Saturday, October 15, 2011

Boats on the Horizon

The ocean is starting to get busy. The geography of New Zealand means that the closer you get to Whangarei, the more convergence there is amongst all the possible routes taken by commercial traffic to and from this country. To get to Auckland, you pretty much have to cut through all the shallow small islands at Whangarei and take a wide channel down to the city. If you can imagine all those freighters with Blue Bell chicken chips and Anchor butter, canned corned beef and Wattie's soups off to the Tahiti, the Cook Islands, Niue and Tonga to supply all those scantily stocked and ridiculously expensive dairies, then you can imagine that approaching Whangarei is tantamount to poking your bow into a beehive of commercial boat traffic.

This is one of those moments where I strongly regret that Don Quixote does not carry two items of equipment now seen on the well-stocked cruising boat: AIS Tx/Rx and a SeaMe radar repeater. The Automatic Identification System is essentially 'whois' for boats. Hmmm, only computer geeks probably understood that analogy. Let's try this again. Every boat has a unique identity in the global system of radio communication. With an AIS transceiver (Tx), a boat broadcasts this electronically to every boat within several hundred miles -- and incidentally but totally pointlessly except in certain limited emergencies -- to all airplanes as well. The announcement says important things like your boat name and size, location, heading, speed, and registry. With an AIS receiver (Rx), these signals are detected and then plotted on a heads up display. They are often incorporated into your helm navigation station in boats with newer electronics packages. AIS is internationally mandated for all vessels over a certain size. I do not know the size off hand, but think Big. When Don Quixote was commissioned, AIS Tx was illegal for small craft. I guess the thinking is that we would clutter up the display. We met cruisers in Mexico with AIS Rx which they swore saved them from getting run down like chickens on a Tongan street by freighters and cruise boats. Now it is legal for even small craft to own both send and receive. Next time. I like the notion of being able to call out a boat on the horizon by name.

The SeaMe radar repeater we have only seen once on a boat named s/v Catacaos. Lorraine and Graham are registered out of Jersey (look that one up -- a country, not a state). Graham is a coastie for Jersey, and someone who's nautical acumen I trust deeply. I don't know if I'm spelling this correctly, but they had what sounded like a "SeaMe" radar repeater. What it did was sit there passively doing nothing until it detected someone else's radar signal. Then it lit up and started to broadcast a very loud return. Catacaos was one of the most visible boats ever to appear on our radar with a stronger, more steady return than even the floating islands known as cargo containers. Our radar has trouble detecting land, but it had no difficulty telling us precisely where Catacaos was out to 12 miles. I want one of these. Better than being able to call a boat and get its attention is to be so "loud" electronically that the boat's own navigational systems alert the driver.

For these last few hundred miles of our cruising life, however, we are powerful radar toy-less. We've made it this far, so I am optimistic we'll manage to dodge traffic through our last overnight. We are, however, going to light the boat up like a Christmas tree: nav lights and salon lights. We'll be highly visible in these clear, relatively flat seas. If the wind holds, we have roughly 150 miles to Whangarei where we will first give everything of edible value to customs, then anchor the boat, and then find someplace with Indian take aways. I am so ready for a good curry.

~ Toast
Distance: 130/1155/1347 Vava'u to Auckland Day: 15
33 43.00'S 175 45.61'E - Rhumb line to Whangarei
Oct 15 2011 18:30 UTC

Friday, October 14, 2011

Still Not There

For no reason I can currently understand or justify, I left my favorite gift of all time with our trailer in New Zealand. Jaime made it for me two years ago. It is a large fleece poncho,blue and tan pattern of indeterminate purpose. She cut a hole in the middle for a head, reinforced the neck line, and cut and tied knots along the edges. It's the world's ugliest poncho. I slept with it over my head and shoulders every night in New Zealand. I deeply, profoundly regret leaving it there. The temperature last night dropped rudely and precipitously to 62. So much for one degree at a time.

We are not running the heater for these last days as originally planned, because we were unexpectedly run down by a ridiculously large high. Yes, after making three days of record time, Don Quixote dropped ourselves into 300 miles of bright, cold sun and flat calm seas. Normally, we'd just sit here and wait for the wind to build again. Not this time. In a few days, this beautiful calm vista -- right here where we are currently squatting -- is going to be run down by a very nasty low bringing with it rain, thunderstorms, 5 meter (that's 15+ feet) swells, and 35 to 45 knot winds.

Needless to say, we are not letting moss grow on the boat. Actually, we are. Seriously, that whole analogy with moss and rocks is a land thing. Turns out the faster you go at sea, the more you feed the barnacles, fungi, and other assorted greens and live things growing on vigorously on the hull. In any case, we fired up the motors and ground away the last 36 hours in a somewhat feverish attempt to get far enough south to slip below the low before it comes in. This is something we haven't done since we left Mexico. Come to think of it, I can't ever remember grinding away continuously for so long. It's wearying in a whole new way, mostly due to vibration and sound. I suspect it would be like taking a 36 hour plane trip. Dull, loud, and it makes your nerves vibrate unpleasantly.

Keep in mind that like many catamarans, Don Quixote has a relatively low fuel capacity. We supplement with jerry cans as well as the 12 gallon separate tank used for the heater. Routinely, we try to carry about 100 hours of fuel and our maximum is only another 25 beyond that. To motor from here to Whangarei is about 20 hours (and 100 NM) more than the balance of our fuel. So obviously the first safety measure is to reserve our heater tank in case we need it. The crew look like a bunch of tanned sausages stuffed into dirty blue and white and grey fleece rolls. We are baking today -- twice. Even the cat is taking extraordinary measures and actually *gasp* slept with a crew member last night.

So it was with relief that DrC and I put out the jib this morning and got us moving under sail. The longer we sail, the sooner the mathematics of passage making and safety will let us turn ont he heater.

~ Toast
Distance: 124/1075/1347 Vava'u to Auckland Day: 14
31 48.78'S 176 59.06'E - Rhumb line to Whangarei
Oct 14 2011 18:30 UTC

Monday, October 10, 2011

Ignorance is Speed

Distance: 165/453/1347 Vava'u to Auckland Day: 8

Yesterday, we made 165 miles. I may be wrong, but I think that's our single fastest day ever. We averaged roughly 6.8 NM/hour. Now normally, when the boat is rocketing along at 6 to 8 knots, we look at the wind anemometer, get super nervous, and reef ourselves into oblivion. However, the B&G wind transducer gave up the ghost about 2 weeks ago. We have no perfect idea of the wind speed. As a result, we've had to fall back on sailor senses: wind in the face, sound of the wind generator, feel on the helm, white capping and wave heights, riffles on the water. In the absence of scientific, objective evidence that the wind is high, we're looking at the boat and conditions exclusively. Don Quixote looks good. On this beam sea with short period short wind waves, she's happily chugging along at 7. This means that we could have crossed the Pacific in roughly half the time we actually took. So now we know. Don Quixote isn't slow and stupid. Her owners are.

This leaves us with an interesting dilemma, however. We calculated a 10 day passage. At this speed, we'll make landfall in 7 and change. Thing 1) Do not count the wind before it lands on your deck. We probably will not be lucky enough to enjoy these fantastic sailing conditions for five more days. Thing 2) What am I do with all this fresh produce? We can't take any of it into New Zealand. Today, we live on salad and papayas and coconuts. And coconut, papaya salad.

We are now on the magic third day at sea. This is the mythical last day of misery after which the body adjusts to the motion and wonky hours. I believe I have already explained that this is very similar to the mythical forgetfulness of post-partem mothers who blithely reassure their partners that "It didn't hurt... or at least I don't remember it hurting." The best that can be said of passages is that eventually you run out of ocean and into the hard bits on the edges where you finally, blessedly, stop moving. Weather considerations have motivated us to blow right past Minerva Reef and straight on down to New Zealand. This routing might result in us making landfall before boats who left a day or two ahead of us. Oceans are weird that way.

~ Toast
24 19.40'S 178 20.92'W - Rhumb line to Whangarei now
Oct 10 2011 18:00 UTC

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Savor the Moment

Distance: 288/1347 Vava'u to Auckland Day: 7

I remember very clearly the first time I ever sailed on a catamaran. DrC and I had already committed to buying one and sailing away. We had chartered a Fountaine Peujot for day. However in typical Pacific Northwest fashion, the day was bright, beautiful, and utterly windless. So that wasn't the day. No the first day I sailed on a catamaran was on a Lagoon 410 by the name of Sun Baby. It was owned by the Kerns, a family who were in the last stages of their own preparations for a cruising year in Mexico. While we took another year to get out there, this was not our only time on Sun Baby as the second owners cruised with us, and we enjoyed sundowners on her deck several times.

The first sail was perhaps appropriately and a moderately blustery day in Elliott Baby. Dan got the sails up and the boat trimmed on a course for Eagle Harbor and we took off in flat seas at an exhilarating rate. The girls and I donned life jackets and sat on the tramp with the wind our faces. DrC gave me a hug. He didn't say anything. He didn't have to. We were all trying to put ourselves on that tramp in a dreamy but eagerly awaited future. The sail was quick, without swell or wind waves. We went out, we tacked and went back to dock. We had a drink and all smiled at each other somewhat smugly and self-congratulatorily. I think we peed at the beautifully appointed restrooms on the immaculately kept grounds of Elliot Bay Marina on our way out. It was marvelous.

That sail had about as much to do with ocean cruising as an Imax movie has to do with hiking to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

For some reason, however, the memory of that first sail was delivered sharply on my mental doorstep yesterday afternoon. Maybe it was simply the closure of the experience. The first sail on a Lagoon and perhaps the last truly big sail on this one. It might have been a trick of the light. Or it might simply be in contrast to some of my other musings as I sat at the helm on a close reach with the wind at 12, the sun shining, and nothing to gaze on but the dwindling lump of Tongatapu receding behind us. One thought that occurred to me is that I used somewhat obsessively and compulsively calculate our travel distance in terms of remaining fuel. There was always this thought that if we ran out of fuel, what would we do? As if somehow, we would get stuck by the side of the road in the desert of ocean between Mazatlan and La Paz and have to walk with a jerry can to the nearest gas station. What would we DO? Well, try putting up the sails. Don Quixote is, when all is said and done, a sail boat. She sails. Another thought that wafted through was that Biosecurity better not be too picky about bugs. I think we have dead bugs all over the walls of all three cabins after our visit to Ha'apai and Tongatapu. Little bloody smears it is going to take bleach, elbow grease, and a putty knife to remove. I also calculated the various permutations of meals it is possible for me to assemble using a can of French ham, half a bag of rice, 2 cups of wheat flour, and the 28 eggs remaining in the galley but not permitted into New Zealand.

So much for savoring the experience.

Minerva Reef is roughly 250 miles south and west of Tongatapu. It is very close to the rhumb line for a southbound vessel following the standard pilot recommended target of 30S 175E then due south to your port of entry. The wind blew hot and cold all night running us sometime up to > 7 knots and then moderating till we were creeping along at 4. It looks like we're averaging about 6 and should make the reef sometime tomorrow morning. The question of whether to stop or push on will be decided there. As of now, the weather looks good all the way down, so we might just run it straight through. We might have to in any case. The kids hate canned ham.

~ Toast
22 01.70'S 176 45.53'W En route to Minerva Reef, SSB 6224.0 at 0700 UTC for updates
Oct 9 2011 18:00 UTC

Friday, October 07, 2011

Do Not Check Out of Nuka'alofa

Distance: 187/1347 Vava'u to Auckland Day: 5

Do not under any circumstances check out of Nuka'alofa.

I can not be any more clear than that. Please everyone cruising TAKE NOTES (and forward to NZ bound friends). Check out of Neiafu. Spend a week or two enjoying Ha'apai. Then go directly to New Zealand. Do not pass Nuka'alofa. Do not collect $200. Just go.

We spent all day ALL DAY in various offices trying to get checked out of Nuka'alofa. For our pains, we spent a ridiculous $235 pa'anga to legally leave the country. This is after the $200 some odd we spent getting into it. The largest expense was a port fee for using the rat invested, muddy, and smelly mooring available in the harbor. They charged us $4.36/pa'anga per gross ton -- which unfortunately for us is 31. Most monohulls will pay considerably less because GRT is based on volume rather than weight which is a legacy of the freighting industry. The price is not dependent on the amount of time you spend, however, so I suppose if you parked there for a month, it's a reasonable fee. The HM Customs guy is almost never in his office, and after three visits, we just parked our stubborn bottoms on their bench until the office workers hunted him down. To get duty free fuel we went to -- and I am not exaggerating... I know I usually do so let there be no mistake here -- six separate offices to get the right paperwork, approvals, stamps, signatures, and blessings.

The town itself is outside of normal walking distance being at least 2 km to the west along the water front. Town is an unavoidable journey since it is there you will find the Immigration office. You can take a taxi for $5 each way. There is no Internet available near the boat, and every cafe in town that advertised wireless services was also fronted by a sign that said their wireless was not functional. There is a Dataline Internet store where you can buy incredibly slow access at $1.50/15 minutes on computers that looked like they were 20 years old and whose keyboards should be put out of their misery via the expedient of bathing them in acid.

There are restaurants along the water front, most of which are on the pricey end of the scale. On an upnote, there is a daily fish market just across from the Med moor line as well as opportunistic local farmers who line the street to sell their wares. The veg and fruits available on the water front as well as those available at the large market downtown are considerably more diverse, better quality, and lower priced than those found in Neiafu. The market downtown also supports a diverse number of artisan and craft sellers whose prices are highly competitive and with whom you can bargain vigorously for a last few trinkets and souvenirs. You can find a marvelous bakery across the street from the downtown market. There are many hardware and a variety of food stores downtown. So provisioning is a bit of a shlep, it is easy enough to find what you need and bail into a cab for the trip back to the boat.

There are few interesting places to anchor in the Tongatapu group. None of them are really viable in a big wind or swell. We are having no difficulty, of course, because as of two days ago, the wind engine delivered an enormous layer of fat, wet clouds and then turned off to leave them sitting pleasantly and helpfully over the watermelon fields of Nuka'alofa. The watermelon is thriving and delicious. Our boat needs to be picked up by a giant hand and wrung out like squigy.

~ Toast
21 05.42'S 175 09.38'W Fao, Tongatapu, Kingdom of Tonga
Oct 7 2011 21:45 UTC

Thursday, October 06, 2011

A Long Distance Grind

Distance: 185/1347 Vava'u to Auckland Day: 4

Yesterday we motored. All day. On the upside, DrC wanted us to burn off the rest of our Mexican diesel. Now I am not saying that we haven't bought fuel since we left Mexico. We have. We just haven't bought a great deal. DrC estimates that we have purchased 50 gallons since we left North America. Until yesterday, we have never been less than half full in the tanks. Now we're down to a fifth in one and a quarter in the other. It is time to fuel up. Tongan diesel from Nuka'alofa is reasonably priced and has a reputation as relatively clean. We'll top up both tanks, the heater, and all the jerry cans and then add preservative to the lot. What we do not use on the trip south, we'll burn over the winter in our heater.

By far, the majority of our fuel has been 'spent' on making water. You could really think of all that diesel as being converted to laundry, pasta, and cocktail ice. Our port engine burns approximately 75/gal/hour during which we can motor at a speed of 4, charge up the batteries (including all the rechargeables and the laptops), and make 30 gallons of water. I figure that given our capacity of 72 gallons, add the 50 we bought, subtract the 17 still in the tanks, and we've burned 105 gallons of fuel, motored 560 miles, made 4200 gallons of water, taken 1000 showers, charged our laptops 500 times, and washed the sheets once.

People ask all the time, "How much fuel do you need to cross the Pacific?" It varies widely. The dependencies are wind, weather, and mood. We know cruisers who sail everywhere. They do not have refrigeration or water makers, they never bathe. They probably burn 10 gallons of fuel to get across used exclusively to anchor and pull anchor. Others turn on the iron genny whenever their speed drops below 5 knots. They have two fridges, make water every day, motor from anchorage to anchorage, run the engines to watch T.V. Heck, some boats out here are *gasp* power boats. They motor everywhere. Don Quixote is somewhere in the middle of these extremes. We try to sail all but the first and last mile. We try to live off our renewable power sources. We get shore water when it is available and the math works so that it costs less than water maker water (e.g. free). Yet, we're not shy about turning on the motors in very light winds. We motored a lot in Vava'u, for example, where the protected waters makes for a Puget Sound-like dearth of usable wind. So to answer this question for your own boat, you must ask yourself about your personal habits, your willingness to bob in the middle of the ocean for a day or two, your standards of cleanliness for both your boat and your bodies.

And then there is the wind... because as obvious as it may sound... you can't sail if there is no wind. Sometimes, like yesterday, you have to go from point A to point B on a schedule and the Wind Gods fail to cooperate. If you are Don Quixote, you turn on the motor and grind the day away. We spent nearly 7 months avoiding such demands on our time. If you don't plan to meet a friend or family member, don't schedule a plane or make a rendezvous with another boat, you can dodge such days completely. Just wait until the wind engine turns back on again, then sail from here to there for free.

But even the most footloose boat will eventually have a schedule to meet. Our visas run out on Friday, October 7. We had no choice but to arrive in Nuka'alofa on Thursday night so that we can spend DrC's birthday dealing with provisioning, customs, immigration, and the bank. After that, our schedule urgency diminishes. While we really want to arrive in Auckland before November 1, we have nearly 3 weeks to travel 1,100 miles. The wind looks super light for the next two days, so we might go around the corner, hide behind an islet and wait till some breeze blows up. Only a low with a squash zone just off the North Island coast is likely to force those motors back on before we arrive in the Auckland Harbor.

~ Toast
21 07.45'S 175 09.80'W Nuka'alofa, Tongatapu, Kingdom of Tonga
Oct 6 2011 18:30 UTC

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Don't Bug Me

Distance: 120/1347 Vava'u to Auckland Day: 3

I really hate mosquitos. They can take an otherwise picture perfect location and make it absolutely miserable. Last night, we were attacked by a swarm of killer blood suckers. These things only attack when the wind is light or non-existent. So everyone was already sweltering in the cabins, slowly dissolving in puddles of sticky sweat. Then muzzzz buzzz whiizzzzz, the sound of an aerial assault triggered frantic door shutting and screen positioning. We then beat the sides of the boat into submission as we smacked roughly five million, blood filled mosquitoes onto the white fibreglass roof of the cabins, there to remain as a Rorschach testimony to our terminal stupidity in parking downwind of an island with a known history of flying insects.

We're leaving Ha'apai today on the edge of a rather squally trough. It's wet and cold and windy. I wish we could have lingered in this chain, and I strongly recommend to those who follow in our wake to plan better. Provision up in Neiafu and spend time in the Ha'apai group. Miscellaneous uncharted low spots notwithstanding, it is really nice down here. No provisions, no bars, and no boats. Just anchorages in every direction where you can drop off the transom and enjoy an afternoon of snorkeling. Every place we've stopped (albeit it was only three), we've been able to dally in a coral forest. I suspect this area is a paradise to divers as well given the many islets and reef walls. So make a point of giving yourself a few weeks down here before you head south to Nuka'alofa.

We did not. So here we are motor sailing to the big city. It's 60 miles downwind from last night's anchorage at an island called Nomoua (don't ask me to pronounce that). Tomorrow will be a flurry of activity as we fuel up, provision, check out, and please pray to all the gods of bureaucrats get the cat's import paperwork. The weather window is perfect for going to New Zealand if we'd left day before yesterday. It's not clear it will continue to hold. It does appear that we're good to go at least to Minerva Reef where we could wait to see what develops.

Is it my imagination or is the water already getting colder?

~ Toast
20 23.03S 174 52.98W
Oct 5 2011 18:30 UTC

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Threading a Reef Needle

Distance: 95/1347 Vava'u to Auckland Day: 2

We had a very pleasant, flat and easy downwind sail on the spinnaker yesterday. The only problem is that we were winding our way through an unconscionable number of rocks, reefs, islands and underwater hazards. Geography is a bitch. Like all Tonga, Ha'apai is along a ridge line which stretches north to south. This ridge towers over the surrounding oceanic valleys, never mind the incredibly deep trench just east of here. Sailing the Ha'apai group is like flying past the tippy tops of a mountain range. This mountain range blocks swell and no small fraction of the wind from the east, but it poses its own hazards. Occasional ridge lines stretch out westwards from the main north south line pushing into our path. It's just part of the entire experience that most of these tops are not actually above sea level. Fortunately, the charts are reasonably accurate and shallow spots can generally be spotted from a distance.

We only had a near miss with the sea bottom once. Needless to say, it was an unnerving experience. We were sailing downwind at about 5 knots in gentle winds. The depth was out of the range of our depth sounder, so easily over 500 feet. There were shallows marked off to the starboard and the port but we were threading between two islets so there was reason to be cautious. I was on the helm at the time, of course. These things always seem to happen when I am on the helm. I think the fates do this to give DrC someone to yell at. Doing a horizon scan, I see just ahead an abrupt change in water color that I swear had not been there a moment before. The angle of the sun can make a huge difference in these situations, and this shallow spot just wasn't visible until we were basically on top of it. I shout to the family, glance down and without transition from "no reading", the depth sounder registered 180, plummeted to 70, then 40. The family scrambled on deck, DrC pointing to the starboard. I turn the wheel over as the depth dropped to 20, then 15, then bottomed out at 6 before heading up again. DrC unnecessarily called, "We're over it."

No shit.

6 on our depth sounder means that there was an uncharted shallow between these islets at a depth of 10 feet. At 10 feet, a coral head can easily grow up into keel grabbing height for our boat, let alone our monohull brethren with their deeper drafts. Jaime patted my back and noted that that was, "Quite a nail biter, Mom." Oh yeah. I was shaking a bit. Turning back, the shallow was obvious for nearly half a mile. Of course. Angle of the sun. For a few moments, I think DrC wanted to tear a strip out of my hide, but then he looked forward and realized the problem. The sea was an unremarkable dark blue in every direction facing forward even though we knew there were additional shallows to port and starboard. It was only looking back that the sea was broken into large puzzle pieces of blues, turquoises, pale greens, and reef tans. Coral heads we had safely passed showed in sharp relief against the shallow sandy bottom while it appeared as though everything ahead was over 600 feet down. By such small graces, I escaped a lecture.

So all I can say is be careful when transiting the Ha'apai group. It is very pretty here, quite remote, and the snorkeling is magnificent. It would also be quite embarrassing for you to get your boat all the way from North and Central America and run the thing aground on the last leg of the journey. We'll try to avoid that little humiliation today for our last hop before heading for Tongatapu. I also think that if the visibility is poor, I'm just going to put DrC on the helm and save myself the stress and bother.

~ Toast
19 56.1S 174 42.8W Haafeva Island, Ha'apai, Kingdom of Tonga
Oct 4 2011 19:00 UTC

Monday, October 03, 2011

Passage Through Ha'apai

Distance: 67/1347 Vava'u to Auckland Day: 1

Somehow even after all this time I still fail to calculate passage times realistically. We gave ourselves a week through the Ha'apai island chain then we left a day late. What we -- okay I -- failed to count was the following:

* One full day 65 NM day to get to Ha'apai
* Another full 60 NM day to get from Ha'apai to Tongutapu
* At least two sails of > 25 miles to move from place to place within the islands
* We MUST be in Tongatapu by Thursday night if we want to check out Friday

So instead of leisurely visiting some pretty, isolated islands in paradise, we're actually just doing a passage which happens to include a few stops. We have three stops here in Ha'apai, one in Tongatapu, one on Minerva Reef, and then we'll be in New Zealand. The entire trip should take about 3 weeks.


I mean that... not just a relaxed gentle sigh but a major, asterisked and punctuated *sigh*. I should probably even capitalize it.

On the upside, the girls don't do school on passages so they are delighted.

~ Toast
19 45.79S 174 20.75W Foa Island, Ha'apai, Kingdom of Tonga
Oct 3 2011 18:00 UTC (Oct 4 at 7am just to confuse things)

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Running Hot or Cold

Tonga is a beautiful place with amazing coral. It also has lousy weather in September. We are either baking in the sun without a breath of wind, or we are freezing in the overcast and drizzle with too much wind to be in any but the most protected anchorages. There appears to be no middle ground. Yesterday, we baked in Neiafu. Today, we'll move the boat in the brisk breeze down to some of the southern-most islands in the Vava'u group.

For those not familiar with Tongan geography, a very brief primer is in order as we are about to swing through the entire kingdom. The island nation is largely spread north to south in four major island groups: Niuas, Vava'u, Ha'apai, and Tongatapu. The population is roughly 100,000 with most of those living in either Nuka'alofa in Tongatapu or up here in Neiafu in Vava'u. Cruisers can check in and out only in Nuka'alofa and Neiafu. So geography dictates one of two major cruising routes through Tonga. If you are headed for Australia, you come into the Vava'u group and probably never visit any other part of the Kingdom. The Vava'u group features all the cruiser ameneties you need for a nice visit and provisioning stop before you continue on your way to Fiji, Vanuatu, and New Caledonia. If, however, you are New Zealand bound, this is your last country before heading in for the monsoon season. You check in to Neiafu, spend a few weeks tasting the Vava'u anchorages, then you make your way south. If you are hardy and the weather is cooperative, you'll taste the pristine and largely unpopulated anchorages of Ha'apai before you head down to Tongatapu. From there, you'll check out of Nuka'alofa, get duty free fuel but no booze (since you won't have time to drink it before arriving in Opua, Auckland or Whangarei), and then hang out until the weather cooperates for the passage south.

Obviously, we are on a very rapid version of the New Zealand bound trajectory. We've lingered in the Vava'u group because this is where all our friends our. Those headed to Oz had lingered as well enjoying last potlucks, sundowners and rugby games before the fleet splits in two. Those headed south are lingering because honestly, there is no point in heading south until the last possible moment. Who wants to arrive in New Zealand while it is still colder than Santa's butt on Christmas morning? We have put off leaving Vava'u until quite literally the last possible moment. In that time, we have had the pleasure of dinner with Catachaos, drinks with Casulo, and diving with Loose Pointer. There really was no reason to leave. Now there is.

We have a hard stop on our time in Tonga since our visas run out Friday. This is good. We need to go south to New Zealand anyway. The visa deadline is just another motivator. We'll head out today or tomorrow and work our way through Ha'apai and on down to Tongatapu. We'll probably only spend a day or two there. Ideally, our cat import permit will have FINALLY arrived. We'll also provision, fuel up, and get set up with others heading to New Zealand. Then I think we'll go almost immediately to Minerva Reef. I've been monitoring conditions out there, and it seems that Minerva has been experiencing a very steady run of good weather. As long as that holds, its several hundred miles closer to New Zealand and a better place to wait for the window south to Auckland. After that, we hold until we see something in the gribs that gives us reason to be optimistic.

We hear many theories on how to do this passage. They range from Two Amigos: "You're going to get hit, so you might as well just go." To Pelagic: "Head for 30S 175E and then hove to until you see a break in the weather and then motor south." To Hipnautical: "Wait in Nuka'alofa till you see the Kiwis pull their anchors and then leave. Follow them." Kiwis say online and in person that every time they do the trip, it is different. It's never fun, it's rarely horrible. While heinous squash zones -can- form with winds in the 60s and 70s, those are actually predictable and usually avoidable. More likely, there will be a day with 30 on the nose, a day with 30 on the beam, and a few days with no wind at all. Since leaving Mexico, we've seen 30 on the nose and on the beam and from behind, we've spent days in 5 meter seas, and we know what all of that looks like. It's not fun, but it's rarely horrible. We will be okay.

For family, it is time to watch the YOTREPS reports again. I will try to post our position at least once a day from here till we arrive at the dock in Auckland. Everybody please send us positive thoughts for fair winds and following seas... and cross all your tingers and foes for the timely arrival of Dulcinea's paperwork.