Tonga 12 – More Tonga

June 14, 2019

We had a beautiful afternoon today after a couple of days of off-again, on-again, rainy weather. Joe figured out a way to attach a hose to the little hoses that drain water off our bimini so now we can route the rainwater right into our tanks instead of me collecting it in pots and pans.

The photos are of Cobin on coral-spotting duty, some mermaids we spotted in the water, and a sailor’s worst nightmare. Zero knots of wind, on the nose. Thankfully we were at anchor when I took the photo.

Cobin was spotting for coral because this area is uncharted and there are often large coral heads (called bommies) which, depending on their size, can change the depth from a reasonable 12 feet to less than one foot. We got high-centered on one of these bommies on our dinghy at night when we did the Tahiti Pearl Regatta. There were 7 of us on the dinghy and we had a lookout with a light at the bow but still managed to miss it. They sneak up on you!

Another challenge in these coral-infested waters (not unique to Tonga – same issues everywhere) is anchoring. So, we drop our anchor and let out chain. We usually put out four times the length of chain as the depth we are in. If we anchor in twenty feet, we will put out eighty feet of chain. But choosing the site to anchor is tricky. You have to estimate your swing circumference and see if there is anything in the path that you will hit – like other boats, land, coral under water, etc.

Our catamaran is nice in that we only need three feet of clearance under our boat. However, because our boat needs to be light to perform, we can’t carry much chain. So we are limited to depths of around thirty feet. In many places in this part of the world, there is a very steep drop off from land. The only shallow places are right next to the land, which means that if we anchor in thirty feet of water, we will only be ten feet from land. We obviously can’t do that because we would hit the land.

In our location last night (one of many, many islands near Vava’u in Tonga), we anchored in about 15 feet of water and went to a surprise birthday party on Nikitoo. We scouted the area and everything seemed OK. When I went back to check on the kids, I could see coral rising above the surface of the water between our stern and the island. It’s a bit disconcerting to see land where there wasn’t land before. Under our skegs was a big bommie that we were only barely clearing. It was low tide! The charts are based on low tide but this area is uncharted and it’s very hard to guesstimate tidal changes on a body of water. The boat was OK but we decided to reanchor anyway. 

It was a bit more challenging the second time because there were only a few spots of the right depth and the boats around us had based their anchoring on our location and the shore so we basically were squeezing into a parallel parking spot in New York City with a strong headwind. Joe was satisfied with the location although I thought we were quite close to a Spanish boat that had arrived earlier that evening. Joe put out a couple of fenders (inflatable, squishy things that protect the boat from hard things like docks or other boats) and we all had the best sleep we’ve had in months. I don’t think any of us woke up before 10 AM!

Today Joe and I did an adventurous snorkel in a place called the Coral Gardens which is a coral wall that is the outer edge of a shallow reef between two islands. We had previously anchored in the same spot but Chris, Griselle and I were unable to dinghy to the gardens because it was high tide but the reef was too shallow to cross and there were large waves breaking on it (on the deep side where the wall is).

Joe and I lucked into low tide so we were able to walk across the shallow area (albeit painfully with our bare feet) and get to the edge of the reef. Basically, we were standing on a flat rocky/corally area where waves from the incoming tide were beginning to wash across. The edge of the wall/cliff dropped away from us and there were several deep ravines caused by the wave action. When a larger wave broke on the reef, I eased aggressively into the ravine so that the wave would help suck me out. When the wave was out, all the coral was exposed and anyone on it would get rolled across it by the next wave. So, it was important to get the timing right. Thankfully I did, and so did Joe, who came a few waves after me. 

The coral was amazing and so was the fish life! All kinds of creatures were milling about. We saw a gigantic coral fan, about 10 – 15 feet across. It looked like a flat, coral table. As Joe and I were admiring it, a white-tip shark swam right across it. I had seen the shark lurking at the bottom of the wall but having it framed against the light-colored coral fan made it much easier to see. It swam back and forth across the fan a few times, looking hungry but never eating any of the nearby fish. Then it ducked under the fan (which only looked like it was 5 inches above the other coral) and disappeared.

Unfortunately, we only had about twenty minutes to look around because it was getting cold in the water and both of us were concerned about the incoming tide and how we were going to get back onto the coral plateau without getting smashed by the increasing waves. Once again, our climbing skills came in handy in unexpected ways. Two days ago, it came in handy climbing across the guano-coated limestone in Swallow’s Cave. Today, for climbing underwater coral walls. 

I found my way back to a ravine that looked promising based on what I perceived to be tolerable wave crashing action from my limited underwater view of the foam. I braced myself on the sides of the ravine and found two good handholds at the surface. When the wave went in, I got set. Then the wave rushed out and I held on tightly. After it had completely receded, I had a few seconds to move forward and find a new position before the wave crashed on me. Surprisingly, the force of the wave going out was much stronger than the wave coming in. I was able to get to a stable position on my feet (it was like walking on dull broken glass) after a couple of waves and then make my way to the limestone area which was far more comfortable than the coral/limestone mix. Next time I will remember my water shoes (I say this often and never remember them so I don’t actually believe I will).

Joe had a similar experience in the ravine he chose but said he mistimed the first wave and got rolled around a bit. We both agreed it was worthwhile but that we should probably not take such risks in the future. Although it’s hard to evaluate the risk because I had had worse injuries walking around Charm. Sometimes I think that more obvious risks (like waves crashing on coral) force you to heighten your focus and therefore have lower potential danger. I’m sure my mother would disagree but she’s not here. J Happy birthday Mom- I’m still alive and so is everyone else!

We had a great afternoon of sunshine and games on the beach. The entire family on Manihi joined us as did the kids from Niobe and Aurora B and we played soccer, frisbee, volleyball, and dodgeball. It was nice to play together although playing soccer on an angled, soft sand field is definitely a challenge. At least the landing was soft!

We finished yet another busy day with pizza and movie night. All the kids in the anchorage joined us to watch Splash! (Joe’s choice) and it went over quite well for an older, non-animated movie. My favorite moment was when Tom Hanks was being attacked by reporters and his brother intervenes to extract him. The brother said, “Is anyone here from Penthouse magazine? No? Then we’re leaving.” 

One of the kids in the group said, “What is Penthouse?” Joe and I kept quiet. A young lady from the UK answered, “I think it’s a magazine about fancy apartments.” Cobin said, “Yes – the apartments on the top floors of buildings.” I wonder how they’ll react someday when they discover it isn’t an exclusive real-estate publication? Hopefully they’ll never find out . . .

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