a kingdom, a cuttlefish, a coupling| Va’vau, Tonga

There is a wide, old mellowness to Vava’u, Tonga. An ancient peace. Yawning cave mouths dot the cliff edges, breathing the sea in and out, swallows dart and dip into the dark entrances to their cozy homes clinging to the eroded rock caverns. Fat fuzzy fruit bats fly contentedly through the sky, during the day, afternoon and night. Lush tropical flora is so thickly knitted together that you can’t see any way through. Vines fill in the space between pandanus trees, iron wood trees, and so many other plants that I’ve never seen before. White tropical birds with their elegant long thin tails lilt over the calm seas.

The Vava’u group is shaped like a jellyfish, with main town of Neiafu tucked inside the northern part, the jellyfish body. The Port of Refuge is completely that, nestled against Neiafu and protected on all sides from the open sea winds and currents.

We arrived to port with a 10 foot long Pacific Blue marlin newly processed and filling up our two freezers. It’s regal bill and flashy tail cut free from the shimmering blue silver body, ready to dry and be a physical reminder of the great beast. We caught it on a hand line, Eric wrapped the line around a winch and I winched it in.  By the time it reached the boat, it had dragged at 11 knots forcing blood through its gills, so it didn’t have any fight left. It was a wild honor to be near the majestic beast and it’s silky, clean flesh fed us and many others for months.

After a few glorious weeks in Maupiha and a mellow week long crossing to Tonga, we were ready for internet and ice cream. Neiafu provided. We anchored across the bay from the mooring field, full of fellow cruisers and dinghyed to the wharf outside a waterside restaurant called Mangoes.

The town is a cozy two street village, with some paved roads, transitioning to dirt ones as you move further from the town center. Wind rustles through glossy breadfruit trees, and carries the scent of rich red earth and plumeria flowers after an afternoon rain. Mama and dad pigs root through the wild and cultivated plants surrounding modest cement homes. Piglets race ahead in groups of five or seven, giddy that they were born in this pig paradise. Many homes are fenced with chain link above low stone walls to keep the pigs out of their cultivated gardens of taro and sweet potato.

An easiness comes on the gentle winds. Kids run around in their school uniforms after the last bell and jump in the sea by the central open market. Women wear a mix of traditional and modern clothes. They wrap woven barkcloth around their waists and tie the voluminous covering near the top with cord. Some men wear straight-cut shin length skirts, bound at the waist with a wide band of flat woven barkcloth. It’s a smart look with their pressed collared shirts tucked in. I felt silly in my synthetic active wear.

Tonga has never been colonized by a foreign power and remains a monarchy. Foreigners are not allowed to own land. The church, however, has a powerful hold on community life, everything stops on Sundays, no fishing or swimming is allowed. You can hear beautiful singing floating from churches around the village, the biggest one rests above a stretch of road called Hala Lupe (Way of Doves) named after the female prisoners, convicted adulterers, who built the road. Travelers could attend church service, but I never went.

Over the next two months this town became my source of nourishment and community. Eric and Morgan left to visit home for a wedding so I was on my own to care for Zephyr and make new friends.

First orders of business, find ever elusive chicken eggs and buy that sparkly magenta and lime green hula hoop at the variety shop. I decided to fully embrace having a 55 foot catamaran to myself and the hula hoop called out to me from its lonely hook on the wall, promising fun.

Each day I made mini missions like this. Do two things, maybe three.  I became comfortable driving the dinghy back and forth between the boat and the different docks in town. Even though the engine did start to sound croakier than usual.

I felt curious eyes on me as I went about my simple routines. Is that her boat? Where is her husband/captain? Is she alone? I relished being a solo woman of mystery. Perhaps a strange one too, hula hooping at night with Zephyr’s red led lights on.

Older women vendors began to recognize me at the fresh vegetable market. It was a great market, relaxed yet humming and full of proper, vibrant, nutritious and interesting goods. Vendors lined up along the street around the market building sidewalk, each arranging small mounds of homegrown tomatoes, calamansi limes, peppers and cucumbers on tiny folding tables. Large items like arms length taro and crackled skin cassava root, were mounded in freshly woven palm frond baskets and laid on the ground. Folks drove right along and pointed at what they wanted. Kids working with their family members passed baskets and bags through car windows—drive through shopping.

Saturday market days I went extra early to secure special items like cilantro (I swear there were only ever two bunches available), plastic grocery bags full of fresh dug little clams, coconut oil infused with cinnamon bark and ginger (for your skin) and fresh made hot snacks.

briny wild harvested sea grapes from the market

I loved the taro sweets steamed in banana leaves. One was filled with pounded green taro leaves cooked in coconut milk and sweetened with sugar, chewy tapioca balls mixed in for texture. The other was a triangular shaped packet full of marble sized grated coconut and tapioca balls in a caramelized coconut milk syrup. Sticky, chewy, sweet satisfaction.

Watermelons, gorgeous gorgeous purple sweet potatoes and white flesh/magenta skinned sweet potatoes, mangoes, insane pineapples, the rogue kabocha squash (thank you universe), hot tiny chilies, generous bunches of taro leaves, chard, arugula (!) and garden fresh green onions all made cooking for myself a treat.

As much as feasting in Maupihaa was incredible, it felt equally luxurious to cook for myself again and to focus on fresh vegetables.

Yes, I did talk to people, but usually just on Fridays. I became a member of the ragtag boat yard racing crew for the casual (yet drunkenly competitive) weekly race open to all sailing vessels. A ruggedly handsome and British, so also charmingly self deprecating, man owns the boatyard and also a small, humble sailboat named Xanthus that we sailed up and down Neiafu’s narrow harbor. Joined by his two boat yard workers, a witty red bearded Canadian and a fox eyed Brittany Frenchman with a thick banded gold hoop earring hugging each earlobe. A teenage Texas born sporty girl joined sometimes too. She sassed the guys with each breath, they loved it and so did I.

We raced in all weather—wind, no wind, rain, and the odd perfect day of wind in the right direction with sun glittered seas. The boat was simple, I was usually agile ballast and I don’t think we ever won, they blamed it on me, of course.

One Saturday evening, they invited me to the boat yard potluck. I dinghyed out of the harbor and around the lush spit of land to the party. On the way, the engine kept cutting out and smoking, I had to restart it every minute or so making the trip longer than it should have been. I didn’t worry though, I figured something would work out, and being close to land made everything seem easy.

Cruisers packed around a picnic table, pushing saws, tarps and buckets to the side. Boatyards have a certain limbo quality to them, with boats on stilts, awkward in their dry nakedness. Owners in various states of working to get back in the water, some only weeks away while others could take years. This yard was no different, but it was prettier than most, tucked against the tropical forest on one side and dropping off into a clear sea inlet on the other.

After serving up my foil packet barbecued clams with hot chilies, cilantro and lime, I mentioned my motor saga. Immediately, a young cruiser couple offered to lend me their outboard motor since they weren’t using it for a few weeks. The witty Canadian offered to help switch the motors, and like that I had a safe ride home. Thank you boating community.

There’s one bar in town, well one popular bar. Named the Basque, from it’s owners’ home country. He married a Tongan woman who helps run the cozy establishment on the hilltop along with their three sons. Every morning on the VHF radio net, where cruisers tune in for local announcements, the Basque advertised its pool table and live music schedule.

Pool at the Basque was a nightly community gathering, all interested players pitched in some cash and their name went up in chalk on the board with three hashes. The last player standing with a hash won, you had to erase one every time you didn’t sink a ball. It was mostly a guy crowd with the occasional foreign woman playing too.

The vibe was friendly, folks sat together at communal tables—whale guides, scuba instructors, boat captains, yachties, school teachers. I sipped on soda water while most everyone else drank a decent local beer called Tiki. I knew if I needed easy social interaction, I could roll up to the Basque and talk with someone interesting and lose happily at pool.

playing dress up by myself

Most days and nights though I lounged on Zephyr. Cooking, working out, drawing, listening to music, relishing privacy and space. Us three had spent the last few weeks always together, and being in close proximity to the highs and lows of coupledom had taken a larger toll on me than I’d realized. Now I decompressed, and began to get a little stir crazy. I hadn’t been snorkeling in weeks, not wanting to go by myself.

Eric flew back one afternoon, alone. He and Morgan had broken up. Well, we need to find new crew for the Tonga crossing he said, yup we did. I was relieved to not experience the stress of a disintegrating couple but also nervous that he’d be relying on me for more help. Nervousness turned into excitement because, at this point in my journey, I felt ready to take on more boat responsibilities.

By the time Eric returned, I was predictably engaged in a fling with the Brittany Frenchman. It was fun eating fois gras on buttered toast with dates at midnight inside a boat on stilts. And perhaps equally pleasurable taking myself the next morning to Mangoes for a breakfast of fried banana sundae with caramel sauce.

Three cruiser couple friends anchored nearby as the Blue Water Festival date neared. Hans and Roos from the Netherlands, Geneviéve and Benoit from Quebec and Helena and Andreas from Norway. The Festival wasn’t that interesting, but it served as a good excuse for sailors to gather and commune. Kvetch, drink and make merry, as they do.

The regatta was the highlight. Zephyr flew her pink spinnaker alongside a couple other boats with their pink spinnakers. I watched them pass by us on Xanthus, we poked along as fast as we could. At one point the wind died so the guys, in their competitive commitment, jumped in the water, pulling the boat with ropes and pushing from behind to advance toward the finish. I helped too, but it was surprisingly hard to push a boat, especially after living a mostly sedentary life for a few weeks.

We ended up getting a tow back to the dock.

Eric made quick work of finding new crew. We’d pick one up in a remote corner of the Va’vau group in a week then circle back to pick up the second in Neiafu, provision and head for Tonga.

Geneviéve and Benoit, a lovely, generous, fun loving and silly couple, became our buddy boat friends. We provisioned at the fresh market and left Neiafu to explore the myriad small bays and islands further south in the Va’vau group.

I was excited to leave the harbor. And to adventure underwater again! Eric said I was the most enthusiastic snorkeler he’d ever met. Immediately after we dropped anchor I was in the water to see what could be seen. This is how I grew up, and I found no reason to change the habit.

happy after video chatting with family

After way too long, I was finally back in the world of fish. The first cove we visited had a lovely shallow community of reef fish tucked into lichen like seaweeds. I saw my first lion fish and hung out watching it until I got cold. It’s exquisite sculptural fins, spotted and striped, are what haute couture strives to be.

We all sailed to Kenutu island where we would pick up new crew. It was physically close to Neiafu but felt worlds away. I posted myself on the tip of Zephyr’s hulls, looking out for shallow reefs that could land us in the boatyard. That’s why you sail these waters in daylight, charts may not be accurate, and there are bits of razor sharp reef all over.

We enjoyed a few blissful days exploring Kenutu with Geneviéve and Benoit. It was quiet here with wild nature, open sea and cliffs on the far side, turquoise clear water on our side. Stars, skinny dipping, afternoon naps. We ran all over the otherworldly island like kids.

Just north of Kenutu is Umuna island, uninhabited except for a two story cement home nestled into the hillside. It’s New Zealand owners custom built their own retirement oasis, surrounded by lush gardens overlooking the sunset side of the bay.

This is where we came to pick up our first new crew member, Lauren. Idaho-born Lauren worked as a whale swim guide in Tonga and was here on Umuna visiting friends at the epic house. She is full of enthusiasm, intelligence and loves to have fun. This girl dances, works out, sings, laughs heartily until she’s outta juice and collapses. She’s tall and says y’all, has a lean runner’s frame, curly long brown hair and deep blue ocean sparkle eyes. She travels with ten books, a gorgeous blue and purple fish scale print wetsuit and a plethora of solar charged twinkle lights and lanterns. As much as I like my solitude, it was fun to have a new friend on board, Eric chose well.

She settled into her new cabin, across the bathroom from mine. We could chat easily while each of us was on our own bed. She strung up her twinkle lights and joined the adventure.

One day, we dinghyed outside the reef to try and find a snorkel spot locals told us about. Lauren, Geneviéve, Benoit and I piled into the OCTender dinghy and Eric maneuvered around mazelike reefs. Right outside the pass, swell started building and breaking on the reef. The swell direction switched suddenly and we found ourselves going up the face of a large wave, tilting backwards. I was at the bow with my back to the sea, and said low and slow “Ericcc, Ericcccc” in a tone indicating we needed to get out of here quick. He replied “I’m workin on it!”

He revved the engine just in time to push us over the top of the wave, everyone instinctively crouched low so when we slammed down on the other side, everyone was wet but ok. We all laughed and I assured Lauren that our adventures usually aren’t like this. Unbeknown to me and her, this was just foreshadowing for the month to come.

We shared lovely dinners with the retired couple in their home, watched the sun go down over Va’vau and the stars appeared, hung like ornaments over the calm inlets and low lush peninsulas. Behind their home, sunk deep into the earth, is an underwater cave. We slid down the embankment and played in the cool water, swallows dipped around our heads. Lauren and her friend covered themselves in mud and crouched on rocks, pretending to be Gollum. Shrimp nibbled at our feet.

English friends on Seahawk came over to Kenutu too so Eric suggested we have a poke party. Ever since we’d caught the marlin, poke parties were Zephyr’s go to dinner party. Poke is a traditional Hawaiian raw fish dish that has many variations. We cube the fish and marinate it in fresh garlic, ginger, chilies, soy sauce and sesame oil. To serve, make sushi rice and set out bowls of slivered cucumber and carrot, wakame seaweed salad, sriracha mayo and sesame seeds. Voila.

After a week of tropical play on this special, wild island, we sailed back towards Neiafu and stopped at another perfect tiny island. Cruising Va’vau is fun because there is a large diversity of anchorages, islands and inlets close together. There we met up with our Norwegian friends on their catamaran Wapiti. We’d all been wanting to have a beach bonfire and this was a perfect spot. Plus the moon was full and the beach was all ours.

During the day we explored the little island and made a sandcastle together. We decorated it with found shells and flowers, then filled the grounds with surprised hermit crabs. We took our time and relished our return to childhood. Eric found a giant hermit crab in the waves, it was psychedelic spotted purple and blue with hairy legs. We paddle boarded around the mini island, watching moray eels gape back at us from coral tunnels inches below the surface.

Everyone brought food and drink to the bonfire that night. Wapiti surprised with a rum soaked watermelon. Eric conducted an interesting question game that helps folks get to know themselves and each other better.

A young sailor joined our party and I listened to his wild story of sailing across the Pacific on a traditional bound reed sailboat. Their captain hadn’t provisioned properly so the crew was on 1/3 food rations for two months. Morale sank and the sailor lost a ton of weight. In the midst of his harrowing experience, he saw a huge whale shark swim alongside the boat. There was hardly any wind so he jumped in to swim with the gentle giant, and held onto its dorsal fin for an hour. When he arrived in the Marquesas, he told this story to a local tattoo artist who then designed a massive whale shark tattoo on his back. It is one of the more beautiful and meaningful sailor tattoos I’ve seen.

After so much social interaction, I left the circle and took refuge in the quiet waves lapping on the sand. With the full moon lighting my way, I starting drawing designs with a stick, gradually growing them into a larger piece. It calmed me, and eventually the girls came out to see what I was doing. We ended up doing acro yoga and being silly together. What a total treat to be with friends my age just enjoying each other. After hitchhiking for almost a year, always changing homes and companions, this was the first time I felt truly relaxed in a chosen community of peers.

The next afternoon we all dinghyed out in our respective tenders to explore an underwater cave. We felt like wild horses stampeding across the sea, going as fast as we could alongside each other, laughing and yelling in the wind, holding on over the chop.

We used google maps to find the spot, which felt like cheating since we never have cell service in the open ocean. But Eric had been using the satellite image function on google maps to navigate the dinghy through reefs with surprising success. I dove down to look at the cave entrance, the others went into it and swam through it to come up into a cavern. I wasn’t confident I could equalize my ears or hold my breath for the required time, so stayed back happily to keep the dinghies near the cave. One day I’ll be able to free dive.

video by Eric

We stopped in another anchorage nearby a popular snorkel spot called Coral Gardens. We swam over the drab inner reef towards the outer reef between small breaking waves. I gasped in my snorkel, eyes wide. We’d just entered a rainbow wonderland. Extensive, flourishing coral to both sides of us, as far as the eye could see in the crystal clear water.

Undulating, spiky, branched, lobed, crinkled hard coral in vivid periwinkle blue, magenta, yellow and orange. Tiny spotted boxfish couples with their see through fins spinning to keep their odd shape going in some kind of direction. Moorish idols, wrasses, soldier fish, schools of small velvety black fish. Soft coral like orange chiffon dancing underwater. I stayed in the shallows, just before the waves broke so I didn’t have to dive down. I watched the fish and coral for a long time, just in one place. I was so immersed in it that Eric spooked me when he touched my fin to say hi. He and Lauren had been swimming all along the reef, it went quite a ways. I followed him to the deeper canyons made from coral jigsaw puzzled along each side.

When he left again I felt overwhelmed with aloneness and felt guilty for feeling sad in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. At that moment, a rainbow colored cuttlefish came swimming towards me. A glossy black eye looked at me with a direct expression as if to say “Well, I’ll swim with you, I’ll be your friend.” My heart jumped with joy. It’s translucent flesh flashed and shimmered with LED-like rainbow colored spots of all sizes, clustered together in spray paint pixels. It’s torpedo shaped body, as long as my forearm, sleek and fat, with streamlined diamond shaped fins waving at the tip of its torso and it’s stubby tentacles working away on the other end. The universe sent me this special, rare, gorgeous messenger to give me the strength and presence of mind I longed for. I swam after the sweet cuttlefish, along the reef face, after an entrancing while it speed off into the deep.

Later, I saw a larger fish try to eat something and an ink cloud exploded. I hoped it wasn’t the cuttlefish. As I watched the scene I saw a school of fish to my left watching too. Then a white tipped shark came to check out the ink cloud. This two hour snorkel was one of the magnificent highlights of my year at sea.

We picked up anchor reluctantly (so many fish!) and moved closer to Neiafu, we’d go and pick up the second crew person soon. But first we wanted to explore the famous Swallow’s Cave.

On a sunny day with calm seas, we found the gaping cavern and dinghyed inside. Crystal water about 30 feet deep below us beckoned. We slipped into the still water and watched a gorgeous school of small fish being hunted by a trevaly. As the predator reached for them, they swerved in unison, parting and reuniting, an elegant dance of life and death. I swam outside the cavern mouth to look over the reef edge and heard whale songs ringing clear and sweet. I dove a bit deeper to hear them better. Magic.

Back on Zephyr, the captain and new crew had begun to cozy up together. Le sigh. I much prefer to witness a creative rather than destructive process, but still it left me longing for my rainbow boat lover from the Tuamotus. Thankfully, Geneviéve and Benoit took me into their cozy ketch whenever I paddled over, for a break. We laughed and cried about love, we colored mandalas, we drank tea, some spiked, mine not.

We arrived in Neiafu to welcome aboard Abby, our second new crew member. She had been working in a remote part of Tonga at a small adventure resort, cleaning rooms, cooking and in her spare time honing her spearfishing skills. Her hard case for her spearfishing gun was about as long as she is tall. Her thick golden wavy hair came down to her mid back, her eyes big, blue and always wide open as if you just told her something surprising. Or as if she just saw your future in a crystal ball.  She contrasted her petite stature with tough clothes, rocking an oversize black band tshirt adorned with four skulls, cut off denim shorts or short overalls, and usually a red bandana folded and tied around her head.

Both of our new crew mates had never done any blue water sailing. Or spent much time on sailboats. But they loved the sea. Hopefully that would be enough, I trust Eric’s judgement.

In the morning, I chopped up a juicy bok choy that had been resting on a shelf on Eric’s side of the boat. We store vegetables and fruits in baskets on both sides, the fridge is small and is usually full of leftovers and dairy. My mind was who knows where, when all of a sudden time slowed. The same as when a car door jutted out in front of me in Washington DC as I was biking by and I had to swerve immediately to miss it. The cause now was a molokau, a venomous centipede. It slithered lightning fast out of the bok choy and flew onto the floor toward the stairs leading down to Eric’s cabin.

I raised my voice, which I rarely do, and said “Kill it. Kill it!” Eric followed my eyes and saw the beast on the floor. He too knew the danger. It’s bite is notoriously painful and can cause whole limbs to swell up and potentially become infected. Giant, tough looking Tongan men cringed whenever molokaus are spoken about. Eric willingly swims in sharknados day after day, but he did not attack this armored creature.

In a flash, it was gone.

Into the golf ball sized hole under the stairs that leads to the boat’s wiring. Eric ripped off the stairway panel to try and find the creature. “Now it has access to the whole boat,” he said solemnly. We both looked at each other with quiet dread. The boat was our home, a safe space, now we could no longer rest easy.

We broke the news to the new crew, Abby uttered an expletive, she was no stranger to the possible harm the centipede could cause. Eric suggested we name the centipede Ted and only discuss him during the daytime. We agreed.

I reached out to fellow sailors asking for solutions but the most common response was to burn the boat. And this is from usually sensible people. Besides the fact they are boat owners, which perhaps makes them less sensible. Anyhow.

Stay tuned for Ted saga updates in following posts.

Abby and Lauren had mutual Tongan and foreign friends in Neiafu, who were also friends with the boatyard guys, so we had ourselves a proper goodbye party with appropriate quantities of tequila that had sailed all the way across the ocean.

I tucked a plumeria flower behind my ear and snuggled up against the Brittany Frenchman in the strong night wind on the balcony. Which ear you tuck the flower behind indicates your status of single or partnered. I can never remember which one is which and it seems to vary from island nation to island nation. I turned to talk to a Tongan friend who has cooked for the king and is a great storyteller. The wind blew my plumeria away, towards the sea. The storyteller saw my flash of disappointment and said “that is a good sign, it means you are ok being free.”

In the morning, we made sure our two heavy branches of bananas and one of plantains, were safely hanging under the bimini. We’d ordered $400 USD of fresh produce from the market and the kind purveyor gave us lots of freebies. We overfilled a taxi cab trunk and cabin with:

  • red onion x 15
  • eggs x 140
  • sweet purple potatoes x 40
  • brown onions x 70
  • cabbages x 6
  • cucumbers x 25
  • carrots x 100
  • drinking coconuts x 15
  • coconut oil x 1 bottle
  • butternut squash x 10
  • apples x 25
  • limes x 70
  • green peppers x 15
  • eggplant x 9
  • short bananas x 1 stalk
  • long bananas x 1 stalk
  • plantains x 1 stalk
  • papaya x 5
  • green onion x 2 bunches
  • parsley x 2 bunches
  • cilantro x 2 bunches
  • watermelon x 2 medium
  • tomatoes x 15
  • long green beans x 4 bunches
  • basil x 1 bunch
  • pineapple x 2
  • hot red chilies x 1 small bag

Zephyr was loaded to the brim with a rainbow of nutritious food that we planned would last through our voyage to the Ha’apai Tongan island group, Minerva Reef and finally New Zealand. All items were properly washed this time to ensure Ted wouldn’t have a roommate.

ever important chocolate bar supply

I visited the kind gentleman at the visa office in Neiafu twice, each time to renew my tourist visa for another month. The simple office looked out over the protected harbor, lush hills and peaceful anchored boats. The second time, he half smiled and almost chuckled as he said “You must like it here then?” I smiled back and replied yes, thanking him for letting me stay longer, commenting on the delicious sweet potatoes and gorgeous nature. His eyes twinkled knowingly, as if I was just discovering a fraction of a magic secret he’s known, and his ancestors have known, for a very long time.

4 thoughts on “a kingdom, a cuttlefish, a coupling| Va’vau, Tonga

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