For so long even the thought of getting to the islands of Tonga had been some far off event that was beyond my daily thoughts of the trip. Suddenly though, these islands lay just off the bow as a stiff breeze drove us onward to the sheltered bays and coves of the Vava’u group in northern Tonga. It had been a rolly, frustrating trip over from Nuie, with the wind simply refusing to make up its mind, shifting and changing every time we settled into some sort of rhythm. This lead to pushing things a bit harder than I would have liked in the hope of making a few more miles each day, and as happens when you push, it takes its toll. We had been flying the spinnaker in some gusty breeze to keep the momentum up as it fluctuated from ten knots one minute to twenty then next. A moment too late, I called out to Joe to come up and give me a hand to drop the spinnaker when suddenly the whole sail let go and tore into pieces. What was once a beautiful blue and white parachute pulling us along turned to a flogging mass of cloth flogging in the breeze. We finally got there in the end though, just managing to skirt around a large mass of black cloud off to starboard and sailed around the north side of the island and were accompanied into the bay by a couple whales, a great welcome to the kingdom of Tonga.
Tonga is also where a lot of boats gather as the last stop before heading either south on to New Zealand or on to other ports further north, and the first night there was a great little get together with lots of different crews we had met along the way. Joe would also be leaving us on this stop, a good friend of his was working here so he headed off soon after we got in to catch up with her, and so it was back to just Adam, Kuhela and I. There were also a few friends in town from Australia and we soon met some other good crew that were working and traveling here, so a few nights of partying and running amuck were on the cards. The town itself is pretty small, but you can get hold of most things and there is an amazing market every day where you can buy fresh fruit and veg, by far the best I have come across on this pacific trip so far, it wasn’t that long ago in the Gambiers that I was dreaming of things like this. It was also great to be back in an English speaking country again as well, to be able to chat and laugh with the locals easily was a welcome change.
There was one unhappy note on arrival though. We heard that a mate of ours from Tahiti, Tim, had sunk his boat on the rocks just outside the entrance. I went around to see him and find out what had happened and he looked about ten years older than when I last saw him, he’d been through a lot. He had been severely seasick for three days and finally took some medication that knocked him out; he awoke in the middle of the night, knee deep in water with his boat being battered against the rocks. He managed to climb out and scramble up the rocks with no idea where he was and shivered the night away till the morning came, and with it a passing whale watching boat that picked him up. He had lost everything and was in deep shock. It was a sobering story and everyone in the community rallied to help him out whatever way they could. We put together a plan to go dive his boat and salvage what we could for him. Three times we went out and were able to get back quite a bit of personal stuff and a few things he could sell on to get some cash. There were also fundraisers held in town and with the help of everyone he managed to get a few things together and actually finished his trip on one of the other boats heading to New Zealand in the end. It was great to see everyone help out and also the change in him by the time he left. He was back to his old self.
We spent a few more days in town, getting provisions, catching up with friends and dining out a bit before it was time to get away from it all again and go out exploring some remote areas again. The Vava’u group is amazing for cruising; there are no shortage of sheltered bays and secluded anchorages, all within a few hours sail from town. One of the first places we headed to was Hunga Island, the entry to this is a small passage through the rocks and you suddenly find yourself in an amazing little bay with 360-degree protection. It’s like entering some other little world, and right out the front of the lagoon can be found deeper water with great diving and the occasional whale swimming past. This would turn out to be a spot we returned to a few times actually, to explore and dive. After a day or two there we headed down to catch up with Joe at Euki island and tied Kuhela on a mooring just off the little private beach. Dining with great friends at the little resort while looking out at Kuhela in this most ideal of settings or swinging in a hammock on the jetty while looking at my boat rocking away gently only maybe fifty meters off shore was one of those moments where you realize just how lucky and blessed you are, and to top it off, it was my birthday as well. My plan growing up had been to have my own boat by the time I was thirty, and here I was just gone thirty five, on the final legs of my pacific crossing, having learned and experienced so much and having good friends around to share it with. It may have been a few short years behind my original plans, and there are many things that happened differently than I pictured in those years of dreaming, but here I was, and that is something that I am proud of.
Sail week was also underway in town a week or so after arriving and so we headed back up to join in and have some fun. There’s no shortage of parties, races and socializing to be had at this time of year here and some of the crew (namely Adam) made full use of the busy schedule. For the regatta we ended up crewing with some other friends on their boats and had a great day racing down to one of the other bays a few miles away. I'm not much of a racer myself, but to be at the start and have all the boats darting back and forth, jockeying for position and only just missing each other was pretty exciting, and I was really glad I was on someone else boat and not Kuhela, I would definitely have shit myself at some of the close calls. The race only took a few hours and we all anchored up just off the beach with plans for a party to mark the night. It has been a great thing to get to know my cousin a bit more and I am stoked to have him on board, there are some sides to him I did not fully know about though. To see him enter into the dance competition that night, dressed as the policeman from the YMCA, win that with absolute ease and then have his clothing torn off, while not even missing a beat in his dancing, was one of the funniest things I have ever seen. He was on fire and I don’t think there was a woman there, young or old, large or small, that didn’t get a dance with Adam that night. I suddenly went from being Josh to being Adam’s cousin; it’s hard to compete with a town celebrity like that. The whole week was marked by shenanigans of all sorts and was a great way to blow off a bit of steam and have some laughs. Soon enough though I needed to get away again, there were still places to explore, dive and film.
We headed back out to Hunga island to do some spearing with some friends and dive a few spots we had looked at previously but hadn’t had a chance to dive yet. The ground was awesome, large gulleys and caves with sandy patches here and there and a good drop off to deeper water a bit further out. A good set up for both reef and pelagic species. We dived for a bit and cut up some fish frames that we had kept from our last fishing trip to see what would come in, and at first we surprised by how little did come for a look. The ground was good, but the fish just weren’t there that day for some reason. After a while though one decent doggie did come in and I dived on him, slowly drifting down to intercept him but he kept on turning away and I would have glide off in another direction to make him curious enough come back in. Three times he did this to me, and I knew it was a long dive and could feel that we were getting down a fair way, but he was still there and I knew I could get a shot in. Finally he came in close enough and I lined him up and got a good shot just behind the eyes, I didn’t stone him, but definitely took the fight right out of him. I started swimming up and started to play out the line on my reel when suddenly it would go no more, my reel was jammed. For a moment I tried to free it, but with legs and lungs burning I had no choice but to head for the surface, the whole time praying for him not to run too hard and pulling him up with me. It was a hard swim and as I got to the surface I felt my legs go and was conscious of my body convulsing slightly, it was close call but my mate was above me and keeping an eye on things and I luckily didn’t black out. I would love to say that I landed that fish in the end, and did come very close to, but the spear pulled at the last moment and he unfortunately sank away to the deep. But the real point I want to make here is that I was lucky, how important it is to dive with a mate, and that by training and having good recovery breathing, that can make a huge difference. It was good to feel my limits though and to know how far I can go.
With the volcanic nature of the islands out here there are many caves to explore and some that you can swim or dive into. A few times we went to film and check these out and it was definitely one of the highlights of the area. In swallows cave you can take the dingy right into that cave, and the best time is in the afternoon as it faces west and the setting sun illuminates the blue water inside and bounces and shimmers of the thousands of baitfish that live inside. Diving down and laying on the bottom in about fifteen meters and looking up at the dingy and the others floating above on the surface is a surreal experience. Through the crystal clear water it appears that they are magically suspended overhead, the only clue to the reality of it all being the schools of bait that glide in and out of view. At mariners cave you must dive down and swim up into the opening. It’s an easy swim and again the magic happens as you see the surface layer just above you in the dark, its like moving from one world to the next. Legend has it that this was where the princess many years ago hid when she fell in love with a commoner, safely concealed until they were able to escape together. There are some deeper swim through you can do here too, diving down from the surface you enter a small tunnel at about fifteen meters that leads you up and into the entrance. There’s just something about diving into and exploring caves, maybe its tales of buried treasure, or just the immersion in another world, or just teams with adventure. Whatever the reason, what better way to spend days than exploring these amazing places.
Before we knew it weeks had passed and it was time to head south in preparation for our jump off to NZ. We finalized things in town, stocked up on food and pointed our bow south. We also had another crew for the trip south, a French friend, Aurelie, who had just finished working the whale season and needed a ride south. Again the right people arrive at the right time and so she jumped on board for the trip down. The middle group of islands in Tonga, the Ha Pai group are very different to Vava’u, more low lying island than the mountainous terrain to the north, and with much fewer people, there is some great diving and even some surf to be found along the way. We planned to take a week to make our way down and see what we could in that short time. The weather unfortunately had just turned as we left and we found ourselves hiding from strong winds the entire way down. We did manage to get to some great spots though and got some pretty fun dives in, the surf wasn’t much good with the wind though. Was great to get away to some more remote bays as well, where there were only one or two boats again and we met some of the locals and had a look around a few of the villages as well. We arrived at one spot hoping to find a secure anchorage on the leeward side of an island only to find that the better protection was funnily enough to windward, tucked in behind a little fringing reef that stopped most of the swell, but not the wind. I howled for days, blowing and average of thirty knots and with overcast skies and on and off rain it wasn’t the most inspiring weather. We managed to still get out and keep busy though and we heard from a friend on the radio that Andre and Angie, friends from Australia were housesitting a little spot just around from where we were anchored. Turned out to be an amazing little spot and we spent a few days there checking it out and catching up with them, the four dogs, the goat and the horse. It was just as the little sign above the kitchen said, welcome to the beach barn. We had to head off unfortunately though, as Aurelie had to make her flight and Andre and Angie actually jumped on as well for a lift down. Full house and good mates for the final fifty miles south. This was a fast passage as the wind was still around twenty knots and actually had a close whale encounter of the unwanted kind as I had to quickly steer Kuhela ahead a mother and calf that popped up just off the bow.
Tongatapu is the capital of Tonga, and like most capitals the better scenery and smaller places are found elsewhere, but that not so say its not a cool place in its own right. It also happens that Andre’s sister lives here and so we spent time catching up with them as they showed us around and helped us out in every way possible. This would be the last stop before the long jump to NZ, and my final leg of this journey. We would also have an old hand jumping back on board for the final leg as Kim was coming back to finish the trip he had started with me all those many months ago. Was great to catch up and great to have him back on board. As I've said all along, the right people at the right time. I also have been starting to give thought as to what lies ahead. For the last three years this has been my life, my dream, what I have devoted so much time and effort to, and now here we are on the final chapter and I've been trying to process that. The more I think on it though I realize that it doesn’t end here though. That black and white thinking of starts and finishes doesn’t really work, the trip continues just as I continue. Life goes on, I still have Kuhela, I will live on board in this new place, see what comes, and there will be more adventures. Even though I am not the same person I set out as when I began this trip, I am not someone else entirely either. I have grown, evolved and learnt, but I am also all I was before as well, all my experiences and all the people that I have met and deeply connected with are all still part of my story, and still part of myself. Maybe expansion is a better way of describing it than change, if we are challenging ourselves, learning and living fully we expand and add to our stories as we go along. Who knows what is to come, what amazing things may lie just around the corner for everyone on their own stories. I myself am looking forward to finding out what the next chapter holds. All that lies between me and that now is about a thousand miles of open ocean, and as much as I am looking forward, I am also keeping my eye on that and getting ready for the final, and possibly trickiest, passage of the trip. We are now at anchor, on an island just offshore, full of fuel water and food, waiting for right the combination of weather to haul anchor and begin the final leg to the land of the long white cloud. Kuhela is ready, as is the crew, the rest is up to the sea and to the wind, and hopefully they will treat us kindly as we move from one chapter to the next.