Ship's Log               s/v Uliad 


June 3:



The new gasket finally arrived the day before our mechanic was scheduled to fly back to the USA for a month.  We spent the better part of the day meticulously putting the top half of the engine back together and by nightfall, everything was running perfectly again.  What a relief!

     In the mean time, we've had plenty to keep us occupied.  The village of Niafu is home to several charter boat fleets, a handful of whale-watching boats, a few sport fishermen, and an ever changing collection of foreign yachts.  Along the waterfront are any number of bars & restaurants where sailors gather and they all seem to compete with an ever changing array of special events to attract us.  Further up the hill are dozens of tiny, third-world shops and groceries deserving exploration.  For the most part, they all carry the same assortment of plastic flip-flops, powdered milk, and canned corned beef.  But the persistent shopper is sometimes rewarded.  We found a whole 9 pound boneless beef rib roast labeled "cube roll" in one freezer.  I spent the next hour with a cleaver and a hammer cutting the giant block of meat into meal size portions for our freezer.  Popcorn is a frequent snack onboard and we managed to find a supply at another shop.

      The farmer's market is a bit more refreshing place to shop.  Every morning Monday through Friday it is packed with tables and baskets of fresh produce.  The ladies selling there wares are always friendly and quick to tell me which is the freshest or how best to prepare some unfamiliar thing.  The Tongan tradition is to have a family feast on Saturday, and do nothing but church on Sunday, so the Saturday morning market is always the busiest and has the best selection.

      I went through most of my supply of engine oil with our diesel debacle, so I hiked further up the road to the auto parts store only to find that they import their oil in 50 gallon drums and if I wanted less than that I had to bring my own containers.  The shopkeeper took pity on me and found a spare 25 liter jug to decant my oil into.  This was still a huge amount of oil, but he did throw in a ride back to the waterfront for free.

     Emmett has been catching up on his schoolwork every morning, and spending every afternoon playing with his new friend AJ (son of our diesel mechanic, Kevin.)  He had his 10th birthday party a few days ago at one of the waterfront restaurants where the ladies in the kitchen baked him a cake.  Attendance was low with only AJ and Stuart (from Gallivanter) in attendance, but Emmett proved that it doesn't take a crowd to have fun.

Emmett and AJ at his 10th Birthday party

We had promised him for a long time that as soon as he turned 10, we would get him scuba diving lessons and we have wasted no time in finding him an instructor here.  So even though our engine is ready to go, it looks like we'll be hanging around the area for a bit longer so Em can learn how to be Jacques Cousteau.



June 4:


     Another thing that has been keeping me occupied is my ongoing battle with a swarm of jellyfish.  There are huge numbers of them in this harbor for some reason; and while they're very pretty to look at, they have the nasty tendancy of getting partly sucked up into the salt water intake of our generator.  After nearly overheating several times I have started to figure out their schedule:  They go down deep during the day and come up to the surface at night or on cloudy, rainy days.  So as long as I run the generator only in the morning, we've been fine, but today was a cloudy, rainy day and the batteries needed charging.  After two incidents of these big purple blobs blocking my intake, I decided I needed some better protection. 

      I took a length of stainless steel wire and fashioned a sort of cage that I could clip on to the intake through hull fitting.  When I jumped in to attach it, I was truly stunned by just how many jellyfish there were slowly floating around Uliad with their lazy, pulsating method of swimming.  There are purple ones and clear ones.  They range in size from softballs to basketballs  It was like swimming in a big glass of bubble-tea!  I gently pulled one out of the intake, being careful to keep my fingers away from the stinging tentacle side, and got my little cage in place.  So far it seems to be working.

The jellyfish swarm in Vava'u, Tonga


June 12:


    Time is strange in Tonga.  Of course there's that international date line that we're still getting used to.  The United States is six hours ahead, but a whole day behind.  I'll try to look at the news on Monday morning only to remember that still thinks it's Sunday.  (That is when the internet is even working here...but that's another story.)  There's minute we're catching up with friends and then fixing our engine, then relaxing and patting ourselves on the back for making things right again...and the next thing you know two weeks have gone by. 

     Other strange things about Tonga:  The largest bat in the world lives here...the "flying fox".  They're pretty harmless fruit eaters, but they make for a pretty impressive sight soaring overhead with their 4 foot wingspans.  Combine their presence with spiders as big as your hand, and the usual mysterious bird sounds coming from the jungle and a walk through the wooded hills here feels like a tropical Transylvania.

      Despite the warm, tropical climate, people wear a lot of clothes here.  It's a very traditional culture where everyone once went around wearing cloth mats made from tree bark.  Western textiles proved far more practical, so today you still see both men and women walking around town in long black skirts called "lava-lavas".  Over this is some sort of woven mat that looks like an area rug bunched up and held in place with a rope.  Women are expected to keep their knees and shoulders covered, and I have heard that men can be fined for being shirtless.  So poor Kathleen has been trying to be culturally sensitive by dressing up like Old Mother Hubbard every time she went to town.  But after a few trips now we've learned that these traditions aren't quite as strict as they once were.  Local women do sometimes wear sleeveless tops now, and the palangi (foreigners) are given quite a bit of leeway so our above the knee shorts don't seem to draw any stares.  But I'm too cheap to test that shirtless law.

Tongan ladies in traditional wasitmats

      So finally a couple of days ago we managed to get up off our butts and head out to explore the islands here.  Tonga consists of three main island groups.  We are in the northern-most group called the Vava'u group.  The islands here are close together... which makes for calm, protected waters to hop from one sandy beach to another.  This is just what charter companies like, and several are based here in Vava'u.  But despite all the Moorings boats and Sunsail boats coming and going from town, there are plenty of little anchorages out there that no place has ever felt crowded.  We anchored for a couple of days in a protected little bight of an island called Vaka Itu.  Kath & Emmett both came down with colds about this time.  So far I've managed to avoid it.  But if fresh air and sunshine are at all theraputic, then I think we've found the place that they can get better fast.


June 13:


    Tongan people are known for having good appetites.  They throw a big feast every time there's a wedding, a funeral, or even a weekend.  The first European explorers landed here, and were promptly invited to dinner.  And while west of here, on the islands of Fiji or Vanuatu, the first explorers and missionaries were invited to dinner and then thrown in the kettle by hungry cannibals, here they just shared the fish and pork that was probably already cooking anyway.  So Tonga earned the name "The Friendly Islands".

     Today, feasts are still held regularly, as evidenced by the  huge baskets of produce being carted away from the market by local families on Saturday mornings.  One enterprising family on one of these out islands figured that he could be friendly AND wealthy by throwing a "Traditional Tongan Feast" for the foreign sailors every Saturday night for $22 a head.  We signed up.

     I wandered up to the appointed beach a few hours early to investigate the cooking.  This is usually done (as in the rest of the South Pacific) in an underground oven called an "umu".   A pit is dug.  A fire is lit in it.  Stones are added which get really hot.  Then the various dishes are wrapped in banana leaves and laid on the rocks, everything is covered over with dirt and left for an hour or two before being dug up and served.  Tongans also love a good pig roasted whole on a spit and sure enough, when I arrived there was a guy out back assigned the task of twirling the pole on which a baby-size pig was slowly roasting over an open fire.  By the size of the pig, I was guessing that not many people had made reservations for the Feast this week.

Big stick, small pig.  The Tongan feast is prepared.

     There wasn't much else to see aside from the pit getting ready to be filled.  So I went back to Uliad for a while.  When we came back at the appointed hour, a big Tongan man and his assistants were just finishing preparing a big bowl of kava.  Kava is a root that grows here.  It is ground up and mixed with water to yield something that looks like a mud puddle.  If you drink enough of it, it has a mild narcotic, calming effect which makes it a popular Saturday night beverage.  It tasted like tree bark and muddy water.  After two coconut bowls full, I decided that I'd stick with beer.

     After cocktail hour around the kava bowl, we were invited into a long narrow feasting hall to see a huge long table absolutely covered with food.  The little roasted pig sat in the middle making a rather unimpressive centerpiece.  We all sat down and our host led us in saying grace.  Then he gave us a quick run down of all the dishes before us:  roasted breadfruit and yams, roasted papaya, roasted fish, lu (corned beef and onions in coconut milk wrapped in taro leaf and baked), oto ika (raw fish ceviche), fresh pineapple, watermelon, and coconut, cole slaw with crab (the fake stuff, I can't help but point out), and a dessert of some sort of bready dumplings in a sweet, caramelly sauce.  So we feasted and feasted on all this before us in bowls of giant clam shells and plant husks and such.  The little pig was taken away and brought back as several bowls of carved pork for us to nibble on.  We shared stories as sailors will do and chose our favorite dishes until very little remained.

Steve samples the kava   The dancing follows the feasting...

     The meal was followed by a brief dance show by a couple of local girls.  And just as they were about to show us their moves, the lights blew out in the feasting hut.  This led to a few moments of chaos.  But in true island style, our host improvised and soon the kava man was holding a big fluoresent light bulb whose wires were twisted to a cord that went out the window to God knows where.  With the boom-box out of commission, the host and the ladies in the kitchen sang a little tune (in perfect three-part harmony, mind you) so the girls could do their dance for us.  After all that  effort, the audience just had to add a little something extra to the tip basket she had set out by her feet.


June 15:



    The rumor is that Tonga's telephone company has been upgrading their system to "2-G" lately, which has resulted in even slower and more sporadic than usual internet and phone service.  I'll throw that out there as an excuse for taking so long to update the log and leave it at that.

     For the past couple of days, we've been anchored off the island of Taunga.  Nearby is the island of Euiki, which is a perfect little "Gilligan's Island" sort of place with a beautiful white sand beach.  On shore is a perfect little "Gilligan's Island" style resort that our friends on Independence somehow stumbled upon the job of being island caretakers for the next few weeks until the resort opens for the season.  So we've wandered over by dinghy a few times to play on the beautiful beach and sit in one of the lovely thatch huts overlooking it.  A few other kid boats happened by and it all turned into a barbecue and bonfire late into the night.  We came up with a giant spread of steaks and fresh fish and calamari.  What is it about Tonga and feasting?  We can't seem to quit!

     Emmett has been busily studying his scuba diving manual and going to class to become a certified diver.  We were fortunate to find a great dive instructor here who is teaching Emmett one-on-one his junior diver course.  So far, I understand that he has been getting straight As in his quizzes, which puts my mind at ease greatly.   Em was a little nervous to swim in the first time (heck, so was I!)  But once he knew he could do it he was swimming in and out proclaiming how cool it all was. His instructor, Lori, and her husband Mike were also kind enough to come out to the island to meet Em for his dive class and they stayed for the feast as well.  Even better for Kathleen, Mike & Lori have a big German Shepherd dog named Gus who came along as well.

     Emmett and I also dinghied over to Mariner's Cave the other day.  This is an amazing underwater cave below one of the many cliffs that plunge into the water around here.  We finally found it after driving around a while in the dinghy.  The entrance is about 3 to 6 feet underwater, depending on the tide.  Then you have to swim about 10 feet underwater before coming up in a huge cavern behind the cliff wall.   You do this almost blindly the first time as it takes a moment for your eyes to adjust to the dark.  This gives you an extra moment to think about pirate treasures and ancient curses or creepy things that slither in the dark.  The only light is the deep blue sunlight filtering up through the cave entrance.  The only sound is that of the water rising and falling against the rough rock walls.  Then as your pupils dilate, you see the huge rock cathedral soaring 50 feet above you and an equal distance into the water below you.  As the water level rises and falls with the ocean swell, it compresses the air inside the cave, causing a fog to form in the humid air.  Then a few seconds later the water drops and the air becomes instantly clear again!  Em was a little nervous to swim in the first time (heck, so was I!)  But once he knew he could do it he was swimming in and out proclaiming how cool it all was.  We agreed that this was one spot worth visiting twice, and next time we're bringing Mom.

Emmett enters Mariners Cave

     So that's all to report for now.  The winds are supposed to be picking up over the next couple of days, so I think we'll be heading back to town tomorrow.  Our anchorage here is great in calm weather, but a bit exposed if things get rough.  Plus it will give us a chance to hit the market.  With all this Tongan feasting, we've got to keep the pantry full.


June 24:


     Tonga has provided me plenty of opportunities to keep my medical skills up.  There are enough cruisers around to provide the usual smattering of colds and skin wounds and such to check on among the floating population here.  Before long some local ex-pats were saying to me, "You should meet Dr. Edgar!  They could really use you up at the hospital in town!"

     We've been hanging out lately with a boat named Animos that has two boys about Emmett's age.  Their father is an orthopedic surgeon born in Germany but working in Norway.  He had been getting the same push as me to go help at the hospital so before long, a lunch meeting was arranged between the two of us and Dr. Edgar.  We both joked about not knowing exactly why we were meeting, but nonetheless being interested in the local medical system, so why not?

     Dr. Edgar turned out to be a smiling, friendly Tongan (aren't they all?) who spent a couple of hours telling us about his life and the Tongan medical system.  He even gave us a tour of the hospital, telling us how he is one of only two physicians in the whole island group of Vava'u, taking care of nearly 20,000 people.  The pay is low, the call is frequent, but Tonga is home for him.  When he gets short of money, he travels to Australia or New Zealand for a while to work locum tenens before coming back here.  We both felt bad for the guy and wanted to help if we could give something back to the community.

    The hospital is primitive as any third world hospital.  Supplies are few.  Equipment is donated cast-offs from developed countries and often breaking down, but somehow they keep the system going.  The population is poor, so hospital income is almost non-existant.  (To stay in the hospital here including treatment, medications, nursing care, and meals costs about 50 cents a day.)  "We can't pay you," Dr. Edgar said, but if you'd like to help, just bring me a copy of your medical licenses and I can get you temporary Tonga registration and we'll put you to work!

     A smattering of medical students from Europe, New Zealand, and Australia rotate through here where they follow Dr. Edgar on hospital rounds, then are pretty much left to their own devices in the outpatient clinic the rest of the day.  More than a few seem more interested in having a nice tropical vacation than learning to be a doctor while here.  But somehow, the whole system keeps running and they do what they can do for the sick or injured here.

    Somehow the whole scene reminded me of why I love rural medicine and being a family doctor.  I must admit, I even felt a bit of envy for Dr. Edgar as he strode off down the hall to do a C-section and a hernia repair after lunch.  I could feel myself getting sucked in. 

    The next morning I was back.  I had agreed to supervise some medical students at the outpatient clinic for a while. There's a desperate need for them to get a bit more direction than the overworked Dr. Edgar can provide.  So I spent the morning guiding their exam skills and correcting a few mis-diagnoses...and encouraging when they were right.  Of course the most serious case arrived at the end of the day and before I knew it I was two hours late getting back home to my family.  Which reminded me why I'm NOT practicing full time rural medicine back home any more.

    I'm looking forward to going back a day or two per week to help out.  I really am.  But sometimes the things we love can be harmful and seductive at the same time.  We're here in this far away place to be a family...I stopped that life to watch my son grow up.  I've got to strike a balance, and maybe Tonga is a place to practice that.


June 26:

     I never knew much about foreign aid until I started travelling.  You might hear something in the news about how our government gives one hundred million dollars in aid so some little country and assume that we're doing God's work and somehow bestowing comfort on the poor ufortunate who live there.  There are, of course, strings attached.

     Throughout the little island nations of the Caribbean we'd see stout concrete "fishery" buildings on the waterfront with a gold plaque on the front saying something like:  This Fisheries Building was a gift of the people of Japan.  It turns out these "gifts" were usually made as a quid pro quo for that little island to vote in favor of whale hunting at the next IWC meeting or something.  And these lovely new buildings usually sat empty as the subsistence fishermen there didn't really need a building anyway.

     Here in Tonga, the Chinese have given several million dollars to build a new wing to the hospital.  Not that there's anything wrong with the old wing of the hospital that a few cans of paint couldn't fix.  Never mind that the poor doctors don't even have an EKG machine, or that the lab has run out of the supplies it needs to run a simple kidney function test.

The new hospital wing, a gift from China

     The trouble is, you can't put a big sign on small equipment and supplies to tell all the Tongans who their kind benefactor is.  So the front parking lot of the hospital here looks great.  The shiny new China Wing will soon be open with a big sign stating "China Aid" on the front.  The parking lot is full of shiny new cars for health ministry officials to drive and emblazoned on the doors with "Funded by the European Union".   But inside, where it counts when one is sick, things are different.  Only the most basic of diagnostic studies are available--sometimes.  Treatment options are few.  The staff is overworked and underpaid.  All the typical tragedies of third world medicine are alive and well for simple lack of funding.  But the China Wing sure is pretty to look at.

     So the medical students have started plotting how they might raise enough money to get this place an ECG machine.  In fact, maybe I'll just buy one myself so I can paint "A gift of the people of Uliad" on the front of it... 

June 27:

     More kids keep arriving in Tonga, which keeps Emmett happy.  We took the lot of them up to a nearby rugby field the other day to run off some energy.  Eight "palangi" (Tongan word for foreigners) kids were soon joined by an equal number of local kids playing soccer in our own version of the world cup.  The favorite sports change around the world, but the enthusiasm remains.  Since there are so many New Zealanders here, the bars with televisions fill up not for NBA basketball, but for rugby.  The New Zealand national team is nicknamed the "All Blacks" although there are plenty of caucasians on the team.  Kiwis get almost as excited over them as Wisconsinites do for the Packers.

    After our big soccer match, we went to watch the All Blacks play Wales at a waterfront pub.  But unlike NFL fans who enjoy yelling and cheering at the television, the Kiwis sit silently in rapt attention.  Any talking by the kids or efforts to ask about the confusing rules is immediately shushed.  Not until the second half, with the All Blacks some 20 comfortable points in the lead did smug conversation begin amongst them.

    Thankfully Emmett did not show any interest in starting a kids rugby league here.  I'm not sure I could afford the dental bills.  Instead he and his Australian friends Zeke & Nina stuck to what they knew:  They spent the afternoon sailing about the harbor in Zeke's little sailboat. 

Emmett sailing around the harbor with friends from Callisto

    It makes a father proud to see his son growing and learning new things and making friends wherever he goes.  It makes a father even a bit smug to know he's out in the fresh air making up his own fun rather than sitting in front of a video screen all day.  It makes us glad we're here. 


June 30: 

    We sailed out of Niafu harbor this morning enroute to Fofoa--the western most island in the Vava'u group.  We optimistically trolled four fishing lines and went out of our way to circle around one of the fish aggregating devices that the local sport fishing club has set up.  Fish aggregating devices are simple floats tethered in deep water.  Small fish tend to gather near anything floating on the surface--I guess it gives them a sense of security out there.  The big fish are of course attracted by the small fish and the fishermen are attracted by the big fish.

    We found the FAD (fish aggregating device) about five miles offshore.  It was a simple string of buoys tied together.  I had high hopes as all the local fishermen have been too preoccupied with the great sea cucumber rush to come here lately.  Sea cucumbers are invertebrates who look something like a bug turd on the sea floor.  I had never heard of anyone considering them to be edible, but apparently the Chinese love them and the price has recently skyrocketed.  One local guy claimed he could make 2000 Panga (maybe $900) in a good day of sea cucumber fishing. 

    So lately at every low tide you can see locals walking the reefs with a sack in their hand.  At any given anchorage, you can find a local fishing boat bobbing nearby while a couple of guys snorkel along looking for sea cucumbers.  In town every morning there are more of those boats unloading barrels full of the slimy blobs.

    After trolling round and round the FAD for a while, we finally gave up and headed to Fofoa.  We never had a single strike all day.  I've come to expect that the fishing is never as good near shore as it is out beyond the range of the local fishermen, but for some reason I thought maybe today would be different.  On the way home I got to thinking about how few reef fish there are here when we go snorkeling.  Only the goldfish size ones are there.  Anything of edible size is pretty rare.  The giant clams that were so plentiful and beautiful throughout Polynesia and the Cooks are nowhere to be found here.  There are plenty of giant clam shells on shore lining sidewalks and decorating tables, but the live ones seem to have been fished out long ago.  We haven't seen a single ray or turtle here either.

     And now it appears, the fishermen have moved on to the lowly sea cucumber.  I have to believe that with the sort of intense harvesting going on now that the cucumbers will become pretty scarce, too.  It's hard to fault the poor Tongans who are just trying to feed themselves...and now are feeding themselves by feeding the Chinese.  But it does make me sad for Tonga, and sad for the oceans to see first hand how the environment suffers here.  Then again, maybe this is just the ranting of one frustrated fisherman who happened to sail home empty handed today.




                                                                                                                                        created by Steve Erickson 2007-2012
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