Sailing Ocean Passage: Tonga to Fiji

Fiji, South Pacific, South Pacific Sailing, Tonga — By on June 28, 2011 2:46 PM

After our crewing experience aboard Wonderland, we were unsure if this new found crewing/yachtie life was for us. We decided to take a crewing offer if it fell in our laps as a means to save money; otherwise, we would be fine with flying to Fiji.

Our first day on land in Tonga, we were offered a crewing opportunity aboard a yacht that was part of a South Pacific Rally of about 30 sailboats cruising the islands from May-November. Participants in the rally are usually inexperienced in ocean passages and the organized rally provides them with support and safety in numbers.

Our first impressions of our new yacht were quite good and the owners seemed nice enough. The boat was larger (48 ft) with a very spacious lounge in comparison to our previous boast.  We were given a private cabin and even encouraged to have a rinse in the shower whenever we wanted so long as we were careful not to use too much water. The boat had a water maker unlike the previous boat meaning we wouldn’t have to wash our dishes in salt water. The yacht is owned by a couple, the wife the Captain of the boat (and the marriage as well so it seems) her husband the skipper. Thomas and I would later learn that we were 2nd class citizens in our new self contained world at sea.

Our first day spent on board started out quite well. We departed the Port of Refuge in Neiafu early afternoon. To my surprise, the captain was “happy to leave this shithole”. By the end of the journey we would come to realize that the woman just could not be pleased and sadly nothing seems to make her happy.  I found this behavior similar to the couples we met in Tonga who have immigrated to beautiful islands and are seemingly so dissatisfied with their lives. Yachties live a life most people can only dream of, cruising around islands with the ability to live in the most beautiful parts of the world. Obviously it takes a small fortune to be able to enjoy such luxuries and I find such negative attitude in good fortune disgraceful, infuriating and show a lack of perspective of the reality of the world. As my friend commented on a previous post, I also wonder how it is people forget that we are masters of our own lives and life is too short to not find your happiness.

We spent our first night on board anchored at Port Maurelle with the other yachts on rally. We enjoyed a pot luck dinner on the beach and socialized with other crew.  We were surprised and quite amused when several people asked us what it was like to be crew on the “naked boat” when they learned we had previous crewed aboard Wonderland. Apparently the remaining crew had been spotted buck naked on deck sailing around Vava’u. Neither Thomas nor I were the least bit surprised. One guy told us he saw the two guys naked inside the dingy as they cleaned the outside of the boat. Another woman describes a scene of a naked guy “pole dancing” around the mast. Tom and I were quite amused to hear these stories and relieved to learn that indeed this was not normal behavior aboard a yacht.

As soon as we anchored at Port Maurelle, the captain suggested that we take their kayak out for a paddle to explore the surrounding islands. Only later would we come to realize that this was less of a generous offer and more of a means to keep us off the boat as often as possible.

I can’t say I blame them for wanting to have their boat for themselves.  I can understand it would be stressful and uncomfortable to have complete strangers in your home that is barely the size of a studio apartment.  The reality of the situation from our point of view was that while the couple would prefer to sail their boat alone, they actually needed a crew to complete and ocean passage. The captain ironically suffers from severe seasickness and it would be impossible for her skipper to man the boat single handed and keep watch without any sleep.  The dynamic on board was one that left Tom and I with a constant feeling of being unwelcome and in the way. We were never told to “make ourselves at home” and I had a new found appreciation for the captain of Wonderland who was very generous in many ways always willing to share everything on board with her crew.

The captain of our new boat did not want anyone in her kitchen and refused my continued offers to help her cook and do the dishes. She prepared all meals prior to setting sail, freezing individual portions in handy bake ready tins labeled with the inside contents. I thought it was quite clever of her and she was lucky to have such a large freezer where Wonderland did not have a freezer on board.  Tom and I were feeling quite hungry around lunchtime on day two and when we inquired if we should cook for ourselves she responded in surprise “we don’t eat lunch” and seemingly annoyed by our hunger she asked us what we normally eat for lunch. We told her we were not picky really, and usually ate sandwiches on the other boat. She offered us a choice of a can of baked beans or creamed corn. We took the beans.  We once awoke to the smell of fresh baked cookies and were quite excited to taste but sadly we were never offered one or the many freshly cut pineapples or watermelon.

The captain caught a Mahi Mahi which she grilled for a very yummy dinner. I will say she was a very very good cook when she shares.

It took us about 30 hours to reach the volcanic island of Niuatoputapu (we called New Potato) which is part of the Niuas (meaning rich coconuts) a group of three remote islands in Tonga’s far north between Vava’u and Somoa.  We anchored in the harbor for three days of which Tom and I really enjoyed although the captain found the islands a “big disappointment and a total waste of time.”

I thought the islands were beautiful, and loved the feeling of being on a more remote and unspoiled part of the country, where villagers seem quite happy living a simple life unspoiled by technology. I learned that until 1999 they only communicated by Morse code. Supply vessels only come to the Niuas four times a year.The locals are very interested in trading their fresh fruits and vegetables for most anything as supplies are very scarce.

I found the locals to be much more friendly in the small village than in Nieafu. Tongan generosity was demonstrated daily, a little girl ran out to meet us on the street insisting we take a banana. A woman we met offered to let us stay in the extra room at her house for free if we wanted to stay longer. Everywhere you turned there was a smiling face.

I especially loved the cute little low island situated next to a tall volcano rising 1800 feet above sea level.

Thomas and I were happy to get off the boat and explore the islands each day. The first day we went on a walk through the village, then through the forested center to the other side of the island. We went kayaking every day not returning to the boat until dark.

We visited the local school on the day the kids were would be putting on a special performance. Before the performance they sat attentively listening to a preachers sermon and singing songs. Religion and family are most important in Tongan culture.

They were all wearing ta’ovala, a sort of waist mat made of wooden pandanus. The ta’olava is equivalent to wearing a coat and tie and is worn in times to show respect for God, the King, and the Country.

We spent our last day on the little island (baby potato) that we reached by kayak.

We had the entire island to ourselves most of the day as we lazed about the hammock reading in between dips in the ocean. Late afternoon a Tongan woman and her children arrived to prepare the Tongan Feast that the yachties would enjoy at sunset. We watched the boys toss the recently killed pig on the ground, skin it, shave a long bamboo stick later put through the pig that they continually turned while it roasted.

I thought the dinner was awesome but the captain found it “disappointing and a waste of her money”.

We departed Niuatoputapu early the following morning to Fiji. The sails and all important lines were managed from the center of the boat at the mast. This was a very different system that the previous boat which could all be manned from the safety of the cockpit. The skipper did all major adjustments to the sails while Thomas and I were only asked to help with watches. The watch schedule was different than what we were used to, three hours each during the day and rotating every 2 hours after dark.

Unlike our passage to Tonga with winds reaching 35 knots, the winds were quite light usually between 5-10 knots. Because of the light winds the captain chose to motor most of the passage. I hated the smell of the diesel fumes and our cabin was so hot and without a working fan. The sea was very calm, the swells small in comparison to the 10-20 foot swells we saw each day on our way to Tonga.

The only yacht in the rally that successfully sailed the entire way used a spinnaker sail.

It took four days for the 580 nm passage from Tonga to Fiji; we averaged 5 knots/hour. The captain wanted to sign us off her crew list the day of our arrival and we had some drama with the immigration department that informed us the captain’s letter showing proof that we are exiting the country by boat would not suffice since our new captain is currently at another port. We were told we would have to show proof of a return flight to our home country. Apparently it is not acceptable to show a plane ticket out of the country. Ridiculous.

There is nothing like immigration putting your relationship on the spot forcing Thomas to consider whether or not he will be stopping over in San Francisco, and for how long before heading home to Switzerland. I felt intense pressure under the demands of the immigration officer and found the situation quite stressful.

We returned to the office the following day and secured a four month visa stamp in our passports buying us some time to figure out all the rest thanks to the flight itinerary that we constructed …

We ran into a few other crew in a cafe and talked for hours about our individual crewing experiences. Everyone we have shared our stories with agreed they were quite special but others have had bad experiences in different ways. One girl said her entire self confidence was broken on board her boat as she was made to feel useless and stupid every day. Another guy spoke of four horrible weeks he spent on board a ship where food was rationed in a way that left him 10 kilos lighter.

Yachties seem to be a different breed and while I will not place judgment on all of them, it seems that crew is often treated as 2nd class on board. But regardless of the trying times, I am thankful of the opportunity to learn to sail, to be out in the vast blue ocean, to feel the warm breeze off the Pacific, and to see remote parts of the world that are only accessible by boats. I am also grateful for the ability to travel cheaply as crew. To our surprise, the owners of the last boat did not charge us a penny for the 8 days we were onboard their yacht which was very much appreciated. The captain of the previous boat only charged us for a share in food and fuel which totaled $150.00. When we add it all up we have been able to enjoy over a month at sea and among remote islands for an average of $5/day. I am remembering to take the good with the bad and keeping it all in perspective. I am lucky to have sailed the waters of the south Pacific with our without crazy captains.

If you are considering crewing I think it is helpful to have a friend or partner along for the journey. When times were hard at sea, it is very reassuring to know you are not alone.

A word of advice told to me by my friend Dan who inspired my crewing adventures … it does not matter the size or condition of a boat, the only thing that matters is that you like the other people on board. But head my warning … a seemingly normal person on land can transform into a totally different person at sea.

To see more photos from the ocean passage from Tonga to Fiji CLICK HERE.

Read about Sailing Adventures in Wonderland: Ocean Passage from New Zealand to Fiji.

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  1. Joe says:

    time to cough up some coin and buy your own little yacht to sail the seven seas!
    just try to keep sanity out there 🙂

  2. Lisa says:

    So someone like, oh say you for instance, who is already crazy becomes ??? what at sea?

    Your sailing adventures sound crazy. I’m with you in wondering why and how someone who is getting to explore the world and see the beautiful sights that they are can seem so miserable with their life. I guess that’s where attitude comes into play. One person can have nothing and be a happy person and another have everything they could want and still be miserable. Im so glad that you are a positive,fun, outgoing,kind,and beautiful person who enjoys her life and the world and the people in it. I love you and miss you.

  3. Janella 'ofa says:

    Greetings! I was just googling ha’apai (my dads homeland/island), and came across your blog. I appreciate your knowledge of Tonga. Safe travels! Happy you could visit part of my culture! Cheers!

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