Race Time in Vava’u

Cruising boats of all stripes head out for a day of fun competition in the waters off Vava‘u, Tonga.

August 31, 2017
Cruising boats of all stripes head out for a day of fun competition in the waters off Vava‘u, Tonga. Corinne Dolci

Sailing into Vava’u’s open waters, the anemometer pushed 35 knots, and our 14-ton, full-keeled 38-foot cutter clocked a record 8 knots through the water. Weather helm turned my triceps to cinders, but I was too distracted to feel the burn: Nearby, 35-foot Alkira crash-tacked to avoid being jackknifed by 55-foot Dreamcatcher.

Though I held my first tiller at 6 months old, I didn’t take the helm for my first sailing race until I was 31 and passing through Tonga en route from Mexico to New Zealand.

Sponsored each year by the Island Cruising Association, the racecourse was 17 nautical miles and began in the main harbor, Neiafu, before looping around Vava‘u’s central bay and ending in an anchorage on the eastern side of the island.


Given the specifics of our Island Packet 380, neither my husband, Dominic, nor I were initially inclined to race. With a 14-foot beam, Helios was made for comfort, not for speed. But when we woke to bluebird skies and 30-knot winds, our desire to be leisurely spectators evaporated.

Most of our white-knuckle moments occurred early in the race when all 20 competitors crossed the starting line at 1100 and had to do a lap through Neiafu’s enclosed bay, starting at the northern entrance and circling a megayacht at the southern end. The bay is narrow and flanked with mooring fields and shallow waters, so Dominic and I executed more sailing maneuvers in the first 30 minutes of the race than we had in the 6,300 nautical miles of our voyage thus far.

Racing neophytes, we were proud to be keeping pace with the straggling catamaran 41-foot Oceanna. They had a late start and were overtaking us at the turning point when Dominic had a stroke of tactical brilliance and directed me to head upwind, keeping our sails full and casting a wind shadow that caused Oceanna to luff and stall.


Before we set sail, I had vowed to disengage from my competitive nature and appreciate the learning experience of our first race — but as we pulled ahead, my Zen went overboard and I commandeered the helm, howling at Dominic to ease the jib.

Oceanna forgave us as we approached the dead-downwind pass out of Neiafu. They went wing and wing, cleanly pulling ahead into the next long, straight stretch of the race.

Nearing the finish line, the winds and the stakes got higher. Averaging 6 knots in 25 knots of wind, we watched agape as the wind and boat speed continued to accelerate. We heeled to 40 degrees, and more than once our starboard solar panel carved tracks in the water. There were reefs and vessels to dodge, as well as wind shadows and submerged rocks to avoid.


We finished in three hours, excited that we had achieved our ultimate goal of not finishing last. For the first time, I went an entire afternoon under sail without being tempted to lounge in the sunshine and enjoy the comforts of a novel.


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