Sunday, September 24, 2017

Week two of exploring Tonga

We're still here. It's been two weeks of exploring the Vava'u group and we could easily stay another two weeks. There's 42 charted anchorages scattered around the group, each uniquely different with something enticing to offer. 

In the past seven days we have swam through underwater caves, gorged ourselves on a Tongan feast, hiked through thick forests (leaving us thinking, 'This isn't what I thought Tonga would look like'), snorkeled coral gardens, hung out with local families and have relished in Tonga's ridiculously awesome weather. Just about every day is partially sunny, 82 degrees with low humidity. Each of us takes turns with the obligatory, "This weather is amazing!" 

There's a large population of cows on some of the islands.

Anchorage spot between #16 and #17

Tonga is known for their whale swimming/ watching tours. Like an idiot, I promised the girls we would swim with the whales before knowing what it would cost. Taking people out to swim with whales is where Tongans make the majority of their money as it costs $225 USD per person. If we were on 'vacation mode' I could justify swallowing that cost, but we're not. Personally, after seeing some of the small whale watching boats zoom around the island group, practically motoring on top of pods (often splitting pods apart) I'm okay with not being apart of the operation. 
This whale used his fluke to constantly splash at the boat who followed him. Seemed like he was signaling, "GO AWAY" or was putting on a fun show.

With the girls still wanting to get up close to whales, we opted to anchor at one of the most southern anchorages where locals told us we would spot whales. Technically there is no law prohibiting cruisers from attempting to use their own boats or dinghies to spot whales, obviously the locals who run whale watching boats will tell you different. While anchored at #36, we along with buddy boats, Me Too and Slow Flight, hopped in our dinghies to see about swimming with whales. We got somewhat close (not nearly as close as the local boats) to a pod of whales and the girls were able to get a glimpse. Me Too and Slow Flight did much better, they were able to come along side a whale and her calf and snap this amazing photo.

With near perfect weather, more anchorages to explore and still waiting on our replacement DeLorme, we'll continue to explore this magnificent part of the world before sailing south to explore another of Tonga's island groups. 

Swimming through the underwater cave, Mariner's Cave

Anchorage #36

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Cost to Cruise American Samoa

We had a hunch that we'd be spending a bit of money in American Samoa. We were correct. The CostCo type of provisioning, affordable restaurants and availability of boat supplies helped kill our budget for the month. Just this morning we went to provision in Tonga and were commenting how happy we were to have stopped and provisioned in American Samoa. The "grocery" stores in Tonga leave something to be food!

Monday, September 18, 2017

Week One: sailing the Vava'u group in the Kingdom of Tonga

Vava'u Archipelago, Kingdom of Tonga

Sailing straight south from Niuatoputapu to Tonga’s Vava’u group was our smoothest sail since leaving Mexico. For the first time in months, the sea state was glass like, Terrapin sailed in a light beam reach and the four of us remembered what it was like to enjoy a passage.
Not what we were expecting
Sailing upon the Vava’u island group was a bit of a shock.  The scattered islands in this small group were unlike anything we had witnessed in the South Pacific, they consist of limestone plateaus covered with more deciduous and evergreen trees than the expected coconut palms.  

Anchorage in Neiafu
We spent the first two nights in Neiafu, checking in, provisioning with fresh produce and grabbing hamburgers before setting off to explore. The highlight of our first week here has to be swimming in Swallows Cave!  Tonga has been better than expected. We had been reading about the deplorable conditions, which we’ve yet to find. There are many homes and businesses here owned and operated by expats from various locations, which is most likely the reason why there are plenty of bars and fun places to eat scattered around Neiafu. Tonga is much more developed than we were anticipating. From the Soggy Paws Compendium, we were thinking Tonga would be nothing more than a country of mud huts, with very few services to offer. Far from it.

Local school boys wearing a traditional ta'ovala, a woven mat around their waist.

Neiafu produce market

In addition to the Vava’u group, which offers 42 charted anchorages sprinkled around the archipelago, there’s the Ha’apai group, (which lies South of us) which we also plan to explore. We plan to extend our 30 day visa to give us time to check out more of this area. 

Swallows Cave

Sailing within the archipelago requires zoomed in charts and often the first mate standing on the bow. This is a tricky area if you're not careful!

Friday, September 15, 2017

Niuatoputapu, Tonga aka "New Potatoes"

September  7- 9

Sailing through the South Pacific means learning all of the nicknames cruisers have given to reference hard to pronounce places. Niuatoputapu clearly falls into the nickname category and is fondly referred to as New Potatoes.  About 200 miles SW of American Samoa lies Niuatoputapu, Tonga, a tiny speck of an island. We had zero intentions of stopping here but the bilge counter reading “5” and the trickle of water coming in from shaft tube convinced us otherwise. 

Stopping in New Potatoes was an easy way to check into Tonga and was a beautiful spot to explore. Most importantly, we were able to fix our leak.  We had read in the Soggy Paws Tonga Compendium that upon checking in (and exploring around Tonga) women should cover their shoulders and knees. The Tongan people (like their Samoan neighbors) are deeply religious. Dressing to appease the locals doesn’t sounds like a hard task, except when it’s hot, which it almost always is. 

Checking in at New Potatoes used to require an additional check in at Neiafu. This is no longer the case. We were able to hand our clearance form that we received in New Potatoes to the Customs agent in Neiafu without having to complete any other part of the check in process. 

How many officials can one dinghy hold?

Checking in requires a 2 mile walk to the Customs office located near the high school. Once we let the Customs official know we were there to check in, she directed us next door to exchange money in order to pay our fees. There is no ATM on this tiny island, just a man with a shoe box who acts as the islands “bank” and is willing to exchange money. With money in hand, the Customs lady put us in her car for the 2 mile drive back to the boat. An individual from Customs, Immigration and the Health Department are all required to come aboard your vessel to fill out the required paperwork. Even though this is a strict requirement, the officials do not have access to their own boat, so we had to shuttle them out in our little dinghy.  We paid $156 in Pa’anga (but we only received receipts for $125…some of our money went into someone’s pocket) which is the equivalent to $76 USD.

The volcanic island 3 miles away from New Potatoes has 20 inhabitants.

We wish we could have stayed a few more days in Niuatoputapu but Mother Nature had given us the perfect weather window to Neiafu. It was important for us to take this weather window as Neiafu lies almost dead South of Niautoputapu, which 90% of the time would present a very uncomfortable point of sail. If we have learned anything from sailing the South Pacific, it's not to waste a weather window as they're not very often. 

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

How to visit American Samoa (it's worth the trip)

American Samoa
August 12 - September 4

When reading cruising guides about Pago Pago, American Samoa, they all but suggest skipping it. Sure,  the harbor is bit of an eye sore, on occasion the tuna factory releases a putrid smell and thanks to a tsunami the anchorage is fouled, but there’s two sides to every coin. Once out of the harbor, American Samoa is a gorgeous country filled with some of the nicest people we’ve met.

                The checking in process in Pago Pago is nothing short of a total dick dance. Ask 6 different cruisers how they checked in and you will receive 6 different stories. When we checked in we visited 5 different offices and paid $100. Some boats visited 2 offices and paid nothing. Other boats visited 3 offices and also paid $100. What we do know, is that the $100 ship sanitation certificate fee is total crap. This is a fee to be paid by commercial vessels, not private boats. In exchange for $100 extortion we received a certificate claiming someone had inspected our boat and that we were without rats. We are indeed without rats, however no one actually inspected our boat. One boat argued with the guy, threatened to not check in and didn’t pay the fee. Other cruisers wrote checks that were never cashed. Upon checking out Phil complained about the extortion and was given back $50. Check out requires a trip to the Port Captain, Customs and  Immigration where you can expect to pay  $100 (legit fee charged by customs) plus however much you owe depending upon how many days you were anchored. Our grand total was $206 to visit our own country.  The Customs Chief caught wind of the many upset cruisers and was supposed to be having a meeting with all the parties involved to stop extorting money from cruisers…still no word on if they have stopped charging the ship sanitation fee. 

Located at the top of the dinghy dock, McDonald’s has free WiFi. Password: adminmcd17    The local library has excellent WiFi for $5 for the day. We chose to buy a sim card ($5) and load it with minutes and data, which worked well.

Exploring the island
American Samoa is littered with hikes and waterfalls. Grab a map from the National Park office (close to the anchorage) and explore!
Almost free beer/ wine
We are fortunate enough to be buddy boating with a veteran and had access to the commissary. A case of Miller Lite was $20, boxes of wine were $11 and $16. In French Polynesia prices were almost quadruple.

Cost U Less is a mini Costco with everything from microfiber bed sheets (you can stop sleeping on sheets held together with sailtape), Tillamook cheese, and clothes to a candy isle that never ends. TSM is a great grocery store that has fresh produce and an upstairs selling all kinds of household items.


There’s a laundry facility across the street and to the left of McDonald’s. Compared to the $20 a load in French Polynesia, loads of laundry here cost $3.25!

Receiving/ sending mail
Being able to receive packages​ sent by way of US Postal service is the real reason most Americans sail to American Samoa. We ordered supplies off Amazon and had them sent to South Carolina where Phil’s mom repackaged our goods into a US Priority Mail box.  Costing no more than the typical cost to send a box, she shipped our boxes on a Tuesday and our packages were ready for pick up by Saturday of the same week.

Your Name

General Delivery

1 Lumanai Bldg.

Pago Pago, American Samoa 96799