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5th Report 2005:        

Palmerston Atoll, Niue and Tonga Vava'u

(August 30 - October 12)

It seemed like a new era had began on Taniwani: Felix had left us after sailing with us for over a year and the next day we set out for the 1300 mile trip to Tonga with two potential stops at Palmerston Atoll and Niue. The first was 650 miles ahead and benign weather with wind from the easterly sector would be required to visit there. We had left Maupiti at noon and once out of the pass were faced with light wind, so that we moved slowly with just under six knots. The next day was only a touch better so that we did about 160 miles in 24 hours.

With just the two of us we had moved to a six hours on - six hours off schedule for the night and 3 hours on 3 hours off for the day. It worked quite well and by the third day, also with a little more wind Taniwani was back to our average daily runs of 175 miles.




Steadily the wind kept increasing and on day four we were moving very fast with over 30 knots of wind from Southeast. With the current at over one knot against us, this also built up some steep waves of about 3 meters; we heard several other boats complain on the radio, but Taniwani seemed not overly impressed.

Except maybe for the moment when we discovered that we were taking on water; the bilge pump kept cycling on and we found a big amount of water in the bilge below engine and generator. It turned out that a hose had come loose on the generator and we were pumping cooling water in when the generator was running. All was repaired quickly and life went back to normal.

Given the rough sea state, we had almost given up the idea to visit Palmerston, but thought we'd sail by and check the conditions. Early morning at sunrise, after sailing three days and 19 hours we came around the north corner of the atoll and the radio came on: "Sailing vessel approaching Palmerston, this is Palmerston Radio!" 


They told us that conditions were ok and that a boat will be waiting for us to show us were to anchor. We were still skeptical as we had heard from other boats that got in trouble there, but were also eager to visit Palmerston, as it is a unique place. It was uninhabited for a long time until some time in the 1860-ies, William Marsters decided to settle there with three Polynesian wives.  Some years later, one of the islands of the atoll, Palmerston Island was assigned to him and his descendants by the British Crown. And while Palmerston Atoll is now part of the Cook Islands, they Palmerston people retain their special rights and are proud of their direct access to Buckingham Palace in case of difficulties. 



Most of the people on Palmerston are direct descendants of William Marsters, but there is a separation into three areas that are owned by the three larger families, based on his three wives. Common things like generator, school and church are off course shared and there are no boundaries or fences. Today there are
about 70 people living on Palmerston.



Remote as it is, Palmerston gets supplies about once a month through an inter island carrier. With so little connection to the outside world, over time yachts have become a major part of Palmerston life. Lucky are those few families that have a seaworthy little boat with good outboard engine, as it will be those who will pick up and host the yachts. We were received by Bob, who had half of his family in his boat when he showed us where on the reef to drop the anchor.


Our hook fell right at the spot he indicated in 8m of depth and after dropping back on 60m of chain our sounder showed 80m of depth below the boat, so steep is the drop off into the ocean. There is no way to stay in westerly winds, but we still had a strong going easterly and were soon laying just nicely to our anchor.



The welcoming people of Palmerston made this little island one of the most memorable and enjoyable stops on our long trip. Bob invited us right to his house and we were treated to some lovely island food and his girls danced for us. We found Bob's family particularly nice, with four wonderful children, all pretty, well behaved and curious with lots of questions for the visitors.



Soon we got the island tour showing us, school, church, and the original Marsters house built from the massive planks of a foundered ship. The people of Palmerston seem to live a simple, but happy life and wouldn't want to trade it for something else. They are very proud of their island and their special status.


We cruisers usually return the hospitality by leaving all sorts of goods with the islanders as they are usually short on about anything, from tooth paste to outboard fuel. We got rid of our cigarette supply, some tooth paste and fuel, but we had something more valuable to return: Once they found out that Harald could fix about anything electrical or mechanical, he was kept busy for the rest of the visit. It started with the computers and the washing machine of the school, and went on to more washing machines, VHF radios and TV sets.







Only on Sunday it was forbidden to fix anything, rather did we all assemble for church. The reverend, a nice island lady in her seventies kissed everybody before we were let into the church where the male had to sit to the left of the isle and the female to the right. The singing was extraordinary, almost as from another planet.





The next day the long awaited supply ship, and old inter island freighter arrived. But it was not the normal arrival: The freighter had run out of fuel several days ago and was drifting through the Pacific several hundred miles west of Palmerston waiting for another freighter to bring fuel.

The fifty some passengers in the cargo room had barely anything to eat and very little water when the ship ran out of supplies. So the nice people of Palmerston arranged a special event and every family was cooking food to feed all the hungry folks they brought ashore, just to offer shower laundry and food. We yachties were also invited to this special feast, but asked to see that the poor folks from the freighter get enough. The islanders stood back and waited for what might be left.


Eventually we were running short on time, as Markus was to arrive in Tonga soon and we still wanted to make a stop in Niue. So, not everything could be fixed and we parted from Palmerston all wishing to come back to this unusual and so welcoming island some day.


















Bob went out with the folks from Endelig to catch some parrot fish on the reef while Harald was still busy fixing various things, but we got a good portion of the catch to take along and it went into our freezer to be shared with Markus in a few weeks. Around 4 pm Endelig is the first of us to weigh anchor and get going, but we follow shortly and both boats sail into a wonderful sunset in very light winds.

Slow sailing with some 5-6 knots is what we are in for the night and the following day. With such light winds and from behind, we had a hard time overtaking Endelig and Henry was really pleased.





Next day we have more wind and are moving at decent speeds and worried to reach Niue before day break. The faster speed seems to attract the fish to our lure and we catch a 3 kg Wahoo and a little later a big 10kg Dorada.

Unfortunately the wind died in the night again and around 2:30 we fired up the engine, only to have the worrying smell of burned wood. We cut the engine again but cannot find a problem. An hour later we dare to start it again and everything is just fine; we must have been dreaming.

Niue already showed up strong and clear on the radar by then, but it took till sunrise to round the northern tip and just before eight in the morning we were tied up at one of the 14 mooring buoys. It didnít take long and a very friendly and young gang of officers showed up in a rubber dinghy to clear us in. Actually we also cleared out at the same time as we had little time left and would have to leave Niue in two days and on a Sunday to make sure we are in Tonga in time for Markusí arrival.




Niue, by the way, is another very special place: With just some 2000 very friendly people it is one of the smallest states on this planet. There is some association to New Zealand, like currency and defense, but otherwise it is really independent. The island itself is also special as it is a former coral atoll that was pushed up some fifty meters by tectonic motion. Now the shores are steep and form the highest parts of the island. Inland it drops down again to some lower levels. 

The whole island is covered with old corals that are just under the fresh soil. Like an atoll the island is quite round and since you cannot enter the now lifted atoll anywhere, there is no protected bay. So for us sailors it is a bit like Palmerston, but safer as they have laid some very strong moorings off the main town of Alofi. Moored to these, you can even ride out some mid strength westerly, which would be impossible at Palmerston.

Being in such an exposed place, the next problem usually is landing dinghies in an always present surge. Not so in Niue where they found a great solution: You drive up to the dock, quickly attach a crane hook and jump out of your dinghy. Then head for the crane controls and help yourself raising your dinghy onto a little cart with which you drive it to a free parking position high up on the pier.



The remainder of our arrival day we spent checking in, getting some money and doing some shopping in the main settlement of Alofi. 

Henry from Endelig even obtained a Niue drivers license, a requirement if you want to drive a rental car on the island. There is no test and the fee is small enough to enjoy a collectors item.

With Niue being an independent nation, we had expected the main 'town' to be a little bigger than what we found. But that was not a deficiency - we got everything we needed, had good food and beer and Niue turned out a real special island with very nice people.



Equipped with an excellent rental car and with Henry as the driver, we, the crews of Endelig and Taniwani, set off the next morning to tour the island. 

Our first destination was a fair at another small village. We found friendly islanders celebrating and lots of goods on display. For the first time we could have a real close look at the famous Coco-crab of which there were several for sale. You could even buy out-rigger canoes if you were tired of rubber dinghies. And yes, there were beautiful hats, and Beate had to have one. She bought the one in the lower left corner of the picture.

Leaving the little townships behind, we went on to explore the island. Most of the inner part is just dense jungle and the few paths crossing over to the shore, are deeply grown in and quite dark considering the tropical sun outside.

It is therefore even more impressive to suddenly step out into the bright sun close to the shore. This shore is a band of very sharp coral and not a place to walk bare foot. 

The sea has carved many canyons and caverns into the soft rock and one has to watch out to not fall into a grown over hole.





We continued on through this terrain and eventually found a ladder leading down into a beautiful little canyon. Completely sheltered, with fine white sand on its floor and palm trees growing in the shelter.


This beautiful spot also had a connection to the sea, but a big reef in front was taking most energy out of the big waves, so that only a gently flow of sea water would enter the canyon at high water.



We all clambered through part the hole to enjoy a magnificent view out to the raging sea.



And so we enjoyed exploring the adventurous side of this little island. More canyons, awe inspiring shore line and jungle interrupted by the best ice-cream on the island. For us it was the best ice-cream in a long time.

We even found a canyon leading deep down into almost darkness, at its end filled with crystal clear fresh water and irresistible to swim in.

And we had another fantastic day on Niue: We were asked whether we would like to join a tour into yet another canyon, from where you can dive from cavern to cavern and eventually ascend at a different place. This tour was guided by "Willy" of the "Wash Away Cafe". Unfortunately there are no pictures of this great fun: First we had to descend into the dark, climbing down on ropes and then it was nice diving in a network of caves.

Apparently Willy is known for crazy trips and there is a warning displayed in his Wash Away Cafe......


And so with Willy's help we had another really memorable day on Niue including a nice lunch at his little Cafe. The name by the way came since many people told him it would be washed away with the next hurricane. Ironically a really severe hurricane hit the island two years ago and destroyed every other house, but not the Wash Away Cafe.


We, Beate and Harald planned to leave Niue in the afternoon and head for the Vava'u group of islands in the north of Tonga. But our departure was delayed slightly as Beate left her bag in the car with the Endelig crew, who took off for some more island exploration, after dropping us off in the harbor.

But eventually all was sorted out and we headed off, still some two hours before sunset. 

It had been raining on and off during the day, but at the time we left it seemed to get better. Our worry was maybe not enough wind, but we were prepared to motor at least some of the 250 miles. But about three miles out from Niue we caught a nice Southeasterly of about 18 knots. Just the perfect thing to sail into the night.

With just the two of us we had shifted to a watch system of 6 hours on and 6 hours off. Harald being the night person was therefore on from 9 in the evening to 3 in the morning and then Beate would on for 6 hours. During the day we kept it more casual and whoever wanted a nap would just tell the other.

And so on this day, moving nicely into the sunset, Harald thought to have a nap before his night watch. It wasn't to be: about half an hour later, Beate felt it was time to reef - it was now blowing between 25 and 30 knots and we were reaching fast under full sails. Just as we were done reefing the mainsail, the wind had picked up more, now about 35 knots and we reefed the Genoa and eventually furled it away all the way. The wind was now 45 knots and we were moving just nicely with the reefed main. It didn't stop there: Within ten minutes the wind picked up to 55 knots and backed enough to make us a bit nervous not to gibe accidentally. Taniwani was catapulted out from under a deep, solid cloud cover into a bright clear sky, surfing at 11 knots with a full rainbow arching over our wake. It didn't last long and an hour later we were almost back to normal. Only then did we have time to investigate the beeping noise that came from somewhere at the chart table. It turned out it was the baroscope which gave an alarm because the atmospheric pressure had dropped 5 mbar in just 10 minutes!











The rest of the night was ok, but the next day we ran out of wind and had to fire up the engine. Crossing the dateline on that leg, we lost a full day on the calendar. We chose to lose Tuesday the 13th of September. Next day, 5 in the morning we rounded the northern tip of Vava'u island and with the first light we slipped into Neiafu and tied up to the customs dock. A short, but strange and not particularly pleasant trip was over.

The first part of clearing in with customs and immigration was quick and friendly, but we had to wait a few hours for the health service who had a staff meeting with their minister.

But we could go ashore, get Tongan money and a few things in the mean time and by 2 PM we were tied to one of some solid mooring buoys, which you can rent from the Moorings Company who have a small bare boat fleet here in Vava'u. We just wanted to stay for one night, pick up Markus at the airport and sail to a nice anchorage. Markus' beautiful antique plane arrived right on time, coming from Nuku Alofa, Tonga's capital.

It was nice to see Markus again after more than a year. There were many things to talk about and so we just went for a short shopping trip and took off for anchorage #8.

Moorings make a small cruising guide to Vava'u for their customers, which is also generally available. With American efficiency they started to refer to the various anchorages by number rather than the complicated easy to confuse Polynesian names. Apparently the other two general cruising guides went along with that scheme and so radio conversations like the following became common practice: "Taniwani, this is 3T! Where are you?" - "3T, this is Taniwani, we are in number 8, where are you?" ... and so on.


Number 8 is actually a very nice place, well sheltered behind a reef and a little island. On this island a beautiful sand beach that is often used by yachties for beach parties and barbeque evenings.  During our stay in the Vava'u group of islands we returned two more times to this great anchorage. It was the right easy going tropical place for Markus to recover from the long flight and we just had a great day, with snorkeling and other water activities. But yachtsmen's life at such a major junction in the South Pacific is quite busy when it comes to meet with other boats and party. And so we had to move on a day later, as there was a full moon party  on a small beach near number 16. 

And better yet was the smaller pirate party in the same place a few days later where pirate dress code was required and Lilly and Tom of MizMae had even organized some kava for all of us to try.

It became the usual long night and for Markus even longer when he ended up with the notorious gang on board of "Lista Light".

Distances in the Vava'u group are all quite short and it is a matter of a few hours or less to move from one place in paradise to another. At this time of the year almost all boats that eventually go to New Zealand come through Tonga and so it is very likely to meet most of the boats one has seen here or there on the trip through the South Pacific. But with the many anchorages it is never really crowded. 

In this world of parties, we had to start planning for Markus birthday a few days ahead and pick a place and invite friends.


Since we also had to do some shopping before this event, we picked our next anchorage not too far away from Neiafu, at #6. From there it is only a 5 mile - 20 minute dinghy ride into town. The other advantages of that place were great scuba diving right off the boat and it is quite safe to approach from outside in a full moon night.

The later was important as we were expecting Endelig to arrive at night coming from Niue and we could easily guide them in to a place to drop the hook, before going on into town for clearing in in the morning.

All of this worked out fine: We had a few quick dashes into town for shopping and several fantastic scuba dives. One of the finest dives is just a short dinghy ride from the anchorage at a place called swallows cave. That cave is also nice to just drive into by dinghy and enjoy the view above the water line: it looks almost like a gothic cathedral. 

These interesting structures continue down into a depth of 16 meters and the thin beam of blue light that flows down from the top looks just great. Even greater is it then to ascend slowly up to about 4 meters and glide over the rim at the entrance of the cave. A small rim and then a steep cliff, full with coral and fish drops straight off to a depth of 40m. You can dive along this wall at mid level and enjoy the variety of sea life, explore the neighboring cave and eventually swing back into swallows cave were one can leave the dinghy tied up to one of the natural stone pillars.

When in town, the typical place to meet is at the Mermaid with its large dinghy dock. At this time of the year it is a very busy place every evening.

But there is more than the Mermaid at Neiafu. Food is better at the TexMex place right on top of Coconet Cafe and the municipal market is great for fruits, vegetables and Tongan artwork.

Most of the service businesses are owned by expatriates that have settled here. There are many Americans that got stuck here, but also a few others like an Austrian baker. They all live from the yachts that come through the place every year and a small number of tourists that arrive by plane.

Soon there was Markus' birthday available as the next excuse to celebrate. As always we had the traditional small celebration with presents in the morning, where the victim usually sits in one of our arm chairs and unpacks the gifts. For the evening we looked for a nice all weather anchorage where we could party and celebrate on a nice beach. It was soon found as anchorage Nr. 11. All the usual suspects were invited and Markus quickly learned how cruising sailors spend their time.



At first our plan had been to sail down the Tonga islands chain with Markus. The next group south, the Ha'apai group is just a long sailing day away and similarly Nuku Alofa in the south can be reached in a daylight sail when leaving from the southernmost place in the Ha'apai group. But doing so we would have been at the southern end too early for a departure to New Zealand. Since Nuku Alofa and surrounding are not such a great place to stay, it would have meant to sail back up again.




So we changed that plan and thought of sailing to Ha'apai and back to Vava'u. Unfortunately that plan was spoiled by bad weather. Once we were ready to sail south, a rainy period started and found no end for a week and a half. We always seem to get this when we have visitors who come with an expectation of perfect tropical sunshine...



For some of the bad weather we choose to hide in the entirely land locked lagoon  of Hunga, also known as #13. It has a very narrow and tricky entrance that should only be tried at high tide. Once inside you appear to be in a small lake with hills all around. Unfortunately most of it is steep to and anchoring is another tricky exercise. In situations like this we usually use both, our bow and stern anchors.

Despite much rain there was always some time to explore the islands or to go for a dive. Snorkleling around the narrow entrance was actually quite nice.


Luckily, only the middle part of Markus' visit was spoiled by rainy weather, but the remaining time seemed a bit short for trying to cruise down to the next group and back up. Add to this that Vava'u is such a nice area to hang out for quite some time and it is easy to see how we managed to stay there for over a month.


Life went on diving in caves, or down to gigantic ferns - we even had a chance to snorkel along a proud whale mother showing off her calf.


Sadly, on October 11th, time had come for Markus to leave us again, not off course before another beach party at #8 ,where Jo and Noel from Endelig were joining us on board of Taniwani.  Kicki and Henry of Endelig had friends visiting from Australia and it got a bit cramped on board there and so we happily invited Jo and Noel on board for the next two weeks or so.



More on this next phase, sailing the Ha'pai group, then down to Nuka Alofa and finally on to New Zealand can be found in the next report: Tonga to New Zealand