently purchased a lonely tavern high on the hill. Full of smiles and good graces, he greeted us with kisses, made buckets of freshly popped popcorn and set aside his freshest tomatoes and cucumbers for QQ’s galley. Lee and Susan are here to relax and enjoy the slower paced island life. Susan, whose tangled mass of curls flow right past her waist, is a self-proclaimed beach bum who spends her afternoons dockside, helping local children learn to swim and dive. Her small framed partner, Lee, tells tales of Cuban adventures and years of wandering through Central America. His hope in Tonga is to perfect his guitar building skills and sell them abroad. A brief glimpse into his wood-making talent brought forth astonishing masterpieces of stunning genius. Bill, a regular around these parts for the past ten years, peers through tiny spectacles and rubs his graying, scraggly beard when he speaks. He knows everybody and has all the connections.

Time in the islands, though filled with nectar-sweet moments and memories, passes much too quickly. And Neifu was a brief stopover on our itinerary. Four days gave us enough time to explore the peaceful town, buy beautiful wood carvings from the market, and stroll the main street half a dozen times (it was only 400 meters long), but it wasn’t long enough to fully immerse ourselves in the captivating Tongan culture. Before lifting anchor, the QQ crew sat on deck, sipping coffee and listening to the astounding vocals drifting from the churches scattered among the hilltops, an enjoyable way to spend our final hours in Tonga.