Cruising Notes


Voyage Summary

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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!


We immediately 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.  


The weather 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 canoe.

 And there it was:  ‘Tokomaru’.



On 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.


The 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.

This 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!   


Sadly 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 New Zealand, 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 day.


On 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.


In the 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.     

Best wishes from Down Under, Liz and Nick

Website © Nick Thomas and Liz Vernon 2008