Tonga to New Zealand

Tonga to New Zealand

When we left the Netherlands some 14 months ago, I knew I was bringing all the warm clothes, boots and hat just for the first and last 2 weeks of my whole trip. In all the books and pilots, the passage from Tonga or Fiji to NZ is known for being though and cold. Soon after we left Ecuador, we already started discussing the number of sweaters and blankets we’d have, the best route to take and what storm tactics to apply. When we arrived in Tonga, 3 weeks before leaving for NZ, the excitement was doubled. Every sailor we talked to was also heading for NZ, and gossip about customs regulations, weather windows and departure dates was all around.

We left Tonga from Nuku’alofa, like most others. The anchorage was full of boats, all preparing for the crossing. Everyone seemed to be cleaning their boat in preparation of the strict customs regulations in New Zealand. Weather was discussed daily at the bar, together with routing options and whether or not to stay at Minerva reef. This reef is about 250 miles on the way. It’s just a small ring of coral, barely, or not even, above sea level. At first I imagined it to be a special place: being surrounded by a submerged reef in the middle of the ocean, no land around and no waves either. But then I heard how many boats would go there, saw on the map how small it is, and decided the romance of it would be completely gone if you’d have to squeeze in between, say 20, other boats. We weren’t as patient to wait for the perfect window, especially since the forecast seemed trustworthy for only one week, while we expected to take a litte less than 2 weeks. So, we might as well go, if the wind is good to make mileage the first days at least. When we were clearing out of Tonga, there was a line of people waiting. We figured that, to know what a good departure date is, one only has to keep an eye on the immigration office; when there is a line, its probably time to go!

The morning of departure, it was raining and there was not a single ripple on the water. So we might as well wait and snorkel one last time. With the flat water, we could see that we were actually anchored right above a wreck. That explained the abundance of fish we’d seen around the boat! After this one wreck, we found two others close by as well. When the wind picked up a little, we set sail. The first miles around the island were super slow, there was just enough wind to make 2 or 3 knots. But, since we were so slow anyway, we took a shortcut through some tight passages, and in the end the distance made good was not too bad. The wind, and waves, picked up quickly as soon as we left the island behind us.

The first day was a little miserable because the waves were very short and steep. Afterwards, we had 4 or 5 days of fair wind and an easy sea. We made just over a 100 miles a day, sailing close hauled. The weather and corresponding tactics were discussed daily, and the rest of the time we sat around playing cards or reading. One of those days, we had tortillas for lunch. This meant we were all sitting around the table inside, stuffing the tortillas as much as possible with all the ingredients spread around the table. After the last one was divided, Jesper got up and said he’d take a look outside, supposedly to check for whales or boats, but we knew better. His sealegs didn’t carry him so well sitting inside, so he had to look for the horizon (being inside is not the best for seasickness, and looking at the horizon is). But then he did see whales! We were all out in an instant, looking behind us where a small pod of pilot whales was resting at the surface.

A few days after, we crossed the 180 degrees, the international dateline, going from ‘westerlengte’ to ‘ oosterlengte’. After we crossed the 0th meridian, soon after departure from Rotterdam, we have always thought of our position and that of our destinations as xx degrees north xxx degrees west, than xx degrees south xxx degrees west. And from now on, it will be south and east, all the way until the southern Atlantic ocean. Now also, we have sailed at least halfway around the world! This had to be celebrated with a little glass of rum or coke with lemon, while watching a beautiful sunset.

Then, the good life at sea was interrupted for a while. The wind backed to the north east, which we knew would proceed a passing front and some tough weather. The weather forecasted strong headwinds, about 25 knots, but mostly very steep waves. For waves, there are two things that matter: the height and the period. Bigger waves tend to be further apart, thus less bad. For a rule of thumb, if the height of the wave in feet equals its period in seconds, its pretty bad. We had 10 feet waves in only 6 seconds period.
As we knew what was coming, we tried to make the most of the last hours of good wind while preparing for the worst. The solarpannels went inside, everything was stowed away somewhere safe and secure. The sprayhood cap was put into place and the stormsails prepared. The first night was extremely dark, you couldn’t see a thing. At first there was a little shower passing, bringing stronger winds but only for a short period of time. The rest of the night we could sail quite nicely, although we didn’t dare to set much sail, as there was no way to see a cloud coming; it was all dark. In the morning it cleared up completely, and we even set the full jib for a while. But then the wind came, and soon we were down to just a deep reefed mizzen and the small headsail. We were hove to, which means we weren’t pretending to make any headway but instead tried to keep the bow pointing into the waves and wind at an angle. This way, we were drifting with about 2 knots, almost perpendicular to the wind. Inside it felt very easy and comfortable, but as soon as you peeked outside you heard the wind whistling through the sails, and saw the occasional wave crush over deck. All in all, this wasn’t so bad at all, just a little boring maybe. But, when the worst had passed after 36 hours and we wanted to start making some headway again, this turned out to be pretty difficult. The waves were still big, and when sailing upwind every wave sets you back a few meters. The tacks we made were disappointing, sometimes we would do little better than a 180 degree turn, pretty much useless.

Making so few miles in the right direction made us all a little grumpy. We hoped for a quick passage, we did calculate for 2 days storm, but not for another 3 days fighting waves and a strong headwind. But everything passes, and soon after we were sailing in the right direction again, and the hardships and frustration were all forgotten.

We sailed nicely again, the sea was smooth and the weather good, though horribly cold! I didn’t wear a jacket for warmth for a very long time, and now I needed one with two sweaters and thermal underwear underneath! The hats came out, extra blankets were divided equally and the sunny spots were suddenly desired much more than the shaded spots.

With the now favorable conditions we tried to set as much sail as possible to make up for lost time. Unfortunately our jib, which is ready for retirement and will be replaced in New Zealand, ripped again over a length of 2 meters and needed to be taken down for repairs. In a time frame of 4 hours the jib was taken down, stitched back together and set back up again. Content with our work of the day, we set down to play another game of cards. Soon after the wind started to die down a little, which meant we had to pause our game to take out the last reef in the main sail. Jesper got up and when he pulled the reef line to undo the stopper, suddenly the whole boom broke of the mast and was just hanging on the sail. Luckily all the necessary tools for (at least temporary) repairs were on board. With the now calm weather it was a job that took us half an hour, but we knew it was lucky this didn’t happen during the stormy weather. But as wise man once said: “The better prepared you are, the more luck you may expect”.

When the wind died to nothing, and we saw all other sailing boats pass us under engine at 6 knots or more, we decided to do the same. When there is a little drip of wind to sail with, that’s always better than using the engine, but when there is nothing at all and you want to get somewhere, you might as well. In the morning, the sea was flat as a mirror, the sky deep blue, and the sun shining. All the sweaters could stay inside, and finally we dared to take a shower on the foredeck. A few hours later we saw a whale coming straight at us. We turned and killed the engine. I climbed halfway the ratladder, so I could have a look from higher up. The water was so flat that you could see the whale underwater as well as above. I’d even say, from higher up it was hard to say which part of it was above and underwater! “Beaked whale!” I shouted, “very rare!”. As it approached us, I saw his head turning towards Lotta, than he dove down and left us at the surface. What a sighting! We classified it as a strap-toothed whale, indeed a very special and rarely observed whale. We also saw sailing jellyfish and snails, a crab, a turtle with a few fishes swimming in its shade, and an albatros, coming closer to take a look at us. The next days we also saw many dolphins and another whale.

After 14 days and a few hours we arrived in Opua. Just a little longer than we d expected to sail, although if we would have used the engine it may have been two days more. Here we met many friends we made somewhere on the pacific or even in thePanama Canal.

Simon van Hemert

Simon van Hemert

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