Saturday, September 22, 2012

Excitement in Suva, Fiji

Having motored in the pass to Suva Harbor in cloudy weather with no winds, using Yannie, we set Rocky in 15-ft of mud just before 1100 Thursday morning 13 September. We had hailed Port Control to ensure permission to enter and the pass was clear, and once in Suva Harbor, hailed the Royal Suva Yacht Club as we had been told they would organize check in with Fijian officials. First they said 1400 then amended to 1500 for the officials to visit our vessel. No problem for us, that provided time to relax for a moment with post-passage drinks and snacks, dry some gear, and get down below spruced up for the visit. The weather was a bit crazy, downpouring one moment and brilliantly sunny with big fluffy clouds the next. We managed to put the drifter up to dry it and hang our foulies to nearly dry, then raced to pull them all in before the next downpour.

At just after 1400 three Fijian officials showed up in a boat organized by the yacht club. Though early, we were mostly ready, and unfortunately it started to pour the moment they boarded. One woman (handling both Customs and Immigration) and two men (Health and Quarantine) made themselves at home with both of Tao's table leaves up for maximum paperwork efficiency. We broke out a pineapple juice, having let the woman choose the flavor, and the three of them downed it as the paperwork flowed with carbon paper in duplicate. We were informed that Fiji charges the same entrance fees no matter what port you enter and they required payment right away. Since we were not allowed ashore to get Fijian money until checked in, we paid in US dollars; $165 for Health and Quarantine and $40 US for the Royal Suva Yacht Club for the organization and boat for the officials to come out to Tao in. Overall, the check-in procedures were quite painless and just after dark we fell into bed.

We got a solid hour of sleep before being rudely awakened to a strange grinding sound on our hull. We leaped out of bed and onto deck thinking, "Which of the boats has dragged down onto us?" Having never dragged ourselves, it was incomprehensible that we could have dragged, and in our foggy state, Chris remembers thinking "How did that boat get upwind onto us like this? Rocky obviously couldn't have dragged." As our foggy minds cleared, we realized that it was actually Tao's hull grinding into the chain of a boat downwind of us. Chris in his boxers, Shawn in a t-shirt and underwear and the other boat owner in his birthday suit, we relatively easily fended off Tao from a gratefully stout boat. Chris jumped to start Yannie (who for a heart-stopping moment sounded as if she wanted to stall) and immediately put us in reverse. We pulled away from the other sailboat, but toward shallows. Chris was seeing 8-ft depths as Shawn was at the bow dealing with our strangely limp chain grabber and pulling in chain which was near unfathomably not taut (which usually indicates that the anchor holding). We spent the next couple hours in the middle of the night with the winds up to 20-knots, motoring by the lights of the city in search of safe anchorage in a new-to-us area riddled with stakes marking submerged shipwrecks, shallows and rafted up moored fishing trawlers. On the third round (after pulling up a muck filled plastic bag on one of the haul ins) we felt confident with the set and commenced to ride out the winds with nearly 13:1 scope in 12-ft of water.

Indeed, we had dragged for the first time ever! Astounding as we had 8:1 scope out with what we thought was solid holding. This had been one of the rare times that we didn't dive on the set because (a) we wouldn't have been able to see in the murky water and (b) the water quality in Suva Harbor is highly suspect. Post drag discussion established that a combination of strangely gusty winds from a multitude of directions, swirly currents that may have wrapped our chain around itself, but it was most likely, Rocky catching up in trash on the bottom during one of the wind switches that led to us drag. The next morning we found in the past week alone there had been several dragging incidents, most going aground. At least the surrounds muck not reef rock, but still, this provided a less than ideal situation not conducive for restfulness. Overall, there was no damage to either boat, the situation was just a scary and stressful and ultimately a blow to our confidence. We suppose that there are two kinds of sailors those that have dragged and those that will. However, on a positive note, our recovery was stupendous, and really, isn't life all about the recovery?

With the less-than-ideal anchoring situation, we worked to get our To-Do list done efficiently. We spent six nights there in all, constantly doing internet tasks (which required visiting the local Vodafone office and purchasing a data stick with a SIM card that provided us wireless 3-G service for our first time since Hawaii), making several trips to the gargantuan market (we're talking mazes of stalls filled with apparently never ending vegetables), and enjoying the interesting mix of Melanesian and Indian cultures that make up Suva, the largest city and capitol of Fiji. In order to receive permission to cruise the outer islands of Fiji, one day we visited the Itaukei Affairs Board in the Great Council of Chiefs building next door to the President of Fiji's estate. The Fijian woman that dealt with us was wonderful and we met a Peace Corps volunteer (from Colorado) on her first day of work. The document we received was completely in Fijian, so hopefully it says nice things about our intentions. Additionally, we walked through town (Shawn pulling Chris into every store to look at dresses from Fijian to Indian in style), rode the bus home laden with fresh veggies, took a few taxi rides, ate some amazing Indian and Chinese food, spent some time with a fun singlehanded cruiser Riki on Guava Jelly, made a final trip to market to purchase kava for outer-island village sevusevu (in which we ask permission of the Chief to cruise the area), and finally went to the Customs office to receive costal clearance to leave Suva. We paid the yacht club for our time in the anchorage ($5 Fijian daily per person for anchoring and use of dinghy dock and shower facilities), took one more hot shower (the first hot freshwater showers we've had access to since March!) and on Thursday morning, again racing the weather, we pushed off for the outer island of Kadavu.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Day 4- Bula from Fiji

Time: 2244 Zulu Wed 9/12 (1044 Fiji time Thurs 9/13)
Position: 18-deg 07-min S 178-deg 26-min E
Wind: calm to squally all directions Seas: flat
Avg. Course: 292-deg T
Avg. Speed: 4.9-knots
Rig: sails nestled in their terra cotta sail covers
Distance noon to anchor point: 71.3-nm
Total distance traveled Tonga to Fiji: 491-nm

A *few* words about the "weather" phenomena we have been discussing throughout this passage and hoping to avoid. Backing up, the main weather features that we are watching at this latitude are the parade of rotating High and Low pressure systems that spawn over Australia and move eastward in a near clockwork cycle. According to this we selected the perfect weather window, just after the last Low (with its stationary front consisting of rain and variable often high winds, highly developed thunderheads or cells with heavy convection, i.e. lightning) moved past, the initial strong and consistent winds of the following High filled in. We jumped just after this as the High moved eastward and therefore its associated winds were mellowing and backing, yet still with plenty of time to reach Fiji before the next Low and its associated fronts and/or troughs passed over our destination. Unfortunately, the weather is never that simple. What we did not anticipate (and is nearly impossible to forecast) is South Pacific Convergence Zone (SPCZ) activity dipping southward. Sometimes, despite predominant wind conditions maintained by the Highs to our south, atmospheric conditions at the surface and aloft create a situation where the warm, relatively humid tropical air mass to our north mixes unevenly with the cool, dry air mass from the High to our south. This can suddenly, sometimes overnight, create a CZ or trough (which is an elongated area of low pressure at the surface or aloft) at the surface, which is what happened directly along our cruise track before the next Low ever made it to Fiji. To further complicate matters, the CZ was assisted by upper level troughing to supplement the development of the surface trough, full of convective activity. What started as a small rain cloud steadily and quickly developed, with magnified winds to its south and backing lighter winds to its north, into an entirely new Low which is now forecast to join those weather systems we were initially watching between the original High and Low. Not being professional weather forecasters ourselves, we find it difficult to read the signs not evident in the models we use, in order to predict if/when our passage in consistent winds will suddenly become a storm dodging endeavor. Phew. This, in addition to the navigational nightmare of a cruise track with very little room for divergence and therefore very little sea room to ride anything out, is why our recent passage has been filled with anxiety.

That said, the final day of our passage was quite wonky. It started with Chris coming on watch at 1300 and upgrading sails from the slow mosey we were doing to replace the storm jib with the 80%. Although forecast CZ activity was ahead which we did not want to catch up to, his solid theory was to efficiently utilize the wind we had to be closer to our destination when we got becalmed in light backing winds associated with the north edge of a Low. Shawn diligently spent that time writing up the daily blog so she missed a few warning signs. Usually Chris is ushering Shawn to get to sleep by 1400 so he can be on top of utilizing our last moment of open propagation for weather download at 1430 before the PacSeaNet. However, things weren't getting done, because he was spending all his energy fighting off an impending migrane (for him, a severe headache associated with nausea). He needed sleep and TLC so Shawn stepped up and took the rest of his watch without complaint. Almost immediately it was time to check into the PacSeaNet. Once the station had cleared (the Kauai Kapaa station used for the PacSeaNet is the one we've had best luck with), it was important to download the most recent weather data as unsettled weather forecasts change quickly. The newest forecast brought a huge sigh of relief as the near-term forecasted the center of the convective trough to move south of us late in the night to come. The rest of the afternoons heavy cloud cover brought passing sheets of rain, light E winds, and we continued to slowly sail our way in the protective lee of so many islands.

Chris valiantly tried to motivate at 1800 for what is usually Shawn's night watch, but having been unable to relax passage anxieties yet, his migrane was still debilitating. Providing Chris with good weather news, some warm gatorade and a head massage, Shawn's mega-watch continued. Talking on the 2000 radio check in with fellow cruisers awoke Chris. Thankfully, surprisingly rested and head no longer aching, he was back in action for the night. Finally after nearly 13-hrs being on watch, Shawn hit the bunk, but knowing that we were to experience the edge of the storm that evening, she mostly tossed and turned. On deck, feeling rejuvinated, Chris reduced sail to triple-reefed main alone to slow us down in order to stand off a safe distance from the quite busy shipping port of Suva. At 0300, just entering the Kandavu Passage, Shawn again relieved him and spent the first hour transfixed by the HUGE amount of lightning convection going on just south of us- right where the recent GFS model had predicted. Far enough away that thunder couldn't be heard, it was close enough to feel the electricity. We are eternally grateful to the Universe for allowing us safe passage, it was truly a lucky roll of the dice that we did not encounter the center of that stormy weather in our path last night.

All of a sudden there was a flurry of shipping activity and after a mere 1.5-hr nap, Chris was back on watch at 0430 as the lightning storm marched off into the distance. We tacked away from Suva and some traffic, then winds diminished not allowing us to tack back under reefed main alone so we put up the jib to add to our sail area. Of course, winds then completely vanished. At this point, nearly sunrise and only 14-nm out, we decided it was time to call upon Yannie. Motor on, sails down, across the Kandavu Passage to Suva we went. Skies were still gray and rainy as Chris organized on deck and Shawn down below for check-in to a new country. Although SW swell was up so it was quite a rolly motor in the near windless conditions, we decided to spruce up with freshwater showers in the rainy cockpit. C-Map charts were right on and though overcast conditions made spotting range markers difficult, the 10-deg T bearing took us through a slot in the reefs big enough for cargo ships and into Suva Harbor proper. Both of us were quite worn out from the overall rather anxious passage, so at 1044, we wearily but happily set Rocky in 15-ft of mud to prepare for and await the reportedly strict Fijian check in procedures.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Day 3- present moment beauty

Time: 0000 Zulu Wed 9/12 (noon Fiji time)
Position: 18-deg 34-min S 179-deg 35-min E(!)
Wind: E 13 Seas: SE 4-5-ft
Avg. Course: 302-deg T
Avg. Speed: 4.9-knots
Rig: storm jib, single-reefed mains'l
24-hr distance noon to noon point: 108-nm

This passage has been a lesson in enjoying the present moment. Although transiting between uncharted reefs and at the mercy of powerful and capricious weather systems has made this a bit of an anxious passage, there are still so many beautiful moments to be soaked in. Yesterday afternoons sail was unexpectedly pleasant, with the sun out and wind gently urging us along at comfortable speeds. Having decided to follow Jimmy Cornell's (author of Cruising Routes of the World and many other sailing bibles) advice to enter through the southern Lau Group via a 16-mile wide pass between Totoya and Matukit Islands, it felt good to make our turn to starboard and back north to follow our route line toward Suva Fiji. With our E wind flow, we had to jibe several times in order to keep our potato chip (storm jib) fairly full of wind. Luckily, we have confirmation from several trusted sources that our digital charts are spot on, because at 0300 as we transited the pass in overcast moonless night, the purported lighthouse on Totoya was not lit. Soon after, we reached another celebration point at 0400 as we finally physically crossed the international dateline (180-deg) into tomorrow, which we've actually already been in since Samoa and even on Fanning. Admittedly, Shawn barely opened her eyes for it, so Chris shouldered the celebration during his graveyard shift.

Today dawned with a "sort-of" sunrise- little color, but light and lots of cloud formations amid the misty conditions. Weather download, warm raisiny oatmeal, Chameleon weather, dishes, and 24-hr plan discussion filled the morning. Even though Tao has demonstrated that she can move quickly with her lighter load (less water, fuel, and provisions adds up!), not quickly enough to make 80-nm in 12 hours of daylight. So, we will slow down and spend another night on the water standing off Suva, the busiest port in Fiji. The much discussed trough will pass today and hopefully it's center will move south of us, hindering us with only rainy very light wind conditions. In the brief moments that the sun broke through this morning, we sighted our first vessel- another sailboat bound for Suva (a delivery captain that will enter Suva at night). Somehow, it is comforting to see another boat sailing in the same conditions. Tonight will be full of rain catchment and traffic patrol, and unless the winds fill in as the trough moves past, we may have to motor the final miles to arrive tomorrow during business hours. Though these wet conditions beg for soups and hot chocolate, we will add to that gorging on fresh vegetables in an attempt to arrive with very few for the officials to confiscate. We will continue to grab snippets of sleep as we can, and when forced by our watch schedule to be awake, remember to enjoy the present moments beauty out here in the oceanic wilderness.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Day 2- weather woes

Time: 0000 Zulu Tues 9/11 (noon Fiji time)
Position: 19-deg 31-min S 178-deg 48-min W
Wind: ESE 18-20 Seas: SE 8-9-ft
Avg. Course: 262-deg T
Avg. Speed: 5.5-knots
Rig: storm jib, triple-reefed mains'l
24-hr distance noon to noon: 131-nm

Yesterday afternoon sailing was gorgeous. We took the drifter down at 1600, hoisted the 80% and continued racing along. After a delicious fresh alfalfa and carrot salad with some chicken pesto and pine nuts, we dropped the main to its double reef since winds were forecast to pipe up a wee bit. We screamed along all through Shawn's night watch and when Chris came on deck, we brought the main down again to its 3rd reef. Still we flew. a few hours later Chris dropped the main completely, but still we needed less sail area. At 0400 he called Shawn up on deck to drop the 80%. We bobbed along under bare poles at 2-knots while we got the storm jib ready. First up went the triple-reefed mains'l and the next while was spent unwinding some frustrating lazy jack issues. Rain started as a drizzle and continued to increase. Finally, as the sun started to light our wet overcast world, we raised the storm jib. 25-knot winds with gusts up to 30 and 9-ft seas. Not in the forecast, but Tao did excellent. As the morning continued, the winds abated to more normal 15-20, the sun even came out to showcase the hulking cloud formations around. Weather download showed that the trough has deepened and is basically in our path. Weather radio conversation confirmed, no avoiding, just be ready for squalls and rain. So we wait, basking in the sun and beautiful sailing conditions for the next weather download, and look forward to being on the other side.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Day 1- great sailing, uncertain weather

Time: 0000 Zulu Mon 9/10 (noon Fiji time 9/10)
Position: 19-deg 13-min S 176-deg 31-min W
Wind: ESE 8 Seas: SE 6-ft
Avg. Course: 256-deg T
Avg. Speed: 5.5-knots
Rig: 150% drifter, full mains'l
24-hr distance noon to noon: 132-nm

Up to the last moment, we weren't sure if the weather window was there, but Gulf Harbor Radio's David said the weather looked fine with just a weak trough. So up came the hook at just before 1000 and we were under sail again. Nice breezes with calm seas allowed an easy start to the trip. The anchor was stowed and we were jibing away from the Vavau Group following Chris' pre-made track. The first task was to avoid several fishing devices for which we had waypoints, and the next to avoid Late, a taller island than any in Vavau. It was a mellow transition from the islands out to sea and for once, neither of us has been sea sick allowing us both to fully enjoy fresh cucumber-dill sandwiches for lunch and large portions of Peanut Pumpkin Curry over rice for dinner.

The first 24-hrs we have been moving quickly, there must be a helpful current moving us among all of these uncharted reefs as we easily made one of our largest mileage days ever without even trying. We have uploaded a large database of waypoints that mark uncharted hazards into our GPS, so we can make sure to avoid. Tucker from Convivia also spot checked these hazards against a satellite photo overlay, so we feel confident in our chosen route. Still, the dark but gentle night was spent not straying far from the charted course. Morning weather downloads did not show the weather we were hoping for. The trough is deepening with more convection. Best case, we'll just see a lot of rain, though we hope to be able to get past it before it develops. To do this, we are actively trying to keep our speeds up. When hourly average speeds dropped below 5-knots, we brought down the 80% and raised the drifter. The forecasts we had did not show drifter weather, so we are anxious to download again to see how the forecast has changed. Keep sending us good weather juju.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Whale sized post from Vavau, Tonga

We have had a great time in Tonga and managed to fit a ton of fun into a very short amount of time here. Unfortunately, that means blogging has been put on the back burner leading to unmanageable sized posts. In short, we have loved the Vavau group of Tonga. It has been heavenly sailing the short distances in consistent winds with no seas between anchorages and even being able to sail on and off anchor in many places. There is a huge traveling cruising fleet in this sailing paradise, yet still, we managed to find nice isolated anchorages most of the time, enjoying the natural playground, though, unfortunately, not crossing paths with many actual Tongans. After landfall, we quickly negotiated the ex-pat heavy Neiafu, and headed out of town where we enjoyed several anchorages, swam with whales, spent nearly a week at the eastern side of the group behind Kenutu Island exploring surrounds from Fatty and finally moved back west in the island group to enjoy Taunga Island and the remarkable coral garden area before sadly heading back to Neiafu to check out of the country. In the near month that we've been here, we have maneuvered ourselves to be in safe anchorages for two episodes of 20-30-knot winds from the SE and the passage of a stationary-front-bearing low. If the weather window stays, we'll sail onward toward Fiji Sunday morning 9 September.

If you are interested in the longer version of our adventures then keep reading... We spent 5 nights post-landfall in Neiafu, a bustling little town with a bursting ex-pat community. We took a mooring to figure out what the situation was, went to town to grab a little internet, see what was available at the local market, taste the cuisine, and laid low while some stronger winds moved through. On a blustery Sunday afternoon the only ones out, we sailed Fatty around the harbor to the sounds of church singing and bells tolling and enjoyed a dinner the next night aboard outbound Pandion with just landed Convivia before we managed to sail off the mooring and into the playground of the Vavau group.

In gorgeous light winds, we slowly sailed and other boats motored all around us. On a tip from friends, we checked out Kitu Island, a little north of famous Mariner's Cave that we had heard was home for tons of flying foxes/ large fruit bats. It was blissful to be sailing Tao in the light fetchless breezes. As Chris joyously sailed us around in circles, Shawn checked these huge bats out through the binoculars and tried to catch a few pictures with our sad back up camera. We continued on using our digital charts (for which CMAP is slightly better than our digitized paper charts and both are definitely about a half mile off), the nice laminated map we sprung for in town that Moorings put together, and mostly our eyes as we sailed among little tropical islands. As the sun shone, we could see blinding white beaches on islands all around as well as palm trees and other tropical greens clinging to limestone weathered islands, surrounded by shallow teal areas of reef, flanked by deep dark blue water. With settled weather conditions, we made our way toward the empty anchorage south of Tapana Island and dropped the hook. Happily anchored in sand we put the hammock up and tried not to be annoyed when a Moorings rental sailboat anchored just upwind of us and close enough to hang over our anchor. Chris finally calmed Shawn down and instead of weighing anchor and finding another place, we chose to let out an additional 100-ft (putting us at a hilarious 10:1 scope in settled winds) to have some space. On deck, we enjoyed a celebratory glass of wine in our double hammock as the sun set and we had a perfect view of huge fruit bats returning overhead to Tapana Island for the night.

Through the cruiser grapevine (Dreamkeeper and Pandion), we'd been encouraged to keep a lookout for Michelle and Mark on s/v Cheers, so when they hailed to invite us for dinner and to share the jewel of an anchorage they had found, the next morning after poking around a little in Fatty, we motivated for a nice downwind day sail toward them. The anchorage behind a fetch-breaking reef connecting Ovalau and Ovaka Islands turned out to have a ton of room and nice sandy conditions with a few obvious coral patches to avoid. Mellow winds allowed us to sail onto anchor, which we hadn't done much of since Mexico. We made it there in time to enjoy a few moments in the hammock before heading over to Cheers for a delicious dinner and great chats with like-minded cruisers. The next morning we circumnavigated Ovalau in Fatty and snorkeled around a gigantic coral patch before sailing off anchor toward the protection again of Tapana Island, this time to its north. Settled conditions were forecast to disappear and we had planned a touristy whale tour for the next day. As the sun settled low, we sailed between Afo and Tapana into what we have heard is considered a hurricane hole that has several obviously long term moored boats. After circling and scoping a spot in the light winds, we sailed onto anchor to the cheers of the local cruisers having on deck sundowners.

We don't usually do touristy things, but the cruisers grapevine again (this time Britannia) alerted us to the possibility of amazing interactions with the breeding and birthing humpback whales here in Tonga. Before leaving Neiafu-town, we booked a "swim-with-the-whales" tour with Convivia. The day, unfortunately, dawned gray and rainy, but not to be deterred, we set up our rain catchment, organized gear for a surely blustery day, and hopped in when the whale watching boat stopped into our prearranged anchorage for pick up at 0900. There was one other couple from New Zealand that joined us and luckily they had a waterproof camera, because ours broke in Samoa and Convivia had left theirs on the charger. The islands that had looked so inviting over the past few days looked completely different in the heavy overcast, but Allister, the English owner of Dive Vavau who we had chosen to go with, assured us we would see whales. Four swimmers with one guide are allowed by "law" in the water at a time, and it is the whale's choice whether they want to swim with you or not. Without the sun out, conditions for viewing were difficult and the morning was filled with several unsuccessful attempts with a few different mother/calf combinations that were not willing to swim with people (according to our guide, when the baby whales are young the mothers are more nervous). As always there is controversy surrounding the whale tour business, but from what we witnessed, our Tongan driver was very respectful of the distances from the whales which he kept the boat and we did not follow whales that were not interested in our presence.

Finally, after lunch we happened upon a mother and calf that were very playful and interested in us human swimmers. Our group had two wonderful encounters with them and we were lucky to be in the water for both of them. The first round the baby whale repeatedly swam down to his mother in deeper water and back to the surface to play. Pilot fish surrounded the baby as it frolicked and learned how to move its massive self. Finally the mother whale came up toward the surface to breath, on the way displaying motherly affection by nuzzling the baby with her head a mere 20-ft from us. The second encounter was even more exciting, when the baby swam right at our group. Well versed by our guide to stick together, we managed not to get separated by the baby, but it passed within 5-ft of us while the mama surfaced to breath just next to us, then dove right underneath our group. It was awe inspiring to be in the presence of such exquisite creatures and to witness their massive grace and playfulness. In retrospect, we wish it had been a little sunnier and that we'd had our camera, but even with rainy cloudy conditions, it was an unexplainably fantastically magical experience to have a giant baby and enormous mama swim within 5-ft of us and intelligently look right into our eyes.

That evening we organized all the collected water and recovered after the exhaustingly exciting day. The following morning dawned clear and after a lazy morning, we sailed off the hook toward the more isolated eastern side of the group. After seeing a whale breeching just south of Tapana Island, we sailed to Fanautapu Pass. Besides a questionable entry, it was a short but dramatic passage in which we sailed, then motor sailed, then sailed, saw giant mantas transiting the pass themselves, then motored for the overall rather short distance. Although we were required to motor two sections between reefs that were too upwind to sail, there were a lot of coral heads and it sure felt good to have motor power and bow watch with sun mostly behind us. Once in the lee of Kenutu Island with anchor down (in great holding 25-ft of coral sand with grass), we sat back to enjoy the gorgeous very isolated protected area and could hear the raw open ocean pounding the other side of the island.

Over our near week in Kenutu, we visited with Tucker and Vic and their kids Ruby and Miles of Convivia, explored Kenutu Island, sailed Fatty throughout the coral studded bay all the way north to explore Faioa Island, relaxed on Sand Cay (a little knob of sand exposed during low tide), viewed natural infinity pools and experienced exploding waves crashing from the top of Lolo Island. Though we could have stayed for much longer, a spell of nicer weather brought a few boats to visit and we decided to sail out and explore up toward Old Harbor- conveniently connected to the bustling village of Neiafu from the other side. We never made it there, as we found a secluded little bay and sailed onto anchor just offshore a cute little village on Oloua Island. We set up our rain catchment for the forecast moisture and enjoyed a night of eerily calm washed away by rain, awakening to the little village church bells and singing (on a Friday!) before the sun even rose. We had expected a blustery gray day, but instead, the day dawned fresh and mostly sunny so plans changed again. Instead of heading to town for more freshies and internet, we took advantage of the beautiful light winds and sunny weather to transit Fanautapu Pass. A clean passage with a few quick jibes to avoid large coral patches at the west side of the pass, and we breathed a sigh of relief for safe passage. Soon we were upon a little island called Tauta with bright red soil and evergreen looking trees had been calling to both of us, so we checked its possible anchorage. However, the anchorage was not settled in the northerly winds we were experiencing, so we continued on to Taunga Island.

Back to the more heavily cruised area, we were sad to see that the little anchorage we had hoped to seek shelter from high winds forecast in the next few days already had a boat in it, so we continued on to the southern anchorage which also had a boat in it. Finally we pulled the sails down and motored to check out the anchorages. The SW one was very deep with large coral heads and we did not find a section that we felt comfortable with near the other boat, so we returned to the NW anchorage off of the village and through the clear water saw huge coral patches, flanked by beautiful sand. There was indeed enough room for us with the other boat, so we circled around until we had picked a "perfect" spot, and what an amazing experience it was to lower Rocky and watch him all the way down 45-ft into just the right spot to dig into the bottom. This striking anchorage is flanked by reefs on two sides that come out of water in low tide. As the tide fills in and over them, it becomes a bit rolly, but it gave us a good excuse to set up Floppy our flopper-stopper, which we haven't used since Hawaii. That evening as we enjoyed a glass of wine and appetizers in the hammock, we watched the sun set and the rare blue moon rise over the little village on Taunga Island.

The next morning, the SW anchorage was already empty and our neighbors chose to leave before we even had a chance to meet them. With the whole island to ourselves, we jumped into Fatty for an attempted circumnavigation of Taunga. First, we sailed to the south end of the island and beached on a beautiful white sand beach of Pau Island. We walked its beach and then the sandy shallow water section that connected it to Taunga, which would surface soon with the full moon large tidal swing. Before the tide got too shallow we continued on and sailed to the outer reef for some amazing snorkeling on the precipitous outer edge of the reef. Clouds started to fill in as we made our way south of Pau Island and visited the coconut laden island of Lekeleka at very low tide. After Chris found a couple delicious looking coconuts, we sailed the shallows (with the centerboard up and rudder in hand) to the eastern side of Taunga to visit what has been hailed "the most beautiful beach in Tonga." We walked the long curving beach as well as the remarkably thin section of Taunga for views of Tao anchored on the other side. Rain was threatening, but we still pushed on with a stop to anchor off Tauta- the red soil island that had been calling us. With the tide so low we were able to circumambulate it and see beautiful sea life as well as follow bright blue birds. The misty conditions finally descended, so we made our way the last leg around the north end of Taunga and beat the remaining distance upwind to a comfortable warm Tao beckoning us to return home.

We relished several days alone in the lee of Taunga Island waiting out a couple days of over 20-knot winds due to tight surface isobars associated with a passing high pressure. When the winds eased, we headed downwind a short distance before stopping at Sisia Island for some excellent beach time and snorkeling. Easterly winds would have allowed us to stay there overnight, but time being short, we decided to join Convivia for a night just off Matamaka (literally translates to "face rock"). The following morning, after visiting the well manicured little town and the welcoming and fluent school teachers, we sailed Tao downwind to a stellar sandy spit anchorage between relatively small Langito'o and Vakaeitu Islands. From there, we sailed Fatty to an area dubbed the "coral gardens" and watched the only other anchored boat leave the entire area to us alone. After beaching Fatty, we walked along Vakaeitu's shore, timing our entrance into the water between waves breaking on the reef. Once on the west side of the reef, we all of a sudden plunged into the most beautiful coral arrangements of all sizes and shapes cascading from surface reef down a gentle slope. We snorkeled together, holding hands swimming up and down the reefs length through the "garden" diving down periodically to inspect and hearing the far off songs of whales. Once back at Tao, we checked surrounding depths and decided to stay for the night enjoying the last rays of daylight from a small low tide only beach on Langito'o.

The next morning, 6 Thursday September, a rain-bearing-low-pressure was forecast to pass, so we weighed anchor and shared a mellow upwind sail (winds from the NW generated from the passing low) with Convivi, with a close pass of Swallows Cave on toward Neiafu Harbor where we dropped the hook just off the main town market. The predicted wind shift to SW happened dramatically, and though now on lee shore, our anchor set was solid. So we went ashore to treat ourselves to a nice dinner at The Balcony Restaurant with Convivia. On Friday, when we went to check out, the Immigration office was closed until 1330, so with winds forecast to pipe up, we moved across the bay to one of the few available moorings. We sailed Fatty back across to visit Immigration, then Port Authority, and finally Customs and chose to be honest and tell the Customs that we weren't going to leave until the weekend and subsequently paid the extra fee in order to feel good about spending one more night in Neiafu. We enjoyed another nice dinner, then icecream, on Cheers with Michelle (Mark unfortunately had to fly home to attend a funeral) before sailing Fatty under a dark but starry sky across the harbor to Tao. Having to leave within 24-hrs of checking out, the next morning, we sailed off the mooring and anchored for one more night of solid sleep in Port Mourelle. Closely watching the weather, this morning we checked into the Gulf Harbor Net (with David of Chameleon who had helped route us previously from Suwarrow to Apia) and got the green light for passage to Fiji, so it seems, it is already time to get underway again.