Category Archives: Tonga

Fixed the Heat Exchanger with Bamboo Chopsticks – Fiji Here We Come!

Yesterday I pulled apart the heat exchanger, filled the fresh water coolant side with water and found that 7 of the 19 copper tubes were leaking on one of the passes. I was considering using JB Weld to plug the holes on both sides but asked Alyssa if we had any wood dowels that would fit the tubes. She looked around the galley and handed me a set of bamboo chopsticks that we had bought in Chinatown back in San Francisco. They happened to fit perfectly into the tubes. We had enough to plug both sides of the 7 offending tubes so I hammered them in and broke them off flush. I filled the coolant side again and no leaks! We re-installed it, flushed the cooling system and ran the engine up to temp. I’m sure there are many mechanics that are cringing right now but it’s holding coolant, not restricting any raw water flow compared to normal and the engine temp is staying cool after the thermostat opens. Only time will tell if our jury-rig-bamboo-chopstick repair holds up. We’re just hoping it makes it to Savusavu, Fiji where we are having a new one shipped in from the US.

Today we’re clearing out, sending in our Fijian customs forms, picking up our laundry, stowing the dinghy and heading to another anchorage closer to the open sea. We plan to sail west at first light tomorrow morning (Tuesday Tonga, Monday in California). The passage is 420 miles, or three days at 5.5 knots. We’re hoping to be standing off Savusavu at first light Friday morning. 

We’ll write again en route. Hope everyone is having an excellent weekend.

Here are some pics from sailing around the islands and a couple of the bamboo chopstick repair:


A local woman collecting sea slugs. She even had an octopus in her bucket
A local woman collecting sea slugs. She even had an octopus in her bucket
These beautiful blue starfish were everywhere at low tide
These beautiful blue starfish were everywhere at low tide
The ark gallery in the Tapana anchorage
The ark gallery in the Tapana anchorage
I almost impaled my hand trying to husk this coconut. The efficiency of the Tongan guy made my technique pale in comparison
I almost impaled my hand trying to husk this coconut. The efficiency of the Tongan guy made my technique pale in comparison
The Princess and her creature comforts. There was a big smile after this blow-dry session.
The Princess and her creature comforts. There was a big smile after this blow-dry session.
Exploring Tapana Island
Exploring Tapana Island
We brought the kids Tootsi Pops - a huge hit
We brought the kids Tootsi Pops – a huge hit

DSCN1121 DSCN1122

Anchored off Nuapapu
Anchored off Nuapapu
A beautiful blonde at the helm while sailing the flat waters of Vava'u....sailing doesn't get much better than that!
A beautiful blonde at the helm while sailing the flat waters of Vava’u….sailing doesn’t get much better than that!
Hammering in the chopsticks
Hammering in the chopsticks
Look at the holes in the bottom left. Plugged with chopsticks!
Look at the holes in the bottom left. Plugged with chopsticks!
Our send-off cocktail session with friends in Neiafu. Not hard to fill the cockpit when you have a keg of craft brew on tap.....the hard part is emptying the cockpit before the keg!
Our send-off cocktail session with friends in Neiafu. Not hard to fill the cockpit when you have a keg of craft brew on tap…..the hard part is emptying the cockpit before the keg!


Kicked in the Head by the Tail of a Humpback Whale!!!

You read the title correctly, I was almost knocked unconscious by the tail of an enormous wild humpback whale while swimming with a pod yesterday. It was scary, enthralling and disorienting at the same time. I am writing this with a huge bump/egg on the port side of my skull. I seem to be fine and waking up this morning was a success. So now that I have lived to tell the story, I shall begin…

Although we may have to sell some organs once we reach Australia to pay for food, we decided that we should not miss out on the once-in-a-lifetime experience of swimming with wild humpback whales. Vava’u is the only place I know of in the world where they allow people to get in the water with wild humpbacks. We spoke to a bunch of locals and found the best operator and the most highly recommended skipper. We booked with the operation, “Whales in the Wild!” and the skipper Shioni. It was a hefty sum of Pa’anga (money) but we can now say it was completely worth every penny.

We woke at 0600 and were on the dock by 0700. We blasted out of Neiafu at close to 30 knots aboard a 26 foot aluminum dive boat with a big 250hp outboard on the back. The process for finding whales is much like a game of cat and mouse. We blast around the outer islands looking for whale spouts. When we find one we get close and see if it is staying on the surface. Most dive deep and only surface once ever 15 minutes or so. Those are not the best whales to swim with since the interaction is very brief. After a few hours of cat and mouse we were tipped off to a pod of 10 whales about 2 miles from our location. We blasted over to the west side and bobbed around in the rough seas while the pod drew closer. The whales were slapping tails and fins and once in a while one would breach. It was exciting and we got our wetsuits on and prepared to jump in. The skipper maneuvered near the whales and said to jump in. Our hearts were racing as we swam as fast as we could to get close to the whales. We were less than 10 feet from a whale that was surfacing and there were three more directly below us. The enormity of the whales and the volume of their calls, mixed with the bubbles they release was amazing. We shot some great video and tried in vain to keep up with their pace but they were soon gone and we returned to the boat with adrenaline pumping through our veins.

We continued our search for the perfect opportunity to interact with the whales. By 1300 we were off the SW side of Hunga Island. There were a few whales in relatively shallow water, an excellent opportunity to swim with them since they can’t easily dive deep. It was our turn to jump in so Alyssa and I suited up and hung over the edge. He maneuvered close to the path of the whales and we jumped in and swam like hell to get close. As we got close the whales turned over on their backs and did some fin slaps and put on a show for us. Then they swam towards the open ocean and everyone followed….but me. I saw another whale coming my way and stayed put to wait for him. He slowly made his way towards me as my adrenaline was being pumped in on overdrive. I didn’t swim away and I was less than an arm’s length from his enormous eyeball as he swam past me with what seemed a quizzical look. As he was mostly past me I turned away to get a GoPro shot of me with this amazing creature in the background and as I was fumbling with the camera he turned to dive, whipped his tail sideways and then slapped it down right on the side of my head! It was a hard blow that knocked the snorkel off my mask, pushed me under the water and stunned me. The next thing I remember was processing what had just happened and seeing the others screaming “are you OK?!?” I replied yes and was shouting how incredible that just was.

We returned to the boat and swam again a few more times with other whales, had lunch in a beautiful protected cove and most importantly, lived to tell this story.

Here are some pictures from the day. I’ll try and upload a video or two but the internet here is painfully slow.

In other news, our heat exchanger on our main engine is toast [my fault – didn’t know you had to change zincs every month in the tropics!] and it’s leaking coolant into the raw water = not good. So today we’ll pull it apart and make a temporary repair. I am having a new one shipped into Fiji so it should be there when we arrive. Always something isn’t it…

And now, the pictures!!!




Vava’u, Tonga – The weekend in Tapana and Finding Aisea Beach

We spent the weekend tucked in a protected bay in the lee of Tapana Island. The first two nights we anchored and the next three we spent on a mooring ball off the Ark Gallery. The Ark is a floating house boat that a lovely American couple built. Larry and Sherry are friendly and welcoming and we enjoyed visiting with them aboard the Ark and at the beach bonfire on Saturday night. On Saturday morning we called a cab and went into Neiafu for the nautical swap meet. We were able to sell some extra gear and came back to Tapana with 360 Pa’anga ($180 US); that will allow for some extra spending cash at the various resorts and feasts to be found around the archipelago.

Today the wind was howling 30 knots offshore and 25 through the islands. I really wanted to head to the east side to visit the more remote villages but it was not to be. We could have bashed against it but it would have been tough going and also would have really shaken up the beer we have fermenting. So in the interest of beer production – and in the interest of Princess happiness – we decided to slip around the corner and anchor in the lee of Pangiamotu. We are sure glad we did. Just coming around the corner from Tapana had us rolling down 3 foot waves and had the dinghy surfing into the Monitor windvane, I can only imagine what the scene would have been like transiting the pass at high tide with seas rolling over the reef and hitting our beam.

We are sure glad we came up here. At Tapana we were moored between 7 other boats in close proximity. Up here we have many miles of bay to ourselves, outstanding protection, extremely flat water and less than 10 knots of wind (when it’s blowing 25+ offshore) and we also have no swell (Tapana had a swell at high tide; and we were paying for the mooring down there!). One of the reasons there are no boats here must be that the guidebooks say that you can’t anchor in the bay due to a fishing farm. Well I can verify that the farm is no longer and the bay is clear. We are set in sand in 40 feet of azure blue water in the middle of the bight closest to shore with the white house. The white house is torn to bits by what seems the last cyclone. Any evidence of fishing is long gone. The only things here now are sheer cliffs, an abandoned house, and rainforest filled with singing birds. This is a lovely spot and anyone sailing Vava’u in the future and looking for protection and seclusion when the trades are up should take note of the waypoint at the bottom of this post.

We both had the feeling today that we are finally caught up on boat projects and can relax. It’s an amazing feeling and has been very elusive this season due to the fact that we have been covering so many miles. We were talking about the sheer number of man (and woman) hours it takes to have our house(boat) in order. At sunset today we had: a new autopilot (1 day of labor), a new spring replaced on the Monitor windvane (1 hour of labor), full water tanks (3 hours of effort today), new engine oil and a new filter change plus new coolant (2 hours of effort today), a keg of beer carbonating (5 hours of effort last week), the bottom of the boat was clean of dirt and barnacles (3 hours of work a couple days ago), the cabin was clean and orderly (many hours of Mermaid labor each day), and the topsides were clean and we were both showered. I’m sure there is a lot I am leaving out. It was just a very nice feeling to have most of the “to-do” boxes checked and have the boat in such great shape again. We both felt like we could breathe a sigh of relief and really enjoy ourselves.

Since the trades are still howling we have decided to sail downwind tomorrow and go explore Lape Island and Nuapapu. Great hiking, excellent diving, and friendly Tongan villages await. We’ll have to decide where to head for the weekend as a nasty frontal system is coming through that promises high winds and heavy squalls. We’ll either be in Hunga, which offers 360 degree protection, or back in Neiafu, for the entertainment.

We’ll write again from the next incredible Vava’u anchorage.

Lewis & Alyssa

August 4, 2015

Aisea Beach, Pangiamotu, Vava’u

18 41.837 S
173 59.904 W
40 Feet Depth

Kicking Back at Avalau Island

We have spent the last three nights anchored in the lee of a gorgeous uninhabited island named Avalau. The anchor is set in 30 feet of turquoise water just off an extensive barrier reef. The island is fronted by a long stretch of very fine powdery white sand. The protection from the trades is adequate but the wind waves wrap around the island making the stay a bit bumpy and rolly. We have been enjoying it here and catching up on some r&r. The first night we met the couple on the other boat here named LUCI; a nice Kiwi couple from North Island. He built his 42ft boat with his bare hands and it was just launched in April. We had a great time visiting with them and we all went to the beach in the evening for a bonfire. It was a picturesque setting and a great evening visiting with new friends.

I have been meaning to do a dive on a large coral head near the boat but between the cold air temps (ok maybe we’re going soft - it’s 74 degrees outside) and our lazy demeanor, I haven’t jumped in yet. I did change the transmission fluid and repair a small leak on the heat exchanger, so a little productivity has been thrown in the mix.

The boat JACARA that was planning to take us swimming with the whales had to fly back home to Italy before we had a decent weather window. The trades have been howling and kicking up big chop in the channels. Not the most ideal conditions to go swimming in. We’re bummed and are now debating whether to pay the 350 Pa’anga (~$160 dollars) each to take a commercial boat out to do the same. After all the repairs lately we aren’t exactly swimming in cash. We are hopeful we’ll be able to sell a few things at the nautical swap meet this Saturday. If so, maybe we’ll be in a position to go swim with the humpbacks.

Today we are pulling anchor and raising the mainsail to beat 5-6 miles to windward. We plan to drop anchor in Tapuna, aka anchorage 11, a very protected bay on the southern tip of Pangiamotu Island. We plan to spend the weekend there. We’ll take a cab into Neiafu for the swap meet on Saturday.  We’ll also upload some pictures from our week of exploring. Then early next week we’ll continue our exploration of Vava’u and head to the far east side of the archipelago. Stay tuned.

‘Alu a,
Lewis & Alyssa

July 30, 2015

Avalau Island, Vava’u, Tonga

18 44.990 S
174 04.872 W

Anchored off Beautiful Nuku Island, Vava’u, Tonga

Malo e lelei ki he pongipongi ni, [good morning in Tongan]

Monday morning finds us at anchor in the lee of a steep, volcanic, lush, palm-studded high island named Nuku. Ellie is lying peacefully to her anchor in crystal clear turquoise water. I awoke to find Alyssa in the cockpit reading peacefully with a smile across her face. What an absolutely gorgeous spot to anchor [Google: Nuku Island Vava’u – to see a pic]. The trades are blowing hard around the corner but we have less than 5 knots across the bow – the island providing excellent protection. We dropped the hook in 25 feet and are lying in 40. The trades are forecast to remain steady so we stayed here overnight. It was a bit restless though since every sound I heard had me checking our position on the anchor watch – we’re only 75 feet from shore and swinging on 125 feet of chain. Steep drop-offs are typical of anchorages in Vava’u; the landscape is like deep fjords cut between islands. Given the precarious anchorage we will be sailing across the way to Sisla Island for lunch and whale watching and then on to Ovalu Island for an overnight berth off a stretch of fine white sand.

The past week has been spent dealing with our latest breakage, the autopilot. I have to admit that I am growing tired of fixing things after every passage, and the cruising kitty continues to be eroded away quicker than planned. We bought a brand new autopilot from ELYSIUM and I installed it on Saturday. We had to buy the entire system as both our wheel drives are broken beyond repair and the electronic control head was not functioning correctly. It was a long install but we are very happy with the end result. I took great care to do a professional-grade install and am satisfied that the new system should last for many years to come. We started the configuration during our sail yesterday and so far so good. There are a few more calibration steps to do during the next few sails to dial the new pilot in completely. I’m just relieved to have our third crew member back aboard and functioning. It will make transiting through the treacherous reefs of Fiji a much more calculated endeavor.

Neiafu is an interesting place. It’s been inundated with cruisers and as a result the people are more westernized than the rest of the Tonga. I likened the place to La Cruz in Mexico. Many cruisers show up there and don’t leave. There are restaurants, watering holes, laundry, a market and other conveniences to keep cruisers comfortable. So they stay, and tell the same stories to each other over and over. Our friend Ryan Harrison on CARMELO calls them the “tellers.” We like to think we fall more into the “doers” category and as such, after a couple days of visiting with the “tellers”, it was time to go exploring again. If we go back it will be to hit the excellent produce market or to to have our laundry done.

We’re off to go explore Vava’u. We’ll take a bunch of pictures and upload them next time we find internet. Hope all is well with everyone.

‘Alu a, [goodbye]
Lewis & Alyssa

Monday July 27, 2015 [GMT +13]

Nuku Island, Vava’u, Tonga

18 42.921 S
174 02.670 W

Vava’u, Tonga

I need to catch everyone up on the last few days, so allow me to back up.

After that wonderful sail, we made landfall in Vava’u in the early morning. It was raining hard with limited visibility. We had the engine on and were short-tacking into Vava’u. We had to alter course more than a few times for fishing vessels and humpback whales. We sailed into Neiafu harbor, which is a good 1.5 hours inland. We had to anchor on yet another lee shore [why is every official clearance point on a lee shore??]. The officials were friendly and after visiting four offices strewn across town, we officially cleared into the Kingdom of Tonga. After clearing in we caught a mooring (the water off town is over 100 feet deep), and went in for dinner and to send the previous blog.

After catching up on some rest we focused on a replacement for our autopilot. As you remember, the wheel drive broke exiting Samoa. Luckily, friends on ELYSIUM had another wheel unit to sell. After fitting the replacement we figured out it’s the fluxgate compass that is the real culprit (my two drives were also broken beyond repair). We’ll go by their boat tomorrow to see if they have a spare compass to sell us. If you’re keeping count, this will be the third wheel pilot we have replaced since leaving Hawaii. Our primary steerage remains to be the monitor windvane, but it will be nice to get the electronic autopilot functioning again. Stay tuned for the outcome of this witch hunt.

It’s freezing here. Maybe we’ve spent too much time near the equator, but we are both freezing. I’m wearing a sweater and socks as I type these words. That is just ridiculous at only 18 degrees south. There is a strong SE blow coming up from 55S to Tonga and I really hope it’s temporary because the air and water are very cold. 

Here are a few pics of the Mermaid scouring the awesome veggie market and a couple shots off Ellie moored amongst the plethora of international cruising boats. 

Stay tuned for adventures via scooter, swimming with humpbacks, and picturesque Tongan anchorages.



July 23, 2015

Vava’u, Tonga