Samoa to Tonga

We left for Tonga after enjoying Samoa for a very short week. We continued our no-engine departures and arrivals since Maui and sailed out of the harbour in a beautiful morning and ran downwind towards the other island of Samoa, Savai’i. With more time, it would make a great place to visit by land to see “the real Samoa” – a cheap bus and ferry ($3 and $6, respectively) takes you there.

Between the two islands of Samoa we sailed near some friendly fishermen in canoes on a reef and lagoon, next to some fantastically steep small islands. Near the reefs were sea turtles – we would see a brown shape under the surface and as we approached at 6-7 knots the turtle would flee and dive away. They can swim surprisingly fast!

And then, true to all of our passages, we were becalmed in the lee of the island. Maybe it’s a sign that we will have our typical passage. In any case, in less than an hour we were on our way again at 7-8 knots. We sighted land in the morning and reached Niuatoputapu’s barrier reefs and lagoon close to noon.

Our excellent charts, courtesy of New Zealand, showed an entrance length of ~1 km and a width of 60m to get inside the reef. This was our first time getting so close and passing inside a reef. The sky was clear around noon and we could easily differentiate the deeper water (dark to light blue) and the dangerously shallow water (yellow and green). Piggy sailed through without problem to an island devoid of other cruisers and we comfortably anchored off the village of Falehau and began our entry procedures. The kingdom of Tonga has simplified the cruiser’s great dilemma and ambiguity of food/agricultural products/potential invasive species/pests by adding a clause in Customs: “we will not take anything food-related to shore.”

Nuiatoputapu (pronounced new-yah-tow-poo-tah-poo) is small, isolated and was walloped by the same tsunami that struck Samoa in 2009. Now there are many pre-fab disaster relief houses in the three villages though the population is under 1000 people. A supply ferry visits once per month and provisions the one store. We felt free to walk and bicycle around and chat a little but didn’t exactly make friends. Everybody was friendly, but maybe weren’t comfortable speaking english and seemed reserved and busy with their subsistent household duties. A very different experience from Samoa!

Many horses, dogs, and pigs. And friendly kids.

 

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Samoa

Quick, think of old cultures and old countries and dynasties – Ethiopia and Iraq, Roman, China… what about Samoa? These islands were first colonized by Polynesians 3000 years ago and have been inhabited by the same people ever since. Samoa was the launching point for further exploration and colonizing of the Pacific, earning it the name “Navigator Isles” from Europeans who made it that far just a few hundred years ago.

Samoa seems to be an excellent example of self-sufficiency with a successful culture – there’s plentiful water and fertile land, the tropical weather varies by about 2 degrees between summer and winter, and they used their spare time to bulk up, become fierce warriors, build voyaging canoes to explore and colonize the Pacific. Even their houses are about as simple as you can get: they have a roof, and often a floor. Why have walls or doors? I think part of their success as a nation has been from land rights – they do not allow foreigners to own land. Other than forestry, there doesn’t seem to be much external pressure of manufacturing, mining, or commercial farming to change land ownership but I hope the land rights stay with Samoans.

Now Samoans dominate in rugby and football and take great pride in their country. Every morning the police march through the capital with a marching band, raise the national flag, then march back to the police station. Every morning since independence!

This is a tropical country with lots of cheap taxis, street vendors, open-air food markets and delicious carb-heavy food. Samoans are large and the men wear their lava-lavas (skirts) with pride. Above everything else, Hawai’ian friendliness can’t compare to the greetings we’ve received around Samoa.

Unfortunately it’s not well-suited for cruising as there’s only 1 and a half harbours, so we’re going to move on to Tonga after a week here in Apia.

To the Heart of Polynesia

Smooth progress was interrupted a few days after the equator by weakened wind and clouds best described as “ominous.” After our experience in the doldrums we knew what to expect, and sure enough, we received a stormy squall and our first steady rain for weeks. We gratefully collected buckets of rain off the sails.

A series of squalls kept hitting us for a few days and we realized we were in the thick of the South Pacific Convergence Zone, the SPCZ being somewhat analogous to the ITCZ above the equator and will form nasty weather for boats. These squalls can have wind build to 50 knot gusts in a few minutes – the typical mantra is, “if you’re considering reefing a sail, DO IT!”
With less fresh water and food weighing us down after two weeks, Piggy was handling the squalls well and we escaped the SPCZ without issue.

We arrived to Apia, the capital of Samoa, in the morning of October 2. We missed October 1 because we’ve crossed the international date line! We sailed the 2200 nm in 20 days and broke fewer things than the crossing to Hawai’i:

  • Half of our mainsail sliders split apart. These plastic parts attach the sail to the mast. Replaced with spares from the storm trisail (now we hope we won’t need that sail until we can replace the parts!)
  • A seam in the main opened up so we sewed it with a sailmaker’s palm, needle, and waxed thread.
  • The tackle attaching a running backstay to a chainplate fractured from fatigue, and we’d replace one part of it to have another one pop apart. Replaced with… more rope.
  • Corrosion… everywhere. It turns out that submerging and being sprayed with a warm corrosive solution will rust things. Exposed wire, plugs, any non-stainless fittings (and stainless contaminated with steel).

This was a draining passage but our spirits are high. I think we over-prepared for the first leg to Hawai’i and under-prepared for Samoa (Goldilocks tells me the New Zealand passage will be just right).

Equatorial Disconnect

We bashed our way south until the Line Islands of Kiribati, then hung a right turn at Fanning Island, also known as Tabuaeran. Our best chart represented the coconut palm atoll as about 10 pixels so we passed it with a wide berth, especially as we crossed at night. We almost checked into a maritime radio ‘net’ to ask exactly where the island was, but that would make us look rather unprofessional and make a lot of people worry. It turned out that we passed close enough to see the glow on the horizon.

One day later we crossed the equator and it coincided with the equinox, when the sun is directly above the equator. It is HOT.

Our new course, steering for Samoa, is much more comfortable. Piggy isn’t smashing into swells and breaking waves across the bows. Everything is still salty but at least isn’t getting more salty, and rain squalls have ended. We’ve been treated to two dolphin shows, and a few individuals split away from feeding to come swim around and under the boat, clicking and whistling while we sailed.

Losing our power was frustrating as it removed our ability to connect – the long distance HF radio uses a moderate amount of power, but it won’t transmit well if the batteries aren’t nearly full. A frustrating flaw for a 12 V device (technically spec’d to run from a 13.8 V power supply, not a battery, but amateur radio equipment is all supposedly battery compliant).

Now we’ve reached the halfway point between North America and New Zealand/Australia and the winlink radio stations are over 6000 km away. This seems to be the radio’s limit based on the current solar weather. Well, one of the trip expectations was getting out of range of modern communications, and we did not bring a satellite phone or tracker.

We’ve been reading a lot of books and practiced a bit of celestial navigation with the sextant. By using GPS to give us an accurate time we could get a fix within 10 nm. Without such an accurate clock we’d probably be off by a few more miles, but then how could we measure our accuracy at sea?

For now, the days are getting sunnier and we are ramping up steady speed towards Samoa.

Equatorial Disconnect

We bashed our way south until the Line Islands of Kiribati, then hung a right turn at Fanning Island, also known as Tabuaeran. Our best chart represented the coconut palm atoll as about 10 pixels so we passed it with a wide berth, especially as we crossed at night. We almost checked into a maritime radio ‘net’ to ask exactly where the island was, but that would make us look rather unprofessional and make a lot of people worry. It turned out that we passed close enough to see the glow on the horizon.

One day later we crossed the equator and it coincided with the equinox, when the sun is directly above the equator. It is HOT.

Our new course, steering for Samoa, is much more comfortable. Piggy isn’t smashing into swells and breaking waves across the bows. Everything is still salty but at least isn’t getting more salty, and rain squalls have ended. We’ve been treated to two dolphin shows, and a few individuals split away from feeding to come swim around and under the boat, clicking and whistling while we sailed.

Losing our power was frustrating as it removed our ability to connect – the long distance HF radio uses a moderate amount of power, but it won’t transmit well if the batteries aren’t nearly full. A frustrating flaw for a 12 V device (technically spec’d to run from a 13.8 V power supply, not a battery, but amateur radio equipment is all supposedly battery compliant).

Now we’ve reached the halfway point between North America and New Zealand/Australia and the winlink radio stations are over 6000 km away. This seems to be the radio’s limit based on the current solar weather. Well, one of the trip expectations was getting out of range of modern communications, and we did not bring a satellite phone or tracker.

We’ve been reading a lot of books and practiced a bit of celestial navigation with the sextant. By using GPS to give us an accurate time we could get a fix within 10 nm. Without such an accurate clock we’d probably be off by a few more miles, but then how could we measure our accuracy at sea?

For now, the days are getting sunnier and we are ramping up steady speed towards Samoa.

The Doldrums, pt 2

This has been a tough week. It’s remarkable how fast the weather can change in 24 hours… or even 3 minutes. One day after griping about the persistent heat we were socked into overcast skies, rain squalls, and lumpy seas. We welcomed the first rainstorm by washing salt off ourselves and the decks, but salt is permeating everything again after days of grinding and bashing through steep waves. When waves break on the bow the spray crosses the entire boat!

The constant cloudiness for six days tested our electrical system to its limit and we’re on a contingency of minimal electricity, so no email or position reports. With ~600 W of (cheap chinese) solar panels we get about 60 W in the clouds. It’s enough to run lights and our fridge, if we’re careful not to chill new things. No more cold drinks!

One day we had a becalmed sunny break with rain approaching in the distance. Why not take a quick swim and rinse off in the showers? We dunked in and out, and in five minutes the wind was snorting at 20-25 knots and the rain was driving like needles. At night the squalls are invisible, and a well-seasoned cruiser crossing back to Hawai’i near us tore their yankee sail in an overnight squall. We now reef the sails down at night but it slows our progress through the ITCZ.

The group of sailors crossing from North America to French Polynesia call themselves the puddle jumpers and have a lot of experience in the doldrums. As they say, one boat will leave a day after another and won’t arrive until two weeks after the first boat. Crossing the ITCZ is variable and can be unpleasant.

We’re through now. 1000 miles to Samoa.

The Doldrums, pt 1

After a several good days (100-150 miles each) we were mired in the doldrums. At this time of year, the Intertropical Convergence Zone is 6-8 degrees north of the equator, and the ITCZ is where the NE and SE trades converge and move upwards from the surface, creating light variable winds and rainstorms and traps sailboats in the ‘doldrums’. It’s tough to describe the discomfort – “surely, hanging out in sunny tropical weather with 360-degree ocean view must be terrific!”

  • But it’s flipping hot and there’s barely a breeze to cool you down. Inside the cabins and bunks is a bit of a sweat locker and you can’t nap during the day. We’re drinking at least 3 L daily.
  • “Syd,” our self-steering, cannot keep a steady course in light wind so we have to tough it out and steer the boat from the tillers.
  • We haven’t seen rain since the Big Island in Hawai’i. The boat has weeks of dirt and salt building up again.
  • Our meat, fresh fruit and fresh veggies are dwindling and will maybe last a week. We are 600 miles from Hawai’i with 1700 miles to Samoa.
  • We haven’t caught any more fish until yesterday, when we caught something large enough to snap our rod and break the line, losing our lure and swivel (the reel split apart a few days ago and Tom patched it with epoxy, of course). And you can’t troll without wind!

If we had more time, it would have been better to leave from a different island than Maui. The leeward side doesn’t get rain, there isn’t a convenient place to wash the boat, and the food options are terrible for provisioning.

On the plus side, we’re cooking eggs on the solar panels, the fridge works and we have plenty of pineapples and craft beer.

As in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner:

All in a hot and copper sky,
The bloody Sun, at noon,
‘Right up above the mast did stand,
No bigger than the Moon.

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, no breath no motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.