Sailing Adventures in Wonderland: 16 day Ocean Passage New Zealand to Tonga

South Pacific, South Pacific Sailing, Tonga — By on June 6, 2011 4:07 PM

“Which sheet do you pull to take in the jib?” Captain Evi asked me. As I looked at the multitude of ropes, a mix of solid colors and patterns across the rainbow I felt a sense of confusion and dread. “This one?” I guessed, grabbing hold of a white rope with red dashes. She frowned as she shook her head; my incorrect answer led her to suggest that I didn’t play with Legos enough as a little girl. Unashamed I admitted, “Not really, unless it was to build a house for my Barbie dolls”. I faulted Mattel for not designing a “Barbie Goes Sailing”.

That was Evi for you, a straight shooter for the most part, with a tendency to be inconsistent in her affections. A retired college professor from Colorado, I got the feeling that she had been the kind of teacher who favored the boys. She is quite a character, which is to be expected of any 70-year old woman who can single handedly sail a boat offshore. Fearless and able, she is a unique inspiration. Someone once described her as “neat” and I think this is a good word for her.

I found her “teaching style” challenging to my desire to learn the fundamentals of sailing as she criticized more than she instructed. She would ask you how to do X task (which you have never been shown how to do before), forcing you to attempt the task using your own intuitions. If wrong (which I often was) she had a way making you feel incompetent as she showed you how it is done right. You would be forced to do X task over and over again (while she stood watch over you) until you can do it correctly on your own. (I can now tie a cleat knot correctly after about a hundred mis-ties.) I did not thrive very well under these conditions and would have preferred to have someone show me the right way to do something first instead of always setting a stage for me to fail. It might not have been as bad if her negativity had been countered by a few positive affirmations, which rarely were heard on board (unless your name was Cyril).

I came to realize there is a lot more to learning how to sail than I had thought prior to signing up to crew aboard Wonderland. Good thing for me I had over two weeks to learn which halyard rope raises the main sail and which sheet (rope) trims which sail during our journey across the South Pacific from New Zealand to Tonga.

Learning to sail is like learning to speak a foreign language. If you aren’t willing to ask the dumb questions like “What does to reef mean?” then you will never learn the lingo (reefing is taking in a sail).

Wonderland 40 ft sloop

Wonderland Crew

Once offshore, Wonderland became our self-contained world. A reality show in the making with a crew of strangers with differing cultures, language, age, and personality squeezed into a tiny space, mixed together by the rocking of the boat until we congealed to form a new nation so different than anything we had experienced before. We were indeed in Wonderland.

I seized the opportunity to learn a new word in French and German each day. I now know the most important words to be able to survive in France, Switzerland, or Germany (May I please have: a beer, wine, cheese, bread, chocolate.) What else does a girl really need?

To enter Wonderland, all sense of personal liberties was left on shore. Onboard you would be governed by the Queen of Wonderland, and hereby adhere to the Queen’s laws of her beloved nation.

1. No stacking of dirty dishes (to conserve water by only having to wash one side)
2. No showers allowed
3. No snoring allowed (pardon given to Marius)
4. No alcohol allowed (except one beer consumed at least 6 hours prior to scheduled watch)
5. Nothing goes down the toilet that didn’t come out of you (read about the time I broke this rule)
6. No food goes to waste
7. No peeing overboard without someone watching you
8. Do not leave cockpit without a harness
9. All “yummy” prepared food must be shared with community
10. Do not use pressure water to wash hands

Inside Wonderland

There was very little open drama on our boat, which would have surely led to the cancellation of The Real World – South Pacific. While we were all very different in our own ways, we seemed to adapt to our newfound society sharing in food and chores with a mutual respect.

There were five of us on board the 40 ft yacht made to comfortably house two or three. There were not enough beds for all of us, so we had to “hot bunk” rotating beds throughout watches. Maurius, a fifty-something experienced sailor at sea, a substitute teacher on land. His cynicism forgiven by the Swiss cheese and chocolate he brought from home. Cyril, a 23-year old French backpacker who roamed the boat in his tight red boxer briefs. He was as inexperienced as Tom and I but acquired a false sense of superiority as the Queen’s obvious favorite excelling not in his crewing skills but his brown-nosing skills were by far superior.

Sea sick

Thomas, my sweet Swiss boyfriend (the reserved/quiet one) fell even further under the radar due to seasickness. He learned to cope with his sickness, and we all learned to stand aside quickly if we saw him quickly heading for a place to lie down and close his eyes. He was unable to do his share of cooking as a result of his inability to stand below deck for very long. I assumed the role of his sous chef, as he instructed me how to make his yummy Swiss dishes from the comfort of his cabin.

Depending on how your tummy feels you will either curse the ocean or revel in its endless beauty. I was the only one on board that did not experience any seasickness (I heart Pahia Bombs, the local remedy for prevention of motion sickness sold only in Opua. Tom must have immunity to the drug.)

Morning rainbow day 3

There were very cool things about being in the middle of the ocean with no land in sight. We had a full moon the first night and many clear nights surrounded by bright stars. On cloudy nights it was hard to discern the sea from the sky, the phosphorescence in the water providing the only source of light amidst the surrounding darkness.

Full Moon 1st Night

It took a few days to get use to and identify all the noises of the boat as I lay in bed trying to get to sleep. Food and dishes rattling around in the cupboards, pots and pans falling onto the floor, water and fuel gurgling around in the tanks, the mast and rigging squeaking above. There was soothing noise like the wind in the sails when there is a light breeze and the waves washing along the hull as you glide through the water.

I adapted well to my new life in Wonderland, except for my inability to leave modesty at shore (or my clothes on the cockpit floor while swimming). I even broke my cardinal rule (NEVER EVER wear crocs) as I dressed the part of a yachtie. I stooped even lower by wearing a knock off brand decorated in skulls (made for a child but a good fit for my tiny foot). Thomas chose the camouflage design that I joked he cleverly chose to match his man purse.

Life on the boat was routine and boring at times. I finally got around to reading the 900-page novel, Shantaram, which I had been lugging around in my backpack for months. I was glad I had downloaded a few audio books for the rougher days at sea … the short stories by David Sedaris, Me Talk Pretty Please, hit the spot. Tom and Cyril often passed the time by baking bread. The Swiss trumped the French with his eyes literally closed (but he is so humble he will not allow me to call him a baker.)

One of our main jobs as crew was to stand watch at night. I came to look forward to my night watches, three hours of silence with the ocean (and the crazy little bird that joined me one night almost hitting my head as he flew into the cockpit). My first few watches passed slowly as I wondered how I was going to spot a whale in the pitch dark (if you see a whale you should start the engine to scare them away). I looked hard for potential squalls nearby. I looked for other boats finding it hard to discern a low star from a light on a mast. When we did see a boat we were to identify whether or not the boat was on a collision course by noting its movement relative to us. It was also important to listen during a watch and discern if the sail needed trimming or if we needed to change course due to the wind direction.

South Pacific Sunset

I often thought about the Polynesians, the early explorers of the South Pacific who sailed these waters way before GPS and autopilot technology was invented. I learned they navigated by using their own senses and knowledge passed by oral tradition from other navigators. In order to locate directions at various times of day and year, navigators memorized important facts: the motion of specific stars, and where they would rise on the horizon of the ocean, weather, times of travel, wildlife species, directions of swells on the ocean and how the crew would feel their motion, and colors of the sea and sky.

It was a wild reality to ponder being in the middle of the ocean hundreds of miles from land. I met someone before we set sail that described what I was signing up for as “fucking terrifying” saying there is no amount of money that would put him on a small boat in the middle of the South Pacific.

South Pacific Sunset

For the most part I always felt safe aboard Wonderland. The second night was a little scary when I was awoken by many bangs, one of which was my body being thrown against the downwind side on the cabin, the other bangs were of pots and pans flying in every direction as the boat hulled sharply on the downwind side (leaning on one side) trying it’s best to push through 35k not winds and 20 foot swells.

Large Swell

Evi screamed out for help realizing that the wind had changed directions and came behind both sails, autopilot had shut off and she didn’t know what direction we were going anymore.

There were days of rough waters, large swells, and wind conditions gusting from 0 to 35 knots, requiring the sails to constantly be adjusted. Maneuvering and cooking on a boat in these conditions was very challenging and I have heaps of bruises to show for my attempts. Those sleeping in the middle cabin bunks had to be strapped in to ensure they wouldn’t fall in the floor in the night.

We were all very cold the first few days, wearing layers of fleece, jackets, and waterproof pants. The weather improved as we crossed the international dateline, the air feeling warmer by day four. We had beautiful weather on day seven permitting us to enter Minerva Reef, two submerged atolls 200 miles from land. Inside the reef is a sheltered lagoon where we anchored for five glorious days. It was so cool to be anchored in the middle of the Pacific with no land in sight, just reef breaking all around. Thomas and I had an amazing opportunity to kitesurf offshore by launching from a catamaran anchored in the middle of the South Pacific! We had a sushi and fish curry feast from a 5 ft wahoo caught by a spear fisherman. The time we spend in Minerva was so amazing that it deserves a separate post … more to come!

Offshore Kitesurfing Minerva Reef

Swimming in the middle of the South Pacific

Sunset Minerva Reef

After a nice rest in south Minerva Reef we set sail again on day 12, 450 miles still to go to Tonga. We had to tact (zigzag) upwind until the wind died forcing us to have to motor for a full day (to the despair of every sailor). The engine made the boat very hot and sleeping uncomfortable. One hot humid morning the water was calm and the wind low so Evi tossed a finder on a long rope off the back of the boat so we could hold on and safely swim in the middle of the ocean (the sea bottom 1000 meters below!). It is the coolest feeling ever to picture your little self in the middle of a big ocean.

On day 15 we awoke to the sight of land! To our right were two volcanic islands in the Ha’paii group, tall and unwelcoming seeming to have no harbors or inhabitants.

1st sight of land – Day 16 – Ha’paii Island Group Tonga

The following morning, Day 16 we arrived at our destination and anchored inside the Port of Refuge in Neiafu which is part of Tonga’s Vava’u Island Group. We had traveled 1200 nm averaging 120 miles per day when sailing.

Port of Refuge, Neiafu, Vava’u Island Group, Tonga

We spent most of the first day dealing with immigration/customs/quarantine etc. We stayed aboard Wonderland for two nights after we anchored but eventually moved into a backpacker where we enjoyed a long overdue shower (18 days!!!)

Crewing on a boat is a very affordable way of traveling to the most remote parts of the world while learning sailing skills.  The more experience and miles you have at sea, the more likely you can actually get paid to crew. I still have quite a lot to learn and look forward to my next crewing experience.

Below is a breakdown of our costs for the sailing adventure from New Zealand to Tonga, 21 days living aboard Wonderland.

$150 – share of food cost

$65 – share in cost of fuel and water

$25 – immigration fees for crew

$240.00 TOTAL ($11.50/day)

To see all of my photos from the 16 days I spent at sea CLICK HERE.

Interested in reading more about what when on during my 16 days at sea, read these posts too!

Toilet Tales in Wonderland

How to kitesurf offshore – Minerva Reef

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Lisa says:

    What an AMAZING adventure!! I am however very glad that you are safely back on land. I bet Thomas is glad to be on land to. Can’t wait to hear more about your travels (and the mason jar, lol).
    Love you and miss you

  2. Pam says:

    So what you’re telling me is you will be killer at tying climbing knots now? I saw a documentary on the Polynesians Wave Readers in DC… AMAZING. Miss you!

  3. Kathy says:

    Kelly, You are so awesome! I loved this post and glad to hear you fared so well. I can’t believe you didn’t get seasick — you’re destined to do more crewing. Enjoy Tonga! We really liked it when we went last October.

  4. Mary says:

    Wow, Kelly, wow! So I notice “no snoring” was among the list of banished behaviors. What happens, would you get thrown over the side?

  5. Beth says:

    Wow! Would an incredible journey. So glad you are on land. Can’t wait to here where you are going next!
    love your blog.

Leave a Comment

CommentLuv badge