Swallowing the Anchor

What makes cruisers put the voyage on hold and start a business in paradise? Their reasons are compelling, insightful, and intensely personal

The notion of returning to life on land haunts cruisers; it's about as welcome a prospect as going down with the ship. But it does happen. Sometimes it comes at the end of a voyage; other times, a family call undercuts the plan. Sometimes cruisers plain run out of money. Often as not, though, it's energy they run short on. One way or another, the anchor usually goes down somewhere close to home--but not always. A few sailors get snagged indefinitely in Paradise. My husband, Don Wilson, and I were reflecting over this as Tackless II, our CSY 44s, approached the town of Neiafu, in Tonga's Vava'u Group, where not one but two sets of cruising friends had started businesses.

We arrived in achingly gorgeous weather in which the blue of the sky and the green of the islands seemed to vibrate. The water was like glass, and the beaches were golden. Humpback whales were spouting right and left. Don and I looked at each other. We might be in trouble here.

The channel into the harbor winds through islands curled tightly together, giving the illusion of sailing on a lake. Neiafu sits atop a bluff on the eastern side of the anchorage, with a strip of yachtie-oriented businesses squeezed at its foot along the waterfront. We'd barely picked up a mooring when an outboard screamed alongside. "I know that boat!" a voice shouted.

It was Ben Newton of Waking Dream, a Cooper 416. He and his wife, Lisa, had crossed with us from Mexico the previous season. The Newtons have more energy than a pack of 10-year-olds and an equivalent sense of fun. What possibly could have tempted this young couple, only two years out of California, to put cruising on hold and go back to work?

"We were tiring of the pack momentum," Ben explains. "Everybody was obsessing together over the upcoming passage to New Zealand, and it wasn't feeling right for us. Our idea of cruising wasn't to stay in a safe community the whole time. We wanted to get out and learn how other people live. We woke up one morning in the middle of it all and announced to everyone we were going to stay."

They stayed through the uneventful cyclone season, picking people's brains and trying to figure out what was needed to open a business. By March, they were applying for business visas and licenses and bringing in equipment. Their major project is Tonga Sphere, a sort of eco-park that they hope will appeal to Tongans as well as to tourists. It features a hillside course for people to roll down while inside of giant balls; there's also an inflatable trampoline shaped like a castle for kids who love to bounce. Ben has the equipment to add a canopy cable ride by next year. To connect customers with the park, they started Aquarium Adventures, an Internet cafe and boutique, out of which they also run their third enterprise, Flying Coconuts, offering rental sailing dinghies for harbor play.

"To survive here, you've got to diversify," says Lisa, who works behind the busy desk at Aquarium Adventures from 7 a.m. until 9 p.m. selling coffee, pastries, local crafts, and Internet time. "It's a great adventure, because to really get into the Tongan people, you've got to get past sitting in the pa'alangi world," she says, using the Tongan word for "foreigner."

Clearly, the Newtons are the newest kids on the block, but Neiafu's yachtie-oriented waterfront of bars, restaurants, dive shops, and whale-watching operations turns out to be largely populated by former cruisers. The well-known Mermaid Bar and Sailing Safaris complex was started 35 years ago by cruiser Don Coleman, who still lives on a boat, although it's high and dry on land and has metamorphosed into a house. Holly Marsden quit as crew of a 97-foot Jongert four years ago to become the Mermaid's manager and the voice of the Vava'u Yacht Club, while John Beauchamp, owner of Sailing Safaris Yacht Services, sailed in from New Zealand in 1991 on Melinda, a gaff-rigged ketch that's still plying Tongan waters as a charter boat.

Over our welcome beers at the Mermaid, we met up with Baker Hardin, whom we'd known four years earlier in Ecuador. Baker and his wife, Cindy Russell, had sailed west on Lite N Up, their Islander 44, but delayed by mechanical problems and weather, they'd ended up not arriving in Vava'u until mid-December, just in time for Cyclone Waka, which hit on New Year's Eve 2001. After the storm dragged most of the yachts in the harbor--along with their moorings--across the bay, someone observed that an "I Survived Waka" T-shirt was needed. This sparked the birth of Tropical Tease, Cindy's enterprise.

Cindy's shop is downstairs from the immigration office, and we found her at work there churning out a batch of her Tongan Dirt Shirts, T-shirts stained a rich ochre color in a bath of local mud and then screened with original designs Cindy commissions from local artists. Much of her business is customizing shirts for cruisers, and she modeled a shirt produced that morning with two Kiwi youngsters on a homeschooling field trip. Before Tropical Tease, Cindy had only dabbled in silk screening, but she flew to Fiji to learn all she could about the process before opening the shop six months after Waka struck. The business is successful, and life in Vava'u agrees with her. "There's none of the pressure of the Americas here," Cindy says. "Here, your life is about your life, not the world's life."

Another cruising couple whose anchor went down permanently in Neiafu is Robert and Roxanne Bryce, whose CocoNet Cafe and Laundry anchors the northern end of the waterfront. In 1984, Robert made his 50-foot ketch a state-of-the-art vessel for its time, only to have to sell it in Australia to return to the States. In 2001, he envisioned a one-way trip for his second voyage across the South Pacific, so he adopted a different strategy, choosing Moonstone, a ferro-cement boat that he considered expendable.

"I was fed up with all the red tape of the United States," Robert says. "When September 11 occurred, it reconfirmed that I didn't want to go back." His fantasy was to find a remote island and move all the gear off the boat to make an island home.

Vava'u was a "warm, slow, relaxed" kind of place, more appealing to Robert's mindset than New Zealand, with its complex regulations and the daunting passage to get there. Persuaded by the local statistic of one bad storm every 20 years, the Bryces decided to stay in Neiafu through cyclone season. Their boat came through Waka relatively unscathed, and after the storm, Robert felt energized. He plunged into business, opening the Ifo Ifo Bar. A year later, he sold it at a profit. "It was the first time anyone had sold a business in Neiafu," he says, and that started him brokering businesses and real estate from his computer desk at CocoNet. "In the States," he says, "you're just a little guy in a big pond, but here you can have impact."

Of course, there's more to Vava'u, and the Vava'u Group, than just Neiafu. There are 60 islands, with dozens of villages scattered throughout and 42 anchorages to delight sailors, whether cruisers or bareboaters. We spent our first week snorkeling and kayaking in out-of-the-way spots that we had mostly to ourselves. When our beautiful weather succumbed to a tenacious trough with blustering wind and rain, we took refuge in a well-protected bay in the embrace of Pangaimotu and Tapana islands. It's a favorite anchorage of cruisers and bareboaters alike, and the floating Ark Gallery, the creation of cruisers Sherri and Larry Schneider, is in its center. The Schneiders took off together from the United States in 1981 on Moli, a 33-foot wooden cutter built in 1918. Their goal was to take two to three years to reach Australia. In the Marquesas, however, Larry was called on to help return the boat of an injured sailor to the States.

"It started by accident," Sherri says on the deck of the Ark, "but delivering boats defined our lifestyle after that." For years, the Schneiders mixed cruising Fiji, Tonga, and New Zealand with deliveries. Larry has made 18 trips back to the States, in addition to deliveries to New Zealand, Australia, and Hong Kong. In 1995, the Schneiders made Tonga their permanent base. They built the Ark, where Sherri pursues her interest in painting and promoting local artists, while Larry keeps busy between deliveries doing daysails on Orion, their charter catamaran.

"We've really grown to respect the people here and their non-materialistic values," Sherri says. "You may think they think the way we think, but they don't. Money means little to them." The Schneiders don't want to see Vava'u change too quickly, to modernize too fast. "It doesn't do them any favors. We pa'alangi should come here and learn from them, not vice versa."

This sentiment is echoed by Maria Megias, who arrived in Tonga in 1991 with her husband, Eduardo Echevaria, after a two-year cruise from Spain on Rockin' Blues, their engineless Cal 36. After cyclone season, they sailed on to Fiji and Thailand, but by 1995, they'd sold their boat and returned to the Vava'u Group to build their lively La Paella restaurant on the hillside of Tapana; it was the first restaurant in the outer islands of Vava'u. "We came back because it's a quiet place, and because the locals are content to have the pa'alangi here doing our thing," Maria says. "Whatever we do, it doesn't interfere with their everyday life." Maria raises her eyebrows as she looks out at La Paella's fantastic view and observes, "All the competition and jealousies are among the pa'alangi themselves."

It's not the first time we've heard this comment. The pa'alangi community competes for the dollars of a small, seasonal tourist base. "Why," wonders Lisa Newton, "should Tonga be considered to have only a three-month tourist season, when the weather is nicer than neighboring Fiji, which has tourism year-round?"

Despite the beauty of the Vava'u archipelago and its relatively good track record of avoiding cyclones, Waka notwithstanding, the vagaries of Tongan royal politics and their impact on the kingdom's flat economy keep the pa'alangi entrepreneurs in some suspense. Everyone investing here believes that Tongan tourism is poised to take off, but they've believed this for decades. Even so, more tourist-oriented businesses open every year.

All of these former cruisers fell in love with their own version of Tonga, all of them are involved in the community with Tongan employees, and each of them feels that what he or she is doing is the right style of development for this island group. In a community of just 100 pa'alangi, there are differences of opinion, but with cruisers in the mix, they have shaped a haven that appeals to sailors. They see the area's fundamental strength in what it does without: "Television, guns, crime, stoplights," in the words of Baker Hardin. And even though all would like to see a steadier flow of visitors discover the place, no one, it seems, wants things to change too much or too fast in their Paradise Found.

Gwen Hamlin and Don Wilson, of Tackless II, have decided do another season in Vava'u, and as Don says, that could mean trouble.

Washed Ashore

These sailors have swallowed the anchor in Vava'u, and here's a snapshot of the businesses they run:
Ben and Lisa Newton: Amusement park, Internet cafe, and dinghy rentals
Don Coleman: Bar
John Beauchamp: Boat charters and services
Cindy Russell: T-shirt maker
Robert and Roxanne Bryce: Internet cafe and laundry
Sherri and Larry Schneider: Floating art gallery and day charters
Maria Megias and Eduardo Echevaria: Restaurant

-- compiled by Elaine Lembo