Friday, September 12, 2008

Happy in Ha'apai

Well, we just pulled into Pangai, the port of entry for the Ha’apai group. We checked in here two weeks ago, and now we’re here to complete our exit formalities before heading west (ever west!) to Fiji. It’s September 11th as I write this. In six weeks or so we aim to be in Australia, well ahead of the start of the cyclone season. That means that we’ve got some traveling in front of us: the four hundred mile passage to Fiji, then the pair of seven hundred mile passages to get us to New Caledonia and then onwards to Oz. We figure we’ll get only two weeks in Fiji and a week in New Caledonia to break it all up. So the two weeks that we just spent in the Ha’apai felt like a real respite, a chance to take things at our own pace before the busy time about to come.


We left our mooring in Neiafu sailing under main alone. The best part about laying to a mooring is leaving it. There’s no messing around with the windlass, no stacking the anchor chain. Just put up a sail, slip the mooring line, and silently leave. Nice. We rode a fine northeasterly breeze out of town. But just as we were leaving the Vava’u group it died completely and we were left riding an oily swell with little palm-covered islands in the distance. The mixing elbow on our engine exhaust has started to leak, and I was hesitant to motor all through the night to the Ha’apai for fear of it getting worse. We talked about anchoring in one of the little islands in the southern part of the Vava’u group and waiting for wind, but decided that we might as well just get where we were going. A very good decision, it later developed.

We motored into the night, taking turns hand steering. At one in the morning we shut down and drifted to avoid arriving in the Ha’apai before dawn. It was a star-filled, still night, with just a bit of a roll to the ocean. We set the radar alarm and I woke every hour or so to check on things. At one point I realized that a whale was sleeping near us. I could hear the giant gasping breaths, and I could just see the occasional white patch of disturbed water over the beast’s back. It was close, and the night quiet enough that the sound of its breath was loud, and a little spooky. I turned the engine on and motored a half mile away to avoid any unwanted interactions.

We pulled dropped the hook off Pangai fuzzy-headed from our interrupted sleep. It was early afternoon, and a consensus was slowly building that we should delay the hassle of putting the dinghy in the water and rowing in to deal with officialdom until the next day. Even though we had only traveled within Tonga, we were still expected to check in with customs.

Then a voice came over the VHF.

“New yacht, new yacht, new yacht, this is harbormaster, harbormaster, harbormaster, do you read me over.”

“They beckon,” I said to Alisa. Then, “Harbormaster, this is sailing vessel Pelagic, sailing vessel Pelagic.”


“Could you repeat that, over.”


“Could you repeat that again please, over.”

“What I am saying is I am asking you to call me.”

Quizzical look to Alisa. “Um, OK, Harbormaster, this is sailing vessel Pelagic.”

“No, I am asking what time you will come to see me.”

“Um, how about in two hours, we still have to get our dinghy in the water, over.”

“I think, one hour, over.”

And so, our sense of enterprise was rekindled. We got the dinghy in the water, baby and adult crew in the dinghy, and rowed the quarter-mile to shore, all in the hour. But once we got to the village nobody could direct us to the harbormaster. Everyone was reserved, but friendly when approached.

The first man I asked was standing on the wharf.

“I have no idea where he is,” he said to me, successfully conveying his absolute ignorance concerning the harbormaster’s whereabouts.

I tried again, rephrasing my question like any experienced, yet patient, traveler. “Do you not know where the harbormaster man is, or do you not know where the harbormaster office is?”

“I have never heard of that person or that office,” he said, putting any lingering doubts to rest.

Another man knew exactly where the harbormaster was. He walked me to a vantage point in the middle of the staging area between the harbor and the military barracks and pointed down the coast. “There,” he said with great authority. “The office is right by that blue boat.”

When we arrived at the blue boat we found a mix of offices – the electric company, the revenue service, the customs service, but no harbormaster. Feeling the palangi’s burden of an appointment neglected, I stuck my head in the first office and startled a very sleepy bureaucrat by saying hello.

“Do you know where the harbormaster’s office is?” I asked.

He looked at my with perfect perplexity, and I realized that I likely represented the most surprising event to occur during office hours in recent memory. After pausing to parse his phrasing, the young man said, “I have never heard of that before in my life.” This was a response so airtight against any further enquiry, and so similar to the denials of the first man I had asked, that I began to doubt the harbormaster’s existence myself.

I figured that I might as well check in with customs while I was in the neighborhood. And the customs man directed me to the harbormaster’s office, which proved to be on the wharf, 30 meters from the first two men I had asked.

I found the harbormaster inside an open waiting room for ferry passengers under a galvanized roof. Two women sat in a corner next to piles of baggage. The harbormaster was in his mid-twenties. He had a big halo of curly hair and dewy eyes and wore a plastic port security badge with his picture and name on it. He was talking into a handheld VHF: “New yacht, new yacht, new yacht.”

Most Tongan adults that we have interacted with, even in the villages, spoke very good English. Not the harbormaster. I struggled to understand anything he said, but he seemed used to that, and just produced a sign-in sheet for me to fill in. The last entry from a boat checking in was five days old, which made me very happy. After I was done filling in the sheet, the harbormaster made me understand that he hadn’t heard from the other yacht that was anchored off the town. “They must check soon,” he said. “Overtime charges.” And as I left he got back on the radio, his voice an insistent drone. “New yacht, new yacht, new yacht.”

Elias was cranky, and the village of Pangai was not the kind of place where we wanted him to be rooting around in the dirt. Alisa was also done in from short sleep the night before, but she graciously let me take a quick wander before we headed back to the barky.

In my forty five minute tour, Pangai struck me as the archetype of the Pacific outpost that is sleepy in a way that is synonymous with poor, rural and tropical. There were banners across the main road celebrating the king’s recent presence during his coronation tour. Pigs grazed on a giant soccer pitch, a man in a skirt rode by on a one-speed bike. I talked to Mafi, the niece of a noble from Tungua Island in the Ha’apai group, who was sweeping up outside the palace after the king’s visit. And I met Asa, who spoke with a strong American accent, was heavily tattooed and missing his front lower teeth, and worked at a nearby resort that the Lonely Guide calls edgy and uncomfortable for lone travelers, especially women. And then we returned to Pelagic.


The next day we sailed south towards one of the many uninhabited islands of the Ha’apai. We were traveling inside the thirty mile long stretch of barrier islands and reefs that protect the whole group from the tradewinds. We passed a red yacht motoring north towards Pangai, and were gratified an hour later to hear a familiar voice on the VHF, droning on at great length without any response: “Red yacht, red yacht, red yacht. Red, red, red, red…).

After a few hours of sailing we dropped the hook off of Tofanga Island, a little piece of sand and coral heaven five hundred meters long and only thirty meters across. We rowed ashore and explored – Alisa and I checked out a new bird on the island (wattled honeyeater), Alisa found an exquisite shell the size of an apple, we took turns walking the beach that completely encircled the island, and Elias got busy picking up pieces of coral and digging in the sand. Another yacht was anchored about a mile away, but it left the next day and it was ten days until we saw another.

This is exactly what we had come for – a deserted tropical island. It’s amazing how infrequently we’ve had this kind of experience on our way across the Pacific. Every day we just read and played with Elias and worked on the boat and went to the beach and went snorkeling and just let the problems of the world take care of themselves for a while.

When Saturday rolled around we jumped five miles north to the village of Uiha so that we could attend church the next day. We were feeling very short on the getting down with the people side of our stay in Tonga, and, since Tongans are famously church-going, we figured that church was the place to meet people.

I’ll admit to a free-thinker’s jitters before the event, but it turned out to be a completely painless experience. The service, at the Free Wesleyan church, was entirely in Tongan, which spared me exposure to any theology. And the singing was strong, and crisp, and resonant, and different from anything I’ve heard before. A music leader gave the pitch before each song with a mouth organ and the little congregation of maybe thirty adults launched into two- and three-part harmonies and pulled them off very well. Men and women sat apart and little children wandered from relative to relative while old ladies dispensed smacks to keep them in line. The young men wore boldly printed shirts with ties and their tupenu, or skirts, and on the backs of the pews they rested corded forearms, broad palms, splayed fingers. The older men wore dark jackets and ties and tupenu. The women wore dark blazers and dark shirts and red scarves and tupenu and everyone wore the mats around their waists, the taovala.

After the service everyone walked together down the road, we guessed towards lunch, but we weren’t invited along. The vibe was very guarded, though friendly, and the people who did talk to us asked, “Are you going back to your boat now?” Alisa did share a great interaction with two old women and we both talked to Matetau, a big grey-haired man who we met after he rode up on his bike from the pre-service kava ceremony with the minister.

We went back to the boat and had lunch and printed up pictures as gifts for people we had met. Our return that afternoon was a mixed bag – Matetau smiled at the picture we had taken of him with his three grown kids, but then he seemed to get embarrassed and explained that his wife had died in 2006 and he was a poor man and did not have anything that he could give us in return for the picture. And the primary school teacher we had met seemed to barely remember us when we returned with some pencils and books we had said we’d bring in for her students. Even when there is no language barrier, communication can be so hard.

But then Alisa found one of the women she had been interacting with and completely bowled her over with the picture she had taken. She was a small bent woman in black with a smile that was the impish smile of a little girl, a smile that owed nothing to the resignation and wisdom of age. She was on her way to the second church service of the day when Alisa found her and she turned strait around and walked back home with the picture, holding it up in front of her face with both hands and smiling at it in disbelief.

On the way back to the boat Elias wouldn’t stop putting his hands into his mouth and this visit to a poor rural village started to feel like the limits of what we were comfortable doing with a two year old.

And then when we got back to the boat we switched on Australian Broadcasting on the shortwave and heard that Sara Palin would be the Republican nominee for vice president. General disbelief reined on board Pelagic, as well as an urgent, and of course unrequited, need to talk to some other Alaskans. Our reaction was two-pronged: she’s so inexperienced (“Three years ago she was the mayor of Wasilla!” “Two years ago she was doing Jock of the Rock on Kodiak public radio!”), and Barack’s a dead man (“He beat Hillary, he took down the Clintons, and now Sara Palin is going to be the one to stop him!” “Her political skills are so good. If she doesn’t fall flat on her face in the first week or two, everyone will end up loving her.”) Our snippets of news from the outside since then have tended to support that second immediate reaction. Sara Palin, a heartbeat away. Who would have guessed.


All that aside, the next day we headed south for another deserted island experience. The wind had been blowing strong from the southeast for a couple days, keeping Ha’apai-bound yachts that left after us stuck in Vava’u. We left Uiha with the wind gusting over 25 knots, and the dinghy soon began to surf uncontrollably from side to side down the following seas. We tried to pull into Tofanga Island to anchor up and get the dinghy on deck, but the wind had come around easterly and there wasn’t enough protection to anchor. We tried motoring back towards Uiha, but it was too slow going strait into the weather, so we turned around and continued on towards our destination, Limu Island. And a few minutes later the dinghy flipped upside down, and stayed upside down.

The load on the painter was immense, and after a quick try had convinced us that it was impossible to flip the dinghy back over in the midst of the crashing wind waves, we continued on. We both assumed that the loads generated by dragging the dinghy upside down would be too great for the painter and the boat, and we both silently assumed that the dinghy was gone. It’s hard to overestimate what a blow this would be to the trip –without the dinghy we can get nowhere, it’s our only link between Pelagic and the places we visit.

But we motored on gamely, keeping our speed below three knots. And when we finally pulled into the Limu island anchorage, the dinghy was still with us. There was some fiberglass damage to the joint between the two halves of the dinghy, but I was able to fix that the next day, which was a bit of an adventure in the thirty knot winds. And we both have a new appreciation for the dinghy, not realizing how much we valued that little boat until we almost lost her.
It blew hard for the first three days we were at Limu Island – we saw our first steady 35 knot winds of the whole trip, and our first 40 knot gusts. Limu sits at the apex of a ninety degree angle in the barrier reef, and we watched tremendous seas crashing into the reef on both sides of us. When the wind abated we found incredible snorkeling on the reefs around Pelagic, and another fantastic deserted tropical isle experience when we went ashore.

The world was reduced to a new set of elements: soft sand, turquoise water, and white clouds. And we had this slice of creation all to ourselves to discover, to reflect upon, and to enjoy. In the week we were at Limu we saw one local fishing boat in the distance, and no other yachts. Meanwhile, less than a hundred miles away in Vava’u, hundreds of cruising yachts were congregated. It felt like the cruising route across the Pacific was a six lane highway, and we had found a little cul-de-sac without any traffic at all. I figure that everyone out cruising in a sailboat makes the itinerary that most interests them, and there’s no cause to criticize other people’s selection of routes as better or worse than anyone else’s. But it is remarkable that we were in this place that offered everything that fuels the South Pacific dream, and so few other yachts had ventured down from the well-traveled environs of Vava’u to check it out. I think that our time in Alaska may have made it easier for us to be alone in a wild anchorage in the Ha’apai when a gale is blowing, and that we are at ease with the psychological demands of solitude and independence. And I also think that as much as people might say they want a deserted beach all to themselves, they’re a little more comfortable with a tropical experience that has been interpreted and validated by other visitors.

After Limu we sailed to the island of Ha’afeva, where we had a very interesting lunch experience in the village that I don’t have time to describe. Because it’s time for us to go into Pangai and check out, and tomorrow we set off for Fiji. More to follow from there.

1 comment:

  1. Great story, I have some great aerial images of Limu Island, and the others you visited.

    You can see more about the islands of Ha'apai on my Private Islands Blog