Friday, October 3, 2008

Day trip to Ha’apai Group & Whales, Whales, Whales

Latitude 19.40.310S
Longitude 174.17.372W
Distance sailed (motored):  54.5 NM

Today was an incredible experience. FWIW, both the Tonga and Fiji weather forecasts were wrong for today.  There wasn`t 10-15 knots wind from either the N-NE or from the SE.  It was flat calm with winds ranging 0 - 7 knots from east, so we motor-sailed all the way to the northernmost anchorage at Ha`Ano island in the Ha`apai Group of Tonga.  Today we saw more whales than you would believe possible.  The whales that were close enough to identify were all fin whales.  Fin whales are 21 to 24 meters long and have a totally white underside on their tails, framed by a black outline.  Those are some big whales!!  They have very nice patterns of shades of black and gray and white.  The old whalers hated finners because they are so aggressive.  None of the other species of whales would fight back, but the fin whales fought hard and would attack the whalers.  Some of more distant whales we saw today might have been humpbacks but were too far away to see the distinctive tail "fingerprints."  Humpbacks are considerably smaller than finners, but still almost as long as our boat.

We saw dozens and dozens of whale spouts or blows.  Saw at least a dozen full body breaches, most by adults and one by a baby calf.  Saw many, many whales swimming at the surface and showing their backs and dorsal fins.  It was all so cool.  Also saw spy hops, head rises, gazes, pec slaps, tail lobs, tail swipes, fluking and tail slaps.  The only tail slaps we saw were done by the fin whales when we were close to them.  Our whale watching guide does not explain why whales do tail slaps and we were afraid that it might be a form of aggression since finners are known to be aggressive.  Figured they might be telling us to move away, so we did.

Today was also a great fishing day --- for our friends; not for us.  We caught one bonita and one very large barracuda.  Threw both of them back.  Then Bill got a hit with something very large that swam deep.  He was having a hard time fighting it and was afraid it was going to take every bit of our line as it went to deeper depth.  Then it just spit out the lure.  Don`t know how it could do that since this was a treble-treble hook lure, each of the 3 hooks also having 3 hooks.  There were deep teeth marks on the lure itself.  Surprised it wasn`t bitten in half.  About 15 miles before our destination Bill reeled in the lure because we were close to some whales and he discovered that 2 of the treble hooks had fouled together.  There is absolutely no way we could catch anything with fouled hooks because the water disturbance would scare off all fish.  Bill was disgusted with our fishing attempts for the day and did not put the line back into the water.

Our friends on FREE SPIRIT, however, caught 2 rainbow runners and 2 very large mahi-mahi.  Rainbow runners are supposed to be delicious but we cannot attest to that fact since we have never caught one.  FREE SPIRIT caught both mahi-mahi just before arriving in the anchorage, so just goes to show you that we should have put our lines back in the water instead of getting disgusted with not having caught anything good all day.  FREE SPIRIT also caught 3 bonita and threw them back and they lost 2 more rainbow runners trying to get them onto the boat.  They had a very active fishing day.  Their freezer is now so full of fish that they are borrowing freezer space from us.  They gave us a large bag of mahi-mahi and we enjoyed beer-battered fish for dinner.  Later in the evening another boat arrived in this anchorage.  That guy had caught a 100-lb tuna and next morning he shared 2 large bags with us.  Who cares if we are terrible fishermen as long as we have friends who share so generously ..

Wednesday October 1, 2008
This morning a mother whale and small calf swam around close to our anchored boats.  The calf breached several times.  They circled FREE SPIRIT very closely.  We are all pretty certain that these whales were humpbacks although none of us saw the tail fingerprints.  Michele said she got a photo of the breaching calf that also shows the island so you can see how very close to shore these whales are venturing.  The Kingdom of Tonga is visited by more whales each year than any other place on earth.  What we have seen so far is just too cool.  And we got to see it on our own, without going on a tour boat.  Gotta love it.

More strong weather is predicted for day after tomorrow.  It is too beautiful and picture-postcard-perfect to move today.  We are doing laundry and making water.  Tomorrow we need to find the island to clear into the Ha`apai Group and then find a sheltered anchorage.  There aren`t many anchorages in this vicinity that offer much shelter because these islands are very flat, but we will find the best possibility.  We have had a taste of bad weather and have a healthy respect for it.

Friday October 3, 2008
Latitude 19.44.021S
Longitude 174.18.221W
Distance sailed 4.5 NM

Minutes after we raised our dinghy and put the outboard on the rail mount in preparation to sail to Pangai to officially clear into Ha`apai the weather suddenly changed.  Winds immediately picked up strong and switched to the north and then NW.  We decided it might be a good idea to prepare a second anchor and have it on deck just in case conditions worsened.  Bill was standing down in the deck locker pulling out the anchor and rode and anchor chain when suddenly rain started marching across the bay towards us at a rapid clip.   We didn`t want the deck locker to get wet inside (would cause the lines stored in there to mold), so we tightened the deck lid down and ran back to the cockpit.  The barometer changed from 1011.9 to 1018.9 in a heartbeat and 30+ knot winds were blowing us all around.  Over the next 4 hours the wind clocked from NW to W to S, eventually steadying from SSE.  Needless to say our bow changed direction with the wind and we were no longer pointed to shore.  Now we were parallel with the island and very close to reef on our port side.


We were now in a position with reef too close for comfort on our port side and with reef within half-a-boat-length right behind and curving partially up our starboard stern.  This put us in a very precarious spot.  Bill put on another snubber line and it soon also snapped.   We later realized that this was the manual outhaul line for our mainsail but in his hurry to find a line and get another snubber set Bill did not stop to think about it.  This was a spare line to use in case the electric outhaul motor malfunctions.  It is ruined now because it snapped right at the whipped loop end.   This was a non-stretch type rope and should not have been used as an anchor snubber because a snubber line should have a lot of stretch.  Note that we lost our anchor proper snubber hook last year when sailing in very rough waters NW over Aruba enroute to Cartegena.  We have not been able to find a proper anchor snubber hook since then and have been using a screw-on shackle which bent in high winds in the Tuamotus in early June.  We bought 2 new screw-on shackles in Papeete, Tahiti.  If and when we ever find a proper anchor snubber hook at a decent chandlery then we will buy 3 of the darn things!  Had no idea that once we left the Eastern Caribbean that we would not be able to purchase such a basic item.

This time Bill pulled out one of our thick twisted-nylon dock lines to use as an anchor snubber line.  Our only 2 screw-on shackles were still attached to the anchor chain and the boat was bucking like a wild horse in the big waves and high winds and retrieving the shackles was out of the question.  So Bill used a stainless steel clip-on shackle.  Neither of us had any faith in this SS shackle and were sure it would bend or break soon.  But at least we had a snubber attached and the boat moved no farther towards the reefs.

As soon as the really high winds had clocked to come from the south then the rain had stopped.  But we had been too busy dealing with broken snubber lines to get back to setting up a second anchor.  I had been at the helm with the engine running and trying to maneuver the boat so we wouldn`t hit any of the reefs while Bill dealt with the snubber lines.  Now that we had a snubber that was holding and the boat was progressing no closer to the reefs then Bill could go back to digging out the second anchor.  He had always thought that deploying a second anchor would take only a few minutes.  Yeah, sure.  Well, it ended up taking exactly one hour to dig the anchor out of the deck locker; dig out the 30-meter anchor chain and attach it to the anchor; dig out the 250-feet anchor rode (heavy rope); disentangle the anchor rode (which had been neatly coiled when placed into that deck locker but somehow it would not feed out smoothly);  measure out the anchor rode on the deck so we would know how much to deploy; dig out the trip line and measure it to match the water depth where we planned to set the anchor; and attach the trip line to the anchor shaft and to a buoy.  Remember that this is all being done during 30+ knot winds and on a boat that was moving like a bucking stallion.  But Bill was a real trooper and managed to do it.  We waited until the wind slowed briefly to 25 knots and then moved forward and dropped the second anchor.  It set immediately and the boat fell back.  Now we were about 100 feet from the reef at our stern.  The 2 anchors were set parallel with one another about 150 feet apart and the boat was riding with what felt like equal tension on both anchors.  We felt secure that the boat would not more farther back and it could not more very far to either side.  So we were safe from hitting any reefs.

Soon after we had both anchors set the winds began to settle at 25 knots and the big waves began to diminish.  But the wind was coming from the SSE and the moderate-sized waves were coming from the S and hitting the boat at an uncomfortable angle.  Neither Bill nor I were bothered by the motion but it was rough.  The other 2 boats in the anchorage, FREE SPIRIT and AIRSTREAM (the boat that caught the 100-lb tuna), decided to chance moving to another anchorage in search of more protection and calmer water.  An hour or so later FREE SPIRIT hailed us on the radio and said that if we could get up our anchors that we should move near them because that bay offered much better shelter from both wind and waves.  Bill had a heck of a time manually hauling up the second anchor.  It is a big heavy anchor plus the 30-meters of anchor chain isn`t exactly lightweight.  He managed to get the anchor back aboard without straining his back, and the electric windlass easily raised our primary anchor.  We had been afraid that it might be fouled around coral, but it came right up with no problem whatsoever.  Bill also managed to remove both of the screw-on shackles from the anchor chain as it came up to the windlass.

We motored less than 5 miles directly into the strong wind and waves to the island of Foa.  Enroute our depth gauge decided to suddenly start counting down to zero.  Scared the living fool out of me when Bill yelled to look at the depth gauge.  The charts showed that we were in nearly 800 feet of water and suddenly our depth gauge was showing 25 feet and counting down until it soon reach zero.  I threw the engine into hard reverse and we both were in a panic.  Then we realized that everything was okay but this was a gauge malfunction.  We have 2 depth gauges; an analog one that is just a dial with a needle that indicates meters.  Once the depth reaches greater than 200 meters then this gauge just pegs the needle straight down below the 200 meter mark.  We also have NMEA data fed to our Raymarine ST7001+ autopilot and it also displays depth in meters or in feet.  I normally set the autopilot to display speed-over-ground when we are not in an anchorage, but I had left the display indicating depth in feet.  Normally once we are deeper than 200 meters the Raymarine display in feet shows dashes.  That did not happen this time.  For some reason instead of displaying dashes it counted backwards and then displayed zeros.  Really freaked out both of us.  At any rate, we realized that we really were in 800+ feet of water and not going over reef; so we relaxed and motored back on course.

FREE SPIRIT gave us directions to avoid the reef that protects the anchorage.  We followed their directions and were soon in the lee of land.  What a relief to be in a calm anchorage again.  The wind was still blowing at 25-30 knots but anchored this close to the island we were experiencing only about 20 knots.  And absolutely no waves.

Don`t know how long we will hang out in Ha`apai (pronounced hah-ah-pie).  This high-pressure weather system is predicted to continue through Monday.  We don`t have a guide book for this area.  We borrowed FREE SPIRIT`s guide book and read that this is typical weather for this area.  It can change instantly and there are almost no anchorages that offer much shelter.  Bad weather typically lasts 5-6 days and then is followed by 5-6 days of good weather.  Don`t want to get caught in an exposed area; also don`t want to arrive in Nuku`alofa too early.  So it is a Catch-22 situation.  Our original plan was to arrive in Nuku`alofa around October 12 and be prepared to depart for New Zealand on the first good weather window after October 15.  Someone else said that last year they were stuck in Nuku`alofa for 17 days waiting for a good weather window to depart for New Zealand.  Their experience last year was the only reason we wanted to be in Nuku`alofa and ready to leave by Oct 15.  Really figured our departure for New Zealand would be around November 1.

The current weather makes me look forward to sailing around the coastal islands of New Zealand.  That area will have dozens of very sheltered bays to tuck into during high winds.  That sounds a lot nicer to me than riding out bad weather anchored in the middle of exposed reefs.  BTW, it was 72 degrees inside our closed-up boat when we woke up this morning.  This is typical spring weather down here.  Believe me, that is cold on a boat!  Especially to people raised on the Gulf coast of Texas.  And we are heading 1300 miles closer to the South Pole.  Man, are we going to freeze our tails off.

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