Tonga: the friendly islands where time begins

We reached Vava’u, the most northerly group of Tongan islands, just before sunset on 18th September 2019. We were exhausted from our very difficult 16 day passage from French Polynesia and were very tempted to break our first golden rule: never enter an unfamiliar anchorage at night. However, we opted to round the northern point of Vava’u and seek shelter in Vaiutukakau Bay on the north-western side, taking three hourly watches to make sure we didn’t drift out into the current and rougher water.

At first light we sailed into the scenic waterways of Vava’u and passed a number of islands, heading for the main port, Neiafu, where we had to clear in. We tied up to the main dock and were informed by the friendly customs official that we had missed a day along the way. Tonga is the first country west of the International Dateline, which meant that we were now 11 hours ahead of our family and friends back home, instead of 11 hours behind.

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The anchorage at Neiafu.

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Difficult passage to Tonga

It is 03:30 as I write this on my night watch. We are running before 20 knots of wind with an almost full moon casting its bright track on the ocean. I’m trying to make sense from our diary and log book of the confused blur of the past fourteen days.

Finally our visa time had expired in beautiful French Polynesia and it was time to sail on. Early on Monday, 2nd September I was woken by the sound of the water taxis passing very close, and was surprised as we had anchored well out of the small craft channel across Uturoa in Raiatea. I got up to start the day only to find that we had inexplicably dragged our anchor, were now right in the channel and within 10m of a rock on which the small boat channel marker was erected, with a reef behind it.

With some quick work we got the anchor on deck, where after we sailed across the lagoon and out of one of the western passes. Once beyond of the lee of Raiatea we had 3m swells and about 23 knots of wind which gave us a good start on the 1300 nm passage to Tonga. Sadly Karin’s seasickness kicked in and she needed to remain lying down to prevent vomiting, although with her determination, she always does her share of night watches and sail changes.

Tuesday saw us with more good wind and 4m swells, which aggravated Karin’s condition. Nevertheless we made good progress until at 15:00, when the genoa suddenly started flogging. I grabbed the wheel but felt no resistance and immediately knew that our steering had failed. A trail of hydraulic fluid in the aft lazarette confirmed this. Stunned, we dropped the main sail and rolled in the genoa, dug out the emergency tiller and I wasted quite a bit of time trying to figure out how it worked.

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The Society Islands

From the Tuamotus it was a three day and night sail to the Society Islands, the last French Polynesian (FP) island group that we were to visit. As we didn’t have any business to do in Tahiti and my visa time for FP was soon coming to an end, we chose to sail past busy Papeete (the capital of FP) and head west for the quieter and less touristy Huahine.

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Tahaa and Raiatea are clearly visible from the west side of Huahine.

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Scenic Marquesas

Each of the French Polynesian archipelagos has its own unique character and we shall remember the Marquesas for their scenic beauty with majestic mountains, hiking routes, exquisite waterfalls, abundance of fruit and friendly Polynesians.  Of the six inhabited islands, just a spec in the Pacific Ocean halfway around the world from South Africa, we visited five: Fatu Hiva, Tahuatu, Hiva Oa, Nuka Hiva and Ua Pou.

Marquesas map

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The long haul to the Marquesa Islands

It took us 36 days, plenty of wind and sail power and just three litres of diesel to cover the 4 044 nm (7 300km) across the Pacific Ocean from Panama to the Marquesas. On weighing Moondust’s anchor at 06:15 on Easter Saturday at the southern end of the Panama Canal, the white full moon still hung in the sky to starboard while the sun peeped through warm orange cirrus clouds to port.

We had a pleasant start to the longest passage we will encounter in our circumnavigation (across this first stretch of the Pacific Ocean) with no seasickness on my part, light winds and a beautiful Mackerel on our fishing line!

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Panama Canal

A fast sail down from Cuba brought us within sight of Colon by the late afternoon of the sixth day with just enough time to anchor before dark. The adverse current had meant sailing for an additional 200nm through the water making the passage length just under 970nm against the 766nm over the ground. Now we were at the approaches of the fabled Panama canal; a small boat about to venture amongst the leviathans of the oceans. The approaches to the canal were clearly marked on the chart and evidenced by these huge ships entering and exiting in front of us. We were sure to keep well clear!

A radio call to Cristobal Signal Station advised us to turn to starboard after the breakwater and anchor off Shelter Bay Marina, close to about six other boats. We looked forward to an unbroken night’s sleep.

We knew that the Panama interlude would prove to be hard work with boat spares to be sourced, important maintenance to be done, the larder re-provisioned and the Canal transit to be organised. All of that had to be done from the Shelter Bay area, a one hour bus or boat ride away from Colon and much further from Panama. Then there was the matter of the canal transit itself and Karin’s French Polynesian visa to be organised once we were in Panama.

Panama map

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Fascinating Cuba!

We found Cuba to be absolutely fascinating and very different from any of the other Caribbean islands. It felt like we had taken a big step back in time, before the days of modern cars and a permanent connection to the virtual world.

 Cienfuegos

 After two weeks when we were finally ‘snorkeled out’ at Jardines de la Reina, aided by a good breeze, we sailed overnight for Cienfuegos, 160 km to the northwest and situated in an enclosed bay. We anchored off another government run Marina Marlin, where, after a lengthy but friendly check-in we were free to go ashore and enter the ‘time warp’.

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Walking down a wide, quiet double lane boulevard towards the town centre we were immediately struck by the beautiful old cars and how little traffic there was.

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Cuba’s spectacular Jardines de la Reina

We were excited to be heading for Santiago de Cuba, Cuba’s former capital on the south eastern coast and one of the few points of entry. What should have been a three day sail took us five due to the wind shadow caused by the 1900 m Hispaniola mountain chain. Having daughter Megs on board eased the night watches considerably as we could each get six hours’ sleep instead of four.

Southern Cuba sits on an underwater escarpment that rises sharply from depths of thousands of metres and it has some amazing, almost completely land locked natural harbours, Santiago de Cuba being one.

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The old fort that overlooks the narrow entrance to Santiago de Cuba.

After entering via the narrow channel we tied up at the marina and were warmly greeted by its manager who told us to stay on board until the doctor had examined us. A white coated lady arrived, enquired about our health, took our forehead temperatures and cleared us to proceed on shore.

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Marina Marlin in Santiago de Cuba.

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