"One-Way Ticket to Tonga"

Cruising World's Adventure Charter to Tonga's Vava'u Group last May was scheduled to span two weeks. But a couple of dozen sailors nearly went there to stay

September 1, 2004
By Tim Murphy

"My breath is noisy," said Lepa, as the rest of us found him waiting near the summit of 'Euakafa, some 300 feet above the emerald water where our boats lay at anchor. I've never met a man of 50 more fit than he is, though, and I suspect his comment was more courteous than sincere. For our part, the cardiovascular implications of this trek were dismayingly clear. In the last three days, I'd watched Lepa swim back and forth to a beach a quarter mile off, free-dive several dozen feet to clear chain from a coral head, and now break through the dense foliage and cobwebs of this muddy and quite vertical path on an unseasonably humid day to show us a tomb that's linked with one of Tonga's oldest myths. All these things he'd done without pausing and, his comment notwithstanding, without panting.

We arrived at Talafaiva's tomb and the stone foundations of a royal enclave that date back a hundred years or a thousand years. Lepa wasn't sure which. My wife, Marina, stared at the massive limestone slabs that form the tomb's sides and lid. At the outset of our hike, down at the water's edge, we'd seen the place from which this rock had been cut.

"How did they get it up here?" Marina asked, echoing my own wonder at seeing what could be accomplished in an age before hydraulics.
"When I was a boy," said Lepa, "I used to paddle out to these islands all the time; now everyone has outboards. I could climb to the tops of the coconut trees; my children can't do that." With a shrug he said, "For the old ones, I think it was easier. Maybe six of them picked it up and brought it here."

Resetting Our Clocks

Tonga time flows more gently and without the short chop and fast eddies of Eastern or Pacific Daylight Time. But it takes a while to notice the difference. Having crossed the international date line aboard a jet plane trading away all of May 12, 2004, for the promise of two May 25sour group of 25 sailors from America landed in Nuku'alofa's international airport like restless bulls in the china shop of this courteous Pacific-islands nation. Tongans are generally reticent and so careful about giving offense that they seldom look another person directly in the eye. By contrast, we arrived still noisy, still hopped up from the last mad rush of leaving jobs and homes and making our way through U.S. airport security lines.

In Los Angeles, a kindly Air New Zealand steward had offered a preview of the peace to come when I stepped aboard the international flight and showed him two pieces of government identification.

"You're all through with that rubbish now, mate," he said with a wink.

Yet, even as we landed in Nuku'alofa, one hurdle still remained. We were on our way to the Vava'u Group, Tonga's prime cruising ground and home of The Moorings charter base. But Vava'u lies 160 miles north of Nuku'alofa and the international airport, a distance that's normally traversed in 45 minutes aboard a 38-seat Dash 8 operated by Royal Tongan Airlines, the only carrier within the nation's 170 islands. Rumors had been circulating for several weeks about difficulties with the airline; whether the difficulties were financial or mechanical was unclear. If Royal Tongan went bust, our only alternative ride to Vava'u would be a two-day, open-ocean passage on the deck of a ferry that ran just once a week.

Thankfully, we had a free day in Nuku'alofa to rest up and explore the capital and even attend a Tongan pig roast. Next day, we awoke duly refreshed, made our way to the domestic airport, and found that for the moment, anyway the local airline was still running. Our one surprise at the Royal Tongan ticket counter was a ritual that subtly undermined our faith in the propeller-driven craft we were about to board. Before receiving a boarding pass, each of us was asked to step on a scale together with our carry-on bags; it appeared we'd be granted seat assignments based on our girth. Marina and I weren't sure whether to take it as a compliment or a malicious hint when we were assigned the plane's forward most seats.

By that evening, the getting-there portion of our travel behind us, we found ourselves in the cockpit of a lovely boat anchored in still lovelier tropical surroundings; we exhaled and settled in among a new set of friends. Now, truly, we could set our clocks to Tonga time.

A flotilla charter is by definition a social affair, and in that way, it's entirely different from the cruising most of us do at home. Our flotilla was organized by Peter and Carol King under the auspices of Cruising World Adventure Charters. Since 1996, the Kings, who also run their own charter-vacation brokerage, have led these trips to destinations as far-flung as Croatia, Greece, the Galapagos, New Zealand, French Polynesia, Seychelles, and Zimbabwe. Beyond the Kings' competence as charter organizers, they're charming storytellers, many of their best exploits dating back to their early years together in Africa, where Peter, who is British, managed a branch of Barclay's Bank and where Carol served in the Peace Corps. One story Peter loved to recount was about the birth of their daughter in Africa. "Carol was being wheeled into the recovery room, when the gurney collapsed underneath her." What did she do? Got up, fixed the gurney, then climbed back aboard to be wheeled away.

Clearly, hiccups in travel plans were no match for these two.

Our flotilla consisted of 25 sailors in four boats: a 50-foot Beneteau, two 46-foot Beneteaus, and a Moorings 4200 catamaran. Nearly half the group were alums who'd joined previous CW Adventure Charters. Most had sailed extensively; many own boats at home. Some even live aboard full-time. Among the group, whose median age was 60, were engineers, university professors, business owners, and a fair number of retirees.

We were bareboat chartering, with one person on each boat formally designated as skipper, but we'd also hired a pilot to provide local knowledge for the whole group. Marina and I, along with four other charterers, had the good fortune to share a boat with Lepa, our Tongan guide.

Everything Is Here

If you're a sailor, Vava'u is what you come to the South Pacific for. Formed from a hundred-square-mile chunk of the ocean floor that's been raised above sea level by the weight of two volcanoes 60 miles distant, the whole archipelago tilts from the high cliffs of Vai'utukakau Bay in the north to the deserted low-lying islands and reefs around Maninita in the south. Between them lies one of the most gorgeous and protected harbors in all the Pacific. Making landfall at Foeata Light is one of the highlights in the memories of many Pacific cruisers, and reaching across the southeast trade winds through Ava Pulepulekai and the Port of Refuge into the harbor at Neiafu is like sailing in a fjordonly, here there's no memory of an Ice Age. Just 15 miles to the south, the shallows of Vava'u offer an entirely different scene: Ocean swells that come unhindered from thousands of miles away reflect and refract and stand up and explode in 360-degree necklaces of white froth, creating some of the most sublime oceanscapes you're likely to encounter in a lifetime of sailing. In between lies a playground of protected water, colorful colonies of coral, and long white beaches without a footprint.

As we sailed among the islands of this archipelago the northern half like the high Virgin Islands, the southern half more like the Bahamas for the six of us aboard the 50-foot Wanda, it quickly became clear that our guide, Lepa, was a man deeply adapted to his environment. On our third day out, we were sailing wing and wing, eastbound through the narrow and marginally marked Fanua Tapu passage, when Lepa pointed to port.

"See that? Reef."

A low-pressure system between New Zealand and Tonga had upset the usual trade winds, sending us westerlies instead, and overcast skies. A cross swell was running at right angles to the wind-driven ripples. For all my trying, I couldn't see a thing, neither a change in hue nor in motion.

"There. See it?" he said.

Still nothing. I could only take Lepa's word for it, and following his directions, I steered this way and that until we zigzagged into the anchorage at Kenutu.

Next day, we left by the reverse route, only this time, it was under textbook conditions: a clear sky, the sun directly behind us. Just where Lepa had been pointing the day before, the reef was now lit up in Day-Glo green. It couldn't possibly have been more obvious.

For us palangi the Tongan word for foreigners walking ashore with Lepa was no less remarkable. Where we saw a wall of homogenous green jungle, he saw the niu, the toa, the fa: every particular tree with its several particular uses. Almost absently, he pulled the frond off a pandanus tree (fa), tore it lengthwise in half, and began braiding its leaves. Within moments he'd produced the standard roofing material of traditional Tongan architecture. A roof made like this, he said, would last for two years.

Even the fotulona, the Chinese-lantern tree, had its use. The fruit of this tree is perfectly inedible, but it's hard and round and measures about an inch across. Lepa made a fist and a flicking motion with his thumb. "Our children play with them," he said. "We don't need English marbles."

Lepa could be left alone on any of the islands we'd visited, and he'd be just fine. With a sweep of his arms taking in what looked to us like deserted beach and impenetrable foliage, he said, "Everything is here." If things got bad, he reckoned with a grin, "maybe I have to eat the rats."

Open-Ocean Sailing

Sailing among the islands of the Vava'u Group is mainly a flat-water affair. But on a single-reef day halfway through the trip, we headed out into deep water and took turns washing the lee rail in long rollers. This was the kind of sailing our boat mate Bob Grunow had come for.

"I like to sail when the wind's up around 25," he said. Bob and Mary Jane Tomaselli, who live on Florida's west coast, recently ordered the first Tartan 3500 with a centerboard for cruising their home waters and the Bahamas. When we'd made our way from the narrow gap between cliffs 200 feet tall at Hunga around to the entrance at Port Maurelle, Bob said, "Let's tack back out!"

Gene Duenow, aboard Baravi Princess, couldn't have agreed more. In fact, his boat had already headed back out into it. "It's gonna take a week to wipe the smiles off our faces," he said at the end of the day. Gene and his wife, Peg, who live in Minnesota, go out of their way to find open-ocean sailing like that as often as they can. Last year, Peg helped deliver a boat transatlantic. "Passagemaking is my favorite thing in the world to do."

That was a good thing to know, for the next morning, as several of us went walking around the village of Matamaka, locals asked us where we'd come from and how we'd gotten here.

"The plane is finished," one man told us. Details were sketchy, but the message was clear. The future of Royal Tongan Air looked grim. There was no problem with our international flight from Nuku'alofa to Los Angeles five days hence; that leg was with Air New Zealand. The problem was getting to Nuku'alofa, 160 miles away. If we missed this flight, it'd be another week before the next one left.

While Peter and Carol conferred with The Moorings base, the rest of us enjoyed what time we had left among the islands some of us secretly hoping for that extra week.

Throughout the trip, our evenings were divided between cooking on the boat, wherein we each took turns in the galley, and nights eating ashore. Vava'u is anything but developed. According to The Moorings cruising guide, there are only 10 restaurants in the entire archipelago. But what restaurants! From Papao Village Resort on the crest of the hill at Vaka'eitu, we watched the sun set into the Pacific near the volcano Late, then sat under a pandanus-thatched roof and ate blue marlin the Austrian cook had caught that day. At the Blue Lagoon Resort on Foeata, we arrived to a spectacular rainbow following an afternoon of showers and ate delicious crabmeat and melon salad, followed by grilled fresh snapper. The term "resort" shouldn't be construed in any highfalutin' way. These are simple buildings, many without walls, most powered by a domestic generator; the ambiance is all in the setting. On Tapana, at a restaurant called Paella, as the eponymous dish was served, the Spanish restaurateur burst out of the kitchen in a black hat and cape playing flamenco guitar. A hilarious night of live music followed the meal, as the kitchen staff all picked up instruments and sang and distributed implements of percussion around the room.

For local flavor, our best stop was at 'Ano Beach, on Pangaimotu, for a traditional Tongan feast of octopus, papaya, roast pig, snapper, taro, and other tasty things all served on banana stalks. The evening was rounded out with music, dancing, and that favorite soft narcotic of the South Pacific: kava. Made from the root of a pepper tree, kava tastes like mud and delivers a happy numbness around the lips and mouth. (It's nothing like being at the dentist). Clap once, and they'll half-fill a coconut husk; two claps fills it up. I recommend two, for starters.

By Saturday, May 22, our 11th day out, the financial collapse of Royal Tongan Airlines was complete. On that morning, the governor met with most of Vava'u's business owners. Clearly, our inconvenience was Vava'u's economic disaster. Businesses that depend on the influx of travelers now faced the prospect of shutting down. Among other travelers, there was a flurry on Saturday evening as guests were sent out aboard the now-overloaded ferry. (On its return trip, we later learned, the ferry grounded on a reef in the Ha'apai Group, between Vava'u and Nuku'alofa, stranding some 500 passengers on the beach.)

But because we were sailors, our fortune played out better than that. Peter and Carol arranged with Gary Morse, manager of The Moorings base, to let us make the open-ocean passage aboard his boats back to the airport in Nuku'alofa.

Suddenly, this was a different kind of charter. Time was tight. The boats had to be reconfigured from the barbecue grills of charter duty to the jacklines and life rafts of offshore delivery duty. And one of our three days was Sunday, which Tongans are serious about keeping as a day of rest. No pushing would cause them to leave then. So it was that at noon on Monday, with 160 miles to sail and 34 hours to do it, our band of charterers now joined by local delivery crew, we set out from Foeata Light in a race to catch our flight.

As Poseidon would have it, the wind was on our nose the entire way, and the engine was never off. But we did the things you get to do on passage: caught a mahi-mahi, saw the spouts of humpbacks that had arrived in Tonga early this year, even traversed the very spot where William Bligh and his mates were set adrift from the Bounty. And after that, we experienced all the pleasure of a timely landfall in Nuku'alofa.

When it was all said and done and we could only say this after we were sitting aboard that 757, making our way back across the international date line to reclaim the day we'd deposited in the time bank two weeks earlier we'd just had an adventure charter to remember.

"One-Way Ticket to Tonga" by Robert Bryce