We knew, from studying the weather data, that our passage from Aitutaki to the Vava’u group of Tonga would include a lot of light air sailing and possibly some motor sailing. The weather charts showed a couple of lows passing south of Tonga and the Cook Islands. We knew these lows would influence not only wind speeds but also wind direction along our route.
Air pressure cells – “lows” and “highs” – travel west-to-east in the southern hemisphere. Lows tend to form south of New Zealand and move in a northeasterly direction, curving across the South Pacific. We could see the edge of yet a third low coming into view on the chart as it formed up and began to move northeast. The weather pattern is a regular and predictable one across the South Pacific, alternating highs and lows, one after the other. The primary variables in this pattern are the rate at which these highs and lows progress across the ocean, their size, and how high or low their barometric pressure is. Wind flows anti-clockwise around a high pressure area and clockwise around a low; this is opposite to wind direction around highs and lows in the northern hemisphere, and another thing we remind ourselves of as we are learning to “read” weather in this hemisphere. For us, this forecast meant we could expect changes in wind direction as well as wind strength throughout our passage. We could experience very light air, and directly on the nose. Or we could have no wind at all for periods of time. And in between, we could expect the wind to veer or back, depending on how the low was affecting our area.
And we had all that.
For the first 15 hours after leaving the anchorage at Aitutaki, we had great sailing – the wind was coming from the right direction for us, and blowing strong enough that we were able to sail well and comfortably on a reach, making good time. But on Day 2 around mid-day, after another small squall had passed overhead, the wind died away completely. Wind always dies behind a squall, but then begins building again after 30 minutes or so. Two hours later, as we continued to wallow in a glassy sea, we had to admit that the very nice wind we had sailed on so far was no more. At least for now.
From then on and for the remainder of the passage, we struggled to keep sailing at all. When we absolutely couldn’t stand it any longer, we would fire up the “iron donkey” and motor sail, just to keep moving forward. It wasn’t an entirely wind-less passage, of course. In every 24 hours, we would experience a light breeze for a few of those 24, sometimes barely a zephyr. This is when our light air drifter came into its own: Hoisted with its bright red seastar, it could keep Velic moving at 2.5 to 3 knots in air that blew at perhaps no more than twice that speed. But there were seemingly endless hours of no wind at all.
We arrived in the Vava’u group of islands (the northernmost of three groups that make up the Kingdom of Tonga) Saturday morning at around 11:00. As it was a Saturday, we decided not to pay the additional premium to bring officials to the boat on their weekend; it’s possible for a yacht to wait up to 72 hours to clear into a country as long as no one goes ashore during that time. We chose to anchor away from town in a nearby bay and wait until Monday morning to begin the clearing in process. The “up” side of motoring is that we were able to run the watermaker; every time the engine was started, so was the Katadyn. We arrived in Vava’u with all three water tanks full. Nice. Of course, we couldn’t say the same for our fuel tank. But we still had more than 25 gallons left when Randy dipped the tank this morning. Not too bad. Tonga makes duty-free fuel available to yachts when they check out of the country, so we will fill our diesel tank when we leave for New Zealand in about a month. Meanwhile, there is a month to explore Tonga.
So here we are, sitting very pleasantly in Port Maurelle, surrounded by lush green vegetation and looking at – but not rowing to – a pretty little beach at the head of the bay. It’s a bit windy, but the water is calm. We can see the roof of one building peeking out above the trees; no other structures are in sight. If feels remote but for the presence of several other yachts nearby. The water is clear, although a little cool; we had a refreshing swim yesterday. A few other “yachties” rowed by to say hello, give us some information on good snorkeling sites, the clearing in process, and where to find the best provisions and restaurants. We shared dinner last night with another boat and will again tonight with two men single handing on two small boats anchored nearby. People who travel by sailboat make friendships quickly. It probably has to do with the transient nature of our life style and the long periods alone on passage.