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.
We holed up at the Vava’u Harbour View, a small resort of white plywood cabins near the end of the harbor. We found a nearby path to the water, spent the afternoon swimming, then enjoyed an ex-pats cyclone party at a pizza shop a short taxi ride away. James was our driver that evening, and he became our go-to guy for any wheelwork while in Vava’u. Like other Tongans, he’d left the islands for several years, in his case to make money in an Australian mining town. James owned 13 acres of land and had amassed 17 cows for his mother’s future funeral feast. They’d buried his father under the dining room table some years ago so he could remain present for family meals.
Near dawn on Tuesday, heavy rain woke us, but Wilma had other plans and passed well to the west of the island group, bringing little, if any, related wind our way. In the cyclone’s wake, however, strong northerlies filled in, lacing the harbor with whitecaps. Since nearly every islander had been given a “storm day”—and had no intention of returning to work—we’d spend another night ashore.
Our departure, finally, came midday Wednesday. Kerris had already briefed us on what to expect. Sailing in Tonga, she said, is very straightforward.
Because surveys were suspect, no cartography card was included with the GPS plotter aboard our boat, a Sunsail 384 catamaran named Folau (the Tongan word for sailing). Instead, we should use the plotter solely for our speed and lat/long and rely on our two paper charts—confusingly, one with depths in fathoms, the other with soundings in meters—and keep our eyes open. Wide.
The waters around Vava’u are generally deep, except where they’re not. So relax if the water’s blue, pay attention if it shades to green, and if you find yourself surrounded by brown spots and see coral heads, well, you’ve probably gone to far.
Because of the depths, Sunsail recommends relying on the charted anchorages, most of which lie in around 30 feet of water. During the high winter season, when the trades are easterly to southeasterly, most offer fine protection. However, in summer, when we visited, the easterlies often back to the north, making many of these spots untenable, so we picked our stops with care, especially along the reefs.
One more note on charts: Throughout the Vava’u cruising guide, anchorages are marked with numbers. Though this is useful for the tongue-tied visitor stymied by so many vowels in the place names, I found it a little unsettling that even the islanders referred to their home waters in this way. They might recommend visiting Number 20, snorkeling at Number 7, and attending the feasts at Number 11.
Leaving Neiafu’s Port of Refuge, we sailed south on a still-brisk northerly breeze. Islands to either side kept us jibing as we tooled along at 6 knots and better. Then, as we reached the point where the channel widens, we looked back to see black clouds coming our way, bringing whitecaps that more than hinted at a good squall. We dropped sails, and with the engines running, rounded the northern tip of Kapa island and grabbed a mooring at deserted Port Mourelle, where the first European visitor, Spaniard Don Francisco Antonio Mourelle, dropped anchor in 1781 to take on water.