Sailing a 33 Footer to Tonga

Trouble being self employed – no superannuation. How about a retirement plan with some spice. Cajole the bank to invest in a small charter yacht in Tonga. The 33-foot spanking new yacht arrived for assembly in Auckland. Job now is to get it up to beautiful Vava’u 150 miles north of Tonga some of the finest cruising waters in the world. There it would be hired out.

A community of characters live for the chance to sail small yachts on ocean voyages – thereby getting tickets and experience to try for jobs on luxury yachts. They work long hours just for rations and an airfare home, in sometimes life threatening situations in physical discomfort. As the Little River Band has “it’s a kind of a special feeling out on the sea alone, staring at the full moon like a lover”

My crew was no exception. Jason the 28-year-old skipper on departure played a plaintive CD song dedicated to his two older brothers now at home with the “dolphins and the whales”. A Brazilian fisherman possibly sighted their upturned ketch. A young sail maker nicknamed ‘Statue” a corruption of colloquial “Is that you”, was Jason’s colleague. “Russell ” the mate, earned his sobriquet for keeping the crew awake at night “rustling” around for gear out of his bag.

We left Auckland along with a 44-foot sloop, captained by an old sea dog “Sandy”. It was going to Tonga for charter work as well. A longer boat is a faster boat. They expected to arrive two days ahead of us. We started watches of two hours on two hours off to size each other up. Night sailing was marvelous. The all encompassing star filled sky drops to the horizon, I swore one falling star would hit us.

Jason talked to Sandy on the VHF radio. International Channel 21 is on all the time for ships within its 30 miles range to warn one another. A grotty weather pattern was developing. Sandy decided to wait it out at Cape Brett. We arrived at the Cape before Sandy, but had no detailed chart. The guys reckoned they could pick the way into the sheltered cove in the dark. Jason decided to wait for Sandy. A decision that gave me comfort about his judgement.

We left Cape Brett when the weather cleared. Surprisingly, we kept up with Sandy. For the next eight days we effectively drag raced across the Pacific in sight of one another. One rainy breezy night I was on the 3 am watch. The watch pattern had changed to 2 hours on alone and six off for we developed a confidence in one another. Sandy’s masthead light was getting closer. Statute relieved me with “I will get ’em.” So in the pitch black of night we crept up on the 44 footer. They saw us and turned their lights off. We did likewise. Two yachts within 50 feet of one another, 700 miles from land – jousting for the lead. What Sandy did not know was we could see his compass light. Dawn creepingly broke – we were ahead!

Yachts of all nationalities would contact Des at Radio Russell at 7.30 am and 7 pm. Des is the radio ham weather guru – a true ambassador for NZ. He would tell us what to expect the next day. The day we overtook Sandy the laconic Des told us the next day would be a “great day for the Arabs” – that is: we would be motoring. He was right. We were into the doldrums or “horses “, as they are known in these latitudes. Early sailing ships would throw horses overboard in an effort to lighten ship to keep moving.

Four strangers cooped up in an often; wet, steeply inclined, confined cabin and wheel area , seize on the radio’s every crackle. It’s a life line to the world beyond. Regular talks to Sandy’s crew, swapping banal jokes or even recitals of sea poetry remembered from boyhood – became eagerly anticipated. Jason told of working on a schooner owned by elder Americans who kept themselves alive on bourbon. In the aft cabin there was a false wall, hiding a sophiscated armory. Pirating is real. Dead men tell no tales. It is not confined to just small yachts. The Chenug Son, a cargo ship was seized last year, the 22 crew shot, weighted and dumped. This part of the Pacific however is safe. Russell told of an older man dying and the vexed decision to bury at sea. Traditionally, the corpse is sown up in a sail, the last stitch going through the nose. Why? Sailors’ press-ganged would chance luck feigning death near land, rather than stick out the hell on board. The last stitch would tell!

Ata a steep island came up on the seventh day – what a buzz, Tongatapu ahead. Jason stayed up for the next 24 hours plotting our way through the Ha’apai Group (Jona Lomu’s homeland). Past the eerie Tofua volcano where the Mutiny on Bounty happened. Captain Bligh landed here in his open boat to get water for his epic voyage, only to have his quartermaster clubbed to death.

A 30 knot breeze in a choppy sea had the yacht “truckin” along. We made our destination Neifu just before nightfall. The charter base is here. Sandy, damn it arrived a few hours earlier.

A final night confined aboard as customs would clear us in the morning. Sandy’s riotous 60th birthday party the next day, with a collection of larger than life Somerset Maughan characters. My crew goes ape.

I leave early to the solitude of puttering about in my newly loved, rocking, pension plan in the tropical light rain.