Backpacker Yachties (Part Two)

Sailing the High Seas on a Shoestring Budget

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Storm sailing rations: hardtack and water!

Author’s Note: Despite nearly losing our vessel ‘Nudge Nudge’ on the rocks, ‘Captain Crunch’ and his crew enjoyed a delightful five days in Niuatoputapu, the northernmost island group in the Tongan archipelago. Hiking, swimming, breakfasting in the lagoon – feasting with the islanders who prepared a delicious banquet for us.

We traded fishing gear for fresh fruits and vegetables and paid cash for finely woven pandanus leaf mats and locally grown kava – much to our hosts’ delight, as they normally must wait for up to two months to get paid. Goods are sent by ship each month to the mainland, and they receive payment only on the return trip the following month.

View from the main island of Niuatoputapu to Tafahi Island

The three main islands of Niuatoputapu are remote, beautifully unspoiled, and reached only by sea. Hoisting our orange quarantine flag, soon two young guys with long hair tied back in pony tails motored out to us in a Zodiac – the customs and immigration officials.

Pulling along-side, they greeted us and immediately suggested we bring along the booze (that they assumed we must surely have on board!) explaining that they would provide the coconut water for mixer.

Rookie government officials from the Tongan capital Nuku’alofa on their first assignment – hence, this remote posting, and they were quite keen to break the monotony over some drinks with the few yachties passing through.

Niuan woman dressed in a traditional woven leaf skirt

Traditionally a matriarchal society, the women appeared strong, smart, clearly in charge — and enterprising. Soon after we arrived, and to raise some cash, they offered to put on a traditional Tongan banquet for us for a reasonable fee. Some of the older women still wore the traditional wrap around skirts made of woven pandanus leaves, or ‘tapa’ cloth made from pounded bark, and decoratively painted.

Exploring the main island, we hiked to vantage points above the village for panoramic views across the sea to the volcano rising above the nearby island of Tafahi. Eddie was thrilled to discover several adze ‘quarries’ and other archaeological sites, indicating the early Polynesians’ migration to these islands.

Posing with our Niuan ‘girlfriends’ — a warm, fun-loving welcome from everyone

Rested and fully stocked with provisions and fresh water, we headed south for the central Tongan island group of Vava’u, a popular yachtie hangout.  But a low pressure system whipped up high winds and enormous 14-foot seas that hammered us for three days.

Hanging on and doing everything one-handed, the jib safely reefed and mainsail lowered to the tiniest patch of storm sail, we battened down the hatches and rode out the high winds and waves — punching steadily, hard into the wind for three exhausting days and nights.

Storm sailing!

It was far too rough to cook, and any kind of restful sleep was out of the question. Tossed by the winds and the sea, far from land — at least there was nothing to crash into.

But with each monstrous wave that crashed down on top of us with a resounding hollow bang, the entire boat shuddered as the hull strained to withstand the massive weight of the water dumping on us — and we wondered if the next big one would simply split us in half.

Tossed like a tiny cork in the massive, raging swells

Fortunately, the welds held, and our confidence in the integrity of our vessel actually grew as time went by. But we eventually gave up and turned downwind towards Fiji.

Located about halfway between Tonga and the main islands of Fiji, an island republic consisting of 330 islands, of which 110 are permanently inhabited, the Lau Islands have considerable Tongan (Polynesian) influence, despite being technically part of the Fijian (Melanesian) archipelago.

Navigating through the maze of Eastern Fiji’s Lau Island group, we weren’t out of danger yet – as high winds and white capped seas continued to drive us forward, surfing down the back sides of the swells.

We reached the archipelago at night, and were soon bearing down on Ngau Island. As we rounded the island, tiny lights of a coastal village twinkling through the pouring rain came into view. Tacking into the wind, following the coastline, we slowly made our way around the island.

Island-hopping through the Lau Islands, Eastern Fiji

In the darkness of the night, we could hear the sound of waves crashing on a reef nearby, but couldn’t see anything. Our charts indicated a large hook-like arm of land to get around, and this required turning further into the wind, and more tedious tacking maneuvers.

I was at the helm. Captain Eddie was below studying the charts. The surf sounded dangerously close. But Eddie insisted we continue on our present heading, and that further tacking would not be necessary to get around the protruding land mass.

Tacking into the wind and the rain

Through the rain and wind-slashed gloom, I began to make out a faint line of white foam pounding the shoreline. Suddenly, the surf break that we thought was well off our starboard bow was now dead in front of us!

We were headed directly into the center of the deadly wall of white spray – for certain disaster. At the last minute, I disobeyed the captain – and our faulty charts, turned hard to port and barely avoided the reef. 

Hal had been seasick for the entire voyage, and was ready to get off the boat

Despite endless breakdowns, including two broken winches, broken toilet, broken alternator — thus, no way to generate power (no depth gauge, no lights, no radio, no batteries) we were finally approaching the main Fijian island of Viti Levu, when someone called out: “I hope we don’t need a lifeboat.” One entire side of the leaky dinghy had totally deflated!

Enjoying a tow — ours was the only dinghy around without a motor

A nasty weather system was bearing down on us, and we were being pushed perilously close to a leeward reef – and of course the engine had broken again. Club, gaff, cushions – all lost overboard. But once again we managed to survive, and were happily munching on sun-dried fish when we put the boat up ‘on the hard’ in Lautoka, Fiji for the storm season.

Stay tuned for Part Three, coming soon!

You can read more about Jim’s backstory,  here and here.

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