Sunday, 7 September 2014

Cook islands to Tonga via Niue

We had a fairly easy time with the health and customs people on arrival in Rarotonga as it was too rough to get on the boat. We merely got thrown a can of airline insecticide which Colin deployed in a frugal manner ,sparing the ozone layer of the atmosphere. After we had taken down the Yellow Q or quarantine flag ,we were free to walk into town and have several beers along with fish and chips. After French Polynesia its quite bizarre to say Yorranna(hello) to Cook islanders and then have a conversation in colloquial Kiwi. Everyone you talk to is friendly and you could spend all day just walking round town making friends.
On the evening of Friday 1 August we went along to the last days celebration of the Cook Islands national week in the big auditorium in town. Singing and dancing teams together with their supporters arrive from all the other Cook Islands. They are accommodated in purpose built hostels( one for each island) and each island puts on a magnificent display of Polynesian singing and dancing. On some islands the missionary influence was evident with the women in dresses, however others were completely unreformed with traditional war dances, spears, rapidly wiggling grass skirts and a tremendous pace on the drums. No prizes for guessing who the crowd preferred.
Near the auditorium, we see the world being created...

On Saturday my pal Nigel Clay arrived after an exhausting journey via Auckland. Stopovers too short to check into a hotel and unable to doze , for fear of missing your connection are very tiring. Nigel also had to buy a return ticket from Rarotonga back to Auckland otherwise they would not have let him off the plane. Virgin airlines don't make it easy to get a refund with a phone number and web site that don't work! We tired him out further with a morning visit to the local market where he's been testing out ukeleles.
Ukelele search! We traversed the island to find "the one".

As the weather settled down , we repaired the top of the mainsail with loads of sailmakers tape. It had taken quite a bashing in the storm. Later that week an old fashioned two masted inter island freighter arrived in port. She had picked up a dismasted Halberg Rassy yacht called Blue Horizon that had been drifting on the ocean. We understood that they had been caught in the same storm as us, and the crew an elderly couple had been taken off by another ship, casting the boat adrift in the storm. Apart from the dismasting she looked in pretty good shape. The freighter lads had been in touch with the insurers and were making a jury rig to motor sail her back to Tahiti where they could get a new mast. Another boat we know called Amiable dragged her anchor while in a lagoon and sunk.I think we got off lightly.
On Saturday we were treated to a tour of our neighbours boats. These two traditional double hulled Polynesian sailing craft are from Hawaii. They are sailing round the world using traditional Polynesian methods of navigation. That means no GPS and no compass. The second support boat has got GPS but will only use it in an emergency if the first boat has got into a dangerous situation. So far they have not needed to intervene. The navigators use hand widths to assess the altitude of the sun and stars. They are very aware of currents, wind patterns and birds. They also draw bearing lines along the boat, especially useful for analysing their course at sunrise and sunset and getting a bearing at night on the Southern Cross(due south) and the plough in the north are useful pointers. Extraordinary really to manage across an ocean without compass watch or sextant.
Polynesian sail boat with no Mod Con's

They are spreading the message about global warming which will mean the disappearance of many pacific atolls, taking samples of the ocean for temperature and plankton and involving a whole new younger generation of Polynesians in their history and traditions. Rarotonga was a particularly appropriate place to visit as the Rarotongans originally came from Tahiti and then migrated to New Zealand by canoe as the first Maoris.

On Sunday 3rd of August we went to the main Church on the Island the church of Rarotonga. The church itself is a beautiful white building built out of thick blocks of coral. It is finished with a coral "cement " wash made by grinding and melting the coral down.
The coral church

We were ushered upstairs and greeted by the congregation. The men were in white suits and the ladies wore beautiful white dresses with flower adorned bonnets with mother of pearl on top.
The service was essentially non conformist,  but the whole place came to life when the singing started. The best were the local Rarotongan hymns. It was so loud you felt pressure on your chest. The men and women sang both in canonical parts and in harmonies. The preacher whose was on a tall dais and had delivered an old fashioned fire and brimstone sermon, was smiling broadly while he urged them on singing away himself. They could give a Welsh Male Voice Choir a run for their money any time.
After the service we were invited back to the church hall for a"cuppa" - how British. We strolled across via the graveyard where all the islands notable citizens were buried including ex prime ministers and governors and learnt the history of Christianity in the Cooks over some tasty egg mayonnaise sandwiches.
Looking good after a refreshing Cuppa

In the 1820s a ship called the Cumberland landed, had fights with the locals and took some of them off forcibly in an activity known as "blackbirding" ie Slavery. The Captain was called Cap'n Goodenough an oxymoron if ever there was one. One of the prisoners was a daughter of the local chief . Her name was Tepaeru Ariki. The Cumberland dropped her off at the neighbouring Cook Island of Aititutaki having second thoughts about shipping this cargo off to Peru as the colonial authorities in Australia and New Zealand were starting to clamp down on slavery.
The population of the small island of Aitutaki had already converted to Christianity. Tepaeru could see it was a good thing as the old religion had been all about maintaining the power of the chiefs, by offering up any of the lower orders for human sacrifice if they stepped out of line. She eventually met John Williams of the London Missionary society and went back with him to Rarotonga where she persuaded her Dad and all the other tribal big wigs to give it a try. Just about the whole Polynesian population now attends a church of some sort, and most of the islands organisations and societies eg scouts and guides are essentially church led.
Monday was a National Holiday where the prime minister gives a state of the nation address in town, so we set off to hike across the island using a track that lead 2000 feet up to a needle of rock with a face carved on the stone.
On the trail, walking past a "rock face "

 On the way up we had a chat with a farmer clearing his land and on the top met Bob originally from Bristol who had made his home here. For expatriates the local wages are poor, so you really need to be running your own business. Education and health are not brilliant ,in fact the locals have a saying "if in a pain get on the plane". Having said that everyone loves it here because it is such a friendly laid back place where everything is safe. The track was quite steep with a lot of sliding over roots in the forest, so after 3 hours we were really pleased to get to the waterfall where we all went swimming. Poor Colin tripped over some hidden barbed wire and grazed his nose quite badly.. The view from the rock needle at the top of the pass with the other peak, which was a volcanic crater in view was magnificent. Up at the crater opposite there was natural water, so during the war men camped up there as observers looking for Japanese aircraft.
Three bathing beauties cool off after a long hike

From the other side of the island, we hitched a lift from a lovely Hawaiian /American lady Cat who went out of her way to take us all the way back to the boat via her home where we met her husband Andy a radio ham with a huge aerial behind the house. He gave us the marine frequency for distress purposes. We talked about the recent parliamentary elections. The government was expected to be kicked out, but mysteriously won. Cat was sure there had been Gerrymandering,  as a high up lady married to a minister had let slip that they would ensure a result prior to the election,that had turned out exactly as she predicted. Of course they know how to do it on Rarotonga as the first prime minister "Sir " Albert Henry was forced to resign in 1978 over electoral fraud and got stripped of his knighthood by the queen in 1979. He's still Sir Albert Henry in the graveyard ,with a bronze bust and a garland of flowers round his neck, so maybe that sort of thing gets forgiven when you go upstairs!
On Wednesday,we hired a small convertible car to look around the island. Nigel completed his search for the perfect ukelele when we arrived at the prison.
Jail house rock

 There are a total of 34 prisoners for the whole of the Cook islands and the regime is fairly relaxed as there is nowhere to go off an island. We looked round the prison shop and didn't see much. We were about to leave when we met Ricky, a charming fellow doing 2 years for drugs. As Ricky explained they are pretty draconian on Cannabis and he agreed with Sally that he had "definitely learnt his lesson" - possibly for the nearby warders benefit. Ricky agreed to make Nigel a top of the range ukelele. He sent Nigel off to town for machine screw tuners and fishing line for strings as Ricky "was a bit stuck "when it came to getting into town. Nigel returned the next day with his own guitar and had a jam session with one of the other prisoners in the morning with all of them listening before they went to work. Unfortunately we regret to inform readers of this blog that the prison authorities were not keen on photography of this session of jail house rock . The ukelele when it was finished was beautifully carved with motifs all about Nigel and his family and personal philosophy.
The other side of the island was good for snorkelling and we saw a trumpet fish and very large Moray eel lurking at the bottom of the coral.
All the cruisers here are very friendly. We made firm friends with Brian and Carol from Napier in New Zealand over some after dinner sheep jokes on Kika. They were 72 and 68 respectively and still making fantastic voyages in their yacht Charioteer a fast strong 15 metre monohull. We envied Brian his workshop and fantastic engine access. They very kindly loaned us cruising guides for Fiji and Vanu Atu.
Carol and Brian aboard Kika

We are also became good mates with a lady called Maya who is a Rarotongan, born in New Zealand to Rarotongan parents who had never been back. Maya came on holiday and ended up staying running the fudge shop at Cooks corner in the centre of town. She's got Afro style hair and loads of tattoos her local relatives disapprove of. We had a lovely dinner with her at the Ariki restaurant on the outside of town before we left, and Maya dropped off a delicious box of fudge at the boat which Colin has rationed out to keep us going all the way to Niue.
Maya joins us for an evening meal

Richard Lewis arrived on Monday 11 August from Wales and with characteristic persuasion managed to blag his way out of buying a return ticket from Rarotonga. He came out last and it was touch and go whether they were going to put him back on the next plane.
We've serviced the engine, fuelled ,provisioned, gas, and watered up and I spent half a day going round customs and immigration before leaving. There's a new broom in from New Zealand this week who has been tightening up on procedures and is making life a pain in the neck for everyone. When we left the dockside the next morning we had to leave within 15 minutes of receiving our final clearance chit. Colin had to pack the dinghy up in the harbour entrance. All completely unnecessary.
We left Rarotonga, at 12am on Tuesday 12th August with Colin, Nigel Clay, Richard Lewis and myself on board. Sally has managed to get a ride on an American boat called Grasshopper,so we will hopefully see her in Tonga.
There was a lot of debate amongst the cruising boats as to the best time to go. Bob McDavitt a professional forecaster has been telling some of the American boats to wait for the weekend. We took a look at the GRIB weather files which didn't seem too bad apart from a trough of variable winds and rain which we would have to get through,so we decided to go for it. There's very rarely an ideal weather window and you can get port rot waiting for it.
After a day of 15 -20 knot winds astern we hit the trough at 4am on Wednesday 13 August with heavy rain and lumpy seas. The rain continued all day for 24 hours and seemed to soak everything. It was just like being back in the Irish Sea. Richard was having a tough time with sea sickness for the first 2 days, so we were very pleased when the cloud lifted and the sea moderated on the morning of 14 August. We then spent the next 24 hours motoring or motor sailing through weak winds.
Nigel has gone through the fishing tackle box and was trailing a large lure when he was rewarded with a magnificent Dorado at midday on 14 August. It fought hard but eventually arrived in the cockpit.We found the best method of quietening it down was to put a tea towel over its head.We had Dorado sushi for lunch and Nigel cooked Dorado steak for dinner. He dipped the fish in a light batter of cornflour and mustard and it tasted fantastic.
Nigel and the one that didn't get away

Dorado steak... the catch of the day

Nigel wires the Flying fish. A very tempting bait
 The trade winds gradually returned to make sailing easier. Nigel's had two more takes of a very large Dorado and a marlin both of which managed to wriggle off the lure. The Marlin broke the line. One fish swam under the keel and got off that way. When we get a fish on , we stop the boat by heaving to but after that its very difficult to keep the boat broadside on to the fish which can run in any direction.
We've had a rather slow passage taking 6 days to reach Niue, however on the morning of 17 August Colin spotted the island on our starboard beam. It looks long and relatively flat. We should be picking up a mooring around midday.
We arrived in Niue at lunchtime and picked up a deep water mooring on instructions from Niue radio. There is always a big swell on the pier at Nuie , so you scramble onto the steps or a ladder and then suspend your dinghy from a crane hook and hoist it onto the pier.
Richard controlling the hoist, like a boy with a new toy!

The immigration and customs gentleman met us on the pier, piled us into his van and took us down to his office. They were charming ,and with a minimum of formalities we were deposited back at Niue Yacht club for a beer.
Ira and the boys

Niue yacht club is a unique institution. Its membership spans the world and exceeds the total population of Nuie easily. For $20 you can become a life member which gives you no privileges but supports the club. It is run by two ex New Zealanders Keith and Sue, ably assisted by their local manager Ira who runs the bar and the backpackers hostel upstairs.
Keith freely admits, there are no local members who sail as Niueans regard the sea as a hard place to make a living fishing and don't see the point of sailing. The club itself is great. Free wi fi, an exchange library, information on the weather and everything local , finally a well stocked bar where you can set the world to rights with other cruising boats.
Niue is an independent state, with a population of around 2,000 souls. It is in free association with New Zealand and relies on New Zealand for foreign policy and defence. The police force has a jail that hasn't locked anyone up for over 4 years. Our friend Tony the police chief says he wants to organise a sponsored overtnight stay in jail for charity. Nuieans are mainly of Tongan or Samooan descent and are the only people who can own land. You can buy a house but you have to lease the land. The people are unfailingly cheerful and generous, so you never fail to have a conversation or two walking around town. Its a hard place to make a living as the soil above the coral bed is only thin and the only root crop that grows well is Taro ( a plant with big leaves ) that taste a bit like spinach when baked. Nealy 500 Nuieans have Government jobs of one sort or another so that and subsistence agriculture on their bush farms keep them going. There is no real poverty on the island, although none of them are rich. Occasionally there is trouble when distant relatives who have settled in New Zealand come back and try and claim the land off another member of the family who has been farming it for 20 years. These disputes are settled by a judge from New Zealand under Maoori law.
Captain Cook tried to land here twice and got beaten off by the locals. He called Nuie "Savage Island" as a result, the complete opposite of this friendly place today.
On Tuesday we heard from Keith in the yacht club that they had been in touch with a German Yacht 70 miles out that was having difficulty with her steering. We offered to help if we could so the next day as we wandered into town I was picked up by Tony Edwards the police chief who had forgotten his handcuffs and I was taken to his office where we got the information that a German 12.5 metre ketch called Fidel was now 30 miles out and requesting a tow as she was probably going to drift past Nuie. We set off and picked her up 20 miles North of Nuie. The skipper was a 72 year old German called Maurice Hermann. He told us he was very tired after trying to steer with a jury rudder for 4 days. Conditions were good with 10-15 knots of wind so we came up on his leeward side and Colin threw him a light line which was attached to a towing line. We rigged it up with a rope bridle between two stern cleats and a section of line wound around a rubber mooring snubber that took some of the jarring out of the line. Maurice was able to assist us with his engines and so using our sails on a reach and our engine as well we were able to tow him back at 4.5 knots, reaching Nuie at dusk. We radioed ahead to Nuie , so Tom and Dirk from Dancing Bear met us at the moorings in their dinghy and were able to take the towing line and pass it through the mooring eye giving it back to Maurice. We tied up on another mooring and heard via the police chief Tony on the radio that "operation Fidel" coordinated by Wellington in New Zealand could now stand down - very grand!
Fidel on tow

Kikas crew went into the yacht club for a well earned beer followed by a delicious curry across the road. Keith and Sue could not have been kinder. We were all given Nuie yacht club T shirts, all mooring fees were waived and Keith arranged for us to have a free tour of the island with Sue the next day . Tony Edwards subsequently came to lunch with us and Maurice on the Friday to pass on his thanks and those of the Prime Minister . Eeeek!
Our tour of Niue on Thursday was brilliant. On the eastern side of the island there are vast chasms caused by cracks in the coral. One of these involved going down 181 steps to a pool of holy water. The other tracks led through chasms and tunnels so a vast sea cave , where the ocean swell pounded in over a rock bridge.
An oasis hidden in a chasm
and a cave by the sea

a calm day and the waves crash in 

The power of the ocean was impressive even on a calm day, so it was hard to imagine the devastation of Hurricane Herta in 2004 when 150 knot winds combined with a very high spring tide to throw boulders of coral ashore, felling all coastal buildings and trees in its path. The only fatalities were a mother and baby. Mum had forgotten something in her house after being evacuated and went back to get it !
Hurricane Herta took a heavy toll

We travelled across the wooded centre of the island past bush plantations of Taro and Semolina bushes. If you want to grow a plot, you book the bulldozer for the day to clear the land. Then you burn all the brushwood. ( the ash improves the soil). Finally you plant it with Taro. Potatoes don't grow here and you can only carry on growing on one plot for 7 years before it is exhausted. The island doesn't have cattle or horses , but pigs abound and you need electric fencing to stop them digging up the Taro
We finished the day off snorkelling in a rock chasm towards the North of the island that communicated with the sea. The usual panoply of tropical fish combined with steep sided underwater walls provided a unique environment. You could get out and sun yourself on the rocks afterwards- lovely.
An idyllic spot

On Thursday night the wind shifted around to the SW making the anchorage very uncomfortable. Along with a number of other boats we decided to leave on Friday for Tonga. We went ashore to say our farewells, provision and dinghies ashore past the supply ship that was anchored off the breakwater with sternlines to the breakwater. Containers were craned onto a barge which was towed ashore by a tug and craned onto wagons with the islands crane. A difficult and potentially very dangerous undertaking in a big swell, skilfully carried out by men who moved very fast at the dangerous bits.
We had lunch with Maurice and Andy the police chief. Maurice told us that his rudder had nearly fallen off in the Atlantic and he was towed 700 miles to St Lucia by a fishing vessel. He had also hit a reef in Aitutaki. We all thought it might be time for him to hang up his sea boots.
The Chief of Police and Maurice.

We left Nieu at 1500 hrs on Friday 22 August after the skipper had managed to pass up the outboard motor from the dinghy and not noticed the severe swell had untied the temporary knot on the painter . As I drifted off, pushed by wind, it was a classic case of being up shit creek without a paddle. Colin saved the day by diving in with some oars. We managed to paddle the boat on to an Australian boat called Mooranaroa. The skippers lad Boa very kindly towed us back to Kika in his dinghy.
The first night was an uncomfortable reach with a big sea and 25-30 knot winds. We had 3 reefs in the main and were still batting along at over 7 knots.
Gradually conditions settled down and we had a more comfortable sail. We crossed the international date line to miss out Sunday, so we arrived in the Northern Vavau group of islands of the Kingdom of Tonga on Monday 25 August after 2 days at sea and a 250 mile crossing. After beating up past some uninhabited islands and seeing a large humpback whale surface in our path, we tied up at the customs dock at 3pm and repaired by dinghy to the Aquarium Bar to swap tall stories with all the other crews that had just arrived.

All smiles, ashore in Tonga.

1 comment:

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