Website of sailing yacht Tokomaru2's circumnavigation of the world
Crew: Nick Thomas and Liz Vernon
Cook Islands, Niue and Tonga
We arrived off
Rarotonga in the southern Cook Islands on the
evening of Tuesday 23 September. After a
boisterous sail from Bora Bora in strong winds
with cross swells we were just too late to make it in to the harbour in daylight,
so had to wait all night out on the sea.
During the night the wind died away and Rarotonga
disappeared in rain clouds. It was
strange being hove to in total darkness, drifting just a few miles from
land. At sunrise the island reappeared,
small and rugged, its wooded hills looking very inviting. We made our approach and followed the
leading marks into the tiny harbour
of Aviatu, wondering how
another boat could possibly fit! A very
relaxed and helpful harbour master showed us where to go and our friends on
‘Leto’ were ready with their dinghy to take a stern-line ashore while we
dropped the anchor. Two days later we
had to undo everything and go back out to sea to leave room for a big supply
ship to manoeuvre. We bobbed around on the ocean waves for about half an hour
before coming back in and mooring up all over again. Fortunately this only happened once!
felt at home on Rarotonga. It rained a lot the first few days and was refreshingly cooler than the Society Islands.
What with the rain, everyone speaking English, fish and chips on the
quayside, and all the fishing boats, it could have been Ramsgate or Lowestoft; only
the cries of seagulls were missing. The
town is charming in an old-fashioned way, like a 19th century trading
post, with Cook Islanders and loads of New Zealanders on holiday blending
happily together. Everyone seems to be
in a good mood all the time! Lots of
people go barefoot from choice (not poverty) and women routinely wear the full
head-dress of flowers, riding along on their mopeds! Except on Sunday. Polynesian people take their religion
seriously and Sunday is a very quiet day.
Nothing is open, no boats go out and nobody does any work of any
kind. Cathy (of ‘Leto’) and I dressed
up and went off through the rain to the sturdy Protestant church. This was far from quiet. The singing (which is what we went to hear!)
was electrifying. We had expected
Victorian hymns, but the singing was traditional Polynesian, loud and
strong. The unaccompanied harmonies
raised the roof and sent shivers down the spine.
eventually cleared so we hiked up to a volcanic pinnacle from where we could
see the whole island, a marvellous view
of peaks and valleys covered in green with the blue sea glittering all
around. We slithered down along the river to the other side of the
island where we could get a bus back.
The distance all the way around the island is only 40 kilometeres!
We feel a special attachment to Rarotonga because here we finally tracked down the
original ‘Tokomaru’. In the year 1350,
legend has it that seven canoes assembled here and set off on the great voyage
to New Zealand. They came first from Raiatea in the Society Islands, as we had thought. (It was called
Hawaiki then.) A monument to commemorate
the event has a circle of seven stones, each one inscribed with the name of a
And there it was: ‘Tokomaru’.
Sunday, 5 October, we left Rarotonga in
light winds and gentle seas to sail to Niue, a
little island which is possibly the smallest independent state in the world
(population 1400). A very pleasant sail
until the last two days when the wind strengthened to its usual 25 knots and
the seas became confused and lumpy, covering everything with salt again. The island appeared on Saturday 11 October,
like a flat green pancake, very different from the high volcanic islands and
the low, palm-fringed atolls we have seen so far. Niue is flat
limestone rock, only 60 metres high, covered in lush vegetation. It has no harbour, no inlets or beaches, no
rivers. All is limestone cliffs and
rough rocky ledges where the surf crashes and heaves. Yachts have to ‘park’ in the open sea,
exposed to the ocean swells. Mooring
buoys have been laid as the sea is so deep and the bottom is covered in coral
heads. There is a wharf where local
fishermen launch their boats and haul them up again by crane, and this is what
we had to do with our dinghy every time we went ashore, a tricky operation when
the swell is high, which it usually is!
There were a couple of days when we couldn’t get ashore at all. All very stressful!!
But Niue was worth it.
The island is amazing, with its forbidding coast of cliffs, caves and
chasms and strange limestone formations.
There are tiny, secret beaches, and deep quiet pools to swim in,
protected from the sea by a rocky shelf.
The sea is pristine as there is no run-off from rivers and we saw the prettiest coral, branches tipped with
blue, white, pink, yellow, like flowers.
Swimming amongst this coral were brilliant fish with bold, colourful
designs. We have never had such pure, clear
water to snorkel in. And we never saw
another soul in these extraordinary places.
Inland, in primary forest, the limestone continues, jagged shapes
covered in dripping green ferns, like an enchanted grotto!
Niueans give yachts a warm welcome, absolutely
everyone greets you with enthusiasm. I
think they are pleased to have visitors to swell the numbers! 20,000 Niueans have emigrated to New Zealand and
many villages look like ghost towns.
October 19 was a public holiday – Constitution Day, and everyone came
down to the wharf, because, even on this island with no landing places,
canoeing was the big event. The weather
had been overcast and rainy for a few days, but for the big day, it absolutely
poured! There was wind and swell,
really awful conditions for little one-person canoes. But the wharf came alive with people under
bright umbrellas as twelve canoes were lowered into the water by the
crane. The starting line was marked by
‘Tokomaru’ at one end and the wharf at the other, ensuring us a grandstand
view. The canoes soon disappeared into
the gloom reappearing well spread out.
The race over we had retreated below for a cup of tea when much raucous
shouting brought us back on deck in time to see a curious assortment of
home-made rafts being launched from the wharf.
These were constructed of logs tied together, mounted on some kind of
float. This was the fun-race, and the
course was to paddle round ‘Tokomaru’ and back.
Through the rain they came, most of them barely able to paddle their own
craft, hysterical as they were at the antics of the others. At times it looked as if they would all
finish up in the sea. But only one
didn’t make it and had to be towed back.
The bad weather continued and we were disinclined to set off in such
conditions. Quite used to the surge on
the wharf by now, (and very accomplished crane operators!) we went ashore a few
more times. We had been told a good
place to get fresh fruit and veg was the prison, just ask for Jo! So we found the prison and we found Jo, the
prisoner. It seems Jo was once the
warden, in charge of one prisoner. But
Jo didn’t like this prisoner (and nor did anyone else on the island: he was a bully, had abused his daughters and so on). One day Jo lost his temper and ‘put him
away’. So now Jo is the prisoner! a
nice guy, who locks himself in at night and spends his days gardening. He has half an acre where he produces
peppers, tomatoes, carrots, onions, chives, cabbages etc and at least 10
varieties of lettuce. He filled our bags
with more than we could possibly eat and told us his story.
weather improved and we left Niue to sail the 250 miles to the Kingdom of Tonga.
In very light winds, it took 3 days, even with the spinnaker up! We wafted in to the wide bay at the north of
the Vava’u group of islands on Sunday, 26 October. This archipelago is a sailor’s dream. Dozens of sheltered anchorages amongst pretty
wooded islands with white sand beaches, and all protected from the ocean
swells, so it’s like sailing on a lake.
But we headed first for the town, Neiafu, to check in and to find
cruising friends and to experience a new country. Tonga is different. The islands which make up the Kingdom of Tonga,
known as the Friendly Islands (so named by
Captain Cook), are unique in the Pacific in that they have never been under
colonial rule. The current monarch is
King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV.
independence makes for a different culture, immediately apparent in the local
dress. Most women wear a long woven mat
around their waist on top of a long skirt;
big grown school boys wear a uniform of a blue wrapper (lava lava) often
with a mat over the top. The official
who came on board to clear us in to Tonga wore a sort of skirt, covered
by a closely woven mat. It all looks
very special, if hot and uncomfortable!
we did not have much time to experience Tonga. The long trip to New Zealand loomed ahead of us,
1200 miles, and unpredictable weather.
The thing is to leave late enough to avoid the spring gales down towards
but not too late to risk a cyclone in the tropics. Talk of ‘an early cyclone season’ had people
quite jittery, so it was difficult to concentrate on anything but weather
reports and predictions. But we did
manage three days relaxing in a couple of lovely spots in glorious sunshine,
and when we sailed back to the main harbour at Neiafu, we were lucky enough to
see a humpback whale and her calf. The
humpbacks come up from Antarctica to breed in
these warmer waters, staying until November.
We have rarely seen whales, and it’s usually just a glimpse of a back or
a tail, but this was spectacular. We watched them for nearly an hour,
breaching, diving, pec waving, in fact doing everything it says they do in the
book! At one point mummy whale leapt
clear out of the water, landing with a thunderous splash; we were hove to with all sails up, but
managing to keep out of the way. Very
exciting. Eventually, we were simply
trying to get past without disturbing them so that we could get on with our
Friday, 5 November, we set sail for Nuku’alofa, the Tongan capital (where the
king has his palace), 170 miles to the south in Tonga Tapu. Here we planned to stock up for our journey
to New Zealand
and watch for a weather window to head south.
But it was not to be. The wind
pushed us to the west and we could not lay a course for Nuku’alofa. We decided to keep going, all the way to New Zealand. We always have enough provisions in tins, and
it isn’t possible to predict the weather more than three days ahead. Since this passage would take us at least 12
days, we decided to take our chances.
event, we had quite a rough time, passing under three fronts and tackling strong
head winds for days on end and taking 15 days. (The account of this epic voyage will
eventually be written separately!)
Suffice it to say we have made it to New Zealand, across the date line, and half way round the
world! The last day of the passage was
perfect: favourable wind and wall to wall
blue sky as we sailed in to the lovely Bay
of Islands, escorted by gannets, all
the way to the head of the bay and the little harbour of Opua. At 6.00pm we tied to the quarantine dock (the
Kiwis are very fussy indeed about what you might be bringing in to their
country) and with formalities over, moved on to a pontoon in the marina. A beautiful spring evening, cool, with a
long twilight, land birds twittering in strange and wonderful trees. So here we are in another new country, a
stunningly scenic one, which we have five months to explore. We’ll keep you posted.
wishes from Down Under, Liz and Nick