Malo Lelei, Tonga
Greeted by a cyclone and blown away by the sailing, charterers revel amid the islands, reefs, and people they encounter in this South Pacific kingdom.
By Sunday afternoon, a buzz had spread through the resort: Cyclone Wilma, a powerful ocean storm, was bearing down on Tonga’s northern flanks, and it was forecast, of course, to arrive in Vava’u at about the same time we were.
So, not knowing what we’d find by day’s end, we were up early Monday morning, bound for our Chathams Pacific flight north. By now, we’d noted that Tongans are big people, both in heart and stature, so it was with some wonder that we watched a group of them board the 20-seat plane, where you had to bend at the waist and shuffle your way down the aisle. The preflight duties of the co-pilot included making his way aft to hand out seatbelt extenders to the largest aboard.
The flight north gave us our first real glimpse of what lay ahead. Puffy white clouds dotted the deep blue sky, and below we watched waves break on reefs stretching between lush green islands. Even from a few thousand feet up, it was easy to see the changes in water color that would be our aids to navigation once we were under way.
In Neiafu, Sunsail’s Kerris Adlam met us at the airport with a van. Though she was all smiles, I could see that “storm’s-a-coming” look in her eye that any U.S. East Coast sailor knows well from our own hurricane seasons. At the charter base and all along the waterfront in Neiafu, workers stowed awnings, screwed plywood over windows, and towed docks to deeper water. There’d be no sailing for us this day. Instead, Kerris advised us to hurry to the market and buy enough supplies to last for at least 48 hours. Meanwhile, she found us rooms where we could weather the blow.
Shopping in Neiafu—the only real town in the Vava’u group—is an adventure. On this Monday, all the shops seemingly closed early as the town prepared for Wilma’s overnight arrival. Still, we enjoyed the walk from the base to the Vava’u Shopping Center, a small store overflowing with canned goods, frozen meats, and fish. We bought ingredients for one-pot meals in case all the restaurants closed (or were blown away), then headed for the waterfront produce market to buy enough veggies to sustain us until we could board our boat—by Tuesday, we hoped.