Ship's Log               s/v Uliad 


 

August 2:

 

     As I have previously mentioned, Tonga is a place where a large number of humpback whales come for the winter.  They travel thousands of miles over open ocean from their summer feeding grounds in the Antarctic.  Shortly before reaching the protected waters of Tonga, the female whales who got pregnant nearly a year ago birth their calves.  Then, upon reaching Tonga, they do little but nurse their babies.  Those not occupied with child rearing spend their time in whale mating rituals that would rival the wildest spring break parties.  The baby whales devour enough of their mother's milk to gain 100 lbs of body weight per day.  The adults just go hungry--living off stored body fat from all the Antarctic plankton they had been devouring all summer.  They have other things than eating on their minds.

     Now there are lots of humpback whales in all the world's oceans; and there are many places where one can go whale watching for the day and see this great spectacle played out each year.  But unless you work for Jacques Cousteau or the Discovery Channel, there's really only one place on the planet where you can have a good chance of actually jumping out of the boat and swimming with these gentle giants:  Tonga.

     So when we first heard of this several months ago, the crew of Uliad quickly decided that we'd be staying here until the whales showed up.  Now that they're here, we had to go meet them ourselves.  I admit some trepidation with this plan at first.  Part of the reason you can't snorkel with whales in most places is the strict protection of marine mammals that most countries enforce after whales were nearly hunted to extinction a century ago.  I had visions of noisy boats packed with tourists relentlessly pursuing an anxious humpback mother.  The reality turned out to be quite the opposite.

    There are fewer than 20 whale watching permits issued by the Tongan government in Vava'u with estimates of 300-700 whales in the area.  We have met quite a few of the people who run whale watching boats in our time here and noted huge differences in the knowledge and training they have, and the type of boats they use.  (One company even uses a pontoon boat about the size we had on our little Wisconsin lake-- a dangerous and un-seaworthy craft for the Pacific ocean in my opinion!) 

     In the end, Kathleen signed us up to go out for the day with Karen and Paul who run Dive Vava'u.  They have always impressed us with their knowledge of the whales' biology and behavior.  Plus they have some nice boats well suited to the task.  They gave us a nice deal when they had some room at the last minute on one of their all day whale watching excursions.

     So we arrived at the dock with our wetsuits, snorkel gear, and underwater camera ready.  (Sadly, Kathleen's supposedly waterproof Olympus camera had leaked only two days before the trip, ruining the camera.)  Paul brought us to their large dive boat DevOcean where we met his two Tongan crew and three other guests:  an Israeli/French woman and a Chinese couple.  Within a half an hour of leaving the dock, we were spotting our first humpback whales between the islands of Hunga and Vaka Eitu.  There was one other whale watching boat in the distance looking at a different whale.  Paul throttled down and gradually came closer to the path of the swimming whales.  From the flybridge we could make out their white bellies as they came within 10 feet or so of the surface.  By moving in slowly, Paul gave the whales time to get used to our presence and before long, we were idling forward slowly, parallel with a pod of four whales which our captain identified as a large female being pursued by three smaller whales in a behavior the scientists call a "heat run".  They seemed pretty enamoured with each other and oblivious to our presence, so Paul gave the signal for us to gear up and get ready to swim. 

     There is some skill involved in the sport of whale swimming, we would learn.  First is the skill of the boat captain in getting us within 30 or 40 meters of it.  Then on his signal, it was our job to slide quickly and quietly into the water, then swim as quickly and quietly as possible over to the whales.  I should mention that quick and quiet are often mutually exclusive when swimming.  A slow moving whale is still a bit faster than a fast moving snorkeller, so there is no time to be timid when dropped into deep water a mile from the closest island.

     On our first "drop", we got just a glimpse of a huge tail fin in the water before it glided away into the deep blue nothing.  We went back to the boat and maneuvered for a second pass.  This time the whales surfaced even closer.  We slid off the swim platform for a second attempt.  Just when I thought we'd missed our target, the people back on the boat started shouting to look beneath us again.  The curious whales had turned around to get another look at us!  I looked down to see what looked like a giant black pickle glide by only 15 feet below us.  Then the three male escorts to this big lady appeared right on her sides.  They floated by in tight formation, giving us the once over with their peculiarly low-set eyes before disappearing again.

Whales in TongaSwimming with whalesKathleen and Emmett swimming with a wild humpback whale

     After everyone had gotten a good look at each other, Paul decided it was time to move on.  One of the male whales had separated from the group and Paul recognized that this could be another opportunity.  It seems that males who have been given the cold shoulder by a female or elbowed out of the way by another male, will often go off by themselves to "sing" a sad, lonely whale song.  To swim with a singing whale is apparently quite an experience.  It's so loud the vibrations pass through your whole body.  The whale sings while sitting still so its a good chance for human slowpokes to get a good long look, too.

    But it wasn't to be as the male shot off and sounded, perhaps with plans to hook up with someone else later.  We had a snack and retreated to the flybridge until Paul spotted another whale...this time a mother with a calf that was probably only 2-3 weeks old.  We repeated the whale swimming drill a couple more times until there we were, looking down at a giant 40 foot long whale mother only 10 feet or so away.  Tucked under her chin was a baby that could only be called little next to her mother.  She must have been 10 feet long herself. 

    Baby whales can only hold their breath for a couple of minutes, so we floated perfectly enraptured as the baby whale rose to the surface, doing a little underwater pirouette and giving its mom a nudge on the way.  Then, as if to declare that the show was over, mom gave just a single flip of her tail fin and silently took junior away.  For a moment we sat there with our faces in the water, awestruck as we felt the water current from that single fin stroke 10 feet away.  Then, as if on cue, snorkels were spat out leaving huge smiles on everyones faces (even the Tongan guides who do this sort of thing every day).

    We saw a few more blowing spouts and slapping tails in the distance, but never got close to any other whales that day.  It occurred to me on the ride home that the total amount of time of actually being in the water with a whale in my sight was only a minute or two.  It was a fleeting magical moment...  but think about it:  a shooting star...a first kiss...a mother whale and her calf swimming in the wild.  It's because these moments are so fleeting and so rare that makes them so incredible in the first place.  It makes it something worth travelling all the way to the Kingdom of Tonga for. 

 

August 6:

    Having stayed in Tonga for over 2 months now, and met our goal of swimming with the whales, it's now time to start thinking about making the nearly 400 mile passage to Fiji.  I have to admit I'm feeling a bit of trepidation about it.  Statistically, they say, more yachts have been lost on this leg of a Pacific crossing than any other.  The sea is riddled with reefs as one approaches Fiji over an area much to broad to sail through exclusively in daylight.  There are no lighthouses that can be relied upon to mark the dangers.  To top it all off, the path lies across a geological region of active volcanoes where, as the pilot book for this area states:  Mariners should be aware of new and uncharted islands that appear sporadically in the region.

     Then to really give us the willies, two sailboats have now motored into Vava'u this season without masts, having lost their rigging far out to sea and had to fight their way here.  And just this week we heard that an Atlantic 56 catamaran on its way here from Niue capsized in 60 knot winds from the same storm that blew through here and gave us all that trouble with our code zero.  Two crew were rescued, thanks to their EPIRB beacon.  The big catamaran remains upside down out there somewhere, slowly drifting in this direction.

    It's enough to make one prepare very carefully for such a passage.  So I've been spending this week double checking the engine, the genset, the electrics, the pumps, the rigging, and everything else I can think of.  I spent one day sewing a few small tears on the code zero, followed by a trip to the top of the mast to replace the halyard I had to cut during the storm.  Then on the way down I checked reeeeaaallly carefully that each fitting on the mast and rigging was free of cracks, corrosion, or anything else that could make Uliad join the ranks of the "floating wounded" in this harbor. 

 

August 10:

     You'll be glad to hear that the hospital here got it's EKG machine.  The group of medical students rotating here got together and set up a benefit at two local sailor bars to raise money.  You can always count on sailors to buy lots of booze without much encouragement, so after both events they raised something like $3000 US.

     The first event was "fakaleiti night" at Tonga Bob's nightclub.  A fakaleiti is a Tongan male transvestite, and it is a fascinating part of Polynesian culture.  It seems that if a Polynesian family is blessed with too many boy children, eventually one gets assigned to be the fakaleiti and is raised as a girl so there's someone to help with the household women's chores.  In French Polynesia they are called "mahu" and in Samoa "fa'afafine" but the concept is the same.

     These children grow up as a perfectly accepted part of society and it's not unusual to be waited on in a store by what is obviously a man with a little makeup on, some jewelry, and even a dress.  Now I'm not sure if drag queen shows are also a part of this traditional Polynesian culture, but the Wednesday night fakaleiti show at Tonga Bob's is quite popular with the locals as well as the tourists.  Several of the fakaleitis in town put on their campiest ball gowns and do raunchy dances to American pop tunes, much to the delight of everyone.  It's not just an act for the tourists, I'm told.  They even have beauty pagent-like competitions in the capital city of Nuku'alofa.

The fakaleiti showFakaleiti show at Tonga Bob's

      The actual sexuality of the fakaleitis is a bit harder to pin down.  Some, but not all are homosexual, I've been told.  And with the strong influence of conservative churches here, open homosexuality is really frowned upon.  (But then, even heterosexual public displays of affection are frowned upon here.)  So as an outsider, I end up feeling bad for the fakaleitis, they seem caught in this nebulous zone of society--not quite man or woman.  But then again, I can't deny the utility of the arrangement nor the fact that they seem to be happy, respected, productive parts of Tongan society.  Not to mention the fact that they really came through for the hospital and it's EKG machine!

 

August 12:

   We're hanging out here just waiting for the next good weather window to jump to Fiji.  Looks like this weekend may work.  Anyway, we were sitting in our favorite burger joint in town having lunch yesterday when two Tongan nurses walked in with a box and started giving out free flu shots to the employees and patrons.  Since the flu season in the southern hemisphere comes earlier than in the northern hemisphere, I guess now is the time.  Anyway, after getting over the shock of our dining table suddenly being converted into a medical office, I had to admire the pragmatism of the public health system here.  Rather than encouraging everyone to visit a clinic, the nurses are literally chasing people down on the streets to get everyone vaccinated.  Yes, we all got our shot, too.

 

August 15:

     Sudden change in plans.  We got an email from Kathleen's family that Kathleen's mom is gravely ill and not expected to live much longer.  This was not unexpected as she's been in failing health for some time.  So rather than prepare for our Fiji crossing, we suddenly had to shift gears and figure out how to get Kathleen home to Reno ASAP.  We were under the gun as Tonga's constitution prohibits any business or commerce on Sundays--which includes air transportation.  But with some effort, we were able to make the  connections to get her a flight to the capital city of Nukualofa, and then out of the country on Saturday evening on a flight to Fiji.  From there she has an overnight to LAX and then on to Reno.  Because of the crossing of the international date line, she leaves arrives in Reno at nearly the same time as she leaves Tonga.  Neat trick.

     Anyhow, our hearts are with Kathleen and her family right now, while at the same time my mind is on how to get Uliad to Fiji.  We're going to ask around and see if we can take on crew here as it seems that there are often backpackers and yachties looking for a boat to take them on.  It makes me a bit nervous as Kathleen and I have always been such a team in sailing Uliad, it will be hard to imagine trusting someone else.  But with a great weather window coming up and our visas soon to expire, we'll have to make it work. 

 

 

August 19:

     So I spent the last couple days spreading the word that I was looking for crew and eventually a guy named Cary called on the radio to say he was interested.  He's a photographer from California who's here taking pictures of the whales.  He has no sailing experience but otherwise seems like a competent, level-headed guy.  So it will be good to have an extra pair of hands out there.

    I have to admit, it will be good to finally get going.  I'm really going to miss our friends here, but after nearly three months, I'm looking forward to someplace new.  Today we'll be clearing out with customs & immigration, filling the diesel tanks, and saying our goodbyes.  Then I think I'll sail down to a quiet bay somewhere out of town where I can finish stowing gear and getting ready for sea.  Then tomorrow Cary will board after one last whale trip and we'll take off for Fiji.

    Oh, hey!  Remember the overturned Atlantic 57 catamaran I was talking about a week or two ago?  Well, it finally drifted ashore here.  A salvage tug had been searching for it for days and the other night they pulled it off a sandbar and dragged it in to the harbor here where they will undoubtedly collect a fat reward from the insurance company for their efforts.  A 57 foot catamaran would be worth well over a million dollars under normal circumstances, but after being upside down in the ocean for two weeks, it's hard to say what its worth now.

    Emmett and I drove the dinghy over to take a look.  From a distance, an overturned cat looks like two blue submarines surfaced next to each other.  The sterns were bashed in on both hulls--probably where she struck ground--and the front crossbar was broken, but the hull otherwise looks fine.  It would have been fun to snorkel on her and see what the underwater parts look like, but I didn't want the salvage crew to think we were looters. 

catamaran which overturned enroute from Niue--crew rescued

    Catamarans have lots more living space than a monohull of equal length.  They don't roll as much, they're more maneuverable under power and can often sail faster.  I've often thought that when living on a boat full time, a cat makes a lot of sense.  But one big insurmountable negative is that in bad weather, if a cat gets knocked over by wind or waves, it will never right itself like a monohull.  "Sure but how likely is THAT!?" I asked myself.  But now, having seen it with my own eyes, I motored back to Uliad with one more reason to love our boat just the way she is. 

 

 

August 23:

    Cary climbed aboard on Friday afternoon and within an hour or so we had stowed his gear, briefed him on where all the safety gear is on Uliad, and gotten everything ready to sail.  Independence came over to see us off, which was sad as Jenny and Otis are staying in Tonga for now to work and make some money to keep cruising.  One of the hardest parts of this lifestyle is the constant need to say goodbye to the friends you meet wherever you go.  We console ourselves with the thought that we'll probably meet up again somewhere down the road.  Sometimes it works out, and sometimes not, but Indy has become a part of our family...we'd sail a long way out of our way to hook up with them again.

     By sunset we were 15 miles offshore of the nearest Tongan island and we crossed paths with a large group of humpback whales.  Cary had come to Tonga to join a group of wildlife photographers chasing after the perfect whale photos all week.  Some days were better than others, but on the whole he sounded a bit disappointed in the number of times he got close enough to photograph them in the water.  The large numbers we saw offshore must have either been whales looking for a little peace and quiet from all the pursuing photographers...or perhaps it was their way of teasing Cary that they were all here now that he couldn't jump in with them.  In any event, we sailed on westward while they swam east.

    Shortly after sunset we caught two yellowfin tuna.  Because they travel in large schools, it seems like if you're going to hook a tuna, they you're going to hook as many as you have lines in the water!  So we had quite a fire drill of me trying to reel in a fish on the starboard side while Emmett struggled with one on port.  Em wasn't having much luck fighting his fish, so I finally reeled mine in, cut it beneath the gills to let it bleed out, and let it back into the water. (Tuna, I've learned, tend to have a sort of grand-mal seizure before dying which sprays blood and scales all over the boat until our friend Kirk told us of this trick of killing them more gently.) Cary held the pole on Tuna #1 while I grabbed the gaff to go help Emmett get his fish in. 

   For all he has grown, Emmett still doesn't quite have the strength to pull in a big fish on his own.  But he definitely gave it a good effort before admitting defeat and passing the rod to me.  Then he cranked the reel while I pumped the rod up and down and eventually we got both fish on board where a quick measure showed Emmett's fish to be about two inches bigger than mine.  Not that size matters! 

   You may have noticed in all our fish photos over the years that it's always me holding the fish.  That's in part because by the time we've finally subdued a really big pelagic fish who was just thrashing and flopping for it's life, Emmett is a bit freaked out and nervous of the big thing.  Plus it's slimy and he doesn't really want to get that yucky fish goo on his hands.  Well, at 10 years old for some reason, Emmett finally seems to have gotten over that and this time he wanted to hold the fish he just caught for the photo. 

Emmett caught this yellowfin tuna enroute to Fiji

    Cary the photographer snapped a few photos and I set to work cleaning the fish.  This is always a challenge on a pitching boat, particularly if you're trying not to make a smelly mess of the deck.  Em usually wants to look over my shoulder as we open the stomach to see what the fish has been eating (one half-digested fish and a baby squid this time).

    One of the yellowfin went into the freezer while the other went to the fridge where it provided meal after meal of fresh sashimi and seared tuna for the remainder of our crossing.  We didn't bother to put our lines back in the water until a day and a half later when boredom got the best of me and we were getting close enough to Fiji that I figured I could catch and release or give some fish away if we caught more.  We didn't.

    We timed things perfectly to pass through the reef-filled waters of Eastern Fiji at first light of the second day out.  By that night, the wind died completely and we motored most of the final 24 hours to SavuSavu.  About 10 miles from port we came across more whales.  A large group of 20 or 30 pilot whales were bobbing gently on the surface as if they were all still asleep.  I slowed down as we passed by to get a better look when suddenly, about 10 yards to the side of the boat, a 40 foot humpback surfaced to breathe.  It was so close you could SMELL the whale breath!  Then a minute later a second smaller humpback surfaced along side.  The pilot whales were now starting to wake up and pop their bulbous heads out of the water to see what the commotion was about.  We couldn't help but do a 180 and make a second pass where we also noticed at least one baby pilot whale swimming along with mom.  But the pod seemed to be on the move now and not so sure about us circling around so we turned back toward our port and left them all in peace.

Pod of sleeping pilot whales off Fiji

    By 11:30am, we were in the harbor where Emmett did a great job of snaring a mooring ball.  Usually this is a team effort by Mom and Dad to get us moored, but I can tell that Emmett has been paying attention over the years.  The various Fiji officials soon noticed our Q flag and made their way out to Uliad for an afternoon of paperwork, and a few hours later we were all cleared in and another voyage over.

    The two conflicting emotions after a long crossing are the excitement of a new place and the desire to go explore, tempered by exhaustion and the desire to get a long stretch of uninterrupted sleep.  This time exhaustion won over, and after helping Cary lug his bags up to a nearby guesthouse, I was glad to collapse into bed even before the sun had gone down. 

 

 

August 27: 

     Sometime in the early morning hours before our landfall, we crossed the 180 degree meridian--officially crossing over from the Western to the Eastern hemisphere.  I was reminded of that last night as I sat in the cockpit under the moonlight, listening to Hindu chanting, singing, drumming and tambourine banging coming from somewhere up the hillisde.  This place sounds Eastern!  The people on the streets look more Eastern also.  The native islanders are more Melanesian than Polynesian, with darker complexion and kinky hair.  And then there are the natives of Indian heritage here also.

     From what I've read of Fiji history, when the British first colonized the Fiji islands, they had a hard time getting the indigenous Fijians to work on plantations.  Why bust your hump all day in a sugar cane field when you could feed your family just fine by paddling out to fish and gathering the fruit that grew abundantly around your yard?  So the British ended up importing large numbers of indentured workers from India to labor on the sugar and copra plantations in the late 1800s.  And wouldn't you know it, many of those Indians looked around at this tropical paradise and decided to stay, also.

     This creates an interesting cultural mix in Fiji.  Definitely very new and different from the other Pacific islands we've visited, it will be fun to explore. There are definite ethnic tensions and stratification of society here.  For example, one cruiser told me about a trip to see a local doctor.  No appointments are made, one simply walks in and waits one's turn.  But when a white woman sat down in the waiting room she was immediately ushered in ahead of everyone else.  Another example I notice is that the three bars I've seen along the waterfront are described as "private clubs" for members only.  But all foreign visitors are welcome and will be immediately granted temporary club membership by the bartender.  The whole system looks suspiciously like another way of saying "White people only" without actually saying it.  This is not just a white/black thing either.  If you look closely, all the government officials seem to have that Melanesian look to them while every shopkeeper looks Indian.  Indo-fijans are essentially shut out of land ownership here.  There's been enough political tension over all this to result in four coups d'etat in the last 2 decades. 

     Such things seem shocking to an American, who'd like to believe there should be no racial boundaries.  But if there's one think I've learned in all our travelling is not to judge too quickly.  It takes time to get to know a place and its people.  After all, this is a whole new hemisphere.

 

August 29:

     On a sailboat, there is always a project list: a list of little jobs that ought to get done someday when one has the time, the right parts, a calm enough anchorage, or perhaps even nothing better to do.  Waiting around for a week in SavuSavu for Kathleen to arrive has allowed me to considerably shorten the project list.  First I stripped the varnish from several places inside the cabin and put on a few fresh coats where it was most needed.  There's a lot of woodwork inside Uliad and varnishing is therefore a permanent resident of the project list.  Having one fewer person living on board reduces the liklihood of an errant hand being pressed onto half-dried varnish, so I took advantage.  Then there was the slow leak from the stern shower.  I didn't want to disconnect the valve in question until I could find the correct replacement fitting.  A hardware store in town had the 1/2 inch pipe nipple I needed so that project is now crossed of the list.  Then there's the oil change that the generator needed and a quick defrosting of the freezer and pretty soon the week has flown by. 

     Yesterday, when rain clouds appeared over the hill, Emmett and I stood ready with brushes and buckets.  As the tropical rain squall poured down, we gave the decks a good scrub down in our swim suits and thankfully finished before the rain did!  Large amounts of fresh water is uncommon enough here that Uliad really needed it and looks better for a good washing.  One more item off the list! 

    Unfortunately, the engine room blower fan seems to have quit on the way to Fiji, so now I have one new item on the list as well.  But with Kathleen due in tomorrow, that one will have to wait.  Emmett and I are now in full scale cleaning mode to make sure that Uliad will look like a yacht that Kath can be proud to come home to. 

 

 

                                                                                                                                               

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