Wednesday, August 20, 2008


Finally, after six days, it was time for us to leave Suwarrow. We’ve been moving steadily for the last year and two months, and it’s starting to feel as if our strange fate is to forever find fantastic places and then leave them before we’re quite ready. I for one am beginning to look forward to finding some place that we like in Australia and just staying there for a few months.

John made quite a show of being downcast when I said we would be leaving, and we had kisses all around with him and Veronica when we made our goodbyes. We really enjoyed their company, and we like to think that they enjoyed ours. Our obvious appreciation for the bird colony that they took us to seemed to go far towards endearing us to John. We got a great feel for the Cook Islands from these three Cook Islanders that we met: Stella from Palmerston, John from Manihiki and Veronica from Puka Puka. A lot of the Cook Islands are very difficult to visit with a yacht, as the anchorages tend to come in two kinds, poor and non-existent. But of course that also makes them all the more alluring, as yacht visits are rare events in those places, and not the constant parade of short-term visits that other islands get.

Suwarrow was our only visit to the Cooks on this time around, but for the first time we began to smell the allure of a loop through the western tropical Pacific during some other Austral winter yet to come. All that remains to be seen, of course. We got quite a strong bittersweet feeling as we pulled the hook, waved goodbye to the fun people we had met on other boats, and motored away from Anchorage Island, as likely as not for the last time in our lives. We put up a reefed main and shot out through the pass, and then we were sailing out north of Suwarrow on perfectly blue twelve foot South Pacific seas, watching the motus going by one by one to port, including Brushwood Island, and the huge breakers on the reef as the waves came upon it unsuspectingly from the profound depths of the open ocean. We made the northern tip of the atoll and gybed, then worked our way past the motus of the western side. The breeze was fresh, and we sailed along perfectly. It was time for Alisa to check in on the Pacific Seafarers’ net, then time to eat dinner, and we gave ourselves up to the consolation of the passage, that time that we steal for ourselves alone with the purity of the open ocean.

The breeze stayed fresh for days. I stood behind the wheel for hours, both night and day, looking out over the endlessly changing plain to the horizon. We wondered if we would hit the South Pacific Convergence Zone, where we might reasonably expect thunderstorms and other rough weather. We did finally hit it, a vast band of clouds that took Pelagic two days and a night to sail past, but we never got anything worse than a downpour, though the radar returns from squalls kept us from using the radar alarm to warn us of ships, so we stayed up through the night, keeping watch. The wind stayed fresh behind us, pushing us along towards Tonga, insistently.

For days we had been explaining to Elias about presents, and cake, and singing, and the other components of a birthday party. Then August 5th rolled around, and we celebrated his second birthday, on passage from Suwarrow to Vava’u. Alisa made a chocolate cake.

Eli had carrot cake for his first birthday, and he found the switch to chocolate to be to his liking. Here he is, watching Alisa cut his slice.

Then he opened presents, and he was very pleased with his books and his airplane. (He already has long passages of Make Way for Ducklings by heart.)

He still answers “birthday cake!” when we ask hin what’s in his belly.

We almost made it to Vava’u, our target island in Tonga, on Saturday, the 9th of August, the day before my birthday. But the twenty knot trades that had made the passage so fast finally died on us, and we spent the night making two long downwind tacks that brought us to the north side of the island just at dawn. I was amazed how much Vava’u looked like Afognak Island, in Alaska, at least from a distance.

No business is conducted on Sunday in Tonga, so we couldn’t check into the country. We were supposed to proceed straight to the customs dock and wait there, without leaving the boat, until we could check in on Monday. But sailing past all the beautiful tropical anchorages of Vava’u to tie up at the rusty, dirty customs dock in the main town, Neiafu, was not how we wanted to end our seven hundred mile passage. So we went on stealth mode and tucked into a beautiful little anchorage, in fifteen feet of turquoise water off of an uninhabited island in the little world of islands and channels that nestles within the arms of Vava’u. We felt honor-bound not to go on shore before checking in, but we did both go snorkeling right from the boat, over a little fringing reef that was home to some fish species that we never saw in French Polynesia. I came out of the water and let the saltwater dry onto my skin in the heat. Birds were singing in the trees on the island, which made me realize how much I had missed birdsong in French Polynesia, where landbird communities are so poor. It was a lush and beautiful spot, completely new to us and particularly sharp to our senses after six days at sea. “Everyone should turn forty in Tonga,” I said to Alisa.

Then it was time for the main event.

I had been up since 0300 bringing the boat in to land, and I was having trouble keeping up with Elias, who was, as always, perfectly rested.

But I rallied to blow out the candles.

Eli couldn’t believe his good fortune when he saw Alisa cutting him yet another piece of cake.

And I got the Speedo that I’ve been wanting ever since we reached the tropics.

It was a great birthday.

The next morning we tried to figure out what time it was, so that we would be sure of presenting ourselves to officialdom during working hours. Tonga is thirteen hours off of GMT, we read in our Lonely Guide.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” I said to Alisa. “How can any place be more than twelve hours away from any other place in the world?”

We consulted a cruising guide that told us that Tonga’s motto is “The place where time begins,” or some such silly thing. And even though we were just shy of 174° W, and thus far from 180°, where you might expect the dateline to be, we had, in fact crossed the dateline when we entered Tongan waters. So we went straight from August 9th to August 11th.

“So we were hiding out on a Monday, and we could have checked in right away,” I said to Alisa.

“So we celebrated your birthday on the wrong day.”

“We missed it completely!”

And so, though I am forty years old, I have only had thirty nine birthdays.

Everyone should turn forty in Tonga.

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